Heads of government of the SCO states pose in St. Petersburg
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization held a prime minister-level meeting on Monday in St. Petersburg, and from the outcome it appears the group is continuing its trajectory away from being a security group -- as it appeared to be in the mid-oughts -- toward being a more economically oriented body.
Most intriguingly, the proposals that came out of the meeting seem to dovetail remarkably with those of the U.S. and its New Silk Road -- i.e., building infrastructure in Central Asia to help the region become a hub of commerce between Europe and Asia, along the way building prosperity and stability. Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said that Moscow would contribute $500 million to the CASA-1000 electricity project, by which hydropower from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan would be transmitted to India and Pakistan. And he endorsed the idea of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline. Both of those projects, you'll recall, are also centerpieces of the U.S.'s new New Silk Road initiative. Putin's speech at the SCO meeting echoed some of Washington's rhetoric of the New Silk Road:
I believe that we need to form a strong infrastructural outline of the Shanghai Organisation. Primarily, we need this in order to further expand our respective national economies, and to create new points of growth and additional opportunities for the people of our nations. Secondly, this will help realise the huge transit potential of the region and secure its role as a link between Europe and the Asian-Pacific Region.
A train crash in southern Uzbekistan in late September led to speculation that it was related to U.S. military transport to Afghanistan on the Northern Distribution Network, but the U.S. says the cargo on the ill-fated train wasn't theirs.
The crash happened September 25 near Tangimush, in Sukhandarya province. It doesn't seem to have been acknowledged by the Uzbekistan government, but some witnesses reported the news to Radio Ozodlik (in Russian) and took photos. Four people were killed.
This is the same line that was the subject of a Wikileaked cable that this blog mentioned a few months ago. In that cable, a local informant reported to the U.S. embassy in Tashkent that the new line, which was being used for NDN cargo, was built on such steep terrain that it necessitated riding the brakes on such a long descent that they were glowing red by the time it reached the bottom:
XXXXXXXXXXXX's description of current operations on the Karshi-Termez rail line is cause for concern. XXXXXXXXXXXX underlined this by saying he himself refused to travel on the line under current conditions. His description of wheels that are red hot by the end of the mountain crossing implies that a train wreck is possible in the literal sense.
I asked the State Department about the September crash, and this is the statement they provided:
Some media reports indicated that the train was carrying fuel; however, the cargo did not belong to the US government. This route is also used for commercial cargo transportation, and this appears to have been a commercial cargo shipment...
Russia is trying to get its putative allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization to adopt unified official positions on issues from human rights, terrorism and even World War II history, with the aim of making the group speak with a single voice on foreign policy issues. That's according to a report in the Russian newspaper Kommersant and summarized in English by Ferghana News. According to Kommersant, CSTO members received a draft nine-page document of the "collective directives" on September 26, and that the issue will be formally taken up at a CSTO summit in Moscow next month.
From Ferghana's account:
A nine-page long paper embraces such areas as countering attempts of falsification of the history (primarily meaning the history of the World War II), as well as areas like international security and disarmament, anti-missile defense, cooperation between CSTO and OSCE with NATO, situation in Afghanistan, response to international terrorism, drugs and organized crime, as well as human rights. The countries of the alliance are going to make joint statements and coordinate their positions in respect to the above issues in front of such organizations as UN, OSCE and other international forums.
Russia's envoy to the CSTO Igor Lyakin-Frolov told Kommersant: "Collective directives -- this is an important tool to determine the main targets of our common foreign policy." And he added that a key goal of this was to gain NATO recognition of the group:
[T]he new initiative should, according to Mr. Lyakina-Frolov, "make the CSTO visible and important international institution with a serious military and political weight, which will be listened to in the world...
Afghanistan's neighbors agree to cooperate on Afghanistan, but where's Uzbekistan?
Foreign ministers from Afghanistan and its neighboring countries gathered in Istanbul yesterday to discuss plans for maintaining stability in Central Asia after the U.S. and NATO start pulling their troops out of Afghanistan in 2014. At the meeting, participants signed a document (pdf) supporting what is called the "Istanbul process." The document is full of the sort of lofty platitudes that meetings like this usually produce, and is uncontroversial enough for countries with such diverse interests as China, Russia, Pakistan and Iran to have signed on. In a briefing after the meeting, a senior State Department official noted the broad support the statement got:
[W]e thought it was also interesting that Afghanistan’s neighbors and near-neighbors, and I include here Pakistan, India, China, Russia, Iran – as you’ll see from the statement, have really spoken in one voice to assure Afghanistan of their support for Afghan-led reconciliation and transition to Afghan national security forces.
But one country was conspicuously missing in the list of signatories: Uzbekistan.
Uzbekistan was one of the 14 countries that, as recently as Monday, State Department officials were calling "key partners" in this. But the final list included only 13 signatories. And the State Department statements do not mention Uzbekistan at all. (All of the other post-Soviet Central Asian states signed on.)
Georgia's billionaire/politician Bidzina Ivanishvili has given his first press conference in which he expanded on his views on defense and foreign policy, which have been the matter of some speculation since he entered the political arena.
He reiterated, but in stronger terms, his previous assessment that it was Georgia, not Russia, who started the war over South Ossetia. From Civil.ge's report:
Citing Tagliavini report, Ivanishvili said that it was Georgia, which had triggered off the August war with Russia. He said that President Saakashvili responded to shelling of Georgian villages in the conflict zone in August, 2008 with “absolute recklessness by shelling Tskhinvali.”
He also cited a resolution of the Parliamentary Assembly of Council of Europe (PACE) and said that both the resolution, supported by the Georgian delegation, and Tagliavini report were saying that Georgia started the war. He was apparently refereeing to the PACE’s October, 2008 resolution, which at the time was at the time became an issue for debates in the Georgian politics.
“Everyone in the world knows everything very well. [The Georgian authorities] are trying to mislead the Georgian population; Saakashvili’s [version] is: Russia’s started the war and we have won it… We should learn to face the truth,” he said.
I'll be very curious to see how that goes over in Georgia.
However, if Georgia's Western allies are wondering whether he would continue Tbilisi's strong partnership with them, Ivanishvili said he would maintain Georgia's troop presence in Afghanistan, but was evasive on the question of NATO membership:
The U.S. has been promoting its "New Silk Road" strategy lately, billing it as a means to bring prosperity, and thus stability, to Central Asia once the U.S. starts to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014. (EurasiaNet has a story on it today.) But there are also some intriguing geopolitical aspects to the strategy which lurk under the surface of what is presented as a win-win sort of global commerce.
The "New Silk Road," I think, has a common intellectual pedigree with other programs from the mid-oughts to unite South and Central Asia, like the effort to tie together the electrical grids of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to place the Central Asian countries in a new State Department bureau, taking them away from Europe and connecting them with South Asia. What these all have in common is that they attempt to weaken the economic (and as a result, political) monopoly that Russia, by dint of the centralized Soviet infrastructure, has on these countries.
As Marlene Laruelle writes in a new book, "Mapping Central Asia," which includes a great chapter on the revived metaphor of the New Silk Road (on which more later): "The underlying geo-economic rationales of these Roads is to exclude Moscow from new geopolitical configurations." (Laruelle, incidentally, is a fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, chaired by Fred Starr, Washington's biggest booster of the New Silk Road.)
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton worked quietly and diligently during her recent trip through Central and South Asia to lay the groundwork for a regional stabilization plan, dubbed the “New Silk Road.” The vision sees expanded trade as the balm that can heal the region’s wounds.
Uzbekistan has been keeping the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Russia-dominated security bloc of post-Soviet countries, at arm's length: formally, it's a member, but it hasn't lately participated in any CSTO events, like the recent large-scale military exercises the group held. And now Belarus's president Alexander Lukashenko says it's time for Tashkent to decide -- and that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev agrees:
“Even Uzbekistan that today has a specific stance will eventually understand that it will find it hard to preserve independence without the CSTO,” the President of Belarus said. He emphasized that the accession is a domestic matter of Uzbekistan and “we are not interfering”. “Although I have recently shared my thoughts with the President of Russia. We need to make a decision on Uzbekistan. Because Uzbekistan cannot join the CSTO as long as it is playing this triple game,” Alexander Lukashenko is convinced. After all, Uzbekistan has not ratified a single significant document of the CSTO yet, it only formally stated that it is allegedly returning to the CSTO."
The saga of the mysterious drone shot down over Nagorno-Karabakh keeps getting more and more intriguing. You'll recall that the Armenian de facto authorities of Karabakh released photos of the downed UAV and claimed that the drone was from Azerbaijan. Makes sense: Azerbaijan operates drone similar to the one shown in photos, with which they try to surveil the area of the line of contact between them and the Armenians. Azerbaijan's state news agency countered with another theory: that the drone was actually Israel's. That was last month, and the story has gone cold since then.
But now, an Israeli website, DEBKAfile, has a new scoop/conspiracy theory: it was Russia! Their take:
Western sources believe Moscow had the Azerbaijani drone shot down as a one-off incident for four objectives:
1. A hands-off road sign to Israel to stay out of the Caspian Sea region and its conflicts. Moscow has taken note of Israel's deepening economic and military footholds in four countries: Azerbaijan, which is the largest, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Georgia, and regards its supply of arms to these countries as unwanted interference in Russia's backyard.
2. Revenge for Israel reneging on its 2009 commitment to build a drone factory in Russia. Moscow decided to confront Israeli drone technicians with Russian antiaircraft crews with an unwinnable ambush.
3. Moscow was also telling Tehran that it was serious about cooperating with Iran to safeguard its rights in the Caspian Sea and willing to use diplomatic, military and intelligence means to halt the spread of Azerbaijani and Israeli influence in the region.
The strange case of the Armenian-Moldovan-Libyan-Latvian arms deal has reached a sort of conclusion: Moldova's ambassador to Baku has apologized for the deal, reports News.az:
'Those responsible for arms sale have been called to the Security Committee of Moldova and commission for security issues of the parliament and brought to responsibility. Though no sanctions have been applied in Moldova related to arms sales to any country, it was politically incorrect to sell arms to Armenia. We will try not to tolerate such cases anymore', the ambassador said.
That's some pretty serious groveling. At least from the official Azerbaijani perspective, relations between them and Moldova are not all that strong, with just $1 million in trade: "The products imported into Moldova from Azerbaijan were natural juice and medicines." They do have a common cause as countries with territories occupied by another country. But there is likely some nuance to Moldovan-Azerbaijan relations I'm missing, that would explain why it is so "politically incorrect" to sell arms to their neighbor. Anyone with the answer, let me know.