It wasn't exactly a surprise last week when Russia and Azerbaijan announced they had failed to agree on terms to extend the lease of the Gabala radar station which the Russian military operates in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan had little incentive to let Russia keep using the radar, and so demanded a huge increase in the rent from $7 million a year to a reported $300 million. Russia, meanwhile, doesn't have much leverage over Azerbaijan, and anyway is in the process of setting up a next-generation radar system on its own territory, in Armavir in the North Caucasus. That system is apparently set to become operational in the first quarter of 2013.
Still, Russia clearly wanted the station to remain, though it's not clear on what terms. The post-mortems of the failure of negotiations, interestingly, differ markedly depending on which country they come from. In Azerbaijan, the public consensus seems to be that there will be no serious ramifications. From APA:
“Russia's refusal to use Gabala radar station will not negatively affect relations between the two countries, said Deputy Chairman and Executive Secretary of the ruling New Azerbaijani Party (YAP) Ali Ahmadov....
“The decision on refusing exploitation of Gabala radar station has been passed at the negotiations between the states. If this decision was made on the basis of mutual agreement, it can not cause the tension in the relations between the two countries.”
Member of Parliament Rusam Musabayov echoed that sentiment. And Vestnik Kavkaza quotes an Azerbaijan analyst:
Two days after Kazakhstan's top space official suggested that the country was reexamining its agreement with Russia on the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the country's deputy prime minister sought to tamp down such speculation.
While Kazcosmos head Talgat Musabayev was quoted as saying the Russia-Kazakhstan agreement -- which is supposed to last until 2050 -- "has run its course" and that Kazakhstan was "formulating a new, all-encompassing agreement on Baikonur," Deputy Prime Minister Kairat Kelimbetov quickly sought to clarify Astana's position, that it was committed to the current agreement. Reports Central Asia Newswire:
“As you know, in 2004 [Kazakh] President Nursultan Nazarbayev and [Russian President] Vladimir Putin agreed to extend the term of the lease of the Baikonur cosmodrome until 2050,” state media reported Kelimbetov as saying.
“The Government of the Republic of Kazakhstan, of course, confirms the commitment of those arrangements. In October 2012, Presidents Nazarbayev and Putin instructed the intergovernmental commission to study the question of sharing the Baikonur cosmodrome and the following year to work out the appropriate changes to the regulatory framework of our cooperation.”
The story also notes the Russian press reaction to Musabayev's comments, which it describes as "explosive":
Russian media, including Pravda and Kommersant, has dismissed the threat as a low-level official posturing before the Kazakh parliament and does not believe the threat to preclude Russian use of the facilities to be viable.
President Vladimir Putin’s state-of-the-nation address today is being parsed for details on how he proposes to protect Russia’s "national and spiritual identity," boost the economy and military, and what, if anything, he plans to do about Russia’s runaway corruption.
But two comments in particular will interest Central Asia watchers.
There will be no more crossing from former Soviet republics into Russia without an international passport, Putin declared about halfway through the speech:
We still have a practice that the citizens of CIS states enter the Russian Federation using their domestic passports. […] In such circumstances, when the citizens of other countries enter using their domestic passports, it is almost impossible to ensure effective immigration control. I believe that no later than 2015 entry to Russia should be allowed only with the use of foreign-travel [passports], not the domestic passports of other countries.
("Domestic passports" are the main form of internal ID used in most former Soviet republics.)
So, by 2015 the millions of migrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus traveling to Russia for work will have a new hurdle to jump over.
But a few minutes later, Putin flags an exception:
However, without a doubt, within the framework of the Customs Union and the Common Economic Space the ... current system will continue to apply – maximally simplified rules for crossing the border and staying on the territory of member countries of the Customs Union and the Common Economic Space.
After bouts of haggling over the rent, Russia has abandoned a Soviet-era, early-warning radar in Azerbaijan that essentially served as the Kremlin’s security camera for the Caucasus, Middle East and South Asia.
The official cause is cost: Baku had asked for $300 million per year for a renewal on Russia's lease on the station; a hefty hike from the heretofore $7 million per year.
With Moscow planning to build its own radar stations with similar coverage areas (the Armavir radar station north of the Caucasus mountain range, already partly overlaps Gabala's range), the new rent was not worth it for Russia, officials said.
Earlier, Moscow had offered Washington a share on the station as a possible substitute for US plans, opposed by Moscow, to deploy a missile shield system in Poland and the Czech Republic to defend Eastern Europe from potential attacks from Iran and North Korea, but the idea went nowhere.
A Russian military expert, though, told Azerbaijan's APA news agency that quitting Gabala was not a prudent move since the station could always have doubled for Moscow as a backup if Armavir is down for maintenance.
After 11 years of negotiations, Tajikistan is set to join the World Trade Organization (WTO) within the next few months.
President Emomali Rakhmon was in Geneva on Monday to sign a package of membership agreements that commit Dushanbe to opening its markets and standardizing import tariffs. Tajikistan’s rubberstamp parliament must ratify membership by June 7, 2013. The country will become a WTO member 30 days after ratification, making it the trade body’s 159th member.
“Today constitutes a landmark in Tajikistan's history and lays solid foundations for further promotion of sustainable social and economic growth,” Rakhmon said at the signing ceremony. “Tajikistan will use its WTO membership as a means of fostering future economic growth and prosperity.”
According to the WTO, Tajikistan ranks 143 globally in exports of goods (approximately $2 billion in 2010) and 140 ($2.7 billion) in imports, and trades primarily with China, the EU, Russia, other Central Asian countries, and Turkey.
In Dushanbe, one analyst affiliated with the president’s office hailed accession. By forcing Tajikistan to modernize its legislation, membership will help attract international investors, Saifullo Safarov, deputy director of the Center for Strategic Studies under the President, told Russia’s Nezavisimaya Gazeta.
But a Russian analyst said Dushanbe has sought membership out of its desire for prestige, rather than economic interests.
Debris from space launches at Baikonur land on the Kazakh steppe.
Kazakhstan may suspend the current agreement allowing Russia to use Kazakhstan's territory for its main space-launch center, Baikonur, the head of Kazakhstan's space agency has said. Currently, Russia pays Kazakhstan about $115 million a year to lease Baikonur, under an agreement scheduled to last until 2050. But it looks like Kazakhstan may be rethinking that agreement. From the AP:
Interfax-Kazakhstan news agency cited Kazcosmos head Talgat Musabayev as telling parliament that proposals are being considered to bring the Baikonur facility under Kazakhstan’s jurisdiction....
“The rent agreement on Baikonur adopted in 1994 has run its course. The head of state held talks with (Russian President) Vladimir Putin and has tasked us with formulating a new, all-encompassing agreement on Baikonur,” Interfax-Kazakhstan cited Musabayev as saying.
So why is Kazakhstan doing this? The AP notes:
It is unclear what is motivating Kazakhstan’s decision to push for a revision of arrangements on Baikonur, but it is known that it has been pushing for an increased role in the space industry.
Russia also has been moving to reduce its dependence on Baikonur, constructing a new launch facility in the Russian Far East. In a 2008 interview, Musabayev suggested that Kazakhstan was coming up with contingency plans in case Russia decided to leave Baikonur:
Uzbekistan will come crawling back into the arms of Russia as soon as the security situation in Afghanistan worsens, says the head of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, Nikolay Bordyuzha. Bordyuzha, speaking at a Moscow event commemorating the 20th anniversary of the organization, emphasized that for the CSTO, Uzbekistan's departure from the Russia-dominated security bloc was no big deal, and even had some positives, he insisted: "For several months we have agreed on many projects and decisions, acceptance of which Uzbekistan was blocking." But its departure from the CSTO will be a big deal for Uzbekistan, he says: "As soon as things get difficult, the situation will change. I don't think this will take long."
It seems that the CSTO doth protest too much. At the organization's security council meeting next month in Moscow, members will "make the final decision" regarding Uzbekistan's membership (apparently without Uzbekistan's input). The frequency with which CSTO officials talk about Uzbekistan reminds one of a guy whose girlfriend dumps him, who then proceeds to constantly talk about how much better off he is without her -- adding that she will probably come back to him anyway when she understands the mistake she's made.
Uzbekistan's government and media have been pretty silent on this issue, but this most recent statement was apparently enough to elicit a response from Fakhriddin Nizamov, writing on Polit.uz.
Apparently, Mr. Bordyuzha rubs his hands with pleasure that the situation in Central Asia will worsen after the announced withdrawal of coalition forces from Afghanistan and events will develop according to a scenario of those whose interests he represents...
Russia has weighed in on ongoing discussions between Turkey and NATO about the possibility of stationing NATO missile defense systems on the Turkey-Syria border, saying that it would destabilize the situation. From RIA Novosti:
"The militarization of the Turkish-Syrian border would be an alarming signal," said ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich. "It would do nothing to foster stability in the region."
"Our advice to our Turkish colleagues is to use their influence on the Syrian opposition to draw them closer to dialogue, instead of flexing their muscles and taking the situation down a dangerous path," he added.
A NATO team is making a visit to Turkey next week to assess the possibility of deploying a system there, and NATO is expected to approve the request. Nevertheless, the AP reports that the systems could still be several weeks from being deployed:
Due to the complexity and size of the Patriot batteries, their radars, command-and-control centers, communications and support facilities, they cannot be sent quickly by air to Turkey, officials said.
"These are not drop-and-go systems," said an official who could not be identified in line with standing NATO regulations.
Additional time will be needed to install the systems, realign their radars and link them into Turkey's air defense network before the Patriots can be considered fully operational, the official said.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen with Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, in Brussels in March.
Armenia has lately been boosting cooperation with both NATO and Russia, prompting questions about how far it can play both sides of the geopolitical conflict.
This fall, Armenia has hosted top NATO officials and the U.S. secretary of the navy, and in September Armenian units trained by the U.S. and NATO countries for deployment in international missions, like that in Afghanistan, conducted an exercise, reported RFE/RL:
[S]ome 600 soldiers of the volunteer unit simulated their participation in a multinational peacekeeping operation in an exercise watched by U.S. military instructors. The exercise also involved what the Armenian Defense Ministry described as a successful “self-appraisal with NATO standards” by the brigade’s Staff Company.
But this fall, Armenia also hosted exercises of the Russia-run Collective Security Treaty Organization and has signed an agreement with Russia on joint arms production, a provision of which requires Armenia to "rely exclusively on Russian-made and supplied weapons," writes analyst Richard Giragosian in a piece at Oxford Analytica:
For the first time, Armenia is being excluded from procuring Western arms, limiting its options and potential partners and, at least in theory, hindering its pursuit of interoperability with NATO standards.
Forty-two percent of Kyrgyzstanis consider the United States the biggest threat to their country, says a new study by a Bishkek polling agency.
Afghanistan is the only country feared by a greater part of the population: 54 percent.
Why the negative feeling about the US? In part it’s probably because of the Manas air base outside Bishkek, which is regularly pilloried in the local press -- often unfairly, though it has engaged in shady business deals with two deposed autocrats. Negative Russian press also leaves an impression on the population.
By contrast, Russia comes across very well in Kyrgyzstan. Perhaps because of a deep dependence on Russia for jobs and aid, 90 percent of the population thinks “Russia plays a very positive role in the region,” says the new study, conducted in late summer by M-Vector.
M-Vector’s publicly available findings also draw some interesting comparisons between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, two former Soviet republics that have taken wildly different paths since independence. Kazakhstanis tend to agree on the part played by Russia: 74 percent applaud its role in the region.