By Richard Weitz (10/01/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
On August 24-29, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) held its largest multinational exercise in history, Peace Mission 2014. The declared objective of the joint drills is to help the SCO member governments deter and, if necessary, defeat potential terrorist threats. But the exercises also allow Russia and China to communicate to the SCO and other parties, especially the U.S., that Moscow and Beijing have a genuine security partnership and that it extends to cover Central Asia.
By Arslan Sabyrbekov (09/17/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
In a recent interview to the state TV channel Khabar, Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev spoke about his country’s possible withdrawal from the Eurasian Economic Union. In his words, “Kazakhstan’s independence is our most precious treasure, for which our forefathers fought. We will never surrender our independence and will do everything to protect it. Astana will never join an organization of any form, which presents any threat to its independent statehood.”
Analysts consider the demarche of the Kazakh President a response to recent Russian statements, which have to some extent questioned Kazakhstan’s viability and independence as a state. Speaking at the Seliger youth forum, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin described his Kazakh counterpart as the most experienced politician in the post-Soviet space and gave him credit for creating a state in a territory, where there was none before. In his words, “before Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan has never had any statehood.” This statement from the Russian side generated a sharp and bitter reaction among the Kazakhstani public, especially in nationalist and patriot circles. Several virtual protest actions were organized in the country, particularly a flash mob on social media that demanded a history book to be sent to Putin for revision.
Moreover, an earlier statement by the Deputy Speaker of the Russian Duma, the leader of Russia’s Liberal Democratic Party Vladimir Zhirinovsky, created a highly negative backdrop for President Putin’s later remarks. In his usual undiplomatic manner, Zhirinovsky said that after settling the Ukrainian crisis, Moscow should pay attention to the developments in Kazakhstan, where in his opinion, “anti-Russian sentiments are also on the rise.” Obviously, Zhirinovsky's statement come as no surprise to many. His demand last year that in return for its debts, Kyrgyzstan should give its Issyk-Kul Lake to Moscow, earned him a persona non grata status in that country.
The exchange of statements between the two Presidents has given rise to varying comments and assessments. Many were quick to make declarations about the big rift between Putin and Nazarbayev and the unexpected crisis in the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). However, according to Almaty-based political analyst Dosym Satpaev, these implications are exaggerated. This is not the first time that Nazarbayev has made such remarks. In one of his earlier meetings with the country’s intellectual circles, the Kazakh President described the EEU as an exclusively economic project and said that if doubts arise, Astana will leave the organization at any time it deems necessary. Earlier, President Nazarbayev has also vetoed the creation of a legislative body within the EEU, the function of which obviously goes beyond mere economic integration.
The Moscow-based Central Asia expert Arkadyi Dubnov believes that Putin’s Seliger remarks were interpreted by Kazakhstan’s leadership in light of the developments in Ukraine. Kazakhstan, along with Ukraine, are parties to the 1994 Budapest memorandum. Both countries declined to maintain their nuclear arsenals in exchange for guarantees of territorial integrity. At that time, Moscow appeared as the major international guarantor and has in breach of the aforementioned memorandum annexed Crimea, claiming that no guarantees were given to the new political leadership in Kiev. According to Dubnov, Kazakhstan’s political leadership might have interpreted Putin’s and Zhirinovsky’s statements along the same lines, namely the possibility of a “Crimean scenario” in northern Kazakhstan with its significant Russian minority, if Astana obtains a new, nationalistic political leadership that disregards the Kremlin’s interests.
Indeed, there are many unknowns in this story and one can only speculate about the real logic behind the statements. It remains unclear what really prompted President Putin to make this claim. One can also simply interpret his statement as an effort to emphasize the role of his Kazakh counterpart, who has also been awarded the lifelong title “leader of the nation,” for founding modern Kazakhstan. Astana’s statement is also unlikely to have implications beyond the declaratory level, since Nazarbayev, as President Putin also stated at the youth forum, “is himself the chief initiator behind the creation of the Eurasian Economic Union in its current form.”
The author writes in his personal capacity. The views expressed are his own and do not represent the views of the organization for which he works.
By Valeriy Dzutsev (09/17/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
Russia’s rapidly changing economic and political landscape is affecting relations between the peripheral North Caucasus region and the central government. As Moscow’s resources dwindle or are projected to diminish significantly, its ability to support an elaborate system of dependencies and allegiances in its semi-colonial periphery plummets. The central government seeks to reap more revenues from the regions and to decrease the appetites of local elites in order to finance its expansionist policies abroad. As a result, political uncertainty is growing and the previously muted criticism of Moscow’s policies from the North Caucasus’ ruling elites is coming to the forefront.
By Mina Muradova (09/03/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
The Sochi talks on settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict initiated by President Valdimir Putin has not met the hopes of many Azerbaijanis for a breakthrough in peace negotiations. The meeting reached only its immediate aim – a decrease in deadly skirmishes on the line of contact between Armenian and Azerbaijani troops, which resulted in the deaths of at least 20 soldiers in early August. Many in Baku believe that the clashes were provoked by Moscow to justify its influential position in the region.
According to Yerevan, the fighting was a result of repeated small-scale Azerbaijani attacks to which Armenia responded. Baku for its part said that Azerbaijani troops forcibly prevented provocations by “Armenian sabotage groups.”
The recent clashes were the gravest since the 1994 ceasefire agreement was signed between the two sides with mediation of the Kremlin.
“The nature of the clashes is totally unprecedented,” said Lawrence Sheets, a Caucasus analyst told Bloomberg. “What has changed is that over the past weeks, we have seen the first instances of the use of high-caliber weapons, not just small arms as had previously often been the case. The verbal threats have also hit an unprecedented peak.”
Over past weeks, images of military vehicles and equipment most likely headed toward the frontline have spread in social networks. Controversial information about serious and deadly clashes gave rise to aggressive rhetoric from both sides, even in the virtual world. On Facebook, a number of Azerbaijani users called on the authorities to show “all our military power to Armenian side.” One Baku resident posted: “Now it is time to demonstrate all our military power. Our military aircraft have to destroy all territories along the line of contact, where the ceasefire was constantly violated in order to demonstrate Armenians how serious we are….”
Before President Ilham Aliyev left for Sochi, around 60 tweets threatening Armenia were posted via his official account. “We will restore our sovereignty. The flag of Azerbaijan will fly in all the occupied territories, including Shusha and Khankandi [in Nagorno-Karabakh],” he wrote. “Just as we have beaten the Armenians on the political and economic fronts, we are able to defeat them on the battlefield”.
Although Azerbaijan seems to the side that is most interested in changing the status-quo in the conflict, many in Baku believe that Armenia, a strategic ally of Russia in the South Caucasus, provoked clashes at the behest of the Kremlin. The theory is that Moscow wanted to use the situation in order to change of Vladimir Putin’s image from an intriguer and aggressor to a peacemaker in the region.
Vafa Guluzade, a former state advisor on foreign policy, said that Putin wanted to show that “Russia still plays a decisive role in the South Caucasus,” and therefore, Putin called for a summit on August 10 with his Azerbaijani and Armenian counterparts in order to show the world his “peaceful, mediating face.”
Guluzade also noted in an interview to Interfax that the Kremlin tried to force Azerbaijan to join the Moscow-led Customs Union, an economic entity that Azerbaijani officials have declined to join. “The meeting with Putin’s mediation was organized just for show, demonstrating that Russia is a key actor in settling the Nagorno-Karabakh problem … Russia tried to compel Azerbaijan, up to the last moment, to join the Customs Union. But Azerbaijan today is a confident and military strong country, so it gave no result,” Guluzade added.
While the presidents were watching a sambo tournament in Sochi following the trilateral meeting, Armenian and Azerbaijani troops continued breaching the ceasefire agreement and taking hostages.
After the summit, President Aliyev said “We discussed the settlement of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict in Karabakh which has been going on for too long and needs to be resolved.” The president stressed that the main mission of the international mediators was to settle the conflict, not to freeze it or strengthen the confidence-building process. “I believe that the latest events will stir international mediators into action,” he said. “Azerbaijan wants peace, the neither war nor peace situation can’t last forever.”
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters that the talks with Aliyev and Sargsyan, were “useful,” with both presidents reaffirming their commitment to seeking a solution exclusively on the basis of a peaceful approach. “There are only few uncoordinated aspects of the conflict settlement, the overwhelming majority of agreements are already clear.” According to Lavrov, several specific points will be finalized: “As they say, the devil is in the details, and the most complex issues are not solved yet.”
After Sochi, the rhetoric coming from Baku and Yerevan became even louder. Sargsyan stated that his country had missiles with a 300-km-radius, which could turn Azerbaijani towns into “Aghdam” referring to the ruined Azerbaijani city under Armenian control. Aliyev stated on August 30 that “…The position of Azerbaijan in Sochi sounded even stronger, thanks to the courage of the heroic Azerbaijani soldiers and officers and the enemy was dealt a devastating blow that they still can’t get over … Of course, Azerbaijan and the Azerbaijani army is strong, and heroic Azerbaijani soldiers are a constant source of fear for them.”
According to Lawrence Sheets, “With all the current violent upheavals in the world, from Ukraine to Iraq and beyond, unfortunately some are not taking the current major escalation between Azerbaijan and Armenia seriously enough … This is a war, and we are now only a step away from any of the sides deciding to resort to the use of highly destructive and sophisticated missile systems they have acquired, capable of causing massive casualties and destruction.”
The U.S. called on Yerevan and Baku to take steps in order to reduce tensions and respect the ceasefire. U.S. Ambassador to Armenia John Heffern delivered a video message stressing that threats and militant rhetoric will not help resolve any conflict. Heffern repeated that there can be no military solution to the Karabakh conflict and called on the parties to start talks, since revenge and further escalation will make it difficult to achieve peace. “The best way to honor the memory of those killed is to stop clashes right now,” - he noted.
By Eka Janashia (09/03/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
On August 27, Abkhazia’s newly elected president Raul Khajimba met with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss the possibility of signing a comprehensive cooperation treaty between Moscow and Sokhumi.
The meeting took place three days after the snap presidential elections on August 24, when Khajimba eventually became Abkhazia’s de facto leader after three failed attempts since 2004. His predecessor Alexander Ankvab stepped down on July 1 in response to street protests by Khajimba-led opposition groups in late May, 2014.
Khajimba was able to oust Ankvab and narrowly avoided a runoff by gaining 50.57 percent of the votes. The former head of the state security service Aslan Bzhania was second with 35.91 percent, followed by former defense minister Merab Kishmaria and former interior minister Leonid Dzapshba with 6.4 and 3.4 percent respectively.
Before the elections, Abkhazia’s parliament declared the “Abkhaz passports” held by most ethnic Georgians residing in the region illegal, preventing 16,411 residents of Gali, 5,504 of Tkvarcheli and 872 of Ochamchire districts from participating in the elections (see the 06/18/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst).
Reportedly, one of key reasons for Ankvab’s departure was controversy over the “passportization” issue. Khajimba-led ultra-nationalists blamed Ankvab for deliberately distributing “Abkhaz passports” to ethnic Georgians in efforts to secure their support. Khajimba insisted that districts predominantly populated by ethnic Georgians were a menace to “Abkhaz statehood.” Such rhetoric proved effective both in ousting Ankvab and in preventing a sizeable part of the region’s population from casting ballots.
Whereas the EU, NATO, and the U.S. Department of State condemned breakaway Abkhazia’s presidential elections, Putin was quick to congratulate Khajimba on the election victory and restated his readiness to buttress “friendly” relations with Abkhazia.
Khajimba has been the Kremlin’s favorite candidate for almost a decade. In the mid-1980s he graduated from Minsk’s KGB academy and served at Tkvarcheli’s KBG unit in Abkhazia until 1992. Moscow actively promoted Khajimba during the 2004 presidential elections, where he was nevertheless defeated by Sergey Bagapsh. To eschew an anticipated political crisis, Khajimba took the post of vice president with direct support from the Kremlin. In the 2009 elections, Bagapsh repeated his success while Khajimba scored only 15.4 percent of the votes. Finally, Ankvab gained a landslide victory over Khajimba in the 2011 polls.
Khajimba eventually became Abkhazia’s new leader after the political standoff in May, and almost immediately declared the need for signing a comprehensive cooperation treaty between Moscow and Sokhumi in order to elevate bilateral cooperation to a substantially new level and ensure “clearer” security guarantees for “Abkhazia’s independence.”
According to Khajimba, one aspect of the treaty could be the establishment of joint command over Abkhaz forces and Russian military bases in Abkhazia. “The new document should take into consideration those difficulties which Abkhazia and Russia now face on the international arena, which exist in relationship with Georgia, Europe and the United States,” he said.
This statement reflects several political shifts taking place locally as well as regionally. Locally in Abkhazia, the results of the recent elections should be perceived as a long-expected victory of a Kremlin favorite who, unlike previous leaders, will be more amenable to the Kremlin’s interests. In early May 2014, the Ankvab-led government strongly condemned the proposition for a formal association with Russia aired by the head of the International Association of the Abkhaz-Abazin People, Professor Taras Shamba. Abkhazia’s foreign ministry claimed that such a move would rid Abkhazia of the “signs of an independent state.”
What happened next was the overthrow of Ankvab’s government and the political deactivation of ethnic Georgians, which considerably limits the number of voters who would oppose Abkhazia’s accession to Russia.
These local changes mirror the regional convulsions triggered by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its military escalation in eastern Ukraine. In this broader spotlight, regime change in Abkhazia might imply a tactical move on Moscow’s part to prepare the ground for a complete absorption of the region or at least to gain additional levers there. In Moscow’s perspective, bringing Khajimba to power in Abkhazia will imply fewer risks of unexpected clashes and weaker objections to the region’s direct integration with Russia. Unlike in South Ossetia, independence is a critical issue for large parts of the Abkhaz population, which pushes the Kremlin to proceed more cautiously. The Kremlin’s success, however, hinges on its ability to maintain at least its status of a regional power in Eurasian geopolitics.
The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst is a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Transatlantic Research and Policy Center affiliated with the American Foreign Policy Council, Washington DC., and the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm. For 15 years, the Analyst has brought cutting edge analysis of the region geared toward a practitioner audience.