Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon traveled to Moscow this week to meet with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. At the top of the agenda was the long-delayed ratification of the agreement, signed last year by the two presidents, to extend the presence of Russia's 201st military base in Tajikistan until 2042. While Russia has already ratified the agreement, Tajikistan has been dragging its feet for reasons that remain unclear. But after the meeting in Moscow, Rahmon promised that the parliament would ratify the deal by this fall:
“I'd like to say that we treat this issue [of the Russian military base] very seriously,” Rahmon said, “and we are firmly committed to fulfilling our obligations. Now that we have solved a range of issues concerning the base, and as our parliament is returning from holiday, we will solve this issue by the fall of 2013.”
The two sides also apparently discussed the $200 million in military aid that Moscow has promised Dushanbe. One detail that emerged is that this amount is to be disbursed over a period stretching until 2025. “President Vladimir Putin’s orders are straightforward: to assess all risks and to help the Tajik armed forces face these risks,” Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said after the Putin-Rahmon meeting.
As usual with these sorts of meetings, details were scarce but speculation rampant. Much speculation centered around what the two discussed about Tajikistan's upcoming presidential elections. Political analyst Shokirjon Hakimov told the Tajikistan newspaper Avesta:
The shooting of a Turkish shepherd on the Armenia-Turkey border has sparked international tensions, though there appears to be some confusion in Turkey as to precisely with whom they should be angry.
The episode began July 31, when a 35-year-old shepherd in Turkey's Kars province accidentally wandered over the border with Armenia to retrieve one of his sheep that had strayed. (Though some reports say the wayward animal was a cow.) Kars Governor Eyüp Tepe blamed Armenian soldiers for the incident, and Turkey's Foreign Ministry issued a strong statement blaming Armenia:
We strongly condemn the shooting and killing of an innocent Turkish citizen for a simple border violation which we understand to have had an innocent purpose. There is no explanation for the Armenian party’s use of disproportionate force in such an incident which may typically occur at the border.
But it's no secret that Armenia doesn't actually control that border -- Armenia's borders with Turkey and Iran are in fact patrolled by Russian soldiers (though there are some Armenian guards under Russian command). It soon became clear that it was a Russian unit responsible for the shooting. From Hurriyet Daily News:
Fugitive oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov, who has been on the run from police in Kazakhstan and Britain, has been captured in the south of France, according to a report in the Financial Times.
Ablyazov was arrested on July 31 by French special forces near the billionaires’ playground of Cannes, the FT quoted an unnamed family lawyer as saying. It did not specify on what charges Ablyazov had been detained: Kazakhstan has been pursuing him for alleged financial crimes that Ablyazov denies, and he also has a case to answer in Britain, where he escaped a jail sentence for contempt of court last year by going underground.
Ablyazov formerly chaired Kazakhstan’s BTA Bank, which he also owned through an undeclared holding until it was forcibly nationalized in 2009. Ablyazov fled to London, where he was sued by his former bank for allegedly defrauding it of some $6 billion.
After years of legal wrangling, Ablyazov – who accuses Astana of pursuing him for political reasons and has asylum in the United Kingdom – fled to an unknown destination when the London High Court ordered him jailed for “deliberate and brazen” deception (concealing assets he had been ordered to disclose in the fraud case). Ablyazov was later debarred from fighting the case and the courts ordered his assets sold to compensate BTA Bank.
Tajikistan, the country more dependent than any other on labor migrant remittances, will no longer release cash transfer data because the information could be “politicized,” the head of the National Bank says.
The government stopped publishing information on the volume of remittances sent to Tajikistan in May, the Asia-Plus news agency reported this week, citing the head of the National Bank of Tajikistan. "I'd rather not talk about migrants' funds because this issue may be politicized," Abdujabbor Shirinov said.
Tajikistan boasts the world’s most remittance-dependent economy. According to the World Bank, labor migrants abroad, mostly in Russia, transferred the equivalent of 47 percent of GDP back to Tajikistan last year. The Bank expects the amount to rise again this year. And the transfers the Bank measures do not include cash that individuals carry home, so the number in reality is likely higher.
Shirinov insisted that not all cash transfers from individuals are labor migrant remittances, noting that some of the money could be returns from small businesses. Certainly that is also possible, but it doesn’t change the fact that Tajikistan is utterly dependent on Russia.
Over a third of Russians believe an influx of “other ethnicities” poses a “very real” threat to Russia’s national security, a poll released July 22 says. Fewer Russians fear terrorism or environmental disaster, the poll found.
According to the state-run All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM), 35 percent of Russians feel migrants from abroad are a top threat to Russia’s security. Thirty-three percent believes the “degradation of culture, science and education” poses a grave threat. Twenty-eight percent names terrorism and the same proportion cites ecological catastrophe as “very real” threats.
A VTsIOM spokeswoman told RIA Novosti that the question about “other ethnicities” referred to “migration from abroad.” Migration is seen as less of a threat than it was eight years ago, however; in 2005, 58 percent of Russians named it a top threat facing the country.
VTsIOM interviewed 1,600 people across the country in June for the poll, asking them to rate the likelihood of 20 potential security threats.
The influx of foreign laborers has climbed considerably over the last decade as Russia has experienced an oil-fueled economic boom and its own population continues to decline. Russia’s Federal Migration Service estimates the number of migrant workers in Russia is around 5 million, of which 60 percent are illegals. The number is growing quickly, too. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Russia is more dependent on illegal migrants than any other country. They account for approximately 7 percent of the workforce.
Russian President Vladimir Putin inspects the Russia-Abkhazia de facto border during a May 2012 visit to Sochi. (photo: kremlin.ru)
The upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, are an event of enormous symbolic importance for the Russian government and President Vladimir Putin. So any sort of attack on the games -- like the one that Chechen Islamist leade Doku Umarov recenrly called for -- would come as a huge blow to Russia.
So in that regard, it's interesting that Putin has reached out to Georgia to propose some sort of cooperation on security for the Olympics, which will be held just five miles from the border of the Georgian breakaway region of Abkhazia. Putin was recently asked about Georgian help regarding Olympic security:
“Of course, we are absolutely ready for such help,” Putin said, when asked whether a Georgian security contribution would be accepted.
“We want to repair our relationships. We have a very warm attitude to Georgia. We are very close peoples."
He did not specify whether such help could include Georgian police on the ground.
And Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili responded positively, saying that “The Georgian side will provide maximum assistance; we should ensure that no incident takes place during the Olympics."
What might the form of this competition take? It's not yet clear. Caucasus analyst Tom de Waal is skeptical that cooperation will amount to much. But Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Alasania said that the specifics would be worked out with Moscow soon.
Russia is going to start sending $1 billion in weapons to Kyrgyzstan this year, said Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. That appears to be an acceleration of earlier plans; just the day before Shoigu had said that the shipments would start next year.
Igor Korotchenko, the editor of a Kremlin-affiliated defense magazine, said that the shipments would likely include: "tanks, armored vehicles and personnel carriers, as well as rocket launchers, artillery, small arms, and surveillance and communication systems."
Possibly relatedly, Kyrgyzstan's government announced that it would sell its shares in the Soviet-legacy Dastan torpedo factory and that "Kyrgyzstan's government said Russian investors would be given priority in purchasing the shares in the factory ... at an auction in the fall."
Some good context for these moves can be found in a useful new paper (pdf) published by two of the best scholars dealing with Central Asian geopolitical issues, Alex Cooley and Marlene Laruelle. The paper, titled "The Changing Logic of Russian Strategy in Central Asia: From Privileged Sphere to Divide and Rule?" details how the Kremlin has recently moved towards prioritizing its ties with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as client states:
Russia has promised to upgrade its military base in Armenia, while also helping to bolster Armenia's own air forces, as controversy continues to brew in Armenia over Moscow's huge weapons delivery to foe Azerbaijan. It's not clear to what extent the former is tied to the latter, but Armenian analysts say that Russia does appear to be trying to assuage public opinion among Armenians stung by Russia's apparent betrayal.
Secretary General of the Collective Security Treaty Organization Nikolay Bordyuzha was in Armenia last week, and though details were scarce, he appeared to endorse a CSTO base in that country, as well as creating a Caucasus-based CSTO air force. Reported RIA Novosti:
Modernization of Russia’s 102nd Military Base at Gyumri, in northern Armenia near its border with Turkey, and the airbase at Yerevan’s Erebuni Airport will begin this year and continue for several years, Artur Bagdasaryan, head of the National Security Council, said after a meeting with Nikolai Bordyuzha.
“Collective security forces are being formed in the South Caucasus region where Armenia is the sole CSTO member state. Joint air forces will also be set up here,” explained Baghdasarian.
“Armenia’s air force will be expanded,” he told a joint news conference with Bordyuzha. “Not only the air force but also the air-defense system in general will be modernized and re-equipped. The Russian military base [in Armenia] will also re-equipped. In terms of modernization, 2014 will be a very important year.”
Security services across the former Soviet Union are increasingly collaborating to send Central Asian nationals – often critics and others with legitimate asylum requests – home to countries where they face a real risk of torture and abuse, according to a new report by London-based Amnesty International.
In the July 3 report, "Return to torture: Extradition, forcible returns and removals to Central Asia," the watchdog exposed the ease with which Central Asian states secure the return of their citizens from other members of the Commonwealth of Independent States, a post-Soviet club. Few CIS nations wish to damage relations by refusing extradition requests, the report says. Moreover, perceived mutual interests in fighting terrorism come long before human rights in this region, even though the threat is often exaggerated.
“Twenty years after the break-up of the Soviet Union, old collegiate ties, common institutional cultures and the shared perception across the region of the threat from Islamist extremist groups bind together the successor institutions to the Soviet KGB,” John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Europe and Central Asia Program Director, said in a press release. “These renditions would not be possible without the complicity of public officials in the judicial and law enforcement structures. Nor would they be possible without CIS states willfully disregarding the absolute ban on torture and their obligation not to return people to countries where they may be at risk of torture.”
Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, two countries where torture is reportedly rampant, are making the most requests.
They carried banners advertising a virtual tweet-march through Moscow, where a real Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Pride Parade was banned in 2012 for the next 100 years, and calling on Westerners to boycott Russian vodka. But, persecuted at home, Russian speakers from the former Soviet Union reveled in the opportunity to celebrate their sexual orientation during New York’s recent Pride Parade.
“I came to be happy and to show that we can have this kind of happiness back home,” commented Anton Krasovksy, a TV journalist who has become a crusader for gay rights in Russia since coming out on national television in January – and promptly losing his job.
“I really want for people in other countries – countries of Central Asia and the former Soviet Union, in Kazakhstan and Belarus, and even in Eastern Europe, where there is discrimination – to see that things can be completely different. It could be not now, but at some point,” added Krasovsky, whose Kontr TV Channel was shut down after his coming out.
Cheered by hundreds of thousands of onlookers as they made their way down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan as part of the 44th annual New York Pride Parade on June 30, many of the 150 Russian-speakers and sympathizers who marched under the banner of RUSA LGBT, New York’s Russian-speaking gay and lesbian association, shared the sentiment.