Russia disquiet about increasing instability in Central Asian states, Caucasus

After the failed coup in Turkey on July 15, Russia is preparing to counter similar events which may unfold in post-Soviet Central Asian states and the Caucasus. Already, there are disturbing signs. In Armenia’s capital Yerevan, public support is swelling for a group of pro-reformist war veterans who took over a police station on July 17 demanding the resignation of President Serzh Sargsyan. On July 18, Kazakhstan’s largest city Almaty witnessed deadly attacks on a police station and branch office of the National Security Committee. It could be a terrorist strike or an act of revenge by a man for his years of detention. Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are facing homegrown armed opposition and threat from Islamist militants in neighboring Afghanistan

MOSCOW (AT)–Following the failed coup attempt in Turkey, there were concerns in Russia about signs of instability in some neighboring states.

The latest disturbances in Armenia and Kazakhstan, Russia’s two closest allies, raised uneasiness among officials in Moscow. On July 20, Adalbi Shagoshev, member of the international affairs committee of the lower house of the Russian parliament, warned of possible “provocations” and coup attempts in Central Asia.

Demonstrators who had gathered in a show of support for gunmen holding several hostages in a police station, clash with riot police in Yerevan, Armenia, July 20, 2016. REUTERS/Vahram Baghdasaryan/Photolure

Demonstrators who had gathered in a show of support for gunmen holed up in a police station, clash with riot police in Yerevan, Armenia, July 20, 2016. REUTERS/Vahram Baghdasaryan/Photolure

Two multiple-target attacks in as many months have adversely affected Kazakhstan’s image of stability. Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbaev described the latest attack on July 18 as a “terrorist act” that targeted the country’s police force.

The attack in Kazakhstan’s largest city Almaty left at six people dead. Following this incident, the authorities of Kazakhstan indicated plans to toughen penalties for terrorism, apparently following the example of their Turkish counterparts.

There were disturbances in Armenia as well. On July 23, armed men holding nine policemen hostage in Armenia’s capital Yerevan for almost a week released all remaining captives. But armed protesters remained holed up at police station in Yerevan, demanding Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan’s resignation.

Police officers detain man after attack in centre of Almaty

Police officers detain a man after an attack in the center of Almaty, Kazakhstan, July 18, 2016. REUTERS/Pavel Mikheyev

Armenia and Kazakhstan were apparently dealing with domestic terrorism and militancy. In the meantime, other Central Asian states, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, were facing both homegrown armed opposition and threat from Islamic militants in neighboring Afghanistan.

Last September, there was a brief mutiny by Tajikistan’s former deputy defense minister Abdukhalim Nazarzoda. The attacks that killed 26 people came as a reminder of the continued instability in Tajikistan.

Earlier this month, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu warned of what he described new Syria-style military conflicts in the post-Soviet Central Asian states and the Caucasus. These developments would require Russia’s response, he said without elaborating further.

“As the short-term risks of military conflict remain,” Shoigu said, “Russia will have to adequately respond to potential threats.”

Interestingly, Shoigu made these remarks on July 15, just a few hours before the coup attempt in Turkey.

Russia’s response can be expected within the framework of the Russia-led security alliance, Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The CSTO includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan. The CSTO’s Rapid Reaction Collective Force (KSOR) currently includes some 22,000 personnel. Last May, KSOR conducted unprecedented exercises in Tajikistan.

The grouping has also discussed creation of a new security institution, the CSTO’s Crisis Reaction Center (CRC). The CRC is expected to rely on resources of the Russian Defense Ministry. Both KSOR and CRC can serve as tools of Russia’s response to security challenges.

With a background of pre-existing Russian concerns about increasing post-Soviet instability, Turkey’s coup was probably interpreted as a warning sign for post-Soviet rulers that they could be the next ones to face coup attempts.

Along with its many other international implications, the July 15 coup attempt in Turkey could also have repercussions for Central Eurasia. As Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was seen realigning himself with Russia following the failed coup, there were also expectations of Turkey’s greater involvement in Central Asia. In the wake of the Turkish coup attempt, both Russia and Turkey can share opposition against perceived Western policies of regime change.

There were media reports that Russia could have intercepted radio transmissions by the coup plotters, and tipped off President Erdogan. The Kremlin denied that Russia warned Turkey of an imminent military coup. Nonetheless, on July 23, the Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Russia was one of the countries that greatly helped during the failed coup attempt.

If Russia did warn Turkey of the upcoming coup, the warning was probably sparked by the Kremlin’s opposition against perceived Western meddling and attempts of regime change. Turkish President Erdogan was seen as an arch-enemy in the Kremlin just a few weeks ago. And if Russia did prefer not to allow Erdogan’s demise, there are a lot more reasons for Moscow to interfere in the post-Soviet states so as to counter regime change plots.

Sergei Blagov is a Moscow-based independent journalist and researcher. In the past three decades, he has been covering Asian affairs from Moscow, Russia, as well as Hanoi, Vietnam and Vientiane, Laos. He is the author of non-fiction books on Vietnam, and a contributor of a handbook for reporters.

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