These days, this question is a subject of passionate debate in Georgia. Many recoiled in distaste to see Moscow this month hosting a so-called Tbilisoba, an annual, Oktoberfest-style festival of Georgian arts, national crafts and cuisine held in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. Some accuse participating Georgian pop stars of selling out to the Kremlin, while others speak of the need of building cultural bridges amid animosity.
In Soviet and early post-Soviet times, Russia was as much of a main outlet for Georgian song and dance as it was for the country’s fruit and vegetables. Given the modest size of Georgia’s show business, many Georgian performers still turn to Russia, with its massive showbiz industry and remnants of nostalgic appreciation for Georgian culture.
After 2008, some Georgian showbiz stars quit on Russia, and Tbilisi discouraged cultural exchange events. That approach changed with the Georgian Dream’s advent to power in 2012, and the lifting of the Russian embargo on Georgian food-products.
Yet, still, part of Georgian society thinks such performances are inappropriate so long as Russian troops remain stationed in breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and help separatists prevent the homecoming of thousands of ethnic Georgians who fled these regions. They see irony in the same pop stars participating in Moscow’s Tbilisoba who previously performed in patriotic, anti-Kremlin concerts in Georgia.
A group photo of the presidents of the six SCO member states, at the 2014 summit in Dushanbe. Will the 2015 photo have two more presidents? (photo: SCO)
After last month's summit in Dushanbe, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization appears poised to finally expand its membership after years of discussion and speculation. SCO members signed protocols for admitting new members, and various officials from member countries have signaled that India and Pakistan will be invited to join at next year's summit in Ufa, Russia.
This would be a watershed move for the organization, which has captured the geopolitical imagination of many around the world who see it as a growing counterweight to Western dominance. That mystique has grown in spite (or perhaps because) of the fact that the group has thus far been more about talk than action.
The SCO is now dominated by two powers, Russia and China, and also includes the Central Asian republics Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Those were the original six members when the group was founded in 2001, and despite many entreaties to join -- in particular by India, Pakistan, and Iran -- the group has never expanded. So why is it doing so now? And will expansion add to the group's clout, or dilute its ability to act?
Russia's interest in SCO expansion is relatively obvious: in the wake of the collapse of its relations with the West, the Kremlin is eager to make it appear as if it has plenty of friends around the world and so doesn't need Europe or the U.S. That's resulted in a renewed enthusiasm in Moscow for the SCO; Russia had previously mistrusted the group as being a possible stalking horse for Chinese expansion into what it considers its own strategic backyard, Central Asia.
A MiG-29 fighter jet and an icon of Mercurius of Smolensk. (Wikimedia Commons; Bug Pit composite image)
The Russian air force has decorated three of its MiG-29 fighter jets based in Armenia with images of medieval Christian saints. "The pilots are sure that the faces of the holy men on the fuselages of the military machines will not only protect them, but will strengthen their martial spirit," the press service of the Southern Military District announced.
One can't help but notice that the three heroes so honored -- Alexander Nevsky, Dmitry Donskoy, and St. Mercurius of Smolensk -- are known for their struggles and martyrdom fighting against the Tatar-Mongol yoke.
"The earthly journey of Prince Alexander Nevsky, Dmitry Donskoy, and the martyr Mercurius of Smolensk was marked with military glory and honor and they became Christian saints. The pilots consider them to be their heavenly protecters," the Russian military announcement continued.
Dmitry Donskoy is best known for his victory in the Battle of Kulikovo, a decisive moment in Russia's throwing off Mongol rule. Russian forces in that battle were famously inspired by an icon of Alexander Nevsky. And Mercurius was martyred after an icon of the Virgin Mary instructed him to attack the forces of Batu Khan which were nearing Smolensk.
That sort of historical reference may gladden the hearts of the MiGs' Armenian hosts, whose enemy, Azerbaijan, are kin to the Tatars. But one wonders how it will be received by Russia's Turkic Muslim allies in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
Regrettably, the press service didn't release any photos of the decorated planes.
Economist Farrukh Akhmedov pointed out that a lot has changed for Russia since last year, now embroiled in a war with Ukraine and a confrontation with NATO, and so is in no position to deliver the aid it promised.
"Therefore I don't see any prospect now for the military aid for Tajikistan... It's possible that in time Russia will carry out all its obligations in the plan for economic and military aid, but with the changes in the political arena it's very hard to judge."
The head of the opposition Social-Democratic Party of Tajikistan, Rahmatullo Zoyirov, said that "the agreement only favors Russia, not Tajkistan. Of the announced military aid, only a tenth has been carried out." (It should be noted that the aid was scheduled to be disbursed over a period ending in 2025, so if in fact a tenth has been delivered, that may be ahead of schedule.)
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).