In discussions of Eurasian security, "2014" has become a byword for a turning point in the region. WIth the planned pullout of U.S. and NATO combat troops from Afghanistan, Central Asia (and to a lesser extent the Caucasus) is entering an uncertain future. Predicting the future is obviously a futile endeavor, but for the sake of discussion, here's what The Bug Pit expects to be covering over the next 12 months:
1. Nagorno Karabakh. This is a no-brainer. There were some positive signs toward the end of 2013, with the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan meeting for the first time in two years. Nevertheless, the cross-border skirmishes continued, and the large forces that have made things between the two countries so tense -- like Azerbaijan's rapid military buildup and each country's dehumanization of the people on the other side of the border -- have not abated. So the renewal of conflict seems only a matter of time.
2. The Pamirs. After Tajikistan's central government suffered a humiliating defeat in its attempt to bring the region under its control in the July 2012 military operation in Khorog, it has been the conventional wisdom that the government will eventually try again. Now the presidential elections have passed, and tensions have risen again.
Obviously spooked by developments in Ukraine, Russia's new political-military bloc, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, held a roundtable discussion discussing how the organization can better fight against the "color revolutions" that, in the mind of many in Moscow, are orchestrated by Western governments.
Russian newspaper Kommersant reported on the meeting, which took place last week:
Participants came to the conclusion that "Western enemies of Russia" are manipulating international election monitoring organizations, actively influencing the minds of internet users, creating a distorted picture of the mood of society through non-governmental organizations and the media. They advised the CSTO to engage in the production of "instruments of counterpropaganda" and that Russia should not be afraid to act on the internal political life of neighboring countries.
The CSTO's secretary general, Nikolay Bordyuzha, was at the event, and spoke in somewhat purple prose about the danger that Russia's allies now face:
One is struck by the perfidy of the organizers and leaders of these revolutionary transformations, who pursue purely mercenary goals and do not shy away from using any means to attain them, including those out of the bounds of legal and ethical norms... One is shocked by the cynicism of the scene, when a high-ranking official of a respected government, devoted to democratic values, publicly flirts with a radical nationalist and inveterate anti-Semite.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, during his December 19 press conference. (photo: kremlin.ru)
Georgians wanted Russian soldiers to "take" then-president Mikheil Saakashvili during the 2008 war over South Ossetia, Russian President Vladimir Putin said.
During his marathon press conference Thursday, Putin was asked by a reporter from Georgian television station Rustavi-2 about Russia-Georgia relations. As he did with many questions, Putin took the opportunity to hold forth at some length, and he described the very warm feelings he had for Georgian people, and that Georgians and Russians have for one another generally. Most intriguingly, he suggested that Georgians were rooting for Russia to defeat Georgia, or at least Saakashvili:
Even during the most difficult time, when fighting was underway in the Caucasus [reference to the August, 2008 war], relations with the Georgian people were very good. And it was confirmed even during those difficult days and hours and demonstrated in attitude of Georgians themselves towards Russia. Don’t remember if I have ever said it publicly, but in one of the towns a grandpa approached our soldiers and told him: ‘What do you want here? What are you looking for here? Go over there – Tbilisi and take Mishka [referring to then President Mikheil Saakashvili]’.”
“You know we had losses among our military servicemen. Aircraft was downed, a pilot ejected and landed somewhere; a Georgian babushka approached and told him: ‘Come here son’; she took him and fed him. Then he was sent towards the Russian military."
The agreement, signed by Presidents Vladimir Putin and Viktor Yanukovich on Tuesday, includes provisions for "development of the social-economic sphere of Sevastopol," the Crimean city where Russia's Black Sea Fleet is based. It also provides for the "resolution of problems of taxation" and customs control for equipment for the Russian forces aimed at "limiting border, customs, and other types of government control.
But probably the most important provision related to the Black Sea Fleet is that the two sides agree to "start negotiations on preparation of a bilateral agreement on replacement of weaponry and military equipment" of the fleet. This has been the most contentious issue between the two sides, whether Russia will be allowed improve the level of equipment for the fleet or simply replace old ships with newer versions of the same class. Russia has wanted to expand the fleet, while Ukraine wants Russia only to be able to replace like with like. Although there aren't specifics (at least in the version of the agreement publicly released), Russian military expert Dmitry Gorenburg told The Bug Pit that just the agreement to start discussing replacement of equipment is "potentially very significant" and that an agreement "would probably create an environment where subsequent presidents wouldn't be able to prevent replacement."
A Gazprom filling station in northern Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan's parliament has approved the sale of the nation's debt-ridden gas monopoly to the Russian state-run energy giant for $1.
Kyrgyzstan’s parliament voted to pass a controversial deal to sell the national gas company to Russian giant Gazprom for the knockdown price of $1 on December 11, local media reported.
Under the deal Gazprom snaps up the company and its property and gains rent-free use of land any facilities stand on. In exchange it takes on Kyrgyzgaz’s estimated $38 million debt and pledges some $600 million to improve Kyrgyzstan’s crumbling gas grid. That could in the long-term help streamline energy supplies and ease the dire power shortages the country experiences every winter.
Some parliamentarians had opposed the deal, agreed in July, seeing it as tantamount to handing a strategic national asset over to former colonial master Russia for a song, but Kyrgyzgaz CEO Turgunbek Kulmurzayev said there was “no other choice” than to sell to Gazprom, since the company is effectively “bankrupt.”
Kyrgyzstan is in any case doomed to gas dependence: It meets just 2 percent of its gas needs from domestic output and relies on imports from neighbors Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, leverage that Tashkent sometimes uses to bully Bishkek by cutting off supplies.
Russia's assessment of the prospects for a smooth transition in Afghanistan are dim -- and getting worse, the country's ambassador to Tajikistan said. Russian ambassadors from the Central Asian states and Afghanistan met in Tashkent and Igor Lyakin-Frolov, Moscow's envoy to Dushanbe, took the occasion to give an interview to Russian newspaper Kommersant.
Lyakin-Frolov's view was grim: "If a few months ago the prevailing view was that the situation in Afghanistan was more or less normal and a direct threat to Tajikistan wasn't seen, now the prognosis is becoming more and more pessimistic," he said.
The "threat" from Afghanistan has been the driver (or, perhaps, the pretext) for Russia's recent push to build up its security presence in Central Asia. It's been boosting the presence and capability of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, including building up a joint CSTO air force and using the CSTO to provide technical assistance to Tajikistan's border forces. And Lyakin-Frolov's comments are some of Russia's most explicitly pessimistic.
His "most favorable" scenario of how things may turn out is not actually very favorable: "The most favorable scenario supposes that the current government will barely hold on in Kabul and in the majority of provincial centers with the support of the U.S. and NATO contingents. There are also less favorable scenarios which suppose that a full-scale civil war can start, which would threaten the integrity of the Afghan government and likewise, the security of the countries of Central Asia... and, correspondingly, the security of Russia. So we need to prepare."
Armenians may have been troubled by Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit to their country, as it seemed to be an exhibition of Russia's tightening grip on Yerevan's foreign policy. But in Azerbaijan, the visit occasioned a different sort of fear: that Putin was confirming Russia's military support for Armenia in a potential conflict with Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh.
One military expert in Baku, Uzeyir Cafarov, said that Putin's support for Armenia would increase the risk of conflict. "We must be extra careful regarding the situation on the front line in January and February. It is possible that local clashes will take place on the front line. Russia continues to play double games. We must not give in to this and must bring into Russia's attention that its position on the Karabakh conflict is biased," Cafarov told the newspaper Azadliq, according to a BBC Monitoring report.
And member of parliament Zahid Oruc told sia.az (also via BBC Monitoring), "With this visit and by increasing the number of Russian troops in Armenia, Russia is stimulating the regional arms race and pushes others to this. This is a threat to the lasting peace in the region."
Georgian Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze meets with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen (photo: NATO)
At this week's NATO foreign ministerial meetings in Brussels, the alliance's secretary general had effusive praise for aspiring member Georgia. Praising recent "free, fair and inclusive" elections, Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that "Georgia serves as a model for the wider region." And in his mostly widely quoted comments, he said that "In the five years since we created the NATO-Georgia Commission, Georgia has moved closer to NATO."
As one wag on twitter put it, Rasmussen's statement could as easily have been made in 2005 or 2007 as today. And indeed there is a bit of the Zeno's paradox to Georgia's NATO progress, continually getting "closer" while seemingly having to way to actually arrive.
And trying to play the spoiler, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was in Brussels as well. And in a press conference there he described NATO expansion as a continuation of the Cold War. Via Civil.ge:
Lavrov said that NATO enlargement, not only in the context of Georgia but in general, represents “continuation of Soviet-old inertial logic of the ‘cold war’.”
“It implies not only preserving the dividing lines, which we have all committed to remove, but it’s also implies moving them [these lines] further to the East, which fundamentally contravenes commitments that we have undertaken at the highest level on indivisibility of security,” Lavrov said. “No one should take steps creating risks to the security of partners.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin visited his country's military base in Gyumri, Armenia. (photos: kremlin.ru)
Russian President Vladimir Putin visited his country's military base in Gyumri, Armenia, while unprecedented protests against Putin took place in the capital, Yerevan. Protesters objected to Armenia's plan to join the Russia-led Customs Union -- which they say Putin bullied their president, Serzh Sargsyan, into -- and Russian pressure generally. But one key element of the Russian-Armenian relationship remains relatively unquestioned in Armenia: Russia's military role in the country.
After Russia scored some remarkable successes in getting ex-Soviet republics Armenia and Ukraine to suspend their work toward integrating with the European Union, it has faced a fierce backlash, most notably in Kiev. But even the much smaller protests in Yerevan were remarkable given Russia's role as Armenia's traditional protector against neighboring, hostile Turkey and Azerbaijan. So it was probably no coincidence that Putin chose as his entry point to Armenia the most potent symbol of Russia's protective role, the military base at Gyumri.
"We believe that the presence of Russian troops on Armenian territory helps strengthen stability and security in the South Caucasus, and increases the level of practical cooperation between Russia and Armenia – both CSTO members – in military and technical spheres," Putin said during his visit.
A fresh space spat has erupted between Astana and Moscow over the cost of environmental damage from a Russian rocket crash on the territory of Kazakhstan – and who will pay for it.
After totaling the environmental damage from the July crash of a Proton-M rocket after it blasted off from the Baikonur spaceport in central Kazakhstan, Astana sent Moscow a bill for $89 million earlier this month.
At one meeting of the bilateral group investigating the crash, officials from the Russian Federal Space Agency, known as Roskosmos, “declared their readiness to discuss compensation” for any environmental damage, Kazakhstan’s Environment Ministry said on November 22.
After receiving the bill, however, Russia does not look keen to cough up. “We have received the report about the total for the damage,” Russia’s Izvestiya daily quoted Sergey Gorbunov, head of the Roskosmos press service, as saying laconically on November 27. “The space agency will be conducting its own expert evaluation on this subject. Its aim is to assess the correctness of the calculations cited. It can be a question of paying compensation only for proven damage to the environment.”