As Moscow’s ties with the West continue to deteriorate, Central Asian farmers may be saying prayers for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Kremlin slapped restrictions on imports of meat, dairy, fruit and vegetables from the US, EU, Norway, Canada and Australia on August 7, in response to progressively heavier Western sanctions designed to punish Moscow for supporting rebels in eastern Ukraine.
While that is bad news for Russians who like Camembert and thousands of American and European producers supplying Russia, there is an obvious beneficiary from the fallout: Central Asia, which already supplies Russia with much of its produce.
On August 7 the New York Times detailed the size of the gap in the Russian market that must now be filled:
According to figures compiled by the [World Bank] and other agencies, Russia imports about 25 percent of its food, worth some $43 billion annually. Of that, about 75 percent, or $30 billion, comes mainly from Europe and the United States. The other 25 percent is mainly from former Soviet republics.
With the post-Soviet region embroiled in its deepest crisis since the Cold War over Ukraine and Kazakhstan facing the impact of Western sanctions on Russia, strong leadership and staunch policy decisions would seem to be required from Astana.
But when President Nursultan Nazarbayev summoned his government today, instead he engaged in a bout of cosmetic cabinet tinkering that may distract officials seeking to steer Kazakhstan’s economy through some choppy waters.
Nazarbayev kept his prime minister, Karim Masimov, but made several ministerial replacements and announced a merger of ministries to cut their number from 17 to 12 and subsume some of Kazakhstan’s numerous agencies, departments and committees.
The streamlining of the bloated bureaucracy is welcome, but it will likely spark a bout of distracting infighting as bureaucrats fight to keep their jobs in a vastly diminished pool of vacancies.
Several ministries received a rebranding.
The Oil and Gas Ministry became the Energy Ministry under new minister Vladimir Shkolnik. But a new name and a new face will not solve Kazakhstan’s main energy problem, the stalled Kashagan oilfield, now not expected to resume production until 2016. In an unusual meeting of interests sure to please oil and gas companies, the Energy Ministry was also handed the environment portfolio.
The Economy and Budget Planning Ministry became the National Economy Ministry, swallowing up the Regional Development Ministry. The Emergencies Ministry was merged into the Interior Ministry, and the health and labor portfolios were combined at the new Health and Social Development Ministry. Aset Isekeshev, formerly minister of industry and new technologies, heads up a new Ministry of Investment and Development.
Kazakhstan's flagship Astana cycling team claimed victory in this year's Tour de France as the team’s Italian leader Vincenzo Nibali lead the turquoise and yellow charge into Paris on July 27.
Nibali bested his nearest rival by over seven minutes to record a third Tour de France success for the Astana team. He won his kisses, too: Earlier, after Nibali had won the second stage of the race, he was awkwardly rebuffed. This time there were no uncomfortable scenes on the winner's rostrum.
The Astana Pro Team for this year's Tour included three Italians, two riders from Kazakhstan and one rider each from Denmark, Ukraine, The Netherlands and Estonia. Spaniard Alberto Contador previously led Astana to wins in 2009 and again in 2010. But the 2010 victory was soured as Contador was stripped of the title over doping allegations.
Following the retirement of Kazakhstan's most famous rider Alexander Vinokourov in 2012, the Astana team was overhauled for the 2013 season with the arrival of an Italian contingent headed by Nibali and two of his teammates from the Liquigas-Cannondale team. Astana scored an immediate success with Nibali, nicknamed “the Shark,” winning the 2013 Giro d'Italia.
The Astana Pro Team was formed in 2006 and has garnered heaps of international PR for Kazakhstan's glitzy new capital, Astana. Its main sponsor is the state asset holding company Samruk-Kazyna, which pumps in more than $20 million a year to keep the wheels turning and buff up Kazakhstan’s international image.
Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses his security council, July 22. (photo: kremlin.ru)
When Russian President Vladimir Putin addressed his security council on July 22, one statement in particular piqued the interest of Russia's allies -- er, friends: "Russia is fortunately not a member of any alliance. This is also a guarantee of our sovereignty," Putin said. "Any nation that is part of an alliance gives up part of its sovereignty."
That line was greeted with confusion and curiosity by many in the member countries of the Collective Security Treaty Organization: Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. This is the political-military bloc that Russia created to, as the name implies, provide collective security in the post-Soviet space. But doesn't collective security require giving up some sovereignty? Several experts quoted in a piece on the Kazakhstani website kursiv.kz suggested that Putin's statement suggest that it sees its fellow-members of the CSTO (and, for that matter, the Eurasian Union) as unequal partners to whom Russia has no obligations.
"Moscow's interests, expressed in the efforts to define the borders to which it can expand its territory, striving to defend the 'Russian world,' by definition can not coincide with the interests of its CSTO partners," said Russian expert on Central Asia Arkady Dubnov. "So, acting exclusively in its own interests, Russia demonstrates that the CSTO isn't an alliance but a mesalliance -- that is, an unequal marriage."
A group of scientists and academics from Kazakhstan have set off in the footsteps of a renowned 19th-century Kazakhstani explorer to highlight the tourism potential of the ancient trade routes linking Central Asia and western China.
The expedition follows the path Shokan Valikhanov took in the 1850s in what was then a part of the world relatively unknown to Europeans. Led by Professor Ordenbek Mazbaev of Astana's L. N. Gulimyov Eurasian National University, the team includes scientists from Astana's Nazarbayev University, along with tourism officials and journalists from Kazakhstan, Tengri News reports.
The 12-day jaunt, which began July 24, aims to open up a route for travelers to explore some of the major sights of the Silk Road. It started in Urumchi, capital of China’s restive Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and is scheduled to arrive in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan on August 4. Along the way the expedition will pass through the fabled oasis towns of Kashgar, Khotan and Yarkand on the fringes of the Taklamakan Desert before entering Kyrgyzstan through the Torugart Pass.
Valikhanov is a legendary figure in the world of Central Asian anthropology. He was born in 1835 near Kostanay, in northern Kazakhstan, and at age 11 enrolled in the Omsk Cadet Corps. After graduating from the academy, the Russian military sent him to the recently established Fort Verny – now Almaty, Kazakhstan – from where he undertook his expeditions to the neighboring regions.
The modern Kazakh explorers will retrace Valikhanov's journeys of 1855-56 and 1858-59, when he travelled through what is now Kyrgyzstan and into China in a camel convoy.
Islamic militancy is high on the agenda in Central Asia. This week, authorities have handed lengthy prison terms at two unrelated trials in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
Six people were jailed for between nine and 15 years on terrorism charges at a mass trial involving 66 suspects in southwestern Uzbekistan. A court in central Kazakhstan jailed four citizens for between six and 12 years for recruiting militants to wage holy war in Syria.
At the mass trial in the city of Qashqadaryo in Uzbekistan, three men and three women were jailed on July 22 for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government of the strongman president, Islam Karimov, and propagating terrorism, RFE/RL reported, citing the Tashkent-based Ezgulik (Compassion) human rights center.
In Kazakhstan, the conviction of the four over the Syria recruitment campaign in and around the city of Zhezkazgan, reported by Tengri News on July 22, came as media reports emerged of a new propaganda video showing 16 people believed to be from Kazakhstan (since some are speaking Kazakh) who have headed off to fight in the Middle East.
Authorities in Central Asia have frequently cited Syria-linked threats this year amid a growing number of reports that militants from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are waging holy war in Syria.
Two helicopters, built by Eurocopter Kazakhstan Engineering, at the KADEX 2014 exhibition. (photo: The Bug Pit)
When Kazakhstan opened its biennial defense expo, KADEX, in May it announced that it would sign over a billion dollars in deals during the event. "We will prepare and sign more than 32 agreements and memorandums totaling $1.2 billion on purchase of military equipment and international cooperation," said a senior defense official, Major General Talgat Zhanzhumenov, before the show. "We are looking at creating joint ventures of our enterprises with partners from Russia, [with] European partners, [and] we're looking at several projects with Turkish defense enterprises."
That $1.2 billion was a pretty remarkable figure, more than Kazakhstan's current defense procurement budget for a year. But Kazakhstan government officials would not give specifics about those deals, in spite of the apparently precise numbers they had available. First they told reporters that the package would be announced at the end of the show, then at a press conference two weeks after the show.
That didn't happen, but there were still some indications: a press release from Kazakhstan Engineering, the state defense manufacturer, mentioned deals related to American drones, French air defense radars, and Chinese naval vessels. But they wouldn't give details. (And officials from General Atomics, the drone manufacturer, declined to comment; apparently they weren't ready to make an announcement.)
Some media outlets in Ukraine have charged that Central Asians are fighting among pro-Russian separatists in the country’s east.
The most recent fodder for the rumor mill is a video interview, posted July 8 on YouTube, where a man describing himself as a native of Ashgabat, Turkmenistan’s capital, explains why he is fighting with the separatists.
The man in camouflage, whose identity cannot be independently verified, is standing before a military vehicle and appears to be holding a weapon. "I decided that the weak should be defended," he explains. He says he is not paid but is fighting because of what his interlocutor described as his "sense of injustice.” He vows to fight "until the end of the war.”
In recent months, several Uzbeks have also reportedly appeared among the separatists.
On June 22, Reuters published a picture of a man carrying a Kalashnikov assault rifle who was identified as "Bakhtiyor” from Uzbekistan. A few days later, RFE/RL said recruiters in Moscow told their undercover correspondent that he and an Uzbek friend could join the separatist fighters in the rebel stronghold of Donetsk "in principle."
One Uzbek citizen with pro-Kiev sympathies told RFE/RL he had been offered $50-$100 a day to fight with separatists in Luhansk.
Authorities in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have not commented on the allegations.
Kazakhstan has again publicly criticized Russia's operation of the Baikonur space launch facility, suggesting that Astana continues to keep up the pressure on Moscow to take more control over the facility.
One of the most contentious issues has been Russia's use of the Proton launcher, which uses an especially toxic fuel. A crash of a Russian Proton rocket last year over Kazakhstan caused an estimated $90 million in damages and spurred a growing environmental protest movement in the country. But the alternative, the Zenit launcher, needs more technical work to achieve the same power as Proton.
Last week, the head of Kazakhstan's space agency KazCosmos, Talgat Musabayev , told the country's parliament that Kazakhstan would foot the bill for that modernization itself. From TengriNews:
“We would like to replace it [Proton] with Zenit rocket launcher. Of course, Proton is one of a kind technological achievement; there are practically no rockets of such good quality in the world. But you are right: this rocket uses terribly toxic fuel components. This is why I supported and support its replacement,” Musabayev said during the meeting in the lower chamber of the Parliament....
“Russia does not want to do it, I am telling you openly. That is why, it appears, that our country will bear all the costs. If there is a political will, then we are ready to act on it,” Musabayev added.
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.