The three leaders at an intimate meeting on April 29 in Minsk.
Vladimir Putin’s project to launch a political union of former Soviet republics – which has assumed even greater significance in the eyes of the Russian president as Moscow engages in a bitter struggle to retain influence in Ukraine – has run into trouble. A summit of the three prospective founding presidents wound up inconclusively on April 29, with the leaders making it clear that the ambitious undertaking is in danger of coming off the rails.
As Putin met in Minsk with Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus and Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, the three founding members of the existing Customs Union were expected to set a date set for the signing of a landmark treaty to transform that free trade zone into the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) next month.
Instead, the summit appeared to collapse in disarray, with only one point agreed: The three disagreed on too much to be able to finalize the union treaty as hoped.
“We still have questions,” Putin said in laconic remarks quoted by ITAR-TASS. “But I’d agree with my colleagues that we can always jointly work on them to find compromise solutions.”
Nazarbayev likewise stressed his conviction that “we have always found consensus and I am sure it will be this way in the future, too.”
The Kazakhstan Foreign Ministry is looking into reports that volunteers from Kazakhstan are among the pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine.
The "people's mayor" of the breakaway town of Slavyansk, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, told Time magazine that "his militia force... is made up partly of volunteers who have come from Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and other parts of the former Soviet Union." And a member of the Russian "Eurasian Youth Union" organizing volunteers to support pro-Russian forces in Ukraine told the newspaper Izvestia that they had been in touch with "thousands of people from Moscow, St. Petersburg, Vorkuta, Irkutsk, other Russian cities, even the Cossack community from eastern Kazakhstan has responded."
Foreign Ministry spokesman Nurzhan Aitmakhanov told Tengrinews.kz: "We have paid attention to various media reports that allege that 'among the militias in Slavyansk are volunteers from Kazakhstan.' We note that in the reports there are no specific names or documents proving the citizenship of the volunteers. As a result it's not possible to confirm the information. We consider the reports groundless." But he said the ministry and other relevant organs will keep looking into the reports.
A Mistral-class warship in France; Russia will soon receive two ships of this class, one possibly destined for the Black Sea Fleet. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Russian President Vladimir Putin has signaled his intent to expand the country's Black Sea Fleet now that the previous restrictions to its size have been annulled.
On Friday, the Kremlin announced that "The Government and the Defence Ministry have been instructed to draft a development programme for the Black Sea Fleet." This follows the annulment of the agreements that Russia and Ukraine had signed in 2010, on account of the fact that Ukraine is no longer in charge of Crimea. As RIA Novosti puts it: "The development of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet became an important task for the country when a number of agreements were annulled with Ukraine after the Crimean Peninsula was reunited with Russia last month."
One key provision of those agreements was that Russia was not allowed to expand the number or capability of the ships it had in the Black Sea Fleet; instead it could only replace an old ship with a new one of the same class. When Russia reached a deal with then-president Viktor Yanukovych in December in a failed attempt to shore up Yanukovych's rule, it reportedly included a provision to "start negotiations on preparation of a bilateral agreement on replacement of weaponry and military equipment" of the fleet. Russia had long been pushing Ukraine to alter their agreement so that the fleet could add more ships; now those constraints are gone and Russia can add as much as it wants. Aside from potential additional ships, one analysis in the journal New Eastern Europe suggests various on-land expansion possibilities:
The Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization announced on Thursday that it would stop all contacts with NATO. It's a decision not likely to be deeply mourned in Brussels, which rarely had evinced any interest in cooperating with the CSTO in the first place.
CSTO Secretary General Nikolay Bordyuzha said at a Moscow press conference that: "For now we will not be making any efforts to establish contact with NATO, due to their stance during the Ukrainian crisis.... Today, NATO is blackmailing all of the CSTO member states ... showing that they are extremely dissatisfied with Russia's actions in recent months."
Bordyuzha's remarks echo those made by Russia's deputy defense minister, Anatoly Antonov, earlier this week:
"There is moral pressure and an attempt to convince people that 'Russians are bad' and therefore they should look up to European democracy. They are talking about some military-technical assistance, about sending advisers and increasing the number of joint exercises. NATO has only one task to pursue — to drive a wedge between Russia and its allies, to tear us away from each other," Antonov said.
Russia's April 21 offer to turn into Russians anyone who has lived on the territory of the former Soviet Union or Russian Empire and speaks Russian fluently has got the South Caucasus on edge.
The law on simplifying access to citizenship for Russian-speakers across the former Soviet Union is ostensibly meant to replenish the thinning numbers of Russians, who, even at over 142.47 million people ( the world's tenth largest country), apparently just don’t reproduce like they used to. Azerbaijan, and especially Armenia and Georgia, which do not exactly boast high birth rates, are worried that Russia could annex many of their citizens to make up the difference.
Knowledge of Russian may have weakened of late in the South Caucasus, but widespread poverty still makes the region a prime place for creating born-again Russians. Armenia, which lacks Azerbaijan's natural resources and Georgia's status as a regional trade conduit, is particularly vulnerable to a citizenship drain. Russia also tightened its migrant- worker laws, which may prompt many Armenians, who travel to Russia for work, to opt for citizenship.
Russian gunboats during a 2011 exercise on the Caspian Sea. (photo: mil.ru)
The foreign ministers of the countries surrounding the Caspian Sea met in Moscow on Tuesday, in preparation for a summit this fall. Diplomatic activity around the sea is not new, and the major dispute -- how to divide up the sea between the five countries -- remains unresolved. But as with everything else in the post-Soviet space, the crisis in Ukraine has changed the calculations in the Caspian, making for an unusual amount of turbulence in the normally stagnant diplomatic waters.
The most interesting potential storyline of the meeting was that Russia had convinced the other four countries -- Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan -- to agree to forbid the military presence of any other country on the sea. This was based on a report in Russian newspaper Kommersant, which quoted a "diplomatic source from one of the Caspian countries" saying that "Moscow managed to convince its partners that no outside power should influence decisions about the Caspian. In particular, the issue is about limiting the deployment of military forces of third countries, especially the U.S., to the Caspian."
It's not clear to what extent the issue came up at the meeting. At a press conference afterwards, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was asked about "the intention of some non-Caspian countries to gain a presence, including military, without taking into account the interests of the countries in the region?" Lavrov answered: "Responsibility for the state of affairs in the Caspian region rests with the Caspian countries... We are open to cooperation with outside countries, if they are ready to do so on the basis of the rules and principles that the five Caspian countries agree on among themselves."
Angry veterans in Almaty have burned a Kazakhstani magazine featuring a profile of Adolf Hitler, accusing the editor of glorifying the Nazi leader. The controversy has sparked a diplomatic row between Kazakhstan and Russia, with tensions heightened by the magazine’s overt comparison of Hitler to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
War veterans gathered beside the imposing memorial to World War II in Almaty’s Panfilov Park on April 21 and burned issues of the Kazakh-language Anyz Adam (Legendary Person) magazine, which displays a large photo of Hitler on the cover.
“We are deeply concerned by a publication which glorifies Hitler,” said Aygul Baykamadamova, the granddaughter of Soviet war hero General Ivan Panfilov, calling for the magazine to be closed down and editor Zharylkap Kalybay to be prosecuted.
Kalybay, who is under investigation on charges of inciting ethnic, social, or religious enmity (a crime carrying a maximum 12-year sentence in Kazakhstan), defended the magazine at a stormy press conference in Almaty later that day.
“Publishing an article about him, we wanted to demonstrate his evilness,” Kalybay said, pointing out that few of those who had criticized the magazine had actually read it.
Each issue of Anyz Adam profiles a famous person who has changed the course of history, and previous issues have featured an eclectic mix of personalities including Joseph Stalin (the architect of the Soviet’s Union’s murderous political terror in the 1930s and 1940s); Mongolian warlord Genghis Khan; and Kazakhstan’s own president, Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Russia is gearing up for an ideological battle with the West, using its post-Soviet security apparatus to counter the threat of "color revolutions" around its borders.
The Russia-led political-military bloc the Collective Security Treaty Organization recently held a roundtable in Minsk on countering "color revolutions," the motley collection of recent popular uprisings that, in the Kremlin's mind (or perhaps only its propaganda), are orchestrated by the U.S. and include such disparate revolutions as Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Tunisia, and Syria. "All so-called 'color revolutions' are carefully prepared in advance by the creation and training of 'leaders' and special groups capable of organizing protest actions of the population aimed at creating informational-psychological pressure on the government," said CSTO Secretary General Nikolay Bordyuzha at the event. And he called for the "collective response using the CSTO" to combat those threats in CSTO countries (which, in addition to Russia, include Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan).
The CSTO has been making those sorts of statements for a while, but the events in Ukraine seem to have sharpened its focus on color revolutions. Bordyuzha, however, has been fairly vague about what, exactly, the CSTO could do about the issue. Аn analysis was published in Nezavisimaya Gazeta making some more concrete suggestions about what the CSTO and Russia could do. One of its suggestions was to work with the press, and the fact that it came out the same day as the Minsk roundtable suggested that the article may itself be part of the strategy.
The author, Aleksandr Bartosh, is more explicit than Bordyuzha can be about who, exactly, are organizing these color revolutions:
The Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Donald Cook, just arrived in the Black Sea, in a file photo. (photo: Morgan Over. U.S. Navy)
Russia continues to complain about the U.S. and NATO's naval presence in the Black Sea, suggesting the Kremlin is going to keep pushing to limit western military influence in the sea.
After Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov criticized the U.S. and Turkey for ignoring the Montreux Convention, the 1938 treaty that regulates the naval presence in the Black Sea, the Kremlin has doubled down on its criticism, saying that the U.S. had kept a warship in the sea for longer than the 21 days it is allowed. Turkey -- which enforces the convention -- had responded to that accusations, saying they "do not in any way represent the truth"
In an April 20 statement, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs called the Turkish statement "extremely bewildering" and that the USS Taylor had stayed 11 days longer than it was supposed to. "Turkey did not inform us about the overstay. We have expressed our concern to the Turkish and US side in a verbal note," the statement said. "We presume that Turkey, as well as non-neighboring countries, will in the future strictly observe their obligations with respect to the convention."
The USS Taylor, recall, had run aground in the Black Sea and had to be serviced in Samsun, Turkey, as a result (a fact the Russian statement didn't mention).
At the same time, Russia responded strongly to the entrance of another U.S. warship into the Black Sea, the USS Donald Cook. An unnamed Russian Defense Ministry source told ITAR-TASS that, given the presence of a French warship already in the sea and the planned arrival of two more, we can say that NATO is building a naval grouping in the Black Sea in the vicinity of the Russian border for the first time since 2008." The source went on:
Russia’s annexation of Crimea stands to have a potentially devastating impact on the tourism industry, the peninsula’s economic engine.
Crimea attracted about 6 million tourists annually in 2012 and 2013. This year, Russian authorities will be hard-pressed to attract half that number, despite very costly government subsidies for air travel and vacation packages. That’s because recent statistics show that about two-thirds of tourists came to Crimea from mainland Ukraine, and roughly a third came from Russia. Visitors from other countries traditionally have accounted for a negligible percentage of tourists.
Ukrainians are unlikely to be arriving in large numbers this year because of security concerns and newly erected, and tightly-sealed, Russian checkpoints on the Crimean border. Making up for the loss of such a huge chunk of tourists will be a tremendous challenge, especially because Russian tourists can expect to encounter difficulty getting to Crimea this year too, mostly due to transport issues.
Russian officials are striving to achieve roughly 50 percent growth in the number of Russian tourists in 2014, as compared to 2013 totals. “We should strive to increase the number of tourists from Russia [to Crimea in 2014] to 3 million,” Dmitry Amunts, the deputy head of Rostourism, Russia's federal government agency regulating the tourism industry, said on April 9.
The Kremlin has pledged to send hordes of public employees on semi-compulsory, heavily-government-subsidized vacations to Crimea to support the region's tourism business and even has started a national campaign, called "Vacation in Crimea." But tourism professionals do not see the program as having a major impact.