The presidents of Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus sat down on October 24 in Minsk to grapple with the thorny problems facing their free trade zone – from trade barriers to confusion over Customs Union expansion. It was a tense meeting.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan – usually a staunch Russian ally – was in a combative mood, accusing Moscow and Minsk of erecting unfair barriers to trade, describing the Customs Union’s Russian-dominated regulatory body as politicized, and urging caution in Moscow’s efforts to welcome new members.
Nazarbayev told Vladimir Putin and Aleksandr Lukashenka that he noted “positive results” from the Customs Union but urged an open dialogue on “shortcomings,” including “foreign trade disproportions” and “serious difficulties” for Kazakhstan to access Russian and Belarusian markets.
As EurasiaNet.org reported this month, there is strong opposition to Customs Union membership in some quarters in Kazakhstan. Upon accession in 2010, increased trade was touted as the chief benefit, but so far the result has been a flood of imports into Kazakhstan from Russia, plus a derailed bid to join the World Trade Organization.
Putin was conciliatory but vague, describing it as “necessary, of course, to work on eliminating all exemptions and all mutual preferences” and “necessary to create equal conditions.”
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh meets Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on October 21. (photo: office of the prime minister of India)
On a visit to Moscow this week, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called for increased cooperation between his country and Russia in Central Asia. In a speech to the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, Singh named Central Asia as the first region in which the two giant countries should cooperate. And he focused on security:
As India revitalizes its historic links with Central Asia, we look forward to working more closely with Russia in the region. Our cooperation can play an important role in advancing peace, stability and economic development in Afghanistan. It can be equally effective in combating the shared challenges of extremism, terrorism and narco-trafficking. Coordination of our policies in this shared neighbourhood has served us both well and we should continue to pursue it more closely in the future.
This is interesting rhetoric, but it's not clear what sort of things Russia and India could do together in Central Asia. Russia has consistently supported India's membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (along with that of India's rival, Pakistan). But Russia also effectively forced India out of the Ayni air base in Tajikistan, after India had spent tens of millions of dollars renovating it in the hope that it would become their first military base in Central Asia.
The world’s largest aluminum company says it has won $275 million in damages from Tajikistan’s largest enterprise.
Moscow-based Rusal said in an emailed statement on October 16 that a Swiss tribunal had found the Tajik Aluminum Company (TalCo) in breach of two 2003 agreements with Rusal subsidiary Hamer Investing, Ltd. Under those agreements, Hamer had supplied TalCo raw materials for which the state-run Tajik company had failed to pay. The tribunal ordered TalCo to pay damages in excess of $112 million, approximately $147 million in interest, and almost $15 million in legal fees, the Rusal statement said.
The statement also said the tribunal had thrown out TalCo’s $400 million counterclaim, in which the company argued that Hamer’s original contracts should be deemed invalid as they had been won by corrupt means.
Rusal “intends to make every effort to enforce the award in all relevant jurisdictions in the event that TalCo does not voluntarily comply with the award,” the statement said.
TalCo spokesman Igor Sattarov said the Russian giant had broken a confidentiality agreement. In comments carried by the Asia-Plus news agency on October 16, he suggested that TalCo could appeal since, “according to international norms, the [legal] procedure is quite long and provides for a few more stages” – including a hearing in a Tajik court.
Russia's food safety czar has again claimed that a U.S.-funded biological research lab is in fact a secret bioweapons facility, and has warned that imports of Georgian food to Russia could be in danger if Georgia does not shut down the facility.
This is of course not the first time that chief sanitary inspector Gennady Onishchenko has made such a claim, issuing a similar threat in July. In between then and now he's been busy warning of the health dangers of other products like Moldovan wine and Lithuanian cheese. But he hasn't forgotten about the biolab -- known formally as the Richard G. Lugar Center for Public Health Research -- and the grave threat it poses to Russia. He addressed the issue again on Monday:
"We are pointing out again that we are extremely concerned about the activity of the laboratory that the Georgian authorities are not in control of," Gennady Onishchenko said.
"According to our estimates, the laboratory is an important element of the offensive part of the US military-biological potential," the Head of the Russian Service on Surveillance for Consumer Rights Protection said...
CSTO forces take part in the Unbreakable Brotherhood 2013 exercises in Chelyabinsk, Russia. (photos: MoD Russia, Kazakhstan)
The Collective Security Treaty Organization is holding its second-ever peacekeeping exercises, in Russia's Chelyabinsk region. About 2,500croops from all CSTO members -- Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan -- are taking part in the exercise, named "Unbreakable Brotherhood 2013," up from 950 in the previous year's drills
The scenario of the drill involved a conflict in the fictional CSTO member state of Uralia, and the peacekeepers were tasked with protecting a convoy of humanitarian aid from "extremists" trying to attack it. The peacekeeping forces provided air cover for the convoy using Mi-24 helicopters, set up checkpoints in the conflict zone and successfully apprehended some extremists who were trying to smuggle weapons.
The larger context of the drill, though, included fights over resources in the region and interethnic tension, giving some sense of the circumstances in which the CSTO imagines that these peacekeeping forces might someday be used:
The situation was based on a possible scenario of events that may occur in CSTO collective security regions in view of the rising tensions between leading global powers and military political unions, an escalation of interethnic contradictions and the fight for energy resources.
The parties in conflict tried to reach their political and strategic goals using political means and military force. The conflict had been started due to historical territorial, interethnic and religious contradictions as well as economic ones.
The tensions had been fueled primarily due to social and economic reasons, the rising interference of international terrorist and extremist organizations, and tensions in interethnic relations.
Gate of the Ayni air base outside Dushanbe. (photo: The Bug Pit)
Now that Russia has solidified its control of its military base in Tajikistan, it is looking to expand. A Russian parliamentary delegation in Tajikistan is starting negotiations on use of the Ayni air base, whose future occupancy has been the source of much speculation. As an air base, Ayni would complement the land forces base of the 201st Motorized Rifle Division that is based in Tajikistan. "Signing of an additional agreement on the Ayni air force base, which Moscow also intends to rent and to consider part of the 201st military base, is expected," according to a report in Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gaezta, citing Russian government and military officials. Russian officials indicated several months ago that they intended to do this; now it seems like the effort has begun in earnest.
After Russian President Vladimir Putin met his Tajikistan counterpart Emomali Rahmon at the Collective Security Treaty Organization summit last month in Sochi, he promised unspecified "support" of Rahmon in Tajikistan's upcoming presidential elections. And it was that pledge that prompted the recent moves to ratify the 201st base deal and also to start negotiations on Ayni, Nezavisimaya Gaezta writes.
And Russia considers an air base in the country necessary to support Russian and CSTO military activities in Tajikistan to strengthen the border with Afghanistan, especially since Uzbekistan is refusing to cooperate with Russian efforts in the region and has effectively blockaded Tajikistan.
The lower house of Tajikistan's parliament approved the ratification of the deal to extend the presence of Russia's military base through 2042. It now only awaits approval by the upper house of parliament, the last step in a process that started a year ago today when the two countries' presidents signed the base extension deal. Rahmon appears to have dragged out the process of ratification, probably trying to get a better deal. That doesn't seem to have happened, though.
The ratification passed easily, by a 57-2 vote, and Tajikistan officials said the deal would help protect Tajikistan. MP Sukhrob Sharipov said the deal would ensure security "not only in Tajikistan but in the region as a whole." And defense minister Sherali Khayrulloyev pointed out that Russia has provided Tajikistan with over $400 million in military aid since 2005.
The lead author of a controversial bill that would label most of Kyrgyzstan’s non-profit organizations “foreign agents” says the country must protect itself from foreign “sabotage” and “sexual emancipation.”
In an interview with EurasiaNet.org this week, MP Tursunbai Bakir uulu, a former human rights ombudsman, said he was inspired by almost identical legislation that came into effect in Russia last November, but that he’d been musing over the idea since 2006. The bill would require organizations that accept foreign funding and supposedly engage in “political activities” to identify as “foreign agents,” a term widely understood throughout the former Soviet Union to denote traitors and spies.
Though President Almazbek Atambayev said on September 19, during a visit to Brussels, that he would not support the bill, Bakir uulu says the president has made a “shallow statement to please the West” and would eventually fall into line.
Noting that the bill mirrors the Russian law, on September 27 a coalition of human rights groups led by the International Partnership for Human Rights, said the sweeping draft law “appears primarily aimed at the same category of groups that has been the main target in Russia, i.e. human rights NGOs and other groups that are inconvenient for those in power.”
Critics have also noted that foreign governments fund parts of Kyrgyzstan’s budget, in effect turning Bakir uulu himself, as a paid government employee, into a foreign agent.
When confronted with this irony, Bakir uulu said the questioning suggested EurasiaNet.org was a foreign agent.
The interview has been translated from Russian and edited for length.
Asked about the $1 billion Russian military aid package,, Omuraliyev didn't specify exactly what sort of equipment would be given, but said the priority would be in getting equipment that would work together as a system. "For example, there is a need for an air surveillance system, ground surveillance, special operations battle management systems that all make up a single complex and together complement one another," he said. "I can't now say exactly how many tanks, airplanes or helicopters we will get, but I can verify that they will be weapons systems which allow us to significantly strengthen our military capabilities. And he added that the equipment may not be straight off the production line: "We should remember that 'new' could also mean equipment produced earlier but kept in warehouses... which still fulfill current requirements."
Presidents of CSTO member states (except Kazakhstan, which sent its prime minister) at the CSTO summit in Sochi. (photo: CSTO)
The Collective Security Treaty Organization held its annual summit in Sochi, Russia, on Monday and the hottest topic (other than Syria) was how to strengthen the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border. The group, in the words of Russian President Vladimir Putin, resolved to "provide additional collective assistance to Tajikistan to reinforce its national border with Afghanistan." The aid will include "constructing new buildings of frontier posts, restoring warning and signaling systems and providing border troops with means of air patrol and surveillance as well as radar," said Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon, speaking at the event.
According to the official CSTO statement, "On the basis of a request from Tajikistan the member states of the CSTO will, according to their abilities, within three months render military-technical assistance to the border forces of the State Committee for National Security of the Republic of Tajikistan." Interestingly, the aid package appears not to include Russian troops, which no doubt the Russian side was pushing for. Russia has been pushing the CSTO as its primary tool for preventing the spread of instability from Afghanistan after U.S. and NATO forces leave the country starting next year. Said Putin:
We discussed the situation in Afghanistan in light of the international coalition’s troop withdrawal planned for 2014. Unfortunately, there is reason to expect a considerable rise in Afghan drug trafficking activity and in terrorist groups’ activeness.
Extremists are already attempting to spread their activity into neighbouring countries, including the Central Asian countries that are CSTO members.