Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Iranian envoy Ali Akbar Velayati in January. (photo: Kremlin)
Iran may be admitted into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization this summer if it makes progress in resolving disputes over its nuclear program, Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, has said.
It already seems clear that India and Pakistan, who have both long sought SCO membership, will be admitted at the organization's summit this July in Ufa, Russia. Iran -- which also has been trying for years to enter the SCO -- has been hampered by the fact that it is under international sanctions related to its nuclear program.
But when a senior Iranian official, Ali Akbar Velayati, visited Moscow in late January, he reportedly gained the Kremlin's approval for SCO membership.
"Velayati’s Moscow trip might signal that some kind of a significant change in relations is about to take place. Iran’s Mehr News reported that in Moscow, Velayati was able to secure Putin’s approval for Iran to 'upgrade its status' in the SCO," noted regional analyst Alex Vatanka. "As an observer state in SCO, Iran has since 2005 unsuccessfully sought to obtain full membership in the organization, but perhaps the Russians are about to entertain the idea of Tehran joining the alliance. Along these lines, the state-run Iranian media have been busy hyping the prospects of an SCO membership for Iran."
Three-and-a-half tons of mimosas allegedly now are crossing each day from separatist Abkhazia into Russia, Russian news outlets allege. The tiny, subtropical region is hoping to make a roaring trade out of its resplendent yellow blossoms ahead of the March 8 International Women’s Day, a combination of Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day in the post-Soviet world.
As it blossoms early, mimosa, or acacia dealbata, makes a prime gift for the big day. Mother Nature has helped out as well. A moderate winter led to early blossoms this year on Abkhazia’s Black Sea coast, Russian media claim.
Yet contraband is also on the increase. Some smugglers are trying to hide Abkhazia’s mimosas in their car trunks, Russian customs officials complained, Vesti.ru reported, citing TASS.
A standard mimosa bouquet sells for 100 rubles, or $1.60, in Sochi, the largest Russian city near Abkhazia, according to one outlet.
But, soon, those mimosas may not rank as contraband. Russian President Vladimir Putin, ever land-hungry, would like to eliminate Russia’s de-facto border with flowering Abkhazia, which Moscow recognises as an independent country from Georgia.
The gates of the Dastan factory in Bishkek in February 2015 (photo: twitter user @Bakai04)
Russia has apparently lost interest in a Soviet legacy torpedo factory in Kyrgyzstan that it has long sought to acquire, which officials in Bishkek say is the result of the Ukraine crisis.
The Dastan torpedo plant in Bishkek has been the source of extended negotiations between Kyrgyzstan and Russia. But the story seemed more or less over in 2013, when Kyrgyzstan announced that it would finally put the factory up for sale, and that Russia would be the buyer. Now, though, that seems to have fallen through.
According to Kyrgyzstan Deputy Prime Minister Valery Dil, Russia is no longer interested in buying Dastan because, in the wake of the Ukraine crisis, it's trying to reduce its dependency on other countries' defense businesses. (Ukraine has an extensive defense industry on which Russia has depended heavily even since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and now that cooperation has obviously been curtailed.)
"Dastan is a unique enterprise, the likes of which don't exist any more in the former USSR. Because of the crisis in Ukraine, when Russia lost its relationships with many foreign defense enterprises, they are limiting their entrance into third countries," Dil told journalists last week. "[So] Dastan can't find a place in the defense-industrial complex. But the potential of the factory is huge, it needs to work."
That explanation would be at odds with Russia's claim that the Ukraine crisis would have the opposite result, that its allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization -- including Kyrgyzstan -- would gain business by replacing Ukrainian imports.
A few weeks ago, Russia’s state-run Gazprom announced it would sharply and immediately cut the amount of gas it purchases from Turkmenistan. Now Turkmenistan’s authoritarian government has responded with a rare outburst. Unfortunately for Ashgabat, these days there’s not much it can do but screech.
Russia is an “unreliable partner,” a think-tank inside Turkmenistan’s own state energy company, Turkmengaz, said in a February 16 rant published on its website.
The article – “Will Gas Exports of Turkmen Gas to Russia Recover?” – criticizes Russia and Gazprom for all of the unhappiest moments in an up-and-down relationship that has seen deliveries of Turkmen gas to Russia drop from a peak of around 45 billion cubic meters per year (bcm) in 2008 to the 4 bcm the Russian giant says it will now import in 2015.
The piece expressed outrage at Gazprom’s failure to fulfill a 2008 agreement to build a Trans-Caspian pipeline and fingered Gazprom for an unexplained pipeline explosion in April 2009 that marked the beginning of the decline in its purchases.
Gazprom and its affiliates “periodically violate agreements at interstate, intergovernmental and interdepartmental levels,” the article notes.
Talco, the company behind Tajikistan’s largest factory, is nearing a deal that would end an eight-year legal battle with the world’s largest aluminum maker, the company says.
The state-owned Talco aluminum smelter is controlled directly by Tajikistan’s strongman President Emomali Rakhmon, whose family has appeared to benefit disproportionately from the plant’s revenues.
But a history of troubled deals with Russia’s Rusal and its subsidiaries saw Talco lose in arbitration hearings in Switzerland and the British Virgin Islands in 2013 and 2014. According to Rusal, as of May 2014 the Tajik company owed $363 million, including interest. With interest accruing at nearly $45,000 per day, the total would be roughly $375 million today.
Now Talco says it has made a proposal that satisfies Rusal and that the two companies have signed off on a draft agreement, Radio Ozodi quoted Talco executive Igor Sattarov as saying on February 16. Tajikistan’s government and the Rusal board must still okay the deal, said Sattarov, who did not disclose any of the terms. Last week President Rakhmon replaced the company’s boss.
A Rusal spokesperson would not offer any details about the alleged deal, only telling EurasiaNet.org, “We can officially say that nothing has been signed yet and the agreement in question is pending approval of Rusal’s board of directors.”
Tajikistan does not mine alumina, but imports the raw materials and uses its cheap electricity to operate the smelter, which was opened in 1975 when the country was part of the Soviet Union. When the plant was functioning at capacity, it used 40 percent of Tajikistan’s electrical output, leaving much of the country in the dark.
Russia is behind schedule implementing billions of dollars of critical hydropower projects on the Naryn River.
A top official in Kyrgyzstan has grumbled that Russia is far behind schedule implementing billions of dollars of critical hydropower projects in the energy-starved country.
The giant Kambar-Ata 1 hydropower dam and the Upper-Naryn Cascade of four smaller hydropower dams were supposed to be well on their way to completion by now. Moscow and Bishkek signed deals for their construction in August 2012. As part of the package of related agreements, Moscow secured a 15-year extension on its military facilities in the Central Asian country after the current lease expires in 2017.
But according to Kyrgyz Energy Minister Kubanychbek Turdubayev, nothing much is happening. Speaking at a ministry meeting on February 12, in comments carried by Vechernii Bishkek, Turdubayev said:
We have been barraged with criticism over [energy] projects. People can see no real progress in such projects as [the construction of] two Kambar-Ata hydroelectric power plants and the Upper-Naryn Cascade of hydroelectric power plants. It should be admitted that there are serious omissions. Kyrgyzstan's rights have been violated and there is no progress. […]
Tajikistan's parliament has made it easier for its citizens to join the Russian armed forces in response to Russia's welcoming of foreigners into its ranks.
Last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law allowing citizens of other countries to join the Russian military. While in theory the move would seem to pave the way for a Russian version of the French foreign legion, military analysts said that the real purpose was to make it easier to take on locals at Russia's military bases abroad, in particular in Armenia and Tajikistan. From the Moscow Times:
Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Center for the Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a Moscow-based defense think tank, explained to The Moscow Times that the change was finally implemented to provide legal status to locals already serving on Russian bases in Armenia and Tajikistan.
Furthermore, as salaries for Russian civilians continue to outpace those offered by military service contracts, the new law is seen as a way to fill the military with migrant workers, Pukhov said. The reported salary for a contract soldier in the Russian army is 30,000 rubles ($500) a month.
In a television-drama project likely to create a stir in the Caucasus, Russian film-industry tsar Nikita Mikhalkov plans to revisit the life and, most controversially, the death of the famous 19th century Russian writer and diplomat, Alexander Griboyedov.
The story of Griboyedov, best known for his pasquinade of Moscow’s aristocracy, Woe from Wit, makes for a perfect plot for a period-drama. His literary defiance of imperial Russia’s calcified upper crust, his marriage to a beautiful Georgian princess in Tiflis (Tbilisi) and his brutal murder in Tehran were all set during the tectonic geopolitical shifts of the early 19th century.
In Mikhalkov’s version of the story, Griboyedov, the tsar’s emissary to Tehran, is not killed by a lynch mob of Persians which, as is widely believed, massacred the entire staff of the Russian embassy to Persia in 1829. Mikhalkov claims he has it on good authority that the hero of his film fell prey to intrigues of the British as they strove to hem in Russia’s regional clout.
The USS Cole on its most recent visit to the Black Sea, in October 2014. (Photo: U.S. Navy)
A U.S. Navy warship entered the Black Sea this week "to promote peace and stability in the region," according to a Navy statement, but Russia doesn't see it that way.
"The destroyer Cole entered the Black Sea February 8. From the moment it entered the Black Sea straits, surveillance units of the Black Sea Fleet have been carrying out careful tracking of the American ship," an anonymous Russian naval source told Interfax.
The ship's first stop was Constanta, Romania, where it is spending four days. It's not clear what its itinerary is after that.
In June, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visited Romania and promised to keep a steady U.S. naval presence on the Black Sea. "The U.S. has maintained a regular naval presence in the Black Sea since mid-March, with the USS Truxton, the USS Donald Cook and the USS Taylor all conducting port calls in Romania, and we will sustain this tempo going forward,” he said.
That seems to have been the case. In 2014, American warships spent a total of 207 days on the Black Sea, according to The Bug Pit's calculations based on the careful tracking of the Bosphorus Naval News blog, and the tempo seems to have been fairly consistent throughout that period. In 2013, U.S. warships made just two visits to the Black Sea, spending a total of 27 days.
A street sweeper cleans Moscow’s Tverskaya Ulitsa. Central Asian migrants often do the dirtiest jobs in Russia.
It’s February, so Muscovites are grumbling about their city’s slippery sidewalks. The complaint isn’t unusual in winter, but this year many say they know why everything is covered in ice: The “Tajiks” have left.
Russian media report that the collapse of the ruble and strict new rules for migrant laborers have encouraged an exodus of Central Asians. But preliminary numbers are far smaller than many Muscovites believe. Besides, new government hurdles can be overcome with a bribe.
The startling number often reported and repeated is 70 percent fewer labor migrants than last year. It dates back to January 7, from comments by the head of the Federal Migration Service (FMS), Konstantin Romodanovsky, who cited it as the decrease in arriving migrants year on year. But the comparison is of dubious statistical value, referring only to the first week of 2015, which falls amid Russia’s protracted winter holidays, and also happened to be the first week that the stringent new rules were in place. Nonetheless, even migrants quote the figure when asked for estimates of how many of their compatriots have chosen to leave.
Last week FMS offered more detailed figures. In January, compared with a year earlier, the number of Uzbek citizens in Russia fell 4.3 percent and Tajik citizens by 2.2 percent, according to the RBK business-news website. Yet the number of Kyrgyzstanis had grown by 3.8 percent. (Numbers showing departures in the second half of the year are misleading, as traditionally many migrants leave Russia each winter when seasonal work dries up.)