Whether or not Vladimir Putin bribed Uzbekistan, as a Bishkek newspaper claims, it is welcome news all around that Uzbek gas is once again flowing into southern Kyrgyzstan.
Kyrgyzstan is happy because 60,000 customers in a potentially restive part of the country aren’t relying on dung to heat their homes; Uzbekistan again has revenue from the cross-border gas trade; and Russia, whose energy giant Gazprom promised a constant supply of gas when it bought Kyrgyzstan’s gas distribution network last year, gets to save face.
But the sudden resumption of gas deliveries from Uzbekistan to Kyrgyzstan on December 30 begs two related questions: Why wasn’t a deal reached earlier, after Uzbekistan abruptly cut supplies last April? And what made the recalcitrant Uzbeks change their mind?
Kyrgyz newspaper Vechernii Bishkek, citing an unidentified Kyrgyz government source, claims it knows the answer to the second question.
The source told Vechernii Bishkek today that no less a figure than Russian President Vladimir Putin negotiated the gas deal during a December 10 meeting with his counterpart Islam Karimov in Tashkent. Karimov, according to this account, pushed Moscow to forgive $3 billion of Uzbek debt (oddly, that’s much more than the $890 million other media reported Uzbekistan as owing). In the end the Kremlin agreed to write off $865 million.
A senior Kremlin official has warned that the Islamist group ISIS is gathering its forces in northern Afghanistan in preparation for an attack against Central Asia and Russia, and that a wide array of military measures are required to prevent that. But in spite of the alarmist rhetoric, he suggested that the Russian military would not be heavily involved in Central Asia's fight against ISIS.
The official, Zamir Kabulov, is Russian President Vladimir Putin's special representative for Afghanistan, and he gave a long interview to Interfax on the occasion of the end of the Western combat mission in Afghanistan. The ginning up of the ISIS threat isn't new for Russian officials, but Kabulov's interview is noteworthy for its unusual amount of detail. (Whether or not that detail corresponds to reality is another matter.)
According to Russia's information, Kabulov said, a "small group -- maybe a bit more than a hundred fighters" -- was redeployed from ISIS's main base in Iraq and Syria to Afghanistan. But they supplement local fighters loyal to ISIS, he says:
A "spillover" into Central Asia is inevitable, especially considering that all the foundations are there. They have created two beachheads in Afghanistan: one on the border of Tajikistan, and the other of Turkmenistan. There they have concentrated fairly large forces. Let's say on the Tajikistan beachhead there are 4-5,000 fighters concentrated. And on the beachhead opposite Turkmenistan, 2,500 fighters. They have deployed camps for two-month preparation courses for fighters. We know of three such camps, and there may be more. They are training 50 fighters in every course, so if you take at least three camps that we know about, that's 150 fighters every two months. What's interesting is that they are mostly natives of Central Asia.
Turkmenistan rang in the New Year by dramatically devaluing its national currency, the manat, and introducing a steep levy on the price of petrol.
The scale of the devaluation – comparable to the 19 percent devaluation of the tenge in Kazakhstan earlier in the year – comes as all Central Asian economies are feeling the downturn in Russia, where the ruble lost 45% of its value against the dollar in 2014. But it is still somewhat surprising because Turkmenistan’s is the region’s economy least dependent on exports to its former colonial master.
AFP reported January 1 that the Turkmen central bank had published a rate of 3.50 manats to the dollar, down from the 2.85 that had held since 2009—a devaluation of 18.6 percent. The government has not commented.
Noting that a liter of popular 95-octane petrol had also jumped overnight – from 0.62 manats to 1 – The Chronicles of Turkmenistan, a news blog run by Turkmen exiles, feared significant inflation would follow.
After three years of negotiations, Kyrgyzstan has signed up to join the Moscow-led Eurasian Union, a protectionist post-Soviet economic club that some fear will allow the Kremlin to reassert political influence in its former backyard. But in what has become a tradition, Kyrgyzstan’s actual accession will be delayed yet again.
Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev signed on the dotted line at a Moscow meeting of the Eurasian Economic Council December 23 along with his counterparts from Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia.
Atambayev was in high spirits after signing, waxing lyrical about the benefits of regional integration.
“I’d like to emphasize that today is December 23. I am a person that sometimes lends a lot of credence to things, dates, signs of destiny, lets say. Yesterday, December 22, was the shortest day and the longest night [of the year] and today, December 23 is the day when light starts to defeat night. It seems very significant. I am confident that even in these difficult times, things will be a lot easier for all of us if we are friendly with one another and help one another,” Atambayev said, to what looked, on camera, like sniggers from Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko.
More importantly, Atambayev confirmed that Kyrgyzstan would not be ready for full membership in the Eurasian Economic Union – which fellow aspirant Armenia will join on January 1 – until the anniversary of the Soviet Union’s 1945 victory over Germany on May 9. All year officials have said Kyrgyzstan will join on January 1, when the Customs Union becomes the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).
President Nursultan Nazarbayev has paid a visit to Kiev to meet his Ukrainian counterpart Petro Poroshenko – Vladimir Putin’s sworn enemy – the day before heading to Moscow for an important meeting of the fledgling Eurasian Economic Union.
Poroshenko used Nazarbayev’s surprise visit to Kiev on December 22 (announced with just three days’ notice) to thank him for Kazakhstan’s “firm and consistent position of support to the independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine.” The remarks are guaranteed to arouse the ire of Putin, whose annexation of the Ukrainian territory of Crimea in March sparked international condemnation and Western sanctions against Russia.
Nazarbayev took a conciliatory line, calling on Moscow and Kiev to move from confrontation to compromise. But his very presence in Ukraine is likely to irritate Putin, coming the day before leaders of member states of the Eurasian Economic Union, a new regional integration effort to be launched on January 1, meet in Moscow.
At that meeting, Kyrgyzstan is expected to join the union – alongside Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Armenia – which Putin has sought to expand to boost the Kremlin’s regional clout in the face of Moscow’s geopolitical setbacks in Ukraine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has modestly understated the number of military bases that Russia operates outside its borders, apparently forgetting about the several bases Russia has in the Caucasus and elsewhere.
In his big annual press conference on December 18, the BBC's John Simpson asked Putin about the breakout of a "new Cold War" and Russia's aggressive moves around its Western borders. Putin said that it was in fact the West who was aggressive:
We have basically only two bases abroad, and those are in terroristically dangerous directions: in Kyrgyzstan after militants from Afghanistan entered that country, at the reqyest of the Kyrgyz authorities, then President Akayev, and in Tajikistan -- also on the border with Afghanistan. I think you also would be interested in everything being stable there, too.
American bases are all over the globe. And you want to say that we're acting aggressively? Does that make sense? What are American armed forces, including tactical nuclear weapons, doing in Europe? What are they doing there?
Last month, Kyrgyzstan’s Education Ministry announced two tenders worth almost $3 million to print more than 1 million textbooks. But it appears the ministry did not want just anyone to bid.
Someone involved in posting the tenders on the government’s procurement website included a couple of Latin-script vowels within Russian keywords (written in the Cyrillic script), making it impossible to search for the announcement.
For example, there is no difference to the naked eye between these two words: books and bооks. But the second word contains two Cyrillic o’s. That makes it impossible to find with an Internet search, which requires an exact match.
In the same way, the Education Ministry used the Latin letters a, e and o (which also appear in the Cyrillic alphabet) in its tender announcements, which are worth a total of $2.8 million. Reporters at Kloop.kg, who revealed the trick, recorded video evidence of how the announcements were hidden.
Anyone who didn’t know about the Latin letters would struggle to find the tender announcements. Anyone who did – someone colluding with a ministry official, for example – would have a massive advantage.
Kyrgyz officials didn’t think up this scheme on their own.
Back in 2012, Russian anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny, known for revealing fraud in state procurements there, described how officials “embezzle millions and billions” using this tactic.
The United States Congress has passed a bill authorizing lethal military aid to Ukraine and additional sanctions on Russia, as well as additional measures to support Georgia and Moldova. It declined, however, to give Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine "major non-NATO ally status," which would have made it easier for those countries to get American military equipment.
The bill, the Ukraine Freedom Support Act of 2014, passed both houses of Congress on December 13. It would apply sanctions to Rosoboronexport, the major state arms exporter, or any other country deemed to be involved in transferring weapons to Syria, or "Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova; and ... any other country designated by the President as a country of significant concern ... such as Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and the Central Asia republics" against the will of the "internationally recognized governments" of those countries.
It also calls for sanctions if the Russian state gas company Gazprom withholds gas from those countries and "prioritizes" broadcasting into Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova by the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
“This legislation sends a very direct message to President [Vladimir] Putin who must change his calculus in Ukraine and abandon this disruptive path,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez.
Kyrgyzstan’s problems probably featured pretty low on Vladimir Putin’s to-do list when he traveled to Tashkent this week.
Some in Kyrgyzstan believe the Russian president, and only he, can end their country’s intractable disputes with its neighbor. There was hope, for example, that Putin could get Karimov to resume gas supplies to southern Kyrgyzstan.
Though Putin had a nice package of goodies for his Uzbek counterpart on December 10 – he wrote off most of Tashkent’s debt and showed support only a few months before Karimov is expected to stand for reelection – it is unclear what he got for Russia.
Per usual, Karimov ducked a press conference. And he did not publically opine on the elephant in the room: Tashkent’s future role, if any, in relation to Putin's Eurasian Economic Union.
One of the items supposedly on the agenda, however, was gas.
The standoff in the Fergana Valley directly involves Russia. Russia’s Gazprom had just taken control of Kyrgyzgaz in April when UzTransGaz said it had no obligation to supply Gazprom. Kyrgyzstan’s second-largest city has been without gas ever since.
The meeting failed to produce a breakthrough, Kyrgyz media reported.
Many analysts assume Uzbekistan is using gas to gain leverage over its poverty-stricken upstream neighbor as well as that neighbor's benefactor—Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin discusses weapons sales with his Uzbekistan counterpart Islam Karimov. (photo: Kremlin)
Uzbekistan appears to be increasingly relying on Russia for military equipment as the United States withdraws from Afghanistan without -- as Tashkent had hoped -- handing over some of its secondhand gear.
During Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit to Tashkent this week, the big news was that Russia would forgive almost $1 billion of Uzbekistan's debt in order to free up new credits for Uzbekistan to buy Russian military equipment.
What equipment might be under consideration isn't yet known, but Interfax suggested that "because of the existing security threats in Uzbekistan, the country may be interested in purchasing helicopters, armoured vehicles, air-defence weapons and small arms made in Russia." Information about arms purchases by Uzbekistan are very hard to come by; the think tank SIPRI, the most authoritative source on arms sales around the world, doesn't list Uzbekistan as having bought anything in the last 12 years.
An anonymous source "close to the Russian delegation" told Deutsche Welle's Russian service that "during the negotiations in Tashkent the expansion of military-technical cooperation was discussed by the delegations in detail." And part of the reason, the source said, is that Uzbekistan isn't getting what it hoped for from the U.S.: