Georgia and France have finalized a blockbuster air defense deal that was the source of a major political crisis in Tbilisi last year, though many of the details of the deal and the crisis remain shrouded in mystery.
Defense Minister Tina Khidasheli on June 15 signed an agreement with the company ThalesRaytheonSystems in Paris on the purchase of “advanced” air defense systems that will “guarantee country’s air defense,” Khidasheli said, according to Georgian news website Civil.ge.
But that's about all that is known: the exact type of system, its price, or anything else is being kept secret. “I cannot speak about the details of the agreement we signed today. Information about such type of procurements, weapon should be top state secret, otherwise we can now continue our conversation in Russian and they will not even need to spend money on translation to learn information about this agreement,” Khidasheli told the Georgian state broadcaster.
Georgia's defense minister has said that negotiations to acquire air defense systems remain underway, contrary to claims from his predecessor that Russia scuttled attempts to buy such weaponry from the West.
Last week, ex-defense minister Irakli Alasania held a press conference to air allegations that, in deference to Russia, the government sabotaged his efforts to acquire air defense systems from France. The political fallout continued this week, doing nothing to clear up the political controversy but shedding some more light on what is by all accounts one of Georgia's most critical military priorities.
"Over the past 22 years, air defence has been our 'Achilles' heel,'" Alasania said in a TV interview, reported BBC Monitoring. "Therefore, when I came to the [Defence] Ministry, the first thing I did together with our military men was to determine air defence as our top priority. This was a system of exclusively defensive character, and I openly spoke about it in my plans."
Irakli Aladashvili, Georgia's leading defense journalist, noted that Alasania said that the air defense system he had negotatied with France would be able to shoot down any kind of Russian aircraft, as well as Iskander ballistic missiles (which were reportedly used for the first time against Georgia in 2008). Aladashvili concludes:
Georgia's former defense minister has claimed that his firing last year was the result of dispute with other officials, led by former prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, over signing an agreement to acquire air defense systems from France. But the prime minister, and France's ambassador to Tbilisi, have denied the claims.
The dispute has reignited the political crisis that blew up last year, when Defense Minister Irakli Alasania -- one of the country's most popular political figures and probably the most pro-Western official then in the government -- was unexpectedly fired. And it again raises allegations that Russia might be exerting pressure on Tbilisi behind the scenes, especially in the sensitive sphere of arms procurements from the West.
Alasania made the claim last week, and Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili responded by calling the allegations "immoral" and said that such speculation is "not the business of a real man." The defense ministry also denied that any such agreement with France had been made.
Alasania then said that, since the agreement he signed was valid until the end of March, he would wait until April, when the alleged agreement expired, to provide all the details. And he made good on his promise at a press conference on April 3.
France has formally ended its military presence in Tajikistan after 13 years of operations supporting French troops in Afghanistan.
At a ceremony October 28, the French flag was lowered at the Dushanbe airport, where since 2001 the French military had operated since 2001. The small base (actually a part of the Dushanbe's civilian international airport) hosted around 200 French troops at a time, working on supply and logistics for their compatriots in Afghanistan. From 2005 to 2007 it also hosted French fighter jets used for operations in Afghanistan. Over its lifespan it facilitated the transit of about 89,000 soldiers and carried out 11,000 airlift missions, according to the French Ministry of Defense.
The withdrawl is of course connected with the completion of the international combat mission in Afghanistan, which formally ends at the end of this year. As of October 6, France only had 90 soldiers remaining in Afghanistan, down from 4,000 in 2009.
The large majority of French troops actually left last year, and what was left was just a small skeleton crew working on resurfacing the runways, which was part of the deal by which the Tajikistan government agreed to allow the French presence.
Airbus has a contract to sell military helicopters to Uzbekistan but it is in peril because of a dispute over export regulations between the two main partners, France and Germany.
The deal for the helicopter had not been previously reported, and the information emerged during a conference in Berlin. It seems that Germany has many more reservations about selling weaponry to countries with bad human rights practices than does France. From Bloomberg:
Delivery of 14 Airbus military helicopters to Uzbekistan is being held up after Germany blocked a permit to sell a slip ring needed in the flyer’s optical system, Airbus Chief Executive Officer Tom Enders told executives and reporters in Berlin yesterday. Blocking the sale of a “sub-sub component” is “grotesque,” said Enders, adding that he’s considering shifting helicopter development to France from Germany.
A GM-400 air defense radar, recently purchased by Kazakhstan. (photo: ThalesRaytheonSystems)
During its big defense expo last month, Kazakhstan announced that it is buying air defense radars from French-American company ThalesRaytheonSystems.
Air defense radars aren't the sexiest piece of military hardware, but this was an interesting move given Kazakhstan's large dependence on Russia for air defense. Russia and Kazakhstan are in the process of setting up a joint air defense system under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organization; in May, Kazakhstan's senate ratified the deal. And as part of this arrangement, Russia gave Kazakhstan several S-300 air defense systems in January. Other CSTO partners Belarus, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are in various stages of joining the system as well. “Such cooperation greatly enhances the defense potential of Russia and its partners, and contributes to strengthening peace and stability in Eurasia,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said last year.
Fugitive oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov, who has been on the run from police in Kazakhstan and Britain, has been captured in the south of France, according to a report in the Financial Times.
Ablyazov was arrested on July 31 by French special forces near the billionaires’ playground of Cannes, the FT quoted an unnamed family lawyer as saying. It did not specify on what charges Ablyazov had been detained: Kazakhstan has been pursuing him for alleged financial crimes that Ablyazov denies, and he also has a case to answer in Britain, where he escaped a jail sentence for contempt of court last year by going underground.
Ablyazov formerly chaired Kazakhstan’s BTA Bank, which he also owned through an undeclared holding until it was forcibly nationalized in 2009. Ablyazov fled to London, where he was sued by his former bank for allegedly defrauding it of some $6 billion.
After years of legal wrangling, Ablyazov – who accuses Astana of pursuing him for political reasons and has asylum in the United Kingdom – fled to an unknown destination when the London High Court ordered him jailed for “deliberate and brazen” deception (concealing assets he had been ordered to disclose in the fraud case). Ablyazov was later debarred from fighting the case and the courts ordered his assets sold to compensate BTA Bank.
French military logisticians at the Dushanbe airport. (photo: http://www.defense.gouv.fr/)
The small French air detachment in Dushanbe is leaving Tajikistan, as France carries out its withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Operational Transport Group started pulling out on April 15, and will complete its withdrawal from the airport by July. A small engineering unit working on the resurfacing of the airport's runway will remain until next year, according to a statement from the French Ministry of Defense.
The small base has operated since 2002. (And small means small: 50 meters by 250 meters, as EurasiaNet's David Trilling noted in a 2009 photo essay on the detachment.) It has hosted between 170 and 230 French soldiers who work on supply and logistics for their compatriots in Afghanistan, and occasionally French multirole fighter jets used for operations in Afghanistan.
The French departure from Tajikistan is, not surprisingly, the result of the French disengagement from Afghanistan, said Florent de Saint Victor, a French military blogger, in an email interview with The Bug Pit. "The closure is linked to the end of the last step for the French troops withdrawal from Afghanistan (there are still some French troops - less than 800 troops - for logistics and training mission with the Afghan National Army)," de Saint Victor said.
France’s Foreign Minister should have used a trip to Uzbekistan this weekend to demand an artist be allowed the right to travel abroad, an international group of artists urged last week.
In January, Vyacheslav Akhunov was barred from leaving Uzbekistan. He has been invited to perform at the prestigious Venice Biennale this June.
In an open letter last week to French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who visited Uzbekistan on March 2 to talk trade and development with President Islam Karimov, artists from the United States, Russia and other countries called on France’s top diplomat to "urge the government of Uzbekistan to honor the rights and freedoms of artist Akhunov, who represents the modern independent art of Uzbekistan abroad."
There is no indication Fabius responded to the request or discussed Akhunov’s situation with Karimov during his visit.
Akhunov has taken part in approximately 200 international exhibitions. But in January "authorities banned him from going abroad, explaining that his creative tours are 'inadvisable.' This response points to a political motive in the decision," the artists said in their letter, which was posted on February 27.
After sashaying to a folk dance with a dictator in Russia's North Caucasus, French cinema legend Gérard Depardieu may next appear in Azerbaijan for a film . . . and, perhaps, more dancing.
The larger-than-life French actor, who often goes on junkets to ex-Soviet spots these days, plans a “big movie” about sports in the young republic of Azerbaijan, said French film producer Arnau Frille, Russian and Azerbaijani media report.
Storyline details are not known, but, no doubt, First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva, head of Azerbaijan's 2015 European Olympics preparation committee, and President Ilham Aliyev, head of its Olympics committee, could make a few suggestions.