When it comes to democratization, the Caucasus and Central Asia are headed in different directions. Countries and territories in the Caucasus received better grades on political and civil rights over the past year, while Central Asia reinforced its reputation as one of the more repressive places in the world, according to an annual survey compiled by the watchdog group Freedom House.
After last week's post about Azerbaijan threatening to shoot down flights to the soon-to-open airport in Nagorno-Karabakh, a number of Azerbaijanis wrote in to argue that Azerbaijan would be fully in its rights to do so. One of them, Adil Baguirov, co-founder and member of the Board of Directors of the U.S. Azeris Network, agreed to a short email interview. It's printed, in its entirety, below.
The Bug Pit: Do you believe Azerbaijan would have a legal right to shoot down civilian aircraft going to the Karabakh airport?
Adil Baguirov: By definition, as well as from the standpoint of law and even logic, there can be no civil aircraft that would be determined, in a non-emergency situation, to land at an airport in the Armenia-occupied territories of Azerbaijan. Any and all aircraft that willingly tries to fly into, and land in, the Armenia-occupied territories of Azerbaijan, such as into the Khojaly airport (a.k.a. Stepanakert airport, or Khankendi airport) is not a civilian aircraft, but a military aircraft that can be carrying military cargo and personnel, and thus can be legally shot down. That entire airspace over the occupied territories has been a publicly declared Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) since 1992.
Uzbekistan's president Islam Karimov delivered his annual Army Day message on January 11, and along with the predictable encomia to the country's armed forces, Karimov made a few interesting statements vis-a-vis how he sees Uzbekistan's geopolitics. (Speech translated from Russian by BBC Monitoring)
As he has frequently, Karimov says that the Western withdrawal from Afghanistan will pose a threat to Uzbekistan:
In the current difficult circumstances, the international community is particularly concerned about the danger of the spread of nuclear technology and weapons of mass destruction as well as about growing confrontation, political and religious radicalism and extremism, and the ongoing conflicts in the immediate vicinity of our borders; in the first place, tension is growing in connection with the forthcoming withdrawal of ISAF from Afghanistan before and after 2014.
But this is an interesting addition:
The situation is seriously being exacerbated by rivalry of external forces in the region. Serious challenges and threats are emerging due to the intensification of activities by armed gangs and subversive and terrorist groups in border areas, as well as because of social and economic problems, political and interethnic conflicts that could lead to destabilization of the military-political situation.
It's not clear what he means here by "rivalry of external forces," but my best guess is that it has to do with Russia's plans to give a huge military aid package to Kyrgyzstan, and a somewhat more modest one to Tajikistan, with the intention of countering what it sees as U.S. influence in Uzbekistan.
Polish BRDM-2s, a Kazakhstani version of which could be yours for $14,000.
A curious classified ad appeared recently in the Kazakhstan car website Koleso ("Wheels"): "GAZ-66, KamAZA3-4310, ZIL-131, Ural-4320, Ural-375, more than 200 vehicles, fully renovated. Most with zero mileage."
An enterprising reporter from Kazakh news service KazTAG, noting that those are all military trucks and transports of various kinds, called the number in the listing, and found that there were even unspecified types of armored reconnaissance and patrol vehicles (BRDM in Russian) for sale: "We're selling renovated military equipment," the seller told the reporter. "We also have BRDMs for sale. On average, a GAZ-66 military truck will cost 12-14 thousand dollars. The price for an BRDM will depend on configuration, but no more than 14 thousand dollars."
A military expert told the agency that "a BRDM can be useful not just to hunters, but also to extremists, for use in hard-to-reach regions and clashes with security structures. The armor on the machine is weak, but it can handle any small arms used in our special forces units. By virtue of its speed and maneuverability it's not easy to hit with a grenade launcher. Likewise, a BRDM travels well off-road, which is important for criminals in setting up arms caches in hard-to-reach places, as with the extremists in Aktobe."
Nazarbayev during his November, 2012 visit to Paris, during which he signed a military transit agreement.
Kazakhstan has agreed to allow France to ship its military equipment from Afghanistan via a new transit hub at Shymkent, in southern Kazakhstan. President Nursultan Nazarbayev signed the agreement on Wednesday, and the plan is to fly the (non-lethal) equipment from Kabul to Shymkent, where it will be loaded on to trains and shipped via Russia to the Baltic Sea. As part of the deal, France has agreed to renovate some of the facilities in Shymkent. From Tengrinewws.kz:
France will fund construction of the needed infrastructure for the temporary bond storage and the area of enhanced customs control for the transshipment operations in Shymkent airport. France will also allocate funds for procurement or rent of loading equipment and vehicles for the railroad spur, construction of additional roads with hard surfacing of around 400 meters, protection of freights in the temporary storage and en route on Kazakhstan’s railroad.
Earlier Kazakhstan Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs Aleksey Volkov, who presented the draft law in the Parliament, said that the agreement on transit will help turn Shymkent into a beneficial international transport hub.
A couple of points to consider: Kazakhstan has been pushing the U.S. to use Aktau, on the Caspian Sea, in a similar fashion. So this deal raises the question, why hasn't Kazakhstan been pushing the U.S. to use Shymkent, or did Kazakhstan want France to use Aktau and the French wanted Shymkent instead?
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.