An American sailor monitors the Breeze 2014 exercises from the USS Vella Gulf. (photo: U.S. Navy)
Competing Black Sea naval exercises by NATO and Russia have again raised tensions in the region as the once sleepy sea has become a venue for geopolitical competition.
Russia's exercise started July 4 and involves 20 ships and 20 aircraft. Its scenario was the "destruction of enemy ships in the sea and organization of air defense of naval groups and coastal infrastructure."
NATO's exercises, called "Breeze" and formally hosted by Bulgaria, also started July 4 and continue until July 13, with ships from Greece, Italy, Romania, Turkey, the U.K. and the U.S. also taking part, along with naval patrol planes from Turkey and the U.S. The exercises are "aimed at improving the tactical compatibility and collaboration among naval forces of the alliance's member states."
And the U.S. participation, with the guided missile cruiser USS Vella Gulf is intended to "reassure" allies in the region, a thinly veiled reference to Russia: "It is important to support and reassure our partners, we hope our presence in the Black Sea continues to strengthen those bonds," the USS Vella Gulf's commander said.
An exchange of fire between troops on a disputed section of the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border reportedly left at least one dead and several injured on July 10. Tensions have risen sharply again in this volatile part of the Fergana Valley after negotiations over a controversial road construction project fell apart earlier this week.
According to the Kyrgyz Border Service, about 30 Tajik citizens were trying to build a water pipeline from Kyrgyz territory to the Vorukh exclave, a parcel of Tajik territory surrounded entirely by Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyz border guards demanded they stop, the Tajiks threw stones and eventually troops from the two sides exchanged fire.
According to the Tajik-language service of Radio Liberty, citing a local doctor in Vorukh, one Tajik national (apparently a civilian) died and five were injured in the exchange of fire. Dushanbe’s Asia-Plus news agency reports seven wounded. Tajikistan's Foreign Ministry says the Kyrgyz border guards picked a fight, shot without warning, and that the Tajik border guards did not fire a single shot.
Later in the day, the Kyrgyz Border Service said Tajik border guards had opened fire on another Kyrgyz checkpoint, this time with mortars and grenades.
Taking its Eurasian-Union dreams into the Western Hemisphere, Armenia has offered itself to Argentina as a conduit for trade with the Russia-led economic club, even though Yerevan is still knocking on the Union’s door for entry.
At a July 7 lunch-reception in Buenos Aires, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan raised a glass to the Argentine city, “the world capital of tango, [a city] filled with the melody and spirit of that dance,” and thanked Argentina, home to one of the world’s largest Armenian Diasporas, for supporting the pan-Armenian cause of international recognition of Ottoman Turkey’s World-War-I-era massacre of ethnic Armenians as genocide. A day later, he attended the opening of an Armenian Genocide Museum in Buenos Aires.
Sargsyan, though, had more than 1915 and tangos on his mind. In a pointed nod to Argentina’s status as Armenia’s fifth-largest foreign direct investor, Armenia encouraged this “football superpower” to pass some trade via Armenia into the Eurasian-Union-market of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Argentina’s official response could not be found.
But President Sargsyan could be getting ahead of himself here. Armenia’s own entrance into the Eurasian Union has been repeatedly delayed, with the latest prospective join-date now “by the end of the year,” according to Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian.
The ghost of sectarian violence appears to be stalking authoritarian but boastfully secular Azerbaijan, with local clashes and the resurgence of jihadism in Iraq and Syria casting a long shadow.
Several Shi’a Muslims, adherents to this Caucasus country’s dominant religion, recently forcibly shaved the beard of a Sunni man from an alleged Wahhabi group in the town of Sabirabad, 170 kilometers southwest of the Azerbaijani capital, Baku. A mobile video of the attack was posted on YouTube on July 4, but promptly removed.
The police launched a probe into the incident and religious officials have condemned it, but, apparently, not fast enough for some people. Local news reports claim that, in an apparent retaliatory attack on July 5, Wahhabi men beat several Shi’a believers in a village on the outskirts of Baku during an iftar, the evening meal at the end of the daily Ramadan fast.
“This is the tragedy of a man, who, after the Soviet period, is not allowed to live his faith and to proselytize,” Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, a prominent religious-rights scholar and imam, commented to SalamNews.org about the beard-shaving incident. “This is the tragedy of an Azerbaijani man who goes from one extreme to another.”
Ibragimoglu blamed the confrontations on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a jihadist group that allegedly has recruited many followers in Azerbaijan. “But this gives absolutely no right to anyone to shave the beard of every bearded man who comes along,” he underlined.
That’s the lesson after a Chinese company appears to have bested a Russian one for the right to turn Kyrgyzstan’s main civilian airport into a strategic aviation “hub” for freight and passenger flights connecting Europe and Asia.
The Chinese maneuver would not have surprised anyone in a country where China is building almost everything, except that Kremlin-controlled energy giant Rosneft appeared to have had the deal to remodel Bishkek’s Manas International Airport in the bag. On February 19, Putin ally Igor Sechin, Rosneft’s chairman, and Kyrgyz First Deputy Prime Minister Djoomart Otorbaev (now prime minister), signed a memorandum on Rosneft’s interest in the airport and its lucrative fuel-distribution contracts.
Fast forward five months and both Russian and Taiwanese media are reporting that Beijing Urban Construction Group will invest $1 billion in the makeover, a figure similar to the Rosneft deal. China Machinery Engineering Corporation will sign a $300 million deal for the country’s second airport, in the southern city of Osh—another asset that had interested Rosneft.
"So far these are memorandums of intention, but in the near future the fully planned projects will be ready," Kommersant quoted Kyrgyz Economics Minister Temir Sariyev as saying on July 4. The reports do not mention what share in the airports the Chinese will get.
U.S., Mongolian, and other militaries take part in Khaan Quest 2014 exercises in Mongolia. From top: U.S. Marines hold back simulated protesters in riot control training; Mongolian and U.S. troops practice riverine training; traditional Mongolian wrestling; soldiers from Tajikistan take part in riot-control exercises. (photos: U.S. military public affairs)
Over 1,000 soldiers, including about 300 Americans, took part in joint military exercises in Mongolia aimed at preparing for international peacekeeping missions. The annual exercise, known as Khaan Quest, is the biggest event in the U.S.-Mongolia military relationship, which has been gaining importance as Mongolia tries to diversify its foreign relations beyond its two immediate neighbors, China and Russia, and as the U.S. is happy to help.
In addition to Americans and Mongolians the participants in this year's version of Khaan Quest include troops from South Korea, India, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, France, United Kingdom and Germany. Several more countries sent observers, including Belarus, China, India, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Tajikistan. The exercises were held from June 20-July 1.
The military scenarios drilled include riot control, response to an improvised explosive device, and community outreach programs like renovating a school and operating health clinics.
Russia's turn will come in a few weeks; its annual joint military exercises with Mongolia, called Selenga, will this year take place in mid-August and will involve about 500 Russian soldiers.
In the corner of a small pizzeria in central Bishkek, an experiment is unfolding. Central Asia’s first and only bitcoin ATM converts dollars into the world’s most popular cryptocurrency. The machine – which looks like one of the city’s ubiquitous electronic pay terminals – offers a way to convert hard currency into a digital medium that is increasingly used in online transactions.
That could impact how Kyrgyzstan’s estimated one million migrant workers transfer their earnings home, says the machine’s owner, Emanuele Costa, an Italian financial analyst. The World Bank estimates that last year migrant remittances totaled the equivalent of 31 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s GDP. Most of that money, several billion dollars, was transferred through expensive, fee-based services like Western Union and Zolotaya Korona. Costa, a former analyst with Goldman Sachs, sees bitcoin as a low-cost, secure and confidential alternative.
Bitcoin, invented by a group of anonymous Internet users in 2009, is the first and most prominent digital cryptocurrency to gain wide circulation. Not controlled by national governments or banks, bitcoin offers a peer-to-peer encrypted payment system that can be readily converted into cash or, increasingly, used in exchange for products or services. Fees, when they exist, are agreed upon by users and are usually nominal. Bitcoin’s value fluctuates based on supply and demand; one bitcoin is currently worth about $642.
Though Costa is a staunch believer in bitcoin’s potential, he admits that it faces some hurdles. Foremost is a lack of understanding.
Georgia filed a complaint against Russia in Europe’s senior human-rights court in 2007, but it took nearly seven years for the EHCR to pass a verdict . “The Russian authorities had implemented a coordinated policy of arresting, detaining and expelling Georgians nationals” violating international law that bars the “collective expulsion of aliens” and “inhuman and degrading treatment,” the ECHR said in a press release on the July 3 verdict.
The long-awaited verdict put Tbilisi in a celebratory mood. “I would like to congratulate with this victory all those Georgians, who were subjected to degrading treatment, and to tell them that the European Court has stood up for their rights,” Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani, a former ECHR employee, said in a statement.
Chinese workers in Kyrgyzstan are known for their stoicism amid rising xenophobia and appalling labor conditions. But something seems to have snapped this week for a crew of migrants toiling to build an oil refinery in the northern city of Tokmak.
According to Kyrgyz and Russian press reports, 39 Chinese migrants downed tools, blocked entry to the facility and took several Kyrgyz employees hostage on June 30. Police fired shots into the air to break up the protest, according to a police source.
Twenty-five of the migrants were working illegally, police say, and have been deported. The rest have been fined.
The riot coincided with payday and the Chinese appear to have felt shortchanged. According to Kyrgyz media outlet Knews, citing local police in contact with the refinery’s Chinese director, the migrants were angered that pay was being withheld to cover the cost of their transport from China.
The Chinese Embassy in Bishkek has not commented on the incident.
Ties between Afghanistan and its Central Asian neighbors to the north, in spite of years of encouragement by Western officials, remain at a very low level, with the conspicuous exception being the cross-border drug trade. That's the conclusion of a comprehensive new report, Between Cooperation And Insulation: Afghanistan's Relations with the Central Asian Republics.
"The trans-border narcotics trade between Afghanistan and Central Asia – supported, managed and/or protected by government officials and security forces on both sides of the border – is the one enduring economic connection that has demonstrated resilience since the fall of the Taleban, as well as promise for the future. It is the only true cross-border economic activity that is truly supported by all relevant state and non-state actors," write the report's authors, Christian Bleuer and Said Reza Kazemi.
And so, they argue, Western policies aimed at stemming the drug trade suffer from the fatal flaw that their partners in this effort, the Central Asian governments, benefit from the trafficking:=
"[S]ecurity risks that link Afghanistan to the former Soviet republics of Central Asia are often highly exaggerated, especially so the alleged link between narcotics trafficking and radical Islamist groups. In reality, throughout Central Asia the main players in narcotics trafficking are government employees, security officers and mafia figures," the report says. "Throughout Central Asia the narcotics trade has deeply penetrated the economic, social, political and security structures and created mutually beneficial relations. Powerful government and security figures use state resources and structures to actively assist and/or control this trade in cooperation with powerful mafia leaders."