Nursultan Nazarbayev and Ilham Aliyev, the presidents of Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, respectively, at an April 3 press conference in Baku. (photo: president.az)
Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev traveled across the Caspian on an official visit to Azerbaijan, where the agenda focused on trade. The dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan, meanwhile, loomed large, albeit behind the scenes.
Nazarbayev was supposed to visit Baku last October, and on the same trip go to the summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization in Yerevan. But he canceled, citing illness, though many suspected that he in fact skipped the whole thing in order not to have to go to Yerevan. And it's telling that this time around, he went only to Baku with no visit to Yerevan on the horizon.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev warmly welcomed Nazarbayev on April 3, calling him a "dear friend" of Azerbaijan and praising Kazakhstan as a "brotherly" country. At the same time, Kazakhstan is increasingly seen in Yerevan as hostile to Armenia, which is awkward as Armenia and Kazakhstan are supposed to be treaty allies in the CSTO. And there is an ongoing drama about a change of leadership in the CSTO: the organization has promised that the next secretary general will be an Armenian, but many Armenians have accused Kazakhstan (along with Belarus) of doing Azerbaijan's bidding by blocking that move.
At a joint appearance, Aliyev suggested that Kazakhstan had signed on to its version of the Karabakh conflict -- that it should be resolved on the principle of the inviolability of borders. "These basic points are reflected in the declaration that we signed today," he said. "This is another sign of the principled position of Kazakhstan on the resolution of the conflict." (The declaration was not made public.)
The diplomatic brouhaha over a travel blogger has led to senior officials in Armenia calling for Belarus to be kicked out of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the security alliance to which they both belong.
Alexander Lapshin, the now-notorious Russian-Israeli travel blogger, was extradited from Belarus to Azerbaijan on February 8. He is facing charges in Baku related to his visit to Nagorno Karabakh, a de jure part of Azerbaijan that is de facto controlled by Armenian forces. Azerbaijan considers a visit to Karabakh to be an illegal border crossing.
Demanding Lapshin's extradition was a dramatic step for the relatively minor crime of an illegal border crossing, especially given that both Russia and Israel are two of Azerbaijan's most important partners, and both have strongly objected to the extradition.
Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev called his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko to personally thank him for the extradition, calling it a "manifestation of the Azerbaijan-Belarus friendship and strategic partnership."
The episode, correspondingly, resulted in outrage in Armenia, including protests at the Belarusian embassy in Yerevan, and there were calls to retaliate against Minsk in various ways, including withdrawing its ambassador and suspending relations. But the most commonly proposed retaliation was to try to kick Belarus out of the CSTO.
Heads of state of CSTO member countries meet at a summit in St. Petersburg. There was a bit more room at the table than planned as Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko skipped the event. (photo: kremlin.ru)
Dissension among the nominal allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Russia-led post-Soviet security bloc, continued to deepen at this week's summit, where Belarus was conspicuously absent and accusations were raised of a conspiracy against Armenia.
The CSTO summit was held in St. Petersburg on December 26, and the big news was that Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko was absent. Lukashenko gave no public explanation for his absence though Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitriy Peskov, played it down saying that "our Belarussian colleagues warned us that Lukashenko may not be able to take part in the summit."
There were two potential explanations for Lukashenko's move, not necessarily mutually exclusive. One was that it had to do with Russia-Belarus bilateral relations, and that this was just the latest expression of Lukashenko's discomfort with Russia's tight embrace. "This move seems to be yet another caprice by the Belarusian leader, demonstrating his attitude toward the integration projects that Russia is trying to create in the post-Soviet space," said Bogdan Bezpalko, the deputy head of the Center for Ukrainian and Belarusian studies at Moscow State University. (The CSTO summit was held concurrently with one of the Eurasian Economic Union, the Russia-led economic bloc; the rosters of the two organizations substantially overlap.)
Soldiers from Kazakhstan take part in the opening ceremony of "Cooperation-2016," the CSTO military exercises taking part near the borders of Estonia and Latvia. (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
Russia will try to enlist its post-Soviet allies in shoring up its western border against NATO, a senior security official has said. Those allies, however, have shown little interest in getting dragged into Russia's fight with the West, setting the stage for a rupture between Moscow and its ostensible partners.
The Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Russia-led military alliance, will discuss how to respond to NATO's buildup in Eastern Europe at its next summit, scheduled for December 26. That's according to Nikolay Bordyuzha, the CSTO's general secretary, in an interview with Russian newspaper Izvestiya.
"We should understand precisely what is happening around our borders, why NATO is bringing in weapons, creating infrastructure," Boryuzha said. "It's transferring an additional four battalions [toward Russia's borders], why are they doing this? And how is the security situation changing in general? How to react, so as to not be too late... This is what the conversation will be about. We shouldn't be quiet and do nothing, seeing how the countries around us are crammed with weapons, units are being deployed."
It's not clear what response Bordyuzha had in mind, as he said it would not entail a military buildup. "We have sufficient forces," he said.
It's also not possible to tell how out of context these statements are, and how high a priority NATO will in fact be for the CSTO. But it's also perhaps telling that on the same day that Bordyuzha's interview was published, the CSTO's own website republished another article from a Russian news website -- a rare thing to see on the CSTO site -- headlined "Is the CSTO Turning Into a NATO Opponent?"
Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko speaks at the Yerevan summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization on October 14. (photo: president.gov.by)
The Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Russia-led political-military bloc, has again failed to find a new leader during a summit that did nothing to combat the growing suspicion that the organization is dysfunctional.
The CSTO held its annual summit on October 14 in Yerevan, and the current secretary general, Nikolay Bordyuzha, had said that the group would pick his replacement at the summit. But the summiteers, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, left the get-together without settling on a new leader and without explaining that failure. "We'll get back to the matter in late 2016," Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan said after the summit.
It's not clear how significant a role the secretary general of the CSTO plays and what might change with a new person in the role. Some Armenian officials tried to play down the succession issue. "It's not important which nationality or government the next secretary general represents," said Bagram Bagdasaryan, the ruling Republican Party of Armenia's parliamentary leader
But the fact that the new leader is slated to be an Armenian has added some intrigue to the leadership question. Armenia is probably the most loyal CSTO member, with the most to gain -- if a wider war were to break out with Azerbaijan, Armenia could in theory gain the support of its allies.
Soldiers from CSTO member states practice carrying out a UN peacekeeping mission in Belarus in August 2016. (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
Russia's post-Soviet security bloc, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, has held discussions with the United Nations about taking part in UN peacekeeping missions, an effort analysts said was likely made with Syria in mind.
"We have agreed to prepare a roadmap on the involvement of CSTO peacekeepers in UN peacekeeping operations," said CSTO Secretary General Nikolay Bordyuzha last month in New York after meeting with UN officials there. The UN "has already proposed the steps that we need to take and there is quite an active dialogue going on," he said.
The CSTO has been developing a peacekeeping structure for years, and held its first peacekeeping exercise in Kazakhstan in 2012. (The CSTO includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, in addition to Russia.)
The Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Russian-led security bloc, is having trouble finding its first non-Russian secretary general, as the man who had apparently been tapped for the job has turned it down.
Last week, Interfax reported, citing unnamed Armenian government sources, that Armenian Defense Secretary Seyran Ohanian would be appointed as the new CSTO secretary general. Ohanian would replace Nikolay Bordyuzha, a Russian former KGB officer who has been the only head the organization has had, serving since 2003.
But on Friday, Ohanian said that he wouldn't take the job. "As concerns my appointment as the CSTO secretary general, there has been no such offer. Today I'm carrying out my duties as minister of defense and I don't have any plans to work in any sort of international structure," he said in an interview with the website news.am. Asked if he would turn down the job if offered it, he said: "Definitely."
Bordyuzha himself said that his successor would be named by October 14, when a CSTO summit is scheduled in Yerevan, and that it would be an Armenian.
This is not the first hiccup the CSTO has experienced in finding a successor for Bordyuzha. Last December Yuriy Ushakov, a senior adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, said that a new appointment was imminent. But just a few days later the CSTO announced that it would instead be extending Bordyuzha's appointment for another year. At that point, too, it was also said that the replacement would be an Armenian.
Uzbekistan's new president has signaled that he will continue the country's isolationist foreign policy, promising to not join any military alliances and to not allow any foreign military bases in the country.
Shavkat Mirziyoyev was confirmed on Thursday as Uzbekistan's interim president, following the death of Islam Karimov, who had ruled the country since before the Soviet Union collapsed.
The same day, Mirziyoyev addressed parliament and laid out the broad strokes of the policies he intends to follow. In the military/foreign policy section of the speech there were no surprises, and he explicitly confirmed that he intended to to pursue the isolationism that Karimov developed over the period of his rule.
"The firm position of our country, as before, is to not join any military-political bloc, to not allow the deployment of military bases and objects of any other state on the territory of Uzbekistan, or the deployment of our soldiers outside the borders of the country," Mirziyoyev said.
The reference to the "military-political bloc" would preclude Uzbekistan rejoining the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which it left in 2012. Russia (which leads the group) has held on to hopes that Uzbekistan would rejoin; Uzbekistan's absence -- as the biggest country in Central Asia -- has hampered the CSTO's credibility in the region.
Mirziyoyev did, though, praise the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a group that served the interests of Uzbekistan. The SCO could be called a "military-political bloc," but its military component is secondary (or tertiary) and Uzbekistan has mostly not participated in SCO military activities, anyway.
Russian President Vladimir Putin with his Uzbekistan counterpart Islam Karimov this April at the Kremlin. (photo: Kremlin)
Russian President Vladimir Putin plans to visit Uzbekistan on Tuesday, inserting himself into an ongoing presidential succession after the death of President Islam Karimov, the only president Uzbekistan has known.
Putin will stop over in Samarkand on his way back from China, where he attended the G20 summit (and as a result missed Karimov's funeral; Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev represented Russia). "I think I have to stop over tomorrow to pay my respects," Putin said. Putin's spokesman later emphasized that Putin's visit would be personal, but there will certainly be more to it than that. A report on the Uzbekistan news site anhor.uz initially said that Putin would also meet there with "possible successors," though that was subsequently edited to say he would meet with "the leadership of the country."
Most analysts, and this blog, are skeptical that whoever succeeds Karimov will do much to change Uzbekistan's foreign policy, which was characterized by isolationism bolstered by playing various powers off of one another. So it's unlikely Putin believes he can tip the scales on the ongoing succession process.
"Putin's visit is symbolic, to show that Russia will be highly involved in Uzbekistan's future, but also an attempt to reset relations," said Erica Marat, , an assistant professor at the National Defense University and Central Asia expert, in an email interview with The Bug Pit. "I don't think the Kremlin is able to influence the succession process itself, but this is an opening for Russia nevertheless."
Soldiers from CSTO member states practice carrying out a UN peacekeeping mission in Belarus. (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
Russia and its allies have for the first time carried out exercises simulating a United Nations peacekeeping mission, signaliing -- at least from Russia's side -- an expanded vision of how it and its allies might deploy in the future.
The five-day exercises, "Unbreakable Brotherhood 2016," took place in Belarus and ended Saturday. About 1,000 troops from the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (which also includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan) took part.
This is the fifth iteration of these exercises, but the first which envisaged a UN peacekeeping scenario, and in a non-CSTO country at that. In the scenario, the UN has given the CSTO a mandate to send its peacekeeping units to the fictional country of Angoria, where ethnic conflict has broken out:
The Gorniks have bad relations with the Belnyaks as a result of the June 2016 parliamentary elections in Angoria, where the representatives of the Belnyaks got the majority of votes, unsanctioned rallies took place in large cities during which pogroms took place in Belnyak areas. In response, Belnyaks took to the street to demand that the government take measures to protect them. Interior Ministry units took measures to stabilize the situation. However these measures did not stabilize the situation in the country. Being unable to restore constitutional order in Angoria, the organs of government power completely lost control over the situation.
The Belnyak forces began to form self-defense units responding to the actions of the Gorniks. Armed clashes between the Gorniks and Belnyaks became more common. Streams of civilians who had abandoned their homes flowed to regions where armed conflict had not broken out.