Turkmenistan looks set to deepen military ties with Russia in a rare development for a nation that has since independence pursued a rigidly isolationist foreign policy.
ITAR-Tass news agency cited a spokesman for Russia’s defense ministry as saying on June 9 that Moscow would provide Turkmenistan’s armed forces with weaponry and training.
"During talks, the sides discussed relevant issues of bilateral military and military-technical cooperation, as well as problems of regional and global security," ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said, speaking at the close of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s visit to Turkmenistan.
Ashgabat’s sudden change of course appears likely motivated by concern over the worsening security situation on the border with Afghanistan.
Foreign-based website Alternative News of Turkmenistan, or ANT, on June 8 carried a sensational item claiming that 27 conscripts stationed on the border were killed in clashes in early May.
The website cited unnamed sources as saying that the body of one soldier was returned to his family in a sealed coffin with the explanation that he had committed suicide. When relatives opened the coffin, they found the body riddled with 17 bullet wounds, the website said.
“An ANT source in the Mary velayat said that the bodies of 20 soldiers were brought to their region, but not in zinc coffins, as it should be, but in sleeping bags,” the website said.
ANT has carried multiple reports of claimed casualties among Turkmen troops on the border, but such stories are virtually impossible to verify independently.
A sequel to the iconic Soviet comedy film “Mimino,” a must-see for anyone with an interest in the Soviet Union, is in the can, according to a Russian news report. Georgian media mogul Zurab Chigogidze has acquired the rights to continue the story which captivated Soviet citizens in 1977.
The original movie follows the adventures of Valiko Mizandari, aka Mimino (falcon), a helicopter pilot carrying people and goats around in rural Georgia. He moves to Moscow to pursue his dream of flying the big time with Aeroflot. There, Mimino befriends an Armenian truck driver Rubik Khachikian, the movie’s comic-relief-in-chief, and the two simple men from the Caucasus, speaking an accented, faulty Russian, get entrapped in various misadventures in the USSR’s top megapolis.
The banter between Mizandari and Khachikian, played to a tee by Georgian actor and singer Buba Kikabidze and the late Armenian actor Frunzik Mkrtchian, also encapsulates the eternal rivalry between Georgians and Armenians. At one point, Khachikian claims that the Armenian town of Dilijan has the second-best water in the world. “And the best one is in Yerevan, right?” asks Mizandari, annoyed. “Nope, San Francisco,” responds Khachikian. Mizandari throws a fit because Borjomi, the Georgian mineral water of Soviet fame, is snubbed in the Armenian’s aqua hall of fame.
The summit of leaders from Eurasian Economic Union member states in Astana this week brought much grumbling with it, but there are some incremental signs of progress.
Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev set the tone on May 31 by pointing out problems on the border with Kazakhstan.
“Despite the positive aspects of integration, including the elimination of customs controls on the Kyrgyz-Kazakh border, the improvement of conditions for [Kyrgyz labor] migrants in Russia and other [EEU] states, I would like to note a number of problems. These are the matters of the harmonization of railway [transit] tariffs, the ban on the export of Kyrgyz potatoes to Kazakhstan, [phytosanitary-veterinary] controls on the Kyrgyz-Kazakh border, the transit of goods in Russia and a number of other things,” Atambayev said in remarks cited by Sputnik news agency.
There is a lot to unpack there, and even the good news Atambayev offered needs to be qualified.
Although custom controls were indeed lifted at the Kyrgyz-Kazakhstan border, it was only for them to be replaced with more stringent inspection regimes aimed at quashing the activities of unregistered traders exploiting differences in prices for various goods in the respective countries. Lengthy waits are still the norm for motorists and it will be a long time before the EEU becomes the kind of border-free space one sees in western Europe.
Russian officials have said that they want to deploy new missiles in Belarus in response to American missile defense deployments in Romania and Poland, a new test for Minsk's precarious balancing act between Russia and the West.
The United States's new missile defense site in Romania officially became operational earlier this month, and Russians (justifiably) see the new facility as targeted towards their country. Russian President Vladimir Putin has promised "strong countermeasures" to respond. There have been no official suggestions about what that might entail, but anonymous Russian officials have been saying that one measure could be to deploy Iskander-M missiles in Belarus.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited Minsk on May 16 and that proposal was reportedly on the agenda. A source "close to the Russian defense ministry" told the newspaper Kommersant that deploying Iskander-Ms to Belarus would be a "logical response" to the American missile defense installation and other NATO activity close to Russia's western borders.
During Lavrov's visit, his Belarusian counterpart Uladzimer Makey criticized the American missile-defense deployment and said that Belarus and Russia agreed to discuss taking "appropriate countermeasures together."
The Turkish tomato, the ultimate victim of the Russia-Turkey food fight, is suspected of finding an unlikely way around the Russian import ban -- Armenia.
Following its embargo on agricultural imports from Turkey -- Moscow’s retaliation for Ankara’s downing a Russian warplane last year -- Russia began getting its tomatoes and other salad ingredients from other countries and territories in the neighborhood. “Iran, our friends from Abkhazia, colleagues from Armenia have been taking over the market,” elaborated Igor Artemyev, head of Russia’s Anti-Trust Service, to the Kremlin-run Sputnik news network.
But Moscow also suspects that the Turkish tomato went undercover to infiltrate Russia, trying to pass itself off as Armenian, among other fake identities. Earlier this month, the Russian food safety agency, Rosselkhoznadzor, said that the spike of food imports from Armenia and other countries prompt some doubts. The agency pointed out that imports of tomatoes from Armenia reached a rate of a thousand tons in January and February this year, while in the same period of the last year Armenia did not export any tomatoes to Russia.
Rosselkhoznadzor, long known for its vigilance against suspected covert culinary operations, said that it contacted Armenian officials to make sure that the tomatoes were not coming from Turkey or the European Union. Fruits and veggies from both Armenia and Azerbaijan have been held at the Russian border on several occasions as Russian officials tried to check the quality and the provenance of the imports.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called for a greater NATO presence in the Black Sea to counter Russia, potentially representing a policy shift for Ankara, which has traditionally jealously guarded its role as the sole Western power on the sea.
Speaking at a Balkan security conference in Istanbul, Erdogan complained that the sea has become a "Russian lake":
We should enhance our coordination and cooperation in the Black Sea. We hope for concrete results from the NATO summit in Warsaw on July 8, 9… The Black Sea should be turned into the sea of stability. I told the NATO secretary general that you are absent in the Black Sea and that is why it has nearly become a Russian lake. We should perform our duty as we are the countries with access to the Black Sea. If we do not take action, history will not forgive us.
A high-profile racially motivated assault on two migrants in Moscow last week has prompted Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev to urge Russians to show more respect to their foreign guests.
Speaking at a May 9 requiem event in Bishkek to mark the 71st anniversary of victory in World War II, Atambayev reminded his listeners that hundreds of thousands of Russian evacuees were given shelter in Kyrgyzstan as that conflict was unfolding.
“Simple Kyrgyz families shared their last scraps of bread and clothes. Many evacuees remained in the country for good and became citizens of Kyrgyzstan,” Atambayev was cited as saying by K-News website. “So today I would like for this to be remembered by citizens of our brotherly nation, Russia, where modern fascists — skinheads — are raising their heads.”
The remarks were clearly inspired by a vicious group assault earlier this months on citizens of Kyrgyzstan traveling on the Moscow metro.
Russian state news agency RIA-Novosti cited the police as saying the attack was almost certainly racially motivated.
“They were all shaven-headed, wore heavy military-style boots. On their phones we found photographs of them holding up their arms in a Nazi salute and showing off weapons. Moreover, three of the four [attackers] were underage,” a police source told the agency.
A video posted on the Interior Ministry YouTube channel shows a worrying exchange between a police interrogator and one of the presumed attackers.
“What have you been detained for?” one young man, whose face has been hidden to protect his identity, is asked.
Fresh data from Kazakhstan’s National Economy Ministry has shown that the trend for ethnic Russians to leave the country is clearly on the rise.
In 2014, more than 28,000 people in total left the country. Another 30,000 left last year — of out those 25,000 were going to Russia. The number of people emigrating easily outnumbers those seeking Kazakhstani citizenship, according to recent figures cited in a report by Exclusive.kz.
The runner-up destinations for those leaving the country in 2015 were Germany (2,000 people), Belarus (605), Uzbekistan (364) and the United States (265).
Analysts see a raft of reasons for this exodus, ranging from the country’s economic prospects, the uncertain outcome of future political transition and a purported uptick in Russophobic sentiments.
Political analyst Maksim Kramarenko suggested to Exclusive.kz that migration of ethnic Russians reflects a process of communities “choosing their identity” — going to live in a country where they feel they belong.
A recently adopted initiative by the Education Ministry to introduce trilingualism into schools (Kazakh, Russian and English) has caused much upset among parents.
“Teaching in three languages can negatively affect the educational process,” Kramarenko said. “This is initiative is forcing many Russians to think about the future of their children and about how to preserve their ethnic and cultural essence, how to get a quality education in their native Russian language.”
Many of those leaving the country are well-educated and highly skilled and fear for their potential to succeed in Kazakhstan.
Tajikistan has climbed down on recent proposals to abolish Slavic-sounding surnames following outraged reactions from members of parliament in Russia’s State Duma.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Tajik service, Ozodi, on April 29 cited the deputy head of the Tajikistan’s civil registration service, Jaloliddin Rahimov, as saying that a new law would spell an end to surnames ending in -ov, and even the -ovna and -ovich suffix for patronymics. The provision, which seems to have been specifically targeted at phasing out Slavic-style family names, is part of plans to inculcate greater national pride.
President Emomali Rahmon led the way in 2007 by ditching the old form of his surname, Rahmonov.
Rahimov, whose own surname is notably furnished with the -ov suffix, said that officials would have “clarifying conversations” with people wanting to keep their names unchanged.
“If the situation doesn’t change, then within 10 years our children will be split into two groups — one will be proud of their Tajik names, and the others will have foreign names,” said Rahimov.
As a rule, Tajik surnames end with the suffixes -i, -zod, -zoda, -on, -yon, -ien, -yor, -niyo or -far.
The surname rule fits into a broader pattern of fiddling while Rome burns as authorities busy themselves indulging in petty bans as the country descends into economic ruin.
In January, the lower house of parliament voted to make it illegal to give babies non-Tajik names or to seal nuptials without a medical certificate. The language and terminology committee at the Academy of Sciences drew up a list of 4,000 suitable names to make sure wayward parents do not try to endow their children with names like Sang (Stone), Safol (Ceramic), Zog (Crow) and Gurg (Wolf).
As Russian President Vladimir Putin revealed this week during a visit from Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov to Moscow, Russia has lost its top trading partner status with the Central Asian nation for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Unsurprisingly, it was China that took that title in 2015 after it did $3 billion worth of trade with Uzbekistan. And that was even lower than in 2014, when the figure stood at $4.7 billion.
As Putin noted ruefully, the fall was down to the currency devaluation brought on by the slump in global prices for oil.
“Russia occupies the second place among external trade partners for Uzbekistan. Our share in Uzbekistan’s external trade is 17 percent,” Putin said on April 26, according to a Kremlin transcript.
It’s not all bad news for Moscow though. The volume of bilateral goods trade has actually increased in the first quarter of this year, by 7.9 percent.
According to Russia’s Federal Customs Service, Russia’s trade with Uzbekistan in 2015 hit $2.8 billion. Uzbekistan has a substantial trade deficit with Russia, importing $2.2 billion worth of goods, while exporting $602 million in 2015.
Uzbek political analyst Kamoliddin Rabimov said that although the nominal drop in trade was indeed down to the collapse of the ruble, the overall trend was unmistakeable.
“The scale of the trade turnover between China and Uzbekistan has become so big that we will see it, mostly likely, only continue to increase. Russia is gradually losing its economic presence in Central Asia to Russia, and that is notwithstanding the fact that countries in Central Asia have not entirely opened their doors to China,” Rabimov said.
The shift inevitably bears geopolitical significance as well.