Perhaps the most prickly question about the Eurasian Union -- the new, Russia-centric trade club -- is whether or not its members can bring to this neo-Soviet party their significant others. In other words, associated separatist dependencies.
Like with many Moscow clubs, there is face-control in the Eurasian Union. For now, Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus have it all to themselves. Disputed breakaway formations like Nagorno Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, though, are also keen for inclusion.
But getting the separatist territories in would cause a wave of bad blood between the Eurasian Union members and the countries (Azerbaijan and Georgia, respectively) who demand these territories back. Leaving them out, in turn, may hamper the territories' ability to get economic sustenance from club-founder Russia and prospective member Armenia.
This is a pain in the neck, in particular, for Armenia, which already has been requested by the club to leave its own protégé, Nagorno Karabakh, in the cloakroom.
Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev last week quite curtly told his Armenian counterpart, Serzh Sargsyan, that none of the founding members have any desire to aggravate Azerbaijan. You only get in "within the boundaries recognised by the United Nations," he advised at an Astana roundtable.
Sargsyan, a Karabakh native, later said that Armenia never intended to slip the mountainous territory (which Yerevan essentially views as a separate country) into the club.
A Russian TOS-1A in a Baku military parade in 2013. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Just as Armenia was digesting the news that its ally, Russia, was offering a large batch of top-of-the-line tanks to its foe, Azerbaijan, it's emerged that there are other such deals in the works, as well.
APA reported that Russia will shortly deliver another batch of TOS-1A “Solntsepyok”multiple-launch rocket systems to Azerbaijan. The deal to buy those systems was announced last year, but at the time it was reported that it would be for six; now the number has grown to 18.
In addition, Azerbaijan is reportedly in talks with Russia to buy Bal-E coastal anti-ship missile systems. Russian newspaper Kommersant quoted "an informed source in the Russian military-industrial complex" as saying that "negotiations will start later, now there is an understanding that our Azerbaijani colleagues are counting on the purchase of one division of the system."
Naturally Armenia, not having any navy, will not be threatened by the anti-ship missiles. But the Solntsepyoks, on top of the earlier offer of 100 T-90 tanks, is rankling in Yerevan. “I can’t be happy with that but I have no right to stop it,” said Armenian Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian, reported RFE/RL.
A T-90 tank on display on a military parade in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Russia is offering Azerbaijan another 100 tanks, on top of 100 that it has bought over the last three years, in a move that will surely have Armenians asking what more they need to do to prove their loyalty to Moscow.
Speaking at Kazakhstan's KADEX defense expo in Astana, Konstantin Biryulin, the deputy director of Russia's Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation told Russian news agency ITAR-TASS that Azerbaijan's order of 100 T-90S tanks had been completed a month ago. And he added that Azerbaijan has an "option" to buy another 100, but that the option hasn't yet been exercised.
News last summer that Russia completed a $1 billion arms deal with Azerbaijan (which included those 100 tanks) prompted outrage in Yerevan. Armenia has been a loyal ally of Russia, and so selling such a large number of weapons to its enemy seemed like a betrayal.
But that was when Armenia was flirting with signing an Association Agreement with the European Union. Not long after the arms deal was announced, Armenia announced that it had changed its mind about the EU and would instead be joining the Russia-led Customs Union. Now Armenia is scheduled to formally join the Customs Union in June. So another big arms sale to Azerbaijan would seem like an even bigger betrayal.
Writes RFE/RL: "Armenia’s Defense Ministry on Friday refused to comment on Moscow’s apparent readiness to sell more tanks to Baku. Biryulin’s revelation is certain to spark fresh anti-Russian statements by Armenian opposition groups and the media."
A 2012 Georgian postage stamp celebrating the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
The new deadline for a new railway line that would connect the Caspian Sea to Turkey appears to be delayed yet again, making it highly unlikely that Georgia and Azerbaijan will profit much from U.S. military transportation business.
The presidents of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey met in Tbilisi on Wednesday, and the focus was "joint energy and transportation projects, among them Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway." This is the railroad that last year the three countries had been promoting as the centerpiece of their proposal to gain a significant share of the "retrograde" transit of U.S. military equipment out of Afghanistan and back to Europe and the U.S. The idea would be to ship equipment through Central Asia, over the Caspian Sea, and through the South Caucasus. The railroad was "the vital missing link which will be operational soon," said Batu Kutelia, deputy secretary in the office of national security, said at the time. A senior Turkish official said the railroad would be operational by the end of 2013 and that "taking into consideration the reverse transit process, we wanted to accelerate the process."
This would be a geopolitical winner from the Pentagon's perspective, as it would decrease the U.S.'s reliance on the mercurial Pakistan and the new enemy, Russia. As an analyst at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation wrote this week:
In coordination with the Kremlin, Russian activists plan an ex-USSR-wide distribution of black-and-orange ribbons meant to commemorate the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany. The caveat is that the St. George’s ribbon has evolved to embody Russian power and nostalgia for the USSR; concepts that many in the Caucasus are not willing to wear on their sleeves.
The state-run Russian Information Agency (RIA Novosti), a champion of the annual St.-George's-ribbon campaign, has announced that on May 9, the 69th anniversary of the 1945 Soviet victory over Nazi Germany, millions of ribbons will rain down on ex-Soviet countries, the South Caucasus included.
In an April 29 talk show, headlined “St. George’s Ribbon Struts across the Planet,” RIA Novosti claimed that a massive ribbon-handout rally would be held in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku. The ribbons, talk-show participants said, also would be up for grabs at the Russian embassies in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Moldova. In the case of Georgia, which severed diplomatic ties with Russia after the two countries' 2008 war, the Russian consulate at the Swiss embassy would provide the ribbons.
Many pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine are wearing these ribbons, and the show host made sure to take a swipe at Ukrainian “nationalists” and their alleged attempts to “erase the historic memory" of the war.
But it looks like the show and its claims of a post-Soviet team spirit may have been ultimately meant for a domestic, Russian audience.
The U.S. State Department is skeptical about how Central Asian governments perceive the threat of terrorism in their countries, according to the department's annual review of terrorism around the globe.
In language similar to last year's report, the State Department said that "The effectiveness of some Central Asian countries’ efforts to reduce their vulnerability to perceived terrorist threats was difficult to discern in some cases, however, due to failure to distinguish clearly between terrorism and violent extremism on one hand and political opposition, or non-traditional religious practices, on the other." But this year it added a bit of texture with a mention of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan: "[T]errorist groups with ties to Central Asia – notably the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Islamic Jihad Union – continued to be an issue even as they operated outside of the Central Asian states." (For some serious analysis of what threat the IMU poses, see this post at the Afghan Analysts Network.)
Russia's April 21 offer to turn into Russians anyone who has lived on the territory of the former Soviet Union or Russian Empire and speaks Russian fluently has got the South Caucasus on edge.
The law on simplifying access to citizenship for Russian-speakers across the former Soviet Union is ostensibly meant to replenish the thinning numbers of Russians, who, even at over 142.47 million people ( the world's tenth largest country), apparently just don’t reproduce like they used to. Azerbaijan, and especially Armenia and Georgia, which do not exactly boast high birth rates, are worried that Russia could annex many of their citizens to make up the difference.
Knowledge of Russian may have weakened of late in the South Caucasus, but widespread poverty still makes the region a prime place for creating born-again Russians. Armenia, which lacks Azerbaijan's natural resources and Georgia's status as a regional trade conduit, is particularly vulnerable to a citizenship drain. Russia also tightened its migrant- worker laws, which may prompt many Armenians, who travel to Russia for work, to opt for citizenship.
Russian gunboats during a 2011 exercise on the Caspian Sea. (photo: mil.ru)
The foreign ministers of the countries surrounding the Caspian Sea met in Moscow on Tuesday, in preparation for a summit this fall. Diplomatic activity around the sea is not new, and the major dispute -- how to divide up the sea between the five countries -- remains unresolved. But as with everything else in the post-Soviet space, the crisis in Ukraine has changed the calculations in the Caspian, making for an unusual amount of turbulence in the normally stagnant diplomatic waters.
The most interesting potential storyline of the meeting was that Russia had convinced the other four countries -- Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan -- to agree to forbid the military presence of any other country on the sea. This was based on a report in Russian newspaper Kommersant, which quoted a "diplomatic source from one of the Caspian countries" saying that "Moscow managed to convince its partners that no outside power should influence decisions about the Caspian. In particular, the issue is about limiting the deployment of military forces of third countries, especially the U.S., to the Caspian."
It's not clear to what extent the issue came up at the meeting. At a press conference afterwards, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was asked about "the intention of some non-Caspian countries to gain a presence, including military, without taking into account the interests of the countries in the region?" Lavrov answered: "Responsibility for the state of affairs in the Caspian region rests with the Caspian countries... We are open to cooperation with outside countries, if they are ready to do so on the basis of the rules and principles that the five Caspian countries agree on among themselves."
Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev meets his Iranian counterpart, Hasan Rouhani, in Tehran. (photo: president.az)
Tensions between Azerbaijan and Iran have been tense over the past few months, with border skirmishes, Tehran accusing Baku of being in cahoots with Israel and Baku claiming to break up Tehran-linked terror plots. In spite of this rocky patch, top Azerbaijani officials have visited Tehran, with President Ilham Aliyev meeting with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and Azerbaijan's Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov meeting with top Iranian military officials.
Aliyev's visit "created an opportunity for rapid development of relations between the two countries in various spheres," said General Hassan Firuzabadi, chief of staff of Iran's armed forces. Firuzabadi also reportedly said that "We have today discussed the issues on organization of military trainings, friendly meetings, provision of techniques and weapons for the Azerbaijani Army."
Hasanov, for his part, reiterated Baku's promise that it would not allow any other country (read: Israel) to attack Iran from its territory.
Iran's president is apparently planning a trip to Baku in the next month. The visits are part of a general pivot toward Central Asia, said the Iranian Fars News Agency. "Iran has recently enhanced efforts to boost political, economic and cultural ties and cooperation with the regional and neighboring countries, specially the Central Asian states."
Azerbaijan, unsurprisingly, was the region's leader, with defense expenditure nearly quintupling over the last decade. And that was the second-greatest increase in the world over that period, beaten only by Afghanistan, which obviously started from a relatively low level in 2004. The data from the Caucasus and Central Asia:
Armenia: $427 million in 2013, up 115 percent since 2004.
Azerbaijan: $3.44 billion in 2013, up 493 percent since 2004
Georgia: $443 million in 2013, up 230 percent since 2004
Kazakhstan: $2.8 billion in 2013, up 248 percent since 2004
Among the report's other findings:
-- Over the last year, Russia’s military spending increased by 4.8 per cent, "and for the ﬁrst time since 2003 it spent a bigger share of its GDP on the military than the USA."
-- Over the same period, Kazakhstan saw among the biggest defense spending increases in the Asia-Pacific region, with a ten percent increase, despite enjoying what SIPRI called an "essentially peaceful security environment."
-- Turkey entered the list of 15 top defense spenders worldwide, spending $19.1 billion in 2013.
-- China's defense spending in 2013 increased 7.4 percent over the previous year.