Foreign Ministers of the SCO member states, in Beijing
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization is strengthening its ties with two countries aligned to the West, Turkey and Afghanistan. The foreign ministers of the SCO states met last week in Beijing, in advance of next month's summit there, and apparently one of the decisions made was to admit U.S.-occupied Afghanistan as an observer country, and NATO member Turkey as a dialogue partner.
The Voice of Russia quotes political analyst Stanislav Tarasov saying that the move with Turkey is a "real breakthrough":
"The situation around Turkey is unique. Turkey has been sticking to pro-Western policies. It has been trying to join the EU for ten years but it was in vain so now it has to develop a new scenario of drifting to the East, which implies changes in Turkey’s foreign policy."
That ignores certain moves Turkey has made to strengthen its cooperation with NATO, notably its decision to host NATO missile defense radar. That is certainly a bigger commitment than being a dialogue partner in the SCO. Still, it's an intriguing move, and expect Turkophobes in the West to use this against Ankara.
As for Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai just gave an interview to Russian media, and though the subject of the SCO didn't come up, Karzai framed Afghanistan's security in terms that include a lot of the countries in the SCO (either as members or observers):
“Security is an issue that is not related to us alone… Had it been an Afghan issue, the Americans would have never come here – as they didn’t before September 11 ,” Karzai said, speaking to journalists from RIA Novosti, the Rossiya24 and Russia Today television channels in Kabul.
The plot is thickening in the alleged Georgian-Chechen Sochi Olympics terror plot: the Abkhazian security services are casting doubt on the Russian version of events. According to the Russian Antiterrorism Committee, an arms cache discovered in the Gudauta region of Abkhazia was intended to be used by Chechen terrorists, with assistance from the Georgian security services, to stage an attack in Sochi. The Abkhazian official news agency, Apsnypress, even cited the State Security Service of Abkhazia as confirming that account.
But now a source in the Abkhazian government is saying that the arms cache was not intended for Sochi, but for use in Abkhazia. From a report in the newspaper Kommersant (translation by BBC Monitoring):
Part of the alleged Chechen-Georgian arms cache discovered in Abkhazia
The Russian and Abkhazian security services say they have broken up a Chechen-Georgian plot to carry out terrorist attacks against the Sochi Olympics. According to a report from the Abkhazian official news agency ApsnyPress, the leader of the "Abkhazian Jamaat," an organization affiliated with the Caucasus Emirate, was arrested and a cache of weapons uncovered in the Gudauta region of Abkhazia. The list of weapons Apsny provides is pretty substantial, and includes a variety of anti-aircraft weaponry and grenade launchers.
The operation was masterminded by the leader of the Caucasus Emirate, Doku Umarov, with "direct involvement" of the Georgian security services and their allies in Turkey, according to a statement by the Russian Antiterrorism Committee:
Russian Federal Security Service was able to establish that the militants were planning to move these weapons during the 2012-2014 to Sochi and to use them to commit terrorist acts before and during the Olympic Games. Russia managed security services at an early stage to prevent the thugs attempting to launch their criminal plans....
They [the weapons] were brought into Abkhazia from Georgia. According to operational data, their transfer to Russia directly involved the Georgian special services and allied representatives of illegal armed groups in Turkey. The ringleader of an international terrorist organization "Caucasus Emirate" Umarov, maintaining close ties with the Georgian special services, coordinated all the activities of the organization of delivery of the commission of terrorist acts in close proximity to Sochi and marking these caches.
The Antiterrorism Committee website also has a number of photos of the alleged cache.
Kazakhstan's work to get rid of the nuclear weapons that it inherited after the fall of the Soviet Union is a well told story -- primarily by Kazakhs themselves, who rarely miss an opportunity to tout their nonproliferation record. But a new, apparently previously untold episode in that story has now come to light, via one of its protagonists, former Bush administration nonproliferation official William Tobey, writing in Foreign Policy magazine. In the early 1990s, the U.S. helped Kazakhstan seal off a series of underground tunnels at Semipalatinsk that had been used for Soviet nuclear testing. But a decade later, it required some touchup work, Tobey writes:
The extreme weather conditions and the passage of time eventually cracked and eroded the material sealing the testing tunnels. By 2004, scavengers looking for scrap metal to sell had broken into some of them. Reports of the looting alarmed U.S. officials, who feared that fissile material could be at risk. The U.S. government encouraged and aided the Kazakh government to improve security at the site until more permanent measures could be implemented. Astana declared an exclusion zone, where a ban on trespassing was strictly enforced, and mounted patrols to guard the tunnels and the surrounding area.
Then, in a mission Tobey calls "formerly secret" and which just finished this year, the U.S., Russia and Kazakhstan cooperated to fill in the tunnels more thoroughly:
They decided to fill the test chambers with a specialized grout, which bonds chemically with fissile material to render it useless for weaponization. In some tunnels, it would be necessary to mine horizontally to reach the test chamber where the nuclear experiments took place.
Tobey details some of the U.S. assistance given to the project:
The Interstate Corporation of Development's booth at KADEX 2012
Perhaps the most intriguing exhibit at Kazakhstan's KADEX defense expo was a sleek, modern booth showing off several mockup drones in front of a backdrop advertising the "Business Council of the International Commission for Military-Economic Cooperation of the Collective Security Treaty Organization."
The CSTO, the political-military alliance? Was selling drones? Well, sort of. I inquired further and discovered that the booth actually belonged to a new company (established at the end of last year), the Interstate Corporation for Development. The company's aim is “Development of Scientific-Industrial and High-Tech Cooperation in the CSTO Countries,” according to its website, and its CEO is Ivan Polyakov, also a senior official in the CSTO. The company was formed from two Russian defense firms as well as one in Tokmok, Kyrgyzstan, Ak-Maral, and the company is also looking to expand into Armenia and even non-CSTO member Ukraine, company spokesman Sergey Demensky told me.
He didn't mince words: "Our aim is to recreate the traditional links and cooperation that existed in the Soviet era," he said. To this end, the company is now marketing military communications equipment, as well as the drones they were showcasing. As is often the case with the CSTO, the details behind this ambitious goal were hard to come by. Why did the CSTO need its own defense manufacturing? Kazakhstan is setting up its own drone manufacturing with Israeli companies, and is building its own communications equipment with French firm Thales. (Demensky suggested that his company was competing with Thales, and complained that the "French lobby" was exerting undue influence in Astana.)
Kazakhstan's defense industry will soon be manufacturing helicopters, night vision equipment, 1,000-ton warships, armored personnel carriers and drones – all with the help of foreign companies.
Kazakhstan's market for military equipment is still small, but it's growing, and foreign defense contractors want a share of the business. But the government of Kazakhstan is imposing the same condition on nearly every deal it makes with a foreign defense company: they have to set up manufacturing in Kazakhstan, hand over the technical details of the equipment, and train locals to build and repair it themselves.
At the KADEX defense expo in Astana two years ago, several of the foreign defense contractors who exhibited said they weren't enthusiastic about the requirements to cooperate with local partners.
“The Ministry of Defense is providing the same message to all companies: 'You must be here, you must be a local company. We want your technology to create new opportunities for this country.' And I think this makes sense,” one foreign exhibitor at the show said then. “But the question is going from the theory to the practice, because these guys are very far right now from being able to absorb these kinds of technologies – right now. But this is the direction.” A South Korean defense contractor who was setting up a joint venture ammunition factory in Almaty added: “There is some different thinking – we want to sell, they want us to invest.”
Scenes from Thursday's military expo/demonstration. From top: Nazarbayev arrives to view the demonstration; helicopter with Kazakhstan flag; Kazakhstan Humvee firing; military band from Tajikistan performs; Nazarbayev surveys the scene
Kazakhstan's biennial defense expo, KADEX, kicked off on Thursday in Astana with hundreds of defense companies displaying their wares, Kazakhstan's armed forces strutting their stuff, and a visit from President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
This is the second iteration of KADEX; the 2010 inaugural event was the first defense expo in Central Asia, and announced Kazakhstan's intention to be a serious player in the world arms market. This year, organizers say the event has grown, with 30 percent more participants, 250 companies from 20 countries taking part. And thanks to a grant from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, The Bug Pit is here in Astana to cover it.
The marquee event Thursday was the demonstration of Kazakhstan's vehicles and aircraft, special forces units, and a small parade of military bands from around the world, including Germany, Poland, India, Tajikistan and the U.S. Nazarbayev and a crowd of chilled, wet VIPs were on hand to watch it.
But the real business of the show is business, with Kazakhstan showing off the fruits of its defense industry and foreign firms coming to Kazakhstan to try to make some deals here. Most of the foreign companies, unsurprisingly, were Russian or other ex-Soviet republics (though none from elsewhere in Central Asia). The turnout of non-post-Soviet companies seemed about the same as it was two years ago, with Turkish companies leading the way (they have an entire pavilion to themselves) followed by Israeli companies, and a smattering of European, U.S. and Chinese companies.
Future posts will cover some of the new developments in Central Asian defense business that are on display at the show, including how Kazakhstan has persuaded a number of Western firms to set up operations in Kazakhstan, and how the CSTO is now marketing its own military equipment, including drones. Stay tuned.
The Georgian government had laid out its expectations for the upcoming NATO summit, that it would receive "visible signs" of support from the alliance. The country's deputy secretary of the National Security Council, Batu Kutelia also said that Georgia should "be registered as part of the structure" of NATO, reports Georgian newspaper Rezonansi (via BBC Monitoring):
In his words, "the Chicago forum will not be an expansion summit but Georgia should 'be registered as part of the structure' as an aspirant country, which would confirm that Russia, a country that is not a member of the alliance, cannot veto NATO's decision to expand."
Batu Kutelia: "Aside from specific results, our main goal is to ensure that there are strong visible signs too. By 'visible signs' I mean the things that even someone without a deep knowledge of the question would understand from a distance.
"This is important for our people, the international community, the NATO member-states, and Russia which should see that the process of Georgia's accession to NATO has not slowed down.
"The most important thing that we expect from the NATO summit is that the group of aspirant countries, which includes Georgia along with three other countries, will be registered as a certain separate structure. This would be the kind of visible signal that the whole world, including the Russian Federation, would be able to see."
Iranian media have reported that Azerbaijani tanks (made in Israel, naturally) have massed on the border with Iran, which Azerbaijan has called a "provocation." This comes as tensions between the two neighbors are high due to Azerbaijan's close relationship with Israel, which seems to be contemplating an attack on Iran.
Iranian television apparently started reporting the buildup of about 30 tanks in the middle of April, and residents of Imishli, on the Azerbaijan side of the border, started contacting media in Baku to see if the reports were true. One told Vesti.az, "We hear this news every day. This information has been repeated so often that we necessarily have to believe in it."
Vesti.az contacted the Azerbaijan Ministry of Defense spokesman Eldar Sabiroglu, who said it was a baseless provocation, and naturally brought Armenia into it:
"This is nonsense and stupidity. Naturally, the Armenian media immediately picked up the 'information' and raised such a howl, as if, Azerbaijan was 'going to war' not with Iran, but Armenia. They should worry that this day is not too far."
Now, the commander of the Iranian Army's Ground Forces, Brig. Gen Ahmad Reza Purdastan, has said that if there are Azerbaijani tanks on the border, they pose no threat to Iran, reports Mehr News (via BBC Monitoring):
In an interview with the agency, Purdastan noted that "I have no information about this issue. However, even if so, it is the usual thing and we do not have problems with our neighbours".
"We do not think that this move of the Republic of Azerbaijan poses threat to us," he said, adding that the movement of tanks was probably part of military drills.
So, that's settled. But as long as Israel is threatening war with Iran, we can probably expect regular attempts to drag Azerbaijan into it.
Kazakhstan is building a 2,500-kilometer system of fortifications along its borders with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, to address such threats as drug trafficking, terrorism and illegal migrants, the head of the country's border service said. And it's already underway: "Major works are currently performed in this area,” said the border service chief, Nurzhan Myrzaliev.
Myrzaliev's comments didn't make it clear exactly what the fortifications would consist of. It's also not clear why the border with Kyrgyzstan isn't being fortified, too -- it would seem like a more likely place for drug traffickers or terrorists to cross from than Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan. (UPDATE: turns out Kazakhstan is on it, and has already been fortifying that part of the southern border for two years.)
Myrzaliev also mentioned another border protection initiative, a counter-poaching operation carried out jointly by Kazakhstan, Russia and Azerbaijan in the Caspian Sea. Again, that news is more noteworthy for what it leaves out: the other two Caspian littoral states, Iran and Turkmenistan, which have frosty relations on Caspian issues with Azerbaijan, in particular.
As the saying goes, good fences make good neighbors, but the Kazakhstan border fortification plan still suggests that, as the newspaper Birzhevoi Lider puts it, that Kazakhstan intends to "isolate itself" from its southern neighbors.