Azerbaijan never had any intention of shooting down flights to Karabakh, the country's deputy foreign minister has said, in what appears to be an effort to back away from previous statements threatening to do just that. From AZE.az:
[Deputy Foreign Minister Araz] Azimov said that Azerbaijan was not ready to shoot down civilian airplanes, as Armenians and their supporters are constantly crying.
"In accordance with the Chicago convention, specific rules exist which are recognized by the Azerbaijani side, which provide for the prevention of illegal flights and forcing them to land in specific airports. So it is not true, when someone earlier tried to speculate that 'Azerbaijan will shoot down civilian flights," Azimov reported.
"The Armenian side, speculating on these questions, attempts to put pressure on Azerbaijan by conducting these flights to the Khojaly airport. Recall that these territories are occupied and opening an illegal air corridor means an occupation of airspace," he said.
A number of Azerbaijani officials have threatened to shoot down flights landing in Karabakh, from the military to the civil aviation authority to the cabinet of ministers. While they may not have specified that they would shoot down civilian flights, given that the primary purpose of the Karabakh airport is for civilian use, the message Azerbaijan was attempting to send was clear.
Last week, Open Democracy Russia ran a very good series of articles on relations between Russia and China. One was especially interesting for EurasiaNet readers, about choices that the Central Asian states are having to make between integration with Russia or China. The piece concentrates on the economic sphere, in which, as the authors convincingly argue, integration with the two big superpowers is becoming mutually exclusive.
Of course, Russia and China also have their respective Central Asia integration schemes in the security sphere: China has the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and Russia the Collective Security Treaty Organization. So I asked one of the piece's authors, Raffaello Pantucci, an expert on Chinese-Central Asian relations, about whether there was going to be a similar reckoning in that sphere. Short answer: no. His more detailed thoughts:
The Bug Pit: Is there a similar looming choice to make for the Central Asian states, whether they prioritize ties with the SCO (dominated by China) or CSTO (dominated by Russia)?
Uzbekistan is seeking to get mine-protected vehicles, small arms, and even helicopters and drones from NATO forces who are using its territory for logistics support in Afghanistan, the New York Times has reported. That Uzbekistan is seeking some sort of leftover weapons is old news; this has been discussed (publicly) for more than a year. But the Times story provides a lot of new detail on what in particular Uzbekistan might be looking for, and it looks like they're aiming their sights high:
[T]he Uzbeks have been broadening the scope of their demands, said a senior American official directly involved in the diplomacy of the Afghan logistical routes, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the delicate negotiations.
The requests have gone from relatively common items like night-vision goggles to large and expensive American-made goods like MRAP vehicles, the 14-ton armored utility trucks that help protect troops from roadside bombs.
Other items that the Uzbeks have eyed in the American arsenal in Afghanistan are small arms, mine detectors, navigation equipment and possibly drones, according to Der Spiegel, the German newsmagazine, suggesting that the Uzbeks are looking at the pullout next year as a sort of everything-must-go moment for military shopping.
And Uzbekistan isn't just looking to the U.S., but Germany, too:
After years of watching helicopters fly in and out of Termez airfield, which is used as a German base in Uzbekistan, the government in March told Germany’s defense minister, Thomas de Maizière, who was visiting, that it would not mind getting its hands on a few of them, the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported....
Such talks have alarmed members of the German Parliament, who requested clarification from their government.
A new U.S. government report says that fuel for Afghanistan's security forces, paid for by the U.S., may include Iranian fuel in contravention of U.S. sanctions -- and implies that Turkmenistan may be to blame.
The report is by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, a U.S. government oversight agency that investigates possible abuse of U.S. funds in Afghanistan. While Afghanistan gets a majority of its fuel supplies from neighboring Iran, for fuel that the U.S. buys -- which includes that for the security forces -- suppliers have to abide by U.S. regulations prohibiting commerce with Iran. The companies that buy the fuel are Afghan-owned, but most of the fuel comes from Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, with lesser amounts coming from Russia and Uzbekistan. But, as the report notes, that fuel is often "blended" from different sources by the suppliers, and the oversight mechanisms that ensure that no Iranian oil is included are weak.
That there is no oversight is hardly surprising, but there is little positive evidence that the U.S. is actually buying Iranian oil. Still, the report does say that there is some suspicion, and it is directed at Turkmenistan:
According to SIGAR investigators, a fuel vendor in Afghanistan stated that Afghanistan’s neighboring countries to its west may be exporting blended fuel from various sources, including Iran....
In response to a draft of this report, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul stated that it is possible that if blending is taking place in Turkmenistan it could contain some Iranian fuel; however, it would be very unlikely that fuel imported from refiners in Russia and transitioned through Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan would be blended with Iranian fuel prior to its import into Afghanistan.
Georgia's domestically produced Lazika armored vehicle
During last year's election campaign, leader of the Georgian Dream coalition Bidzina Ivanishvili expressed skepticism about President Mikheil Saakashvili's drive to create an indigenous defense industry. Ivanishvili wasn't the only one -- as EurasiaNet's Molly Corso reported last year, "Many analysts say the development of Tbilisi’s defense industries won’t do much to make Georgia more secure in a potential conflict against a military power like Russia. They see it mostly as an exercise in national pride." That impression was bolstered by the splashy PR efforts exerted to roll out domestically produced armored personnel carriers and drones (the latter of which turned out to not be especially homegrown, borrowing very heavily from an Estonian production).
During a speech on Tuesday, Saakashvili alluded to plans of the new government to scotch defense production, Civil.ge reported:
“It will be a huge mistake if Georgia says no to production of military hardware,” President Saakashvili said, adding that now it was no time for pre-election rhetoric and saying that armored and infantry fighting vehicles produced by [state-owned defense manufacturer] Delta were “bluff” – a reference to remarks of PM Bidzina Ivanishvili who during his pre-election campaign voiced skepticism over Delta’s potential.
But now that the campaign is over and Ivanishvili is prime minister, his government appears to be interested in keeping Georgia's defense industry on the path that the previous government forged. In response to Saakashvili's comments, Ivanishvili's defense ministry appointees say that there is no need to fret:
Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia and Turkey have agreed to create a "joint armed forces of Turkic-language countries," the four countries decided at a "constitutive conference of the Association of Eurasian Law Enforcement Organs with Military Status" on January 23 in Baku.
Few details were offered about what exactly this new force would entail. Given that the officials at the conference were from law enforcement agencies (Azerbaijan's Interior Ministry, Turkey's Gendarmerie, Kyrgyzstan's "internal police"), the phrase "joint armed forces" seems a bit grandiose, but that's what they're calling it. What will be the function of this unit? Will Kyrgyz police operate in Turkey, or vice versa? And is Mongolian really a Turkic language?
The one concrete thing that seems to have been decided is that the symbol of the new unit will be a horse. Still, it's an intriguing development: most of the energy around Turkic unity in the 1990s has dissipated, and now talk of inter-Turkic unity is relegated mostly to the cultural sphere. So a Turkic armed unit of any sort would break some ground. And if the Tatars join, then we'll really have some news...
UPDATE: Both Turkey and Kyrgyzstan are denying that this actually happened. The dreams of the pan-Turkicists dashed again...
Transparency International, the corruption-monitoring organization, has issued two new reports looking in particular at corruption in the military world, and it will come as no surprise to learn that The Bug Pit's coverage area fares poorly.
One report (pdf) examines corruption in government defense institutions (e.g., defense ministries and armed forces). The second (also pdf) looks at corruption in the defense industry. In both reports, countries and companies are placed in six categories, A to F, where A represents a "very low" potential for corruption and F means a "critical" risk of corruption.
Not every country in the region is surveyed, but among those which are, China, Georgia, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Turkey all fall in the D ("high risk") category, while Afghanistan, Iran, and Uzbekistan are in the E ("very high risk") list. On the list of companies, Turkey's Aselsan and Russia's Gorky Automobile Plant are in the E group, while everything else, including all other Russian, Chinese, and Turkish companies surveyed, are in the F group. In a region where you have to celebrate small victories, it is perhaps worth noting that in the F group of countries, not a single Eurasian country joins the rogue's gallery that includes Eritrea, Syria, and Yemen.
The list of countries surveyed is somewhat disappointing: both Armenia and Azerbaijan have gone on some pretty aggressive weapons buying sprees in recent years (much more so than Uzbekistan, for example), so it would have been worth looking at those. Though, of course, there is nothing to suggest that their results would be any better than those of their neighbors.
Russia and Tajikistan have come to an agreement on one of the sticking points in their deal to extend the lease of Russia's largest military base in Central Asia, reports Tajikistan's minister of energy and industry Gul Sherali. As part of that deal, Russia agreed to duty-free fuel shipments to Tajikistan, but wanted a guarantee that the discounted fuel wouldn't be reexported. Tajikistan had objected, but now has agreed to Moscow's terms:
Tajikistan's Minister of Energy and Industries Gul Sherali told journalists that the two countries expect to sign an agreement on duty free oil product imports during Russian First Vice-Premier Igor Shuvalov's planned visit to Dushanbe in February, according to Asia Plus.
When the deal is signed, Russia will export 1m tonnes of oil products to Tajikistan. This is around three times the 370,000 tonnes of Tajikistan - which has experienced severe fuel shortages - imported in 2012....
[A] provision banning the re-export of oil products from Russia to third countries has been a sticking point in negotiations.
Moscow insists on the clause because of the high level of fuel smuggling in south Central Asia and the risk of fuel delivered to Tajikistan being sold on to third countries such as Afghanistan. Dushanbe had previously objected to the clause, with Tajik officials saying they would be unable to guarantee that gasoline from Russia will not be re-exported.
In addition, the agreement will take effect immediately after signing, which Tajikistan wanted, rather than 60 days after, which Russia wanted.
There was no word on the other main stumbling block, how to implement the new, looser regulations on labor migrants from Tajikistan to Russia.
Azerbaijan is using international aviation law to justify its threats to shoot down aircraft using the allegedly soon-to-open airport in Nagorno Karabakh, the territory that Azerbaijan lost to Armenians two decades ago. But are they interpreting the law correctly? I asked an aviation lawyer with experience in the Caucasus, whose response, essentially, was "not really." The entire response is at the bottom of this post; it's very lengthy but worthwhile if you're interested in how the law might apply here. (The lawyer asked not to be identified.)
In short, the Chicago Convention is the act that regulates international aviation; both Armenia and Azerbaijan are signatories, and it is what Azerbaijan has used in public justifications of the policy to shoot down aircraft in its airspace. After the Soviet Union shot down a Korean Airlines passenger jet in 1983, the convention was amended to more precisely deal with civilian aircraft violating another country's airspace. As the lawyer explains, in this case Azerbaijan would have to make a positive identification that this is a military flight before shooting it down:
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Robert Blake meets Kyrgyzstan President Almazbek Atambayev January 16 in Bishkek.
The U.S.'s top diplomat dealing with Central Asia, Robert Blake, visited Kyrgyzstan last week and if we are to believe Press.kg, all over Bishkek, "even in schools and kindergartens, for three days they are saying 'Blake is coming! Blake is coming!'" Journalistic hyperbole aside, this was a highly anticipated visit, as it seems that negotiations over the U.S.'s Manas air base are starting in earnest. Before Blake left, he told Voice of America's Russian service that he would be discussing extending the lease for the base, which is now scheduled to expire in 2014. "Manas has a huge significance for the U.S. from the point of view of logistics," he said.
In Bishkek, Blake met with President Almazbek Atambayev and other officials, and while of course the details of the discussions were not divulged, Blake did make an interesting statement to the press after his meetings. He was asked if the U.S. might use the newly established French transit center in Shymkent, Kazakhstan, and he didn't say no. After it's determined what sort of U.S. troop presence there will be in Afghanistan after 2014, the U.S. will assess what sort of facilities it needs in Central Asia, he said:
Once those important decisions [on troop presence in Afghanistan] are made, then we’ll be in a better position to plan for ourselves what kind of facilities we might need either in Afghanistan or in the wider region. Again, I don’t want to speculate on the future of what those might be.