Amidst mounting concerns in Washington about Russia’s military presence in war-ravaged Syria, one question persists — if existing air routes for Russian flights to Syria are closed, what will be Moscow’s backup plan? Long a corridor between Russia and fellow Syrian ally Iran, the South Caucasus countries of Georgia and Armenia appear an option to some.
It is unclear, however, what exact role US ally Georgia, to Russia's south, and Russian ally Armenia, to Iran's north, play or could play in any such corridor.
So far, government agencies in both Caucasus countries and US diplomats have equivocated on the matter.
On September 11, Georgian aviation officials announced that Russia, its northern neighbor, has not asked to use Georgia’s airspace for Syria-bound flights “in recent days or in the past two months.” Whether it did so before “the past two months” was not specified in the statement to GHN newswire.
In Armenia, with which Russia has just announced plans for a joint air defense union, the foreign ministry deferred questions on Russian military flights to Armenia’s Civil Aviation Authority.
Armenian Civil Aviation Authority Spokesperson Rouben Grdzelian told EurasiaNet.org that “there isn’t any restriction” on Russian military flights “as Russia can freely use Armenian airspace . . .” Russian military flights come into Erebuni, a military airport just outside of the capital, Yerevan, almost every day, he added.
The president of Kazakhstan’s eldest daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, has been named deputy prime minister in an appointment that will reignite speculation she is being primed to succeed her father.
Nazarbayeva, 52, has hitherto spent the bulk of her political career in Kazakhstan’s rubber stamp parliament.
Nazarbayeva was appointed to the post by her father, Nursultan Nazarbayev, in a decree signed on September 11.
No explanation has been offered for Nazarbayeva’s elevation to the office, but she replaces Berdybek Saparbayev, who has been named governor of the oil-rich Aktobe Region as part of a reshuffle of provincial officials.
Nazarbayeva had previously held the position of deputy speaker of parliament, where she also headed the faction of the ruling Nur Otan party, which is led by her father.
Her appointment to government seals a political comeback that Nazarbayeva has made in recent times, following several years in the political wilderness sparked by the downfall of her former husband, Rakhat Aliyev. He fell afoul of Nazarbayev and fled Kazakhstan in 2007, after which the president’s daughter divorced him.
Aliyev was later found guilty in trials held in absentia in Kazakhstan of a litany of crimes ranging from kidnapping and embezzlement to plotting a coup d’etat.
In February he was found hanged in a prison cell in Austria, where he was on trial for the murder of two Kazakhstani bankers.
Kazakhstan has launched festivities to mark over half a millennium of Kazakh statehood in a celebration designed to shore up patriotism at home and make a geopolitical statement abroad.
“We pay tribute to the memory and deeds of our ancestors, remembering that the history of our sacred land dates back several centuries,” President Nursultan Nazarbayev said in Astana at the kickoff to a month of nationwide celebrations.
There will be festivities in Astana this weekend ahead of the main events in the southern city of Taraz in October as Kazakhstan marks 550 years since the khans Kerey and Zhanibek created the first Kazakh khanate.
The date seems arbitrary to some critics, but Nazarbayev defended it when he announced the plans for the celebrations last fall.
“The statehood of the Kazakhs dates to those times,” he said. “It may not have been a state in the modern understanding of this term, in the current borders. … [But] it is important that the foundation was laid then, and we are the people continuing the great deeds of our ancestors.”
A board showing exchange rates in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on September 10, 2015.
Kazakhstan’s currency hit historic lows on September 9 in another day of decline for the tenge on the stock exchange since the government last month stopped propping it up.
By the evening, the tenge was trading at 261 to the dollar in exchange offices in Almaty, the financial capital.
The currency recovered slightly on September 10, with bureaux de change in Almaty buying dollars at 258 tenge in the morning and at 253 by lunchtime. That was the same as the rate set by the National Bank, which has fallen by 6 percent over the course of a week.
The tenge closed at 255 to the dollar on the Kazakhstan Stock Exchange on September 9, but appreciated to close at 252 at the end of morning trading the following day.
Exchange rates have experienced intense volatility since August 20, when the government announced it was finally abandoning costly efforts to maintain the national currency. President Nursultan Nazarbayev said at the time that authorities had spent $28 billion since the start of 2014 on defending the tenge.
The move to a free float was inevitable, but it has been painful for Kazakhstanis, whose currency has depreciated by 36 percent since the decision was taken.
Russia has given its allies half a billion dollars in discounts on weaponry, the head of Russia's post-Soviet security bloc, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, has said.
"In recent years the volume of deliveries, purchases of weaponry by our allies for the collective forces of the CSTO has significantly increased," Nikolay Bordyuzha, the CSTO General Secretary, told Russian news agency Interfax. "Over the last few years the effect has exceeded $500 million. That is, our allies have saved as a result of the agreement on subsidies for military-technical cooperation."
And, he added, "these purchases are increasing every year."
That Russia gives discounts on weaponry via the CSTO isn't news, but we don't often hear about the amount. As a point of comparison, Russia exported about $15 billion in weaponry last year.
The main recipients of the subsidized weaponry are Kazakhstan, Armenia, and Belarus, Bordyuzha said. The other two CSTO members, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, are getting direct Russian military aid packages of more than a billion dollars each.
Azerbaijan plans to take French public television channel France 2 to court for an investigative program that called the Azerbaijani government a “dictatorship” and its leader, President Ilham Aliyev, a “despot.”
"We wondered if, during lunch with the dictator from the Caucasus, one was able to speak of oil and human rights without anyone around the table choking," the voiceover explained.
Nationally broadcast TV programs that question Azerbaijan’s rights record do not arrive at an auspicious time for the country. After hosting the European Games this July and agreeing to take on other mega-sports events, it now is considering whether or not to bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics. The deadline is September 15.
Arguably, Cash Investigation's nearly two-hour-long report would do little to enhance any application Baku chooses to submit. Hinging on a 2014 trip to Baku by French President François Hollande, the story includes footage of police crackdowns on protesters and interviews with recently sentenced human-rights advocate Leyla Yunus and investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova.*
In a signal of a major downgrade in Turkmenistan’s generous welfare system, the Council of Elders advisory body proposed on September 10 to abolish the free supply of electricity, cooking gas and water to the country’s households, state media reported.
The plan marks the strongest indicator to date of the extent of damage being caused by falling global energy prices to an economy so heavily reliant on natural gas exports.
Supporters of the idea, which will beyond all certainty enter into force, argued that it was time for Turkmenistan to embrace market rules. The Council of Elders ostensibly serves as a would-be bridge between representatives of local communities and the central government, but it is evident that it takes its cues from the authorities.
“For many years already, we have been using free gas, power and water. There is nothing like this welfare system anywhere else in the world. What is more, these benefits cost large amounts to the state budget, and so I think that the time has come for a charge to be imposed on these services,” said Gozel Saparmuradova, a Council of Elders deputy and teacher from the Dashoguz province.
Businessman Hudainazar Atageldiev weighed in to remind the audience of how much life had improved in recent years.
“That is why I am proposing introducing payment for the use of gas, water and electricity, which will allow private enterprises to operate more profitably in market conditions, bringing positive results to our economy,” Atageldiev said.
Those speeches followed an address from President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who also touched on the subject.
"How long are we going to be throwing away our wealth? We should leave our descendants a legacy of natural riches, a clean environment and a strong state,” he said in remarks broadcast on state television.
The duel between the West and Russia for the Caucasus might just be becoming a truel. In its continued fervor to embrace China and attract Chinese hunger for global investment and exports, Georgia has launched talks on free trade with Beijing.
“Our main goal is to make the most prudent use of our strategic location,” said Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili on September 10 at the World Economic Forum in the Chinese city of Dalian, where the Georgian leader met his Chinese counterpart, Li Kepiang.
Dalian is on the ancient East-West trade route known as the Silk Road, which China is looking to bring back to life by investing in transportation and energy infrastructure along the way.
“Georgia is Europe’s natural gateway to Asia, as it is Europe’s eastern most [syc] point both by land and sea,” Gharibashvili elaborated in a September 10 op-ed in the English-language China Daily, seen as a Beijing mouthpiece.
In his commentary Gharibashvili went through the selling points for Georgia as a critical hub in the Chinese government’s transnational project for integrating Chinese and Eurasian trade and investment.
With its economy still struggling for a breather, Tbilisi hopes that Georgia’s investment-friendly tax policy and free-trade agreement with the European Union will encourage more Chinese business to provide a much-needed financial boost. Gharibashvili’s office said that Chinese officials will visit Tbilisi in mid-October for a Silk Road conference.
Georgian Defense Minister Tinatin Khidasheli and General Ben Hodges, commander of U.S. Army Europe, meet in Tbilisi on September 7. (photo: MoD Georgia)
The United States is practicing how quickly it can deploy its military to Georgia in order to respond to "Russian aggression," Georgia's defense minister has said.
General Ben Hodges, the commander of U.S. Army forces in Europe, visited Tbilisi and spoke September 7 at a conference, "Georgia: Europe’s New Geopolitical Landscape: Security, Economic Opportunity, Freedom and Human Dignity for the Frontline States." Hodges also met with Minister of Defense Tinatin Khidasheli and senior Georgian military officials.
"There were a lot of interesting nuances when he discussed joint Georgian-American exercises," Khidasheli said after the meeting. "In particular, one of the objectives of these exercises will be to see how quickly the US military vehicles and soldiers will arrive in Georgia in case of aggression – something that the General stated publicly.”
"For me, as Defence Minister, General Ben Hodges’ speech was very interesting. He made some interesting points, especially when talking about Russia,” she continued. "He very clearly and directly said that Russia had been busy with aggression for 20 years. I think when an American General says such phrases, it means a lot.”
However, it's not clear exactly what Hodges' words were. The press office of U.S. Army Europe, asked by The Bug Pit to clarify Hodges's remarks, provided a transcript of his answers to reporters' questions at the conference, but they contained nothing about U.S. forces responding to Russian aggression in Georgia.
According to a report on the website civil.ge, Hodges's remarks were somewhat vaguer:
As tensions again flare up between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Moscow has agreed to lend Yerevan $200 million for weaponry purchases at reduced rates.
In a September 7 statement after meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at his Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside of Moscow, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan claimed the preferential credit will facilitate “upgrading” the Armenian military’s stockpile of arms. Financial details were not available.
With a base in Armenia, Russia long has served as Armenia’s primary source of arms, even as it co-chairs peace talks between the two countries. The Kremlin has long used both hands to maintain influence in the South Caucasus, but the aid to Armenia left observers wondering what Putin's current game in the region is.
Moscow had been believed to be trying to pull Baku closer in, but the announcement of the gun deal will only chafe Baku. Media reports suggested that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was dispatched to Baku last week with the goal of coaxing Azerbaijan into a closer alliance with Moscow amidst the chill with the West over Azerbaijan’s dismal human rights record.