The security forces in Uzbekistan have been carrying out regular, large-scale antiterror exercises in Tashkent, suggesting a heightened concern about terror attacks or riots, opposition media are reporting.
The webstie uznews.com has been carrying a series of reports about police and military exercises carried out in the city. A common theme of the reports is that the authorities don't provide any information about the exercises, which then sow panic among locals who wonder what is going on when soldiers storm their neighborhoods. In February, one exercise led residents to believe that there was a hostage situation at a school:
Residents in a Tashkent neighbourhood were terrified to find themselves under attack from terrorists on 25th February, only to learn that the frightening events unfolding around them were apparently being staged as an exercise.
School number 149 was at the centre of events that day; people in camouflage fatigues, helmets and carrying weapons, began to herd passers by away from the neighbourhood and the school.
People who did not come out of their flats were ordered to remain there. At one point the sound of shooting and grenade explosions were clearly audible.
Another drill, at a railway station near the Tashkent airport earlier this month, prompted rumors that prisoners had broken out of a train that was transporting them:
Tenants said that they were frightened when military personnel and a great number of armoured vehicles started shootings at the railway station on 4 May....
“I walked on the bridge and saw military personnel come towards me, some 20 of them wearing helmets and bulletproof vests. ‘Are you going to detain someone?’ I asked. ‘No, do not worry, grandma, we are conducting drills,’ they replied,” the elderly woman said.
Iranian naval vessels have conducted maneuvers close to the border with Azerbaijan, and high-ranking Turkish officials are visiting Baku as a show of force against Iran, according to a report in Regnum.ru.
The Regnum report cited the Azerbaijan opposition newspaper Yeni Musavat, which in turn cited eyewitnesses in the region of Astara, bordering Iran, as saying "six vessels of the Iranian navy forces had come close to the Azerbaijani state border for the second day. According to their observations, the Iranian vessels are involved in a series of manoeuvres as if it demonstrates threat to Azerbaijan." The alleged incursion comes at a time of increased tension between Iran and Azerbaijan, including Tehran's recall of its ambassador to Baku last week.
And Regnum's correspondent, citing a source in Baku "close to Turkish military circles in Baku," said that four top Turkish military commanders are visiting Azerbaijan in early June, including the heads of the army, navy and air force. "By this step, Turkey wants to explain Iran that it will not leave Azerbaijan alone," the source told Regnum.
Azerbaijan's state border service, however, denied the original report in Yeni Musavat, saying reports that Iranian warships were maneuvering were "baseless and provocative."
The Kremlin has not taken kindly to the U.S. ambassador's suggestion that Russia "bribed" Kyrgyzstan in 2009 to kick the U.S. out of the Manas air base. The controversy began Friday, when Ambassador Michael McFaul addressed a group of Russian students and reportedly told them that:
Russia had “bribed” Kyrgyzstan four years ago to prompt the country to shut down the U.S. military airbase in Manas airport near Kyrgyzstan's capital Bishkek. In his speech, he admitted that the United States had also offered a bribe to Kyrgyzstan, but ten times less.
The website of the U.S. embassy in Moscow, which posts texts of most of McFaul's public speeches, for some reason has only a slide presentation (pdf) of this particular address, which contains no reference to Kyrgyzstan or bribery, so it's not clear what his exact words were. But obviously he was referring to the episode when former Kyrgyzstan president Kurmanbek Bakiyev announced -- in Moscow -- that Kyrgyzstan was booting the U.S. out of the base. And at the same time, Russia announced a $2.15 billion aid package for Kyrgyzstan.
It took a few days, but on Monday Russia's Foreign Ministry reacted strongly, issuing a harsh statement:
The Russian Foreign Ministry was extremely bewildered by the U.S. ambassador’s statements… His estimates of Russian-U.S. cooperation go far beyond diplomatic etiquette and represent a deliberate distortion of a number of aspects of Russian-American dialogue...
An Azerbaijani Coast Guard ship patrols this week in Baku's harbor
As Baku got ready for the highest-profile event in its recent history, hosting the Eurovision Song Contest, there has been a conspicuous presence in the city's Caspian Sea port: two Coast Guard vessels, part of Azerbaijan's heightened security measures as Europe's pop music fans have flocked to the city.
Government officials aren't saying what threat they might be protecting against, and, as close to the water as the Eurovision venue might be, of course an attack from the sea is exceedingly unlikely. Still, Eurovision is taking place in an atmosphere of heightened tension with Iran -- which also happens to be the most significant threat that Azerbaijan's growing naval force is intended to protect against.
Azerbaijan has perhaps been the most secretive of all of the Caspian littoral states about its navy, but the recent purchase of anti-ship missiles from Israel suggests an intention to get more serious about its naval security.
The analysts I spoke to in Baku said that the wakeup call for Azerbaijan's navy was when Iran threatened a BP prospecting ship in 2001. There have been other episodes when Iranian oil rigs entered sea space that Azerbaijan claimed, and that threat is still present. "How will we react if tomorrow Iran decides to install one of their oil wells in some territory that we consider ours?" asks Taleh Ziyadov, an analyst in Baku. "Maybe some crazy guy, because he got frustrated by Azerbaijan-Israeli relations, tomorrow he will declare 'go and install that well over there.' The possibility of serious tension is there, and Azerbaijan will attempt not to allow it."
Russia is letting it be known that it's ready to walk away from the Gabala radar station it operates in Azerbaijan if the government in Baku doesn't moderate its bargaining position. That's what a source in Russia's Ministry of Defense told Russian media today:
“The Russian military is disappointed by the non-constructive approach from the Azerbaijani side concerning the talks on extending the lease of the Gabala missile radar,” the source said, adding that Moscow would likely leave Gabala if the talks did not move ahead...
The source in the Russian Defense Ministry also said that size of the price increase was unreasonable, since the radar needed a full renovation and the sum Baku was demanding for the lease was comparable to the cost of constructing a new radar.
Recall that Azerbaijan has increased its demands from the current $7 million a year, to $100 million and then $300 million. Unlike many of Russia's installations in the former USSR, like in Armenia, Tajikistan or Ukraine, this one doesn't really come with any security guarantees, so Azerbaijan's interest in it is not great. Meanwhile, Russia has a newer radar in the North Caucasus that fulfillls the same role as Gabala, so it has little interest in ponying up to Azerbaijan. So while this leak by the Russian MoD could just be a bargaining position, it looks like this deal is heading for rejection.
When news broke a couple of years ago that Russia was selling S-300 air defense systems to Azerbaijan, the immediate assumption was that this had to do with Armenia. The sale suggested a huge shift in Russia's military policy toward the south Caucasus: Russia has a big military base in Armenia and provides Yerevan with weaponry. So why would it be arming the other side? There were all sorts of theories: it was done to intimidate Armenia into signing a long extension of the base agreement with Russia, or that it was pure mercenary motives. Some noted that the range of the S-300s was enough to cover Nagorno Karabakh (over which a war will presumably be fought) but not Gyumri, Armenia, where the Russian base is.
But what if we were all looking in the wrong direction for the threat, to the west rather than to the south? That's what analyst Anar Valiyev today told The Bug Pit in Baku. He says the S-300 is in fact one of the weapons that Baku has been buying to protect against an Iranian attack. He argues that a war over Karabakh would be fought only on the territory of Karabakh, that Armenia (under pressure from Russia) would not to expand the war into Azerbaijan proper, like an attack on Baku's oil and gas installations (which the S-300s are protecting). Therefore, there's no need to protect Baku from an Armenian attack. So, by process of elimination, it's Iran.
Saakashvili in Chicago, trying to channel Ferris Bueller?
There was a lot of discussion and speculation before the NATO summit in Chicago about what would be done with Georgia. Membership was off the table, but U.S., NATO and Georgian officials dropped frequent hints that Tbilisi would get some sort of boost.
The official statement of the summit didn't really add anything to previous statements, other than a mention of the "litmus test" of democratization that Western officials have mentioned before: "We stress the importance of conducting free, fair, and inclusive elections in 2012 and 2013."
While that may not be especially encouraging to Tbilisi, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did say that she hoped that "this summit should be the last summit that is not an enlargement summit." But there are three other aspirant states: Bosnia, Macedonia and Montenegro, and those Balkan countries are probably closer to membership than is Georgia. Clinton said she hoped Macedonia "can join the alliance as soon as possible," and didn't use any such language for Georgia (or the other Balkan countries).
President Mikheil Saakashvili, at the summit, said that Georgia's victory was being grouped with the Balkan countries:
Central Asia's presidents would have a lot to talk about at the NATO summit taking place in Chicago, given that the summit is focusing on Afghanistan and the Central Asian states play a key role in NATO transport to the theater. But all five of Central Asia's presidents are a no-show at the NATO summit in Chicago, in spite of being on NATO's official list of "leaders expected to attend" and being regular attendees of the last few summits. Instead, they all seem to have sent their foreign ministers.
It's a strange snub, and intriguing because these five countries never do anything in coordination. Information on their decisions are of course hard to come by, and so it's not certain if they are in fact coordinated, but it sure seems that way.
One Kyrgyzstan analyst, Orozbek Moldaliyev, told KyrTag that it's because of Russia:
"One can make various guesses and speculation about why none of the leaders of Central Asian countries responded to the invitation and why all of them are sending their foreign ministers. One of the main reasons, which is on the surface, could be solidarity with Russia," Moldaliyev told KyrTAg.
Moldaliyev pointed out the recent CSTO directive to harmonize members' foreign policies, which is as reasonable explanation as any for the collective no-show, especially since Armenia's Serzh Sargsyan also seems to be skipping it.
Recent naval exercises by Azerbaijan were conducted against a nominally "terrorist" enemy, but the details of the exercise suggested that Baku was in fact drilling for a naval engagement with another country. The exercises, called “Protection of Oil and Gas Fields, Platforms, and Export Pipelines,” took place last month, as analyst Anar Valiyev recounts in an analysis for Jamestown's Eurasia Daily Monitor. The exercises involved about 1,200 troops, 21 ships, 20 speedboats and eight helicopters, and the Azeri forces involved shot down a terrorist aircraft (?), boarded hostile ships, and most notably, "located and destroyed an enemy submarine":
[T]he nature of Azerbaijani military exercises suggested that actions are directed against an enemy possessing a helicopter, a ship and even a submarine. It is hard to imagine that certain terrorist group would be able to acquire such arms or equipment, especially when taking into consideration the fact that the Caspian Sea does not have direct access to open waters.
Valiyev concludes, reasonably, that the exercise enemy in fact represented Iran, an assumption backed up by the recent purchase of anti-ship missiles from Israel. This recalls the Caspian component last year's exercises of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, in which Russia and Kazakhstan practiced a scenario involving an attack from the south of the sea consisting of exactly the sorts of aircraft that Iran possesses.
The United States and Kazakhstan are exploring the idea of expanding the amount of military cargo passing through Kazakhstan into and out of Afghanistan. The focal point of the discussions is the Caspian port city of Aktau.