Travel-blogger Alexander Lapshin’s irreverent reviews have left him in the doghouse before, but it was an alleged trip to separatist Nagorno Karabakh that really landed him in hot water. The Israeli-Russian blogger was detained in Belarus almost a month ago, and now, reportedly, is about to get extradited to Azerbaijan for supposedly trespassing on what Baku sees as Azerbaijani territory and supporting Karabakhi independence.
The case appears to mark the first time that a foreign national has been detained outside of Azerbaijan on such grounds.
A bout of camaraderie between two mustachioed strongmen, Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, appears to have entrapped the blogger. Cooperation has been tightening recently between the two, who share a propensity for never-ending presidential terms and a dislike of critical, independent media.
To be sure, Lapshin is no freedom-fighter, like many of those who have been jailed in Belarus and Azerbaijan. Catering to Russian-speaking audiences, his Livejournal blog Puerrtto details his travels to 122 countries and territories. He has been doing mostly what travel writers do: posting photographs of landmarks and dishes, complaining about bureaucracy and bad driving, but also throwing in an occasional coarse word.
One rubric, billed as the author’s quarrels and lawsuits “with just about everyone in the world,” features Lapshin’s jeremiads about impediments to international travel. There are entries that blast Uzbekistan for requiring its citizens to get exit visas to leave the country, criticize Israel for supposedly over-zealous border guards and offer tips on how to conceal visits to Israel from select Arab countries.
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.)
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. (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.
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)
Russian military exercises near its western borders have become de rigeur over the last couple of years, as tension between Russia and NATO has spiked. But exercises that kicked off this week are novel in that Russia has brought along its allies from the Caucasus and Central Asia, which have for the most part sought to avoid getting drawn into Russia's conflict with the West.
The exercise kicked off August 16 in the Pskov oblast, which borders Estonia and Latvia. About 5,000 Russian soldiers are taking part, along with about 1,000 from the other countries of the Collective Security Treaty Organization: Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.
These exercises, under the rubric "Cooperation," are the annual cornerstone of the CSTO military exercise program. But there are some new twists this time. For the first time in the history of the exercises, Russia's ambassador to NATO Aleksandr Grushko is observing them. "Obviously, in the situation where NATO countries are pursuing a course of military containment of Russia, we have to undertake efforts to ensure that Russia's safety is secured," he said at a press conference there. "I'm sure that the NATO countries are carefully following" the CSTO exercises, he added. "The art of war is an extremely competitive field."
Russian officials have said that they want to deploy new missiles in Belarus in response to American missile defense deployments in Romania and Poland, a new test for Minsk's precarious balancing act between Russia and the West.
The United States's new missile defense site in Romania officially became operational earlier this month, and Russians (justifiably) see the new facility as targeted towards their country. Russian President Vladimir Putin has promised "strong countermeasures" to respond. There have been no official suggestions about what that might entail, but anonymous Russian officials have been saying that one measure could be to deploy Iskander-M missiles in Belarus.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited Minsk on May 16 and that proposal was reportedly on the agenda. A source "close to the Russian defense ministry" told the newspaper Kommersant that deploying Iskander-Ms to Belarus would be a "logical response" to the American missile defense installation and other NATO activity close to Russia's western borders.
During Lavrov's visit, his Belarusian counterpart Uladzimer Makey criticized the American missile-defense deployment and said that Belarus and Russia agreed to discuss taking "appropriate countermeasures together."
U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Carpenter meets with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in Minsk. (photo: president.gov.by)
The United States and Belarus are intensifying their military cooperation, as Minsk -- nominally a close ally of Russia -- seems to be trying to diversify its options.
U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Carpenter visited Minsk at the end of last month, where he said Washington "hope[s] to build a foundation for improving our bilateral relations, including in the security and defense arena." Carpenter also mentioned "progress that we have seen over the past six months," apparently referring to the release of some political prisoners. That was the pretext for the U.S. and the European Union loosening some sanctions on the country, though it appears that the West's increasing attentions to Minsk may be more motivated by geopolitical considerations vis-a-vis Russia.
Carpenter met with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, a surprisingly high-level reception for someone of his rank in the Pentagon bureaucracy. The main result of the visit appears to have been an agreement to exchange military attaches. (The U.S. embassy in Minsk has been operating on a skeleton crew since 2008 when the Belarusian government forced them to downsize.) During the visit it also emerged that defense talks between the two sides began last year, with the previously unreported visit of a Belarusian defense ministry official to Washington.
With Nagorno Karabakh's worst violence in two decades having abated, Armenia and Azerbaijan are taking stock of how loyally their allies and partners responded to the crisis. And in most cases, both sides have found the responses wanting.
The major outside player in the conflict remains Russia, but its actions and the subsequent reactions followed a well-worn path: Armenia complained that its ostensible ally was providing weapons to its enemy, Russia justified that policy in terms of a balance of power, and nothing concrete changed.
While Armenia is a treaty ally of Russia, hosts a Russian military base, and gets discounted Russian weaponry in return, oil-rich Azerbaijan has rearmed itself, with the aim of retaking its lost territory, buying most of its arms from the very same Russia.
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin visited the region at the end of last week, part of a Russian diplomatic blitz that seems to have succeeded in tamping down the violence for the time being. And both officials made it clear that Russia did not intend to change its policy of supplying both sides.
“If we consider for a moment that Russia gave up that role, we all will see clearly that such place won’t remain vacant. Weapons will be bought from other countries, and that won’t make weapons less deadly. However, it could ruin the current balance to some extent,” Medvedev said. "Everything is done in compliance with the contracts. Both these countries are our strategic partners," Rogozin said.
Russia's post-Soviet security alliance is showing more and more signs of fracturing along regional, cultural, and political fault lines, as Armenia criticizes other members for not taking its side against Azerbaijan.
Armenia is probably the most loyal member of the alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization. And Yerevan has long complained about the fact that some of the other CSTO members, like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, have supported Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia in Turkic and Muslim fora.
That tension has been heightened recently as a result of increasing violence along the line of contact between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces around the disputed Nagorno Karabakh territory, as well as the fallout between Russia and Turkey.
The CSTO's Turkic members, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, have sympathized with Turkey over Russia in that dispute to a degree that is suprising given Russia's far stronger economic and strategic ties in Central Asia. And if they're not willing to support Russia -- which really has the ability to either pressure or help the Central Asian states -- they are certainly far less likely to support Armenia, which which they have little in common other than a fading Soviet legacy.
The schism doesn't have only to do pan-Turkic sympathies between Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey, and Azerbaijan. Belarus, too, has refused to take the Kremlin's side against Turkey. Just as important as any cultural ties is a reluctance among all of Russia's allies to sign up for Moscow's increasingly unpredictable foreign policy ventures.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko meet in Moscow on December 15. (photo: kremlin.ru)
The prospect of a Russian air base in Belarus "will not be discussed," Belarus's defense minister has said, but regional analysts believe the issue is far from resolved.
Belarus-Russia relations have been a little strained lately, with one bone of contention being Russia's open desire to establish an air base on the territory its western neighbor, and Belarus's resistance. Russian officials have been talking about the base for two years, with regular statements met by conspicuous silence from Minsk. That changed in October when President Alexander Lukashenko, for the first time, said Belarus didn't need a Russian base, and furthermore denying that there had even been discussions to that effect.
Lukashenko was supposed to meet his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in November, but that meeting was abruptly canceled. The two finally got together in Moscow last week, but nothing was said publicly about the base. After the meeting, Putin only glancingly mentioned security issues: "We agreed to develop our military and military-technical cooperation to strengthen regional stability and security."
A few days later, Belarus's defense minister Andrei Ravkov was asked about the prospect of a Russian base. "Nothing has changed. The issue hasn't been discussed and won't be discussed, most likely," he said.