Regional security and domestic politics featured high on the agenda as Russian President Vladimir Putin jetted into Tashkent on December 10 for a meeting with Uzbekistan’s strongman leader, Islam Karimov.
Putin appeared both to be wooing Karimov for backing in his confrontation with Ukraine, and offering a show of support for the incumbent ahead of upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections in Uzbekistan.
It “goes without saying” that Tashkent is “one of [Russia’s] priority partners in the region,” Putin said, according to a Kremlin transcript. That he bypassed other Central Asian allies like Kazakhstan to pay a visit to Uzbekistan lent weight to his remarks.
Karimov responded with boilerplate compliments about how Moscow has “always been present in Central Asia, and that position has always been a stabilizing factor.” Notwithstanding isolationist Tashkent’s habit of holding Moscow at arm’s length, he added that “Uzbekistan has always been open to Russia and is open today.”
Karimov repeated his oft-voiced concerns about regional security threats emanating from Afghanistan following the drawdown of NATO troops this year, but the Ukraine conflict was the elephant in the room. In the Kremlin transcript, neither side mentioned it by name, but Karimov referred obliquely to the need to respond to “challenges” in the face of a “known confrontation,” while Putin noted laconically that neither Russia nor Uzbekistan was “indifferent to how the situation in the region as a whole develops.”
Putin took more interest in upcoming elections in Uzbekistan—the vote to the rubberstamp parliament on December 21, and the far more significant presidential election due in spring (in which Karimov has not stated if he intends to stand).
A Russian pilot and his Su-25SM, newly relocated to the Kant air base in Kyrgyzstan. (photo: mil.ru)
Russia has reinforced its air base in Kyrgyzstan with five new aircraft, as Russian officials said the base's role would "only increase" in light of the Western military withdrawal from Afghanistan.
On December 8, Russia transferred five Su-25SM close air support/ground attack jets to the Kant base, outside Bishkek. This would appear to be the reinforcement that Russia promised, in October 2013, to have carried out by December of that year.
In spite of the delay, it would appear that Russia is advancing in its effort to turn Kant into the Central Asian base for the nascent joint air forces of the Collective Security Treaty Organization.
Ahead of the transfer the commander of Russia's Central Military District, Vladimir Zarudnitskiy, met with the chief of general staff of Kyrgyzstan's armed forces, General-Major Asanbek Alymkozhoyev.
The two "discussed regional security in light of the withdrawal of NATO coalition forces from Afghanistan. The sides agreed that the role of the Kant base in the region would only grow," according to a Russian military release.
Russia has been carrying out technical upgrades like renovating the runway at Kant for the last several years. In October, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu connected the upgrades at Kant to a general buildup of Russian forces in CSTO countries. “We keep developing our bases abroad: in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Armenia. We are developing them rather actively,” Shoigu said.
The collapse of the ruble is causing economic doom and gloom in Russia. But in border regions of neighboring Kazakhstan demand for the ailing currency is rocketing as people rush across the frontier to snap up bargains.
“In northern Kazakhstan, people are buying up rubles en masse and going shopping across the border,” reports KTK TV.
Bringing goods across the long border is relatively straightforward as Russia and Kazakhstan are fellow members of the Customs Union. So people are hurrying across from cities in northern Kazakhstan to buy anything from property and cars to clothes and food in Siberia.
The price of an apartment in some Siberian cities, once far higher than in the depressed towns of northern Kazakhstan, is now on a par, KTK said.
“I’ll sell my apartment, and for the same price I’ll buy in Omsk, because of the fall of the ruble,” an inhabitant of the city of Petropavl, which lies just 70 kilometers from the Russian frontier, said. “It’s an investment.”
In Kazakhstan’s capital, status-conscious bargain hunters are using the cheap ruble to buy expensive cars, an Astana-based dealer told Kazinform news agency. “We brought five cars over from Yekaterinburg [in Russia] yesterday, now we’re going to sell them on. Our rivals are doing the same, as are ordinary people wanting to acquire an expensive vehicle. You can find good options almost half as cheap as in Kazakhstan. Some people are going over and driving new cars right out of the showroom.”
The ruble has fallen almost 40 percent against the dollar and 60 percent against the euro since the beginning of this year. That may be good news for Kazakhstanis near the Russian border, but more generally it is bad news for Kazakhstan, economists say.
Russia's Grad Slavyansk corvette, to be used for the first time in joint exercises on the Caspian Sea next year. (photo: mil.ru)
The Caspian Sea will see its first -- and probably the world's first -- naval biathlon next summer, with all five littoral states taking part, the Russian Defense Ministry has announced.
The naval biathlon appears to be a spin-off of the tank biathlon that Russia inaugurated in 2013 and expanded into a blockbuster event this year. And the principle will be the same, with ships racing and shooting at targets. Missing a target will result in a penalty lap.
"Such a naval competition is unparalleled in the world," said Russian Caspian Flotilla Commander, Captain 1st Class Ildar Akhmerov, according to TASS.
Each country will compete with one ship and one reserve vessel. Armored personnel carriers will also be part of the competition (it's not clear how) and there will be an athletic portion of the contest, as well, with sailors competing in rowing, weightlifting, swimming, and tug-of-war. The competition will take place over several months, starting in March and ending in August.
Also not yet clear: which ships will be used and what they will shoot with. The naval capabilities of the five countries on the Caspian -- Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan -- vary widely. In the tank biathlon almost all participating countries used Russian-provided tanks, but that wouldn't seem to be a workable solution here; it's unlikely the Russian navy would just hand over the keys of one of its ships to Turkmenistan, for example.
Kyrgyzstan’s preparations to join a Russia-led economic bloc are proceeding at breakneck speed.
Wholesale changes to dozens of regulations are sailing through Kyrgyzstan’s parliament as a December 23 deadline for signing Eurasian Economic Union accession documents approaches.
The legislature can play host to stormy debates when it wants to, but when the subject is the finer details of the tax code and trade policy, it appears MPs can’t really be bothered. The amendments legislators are passing may have far-reaching implications for the local economy, however.
Moscow, upon whom Kyrgyzstan’s dependence grows by the day, has now confirmed it will provide up to $1.2 billion over the next two years to ease the country’s entry into the Customs Union and Eurasian Economic Union (which includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia), after Russia’s State Duma ratified the package November 26. Kyrgyz policymakers had talked up the aid package with little by way of confirmation from the Kremlin. The first $100 million, a grant, should be disbursed before the end of this year.
According to Russia’s state-run TASS news agency, the money:
…is designed to develop cooperation in [the] agro-industrial sector, the sewing and textile industries, processing, mining and metallurgical industries, transport, housing construction, development of entrepreneurship and infrastructure. A special development fund is going to be set up in the form of an international organization. Its status, functions, structure and rules of functioning will be defined in a separate agreement.
Russian President Vladimir Putin signs the book at the mausoleum of the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. (photo: kremlin.ru)
Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Turkey and its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on Monday. And while the two are often seen as having much in common -- perhaps the two world leaders making the most ambitious efforts to challenge the global dominance of the West -- Putin's Ankara visit illustrated how far apart the two countries still remain.
The visit was especially intriguing since Putin, in the wake of the crisis over Ukraine and the collapse in relations with Europe and the United States, is eagerly seeking non-Western allies. And Erdogan, too, has flirted with his own turns to the East.
In an interview with Turkish state news agency Anadolu ahead of his visit, Putin alluded to that coalition-of-the-unwilling affinity: "We highly value independent decisions by Turkey, including on economic cooperation with Russia," he said, in a clear reference to Western sanctions which Turkey has not joined. "Our Turkish partners refused to sacrifice their interests for somebody else's political ambitions. I consider that to be a really well-weighed and far‑sighted policy."
But unlike Putin's recent visit to China, where his hosts at least pretended to treat Putin like an ally, in Turkey his visit was greeted by protesters, and Erdogan publicly criticized Russia's position on Syria and on the Crimean Tatars.
A map of recent U.S. military activities around Russia's borders. (source: defense.gov)
An ongoing Russian military buildup in Crimea could help Moscow to control the entire Black Sea, the top United States military official in Europe has said.
General Philip Breedlove, Commander of U.S. European Command, visited Kiev this week, and when reporters asked him about Russian military activities, he said the Pentagon was "very concerned":
[W]e are very concerned with the militarization of Crimea. We are concerned in two respects. One, that the military forces in Crimea constitute an illegal annexation of that piece of Ukraine and that these forces are able to hold that land and, in an extreme sense, could possibly produce force from that land.
Secondarily, we are concerned that the capabilities in Crimea that are being installed will bring effect to almost the entire Black Sea. And this is of concern. Costal defense cruise missiles, surface-to-air missiles and other capabilities that are able to exert military influence over the Black Sea. And finally, as you know, in March of this year the Defense Ministry of Russia announced that it would move nuclear capabilities into Crimea, and we continue to be concerned about this and watch for indications of it.
A meeting of CIS government heads over the weekend came and went with little media attention, an indicator both of the lack of importance prime ministers are accorded in the former Soviet Union and of the organization’s general redundancy.
Conceived to keep the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union together in a loose confederation, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) had lost much of its mojo even before one-time member Georgia departed in 2008 and fresher affiliations – such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and Moscow’s Eurasian Economic Union – began gathering geopolitical prominence.
The CIS now includes Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan as full members, with Turkmenistan and Ukraine as participants. As Russian President Vladimir Putin said in 2005, the organization is best conceived as “a civilized divorce” between former partners, in spite of periodic and half-hearted attempts to turn it into something more.
For that reason, even the CIS Summit of Heads of Government on November 21 and 22 in Ashgabat had a damp squib feel to it. Although Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov was there to greet delegates and hold bilateral talks, the Turkmen, Azeri and Uzbek delegations were formally represented by their respective deputy prime ministers. Ukraine and Moldova, meanwhile, sent ambassadors to head up low-key delegations.
Security services in Kyrgyzstan have filed charges against a human rights group in a high-profile case that a leading watchdog calls “absurd.” The charges are widely seen as an excuse to implement Russian-style legislation that would sharply curtail the activities of foreign-funded non-profits.
The State Committee on National Security (GKNB) charged two staff of the Human Rights Advocacy Center, an anti-torture campaigner in Osh, on November 20 with “inciting interethnic hatred,” a source with intimate knowledge of the case told EurasiaNet.org. One was told that the former director of Freedom House’s Kyrgyzstan office would also be charged.
The GKNB had outlined its case in a September criminal complaint, stating that an opinion survey distributed by the Advocacy Center posed a threat to national security and could reignite interethnic conflict in the country’s volatile south. The Advocacy Center project was funded by Freedom House, which receives some of its funding from the US Agency for International Development (USAID).
“The case implicating Freedom House, our partner, and USAID is utterly absurd. Not only is the investigation baseless, but we are worried that it is part of a larger trend of repressive measures targeting civil society, and that this is only the beginning of a crackdown reminiscent of the rest of the region,” Robert Herman, vice president for regional programs at Freedom House, told EurasiaNet.org by email. “It is profoundly disappointing to see a country like Kyrgyzstan turn its back on its democratic promise.”
CSTO military officials watch a demonstration of a Russian military surveillance system at a meeting in Yekaterinburg. (photo: CSTO)
Russia is planning to create a unified air defense system with all of its allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization, senior Russian officials said during a meeting of the organization this week in Yekaterinburg.
Russia has talked about creating a joint system for years; the Commonwealth of Independent States formally agreed to work on it in 1995. Progress has been slow since then, but a joint system is in place between Russia and Belarus, there are bilateral efforts underway to work on joint systems with Armenia and Kazakhstan, while discussions with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have for the most part been just that.
But now Russia is getting serious, said retired Lieutenant General Alexander Gorkov, former head of Russia's air defense forces, in an interview with Svobodnaya Pressa. "We see that reports periodically appear in the media about the creation of air defense systems on a bilateral basis, in particular with Armenia and Kazakhstan, but clearly these are only announcements and intentions, they're only now starting to talk about practical steps."