Special operations troops from SCO member state militaries at the opening ceremony of joint exercises in Tokmok, Kyrgyzstan. (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
The China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization is holding joint exercises with special operations forces from Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan -- and they're doing it at a military base in Kyrgyzstan that the United States spent $9 million to build.
The SCO exercises taking place this week involve 20-25 special operations troops from each participating country (all the member states except Uzbekistan, which typically sits out SCO military exercises). During the five-day exercise the troops will practice deploying to mountain areas, deploying from helicopters, seeking and destroying terrorist groups, rescuing hostages, and treating and evacuating wounded troops. Pretty standard stuff for a joint special operations exercise.
What makes this drill stand out is the site: the base of the Scorpions special operations unit in Tokmok, Kyrgyzstan. Readers may recall that this is the base that U.S. Central Command and the U.S. embassy in Bishkek spent $9 million to build. It's no wonder it was attractive to the SCO, given that a Wikileaked U.S. diplomatic cable from the opening ceremony of the base in 2009 described it as "the gold standard in Central Asian construction ... far exceeds any other facility the Kyrgyz currently have." The facility includes
"officer and enlisted housing, classroom training facilities, a multipurpose facility, a dining facility and shower/sauna complex."
New data show that Central Asian governments have been right to fear Russia’s economic crisis was heading their way: Remittances from migrant laborers are falling sharply, more than in any other region worldwide.
Migrant remittances are the largest single source of foreign currency in Tajikistan and an important factor in declining poverty rates throughout Central Asia in recent years. So the contracting Russian economy and stricken ruble – brought on by a sudden fall in oil prices and Western sanctions – have a direct impact on millions of the region’s laborers and their families back home.
“Overall, reduced remittances are likely to worsen standards of living in remittance-receiving countries, and the increasing number of returned migrants could put upward pressures on unemployment rates,” the World Bank said in a regular briefing on April 13.
Tajikistan – which sends approximately one-half of its working age males to labor in Russia – is the most remittance-dependent country in the world. Remittances account for the equivalent of 49 percent of GDP, according to the World Bank. In dollar terms, they fell 8 percent last year, largely in the fourth quarter, and are expected to decline another 23 percent in 2015.
Kyrgyzstan is the world’s second most remittance-dependent country, with remittances totaling the equivalent of 32 percent of GDP. Last year they fell 1 percent, but are expected to drop another 23 percent this year.
In Uzbekistan, where remittances total the equivalent of 11.9 percent of GDP, they fell 16 percent last year; they are expected to drop another 30 percent in 2015.
The new United States embassy in Kyrgyzstan continues to be the object of elaborate conspiracy theories in the Kyrgyz and Russian press, which now suggest that Washington is sneaking in equipment to help carry out a color revolution.
This conspiracy theory was kicked off by Kyrgyzstan newspaper Delo No., which reported that the U.S. flew in 152 tons of "unknown cargo" on a Ukrainian airplane. The cargo flew under the "diplomatic pouch," the mail service by which diplomats around the world can send mail without it being inspected by the receiving country.
"The situation in the world, and in our region especially, has recently become so explosive that any actions of the Americans should be regarded with suspicion. All the more so with American diplomats," the paper wrote. "And the diplomatic pouch of any country could theoretically be used to transport anything, including weapons. Before, the Americans in Kyrgyzstan had the possibility to get any cargo, into which the Kyrgyzstani authorities couldn't stick their nose, through their military base. Now there's no base, and the U.S. embassy was was unable to hide itself with the diplomatic pouch in the Manas civilian airport."
The paper puts forward two possible explanations for the secret cargo: one, that it is carrying cash in small denominations in order to pay protesters to carry out a "Maidan" in Bishkek. Another is that it is "espionage equipment for the enormous basements of the new U.S. embassy building in Bishkek."
The waters of the Syr-Darya river are highly polluted and should not be used for irrigating crops, let alone for drinking, scientists from Kazakhstan have concluded.
Tests of the waters of Central Asia’s longest river – which flows for 2,200 kilometers through Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan – found dangerous concentrations of metals including chromium, copper, nickel, mercury, molybdenum, and zinc, the Nur.kz site quoted scientists from South Kazakhstan State University as saying.
“The water of the Syr-Darya is not recommended for use either for agricultural needs or for the fishing industry,” concluded Uylesbek Besterekov, one of the professors who took part in the three-year study funded by a €600,000 NATO grant.
The scientists (who tested waters flowing for around 1,000 kilometers through Kazakhstan, from the border with Uzbekistan up to the Aral Sea) could not pinpoint which industrial enterprise was the greatest polluter – or even which of the four countries through which the river flows is causing the most contamination. Even if the main polluters could be identified and stopped, it would take at least a decade for the waters to become clean, Besterekov said.
The findings – which back up 2009 data suggesting that the Syr-Darya’s waters were too dirty to drink or use in agriculture safely – are worrying for the Central Asian governments, since the river is used to irrigate crops that are then transported all over the region for public consumption. (It was the use of this river’s waters for agricultural irrigation – particularly for cotton – that led to the shrinking of the Aral Sea into which it empties.)
What a difference a month can make. In the final days of February, Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev was engaged in an emotional and unseemly spat with Belarus over the death of a Kyrgyz gangster.
By the end of his 10-day European tour this week, Atambayev was positioning himself as a peacemaker between Brussels and Moscow – one eager to continue receiving Western aid. Kyrgyzstan is due to join the Russia-led Eurasia Economic Union next month.
Atambayev made some revealing comments during an April 1 interview with Euronews – an outlet notorious for softball questions and sympathetic interviews with regional leaders. He used the opportunity to praise Russia’s leadership, present himself as a wise leader dabbling in international diplomacy, and remind Western donors that their assistance hasn’t been enough.
Euronews: “Mr. President, welcome to Euronews. Can we regard your visit to Brussels as something of a farewell before Kyrgyzstan joins the Eurasian Economic Union in May and when you will stop getting closer to the European Union?”
Atambayev: “On the contrary. I think, as a part of the Eurasian Union, Kyrgyzstan will be pushing it towards tight engagement with the European Union. Europe should extend from Lisbon and Brussels – to Vladivostok, and of course, I think, to Bishkek.”
UPDATE, March 28: American journalist Umar Farooq says he has been freed and is leaving Kyrgyzstan. Meanwhile, lawyers for human rights watchdog Bir Duino have filed a complaint with the prosecutor's office for the raids on their office and several top employees’ homes.
The arrest of an American journalist on extremism charges and the subsequent raid of a prominent human rights organization, both in southern Kyrgyzstan’s largest city, Osh, suggest that Kyrgyz authorities are still cagey about independent inquiry in a region associated with growing adherence to Islam and festering inter-ethnic tensions.
Kyrgyzstan has styled itself as a bastion of democracy in an authoritarian region, but rights activists see looming Russian-style legislation that would brand NGOs “foreign agents” as impending death for the country’s once-vibrant civil society.
Umar Farooq was researching the recent arrest of a popular cleric accused of supporting Syrian radicals, said a local journalist who had met with him shortly after he arrived in Kyrgyzstan a few weeks ago. On his webpage, Farooq identifies himself as a journalist who has written for the Los Angeles Times, the Christian Science Monitor and others.
The State Committee for National Security (GKNB) released a statement late March 27 confirming Farooq’s March 25 arrest, and claiming he had been found with documents and video materials of a "religious extremist and terrorist character."
A US Embassy spokeswoman told EurasiaNet.org that American officials had been in touch with Farooq and were providing consular support.
The hated younger son of Kyrgyzstan’s former president is living the highlife in the United Kingdom, inhabiting a house bought by an opaque shell company – probably with money stolen from the Kyrgyz people – while he waits for asylum. So alleges transparency watchdog Global Witness in a March 25 report.
Maxim Bakiyev never returned to Kyrgyzstan after his father, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, was ousted in a bloody April 2010 uprising that left around 100 people dead. He has since been found guilty at home of stealing millions in government funds and attempted murder, charges he says are politically motivated.
Meanwhile, he has applied for asylum in the UK and is eligible for permanent residency in three months, according to Global Witness.
How Maxim came to live in a $5.2-million mansion, bought by a secret Belize-registered company just after his father’s regime imploded, is the focus on the Global Witness report.
The report provides strong evidence suggesting that the scion of the Bakiyev clan, if not fully identifiable as the owner of the house in a posh London suburb, at least inhabits it.
Kyrgyzstan’s obscurity has allowed Maxim to fly under the radar of the British press for the most part. Even the British football club he was rumored to have a stake in was fairly unfashionable.
Indian and Kyrgyzstani soldiers at a ceremony opening joint military exercises in Kyrgyzstan. (photo: Indian embassy, Bishkek(
Special operations forces from India and Kyrgyzstan have wrapped up joint military exercises near Bishkek, the first time Indian soldiers have carried out such drills in the country.
The exercises, Kanzhar 2015, involved about 100 soldiers overall, including Kyrgyzstan's "Scorpions" special operations forces and 30 of their Indian colleagues. They covered "joint special operations to destroy illegal armed formations in mountainous terrain," according to a Kyrgyzstan military spokesman. "There were also practical exercises and training including at night, and also exchanges of experience in military medicine, mountain, tactical and firearms training."
As is de rigeur, Kyrgyzstan framed the event as an anti-terrorism exercise: "The provocative, insidious activities of international terrorist organizations, pursuing the goal of seizing government power, have recently become stronger," said Kyrgyzstan's deputy chief of the general staff, Zhanybek Kaparov, at a ceremony opening the exercise. "So for us, it's very important to cooperate with the armed forces of India to fight together against extremism and terrorism."
Reports that Russia is uncomfortable with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) stepping into banking are nothing new. In particular, Moscow’s quiet efforts to block the creation of an SCO development bank that would funnel largely Chinese credit into Russia’s backyard have featured at the organization’s meetings in recent years.
But a thought-provoking analysis by Alexander Gabuev of the Carnegie Moscow Center, published last week by Russia in Global Affairs, suggests the Kremlin is mistaken, placing fears about appearing to be a junior partner over a sound geopolitical strategy that could give it a measure of control over China’s Central Asia policy.
The SCO – which groups China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – has tried hard to convince the world it is more than just a club for dictators. China’s push to include economic initiatives on the SCO agenda was a part of this process, Gabuev notes, and a development bank has been on the table at SCO powwows since 2009.
Documents have come to light proving that the beneficiary of a $748,000 renovation funded by the U.S. military was not the state or people of Kyrgyzstan, as initially claimed by Kyrgyz and U.S. officials, but a private citizen who acquired the property under dubious circumstances.
The former state hospital, in the Bishkek suburb of Shopokov, was intended to be a “development center for battered women” and “a shelter for up to 55 women and their children,” according to U.S. military press materials distributed during a ribbon-cutting ceremony in 2010. The American airbase at Manas funded the renovations. The base commander and U.S. ambassador attended the event.
For a time, the impressively refurbished two-story building stood empty. Today it accommodates a private kindergarten that earns its owners roughly $47,000 per year, based on calculations using figures provided by the school’s employees.
The $748,000 grant was unusually large for Manas, accounting for one-third of the base’s humanitarian aid spending that year. Most of Manas’s development grants that year were for less than $20,000.
American officials appeared to believe at the time that the funds were being used to refurbish a state-owned building. In 2011, when the building stood empty, a Manas spokesperson told EurasiaNet.org that after refurbishment the building was supposed to remain Kyrgyz government property and said Manas was not responsible for monitoring program activity.
The implementing partner was Zamira Akbagysheva, the head of Kyrgyzstan’s Congress of Women.
Today, a sign on the gate outside the building declares “Authorized People Only.” With its sparkling paint-job, new windows, and bright-red roofing tiles, the building stands out in the neighborhood of dilapidated gray houses.