When Russia banned many Western agricultural products last week in response to Western sanctions, it created a $9.5 billion hole for other countries to fill. Immediately, officials across Central Asia optimistically announced plans to help plug the gap.
But sudden shortages created by the ban have all but guaranteed to increase inflation in Russia, a major food importer. And Central Asians will suffer likewise because their expected jump in exports will leave fewer products available to local consumers, thus driving up prices at home.
All this highlights a paradoxical mix of opportunities and risks for Kazakhstan, a member of the Moscow-led Customs Union whose economy often feels ripple effects from Russia. Aside from the immediate pros and cons of the food ban, Kazakhstan is clearly spooked by Russia’s deepening confrontation with the West over its support for rebels in Ukraine, concerned about the fallout from a slowing Russian economy.
Kazakhstan’s response to the food ban paints a picture of a junior partner struggling to navigate the shoals between an increasingly isolationist Kremlin and its own ambitions of greater global integration.
When the Shanghai Cooperation Organization exercises kick off August 24, the organization that is often promoted as an "alternative to the West" will be benefitting from American and European contributions.
Kazakhstan will be transporting its troops on the C-295 it bought from Airbus. And Kyrgyzstan's contribution will be made up largely of soldiers from the 'Scorpions' and 'Ilbirs' special forces units that the U.S. has spent a lot of money and time training.
In 2009, for example, the U.S. ambassador to Bishkek opened a brand-new base for the Scorpions, built with $9 million of U.S. Central Command's money. "The compound, which consists of 12 buildings, landscaping and accompanying infrastructure, is truly the gold standard in Central Asian construction and far exceeds any other facility the Kyrgyz currently have," according to a U.S. diplomatic cable describing the event. The U.S. also has spent millions to both train and equip the Scorpions and Ilbirs.
This isn't exactly news: The Scorpions and Ilbirs units have participated in several SCO exercises in the past, including drills in 2007, 2010, and 2012.
Russia has settled on a location for its planned air base in Belarus scheduled to start operating next year, the head of the air force has said.
The base will be located in Baranovichi, in western Belarus, said Lieutenant General Viktor Bondarev. “We will set up a base in Baranovichi. We are only waiting for an intergovernmental agreement to be signed,” he said.
The base will host Russian Su-27 aircraft, four of which were deployed to Baranovichi in December. But it hadn't been clear where the base would ultimately be located. When Russian officials announced plans for the base last summer they said it would be at a base in Lida; by November they were saying that "several potential locations have been identified in Belarus, but that further consultations were needed with the neighboring former Soviet nation's authorities."
"We never planned this in Lida, everything will be in Baranovichi," Bondarev said Monday, despite the fact that it was Bondarev himself who had originally identified Lida as the site.
A video of the capture of an Armenian man who died in Azerbaijani captivity last week is fuelling anger in Armenia over claims that Azerbaijani forces tortured an unarmed Armenian villager to death. As so much in this brutal conflict, it comes with controversy from the other side, too. Footage showing a middle-aged Azerbaijani man in handcuffs being carted off by forces in disputed Nagorno Karabakh is raising hackles in Azerbaijan.
Armenia claims that 31-year-old Karen Petrosian was only a harmless villager who wandered into enemy-territory, while Azerbaijan claims he was an enemy-combatant. Amateur online video shows Petrosian talking to residents of the Azerbaijani border village Agbulaq. One woman from the village, who allegedly first sighted the man, told RFE/RL that Petrosian showed up unarmed and asked for tea.
Additional footage shows the villagers scuffling with Azerbaijani soldiers over Petrosian. RFE/RL reported that the villagers wanted credit for capturing the Armenian.
Russia has promised Kyrgyzstan $500 million in assistance to help the reluctant country’s preparations to join the Moscow-led Customs Union, an economic bloc that currently includes Belarus and Kazakhstan. As usual when numbers fly between Russian and Kyrgyz officials, details are scarce.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on August 11 that the funds (“details to be agreed upon”) will ensure “maximum comfort” for Bishkek during its journey into the common economic space. Few believe that Kyrgyzstan, which has long served as a conduit for cheap Chinese goods through Central Asia into Russia, has much to offer the protectionist trade bloc. But always eager to please Moscow, Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev has been talking about membership since his inauguration in December 2011.
Lavrov’s announcement came while Atambayev was visiting Russia for a meeting with President Vladimir Putin.
Atambayev told Putin that Kyrgyzstan would enter the Customs Union by the end of the year (and the Eurasian Economic Union, when it is born in January), but noted the “difficulties” the country will face integrating with the more industrialized economies already in the bloc.
For almost a year now, Kyrgyz policymakers, notably Economics Minister Temir Sariev, have been putting figures on those “difficulties”—expected inflation and a rise in unemployment stemming from the decline in lucrative re-export trade from China. Last November, Sariev said Kyrgyzstan would require $200 million a year over six or seven years in the form of a “fund” to help readjust its re-export-dependent economy to the demands of the Customs Union.
It says something about Recep Tayyip Erdogan's political audacity and his Justice and Development Party's (AKP) marketing chutzpah that despite the Turkish leader having served as prime minister for some twelve years they were still able to sell his victory in yesterday's presidential election as the starting point for a "New Turkey." After over a decade of thoroughly dominating Turkey's political scene, there is certainly very little that is new about Erdogan.
Erdogan's win does signal something new, and that is another chapter in what by now is the long-running story of the mercurial leader's very public quest for increased power. With his ascendancy to the president's office assured, Erdogan is now faced with some new challenges: namely, how to enhance his powers despite the constraints placed on the president by the constitution and Turkey's existing parliamentary system, and how to restructure the government so that this goal is best served and the AKP stays in power past the next parliamentary elections.
In a new briefing, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy's Turkey expert, Soner Cagaptay, lists the current powers available to the Turkish president -- from chairing cabinet meetings to vetoing bills -- and suggests Erdogan will push those to the limit (if not beyond) to maintain his dominance:
The joint military exercises of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization will involve about 7,000 troops, the largest number in an SCO exercise in many years, as the organization seems to be taking on a new prominence in the wake of collapsing Russia-West relations.
The bulk of the troops exercising, as in past years, appear to be from China. Russia announced that it is sending about 900 troops, as well as hardware including four Su-25 jets and eight Mi-8MT helicopters. Kazakhstan said it is participating with about 300 troops from an air-mobile unit. From Tajikistan, more than 200 soldiers are participating, including members of an unnamed "rapid reaction unit." (An aside: one wonders if it is one of the special forces units that the U.S. has trained.) Uzbekistan, as usual, does not seem to be participating at all. Kyrgyzstan is sending about 500 soldiers. So if it's 7,000 total, that's about 5,000 from China.
The exercises, Peace Mission 2014, will be held August 24 to 29 in China's Inner Mongolia region. But participating countries have already started moving their troops toward China. "Loading up -- that's already a stage of the exercise. We're trying to improve, getting used to loading up our equipment," said Ruslan Muzdybayev, the deputy commander of Kazakhstan's air mobile forces for military readiness.
Vladimir Putin is riding a wave of popularity in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan that mirrors his approval rating at home in Russia, a new poll has found. Most residents of these impoverished post-Soviet states wish to join his Eurasian Union. America and Barack Obama, on the other hand, fare poorly in the region.
In Kyrgyzstan, 90 percent of respondents express either a “great deal” or “fair amount” of confidence in the Russian president. Fewer than 60 percent say the same about their own president, Almazbek Atambayev; 26 percent voice confidence in Barack Obama, according to the poll, released last week by Toronto-based M-Vector Consulting, and 35.3 percent in Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
In Tajikistan, 85 percent proclaim confidence in Putin, 26.5 percent in Obama, and 31.1 in Xi. (By comparison, in July 85 percent of Russians said they approve of Putin, according to the Levada Center in Moscow.) M-Vector did not undertake the politically sensitive task of measuring support for Tajikistan’s authoritarian strongman, Emomali Rakhmon.
M-Vector interviewed 1,021 adults in Kyrgyzstan and 1,077 in Tajikistan by telephone in late June and early July for the poll, part of its Central Asia Barometer series. The poll has a margin of error of 3.2 points and a confidence level of 95 percent. (The pollster shared the results with EurasiaNet.org by email.)
Putin’s Eurasian Union is almost as popular as he is, the poll found. In Kyrgyzstan, 71.2 percent say their country should join; 8 percent say they are not sure. In Tajikistan, 80.3 percent favor joining; 13.5 percent cannot say.
The Putin-Aliyev-Sargsyan meeting in Sochi was held against the backdrop of the fiercest fighting in years over the remote, mountainous area. That sense of heightened conflict extended to the summit. Before attending the wrestling match, the Azerbaijani and Armenian presidents had a bout of words between themselves. The two accused one another of ignoring UN Security Council resolutions on Karabakh.
That left it to Putin to step in with calls for wisdom and temperance. “[T]here is no bigger tragedy than the deaths of people,” observed the Russian leader.
Perhaps he was speaking from experience, if not from a sense of irony. The international community has widely blamed Moscow for encouraging the fighting in eastern Ukraine between Kyiv and pro-Russian separatists that already has led to the deaths of hundreds, including the downing of Malaysian Airways Flight MH17.
With the battle against the militants of the Islamic State (IS) heating up in Iraq and Turkey -- along with the United States and other countries -- getting involved by providing support for the Kurdish forces fighting there, it's clear that regional foreign policy questions will dominate Ankara's agenda for the foreseeable future.
As Turks head to polls on Sunday to elect a new president, a vote Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan expected to win, the question now is what might Turkish foreign policy during his presidency look like, especially considering that Erdogan is widely expected to even further consolidate his power once he takes office?
Writing in The National Interest, analyst Sinan Ulgen lays out the fairly serious foreign policy challenges that Turkey's next president will face:
Turkey’s new government will also inherit a difficult foreign-policy portfolio. Erdogan’s initial vision to normalize the county’s relationships with its Southern neighbors and to position Turkey as a regional power interested in advancing peace and prosperity by emphasizing economic cooperation and mediation allowed Ankara to gain substantial ground. But Turkish policy makers misinterpreted the extent of the country’s growing soft-power influence by becoming overconfident about their ability to shape regional dynamics.