Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili meets NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen in Tbilisi in June, 2013. (photo: NATO)
Since the election last year of Bidzina Ivanishvili as Georgia's prime minister, the Kremlin seems to have taken a wait-and-see approach to Georgia's new government. Ivanishvili came to power with a promise to repair relations with Russia by changing the tone -- but not necessarily the substance -- of Tbilisi's foreign policy. Specifically, Ivanishvili and his government have sworn that their dedication to gaining NATO membership -- the crux of Moscow's conflict with Tbilisi -- remains unchanged. Russian officials have been relatively quiet about that for the year since Ivanishvili's election, but in an interview with Russia Direct, Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin made it clear that it does not see Ivanishvili as an ally, and remains concerned about Georgia's relations with NATO.
The ongoing discussion of Georgia's accession to NATO causes legitimate concerns for us, and political changes in Tbilisi do not give any reason for the softening of our position in this issue. NATO perspective would lead to increased tension in the South Caucasus and would have serious consequences for geopolitical stability in the region.
Besides this, Georgian membership would have a negative impact on the entire range of relations between Russia and the alliance. We hope that NATO members take the most responsible approach to the issue. In relations with Tbilisi, they should focus their efforts on promoting stability and security in the region, including, of course, peaceful coexistence of Georgia with its neighbors, especially with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Heated differences of opinion are nothing new in the South Caucasus, but when they come with sluggish police investigations into violence against protesters, locals expect answers. So far, in Armenia, there have been none.
Over the past month, civil activists speaking out against Armenia’s surprise September 3 decision to join the Russia-led Customs Union and against past plans for a public transportation fare hike have suffered attacks in the capital, Yerevan, that left them with numerous injuries. One of the attacked, Haykak Arshamian, a 42-year-old project coordinator at the Yerevan Press Club who took part in September 4 protests against the Customs Union, claims that the Yerevan rally, attended by hundreds, “alarmed” the Armenian government and “this is the consequence.”
“This is a warning message not only to me, but to all those who might attempt certain activities and object to the new stage of Armenian-Russian relations, which have brought to nothing the efforts of building economic relations with Europe,” he told Asbarez.am.
Arshamian suffered rib fractures and heavy injuries to his jaw and facial tissue from a September 5 attack by male youths dressed in black. Another protester, 43-year-old Suren Saghatelian, a board member of the Transparency International Anti-Corruption Center and project manager for the Christian charity World Vision Armenia, received a head injury and a nose fracture, for which he had to undergo surgery.
Officials have offered no official comments on the violence against the Customs-Union protesters. The police launched a preliminary investigation, but filed criminal cases only nine days later. The action came the day after a September 12 statement from the US embassy condemning the assaults.
This fall Kyrgyzstan will put up for auction its only defense industry of note, the Dastan torpedo factory, and has signaled that it intends to favor Russian investors. The Russian newspaper Kommersant interviewed Kyrgyzstan's foreign minister, Erlan Abdyldaev, and asked about the plant.
Negotiations on the sale of the Dastan plant have been going on for a long time. A commission on the preparation of documents for an investment competition has already been formed. Dastan will be put up for auction in the fall. The Kyrgyz side is interested in selling this factory to Russia.
Russia has long been interested in the plant, but Kyrgyzstan's government had only had a 48 percent stake, whereas Russia wanted a controlling interest. But the Kyrgyzstan government was able to acquire shares previously owned by exiled first son Maxim Bakiyev, bumping its share of the plant to 98 percent, according to a Kommersant report this summer (via the Moscow Times).
The factory is reportedly valued at 30 million and the surrounding territory at $180 million, and apparently has no current business. There was an interesting possibility a couple of years ago of India doing business with Dastan, but that seems to have come to naught. Maybe with a new owner that possibility could arise again?
Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has opened his wallet to the tune of tens of billions of dollars on his four-nation tour of Central Asia this month, didn’t run out of money before he arrived in Kyrgyzstan. Beijing has offered Bishkek a much-needed cash infusion reportedly totaling about $3 billion.
During his trip, Xi helped inaugurate the world’s second-biggest natural gas field, in Turkmenistan, which will help triple China’s imports from what is already its largest foreign supplier. In Kazakhstan, he reportedly signed energy deals worth $30 billion. In Uzbekistan, AFP reported $15 billion in vague energy and mining deals.
In resource-poor Kyrgyzstan, Economics Minister Temir Sariev said Beijing’s credits and investments would total $3 billion. About half will be used to build a 225-kilometer pipeline across the country for the Turkmen gas, from which Kyrgyzstan will eventually receive transit fees.
The package announced on September 11 includes a loan to build a new highway connecting Kyrgyzstan’s north and south, KyrTAG reports, citing Sariev, a $400 million loan to modernize the ailing Bishkek heating plant, and $400 million toward a long-delayed Chinese-built oil refinery. There’s even a promise to open a hospital specializing in Chinese medicine.
A group of environmental activists have demanded the closure of all Russian facilities in Kazakhstan. While the focus of the group's ire appears to be the Baikonur cosmodrome, Russia's main space launch facility, it also includes an additional seven military facilities.
The announcement was made at a conference in Astana today under the title "Russian military polygons in Kazakhstan: effect on human health and perspectives." And the comments about the effort by the president of the Ecological Fund of Kazakhstan, Musagali Duambekov, focused on the danger of the rocket fuel heptyl used in the Russian Proton rockets launched from Baikonur. Baikonur has been the focus of an increasing amount of controversy lately, with Kazakhstan's government suggesting that it wasn't happy with the terms of the agreement with Russia, and a failed launch this summer which reportedly spilled the toxic fuel over Kazakhstan villages.
The activists didn't specify the Russian facilities they wanted closed, or why, but Kazakhstan also hosts Russia's Sary Shagan missile testing range and the Balkhash early-warning radar site. Tengrinews reports that Russia pays about $27.5 million annually for the bases, and also provides a number of spots in its military academies for Kazakhstani cadets.
A year ago last week, Georgian troops carried out a military operation against what it called "armed subversives" infiltrating the country from Russia. The operation, in the Pankisi Gorge where Georgia's small Chechen minority lives, reportedly killed 11 people. And President Mikheil Saakashvili, then in the heat of a parliamentary election campaign with Bidzina Ivanishvili, called the alleged incursion a "provocation" by Russia aimed at influencing the vote.
But a year on, evidence has emerged to cast serious doubt on the government's original claims, and there are credible suggestions that the operation was in fact the botched result of an attempt by Saakashvili's government to train Chechen rebels to destabilize Russia. The crux of the issue seems to be, as the headline in a recent piece by Open Democracy put it, "Is Georgia a terrorist state?"
Questions about the official version of events arose soon after the events. But the really damning counterallegations came in an April report by Georgian human rights ombudsman Ucha Nanuashvili, who concluded that:
[T]he Chechens had been recruited in Europe by Georgian Interior Ministry officials, brought to Tbilisi, and trained over a period of several months in the use of weaponry with the intention of enabling them to cross the border from Georgia into Chechnya to join the ranks of the Islamic insurgency.
Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon looks thrilled to meet CSTO Secretary General Nikolay Bordyuzha in Dushanbe (photo: president.tj)
Russia's collective security organization is developing a plan for strengthening the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, to be presented at the group's summit next month in Sochi. The secretary general of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, Nikolay Bordyuzha, made the announcement after meeting with Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon in Dushanbe.
"The CSTO is preparing a proposal for rendering aid in strengthening the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border to minimize the consequences of the exit of international forces from Afghanistan in 2014," Bordyuzha said. "We need to be ready for the emergence of any situation on the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border... The number of armed clashes [on the border] has increased by more than half."
The CSTO already discussed its intention to do this at an informal summit in May, and Bordyuzha didn't provide any details about the plan that's being worked out. It's safe to assume that Russia is pushing for the return of its troops to the border, as it has been doing pretty consistently for the past several years. And it apparently hopes that the veneer of multilateralism of the CSTO will help overcome the resistance that Tajikistan has been putting up for just as long.
Aleksei Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition figure and a candidate for Moscow mayor, has reached out to the city’s migrant communities, meeting with eight migrant rights activists on August 16, according to the weekly Bolshoy Gorod (“Big City”) Magazine.
News of the meeting so far appears limited to comments by one participant, since the Navalny campaign asked participants not to disclose the contents of the discussion, promising to release a video of the event. (Those comments by Bella Shakhmirza, founder of the Face to Face lecture series on ethnic relations in Russia, give little away. She describes Navalny’s position as “frightening” and “nationalist,” while calling him “charismatic” and characterizing the atmosphere of the meeting as “very good.”)
But given Navalny’s penchant for outright ethnic slurs against people of the Caucasus and Central Asia in the past, the fact that the meeting took place at all appears to be a nod toward the potential influence of Moscow’s migrants – and their sympathizers – in the September 8 vote, which includes regional elections in eight federal entities of Russia and several mayoral races in major cities.
Tanks of the four competitors in the biathlon show their colors. (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
In a uniquely Russian bid to boost post-Soviet solidarity, the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization has held a "tank biathlon" competition. The competition is more or less what it sounds like: as in the better-known skiing version, crews compete to race their tanks around a course while shooting at targets. Russia came in first, with Kazakhstan second, Belarus third and Armenia a distant fourth.
All the crews competed in new T-72B tanks, and RIA Novosti described the event as "part sales pitch, part post-Soviet bonding exercise."
Russia remains the world’s biggest exporter of battle tanks, the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of Global Arms Trade says. So this tank biathlon appeared to be an entertaining if unconventional sales pitch, Pukhov said.
“We’ll do our best to ensure that foreign armies buy our tanks in the future,” [Defense Minister] Shoigu said, announcing the event last week.
While Kazakhstan finished second, its media played up the result as a victory. The presidential communications service headlined its story "Kazakhstani tankers showed remarkable results" and Kazinform raved "Kazakhstan stuns at Tank Biathlon contest in Russia... Kazakhstani tankers did astoundingly good at the Tank Biathlon International Competition." Armenia's press, not surprisingly given their country's poor results, downplayed the results and relegated the stories to the sports section.
Russia seemed to take it less seriously; the event inspired the usually staid state news agency into an uncharacteristic display of snark: