Georgia is one sad post-Soviet place, according to the World Happiness Report, which for the second year running rated the Caucasus nation as the most downbeat country in the former Soviet Union. Out of this bunch, the Central Asian autocracy of Uzbekistan, ranked 49th out of 157 countries, is apparently having the most fun.
Judging by the report, Georgia has gone a long way from being the fun-in-the-sun spot of the USSR. American writer John Steinbeck once recalled that the Russians and Ukrainians he had met during his late 1940s travels to the Soviet Union all yearned for “magical” Georgia. “People who had never been there, and who possibly could never go there, spoke of Georgia with a kind of longing and admiration,” Steinbeck observed in his 1948 Russian Journal. “They spoke of Georgians as superman, as great drinkers, great dancers, great musicians, great workers and lovers. And they spoke of the country in the Caucasus and around the Black Sea as a kind of second heaven.”
Soviet media propaganda helped cultivate Georgia’s role as the place for happiness and abundance. In movies, female collective farmers in straw-hats picked tea leaves and warbled cheerful songs in piercing sopranos. News presenters on national TV were prone to smile when sharing news from what they persistently referred to as cолнечная Грузия, “sunny Georgia. “
Were Georgians faking it, then? Or have the economic struggles, civil turmoil and loss of territories of the post-Soviet era just ruined their mood?
Russia and Tajikistan have begun large-scale military exercises to practice defending against an invasion by Islamist extremists into Central Asia.
The exercises will take place over six days along more than 1,000 kilometers of the Tajik-Afghan border, which is the site of much speculation about a possible incursion of Islamist extremists from Afghanistan into Central Asia. (The total length of the border is about 1,400 kilometers.)
"Joint groups of paratroop forces from Tajikistan and Russia are being airlifted to possible points of incursions by terrorist groups on the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border," said Faridun Makhmadalizoda, spokesman for Tajikistan's Ministry of Defense.
There are several features that make these exercises appear more significant than the other, relatively frequent, exercises that Russia and Tajikistan carry out. For one, they're involving 50,000 troops from Tajikistan and 2,000 from Russia. Russian forces and equipment will include not only those from Russia's 201st military base in Tajikistan, but others from elsewhere in Russia's Central Military District, the first time that has happened. In addition, Russia has deployed two strategic bombers to the exercise to practice exchanging data with officers on the ground in Tajikistan. Other planes were deployed from Russia's Kant airbase in Kyrgyzstan.
Kazakhstan is acquiring new naval mines to help defend its shores on the Caspian Sea from marine invasion. Kazakhstan's Ministry of Defense made that announcement just days after Russia's military created a stir by announcing it was acquiring a new marine assault vehicle for its Caspian Flotilla.
"Today, the conception of defense of the Caspian Sea from amphibious landings of a notional enemy are being discussed. Here we can use models being developed by our factory," said Valeriy Sptitsin, general director of the Zistko company. Spitsin was quoted in a press release by the Kazakhstan Ministry of Defense. "After development and testing we can use these models for defense of the Caspian shore," he continued.
This might not have otherwise deserved notice, except that it came just a few days after a minor stir in the Russian-language military blogosphere about Russia's potential for amphibious invasions in the Caspian. The Russian Ministry of Defense TV network published a report describing the introduction of a new marine assault craft into the Caspian Flotilla.
Russian military blogger Andrey Shipilov picked up the story and wrote a post entitled "Russia prepares for an invasion of the countries of the Caspian." He noted: "The equipment is purely offensive, the only function of which is to seize coastal territories. ... the only open question is which state's territory is the target of this necessity?"
A Russian warship, the Alexander Otrakovsky, passes through the Bosphorus on March 9 with heavy Turkish coast guard and police security. (photo: Yoruk Isik)
Russian warships passing through the Bosphorus are getting stronger protection from the Turkish coast guard and police, in an apparent response to heightened security concerns.
Last week two ships carrying cargo for the Russian military in Syria passed through the straits, which connect the Black Sea to the Mediterrannean, accompanied by three Turkish coast guard vessels, an Istanbul police department vessel, and a police helicopter. This week at least three more Russian warships have gotten the same protection.
This level of protection is unprecedented in recent years, said Can Devrim Yaylali, a Turkish naval expert and author of the blog Bosphorus Naval News. Normally the Russian ships are accompanied by a single Turkish coast guard vessel, Yaylali told The Bug Pit in an email interview.
Russian warships, by international treaty, are allowed to pass freely through the Bosphorus. That has been the source of some tension recently, as the two countries are at odds over the war in Syria and Turkey's shooting down of a Russian air force jet last year.
Nevertheless, the Turkish coast guard gives an escort to every foreign warship that passes through, Russian or otherwise. But what explains the new level of security? Yaylali suggests that the Turkish authorities probably got intelligence about a possible attack on a Russian ship. "Otherwise the Turks would not bother so much to protect Russian ships, especially in this political climate," he said.
The Murena amphibious assault ship, due to enter the Caspian Flotilla in 2017. (photo: Almaz Shipbuilding, Khabarovsk)
Russia's plans to introduce a new amphibious assault ship into its Caspian Flotilla has raised questions among just which of its neighbors' shores Russia envisages assaulting.
The new ship will join the Caspian Flotilla next year, according to a report by the Ministry of Defense-run TV Zvezda. The ship is designed to carry marine assault teams, including 140 troops and one tank or two armored personnel carriers, up to a beach.
"There is a valid reason for strengthening the Caspian Flotilla with this vessel," TV Zvezda reported. It quoted military analyst Alexander Mozgovoy: "The region is extremely unstable. There are both our North Caucasus republics, where terrorist groups appear quite often, and also the nearby states."
Russian military blogger Andrey Shipilov picked up the story and wrote a post entitled "Russia prepares for an invasion of the countries of the Caspian." He notes: "The equipment is purely offensive, the only function of which is to seize coastal territories. And just as it is written in the story, it's very necessary on the sea now; the only open question is which state's territory is the target of this necessity?"
Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev meets with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in Moscow on March 2, 2016.
Russia has thrown Kyrgyzstan a bone — albeit not a particularly large one — in the form a $30 million grant to help cover budget shortfalls.
Economic news website Tazabek cited Kyrgyzstan’s presidential administration on March 6 as saying the money would go in part toward completing construction of social housing for military and police personnel.
News of the pledged assistance followed a meeting between President Almazbek Atambayev and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in Moscow on March 2.
Atambayev’s working visit was transparently motivated by a desire on both sides to seek clarity about the state of bilateral relations, which have been tested by the failure of Russian companies to complete essential energy-related projects in Kyrgyzstan.
Putin spoke reassuringly.
“There is no need to talk about the nature of our relations,” Putin said, before going on to talk about the nature of the countries’ relations. “Kyrgyzstan is a reliable partner with which we we have truly strategic relations. Since Kyrgyzstan joined the Eurasian Economic Union, the opportunities for cooperation have increased. I think this will be reflected not only in indicators, but also in real life, and in the development of our economic and social spheres.”
Atambayev was similarly positive, while his office hinted strongly that talks touched upon the stalled hydroelectric plant projects that Kyrgyzstan sees as key to its economic survival.
Russia's senior defense industry official has made an unexpected visit to Baku, as a Russian newspaper reports that Azerbaijan is refusing to pay for a shipment of Russian arms.
"The fall in oil prices has affected everyone, and Azerbaijan is no exception," an unnamed Russian defense industry official told the newspaper Kommersant. As a result, a shipment of weapons ordered several years ago by Azerbaijan is currently sitting in port waiting for payment, the official said.
An early version of a story on the Sputnik Azerbaijan site cited an Azerbaijani military expert backing that up, but some time after it was published all references to Baku's failure to pay were erased.
In an apparent effort to sort out the situation, Russia's deputy prime minister in charge of defense industry, Dmitry Rogozin, arrived in Baku for a previously unannounced visit on Wednesday night. On Thursday, Rogozin posted a photo with him and Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev on his facebook page with the caption "Following positive negotiations with the leader of friendly Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev." There was no indication of what may have resulted from the positive negotiations.
South Ossetia's authorities are fighting among themselves about the future of the country's armed forces, with the territory's de facto defense minister accusing political opponents of wanting to dissolve the military and fully hand over the responsibility for its defense to Russia.
At issue is the implementation of the agreement signed last March by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his de facto South Ossetian counterpart Leonid Tibilov on "alliance and integration" between Russia and South Ossetia, including a "common space of security and defense."
Russia officially recognized South Ossetia as an independent country in 2008, after it fought a war with Georgia over the tiny territory, still recognized by most of the rest of the world as a part of Georgia. Since then, Russia has been formalizing its control over the territory, though only up to a point: a South Ossetian proposal last fall to hold a referendum on joining Russia was quietly ignored by Moscow, which apparently decided it didn't have anything to gain by this particular annexation.
In any case, the March 2015 agreement between Moscow and Tskhinvali called for "particular units of the armed forces of South Ossetia to enter the structure" of the Russian military. But the devil is in the details, and the two sides are now working out legislation on how to implementat the agreement. South Ossetia's defense minister, Ibragim Gasseyev, accused the South Ossetian parliament of conniving to eliminate the local armed forces altogether.
Russia has announced the details of a new shipment of arms it is sending to Armenia, a relatively rare move likely connected with Russia's ongoing tension with Turkey.
Last week, the Russian government announced that it would be providing Armenia with a $200 million credit to buy equipment including multiple-launch rocket systems, anti-tank missiles, handheld antiaircraft missiles and upgrades to tanks.
The credit was announced last year, as an apparent concession by Russia amid large-scale street protests in Armenia against the country's Russian-owned electricity company. But the details of the weapons to be acquired weren't released, which is the normal practice with Russian arms deliveries to Armenia, said Emil Sanamyan, an analyst who closely follows Caucasus military affairs.
In general, Armenia prefers to cultivate an air of mystery about what weaponry exactly it is acquiring, partly to keep its rival, Azerbaijan, off-guard but also because it likely is acquiring far less and so has little to gain by flaunting it. Azerbaijan, by contrast, tends to exaggerate its purchases in an effort to intimidate.
(That said, Azerbaijan's purchases are still substantial, and a large portion of them also come from Russia. This week, the Stockholm International Peace Research institute released a report noting that Azerbaijan was the largest importer of arms in Europe over the period 2011-15, and that it accounted for nearly five percent of Russian exports over that period.)
Azerbaijan is walking a narrow line on Syria, trying not to offend either of its powerful neighbors, offering apparently contradictory statements this week about where its sympathies lie.
In an interview with an Austrian newspaper, Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov expressed qualified support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. "Currently, President Assad is the only guarantor of the integrity and security of Syria," Azimov said. "His army is a legal institution. We welcome a political process, in which Assad would remain in power until the election of his replacement."
Azimov also criticized Russian airstrikes in support of Assad: "I believe that the Russian airstrikes are inefficient and costly." But Azimov's comments were overall seen as surprisingly favorable to Russia. "This may req some explaining before #Azerbaijan Pres Aliyev comes to Washington," former U.S. ambassador to Baku Richard Kauzlarich wrote on his twitter account.
"Support for Assad means that the country is together with Russia and Iran, defending the dictatorship. It is also important that Azerbaijan and Turkey expressed the opposite position on the Syrian issue. In the whole ... interview Azimov confirms that Azerbaijan is close to the dictatorial regimes, such as Russia and Iran, and it is against the position of the free world," said Azerbaijani oppositionist Isa Gambar.