The biggest headline to come out of the weekend's Caspian Sea summit in Astrakhan, Russia, was that the five countries along the sea agreed to prevent any outside military presence from the sea. This has been a longstanding goal of the sea's two biggest powers, Russia and Iran, the result of worries that the U.S. and/or NATO would somehow gain a military foothold on the sea via security cooperation programs with Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, or Turkmenistan.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, summing up the summit's results and formal declaration, said:
The declaration sets out a fundamental principle for guaranteeing stability and security, namely, that only the Caspian littoral states have the right to have their armed forces present on the Caspian. This was the way the situation developed over history, and we do not seek to change it now. In general, only the five Caspian countries that have sovereign rights over the Caspian Sea and its resources will resolve all matters pertaining to the region.
An Azerbaijan coast guard vessel patrolling the Baku harbor, 2012. (photo: The Bug Pit)
The presidents of the five countries on the Caspian Sea are meeting in Astrakhan, Russia, on Sunday and will agree to "prevent" the military presence of non-littoral countries on the sea, a Russian official has said.
Russia and Iran, the two largest powers on the sea, have long been trying to exclude external powers -- read, the United States -- from establishing a military presence on the sea. The negotiations on this have gone on very much behind the scenes, but the newly independent Caspian countries -- Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan -- have relied to varying degrees on the U.S. to get their new navies up and running. And Azerbaijan, in particular, seemed to be resisting this push to exclude external forces.
"Yes, there are some [American] programs, according to which rearmament of the naval and coast guard forces are being carried out, but this is no cause for alarm that some Caspian country could be a corridor for the military presence of other countries in the Caspian region," said pro-government Baku analyst and journalist, Tofik Abbsov, in an interview in April. He added that reports to the contrary were common in the Russian media and served to "escalate the atmosphere of non-existent trends of tension."
But now Russia and Iran seem to have worn down Baku's resistance. "A political statement was prepared for the summit containing a provision about preventing military presence of non-regional states in the Caspian Sea. There were difficult consultations on the issue, but the sides managed to agree on this principle," said Yuri Ushakov, a Russian presidential aide, on Friday.
Two Russian soldiers accused of killing a taxi driver in Tajikistan have been sent to Moscow for psychological testing. And while the commander of the Russian military base has personally apologized to the family of the victim, his relatives are concerned that the suspects' return to Russia may mean they won't face justice in Tajikistan.
Rahimjon Teshaboev, a 36-year-old taxi driver, was killed in August; his body was discovered near a lake with his throat slashed. Police arrested two suspects, both soldiers at the Russian military base, Fyodor Basimov and Ildar Sakhapov.
An unnamed source told the Tajik service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that: "They committed the crime according to a prearranged plan after ... Basimov became indebted to Teshaboev, owing him 50,000 rubles [about $1,300], but couldn't repay the money. Consulting with his comrade Ildar, they tried to 'solve the problem' August 16. But the first time they didn't succeed, and on August 18 they offered Teshaboev 'to go fishing.' Next to a lake at the village of Chimtep, Fyodor held the driver while Ildar cut his throat."
(It's perhaps worth noting that this story seems to have not been heavily covered in either the Russian or Tajikistan press, but that BBC Russian and RFE/RL have been leading the coverage.)
From the EBRD report: “The chart shows that Belarus, Armenia and Tajikistan (the latter predominantly through remittance flows) have the highest overall economic exposure to Russia. Such exposures are also significant for the Kyrgyz Republic, Moldova and Ukraine.”
As Russia’s economy goes, Central Asia’s follows. So it is no surprise that the current downward drift in Russia will hurt the region, potentially for years to come. Remittance-dependent countries like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan should be especially worried, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, a multilateral lender, says in a new report.
In its September regional assessment, the EBRD forecasts growth in Russia will come to a “standstill” in the coming months. Already pronounced, Russia’s economic slump is being exacerbated by the war in Ukraine and Western sanctions. The EBRD said Central Asia, and formerly communist countries more broadly, can expect “significant spill-over effects.”
New sanctions by the EU and U.S., which will dampen growth in Russia, “will negatively affect growth in the Central Asian countries.”
As in 2009, during the financial crisis, migrants and their dependents back home will be the first to feel the pain. Remittances from Russia to Central Asia fell in the first quarter of 2014 compared with the previous year, “for the first time since 2009, primarily due to the slowdown in Russia,” the EBRD said. “Particularly vulnerable are [the] Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan, where even a small drop in remittances from Russia is substantive, as remittances make up 29 percent and 49 percent of GDP respectively.”
A fall in remittances “may significantly dampen consumer demand in lower-income countries in the region.”
Three years after Kyrgyzstan slapped Vladimir Putin’s name on a mountain, some intrepid local businessmen are aiming to cash in on the name of Russia’s strongman president—recently found to be the most popular politician among Kyrgyzstanis.
Since early this month a black billboard promising a “Putin Pub” coming “soon” has loomed over the intersection of two central thoroughfares in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek. Cast in white, the Russian leader’s visage emerges out of the darkness in a style reminiscent of Marlon Brando on “The Godfather” film posters.
The backers of the “pub/sports bar/karaoke” joint are shrouded in mystery. That is not uncommon in Bishkek, where locals spend hours debating which parliamentarian owns what. But Artem Kolosov, who has been promoting the bar actively on social media, confirmed to EurasiaNet.org that the billboard is no hoax.
Thailand-based Kolosov, who describes himself as the pub’s “PR Director and Art Director” wrote to EurasiaNet.org in English: “I am sorry I cannot say where and when it will open. In mid-September opening [sic]. That's all I can say.”
As with Bishkek’s popular Obama Bar, with which Putin will soon compete, few in Bishkek seem concerned about naming rights. There is already the Guinness Pub, Kyrgyz Fried Chicken, Burger Kiиg and a number of other rip-offs.
But one commenter writing on the website of Kyrgyz news service AKIpress thought differently, musing: “Maybe Putin is opening the bar himself? Now that [Western] sanctions have hit Russia, his profits have fallen. So, he has decided to open a pub in a friendly country to create a new stream of income.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin failed to score any major diplomatic victories at a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Tajikistan on September 12. The Kremlin appears eager to boost the six-state security bloc as its confrontation with the West over Ukraine drags on.
Putin used the Dushanbe summit – also attended by China’s Xi Jinping and the presidents of the four Central Asian members (Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kyrgyzstan’s Almazbek Atambayev, Tajikistan’s Emomali Rakhmon, and Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov) – to court international support for his policies in Ukraine.
Speaking after the summit, Putin said that the approaches of the SCO members on Ukraine were “identical and close.”
That looked like wishful thinking, however, given the evident concerns of his Chinese and Central Asian partners over Russia’s apparent military interventions and support for separatism in Ukraine.
Contending with separatist movements at home in Tibet and Xinjiang, China has always opposed what it terms “splittism,” while the Central Asian states – which, like Ukraine, have ethnic Russian minorities – are nervous of Russia’s regional saber-rattling.
The summit ended with the signing of a joint declaration containing a pro-forma call for “restoration of peace in Ukraine” (and a declaration of opposition to “unilateral and unrestricted” deployment of anti-missile systems, in a side swipe at the United States).
When outsiders look at the various new post-Soviet integration projects they often see an attempt by Russia to impose its will on its neighbors; in Hillary Clinton's formulation, a move to "re-Sovietize" the region. The U.S., by contrast, likes to say that its policy in the former Soviet space are directed at allowing those states to maintain their "sovereignty and independence."
But that has it backwards, Russia is increasingly arguing. In a piece published Wednesday in Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov argues that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and other post-Soviet security blocs allow members "a choice of their own pattern of development" while NATO demands strict "bloc discipline" of its members.
That Lavrov wrote an op-ed praising the SCO is already interesting enough: Russia has not always been so enthusiastic about the organization, which tends to carry more of a Chinese influence (the other members are the smaller Central Asian states in between the two powers: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan). But since the crisis in Ukraine resulted in a huge rupture between Russia and the West, Moscow has sought to revive its ties to China and as a result has become noticeably more enthusiastic about the SCO.
The USS Ross enters the port of Constanta, Romania, ahead of joint U.S.-Ukraine naval exercises in the Black Sea. (photo: U.S. Navy)
United States-led, Ukraine-hosted naval exercises will start this week in the Black Sea, ahead of NATO exercises in Western Ukraine later this month. While both exercises are iterations of annual drills and so not directly in response to the events in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, the fact that they're going ahead is nevertheless a signal of U.S. support for Kiev.
The naval exercises, Sea Breeze, are usually held in July but were put off until September this year. They'll be led by the U.S. destroyer USS Ross and also include ships from Ukraine, Georgia, Romania, Turkey, Canada, and Spain. One apparent concession to the heightened tension in the region this year: unlike in previous years, no U.S. or NATO ships will dock in Ukraine this time.
"Much of the exercise will focus on maritime interdiction operations as a primary means to enhance maritime security," announced U.S. European Command in a statement. "The other key components of the exercise focus on communications, search and rescue, force protection and navigation."
Russia's Defense Ministry has announced plans to hold large-scale military maneuvers near the border with Kazakhstan. The announcement comes as relations between Moscow and Astana sink to their lowest level since the collapse of the Soviet Union, amid heightened regional tensions over the war in Ukraine.
Military exercises involving 4,000 troops and 400 pieces of military hardware will take place in the southern region of Altay in mid-September, Major Dmitriy Andreyev of Russia’s Strategic Missile Troops said on September 3, as quoted by RIA Novosti.
Andreyev described the maneuvers – in which troops will practice repelling strikes by precision weapons and counteracting saboteurs – as part of the Strategic Missile Troops’ “training plan.” However, Kremlin-controlled RIA Novosti did not miss the chance to note that recent military maneuvers in other parts of Russia “have aroused the concern of Western countries in the context of the situation in Ukraine.”
The announcement came amid a chill in the usually warm Russo-Kazakh relationship. Kazakhstan is a close ally of Russia and a fellow member of the Customs Union free trade zone, which is set to become the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) in January. The two presidents, Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, generally enjoy an affable personal relationship, too.
However, Astana’s loyalty has been tested to the limits by Russian policy in Ukraine, and by Moscow’s heavy-handed attempts to dictate its own vision of the EEU on other members.
South Ossetia is poised to join a "unified defense space" along with Russia and Abkhazia, further extending Russia's military presence into what is still legally Georgian territory. This budding alliance will both "follow the example of and oppose NATO," South Ossetia's ambassador to Abkhazia told the Russian newspaper Izvestia.
Last week Russian President Vladimir Putin met the newly elected de facto president of Abkhazia, Raul Khajimba, and one of the things they discussed was the creation of a unified defense space, i.e. the Russian military taking joint control of security in Abkhazia along with the Abkhazian security forces. Fellow Georgian breakaway republic South Ossetia is going to be part of that process as well, the ambassador, Oleg Botsiev, told Izvestia.
"Currently our side is working out the possibility with the Abkhazian side of concluding an agreement with Russia on joining South Ossetia to the single defense contour," Botsiev said, adding that it wasn't yet clear whether the agreement would be trilateral or if South Ossetia's agreement with Russia would be separate.
And he said South Ossetia's agreement with Russia would differ from Abkhazia's (though his explanation of how wasn't entirely clear): "Its creation is still being discussed, though it's already clear that included in it will be first of all a military component, and then the conditions for economic and information security of our region will be drawn up."