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."
Ukraine’s security service has said it has detained a citizen of Uzbekistan engaged in fighting alongside separatist forces with the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic.
Just as significantly, the news has also been reported by media inside Uzbekistan, which has tried to adopt a neutral position toward events involving Ukraine, and Russia by extension, in recent years.
In a video confession posted on the website of the Ukrainian Security Services (SBU), the suspected 20-year old fighter identifies himself as Alexander Brikin and says he joined the ranks of separatist forces in December 2014 as a way of earning some money. Brikin, who bears clear signs of rendering his confession under duress, said he had been engaged in fighting in Horlivka and Shyrokyne, two intense hotspots in the eastern Ukrainian conflict.
Ukrainian authorities said Brikin was captured after he traveled to the government-controlled city of Mariupol in an attempt to register as a Ukrainian citizen.
The government in Uzbekistan is only too aware that volunteers and mercenaries have been heading to Ukraine. In January, the Uzbek Embassy in Ukraine posted a statement on its website warning people against trying to enroll with separatist forces.
“The Embassy is hereby informing that according to Article 154 of Uzbekistan Criminal Code … it is a crime to participate in any armed conflict or military activities in foreign states even where there is no evidence of mercenary activity. Such actions envisions punishment of up to ten years in prison,” the statement read.
Tashkent is concerned about its citizens fighting on either side of the conflict, however.
No sooner had Kyrgyzstan’s parliament canceled deals with Russian companies to build two major hydropower plant in January, talk began of having to pay money back.
With more than six months having elapsed since that decision, Russia is now raising the issue anew, demanding the return of $37 million its companies sunk into the projects, RFE/RL has reported.
The deal agreed between Kyrgyzstan and Russia on construction of the Upper Naryn cascade and Kambarata-1 hydropower projects, which were to be built by RusHydro and Inter RAO UES, respectively, officially expired on August 9.
Kyrgyzstan has, on paper at least, been candid about its obligations since day one. In January, deputy Economy Minister Nurlan Sadykov said that $37 million spent on a worker dormitory, cement production facility and other items would be reimbursed.
There was one catch though.
Sadykov added that money would be returned only once Kyrgyzstan had found new investors for the projects in question.
“Kyrgyzstan has fully abided by the obligations placed upon it by the project [agreement],” he said.
Sadykov said that while Kyrgyzstan allocated the necessary land for work, Russia had failed to provide funds required develop it in the required timeframe.
“The lack of financing was what became the cause of the cancellation of the deal,” he said.
No alternative has materialized and it does not appear that Bishkek has made especially concerted efforts to seek out such a party. Generating interest from individuals, companies or states will be tough given the likely costs. RFE/RL explains how the initial estimate for the Upper Naryn cascade was calculated at $400 million, but that this figure later rose to $700 million. And Inter RAO UES was contemplating $2 billion investments into Kambarata-1.
A high-ranking member of a banned opposition party in Tajikistan jailed for purportedly masterminding the hoisting of an Islamic State flag in his town has died in prison, Ozadagon news website has reported.
Ozadagon reported on August 16 that Kurbon Mannonov, who was head of the local branch of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan in the town of Nurek, died at detention facility (SIZO) NO. 1 in Dushanbe overnight. At the time of his sentencing, in February, Mannonov was 73 years old.
Ozadagon cited sources in the IRPT as saying that Mannonov had recently complained of ill-health and bleeding.
A couple of cases involving Islamic State flags over the past year have revealed the new depths being probed by the arch-paranoid government as it seeks to crush all those opposed to its rule. Tajikistan’s Western partners have registered only mute condemnation of the regime embrace of outright authoritarian practices and the United States continues to lavish the government with security assistance.
The Khatlon regional court in February sentenced Mannonov and 12 others to jail terms between 10 and 25 years for putting up the terrorist group’s distinctive black flag. Formally, the group was charged with membership in a criminal organization, public calls for the overturning of the constitutional order and extremist activity.
The group was arrested in August, just as the authorities were beginning to ratchet up their pressure against the IRPT, which has since been banned.
Barely day passes at Tajikistan’s most troubled bank without some grim or bizarre news.
At the start of the week, Firdavs Berdiyev, the would-be fugitive deputy chairman of Tajikistan’s troubled Tojiksodirotbank, resurfaced to give interviews to local media about his whereabouts and plans.
As people close to Berdiyev told EurasiaNet.org last week, the banker has said he is on an international tour in search of potential investors to Tajikistan.
Speaking to Asia-Plus, Berdiyev said that he was in New York looking for people willing to put money into Tojiksodirotbank and its daughter company, the Development Bank of Tajikistan.
“It is indispensable that we attract cheap and long-term resources (ie. funds) and to settle things with our account-holders. I and (Tojiksodirotbank part owner and former chairman) Tojidin Pirzoda have already been in Saudi Arabia, China, Kazakhstan and Russia. I myself was in Moscow for a week and met with bankers there. After that I flew to Europe and from there to New York, where I am holding talks with representatives of American banks,” Berdiyev said, adding that he planned to return to Dushanbe on August 25.
Berdiyev insisted that he was allowed to leave the country unimpeded and that he informed Tojiksodirotbank temporary administration of his plans.
These remarks are transparently addressed at constantly rumbling rumors that the authorities might at some stage initiate legal proceedings against the banks’s management over its chronic insolvency issues.
The Russian corvette Makhachkala, taking part in ongoing exercises -- and more? -- in the Caspian Sea. (photo: Russian MoD)
Russia asked Iran and Iraq for permission to to use their airspace for ballistic missiles against Syrian targets, apparently from the Caspian Sea, part of a new offensive against ISIS from the East.
"The Russian Defense Ministry last week sent a request to Iraq and Iran for the use of the airspace of these countries for the flight of ballistic missiles," a military source told the Russian news agency Interfax on Monday.
The request coincides with naval exercises, which also started Monday, of the Caspian Flotilla in the "southwest part of the sea," i.e. the part closest to Syria. "The plan of the exercises envisages testing the readiness of the forces of the Caspian Flotilla in resolving crisis situations presenting a threat to the military security of the country, including of a terrorist nature," the MoD said in a release.
Russia last year senttwo salvos of Kalibr cruise missiles against ISIS targets in Syria from ships in the Caspian Sea, the first ever combat use of those missiles and an unprecedented step in the militarization of the Caspian. The events caused some consternation among Russia's Caspian neighbors, most notably Kazakhstan, which rerouted flights across the sea and apparently complained behind the scenes.
After a lengthy hiatus, Kazakhstan’s prime minister returned to his Twitter account with a vengeance earlier this year. Karim Masimov’s tweets have been notable largely for their teeth-grinding tediousness, however.
So his social media team (if it exists) must have imagined they would turn the tide around on August 9, when Masimov invited followers to adopt the hashtag #25летнезависимости (#25yearsofindependence) to crowdsource examples of major national achievements over the past quarter century.
State news agency Khabar bizarrely tried to get the ball rolling with some usefully encouraging, if anodyne, examples.
“Madina Yerkin: Did you know that Kazakhstan belongs to 70 international organizations? #25летнезависимости,” read one.
“Bazaraiyim Akzhan: This is interesting! Did you know that at Cambridge University you can study Kazakh language, history and culture? #25летнезависимости,” bragged another.
These did not appear to be real social media postings, but rather the kind of thing Khabar that wanted people to tweet. In the way that post-Soviet governments are convinced that a flash mob is a pre-organized rally organized by the authorities, Khabar and Masimov seem to believe this is how trending is done.
Alas, scrutiny of Twitter reveals that this initiative has failed completely. Jaded tech-savvy Kazakhstanis have, contrary to the intended spirit of the hashtag, used #25летнезависимости to express their bitter irony about their lot.
Twitter user @AlmiriKarpykov wrote: “Our national currency embarked on a bright path of devaluation from 4.75 to 345 to the dollar. And we know this isn’t the end #25летнезависимости”
The wave of arrests of suspected coup plotters and sympathisers in Turkey has spread to engulf the emigre Central Asian community, mainly people from Uzbekistan.
From early July to the current day, around 140 Central Asian citizens have been detained, RFE/RL’s Uzbek service, Ozodlik, has reported.
“On July 29, following the coup attempt, Turkish security services detained 29 citizens of Uzbekistan in Istanbul, after which another 100 Uzbek migrants were detained,” Ozodlik reported over the weekend.
The BBC Uzbek service, meanwhile, cited rights groups in Turkey as presenting other figures.
“In deportation centers in Istanbul’s Kumkapi neighborhood, they are holding 45 Uzbek families, 150 Uzbekistani citizens,” the broadcaster reported.
For all this pressure against these emigre communities, there are no confirmed reports of charges being filed.
But the BBC quotes Adam Chevlik, head of the Istanbul-based Uzbek Unity group, as saying that police is investigating the alleged involvement of eight citizens of Uzbekistan in the coup attempt. The suspects’ homes have been searched, Chevlik told the BBC.
Chevlik said that 142 citizens of Uzbekistan have been arrested and 11 released from custody. Prosecutors have ordered 88 Uzbeks to be held in custody, he said.
Concern is also mounting at the fate of those that could be forced out of the country.
Ozodlik quoted the Turkish-based People’s Movement of Uzbekistan opposition group as saying that 40 people have been ordered to leave Turkey within the month.
Screenshot of a television ad, aired by Georgia's Centrist Party on state television, advocating for the legalization of Russian military bases in Georgia.
Geopolitics has taken center stage in Georgia's election campaign, with one party calling to legalize Russian military bases in the country, another calling for the constitution to enshrine Georgia's "non-bloc" status, and another calling for the constitution to reflect the country's NATO aspirations.
At the end of June, the Democratic Movement party called for Georgia to be officially neutral. The party leader, Nino Burjanadze, was once a leader of Georgia's pro-Western Rose Revolution but has since developed close ties with Russia.
“We believe that a clause should be added to the Georgian constitution, which would stipulate non-bloc status for Georgia,” she said, according to Civil.ge. “It means that Georgia should reject joining any kind of military bloc be it NATO or any other military alliance. There should be no troops of any foreign country or a bloc on the Georgian soil." She argued that Georgia's “authorities and significant part of country’s political elite act pursuant to NATO and the U.S. interests, instead of Georgia’s interests.”
Then, in response, the pro-NATO Republican Party introduced a counterproposal, to amend the constiution so that its preamble included the direction "to establish a full-fledged place in the Euro-Atlantic system of security and cooperation of democratic states."
There are more rumblings of discontent at Tajikistan’s doomed Tojiksodirotbank.
Online news outlet TojNews reported on August 11 that deputy chairman Firdavs Berdiyev had fled the country to Switzerland.
There are a few theories circulating about Berdiyev’s flight, according to the website. One is that he has made himself scarce for fear of being made target of criminal investigation, possibly over the bank’s slow-motion meltdown. Another is that he has left in a mutual agreement with the bank’s management.
Workers at Tojiksodirotbank, which is the country’s second largest lender, say Berdiyev was suspended from his post before his departure, TojNews reported.
Tojiksodirotbank has declined to comment on the report, leaving the banker’s whereabouts in doubt.
Meanwhile, people in Berdiyev’s inner circle have told EurasiaNet.org that he is currently in New York, supposedly in talks to drum up investment in Tojiksodirotbank and a daughter institution of the bank from New York-based Citibank.
“Berdiyev is the deputy chairman and deals with investments,” the source close to the banker told EurasiaNet.org. “In relation to this position, he has spent the last month and a half on business trips. He has been in Moscow and in European countries, and now he is in the United States. On [August] 20, he should be back in Dushanbe. If he wanted to flee, he would have taken out his family first, but all his relatives are still in Dushanbe. The rest of the management at Tojiksodirotbank is also in Tajikistan.”
Then again, what interest Citibank could possibly have in investing in a deeply indebted bank halfway across the world in the former Soviet Union’s poorest economy is anybody’s guess.