Perhaps the most prickly question about the Eurasian Union -- the new, Russia-centric trade club -- is whether or not its members can bring to this neo-Soviet party their significant others. In other words, associated separatist dependencies.
Like with many Moscow clubs, there is face-control in the Eurasian Union. For now, Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus have it all to themselves. Disputed breakaway formations like Nagorno Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, though, are also keen for inclusion.
But getting the separatist territories in would cause a wave of bad blood between the Eurasian Union members and the countries (Azerbaijan and Georgia, respectively) who demand these territories back. Leaving them out, in turn, may hamper the territories' ability to get economic sustenance from club-founder Russia and prospective member Armenia.
This is a pain in the neck, in particular, for Armenia, which already has been requested by the club to leave its own protégé, Nagorno Karabakh, in the cloakroom.
Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev last week quite curtly told his Armenian counterpart, Serzh Sargsyan, that none of the founding members have any desire to aggravate Azerbaijan. You only get in "within the boundaries recognised by the United Nations," he advised at an Astana roundtable.
Sargsyan, a Karabakh native, later said that Armenia never intended to slip the mountainous territory (which Yerevan essentially views as a separate country) into the club.
A Russian TOS-1A in a Baku military parade in 2013. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Just as Armenia was digesting the news that its ally, Russia, was offering a large batch of top-of-the-line tanks to its foe, Azerbaijan, it's emerged that there are other such deals in the works, as well.
APA reported that Russia will shortly deliver another batch of TOS-1A “Solntsepyok”multiple-launch rocket systems to Azerbaijan. The deal to buy those systems was announced last year, but at the time it was reported that it would be for six; now the number has grown to 18.
In addition, Azerbaijan is reportedly in talks with Russia to buy Bal-E coastal anti-ship missile systems. Russian newspaper Kommersant quoted "an informed source in the Russian military-industrial complex" as saying that "negotiations will start later, now there is an understanding that our Azerbaijani colleagues are counting on the purchase of one division of the system."
Naturally Armenia, not having any navy, will not be threatened by the anti-ship missiles. But the Solntsepyoks, on top of the earlier offer of 100 T-90 tanks, is rankling in Yerevan. “I can’t be happy with that but I have no right to stop it,” said Armenian Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian, reported RFE/RL.
A T-90 tank on display on a military parade in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Russia is offering Azerbaijan another 100 tanks, on top of 100 that it has bought over the last three years, in a move that will surely have Armenians asking what more they need to do to prove their loyalty to Moscow.
Speaking at Kazakhstan's KADEX defense expo in Astana, Konstantin Biryulin, the deputy director of Russia's Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation told Russian news agency ITAR-TASS that Azerbaijan's order of 100 T-90S tanks had been completed a month ago. And he added that Azerbaijan has an "option" to buy another 100, but that the option hasn't yet been exercised.
News last summer that Russia completed a $1 billion arms deal with Azerbaijan (which included those 100 tanks) prompted outrage in Yerevan. Armenia has been a loyal ally of Russia, and so selling such a large number of weapons to its enemy seemed like a betrayal.
But that was when Armenia was flirting with signing an Association Agreement with the European Union. Not long after the arms deal was announced, Armenia announced that it had changed its mind about the EU and would instead be joining the Russia-led Customs Union. Now Armenia is scheduled to formally join the Customs Union in June. So another big arms sale to Azerbaijan would seem like an even bigger betrayal.
Writes RFE/RL: "Armenia’s Defense Ministry on Friday refused to comment on Moscow’s apparent readiness to sell more tanks to Baku. Biryulin’s revelation is certain to spark fresh anti-Russian statements by Armenian opposition groups and the media."
Russia’s defeat to a bearded Austrian transvestite at the annual Eurovision song contest earlier this month has prompted some soul searching among Russia’s horrified, homophobic leaders. Some lawmakers have even called for Russia to stop sending participants to the pop extravaganza.
Russians are sure to find a more wholesome competition at the communist-era Intervision song contest, the Eastern-bloc’s riposte to the decadent mores of Eurovision, which Russian organizers have promised to resurrect this fall. But with the Warsaw Pact rotting in the dustbin of history, organizers have invited Russia’s pals in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a club of Asian autocracies including most of the Central Asian states and China.
Intervision was held between 1977 and 1980 in Sopot, Poland. Soviet pop diva Alla Pugacheva won the competition in 1978. This year Russia's entry will be chosen at a competition for young talent in recently annexed Crimea on June 15, said one of the organizers, Russian singer and producer Igor Matvienko, earlier this week.
In comments carried by pop-culture portal dni.ru, Matvienko said Intervision would be held this October in Sochi with Russia competing alongside China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Other countries may include Japan, South Korea, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, Matvienko said.
Two prominent activists lobbying against Kazakhstan’s membership in the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) – due to be created next week – have been hauled in for interrogation by Kazakhstan’s domestic intelligence service over an alleged plot by Russian nationalists to destabilize the country.
Zhanbolat Mamay and Inga Imanbay were questioned for six hours by National Security Committee agents on May 21 as they were finalizing preparations to hold public hearings into Kazakhstan’s EEU membership.
The spooks questioned Mamay and Imanbay over their links to Russian far-right nationalist Aleksandr Potkin, who – according to unattributed material leaked to Kazakhstani media – went to Kazakhstan in 2012 and trained ethnic Kazakh nationalists to “provoke a confrontation” with “the Slavic community.”
In view of Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine on the pretext of protecting Russian speakers, Astana currently has an eye on its own ethnic Russians, who make up about 22 percent of the population. But it is not clear why Kazakhstan’s intelligence service took two years to launch the Potkin probe.
“This is a total lie and utter nonsense,” Mamay told EurasiaNet.org on the sidelines of the Almaty public hearings, describing the accusations as “a provocation carried out with the aim of discrediting me and those who speak out against joining the EEU.”
As Russia reasserts itself in its former Soviet backyard, the summit of an obscure Asian bloc in China offered a timely reminder that Beijing also has regional leadership aspirations—and, unlike sanctions-hit Moscow, can boast deep pockets too.
The summit of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) gathered a motley crew of Asian leaders in Shanghai on May 21st, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and presidents from post-Soviet Central Asia and the Caucasus as well as leaders from diverse countries such as Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Mongolia.
Central Asia was well represented, with four of its five leaders attending. Neutral Turkmenistan stayed away: It is not a member of CICA, a talking shop set up in 1999 at the initiative of Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev—who used this summit to propose rebranding CICA into the Organization for Security and Development in Asia.
The summit took place against a backdrop of heightened Russo-US tensions over the Ukraine crisis and Sino-US sparring over a military-hacking affair and, more broadly, over China’s geopolitical aspirations in Southeast Asia. All that fueled expectations that mutual antagonism with Washington would cement closer Sino-Russian ties.
“For Russia, China is today a natural geopolitical ally in the formation of a world order in line with China’s interests,” Aydar Amrebayev of the Almaty-based Institute of World Economy and Politics told EurasiaNet.org.
Presidents of Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan watch a military exercise from the Kremlin. (photo: kremlin.ru)
Russian President Vladimir Putin convened an "informal" summit of his allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization last week as Moscow faced continued international isolation over its role in the Ukraine crisis. But the event only highlighted the misgivings of Russia's foreign policy direction, even among its closest allies.
For one, there was the absence of Nursultan Nazarbayev, president of CSTO member Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan is the CSTO member with the most international stature (outside of Russia); with Kazakhstan the group hardly presents an impressive front; without it, remaining CSTO allies Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are an even more motley crew.
And Nazarbayev's excuse was one unlikely to elicit understanding from the Kremlin: he had to stay in Astana to meet with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns. And Burns, after meeting with Nazarbayev, told the local press that he had brought the message from Washington that "so long as Russia continues down its current dangerous and irresponsible path, we will continue to work with our international partners to apply steadily increasing counter-pressure." The jilted CSTO allies continued on undaunted; It seems the words "Nazarbayev" or "Kazakhstan" were not uttered at the meeting, in public anyway, and the Kremlin account did not mention the fact that it was called under the auspices of the CSTO (though the CSTO itself did).
A Buyan-class corvette in the Caspian Sea; more soon headed for the Black Sea. (photo: mil.ru)
Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu on Tuesday said that the plan for the Black Sea Fleet renovation would be altered in light of the annexation of Crimea. He didn't give a tremendous number of details about what that might mean, but we are learning a bit more now about the Black Sea Fleet "development plan" that Shoigu's boss, Vladimir Putin, announced recently.
Most of the headlines about Shoigu's comments, both in the Russian- and English-language press focused on his mention of adding new ships and submarines to the fleet. But that was already planned long ago; the shifts as a result of the Crimea annexation are not (yet) too substantial.
Mikhail Barabanov, a naval analyst at the Moscow Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, told The Bug Pit that a development plan for the Black Sea Fleet announced in 2008 has not been changed too much. Under that program, the Black Sea Fleet was slated to get six new frigates and six new submarines. While it had appeared that the sixth frigate may be in danger because of budget reasons, that has now been reversed: Putin "personally" ordered the sixth frigate to be reinstated, Barabanov said. Barabanov also said that three light guided missile corvettes that had been slated for the Caspian Flotilla now appear to be headed to the Black Sea (to augment seven such ships already designated for the Black Sea Fleet). "But all this is hardly a significant increase in strength," Barabanov said,
In coordination with the Kremlin, Russian activists plan an ex-USSR-wide distribution of black-and-orange ribbons meant to commemorate the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany. The caveat is that the St. George’s ribbon has evolved to embody Russian power and nostalgia for the USSR; concepts that many in the Caucasus are not willing to wear on their sleeves.
The state-run Russian Information Agency (RIA Novosti), a champion of the annual St.-George's-ribbon campaign, has announced that on May 9, the 69th anniversary of the 1945 Soviet victory over Nazi Germany, millions of ribbons will rain down on ex-Soviet countries, the South Caucasus included.
In an April 29 talk show, headlined “St. George’s Ribbon Struts across the Planet,” RIA Novosti claimed that a massive ribbon-handout rally would be held in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku. The ribbons, talk-show participants said, also would be up for grabs at the Russian embassies in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Moldova. In the case of Georgia, which severed diplomatic ties with Russia after the two countries' 2008 war, the Russian consulate at the Swiss embassy would provide the ribbons.
Many pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine are wearing these ribbons, and the show host made sure to take a swipe at Ukrainian “nationalists” and their alleged attempts to “erase the historic memory" of the war.
But it looks like the show and its claims of a post-Soviet team spirit may have been ultimately meant for a domestic, Russian audience.
Led by a flag bearer hoisting an image of Jesus, and six drummer girls in purple satin, about a thousand supporters of various nationalist causes marched for what they called “Russian May Day” in northwestern Moscow on May 1.
Young and old, men and women shouted, “Russia is for Russians,” “Glory to the Russians,” and angrier slogans, such as “get out, black dirt” – a reference to migrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus.
Indeed, it was migration that seemed to unite this broad swath of rightwing Russia.
“Russian citizenship for Russians. No to handing out citizenship,” some chanted. “Who are we? Russians! We are the power here!”
Several of the groups also yelled, “Cancel 282” – that is, Article 282 of the criminal code, which prohibits inciting ethnic hatred. Each of about 10 groups had its own flag, including a black-yellow-and-white-striped banner used briefly by Tsarist Russia in the 19th century. Other banners incorporated white power symbols. (The kolovrat, seen in several images above on a red flag, is sometimes called the Slavic swastika. Adopted by some rightwing groups, others defend it as an ancient pagan symbol for the sun.)