Russia on April 7 swiftly took charge as a conciliator in the Armenia-Azerbaijan fight, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the ground in Baku, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on his way to Yerevan and President Vladimir Putin sending his “warmest greetings.”
“At every level, from president to prime minister, to foreign ministry, to defense ministry, to joint chiefs of staff, we did everything to help the sides arrive at a ceasefire agreement,” Lavrov said on April 7, as he met Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev in the Azerbaijani capital. The trip was announced in March, before the latest violence began.
While calling for a lasting Armenia-Azerbaijan peace, Lavrov used the opportunity to emphasize Moscow's special role in the affairs of its former Soviet republics and to draw lines for the West's involvment. Russia, “as a country with close ties to both” Armenia and Azerbaijan will stay involved to make sure that the truce holds in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Lavrov said.
Although saying that Moscow is supportive of peace initiatives of the conflict's two other international mediators, the United States and France, Lavrov claimed than Russia is more interested in a peaceful resolution of the 28-year-old Caucasus conflict than anybody in the West.
In an apparent attempt to assuage Russian concerns, Chinese defense officials have clarified their intentions to create a military bloc along with Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan. They emphasize that it is not to be a "Central Asian NATO" and would "complement" the efforts of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, of which Russia is a member, rather than exclude Moscow.
The initiative in question was announced during a visit by General Fang Fenghui, the chief of general staff of the People's Liberation Army, during a visit to Kabul last month. Details have been scant, but the initiative was a surprising one given China's traditional deference to Russia in Central Asia security affairs. And Russian media have accused their Western counterparts of deliberately misconstruing the initiative in an effort to sow discord between the two giant neighbors.
"Western media outlets branded the suggestion as a 'Central Asian NATO' claiming to threaten Russia’s influence in the region," wrote the Russian state news agency Sputnik wrote.
Screenshot of Turkmenistan state television showing what appears to be a Chinese HQ-9 air defense system during military exercises.
Turkmenistan showed off its newly acquired Chinese air defense systems during military exercises, confirming for the first time that the country has gotten some significant weaponry from Beijing.
Last year, sketchy media reports suggested that Turkmenistan (and Uzbekistan) had acquired Chinese HQ-9 air defense systems, potentially marking the entrance of China into the Central Asia military market hitherto dominated by Russia.
Now Turkmnenistan has aired footage of what appears to be an HQ-9 in action during its large-scale, ongoing military exercises. The HQ-9 was spotted by the Russian military blog BPMD amid the state TV coverage, visible at about 4:10 in the video below (which is also worth watching for its footage of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov at the controls of a number of military vehicles, including a helicopter).
"The Russian government may not be entirely happy, but probably cannot do anything about it," Russian military expert Vasiliy Kashin told The Bug Pit after last year's reports of China's HQ-9 exports to Central Asia. "Central Asian countries started to diversify their military-technical cooperation long ago, and China is one of natural choices."
Russia’s migration authorities have announced plans to organize patrols of busy transportation nodes in Moscow as part of a campaign to clamp down on unregistered foreign residents.
In Kyrgyzstan, meanwhile, authorities are pushing ahead with efforts to get as many people off Russia’s migration blacklist to ensure as many migrant laborers as possible can leave the country in search of much-needed earnings.
The Federal Migration Service in Russia said in a statement on March 31 that their inspectors will be parked near metro stations in cars equipped with complete databases of foreigners with proper permits.
“It will be possible to use them to run complete checks of foreign citizens on the FMS database, including to establish whether they are in Russia legally. The cars will also be equipped with scanners for fingerprint registration,” the statement said.
Authorities are casting the initiative as one intended to enlighten foreign residents, particularly migrant laborers, about residency rules.
“During the checks, foreign citizens will be able to speak directly to representatives of the migration service, ask them questions and receive first-hand information about things like registration of work permits at migration centers in Moscow and Moscow region,” the FMS statement said.
Whether this is likely to put an end to the regular sight of Moscow police targeting unregistered (and registered) migrant laborers for bribes remains to be seen.
Russia’s economic decline is concentrating thoughts on the need to address the issue of illegal migration, which creates much ill-will among the most deprived sections of the population.
A security crisis in Central Asia has yet again raised questions about the efficacy of Russia's post-Soviet security bloc, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, to maintain peace in the region.
The dispute between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan over an undelimited part of their border was resolved over the weekend without any shots being fired, as both sides pulled back the armored vehicles and troops they had deployed.
But before that happened, Kyrgyzstan called a special session of the CSTO's permanent council in Moscow. (Kyrgyzstan is a member of the organization, while Uzbekistan is not, having dropped out in 2012.) But the response from Moscow was mild: the organization's deputy secretary general was dispatched to Bishkek to monitor the situation.
The CSTO's (and by extension Russia's) relative passivity once again gave ammunition to the critics who say that the organization is focused on phantom threats (like spillover of radical Islam from Afghanistan) or Russia's geopolitical posturing, rather than the real security threats its member states face.
"As tension grows on the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border, it must be stated that the CSTO is again remaining indifferent to the security problems of its member states," wrote Belarusian analyst Sergey Ostryna. Ostryna noted that while border problems in Central Asia continue to fester, the CSTO has done nothing to address them.
General Philip Breedlove, commander of U.S. European Command, visits a farmer in Georgia whose land was divided by a Russian-built fence on the administrative boundary with South Ossetia. (photo: MoD Georgia)
The top United States military official in Europe has visited Georgia, promising "bigger and better" joint military exercises and telling Georgians that to deter Russian aggression they should build ties with NATO and the U.S.
General Philip Breedlove, commander of U.S. European Command, visited Georgia March 22-23. Breedlove has become known as one of the most anti-Russia hawks among current U.S. officials, and in Tbilisi he did not disappoint:
As your brave valiant nation has witnessed, Russia continues to extend its coercive and corrosive influence on its periphery. Now it's also trying to reestablish leading and aggressive role in a world stage. Russia automatically seeks to overturn the established rules and principles of the international system, fracture the unity of the free world and to challenge our solidity.
Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon meets General Fang Fenghui, chief of general staff of the People's Liberation Army, in Dushanbe in February. (photo: president.tj)
China's plans to create a new Central Asian security bloc have raised concerns in Moscow that Russia is declining geopolitically in Central Asia and may now be competing with China.
General Fang Fenghui, the chief of general staff of the People's Liberation Army, said on a visit to Kabul this month that China was proposing an anti-terror regional alliance consisting of Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, and Tajikistan. Almost no details about the grouping have been announced, but a spokesman for Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani "said the Chinese military chief asked for Afghanistan's participation in the Chinese-proposed anti-terrorism mechanism with Pakistan and Tajikistan," VOA reported. "President Ghani has endorsed the proposal," the spokesman said.
China has been exploring a greater role in Afghan security; during Fang's visit he also promised $70 million in military aid to Afghanistan. But the fact that this proposed alliance would include Tajikistan, and exclude Russia, has raised alarm bells in Moscow. Russia has, until now, seen itself either as the primary security provider in Central Asia or, at times, a partner with China. But that may be changing.
Azerbaijan's government has for the first time addressed an apparent dispute with Russia over arms shipments, blaming it on Moscow sending inadequate equipment.
Earlier this month, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin (who holds the portfolio of defense industry issues) made an unannounced trip to Baku. Both Russian and Azerbaijani press reported, citing unnamed sources, that the visit was aimed at sorting out Azerbaijan's failure to pay for part of $4 billion in arms deals due to the financial crisis the country is suffering as a result of falling oil prices.
This week, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov gave an interview to Russian newspaper Kommersant (which broke the news originally about the alleged payment problems). In it, Mammadyarov says that Baku has no problems paying, but that Azerbaijan was dissatisfied with what it had received:
There is no problem with payments, reports about unsolved financial issues between Russia and Azerbaijan are incorrect. We are paying everything in accordance with the contracts. There are problems in their implementation, in that the weapons arriving in Azerbaijan have to correspond to the technical parameters specified in the contracts. Dmitry Rogozin came to Baku to learn what were the problems connected to those parameters, he got a full explanation and there are no more problems....
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.