Kyrgyzstan’s problems probably featured pretty low on Vladimir Putin’s to-do list when he traveled to Tashkent this week.
Some in Kyrgyzstan believe the Russian president, and only he, can end their country’s intractable disputes with its neighbor. There was hope, for example, that Putin could get Karimov to resume gas supplies to southern Kyrgyzstan.
Though Putin had a nice package of goodies for his Uzbek counterpart on December 10 – he wrote off most of Tashkent’s debt and showed support only a few months before Karimov is expected to stand for reelection – it is unclear what he got for Russia.
Per usual, Karimov ducked a press conference. And he did not publically opine on the elephant in the room: Tashkent’s future role, if any, in relation to Putin's Eurasian Economic Union.
One of the items supposedly on the agenda, however, was gas.
The standoff in the Fergana Valley directly involves Russia. Russia’s Gazprom had just taken control of Kyrgyzgaz in April when UzTransGaz said it had no obligation to supply Gazprom. Kyrgyzstan’s second-largest city has been without gas ever since.
The meeting failed to produce a breakthrough, Kyrgyz media reported.
Many analysts assume Uzbekistan is using gas to gain leverage over its poverty-stricken upstream neighbor as well as that neighbor's benefactor—Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin discusses weapons sales with his Uzbekistan counterpart Islam Karimov. (photo: Kremlin)
Uzbekistan appears to be increasingly relying on Russia for military equipment as the United States withdraws from Afghanistan without -- as Tashkent had hoped -- handing over some of its secondhand gear.
During Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit to Tashkent this week, the big news was that Russia would forgive almost $1 billion of Uzbekistan's debt in order to free up new credits for Uzbekistan to buy Russian military equipment.
What equipment might be under consideration isn't yet known, but Interfax suggested that "because of the existing security threats in Uzbekistan, the country may be interested in purchasing helicopters, armoured vehicles, air-defence weapons and small arms made in Russia." Information about arms purchases by Uzbekistan are very hard to come by; the think tank SIPRI, the most authoritative source on arms sales around the world, doesn't list Uzbekistan as having bought anything in the last 12 years.
An anonymous source "close to the Russian delegation" told Deutsche Welle's Russian service that "during the negotiations in Tashkent the expansion of military-technical cooperation was discussed by the delegations in detail." And part of the reason, the source said, is that Uzbekistan isn't getting what it hoped for from the U.S.:
Armenia ranks third after Israel and Singapore as the world’s most militarized country relative to population and economy-size, according to a report released this week by a German-government-financed think-tank, the Bonn International Center for Conversion.
The Center’s Global Militarisation Index 2014 claims that the small Caucasus country of just under three million is the European continent’s most militarized nation. It measures militarization as the “weight of [a] military apparatus” “in relation to its society as a whole” — a standard that puts Armenia, given its small population, relatively weak economy and strong security concerns, at a potential statistical disadvantage.
Locked in a bitter land dispute with neighbor Azerbaijan over breakaway Nagorno Karabakh, Armenia spent $247 million on arms purchases in 2013. Its next-door arch-nemesis, oil-and-gas power Azerbaijan, has far outspent Armenia, forking out $3.4 billion on defense last year. But because of its larger economy (nearly eight times the size of Armenia’s) and more than threefold larger population, Azerbaijan landed in tenth place.
In terms of the volume and sophistication of its military gear, Azerbaijan may also be far in the lead, but Armenia has 17.9 soldiers and paramilitaries per 1,000 inhabitants, while Azerbaijan has 8.9, the report found.
Russia, with an economy and population that dwarf both Armenia and Azerbaijan, finished in fifth place, after Syria.
The study did not apparently take into account the effect of military alliances with other countries. Russia, which sells arms to both Armenia and Azerbaijan, has its only base in the South Caucasus in the northern Armenian town of Gyumri.
Russia's ruble became worth less than a Kyrgyz som for the first time on December 12. (xe.com)
The Russian ruble crossed a psychological barrier in Kyrgyzstan on December 12, becoming worth less than the som for the first time. Across Central Asia, the ruble’s slide is pushing local currencies to new lows. But they can’t seem to fall fast enough to keep a competitive advantage.
Central Asian economies are deeply dependent on Russia as an export market. When the ruble is weak, Central Asia’s exports are relatively expensive for Russian consumers. So, weaker local currencies benefit the region’s producers. Of course falling currencies also mean inflation, as the price of imported goods from outside the region shoots up—as does the cost of servicing foreign debt. The World Bank projects inflation in Kyrgyzstan this year to top 10 percent. In Tajikistan, food prices rose 10.5 percent in November alone, according to a Deutsche Welle report.
Thanks to Kyrgyzstan’s on-again, off-again experiment with democracy, the Central Asian country has fewer journalists in jail than most of its neighbors. But over the last few months, a number of officials have signaled a cooling attitude toward the fourth estate. A theme stands out: Journalists are the reason Kyrgyzstan has a poor reputation; they must write nice things and stop criticizing.
Together with restrictive new legislation the officials’ comments paint a profile of an elite increasingly intolerant of criticism. Journalists are worried; one local editor says the attacks are encouraging self-censorship.
President Almazbek Atambayev deployed a wide brush on October 27, venting at a session of the national council on sustainable development:
“For the image of a country where corruption is a real disaster, even by comparison with African countries, we have our journalists to thank. Not in a single [other] country does the press pour dirt on officials like ours. They write that everything is bad in Kyrgyzstan, that corruption is blooming. This is disrespect for the country and for the truth. There’s this idea that the more dirt a journalist has poured on, the more freedom-loving and better he is.”
“[Journalists] get offended, because I say this very often, but this is the truth. I hope that the conscience of the majority awakens and they will start publishing impartial information.” [Sources: first paragraph Vechernii Bishkek; second paragraph BBC Monitoring translation of KyrTAG, which is paywalled.]
Hopes for a fair trial for Khadija Ismayilova, the investigative reporter recently imprisoned in Azerbaijan, have been further dashed by the surprise-disbarment of one of her lawyers.
The Azerbaijan Bar Association ruled on December 10 that attorney Khalid Bagirov allegedly had breached professional ethics when he questioned the fairness of a court decision in the case against another of his clients, opposition-leader Ilgar Mammadov, jailed in 2013 for supposedly inciting a riot.
Ismayilova, who worked for RFE/RL and, also, in the past, for EurasiaNet.org, is still represented by Elton Guliyev.
Bagirov, who has been disbarred before, sees the decision as an attempt by the government to silence him. “I accept the decision of the bar association as a prize for the work I’ve done,” he told RFE/RL.
Rossiya Segondya's Moscow headquarters: Now broadcasting in Kyrgyz.
Kyrgyzstan is doubtless “tired of the propaganda of the unipolar world.” But the country should prepare for a potential uptick in propaganda from a more familiar source—Russia. A newly minted Kremlin media outlet called Sputnik has opened a hub in Bishkek.
Dmitry Kiselyov, who heads the state-backed media giant Rossiya Segodnya (formerly RIA Novosti) that launched Sputnik last month, does not do irony.
His “unipolar world” reference at Sputnik’s unveiling was a dig at the United States. But if you were in Kyrgyzstan, you could be forgiven for thinking he meant Russia, which already dominates Central Asian media and has a sweeping impact on public opinion.
Competition seems to be the name of the game. Sputnik’s name, “so recognizable, so warm, so to the point and so romantic,” according to Kiselyov, is steeped in the nostalgia of Cold War rivalry.
Sputnik will handle Rossiya Segodnya’s in-country reporting in foreign countries, the conglomerate confirmed in a December 10 press release.
Sputnik will be available in Kyrgyz, too, shoring up the Kremlin’s influence in a region where Russian proficiency is rapidly subsiding.
The new Kyrgyz chief editor, Yelena Cheremenina, is a former professor of media ethics at the Kyrgyz-Russian Slavic University in Bishkek. She also sits on Kyrgyzstan’s independent media watchdog, the Commission for Media Complaints.
A mysterious explosion on a pipeline in Turkey just before the Georgia-Russia war broke out in 2008 may have been a Russian cyberattack, a new investigation argues, citing United States intelligence officials.
According to the investigation, by Bloomberg, the explosion on August 5, 2008, at Refahiye in eastern Turkey, was the result of a hack on the computers managing the pipeline. Surveillance footage captured two men in "black military-style uniforms without insignias, similar to the garb worn by special forces troops," shortly before the explosion. Software planted in the pipeline system shut down alarms and raised the pressure in the pipeline to such a high level that it exploded, four western intelligence officials told the agency.
The connection to Russia is solely circumstantial. "U.S. intelligence agencies believe the Russian government was behind the Refahiye explosion, according to two of the people briefed on the investigation. The evidence is circumstantial, they said, based on the possible motive and the level of sophistication."
Russia certainly has the means to carry out such an attack, as well as the motive. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, carrying oil from the Caspian Sea to Turkey's Mediterranean coast, was the greatest geopolitical victory by the U.S. in post-Cold War Eurasia, breaking Russia's monopoly on energy exports from the Caspian. And U.S. intelligence officials appear to be thinking that way:
The chief suspect, according to U.S. intelligence officials, is Russia.
Regional security and domestic politics featured high on the agenda as Russian President Vladimir Putin jetted into Tashkent on December 10 for a meeting with Uzbekistan’s strongman leader, Islam Karimov.
Putin appeared both to be wooing Karimov for backing in his confrontation with Ukraine, and offering a show of support for the incumbent ahead of upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections in Uzbekistan.
It “goes without saying” that Tashkent is “one of [Russia’s] priority partners in the region,” Putin said, according to a Kremlin transcript. That he bypassed other Central Asian allies like Kazakhstan to pay a visit to Uzbekistan lent weight to his remarks.
Karimov responded with boilerplate compliments about how Moscow has “always been present in Central Asia, and that position has always been a stabilizing factor.” Notwithstanding isolationist Tashkent’s habit of holding Moscow at arm’s length, he added that “Uzbekistan has always been open to Russia and is open today.”
Karimov repeated his oft-voiced concerns about regional security threats emanating from Afghanistan following the drawdown of NATO troops this year, but the Ukraine conflict was the elephant in the room. In the Kremlin transcript, neither side mentioned it by name, but Karimov referred obliquely to the need to respond to “challenges” in the face of a “known confrontation,” while Putin noted laconically that neither Russia nor Uzbekistan was “indifferent to how the situation in the region as a whole develops.”
Putin took more interest in upcoming elections in Uzbekistan—the vote to the rubberstamp parliament on December 21, and the far more significant presidential election due in spring (in which Karimov has not stated if he intends to stand).
Georgia is busy pondering the legal options to discourage its citizens from joining the jihad in Syria, which allegedly has attracted dozens of recruits from the country’s remote Pankisi Gorge, a predominantly Muslim area.
“It is going to be a preventive mechanism to make sure our citizens know that if they participate in illegal foreign military formations…the state will take measures against them,” said Parliamentary Committee for Defense and Security Chairperson Irakli Sesiashvili. Rustavi2 reported. The nature of the “measures” remains unknown, but they could entail tougher administrative and criminal penalties.
The actual impact of such a law is open to interpretation, however.
Addressing “endemic poverty and radical (usually foreign) influencers” could prove a more effective way of tackling the issue of Pankisi residents heading to Syria, one analyst familiar with Georgia, Michael H. Cecire of the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, commented to RFE/RL.
The number of Islamic-war recruits from Pankisi (and, reportedly, from Muslim communities in the Black-Sea region of Achara) reportedly remains low, but it has resulted in embarrassment for Georgia’s plans to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.