Russia and Iran, comrades-in-sanctions from the West, are connecting with each other . . . through a railway. And Azerbaijan intends to be the crucial middle link.
The Russian State Railroads Company earlier this week announced plans to build a railway link from Russia, across Azerbaijan, to Iran. An intergovernmental agreement on building the railway is expected to be signed in July next year and the Russian firm said it will foot the bill for the project.
Azerbaijan has its reasons to be suspicious of both countries, but, so far, has given no sign of skittishness about the deal.
How successful Azerbaijan will be in juxtaposing an Eastern train project with a Western one is unclear, however. The idea is not likely to earn warm support in the West, with which Baku already has a relatively schizophrenic relationship — chummy when it comes to energy and assistance for NATO in Afghanistan; far cooler when it comes to reported Azerbaijani abuses of civil rights.
Perhaps that last factor, at least to some degree, contributeAzerbaijan to think it's time to explore what it has in common with Russia and Iran, and express it through rail.
Russian Duma Speaker Sergei Narishkin, in Tehran from November 16-17, made no bones about the project being a slapback at the West.
A senior European diplomat has visited the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh to try to reduce tensions after Azerbaijani armed forces shot down an Armenian helicopter there last week.
Andrzej Kasprzyk, the Special Representative of the OSCE Chairperson in Office, visited the de facto Karabakh capital of Stepanakert on November 17. Kasprzyk seems not to have made any public comments, but Armenian officials used the occasion of his visit to complain about what they called a muted international reaction and perceived "impunity" for Azerbaijan.
And Kasprzyk's visit itself became another point of contention between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Armenian officials said he would visit the site of the shootdown during his visit, but Azerbaijan's Ministry of Defense said that was "another lie and speculation of the Armenian side." And indeed, when Kasprzyk visited the line of contact for a planned monitoring mission on November 18, he appears not to have gone to the crash site.
The site has remained closed to Armenian forces since the helicopter was downed on November 12; it still has not been ascertained whether all three of the aircraft's crew died in the crash. Likewise, there has yet to be any outside assessment of the claims of the opposing sides that the helicopter had crossed the line of contact and was preparing to attack Azerbaijani positions (as Baku says) or was on the Karabakh side of the line and was unarmed (as Yerevan and Stepanakert say).
Kazakhstan’s journalistic community has long debated how to face the pervasive influence of Russian media in the Central Asian country. The topic has increased in urgency with the bitter international standoff between Russia and Ukraine, which is partly playing out on Russian television.
Russian state channels like Rossiya, NTV, and First Channel – which critics see as Kremlin propaganda tools – enjoy huge popularity in Kazakhstan, the Media Kurultai (an annual gathering of journalists in Almaty) heard on November 14.
This creates a national security threat to Kazakhstan, where viewers are swallowing their poisonous coverage about Ukraine, speakers told a panel on information security.
The public mindset in Kazakhstan is being shaped by Russian officials and TV presenters like Dmitry Kiselyov, who is well-known for his anti-Western tirades, opposition politician Amirzhan Kosanov told the conference. This means Kazakhstanis end up “viewing events in Ukraine through the eyes of [Russian Foreign Minister Sergey] Lavrov or Kiselyov,” he said.
Yet Astana is itself pushing viewers into the arms of Russian TV, Kosanov argued, by controlling the Kazakhstani media so tightly that it becomes unattractive.
“The challenge to information security emerges from governmental policies,” agreed Adil Nurmakov, a journalism professor at Almaty’s KIMEP University. “It’s a vicious circle.”
“Now [government officials] have found themselves in a situation when they’re wondering why people are not watching Kazakhstani TV channels and why they’re not reading the Kazakhstani press,” Nurmakov told EurasiaNet.org on the sidelines of the forum. “But there’s nothing to read and nothing to watch.”
For Kyrgyzstan observers, reports that kerosene is being stolen from a Russian airbase and illegally sold on the open market will hardly surprise. But it is still embarrassing.
Last week Kyrgyz authorities formally began investigating why a truck stopped leaving the Kant Airbase last month was found carrying 13 tons of stolen kerosene.
Details about the October 7 incident that triggered the November 11 investigation are still scarce. The driver, who appeared to have entered the Kant base without documents, has not been identified in press reports.
It seems unlikely a theft from the heavily guarded base would be possible without the connivance of Russian soldiers stationed there, Ruslan Umarov, who is heading the investigation for the State Service for the Fight Against Economic Crimes, conceded on November 12. “We have a circle of suspects. Currently we are clarifying the market channels, buyers and suppliers. It is possible that military servicemen at the Kant Airbase are involved in the case,” Umarov is quoted as saying by several Kyrgyz news outlets.
Kant receives its kerosene, which it uses it to fuel fighter planes and other aircraft, from a Kyrgyz-Russian joint-stock company partly owned by Russian energy behemoth Gazprom: Gazprom Neft Aero-Kyrgyzstan. The company has friends in high places. Sapar Isakov, President Almazbek Atambayev’s chief foreign policy advisor, was formerly chair of the company’s board.
Central Asians already clean Russia's streets and work on its construction sites, so why couldn't they fight its wars, too? That appears to be the thinking behind a Russian lawmaker's proposal to create military units manned by migrants from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to fight in Ukraine and against ISIS in Central Asia.
The proposal was made by Roman Khudyakov of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (led by ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky) and caused quite a stir in the Russian press. (One blog post called the would-be fighters "Gastarbeiter-Soldiers.") The newspaper Izvestia carried the most detailed description of Khudyakov's proposal. In his words:
In the French Foreign Legion there are soldiers from 136 countries, and not one French person dies in war. Why should our soldiers die? One way or another we need to respond to the challenges of today -- this is connected with global security and the threat of terrorism. We can't allow ourselves to close our eyes to the fact that fanatics from ISIS are now preparing an expansion into Central Asia and Russia. And we should stop them outside Russia's borders and preferably without the participation of the Russian armed forces. The foreign legion could deal with this.... Residents of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan would gladly fill the legion, there's no problem there.
Russian President Vladimir Putin at the CSTO Parliamentary Assembly session in Moscow on November 6. (photo: Kremlin)
The head of Russia's post-Soviet security bloc said that instability in the region is "in most cases" the result of external manipulations, particularly by the United States. Russian officials also said the group was pursuing ties with countries from around the world, in particular Iran.
The Collective Security Treaty Organization held a session of its parliamentary assembly in Moscow on November 6. In addition to full CSTO members Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan, the parliamentary assembly includes Afghanistan and Serbia. And that group may expand to include Iran, said the speaker of Russia's state Duma, Sergey Naryshkin.
“We believe that in the long term, that experience may be expanded and representatives from the parliaments of other countries, for instance, Iran, might be invited into the CSTO Parliamentary Assembly,” Naryshkin said.
And more broadly, the CSTO is pursuing closer ties with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, China, Iran, Latin America and countries of the Caribbean, said the group's general secretary, Nikolay Bordyuzha.
Most interesting were Bordyuzha's claims about the U.S. and other Western countries fomenting dischord in the CSTO region. While this isn't an especially new theme for Russian officials, Bordyuzha's comments contained an unusual amount of detail. From the CSTO's account of the event:
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Abkhazia's de facto president Raul Khajimba at the Kremlin in August. (photo: Kremlin)
As Russia and Abkhazia negotiate closer ties, the Abkhazian side is signaling that it is no Crimea and that it has no wish to be annexed into its neighbor and patron.
A draft of a proposed "Treaty on Alliance and Integration" between the two parties was released in October and caused a substantial outcry in Abkhazia, where many objected to what they said was in effect a sacrifice of their sovereignty to Moscow. Abkhazia won de facto independence in the early 1990s after a war with Georgia, and although Russia today is essentially Abkhazia's only ally and protector, Abkhazians remain ambivalent about Russia's heavy hand in their affairs.
Last week, Abkhazia released its own proposal for the agreement. It makes some substantial changes, starting with the name: it replaces "Integration" with "Strategic Partnership." And it gives Abkhazia more control over the joint armed forces and "unified defense space" that the agreement envisages.
The new public draft comes after Abkhazian officials acknowledged that the proposal -- like nearly all agreements between Russia and Abkhazia -- was drafted by Russia and signed by Abkhazia. But government officials in Sukhumi say they're not working that way any more. At an October 17 public meeting on the agreement, covered by local newspaper Chegemskaya Pravda (not online, via BBC Monitoring) Deputy Foreign Minister Irakli Khintba said:
In terms of statistics, unless they are the rosy government sort, Tajikistan often appears to be on the edge of an abyss. But somehow the poorest country to emerge from the Soviet Union chugs on.
So a grim World Bank report out this week probably does not indicate imminent collapse. But it is unnerving to see that almost every macroeconomic indicator suggests trouble ahead. And Tajikistan’s latest predicament coincides with a push from Moscow to join Russia’s new Eurasian Economic Union.
Tajikistan’s economic dependence on Russia is, as economists have long warned, a liability—and not only because it gives Moscow enormous influence. “The possible spillover effect from the Russian slowdown onto the Tajikistan economy is estimated to be one of the largest in the [Europe and Central Asia] region: a 1 percentage point reduction in the growth of Russia’s GDP would reduce growth in Tajikistan by the same amount,” says the October 27 report, “Tajikistan: Moderated Growth, Heightened Risk.”
For starters, over a million Tajiks, or about one-half of working-age Tajik men, labor in Russia, usually in menial jobs. Their transfers are worth about half of Tajikistan’s GNP, making it the most remittance-dependent country in the world.
But as the Kremlin sacrifices Russia’s economy for its Ukraine policy, which has caused a new low in relations with the West, the resulting downturn is hurting the ruble and Tajikistan’s economy at large. An ailing ruble buys fewer dollars to send home.
An airline out of the rambunctious Russian republic of Chechnya was planning to launch flights from Crimea to Armenia next month, but Yerevan, ever image-conscious, now seems hesitant to be the only direct, regular international destination for trips from the Russian-annexed peninsula.
Armenia’s aviation regulators late last week refused to authorize flights run by Grozny Avia between the Crimean capital of Simferopol to Yerevan.
International airlines are avoiding Russian-occupied skies over Crimea. Russia’s Aeroflot operates direct flights to Crimea from Moscow, with most flights for this month largely sold out.
Armenia’s Civil Aviation Agency cited unspecified errors in Grozny Avia’s application as the reason for its refusal to allow the flights, RFE/RL reported. The refusal is not conclusive and Grozny Avia can technically reapply, but some believe that Armenia is trying to avoid further miffing Ukraine, already upset over Yerevan’s backing the right to self-determination of the Crimean people.
The former head of the Civil Aviation Agency, Shagen Petrosian, said that allowing such flights would also significantly damage Armenia’s reputation and could possibly lead to international sanctions, epress.am reported.
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks to the Valdai discussion group. (photo: Kremlin)
Russian President Vladimir Putin accused the United States of sponsoring terrorism in Russia and Central Asia,
Putin spoke October 24 at the annual meeting of the Valdai Club, where foreign policy experts from around the world gather to talk about Russia. Although its major themes were previewed by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov a few days before, the Russian website slon.ru said that the speech "could confidently be placed in the same rank as the 2007 Munich speech" (his first substantial criticism of the U.S. and the unipolar world it led) and was "the most anti-American speech Putin has given since coming to office 14 years ago."
The entire speech is fascinating, and certainly will be studied as much as the Munich speech or his post-Crimean annexation speech by those trying to figure out Russia's foreign policy. But one section of this speech is of particular interest to Bug Pit readers: