The International Monetary Fund has revised downward its forecast for growth in Central Asia and the former Soviet Union to account for dramatically lower oil prices and the shriveling Russian economy. The region’s poorest countries can expect sharply higher inflation.
The assessments are part of an economic update released January 21 in Washington.
For energy importers like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the IMF says, any gains from lower oil prices are overshadowed by weakness in Russia, Central Asia’s largest trade partner and the destination for millions of Central Asian labor migrants. The IMF projects Russia’s economy to shrink 3 percent this year due to “geopolitical tensions” (the Kremlin’s adventure in Ukraine) and sharply lower prices for its chief export, oil.
Already the Central Asian countries are reeling from the 45 percent drop in the value of the ruble against the dollar last year. Kyrgyzstan’s currency, the som, lost 17 percent against the dollar, even as the National Bank spent hundreds of millions of dollars defending it. Oil-exporter Kazakhstan devalued the tenge by 19 percent last February and another downward adjustment appears imminent. Turkmenistan’s manat dropped 19 percent on January 1.
Tajikistan spent over half its hard-currency reserves in 2014 defending the somoni, the Central Bank said this week. Yet the rumpled somoni still fell 11 percent and is bound to plunge further as remittances – which make up the equivalent of half of Tajikistan’s GDP – shrink.
Central Asian governments are failing to address problems posed by violent radicalization, instead encouraging a growing number of Central Asians to take up arms in Syria and Iraq on behalf of the Islamic State. So says a new report by the International Crisis Group (ICG), “Syria Calling: Radicalisation in Central Asia.”
Estimates of the number of Central Asians currently living in the Islamic State (IS) vary. The ICG calls Central Asian government figures “conservative” and instead gives greater credence to Western officials’ counts, placing the number between 2,000 and 4,000—most from the “long-rebellious” Fergana Valley.
Poverty, migration, marginalization and state repression push Central Asians to join radical groups, the report says. But the Islamic State also provides “a meaningful alternative to post-Soviet life.”
The report debunks the myth, oft championed by Central Asian regimes, that it is only young, poor and uneducated men who have travelled to Syria and Iraq. Instead, the ICG documents the broad appeal that the Islamic State has in the region. Jihad appeals to rich and poor, educated and uneducated alike.
Many fighters are recruited through family networks, with as many as 20 Tajiks from one village departing together in September 2014. A commitment to holy war, the report argues, is the main reason that Central Asians are drawn to the Islamic State.
One unique aspect of the report is its focus on the growing number of women who join radical Islamic groups. Although many women travel to be with their husbands in Syria and Iraq, some go alone. ICG interviewed one woman from a group of four preparing to go to Syria. She told the researcher: “[Our husbands are] against religion, against Islam. My friends do not want to live with them anymore.”
Three shootings took place on three different sections of Central Asian frontier over the weekend, highlighting how violence-prone the region’s porous borders have become.
The first incident, at a Kyrgyz border post near Tajikistan, left one border guard dead and two wounded. A private has now allegedly confessed to killing his superior in the January 16 shooting, Kloop.kg reports.
Conditions for junior soldiers in Central Asia’s militaries are notoriously abysmal, with senior officers meting out physical abuse and sometimes requiring their underlings to perform in slave-like conditions. So fragging is not inconceivable.
Two days later, Kyrgyz border guards shot a man they describe as an Uzbek hunter who crossed the border illegally, with two others, and opened fire. The Kyrgyz Border Service says it has handed over the wounded man to the Uzbek authorities, which apprehended the other two when they retreated back home. (Update: An Uzbek official later said Kyrgyz border guards had illegally crossed into Uzbekistan and illegally seized the hunters' rifles before retreating.)
Also on January 18, on the drug-saturated Tajik-Afghan border where shootings are common, a Tajik conscript was shot by drug smugglers, Tajik authorities say.
Four of the five Central Asian states have failed to meet basic fiscal transparency standards, according to the U.S. State Department’s latest Annual Fiscal Transparency report. The study does not appear to affect whether a country receives U.S. government funding, however.
In addition to ascertaining whether countries meet State’s minimum standards (such as publishing receipts and expenditures in publicly available national budget documentation and bidding and contract information for natural resource extraction), the study assesses progress—or lack thereof.
Published by the Office of Monetary Affairs since 2008, the report only includes “those governments it anticipated would receive bilateral allocations of assistance” in fiscal year 2014. The latest version of the report was released January 14.
This year, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan were all judged to have made “no significant progress” toward meeting minimum fiscal transparency standards, joining 35 other countries in that category. Overall, 50 fell below the minimum-standards threshold.
Kyrgyzstan, which has harnessed international assistance from USAID and other donors to improve public access to state budgets was judged to have met minimum transparency standards for the second year running.
In 2012, Tajikistan made significant progress toward the benchmark. It has slipped over the last two years, however.
Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, which routinely rank at the bottom of Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, have never glittered in this report.
Whether or not Vladimir Putin bribed Uzbekistan, as a Bishkek newspaper claims, it is welcome news all around that Uzbek gas is once again flowing into southern Kyrgyzstan.
Kyrgyzstan is happy because 60,000 customers in a potentially restive part of the country aren’t relying on dung to heat their homes; Uzbekistan again has revenue from the cross-border gas trade; and Russia, whose energy giant Gazprom promised a constant supply of gas when it bought Kyrgyzstan’s gas distribution network last year, gets to save face.
But the sudden resumption of gas deliveries from Uzbekistan to Kyrgyzstan on December 30 begs two related questions: Why wasn’t a deal reached earlier, after Uzbekistan abruptly cut supplies last April? And what made the recalcitrant Uzbeks change their mind?
Kyrgyz newspaper Vechernii Bishkek, citing an unidentified Kyrgyz government source, claims it knows the answer to the second question.
The source told Vechernii Bishkek today that no less a figure than Russian President Vladimir Putin negotiated the gas deal during a December 10 meeting with his counterpart Islam Karimov in Tashkent. Karimov, according to this account, pushed Moscow to forgive $3 billion of Uzbek debt (oddly, that’s much more than the $890 million other media reported Uzbekistan as owing). In the end the Kremlin agreed to write off $865 million.
The United States significantly stepped up its training of Kyrgyzstan's special forces in 2013, as Washington was trying to convince Bishkek to allow its air base to remain in the country.
The U.S. trained 1,024 troops from Kyrgyzstan in fiscal year 2013 (that is, the year beginning October 1, 2012), up from 345 the year before. Of those, 880 were special forces troops which took part in six-week training courses led by their American special forces counterparts, documents newly released by the U.S. State Department show.
According to the annual report (pdf), on “Foreign Military Training and DoD Engagement Activities of Interest,” the Kyrgyzstan forces trained appeared to be mixed groups taken from various special forces units including the Alphas and Borus from the State Committee on National Security (GKNB) and the Scorpions, Panthers, and Ilbirs from the Ministry of Defense. The special forces training cost $2.6 million and was funded by Section 1004, under which the Department of Defense finances counter-drug activities around the world. They were trained in four six-week periods beginning in October 2012 and ending August 31, 2013.
U.S. officials have consistently denied that their security cooperation programs in Central Asia are linked to gaining regional governments' support for the Afghanistan military mission. But the timing of these programs are certainly suggestive of such a connection.
After three years of negotiations, Kyrgyzstan has signed up to join the Moscow-led Eurasian Union, a protectionist post-Soviet economic club that some fear will allow the Kremlin to reassert political influence in its former backyard. But in what has become a tradition, Kyrgyzstan’s actual accession will be delayed yet again.
Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev signed on the dotted line at a Moscow meeting of the Eurasian Economic Council December 23 along with his counterparts from Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia.
Atambayev was in high spirits after signing, waxing lyrical about the benefits of regional integration.
“I’d like to emphasize that today is December 23. I am a person that sometimes lends a lot of credence to things, dates, signs of destiny, lets say. Yesterday, December 22, was the shortest day and the longest night [of the year] and today, December 23 is the day when light starts to defeat night. It seems very significant. I am confident that even in these difficult times, things will be a lot easier for all of us if we are friendly with one another and help one another,” Atambayev said, to what looked, on camera, like sniggers from Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko.
More importantly, Atambayev confirmed that Kyrgyzstan would not be ready for full membership in the Eurasian Economic Union – which fellow aspirant Armenia will join on January 1 – until the anniversary of the Soviet Union’s 1945 victory over Germany on May 9. All year officials have said Kyrgyzstan will join on January 1, when the Customs Union becomes the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).
Uzbekistan has accused Kyrgyzstan of violating its airspace with a drone, a charge Bishkek denies.
According to Uzbekistan's border service, on December 16 a drone flew into Uzbekistan's Ferghana Valley from Kyrgyzstan's Batken region. The drone was flying at an altitude of 200-250 meters, flew 7.5 kilometers deep into Uzbekistan, and after an hour returned to Kyrgyzstan. The drone had no identifying markings, but was white with a light blue tail, the border service said.
And Uzbekistan added a warning: The border service "officially announces that in the event of another violation of the air space of Uzbekistan, the Uzbek side reserves the right to take all necessary measures to defend the air space of the Republic of Uzbekistan."
Russian President Vladimir Putin has modestly understated the number of military bases that Russia operates outside its borders, apparently forgetting about the several bases Russia has in the Caucasus and elsewhere.
In his big annual press conference on December 18, the BBC's John Simpson asked Putin about the breakout of a "new Cold War" and Russia's aggressive moves around its Western borders. Putin said that it was in fact the West who was aggressive:
We have basically only two bases abroad, and those are in terroristically dangerous directions: in Kyrgyzstan after militants from Afghanistan entered that country, at the reqyest of the Kyrgyz authorities, then President Akayev, and in Tajikistan -- also on the border with Afghanistan. I think you also would be interested in everything being stable there, too.
American bases are all over the globe. And you want to say that we're acting aggressively? Does that make sense? What are American armed forces, including tactical nuclear weapons, doing in Europe? What are they doing there?
Kyrgyzstan’s government has de facto blocked a popular and hard-hitting news website with the argument that reporting on terrorism is akin to supporting terrorists. Authorities seem to have pressured the website’s local host to disconnect its servers.
ProHost said on December 15 that it would immediately kick Kloop.kg off its servers following a request from the State Agency for Communications, Kloop co-founder Bektour Iskender informed readers through Facebook.
The block has been looming since November 24, when Kloop reposted a video from Britain’s Daily Mail featuring a propaganda video that showed Kazakh children allegedly training as jihadists in Syria. Officials in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan both insist Kloop has aided the terrorist Islamic State by republishing the video.
Kloop was swiftly blocked in Kazakhstan after refusing a written request from the Kazakh prosecutor’s office to remove the offending material; harassment from Kyrgyzstan’s Interior Ministry quickly followed.
Kyrgyz authorities have stepped up pressure on the media in recent months. In October President Almazbek Atambayev broadly blamed journalists for sullying Kyrgyzstan’s reputation abroad.