For most Tajiks, Russia plays a huge role in their families’ well being: Tajikistan’s economy is deeply dependent on remittances sent from its labor migrants in Russia; Tajikistan imports 90 percent of its oil products from Russia; and twenty years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia remains one of Tajikistan’s largest trade partners.
On September 26, politicians from both countries met in Dushanbe to discuss economic integration. Their roundtable came the week before a scheduled visit from the architect of post-Soviet reintegration himself, President Vladimir Putin. At a widely publicized roundtable, the two sides cheerfully discussed the idea of Tajikistan’s accession to the Moscow-led Customs Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia. It turns out the topic will be on Putin’s agenda – a touch of brotherly bonhomie among a set of thornier subjects – and apparently has Dushanbe’s full support.
"The admission of Tajikistan to the Customs Union will be a significant step towards economic integration with Russia and other Customs Union members," said a statement by Tajikistan’s Ministry of Economic Development and Trade, carried by Interfax. The ministry noted that membership would guarantee supplies of petrol and basic foodstuffs. (President Emomali Rakhmon had just urged his citizens to stockpile grain for the winter ahead.)
Georgia says a Russian military buildup on the de facto border between South Ossetia and Georgia proper is intended to destabilize the country ahead of October 1 parliamentary elections. Georgia accusing Russia of nefarious deeds is nothing new, of course, including in connection with its elections. But over the last few days those accusations have become more specific and pointed.
For one, there are the Kavkaz-2012 military exercises, which Saakashvili said were timed in order to interfere with Georgia's elections:
“I know well what is happening in respect of Georgia in the condition when there is Russian money, Russian methods, Russian compromising materials and Russian army, deployed near our borders holding very dangerous military exercises, under conditions when the occupant of our territories has vowed to accomplish in next few weeks and months what it failed to do in 2008 and to use elections for this purpose,” Saakashvili said.
(For what it's worth, when Thomas Melia, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, testified before a Congressional committee last week, he was asked if he thought the Kavkaz-2012 exercises were intended by Russia to influence Georgia's elections, and he said he didn't.)
Russia's transit hub at Ulyanovsk is ready to go and is only awaiting NATO, said President Vladimir Putin's special representative for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov. The facility, which would help NATO move equipment in and out of Afghanistan, has been under discussion since the beginning of this year, and was finally approved by the Kremlin in June. Now it's ready for use, Kabulov said, according to Interfax:
"The Ulyanovsk transit-transshipment point is in principle already ready to handle cargo and transfers," Kabulov said... "We gave the NATO people permission, and now it depends on whether they want to use it."
Kabulov added that the transit through Russia would be more expensive for NATO than through Pakistan, but it would be more reliable: "Everything gets there [via Russia], but there [through Pakistan] it doesn't, as experience shows."
It remains unclear what role Ulyanovsk would play in U.S./NATO plans for Afghanistan transit. Its main virtue is that it is multimodal, meaning that goods can easily be transferred from airplane to truck or train (or vice versa). But the U.S. and NATO already have a backup to Pakistan -- the Northern Distribution Network, set up to ship everything by land via Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Russia. So is Ulyanovsk a backup plan in case things go south on the Central Asian portion of the NDN?
EU monitors observe the de facto Georgia-South Ossetia border
For the past several days, South Ossetia's de facto government has been warning about a Georgian military buildup along its border. On Tuesday, South Ossetia's president said that "Georgia is preparing seriously for a war," building up fortifications and arms stores. The following day, an "analysis" by the de facto government's press service suggested that Georgian President Saakashvili was planning to provoke a war to boost his party's prospects in upcoming parliamentary elections. On Thursday, South Ossetia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs warned that Georgia was positioning heavy weaponry, including multiple-launch rocket systems and armored vehicles, along the border.
But now the European Union Monitoring Mission, which keeps track of events along the border, said there's no such thing -- and noted that in fact Russia is building up its own forces along the de facto border:
In recent days, there have been claims about a possible change in posture of Georgian security personnel at the South Ossetian Administrative Boundary Line. The EU Monitoring Mission has been intensively engaged in monitoring and assessing these reports with the deployment of extra patrols and has been checking the situation with the relevant authorities. The Mission has not observed any evidence to support these claims. However, EUMM has further increased its patrolling to actively monitor the situation on the ground.
The EUMM has at the same time observed a build-up of Russian Federation armed personnel along the South Ossetian Administrative Boundary Line. The Mission has raised its concerns about this activity with the relevant Russian command structures.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s September 20 visit to Kyrgyzstan ended with half a dozen bilateral agreements and some anachronistic-sounding rhetoric about Moscow’s benevolent role in Central Asia. On the face of it, Russia won an extension of military basing rights for another generation, while Kyrgyzstan got millions of dollars in debt forgiveness and promises of investment in the construction of two major hydropower projects. But all the deals have yet to be finalized and some won’t kick in for years, with multiple strings attached.
The visit was Putin’s first to Kyrgyzstan since an April 2010 uprising toppled the former president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who had angered the Kremlin by effectively misappropriating a $300 million Russian loan and backtracking on some of his promises. Moscow has been slow to warm to the post-Bakiyev leadership, expressing frustration earlier this year, for example, with Bishkek’s constant attempts to get aid while maintaining a so-called multi-vector foreign policy.
Publicly, Putin’s host, President Almazbek Atambayev, did everything he could to assure the Russian president that Kyrgyzstan is a firm friend. At a cheerful midday press conference, Atambayev suggested the two had stayed up together until 5 a.m. – Putin had arrived in Bishkek late September 19 – and expressed wishes for everlasting friendship. "Russia is our main strategic partner. With Russia, we share a common history and a common destiny. […] Our future will be in partnership with the great Russia,” Atambayev said in comments broadcast by local media.
Tajikistan and Russia have reportedly agreed on the terms of the continued presence of Russia's 201st Division in Tajikistan. The term of the agreement is 30 years, and Russia will continue to not pay Tajikistan for the base's presence, CA-News has reported, citing "sources close to the negotiations" (so proceed with the appropriate amount of skepticism).
According to the report, the 30-year term was a compromise between the 10 years Tajikistan wanted and the 49 years that Russia wanted. And though Russia will still not pay cash for the base (its second largest outside its borders, behind the Black Sea Fleet headquarters in Ukraine), Tajikistan will get additional in-kind aid, like additional spots in Russian military academies and "modern technology and weapons." So if the report is true, Tajikistan failed to force Russia to pay rent for the base, as Kyrgyzstan managed earlier this year.
The deal will reportedly be officially signed during Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's trip to Tajikistan in October.
The operation against militants in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge two weeks ago may not be quite what the government in Tbilisi claims. That's according to some on-the-ground reporting by Nicholas Clayton for GlobalPost:
Tbilisi has blamed a deadly shootout last week on "armed subversives" it said took hostages after crossing the Caucasus Mountains from Russia.
However, interviews in this remote valley near the site of the gun battle with families of some of the 11 men reported killed by special forces troops indicate most and possibly all of them may have been Georgian residents.
They say the authorities are intimidating residents into keeping quiet about what may have been a sting operation gone wrong. Some believe the accusations against Russia may be part of an attempt to boost poll numbers ahead of upcoming parliamentary elections.
From the accounts of the locals with whom Clayton spoke, it seems that Islamist radicalism, which bedeviled the Pankisi gorge in the early part of the 2000s, hasn't really disappeared.
In the village of Duisi, Vano Margoshvili said that he learned on Friday that his 22-year-old nephew Aslan was among those killed. He said government officials informed family members on Sunday that Aslan had already been buried in an empty lot in their village and that they could visit his grave only at night. They were forbidden to gather people for a funeral, and were not allowed to see or prepare the body for Muslim burial rites....
An efforts by U.S. lawmakers try to block the Pentagon from doing business with Russian state arms exporter Rosoboronexport has stalled, and likely will remain so until after the elections in November. But Russian officials are arguing that the fact that the U.S. military wants to buy helicopters from Russia, in spite of politicians' wishes, is "the best advertisement our helicopters can get."
Last year, the Pentagon awarded Rosoboronexport a contract worth nearly $1 billion to supply Afghanistan's armed forces with Mi-17 helicopters. U.S. defense manufacturers complained that the Pentagon was giving business to Russia that could be awarded to American companies. But the Pentagon's reasoning was that Russian helicopters are cheaper, and more importantly were already in service in Afghanistan, meaning that Afghanistan's pilots, maintenance crews, and so on, wouldn't have to learn an entirely new system.
Last month, though, the House of Representatives stepped in to try to put the kibosh on that contract. On a 407-5 vote, representatives voted to ban any funding for the contract. The Senate is unlikely to take up the issue before the election, but U.S. military are still advocating against it. That prompted one Russian defense official, Vyacheslav Dzirkaln, deputy director of the Federal Service for Military-Technological Cooperation, to brag a little bit:
"Despite this resistance, American military officials have made it clear that they need our helicopters, which are reliable and meet all of the requirements. This is the best advertisement our helicopters can get," Dzirkaln said.
The Russian newspaper Kommersant created a splash yesterday when it reported, citing "sources close to the Uzbekistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs," that the U.S. is planning to set up a Rapid Response Center in Tashkent. The Center would "coordinate actions in the event of deterioration of the situation after the American withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014" and would "essentially perform the functions of an American military base after 2014."
It went on: "'By and large, we are talking the largest American military object anywhere in the Central Asian region,' said a source."
Perhaps because Kommersant is a generally well respected newspaper, perhaps because of the apparent specificity of its report, the report was widely disseminated around the Russian-language internet. (UzNews.net went so far as to suggest that the U.S. was forcing Uzbekistan to allow a base by blackmailing Tashkent, threatening to "create problems" with the Western bank accounts of presidential daughter Gulnara Karimova.)
Tired of sluggish negotiations over the fate of their military bases in Tajikistan, officials from Moscow have upped the ante with emotional tough talk this week. Dushanbe, the Russian message is, needs us more than we need them.
Over 6,000 soldiers from the 201st Motorized Rifle Division, one of Russia’s largest contingents abroad, are stationed in Tajikistan. They famously helped President Emomali Rakhmon stay afloat during Tajikistan’s 1992-1997 civil war. But their basing rights are set to expire in 2014, and Rakhmon’s government says it expects payment for any extension. In response, the Russians say that come 2014, when NATO departs Afghanistan, Tajikistan is going to be begging for them to stay.
During a meeting last September, Rakhmon and Russia’s then President Dmitry Medvedev publicly agreed to extend the base deal for 49 years, and promised to work out the details in early 2012. But Rakhmon looked miserable while making the announcement standing beside Medvedev, analysts noted at the time. And talk of a $300 million demand for rent, while denied by the Tajik side, poisoned coverage of the meetings.
Tajik officials quietly confirm they are indeed looking for rent, but nowhere near $300 million, and that they want an agreement for 10 years with an option to renew, not 49. This week, the chief of the Russian General Staff, Nikolai Makarov, reportedly said Moscow will not pay the “stubborn” Tajiks.