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Plus, sanctions hit Russian interests in Central Europe and Bulgaria, and Uzbekistan denies base talks with U.S. general.by Ky Krauthamer, Ioana Caloianu, and Jeremy Druker 5 August 2014
Nearly 200 Ukrainian soldiers came under fire today as they re-entered the country after an overnight foray into Russian territory, Al Jazeera reports.
A Ukrainian military spokesman said separatist forces opened fire early this morning on 195 “unarmed” soldiers returning from Russia. They formed part of a group of 311 soldiers who crossed the border yesterday to avoid rebel fire.
Ukrainian and rebel claims differ on what happened to their weapons. The military said the troops destroyed their weapons before re-entering the country, while the separatists say the weapons were abandoned and fell into their hands, according to Al Jazeera.
Some Russian reports yesterday suggested the soldiers had deserted, Al Jazeera reported. The head of the Russian Federal Security Service border patrol in the Rostov region, Vasily Malayev, earlier said 180 of the soldiers returned to Ukraine.
Also today government forces tightened their ring around the rebel-held city of Donetsk, taking control of a checkpoint on the western edge of the city, the AP reports. Around a fifth of the city’s 1 million inhabitants have fled, city authorities estimate. Government forces were also approaching Luhansk and the smaller city of Horlivka, about 45 kilometers (28 miles) from Donetsk.
“We have left the project in order not to expose it to a risk of collapse,” Gennady Timchenko told Itar-TASS. Timchenko is reported to control 63 percent of Stroytransgaz shares. Gazprom subsidiary Centrgaz will take over as lead builder on the Bulgarian section of the Russia-to-EU pipeline.
Timchenko blamed U.S. Senator John McCain for pressuring Bulgarian authorities to drop his company from the project, The Moscow Times reports. South Stream would carry Russian natural gas under the Black Sea, across Bulgaria, Serbia, and Hungary, and finally to Austria.
U.S. sanctions earlier forced Timchenko to sell his stake in the commodities trading company Gunvor.
In June, Sofia announced a temporary hold on the pipeline under pressure from Brussels and amid suspicions that contracts for the project violated EU public procurement rules.
Bulgaria’s center-left government collapsed in late July, partly owing to disagreements over South Stream. The Moscow Times writes that the poll-leading center-right GERB party said it would resume the project only after ensuring its compliance with EU laws.
Stroytransgaz is not the only Russian energy company operating in the region to feel the bite of sanctions. Oil major LUKoil announced 4 August it would sell gas stations in the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia. Although the company itself wasn't sanctioned, restrictions on Russians banks have limited its financing options, according to RFE.
Deadly clashes along the border of the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh have tensions again running high in the South Caucasus, Radio Free Europe reports. Azerbaijan's Defense Ministry claims 15 of its soldiers have been killed in recent days, while authorities in the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh have said five of their soldiers were killed.
Armenian Defense Minister Seiran Ohanian said 4 August there was “no reason for a large-scale military operation yet,” but he charged Azerbaijan with taking steps that could lead to war. Baku leveled similar accusations at Armenia and the authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh.
What started the latest round of shootings remains unclear. In a backgrounder on the conflict, RFE says Nagorno-Karabakh claimed to have come under attack from Azerbaijani troops. In July Nagorno-Karabakh claimed to have seized several “saboteurs” from Azerbaijan, and tensions rose further over the brutal killing of an Armenian teenager in the region.
The issue is sure to be high on the agenda if Russian President Vladimir Putin meets his Armenian and Azerbaijani counterparts later this week in Sochi, RFE writes. While Armenian officials confirmed the possibility of a meeting, Azerbaijan said President Ilham Aliev had not decided whether he would participate.
The latest conflict has international mediators and the countries’ neighbors worried.
A statement from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was “concerned” and pledged his backing for the long-running, but slow-moving attempts of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Minsk Group to end the stalemate over Nagorno-Karabakh. Georgia and Russia likewise expressed concern.
“General Austin has no knowledge of any plans for a possible U.S. base in Uzbekistan. He did not discuss any such options with the Uzbeks during his trip,” CENTCOM spokesman Major Brian Fickel said, according to RIA Novosti.
Official Tashkent’s response to the “rumors” about a U.S. base was flat-out denial, according to Uznews.net.
U.S. forces operated a base in southeastern Uzbekistan from 2001 to 2005, until they were evicted by Uzbekistani authorities in 2005 after Washington criticized government troops for shooting protesters in the eastern city of Andijan.
U.S. personnel are authorized to use the German base in Termez, according to RIA Novosti.
Another official statement out of Tashkent, however, appeared to undermine the legal basis of foreign military bases altogether.
A 2012 law “does not allow deploying the foreign military bases and facilities in [Uzbekistani] territory,” the Foreign Ministry announced on its website, Trend reports.
Uzbekistan’s airports and railways are important links in the transport chain for equipment flowing out of Afghanistan as the NATO operation there winds down.
Protests over the sacking of a district head in Dagestan underline the complexity of ethnic relations in the North Caucasus republic, according to RFE.
Republic President Ramazan Abdulatipov said last week he was sacking Derbent Raion (district) head Kurban Kurbanov in what RFE calls “part of an ongoing systematic purge of local administrators regarded as inefficient and/or corrupt.”
Kurbanov, from a prominent Azeri family in the area, has headed the district since 1998.
Several hundred people rallied in support of Kurbanov on 30 July in Derbent, whose population of 120,000 makes it the republic’s second largest city.
Kurbanov, 58, was reportedly hospitalized the same day after a meeting with officials who asked him to sign a letter of resignation, according to RFE.
Azeris, one of 14 officially recognized ethnic groups, comprise 4.5 percent of Dagestan’s population overall, while in Derbent district they make up 58 percent of the 100,000 population. The district is separate from Derbent city, where Azeris make up about 35 percent of the population.
While presented as a corruption-fighting move, Kurbanov’s ouster may also reflect power struggles between Azeris and republican officials and among local Azeris jostling for influence both locally and in nearby Azerbaijan, the Russian news site PlanFox.ru comments.
Baku plans investments in Dagestan in connection with the celebrations of the 2,000th anniversary of Derbent’s founding, including sports facilities and hotels, RFE reports.
There are also conflicts in the area over rising property prices, and interethnic disputes between Azeris and Lezgins, PlanFox.ru writes.