Tanks of the four competitors in the biathlon show their colors. (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
In a uniquely Russian bid to boost post-Soviet solidarity, the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization has held a "tank biathlon" competition. The competition is more or less what it sounds like: as in the better-known skiing version, crews compete to race their tanks around a course while shooting at targets. Russia came in first, with Kazakhstan second, Belarus third and Armenia a distant fourth.
All the crews competed in new T-72B tanks, and RIA Novosti described the event as "part sales pitch, part post-Soviet bonding exercise."
Russia remains the world’s biggest exporter of battle tanks, the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of Global Arms Trade says. So this tank biathlon appeared to be an entertaining if unconventional sales pitch, Pukhov said.
“We’ll do our best to ensure that foreign armies buy our tanks in the future,” [Defense Minister] Shoigu said, announcing the event last week.
While Kazakhstan finished second, its media played up the result as a victory. The presidential communications service headlined its story "Kazakhstani tankers showed remarkable results" and Kazinform raved "Kazakhstan stuns at Tank Biathlon contest in Russia... Kazakhstani tankers did astoundingly good at the Tank Biathlon International Competition." Armenia's press, not surprisingly given their country's poor results, downplayed the results and relegated the stories to the sports section.
Russia seemed to take it less seriously; the event inspired the usually staid state news agency into an uncharacteristic display of snark:
A month and a half after a Russian spacecraft exploded on takeoff in Kazakhstan, the two sides are still bickering over the cleanup.
Kazakhstan’s Tengrinews news agency reported on August 15 that Environmental Protection Minister Nurlan Kapparov had expressed his “dissatisfaction” with the Russian space agency’s efforts to clean up after a Russian Proton-M rocket carrying up to 600 tons of toxic fuel exploded at the Baikonur launch site 17 seconds after takeoff on July 2.
Russia says it needs more time to clean up the poisonous mess.
“Roskosmos’s representative has asked for [an extra] 15 days for the detoxication of the area,” Tengrinews reported, quoting a statement from the Kazakh Environmental Protection Ministry.
The statement added that the Kazakh government is doing its utmost to “identify negative consequences of rockets on the environment and health of residents of Baikonur.” Local residents have complained they are being kept in the dark about the potential environmental and health impacts of the crash.
Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency reported on August 15 that the Proton-M rocket carrying three Glonass satellites had contained 500 to 600 tons of heptyl, a highly toxic substance used as fuel to power Russian rockets.
Russian President Vladimir Putin led a high-powered delegation to Baku this week, and security issues seemed to be high on the agenda, leading to renewed speculation about whether the traditional geopolitical allegiances in the South Caucasus may or may not be shifting.
The fact that the delegation included such a large number of heavyweights spoke to the significance of the visit. In addition to Putin, it included Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, Energy Minister Alexander Novak and the heads of Russia’s biggest oil companies, Rosneft and Lukoil. Also along for the visit were some ships from Russia's Caspian Flotilla and the fleet's commander, Vice Admiral Sergey Alekminsky. Putin's remarks after his meeting with Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev focused mainly on economics and business ties, but also touched on security:
During our talks we paid a great deal of attention to resolving problems in the Caspian region. We are interested in seeing this region become one in which peace and cooperation reign. There are still many unresolved issues here, relating to security, border delimitation, conserving biological diversity in the Caspian Sea and so on. We have a vested interest in resolving all these problems, naturally taking into account the interests of all littoral states.
It is symbolic that our talks coincide with a friendly visit of a detachment of the Russian Caspian Flotilla to Baku. The Dagestan missile ship and the Volgodonsk small artillery ship are among the vessels. At the end of 2013 Azerbaijani sailors plan to make a return visit to Astrakhan.
Thousands of men from Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and Russia’s Muslim republics gathered in central Moscow on August 8 to mark the closing of Ramadan.
The Eid al-Fitr prayers, which celebrate the end of the month-long fast, gave Moscow’s estimated million-plus population of Muslims, many of them migrant laborers, a chance to put aside, for a few minutes, growing concerns about the nationalist rhetoric, police roundups, and migrant detention centers that have become a feature of the city’s ongoing mayoral campaign and Russian politics in general.
Some knelt on carpets, some on newspapers. Radio Ekho Moskvy said more than 3,000 police and tens of thousands of worshipers gathered outside Moscow’s four mosques for the 8:00 a.m. prayer. Others estimated well over 100,000 faithful.
Outside the Sobornaya Mechet, Russia’s Chief Mufti, Ravil Gainutdin, relayed messages of peace from President Vladimir Putin, Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin, and Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, among others. Blessings in several languages including Uzbek and Tajik were broadcast to the men kneeling in the streets before the main prayer.
A circling police helicopter often drowned out the announcements. For several construction workers from Tajikistan, however, that didn’t matter. As the mufti spoke and they waited for the moment to pray in silence, they were absorbed with a mobile phone video of a tracksuited woman in black leather boots dancing on top of a car.
Chinese and Russian soldiers participate in Peace Mission 2013 exercises. (photo: mil.ru)
Chinese troops are currently in the Ural Mountains, carrying out joint military exercises with their Russian counterparts. The exercises include 600 Chinese troops and 900 Russians, practicing the usual "anti-terror" scenario, and are following joint naval exercises by the two countries earlier this summer. What is intriguing about these exercises is that they're called Peace Mission 2013, which is the name of the annual Shanghai Cooperation Organization exercises over the past several years. And those exercises usually included most of the other SCO members -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. And as RT says, "All Russian-Chinese war games are organized within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization." Meanwhile, SCO members not including Russia and China have already held exercises this year in Kazakhstan.
So is there any significance to these dual exercises? Why are Russia and China doing their own Peace Mission this year? I asked some veteran SCO followers, and to paraphrase, the collective response was: "Who knows?" The SCO operates in mysterious ways. But Peace Mission 2014 is already scheduled to take place in China, and at least Kazakhstan seems to suggest that it will be participating.
Being summer, it is the season for military exercises. Some of the others that have been going on around the region:
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.