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.:
Russia's ruble became worth less than a Kyrgyz som for the first time on December 12. (xe.com)
The Russian ruble crossed a psychological barrier in Kyrgyzstan on December 12, becoming worth less than the som for the first time. Across Central Asia, the ruble’s slide is pushing local currencies to new lows. But they can’t seem to fall fast enough to keep a competitive advantage.
Central Asian economies are deeply dependent on Russia as an export market. When the ruble is weak, Central Asia’s exports are relatively expensive for Russian consumers. So, weaker local currencies benefit the region’s producers. Of course falling currencies also mean inflation, as the price of imported goods from outside the region shoots up—as does the cost of servicing foreign debt. The World Bank projects inflation in Kyrgyzstan this year to top 10 percent. In Tajikistan, food prices rose 10.5 percent in November alone, according to a Deutsche Welle report.
Rossiya Segondya's Moscow headquarters: Now broadcasting in Kyrgyz.
Kyrgyzstan is doubtless “tired of the propaganda of the unipolar world.” But the country should prepare for a potential uptick in propaganda from a more familiar source—Russia. A newly minted Kremlin media outlet called Sputnik has opened a hub in Bishkek.
Dmitry Kiselyov, who heads the state-backed media giant Rossiya Segodnya (formerly RIA Novosti) that launched Sputnik last month, does not do irony.
His “unipolar world” reference at Sputnik’s unveiling was a dig at the United States. But if you were in Kyrgyzstan, you could be forgiven for thinking he meant Russia, which already dominates Central Asian media and has a sweeping impact on public opinion.
Competition seems to be the name of the game. Sputnik’s name, “so recognizable, so warm, so to the point and so romantic,” according to Kiselyov, is steeped in the nostalgia of Cold War rivalry.
Sputnik will handle Rossiya Segodnya’s in-country reporting in foreign countries, the conglomerate confirmed in a December 10 press release.
Sputnik will be available in Kyrgyz, too, shoring up the Kremlin’s influence in a region where Russian proficiency is rapidly subsiding.
The new Kyrgyz chief editor, Yelena Cheremenina, is a former professor of media ethics at the Kyrgyz-Russian Slavic University in Bishkek. She also sits on Kyrgyzstan’s independent media watchdog, the Commission for Media Complaints.
A mysterious explosion on a pipeline in Turkey just before the Georgia-Russia war broke out in 2008 may have been a Russian cyberattack, a new investigation argues, citing United States intelligence officials.
According to the investigation, by Bloomberg, the explosion on August 5, 2008, at Refahiye in eastern Turkey, was the result of a hack on the computers managing the pipeline. Surveillance footage captured two men in "black military-style uniforms without insignias, similar to the garb worn by special forces troops," shortly before the explosion. Software planted in the pipeline system shut down alarms and raised the pressure in the pipeline to such a high level that it exploded, four western intelligence officials told the agency.
The connection to Russia is solely circumstantial. "U.S. intelligence agencies believe the Russian government was behind the Refahiye explosion, according to two of the people briefed on the investigation. The evidence is circumstantial, they said, based on the possible motive and the level of sophistication."
Russia certainly has the means to carry out such an attack, as well as the motive. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, carrying oil from the Caspian Sea to Turkey's Mediterranean coast, was the greatest geopolitical victory by the U.S. in post-Cold War Eurasia, breaking Russia's monopoly on energy exports from the Caspian. And U.S. intelligence officials appear to be thinking that way:
The chief suspect, according to U.S. intelligence officials, is Russia.
Regional security and domestic politics featured high on the agenda as Russian President Vladimir Putin jetted into Tashkent on December 10 for a meeting with Uzbekistan’s strongman leader, Islam Karimov.
Putin appeared both to be wooing Karimov for backing in his confrontation with Ukraine, and offering a show of support for the incumbent ahead of upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections in Uzbekistan.
It “goes without saying” that Tashkent is “one of [Russia’s] priority partners in the region,” Putin said, according to a Kremlin transcript. That he bypassed other Central Asian allies like Kazakhstan to pay a visit to Uzbekistan lent weight to his remarks.
Karimov responded with boilerplate compliments about how Moscow has “always been present in Central Asia, and that position has always been a stabilizing factor.” Notwithstanding isolationist Tashkent’s habit of holding Moscow at arm’s length, he added that “Uzbekistan has always been open to Russia and is open today.”
Karimov repeated his oft-voiced concerns about regional security threats emanating from Afghanistan following the drawdown of NATO troops this year, but the Ukraine conflict was the elephant in the room. In the Kremlin transcript, neither side mentioned it by name, but Karimov referred obliquely to the need to respond to “challenges” in the face of a “known confrontation,” while Putin noted laconically that neither Russia nor Uzbekistan was “indifferent to how the situation in the region as a whole develops.”
Putin took more interest in upcoming elections in Uzbekistan—the vote to the rubberstamp parliament on December 21, and the far more significant presidential election due in spring (in which Karimov has not stated if he intends to stand).
A Russian pilot and his Su-25SM, newly relocated to the Kant air base in Kyrgyzstan. (photo: mil.ru)
Russia has reinforced its air base in Kyrgyzstan with five new aircraft, as Russian officials said the base's role would "only increase" in light of the Western military withdrawal from Afghanistan.
On December 8, Russia transferred five Su-25SM close air support/ground attack jets to the Kant base, outside Bishkek. This would appear to be the reinforcement that Russia promised, in October 2013, to have carried out by December of that year.
In spite of the delay, it would appear that Russia is advancing in its effort to turn Kant into the Central Asian base for the nascent joint air forces of the Collective Security Treaty Organization.
Ahead of the transfer the commander of Russia's Central Military District, Vladimir Zarudnitskiy, met with the chief of general staff of Kyrgyzstan's armed forces, General-Major Asanbek Alymkozhoyev.
The two "discussed regional security in light of the withdrawal of NATO coalition forces from Afghanistan. The sides agreed that the role of the Kant base in the region would only grow," according to a Russian military release.
Russia has been carrying out technical upgrades like renovating the runway at Kant for the last several years. In October, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu connected the upgrades at Kant to a general buildup of Russian forces in CSTO countries. “We keep developing our bases abroad: in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Armenia. We are developing them rather actively,” Shoigu said.
The collapse of the ruble is causing economic doom and gloom in Russia. But in border regions of neighboring Kazakhstan demand for the ailing currency is rocketing as people rush across the frontier to snap up bargains.
“In northern Kazakhstan, people are buying up rubles en masse and going shopping across the border,” reports KTK TV.
Bringing goods across the long border is relatively straightforward as Russia and Kazakhstan are fellow members of the Customs Union. So people are hurrying across from cities in northern Kazakhstan to buy anything from property and cars to clothes and food in Siberia.
The price of an apartment in some Siberian cities, once far higher than in the depressed towns of northern Kazakhstan, is now on a par, KTK said.
“I’ll sell my apartment, and for the same price I’ll buy in Omsk, because of the fall of the ruble,” an inhabitant of the city of Petropavl, which lies just 70 kilometers from the Russian frontier, said. “It’s an investment.”
In Kazakhstan’s capital, status-conscious bargain hunters are using the cheap ruble to buy expensive cars, an Astana-based dealer told Kazinform news agency. “We brought five cars over from Yekaterinburg [in Russia] yesterday, now we’re going to sell them on. Our rivals are doing the same, as are ordinary people wanting to acquire an expensive vehicle. You can find good options almost half as cheap as in Kazakhstan. Some people are going over and driving new cars right out of the showroom.”
The ruble has fallen almost 40 percent against the dollar and 60 percent against the euro since the beginning of this year. That may be good news for Kazakhstanis near the Russian border, but more generally it is bad news for Kazakhstan, economists say.
Russia's Grad Slavyansk corvette, to be used for the first time in joint exercises on the Caspian Sea next year. (photo: mil.ru)
The Caspian Sea will see its first -- and probably the world's first -- naval biathlon next summer, with all five littoral states taking part, the Russian Defense Ministry has announced.
The naval biathlon appears to be a spin-off of the tank biathlon that Russia inaugurated in 2013 and expanded into a blockbuster event this year. And the principle will be the same, with ships racing and shooting at targets. Missing a target will result in a penalty lap.
"Such a naval competition is unparalleled in the world," said Russian Caspian Flotilla Commander, Captain 1st Class Ildar Akhmerov, according to TASS.
Each country will compete with one ship and one reserve vessel. Armored personnel carriers will also be part of the competition (it's not clear how) and there will be an athletic portion of the contest, as well, with sailors competing in rowing, weightlifting, swimming, and tug-of-war. The competition will take place over several months, starting in March and ending in August.
Also not yet clear: which ships will be used and what they will shoot with. The naval capabilities of the five countries on the Caspian -- Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan -- vary widely. In the tank biathlon almost all participating countries used Russian-provided tanks, but that wouldn't seem to be a workable solution here; it's unlikely the Russian navy would just hand over the keys of one of its ships to Turkmenistan, for example.
Kyrgyzstan’s preparations to join a Russia-led economic bloc are proceeding at breakneck speed.
Wholesale changes to dozens of regulations are sailing through Kyrgyzstan’s parliament as a December 23 deadline for signing Eurasian Economic Union accession documents approaches.
The legislature can play host to stormy debates when it wants to, but when the subject is the finer details of the tax code and trade policy, it appears MPs can’t really be bothered. The amendments legislators are passing may have far-reaching implications for the local economy, however.
Moscow, upon whom Kyrgyzstan’s dependence grows by the day, has now confirmed it will provide up to $1.2 billion over the next two years to ease the country’s entry into the Customs Union and Eurasian Economic Union (which includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia), after Russia’s State Duma ratified the package November 26. Kyrgyz policymakers had talked up the aid package with little by way of confirmation from the Kremlin. The first $100 million, a grant, should be disbursed before the end of this year.
According to Russia’s state-run TASS news agency, the money:
…is designed to develop cooperation in [the] agro-industrial sector, the sewing and textile industries, processing, mining and metallurgical industries, transport, housing construction, development of entrepreneurship and infrastructure. A special development fund is going to be set up in the form of an international organization. Its status, functions, structure and rules of functioning will be defined in a separate agreement.