A Russian Su-27 fighter, soon to be based permanently somewhere in Belarus. (photo: mil.ru)
Russia has chosen a new location for its air base in Belarus and pushed back the date of its establishment by a year.
Russia has been talking about establishing an air base in Belarus since last year, which would be its first post-Soviet military facility in the country, but the details keep changing. In June 2013, Russia said it would set up the base near Lida "within months." In August 2014, Russia's air force chief Lieutenant General Viktor Bondarev said that the base would be located instead in Baranovichi (and denied that Lida had ever been the plan), and would open in 2015.
But this week, Bondarev again addressed the question of the base, and said it would now open in 2016 and would be in Babruysk, in eastern Belarus. (Lida and Baranovichi are both in the western part of the country.) “The airbase of the Russian and Belarusian Air Force will be created in 2016. Su-27 fighter jets will be based there,” Bondarev told reporters.
The ruble vs the tenge over the last 12 months. The sharp change in February indicates the first tenge devaluation. Since then, the ruble has continued to slide, again putting pressure on the tenge. xe.com.
As the price of oil falls, and as Russia’s Central Bank struggles to keep the ruble from hitting a new record low each day, Kazakhstan’s currency is facing pressure on two fronts. The major oil producer, whose economy is tightly linked to Russia’s, already sharply devalued the tenge once this year. But facing these new challenges, can the Kazakh National Bank hold its currency stable? And can Kazakhstan keep its books balanced?
Higher output and weaker global demand have pushed the price for benchmark Brent crude to $83 per barrel, its lowest in four years, down 27 percent since June. Oil, Kazakhstan’s chief export, is still above the government’s fiscal breakeven point of $65.5 per barrel, as calculated by the IMF. But it is below $90.6, where Kazakhstan faces a balance of payments deficit that puts further downward pressure on the currency. Moreover, trade with Russia is down 22 percent this year.
Kazakhstan’s “tenge weakened in forward markets last week, responding to a drop in the price of oil and sliding ruble,” Halyk Finance, an Almaty-based investment bank, said in an October 13 note. “The weakening of the Russian ruble and falling oil prices are the main fundamental reasons of the tenge weakening in forward markets.”
Russia is Kazakhstan’s main trading partner. And because of the falling price of oil, and the effect of sanctions the West has imposed on Moscow for meddling in Ukraine, the Russian currency has fallen nearly 20 percent this year. That has put the ruble-tenge exchange rate back where it was just before the tenge devaluation (see chart).
Lawmakers in Kyrgyzstan have voted overwhelmingly to adopt a tougher version of Russia’s so-called “gay propaganda” law. The Kyrgyz version mandates jail terms for gay-rights activists and others, including journalists, who create “a positive attitude toward non-traditional sexual relations.”
The vaguely worded bill passed its first reading on October 15 with a vote of 79 to 7, AKIpress reported (the 120-seat legislature is rarely full). During a meeting last week to discuss the bill, one lawmaker said the draft is not tough enough and proposed to increase sentences from up to one year to three. If it passes two more readings, the bill will go to President Almazbek Atambayev – a staunch Russia ally – for his signature.
One of the bill’s authors, Kurmanbek Dyikanbayev, often sounds as if he is repeating Kremlin talking points. Dyikanbayev told Radio Azattyk last week that he sponsored the bill to protect Kyrgyzstan’s “traditional families.” He also blames Western democracy for moral degeneracy and for encouraging homosexuality.
Bishkek-based LGBT-rights organization Labrys, whose advocacy would be outlawed by the bill, notes that the legislation contradicts numerous human-rights provisions in Kyrgyzstan’s constitution. Nika Yuryeva of Labrys said she fears the bill will encourage more violence against the LGBT community.
While in Baku Shoigu met with President Ilham Aliyev and his counterpart, Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov. Shoigu's delegation included Viktor Chirkov, the Russian navy's top commander, and the discussions appeared to be heavily focused on Caspian naval issues. "Everything connected with the Caspian is important to Russia," Shoigu said.
The two sides agreed to carry out joint naval exercises next year, and Russian newspaper Kommersant has reported that Azerbaijan is interested in buying Russian Bal-E coastal missile systems.
Particularly intriguing was the notion of a "collective defense" system: "We proposed the consideration of the creation of a collective security system in the Caspian region... the first step could be to create a council of naval commanders and to prepare a five-sided agreement on preventing incidents on the Caspian and in the airspace above it," Shoigu said.
The Russian government has criticized a NATO plan to construct military training facilities in Georgia, while coming under fire itself for hosting a NATO facility on Russian soil.
When NATO announced last month that it would set up a range of expanded cooperation programs with Georgia, including joint training facilities, the reaction from Moscow was inevitable. On October 8, Russia's foreign ministry issued a statement expressing “concern in connection to the Georgian media reports about plans to deploy military infrastructure on the territory of Georgia in the interests of NATO.... Such actions would create threat to emerging stability in the Transcaucasus region."
Left unmentioned was the increasingly uncomfortable fact that Russia itself hosts a NATO cargo transit facility in Ulyanovsk. It was set up in 2012 to help NATO forces get equipment to and from Afghanistan, and even then it was somewhat contrary to Russia's consistent anti-NATO rhetoric. Then-Russian ambassador to NATO Dmitry Rogozin -- one of the leading producers of that anti-NATO rhetoric -- was put in the unlikely position of defending the facility, saying it would only involve harmless items like toilet paper and Mars bars.
The commander of Russia's Central Military District, Colonel-General Vladimir Zarudnitskiy, meets with Tajikistan Defense Minister Mirzo Sherali and other Tajikistan military officials. (photo: mil.ru)
Russia will build a new military training facility in southern Tajikistan to help the two countries carry out drills together, a Russian military official has said.
Few details were given about the new facility other than the name, which certainly makes a statement: "Armageddon."
"Russian soldiers will help their Tajikistani colleagues in setting up a new polygon, Armageddon, in the Khatlon province for joint training of military units of the two countries," said a spokesman for Russia's Central Military District, Yaroslav Roshchupkin.
The announcement was made during exercises of the Russian forces at the 201st Military Base in Tajikistan, the largest Russian base outside the country.
Roshchupkin made another curious statement talking to the press in Tajikistan. Describing classes that Russian soldiers are going to take to learn some basic Tajik language, the spokesman said that the lessons "are intended to form and strengthen the image of 'polite people' among soldiers of the Central Military District."
Improving relations between Russian troops and their Tajik hosts is no doubt more of a priority after two soldiers were accused of murdering a Tajikistani taxi driver in August.
But the phrasing is what's most notable: "Polite people" is a phrase that has become ubiquitous in Russian this year, referring to the mysterious, armed -- but polite -- men who popped up in Crimea ahead of Russia's annexation of the formerly Ukrainian territory. So raising the prospect of "polite people" appearing in Central Asia, even if made as a joke, may not be particularly funny to the nervous governments and people there.
Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan meets with CSTO Secretary General Nikolay Bordyuzha in Yerevan. (photo: president.am)
The head of Russia's post-Soviet military bloc has made his first-ever visit to the Armenia-Azerbaijan border, checking on the readiness of Armenian troops there. The show of support was made just before Armenia was scheduled to sign an agreement to become a member of Russia's other big Eurasian integration project, the Eurasian Union.
But Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan took the occasion of the visit to criticize the bloc, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, for failing to consistently support Armenia's interests in its conflict with Azerbaijan over the territory of Nagorno Karabakh, which Armenian forces control but which de jure belongs to Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan's government has repeatedly threatened to take back the territory by force, and Armenia's alliance with Russia and the CSTO is its strongest security guarantee.
"The president underscored that the positions of a number of CSTO partners on issues being of paramount importance to allies, particularly on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, expressed in different international platforms, do not correspond to the common spirit of the negotiation process, contradict the statements and proposals of the OSCE Minsk Group, as well as to the documents endorsed within the framework of the CSTO," Sargsyan's office said in a statement. "[Azerbaijan President] Ilham Aliyev’s bellicose and Armenophobic statements do not rouse a keen response among our CSTO partners which could have suppressed the adventurous desires of the Azeri leadership."
These days, this question is a subject of passionate debate in Georgia. Many recoiled in distaste to see Moscow this month hosting a so-called Tbilisoba, an annual, Oktoberfest-style festival of Georgian arts, national crafts and cuisine held in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. Some accuse participating Georgian pop stars of selling out to the Kremlin, while others speak of the need of building cultural bridges amid animosity.
In Soviet and early post-Soviet times, Russia was as much of a main outlet for Georgian song and dance as it was for the country’s fruit and vegetables. Given the modest size of Georgia’s show business, many Georgian performers still turn to Russia, with its massive showbiz industry and remnants of nostalgic appreciation for Georgian culture.
After 2008, some Georgian showbiz stars quit on Russia, and Tbilisi discouraged cultural exchange events. That approach changed with the Georgian Dream’s advent to power in 2012, and the lifting of the Russian embargo on Georgian food-products.
Yet, still, part of Georgian society thinks such performances are inappropriate so long as Russian troops remain stationed in breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and help separatists prevent the homecoming of thousands of ethnic Georgians who fled these regions. They see irony in the same pop stars participating in Moscow’s Tbilisoba who previously performed in patriotic, anti-Kremlin concerts in Georgia.
A group photo of the presidents of the six SCO member states, at the 2014 summit in Dushanbe. Will the 2015 photo have two more presidents? (photo: SCO)
After last month's summit in Dushanbe, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization appears poised to finally expand its membership after years of discussion and speculation. SCO members signed protocols for admitting new members, and various officials from member countries have signaled that India and Pakistan will be invited to join at next year's summit in Ufa, Russia.
This would be a watershed move for the organization, which has captured the geopolitical imagination of many around the world who see it as a growing counterweight to Western dominance. That mystique has grown in spite (or perhaps because) of the fact that the group has thus far been more about talk than action.
The SCO is now dominated by two powers, Russia and China, and also includes the Central Asian republics Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Those were the original six members when the group was founded in 2001, and despite many entreaties to join -- in particular by India, Pakistan, and Iran -- the group has never expanded. So why is it doing so now? And will expansion add to the group's clout, or dilute its ability to act?
Russia's interest in SCO expansion is relatively obvious: in the wake of the collapse of its relations with the West, the Kremlin is eager to make it appear as if it has plenty of friends around the world and so doesn't need Europe or the U.S. That's resulted in a renewed enthusiasm in Moscow for the SCO; Russia had previously mistrusted the group as being a possible stalking horse for Chinese expansion into what it considers its own strategic backyard, Central Asia.
A MiG-29 fighter jet and an icon of Mercurius of Smolensk. (Wikimedia Commons; Bug Pit composite image)
The Russian air force has decorated three of its MiG-29 fighter jets based in Armenia with images of medieval Christian saints. "The pilots are sure that the faces of the holy men on the fuselages of the military machines will not only protect them, but will strengthen their martial spirit," the press service of the Southern Military District announced.
One can't help but notice that the three heroes so honored -- Alexander Nevsky, Dmitry Donskoy, and St. Mercurius of Smolensk -- are known for their struggles and martyrdom fighting against the Tatar-Mongol yoke.
"The earthly journey of Prince Alexander Nevsky, Dmitry Donskoy, and the martyr Mercurius of Smolensk was marked with military glory and honor and they became Christian saints. The pilots consider them to be their heavenly protecters," the Russian military announcement continued.
Dmitry Donskoy is best known for his victory in the Battle of Kulikovo, a decisive moment in Russia's throwing off Mongol rule. Russian forces in that battle were famously inspired by an icon of Alexander Nevsky. And Mercurius was martyred after an icon of the Virgin Mary instructed him to attack the forces of Batu Khan which were nearing Smolensk.
That sort of historical reference may gladden the hearts of the MiGs' Armenian hosts, whose enemy, Azerbaijan, are kin to the Tatars. But one wonders how it will be received by Russia's Turkic Muslim allies in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
Regrettably, the press service didn't release any photos of the decorated planes.