Iran has rejected claims that a new, potentially huge oil deposit in the Caspian Sea is in Azerbaijan's waters, while Baku remains conspicuously silent on the issue. BBC Monitoring reports, via the Iranian Students' News Agency:
The oil minister [of Iran] has rejected a claim by the Azerbaijani government to the ownership of the Sardar Jangal oil field [in the Caspian Sea].
As ISNA reported, asked about his opinion on the recent statement by the Azerbaijani government on the Sardar Jangal oil field and reasons behind such a claim, Rostam Qasemi said: This is a claim; we are drilling the Sardar Jangal oil field.
He added: Sardar Jangal is a completely separate oil field and is within Iran's territory. It belongs to our country.
To review: last year, Iran claimed that it had found a massive new oil reserve in the Caspian. But Iran's description of where the deposit was appears to place it in waters that Azerbaijan claims.
Also recently, Iran has said it is building a refinery on the Caspian to process crude from the field. (Though Tehran's projections of the size of the field appear to have decreased, from 10 billion barrels to 2 billion, of which 500 million are recoverable.)
When Azerbaijan threatened in 2011 to shoot down flights to the newly built airport in Nagorno Karabakh, swift international condemnation forced them to back down. Now, with the long-delayed airport apparently close to opening, Baku has reiterated those threats. Reports News.az:
Azerbaijan’s Missile Defense Forces are keeping under control the entire airspace, including the occupied regions, a senior official of the Military Air Forces and Missile Defense Forces told APA exclusively on condition of anonymity.
He said the airspace is kept under control through the radar systems. Azerbaijani Army has been placed on alert in order to prevent any attempt of the opposite side.
“We record even the drones launched by Armenians in Karabakh airspace. Armenians’ attempts to operate unpermitted flights in this territory will be prevented. We are keeping under control all the processes and ready to prevent them. It is possible through various methods, the opposite side knows it very well,” he said.
The Armenian authorities who control the disputed territory of Karabakh hope that the establishment of flights in and out of the self-proclaimed republic will help mitigate their isolation; it's now only possible to reach the territory by a long drive through the mountains from Armenia.
Georgia's new defense minister has said the country will eliminate military conscription and move to an all-professional army within four years, reports Civil.ge:
“We plan to move fully on professional army in four years. The term of compulsory military service will be gradually reduced [from current 15 months] to 12 months, and then we will fully move to a contract-based army,” said [Irakli] Alasania, who is also the first deputy PM.
“We should not be forcing anyone to be enrolled in the army,” he said, adding that only professionals with relevant education should be serving in the army.
Professionalization is one of the key steps in moving from a Soviet-style military to a Western-style one, but it's much easier said than done, and countries in the ex-communist world invariably take much longer to fully professionalize than they plan. To take just one example, in 2007, Georgia said it would move to a fully professional army by 2009. All of the former Soviet states, except the Baltics, still have compulsory military service, though Ukraine just announced today that it will end conscription this year.
And just a few months ago (while the previous government was still in power), Georgia actually increased the term of conscription from 12 months to 15. From IWPR:
Kyrgyzstan's President Almazbek Atambayev's wishes for the U.S.'s Manas air base are well known: he wants it to become a civilian transport hub after the U.S. leaves, which Atambayev has said should be in 2014. The U.S.'s own plans for its military posture in Afghanistan are up in the air, and its plans for continuing using Manas are contingent on that, but it has at least demonstrated some interest in helping Kyrgyzstan transform the base into this civilian logistics center.
But now, the plot is thickening: Russia is getting involved. Kyrgyzstan's Ministry of Transportation and Communication announced that a delegation of Russian government and business aviation officials visited Manas recently and held "consultations on the creation of a joint Kyrgyzstan-Russian logistics center" at the airport.
The announcement made no mention of the U.S.'s air base at Manas, the airport outside Bishkek which also operates as a civilian airport. But the idea of Manas becoming a logistics center is so tied up with the U.S. leaving, that the message here is unmistakeable: Russia is hoping to take the place of the U.S.
Russia has been making some pretty aggressive moves in Kyrgyzstan lately. The state gas company Gazprom has tried to take full control of Kyrgyzstan's gas company, and the Kremlin has offered a huge military aid package to Kyrgyzstan, which Russian officials have said is intended to shore up their geopolitical position in Central Asia, at the expense of the U.S.'s. Is Russia now trying to gently show the Americans the door out of their air base?
A year ago, The Bug Pit predicted that the two most likely conflicts in the Caucasus and Central Asia would be between Azerbaijan and Armenia, or in Tajikistan. The region did escape full-blown conflict in 2012, but those two situations did get significantly tenser: Azerbaijan/Armenia over Baku's pardoning of Ramil Safarov, and Tajikistan during heavy fighting in Khorog over the summer. If we look ahead at 2013, those would still seem to be the most likely conflicts, in the still unlikely event that one were to break out in the region. (The third most likely conflict scenario from a year ago, an interstate conflict between Uzbekistan and either Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan, didn't come to pass, and 2012 did seem to see a decrease in the number of border skirmishes, troop movements, etc. that raised tension in 2011.)
A year ago, there seemed to be some possibility of civil unrest, or worse, in Georgia over the hotly contested elections there in the fall of 2012. That didn't come to pass and there, too, conflict seems less likely than it was a year ago, given that the country proved it could carry out a peaceful transition of political power, and that the potentially erratic President MIkheil Saakashvili will be kept in check by an opposition government.
Secretary of State nominee John Kerry has been deeply involved in U.S. foreign policy for many years, and so has left a large trail of policies and statements regarding just about every element of U.S. foreign policy. It's not clear how much Kerry's own personal views on these issues will affect his actions as secretary of state -- he's a cautious person, and so unlikely to agitate too much to make his own policy independent of the White House. And, a review of his record -- including in Central Asia and the Caucasus -- shows that in any case, he's pretty firmly in the mainstream of the Democratic Party, and his views don't differ much (if at all) from those the Obama administration has already been advocating. Most characteristically, this means high-minded rhetoric about human rights and democracy with less indication of how those principles can stand up when confronted with the realities of running international military operations.
In Central Asia, Kerry has consistently advocated democratization and human rights. He was among a small group of senators to write then-Kazakhstani Foreign Minister Kanat Saudabayev to complain about the treatment of human rights activist Yevgeny Zhovtis.
In 2010, Kerry wrote an op-ed here on EurasiaNet entitled "Washington Must Show Commitment to Kyrgyz Democratization," in which he argues that "the security-democratization debate is not a zero-sum game":
There has been a growing worry within Kyrgyzstan that the United States cares more about its security needs than those of the Kyrgyz people. We must prove this perception false, with actions rather than with rhetoric....
Presidents of all CSTO member states at the group's summit in Moscow. Absent: Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov.
For months, Uzbekistan's erstwhile allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization have been discussing in public what they intend to do in regard to Tashkent's suspension of its membership in the group. When the CSTO finally held its summit meeting last week in Moscow, the group did the only thing it really could: accept the inevitable and try to put the best face on it. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Tashkent just before the CSTO meeting, saying "It is Uzbekistan's sovereign choice [to leave the CSTO]. We regret it, but the decision has been made... However, Uzbekistan, remains our ally, our strategic partner."
The CSTO did suggest that Uzbekistan can't just float in and out of the group, as it did once before, reported Russian newspaper Vedemosti:
“"Regrettably, it did certain damage to the image of the organization," admitted Russian Representative to the CIS CSTO Igor Lyakin-Frolov. "All I can say is that the door back remains open. Membership is Tashkent's for the asking." President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko meanwhile said that certain terms of the renewed membership had to be met... if it ever came to that. "Uzbekistan will have to ratify all our decisions and agreements first," said Lukashenko. When Tashkent returned to the CIS CSTO in 2006 after the suspension in 1999, it never bothered to ratify guideline documents of the organization..
Kyrgyzstan has agreed to allow Russia to create a unified military base in the country, combining all of the various facilities that the Russian armed forces now operate there. This is something that Russia has been seeking for some time -- two years ago they proposed paying for such an arrangement in weapons. (So, one wonders if this new announcement is connected to the recent agreement to supply Kyrgyzstan with over a billion dollars in weaponry.) The agreement was reached in September, though just formally signed (and announced) by President Almazbek Atambayev this week and will go into effect in 2017, reports RIA Novosti:
It will include the four military facilities Russia has in Kyrgyzstan at present.
The agreement was signed for a term of 15 years with an option to extend for five years.
Russia has a weapon test range in Karakol, a signals center in Kara-Balt, a radio-seismic laboratory in Mayly-Suu and a Collective Security Treaty Organization airbase in Kant.
So why was this sort of bureaucratic reorganization so important to Russia? It will make it harder for Kyrgyzstan to kick out any of the particular facilities, notes Vasily Kashin, an analyst at the Moscow defense think tank Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies. He tells The Bug Pit:
NATO says its logistics hub in Russia will become operational soon, reports the Moscow Times:
General Knud Bartels, who chairs the alliance's military committee, told reporters Friday that containers are being shipped from Afghanistan to Britain via that route.
"A live trial along the northern distribution route is running since Dec. 3," the Danish general said after meetings with Russia's top military brass in Moscow.
Russia signed an agreement with NATO in June to allow the alliance to use Ulyanovsk, on the Volga River, as a multimodal transit hub for getting military cargo in and out of Afghanistan. But in all those intervening months, NATO has still not used the route. There has been some reporting in the Russian press that there are commercial disputes holding up the transit. Again, the Moscow Times:
National media have speculated that money is an issue and that Volga-Dnepr, the freight company that would handle the flights from the Volga Federal District hub, is demanding more payment than NATO countries are willing to spend.
But a senior representative of the alliance said Tuesday that although to his knowledge no shipping contract had been signed, both sides were testing how the hub could work in practice.
"A dry run has been completed, and a real test to ship containers from Latvia to Afghanistan and back via Ulyanovsk is expected for the next days," said Robert Pszczel, head of NATO's Information Office in Moscow.
Pszczel would not comment on why it was taking so long for the agreement to lead to actual results. He merely said "mundane commercial considerations" play a role.