The Russian government has proposed legislation that would grant citizenship to anyone who speaks fluent Russian and had once lived, or who had relatives who lived, on the territory of the Soviet Union.
The draft law would apply to millions of people throughout Central Asia and the Caucasus, as well as Ukraine, Moldova and other parts of Europe. So, amid the crisis in Crimea, where one Russian justification for military intervention has been to “protect” ethnic Russians, the timing should increase anxieties in presidential palaces across the region that Moscow is also using a soft weapon in its arsenal to rebuild its empire.
In theory, ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in formerly Soviet states have long had the right to acquire Russian passports, but the process in recent years has become more difficult and protracted. Applicants must move to Russia and live there for three years, while jumping through a ruthless sequence of bureaucratic hoops. Nevertheless, since independence, according to official Kyrgyz statistics cited by Radio Azattyk, about a tenth of Kyrgyzstan’s population has received Russian citizenship.
Now, too, the process won’t be without sacrifices. Under the proposed law, applicants would have to wave their existing citizenship. But as the bill is written, it does not require the new Russian citizens to immigrate.
While foreign military aid to the countries of Central Asia is unlikely to have a large impact on security in the region, it's unclear whether the positive effects will outweigh the negative ones. That's according to a comprehensive new report (pdf), "External Support for Central Asian Military and Security Forces," written by Dmitry Gorenburg for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (and supported by the Open Society Foundations, which also funds EurasiaNet).
The 90-page paper is the most exhaustive accounting of military aid given to the Central Asian countries. While "Russia remains the main source of military and security assistance for most Central Asian states" the report also looks at American and other countries' military aid, Both the U.S. and Russian aid is based primarily on quid pro quos, Gorenburg argues: for Russia it is for the sake of "basing rights and a certain level of acquiescence on Russian foreign policy priorities" while for the U.S. it's been "assuring continued access for transferring supplies and personnel to Afghanistan."'
Gorenburg notes that the possibility of Central Asian militaries receiving excess U.S. military equipment from Afghanistan is insignificant relative to the amount of attention it gets:
Central Asia’s autocrats were no doubt watching askance as Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich fell from power this weekend. But regional media coverage of the dramatic developments in that other volatile former Soviet republic, while generally cautious, has presented a few surprises.
Of course, given the unpleasant parallels between Yanukovich’s governing style and the rule of Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan and Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov in Turkmenistan, those countries’ tightly controlled media have maintained a studied silence on popular protests that overthrew an entrenched leader.
However, one Uzbek website that sometimes takes a maverick stance did broach the topic – pooh-poohing the idea of a Ukraine-style scenario playing out in Uzbekistan.
The circumstances in the two countries do not bear comparison, argued a commentary published February 25 on Uzmetronom, a site believed to have links to the powerful SNB domestic intelligence agency. Karimov is not susceptible to Western pressure, said editor-in-chief Sergey Yezhkov, and it is more in his nature to make a last stand than to give up power.
Officials also know where their bread is buttered, Yezhkov continued, and take the view that “better a bit of bread and butter today (being in power guarantees this) than uncertainty in the future.” Finally, ordinary people have something to lose: “It is paradoxical, but [even] with serious restrictions on political and civil liberties [and] a difficult economic situation… [still] no harbingers or signs of a rebellion are observed in Uzbekistan.”
The Kremlin wheeled out its soft power machine this week to make the pitch for Kyrgyzstan to join its Customs Union trade bloc. But if a recent talk by Kremlin evangelists at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek was anything to go by, the machine could use some grease.
The main speaker at the February 19 event was Semyon Uralov, editor of a website close to United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party. While Putin has tried to assure potential members that the Customs Union – Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia – is not a Soviet Union redux, Uralov seemed to do the opposite. Quoting Engels, Marx and Lenin during a forthright speech in which he extolled the virtues of state-sponsored industry, Uralov responded to a complaint about his tone: “I don’t hide it. I am an imperialist.”
And like Customs Union officials, he did little to address economic questions.
Moral and social degradation was a key theme in Uralov’s presentation. He described seeing people bribe a customs official at Bishkek’s airport for the privilege of flouting the building’s non-smoking policy. “Now tell me,” Uralov asked, “would it be possible to reach that kind of an agreement with a Belarusian customs official? A Russian customs official?” The assembled students murmured that it probably would be. “Well, clearly not for 20-30 soms [40 to 60 cents],” Uralov retorted. (Curiously, Belarus, with its highly inefficient command economy centered on manufacturing stood as something of a role model for the Russia-born, Ukraine-educated Uralov. In Transparency International’s latest Corruption Perceptions Index, Belarus ranks 123th, Russia 127th and Kyrgyzstan 150th out of 177 countries.)
A global survey of 223 cities ranks some of the capitals in Central Asia and the South Caucasus the world’s worst places for foreigners to live. Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe, for example – where officials build themselves multi-million-dollar palaces and ignore basic property rights, education, and a failing healthcare system – now ranks the worst city in Asia for expatriates to make a home.
The annual ranking, released February 19 by Mercer, a New York-based human resources consultancy, measures cities based on quality of living for foreigners, not locals. The company takes into consideration 39 factors including political stability, the effectiveness of law enforcement, censorship, pollution and healthcare, electricity supplies, the quality of schools and public services, availability of consumer goods and climate. The scores are “weighted to reflect their importance to expatriates.” The ranking has been published since 1994.
A decade ago, Asia would probably have offered more competition at the lower end of the rankings. But with stunning economic growth across much of the continent, today it is post-Soviet Central Asia that sweeps the bottom of the table. Dushanbe (ranked 209 globally) was one-upped in Asia by the capital of Bangladesh, Dhaka (208), and fell two places in two years. Ashgabat came third from the bottom in Asia at 206, falling seven places since 2012. Fourth- and fifth-worst, respectively, Bishkek ranked 204 and Tashkent 202. (Almaty ranked 169 in 2012; Astana wasn’t surveyed. If you want to know where they rank this year, you’ll have to shell out $499 for the report.)
Kyrgyzstan’s government has suspended work at a brand new Chinese-built oil refinery, the prime minister has announced, after local protestors demanded the polluting plant clean up its act. A lack of coordination with the community, and suspicion about Chinese intentions, are likely to turn the dispute into another cautionary tale about doing business in the protest-prone Central Asian country.
Residents in the northern town of Kara-Balta have rallied several times in the past month, complaining of fetid smoke from the $300 million Junda facility, which opened on January 17. Initial work stopped on January 27 after a trial run, the company says, promising that future activity at the refinery will be cleaner.
The Junda refinery (sometimes written Zhongda) is designed to process crude oil imported by rail from nearby Kazakhstan. Bishkek has eagerly embraced the project, set to employ over 2,000 locals, making it one of impoverished Kyrgyzstan’s largest employers. No less significantly, it would help Kyrgyzstan break Russia’s fuel-supply monopoly by producing an estimated 600,000 tons of fuel annually, about half domestic need, thus lowering petrol prices at the pump.
But what’s happening in the once-industrial town two hours west of Bishkek seems to be following a familiar pattern.
Col. John Vaughn, 376th Air Expeditionary Wing vice commander, kisses school cook Galina Ivanovna in one of the last visits by US troops to the school in Birlik on Dec. 20, 2013. (Photo: US Air Force/Senior Airman George Goslin)
The U.S. air base at Manas, in Kyrgyzstan, has started formally shutting down, and U.S. troops have already started using the replacement facility in Romania as they transit in and out of Afghanistan.
This month, there have been a steady stream of U.S. military press releases marking the "last" of one or another functions at Manas: the air traffic control unit has shut down, the Theater Security Cooperation division (which deals with the base's joint activities with Kyrgyzstan's armed forces) is closing shop February 25, even the final visit by American troops to a local school.
Meanwhile, on February 3, 300 U.S. troops transited through the Romanian base at Mihail Kogalniceanu on their way to Afghanistan, the first contingent of U.S. troops to use that facility (popularly referred to among troops as "MK") instead of Manas. It was apparently a rush to get the MK facility ready to go, judging by the remarks made by an officer in the unit charged with setting it up:
“There were some naysayers who were very skeptical about our ability to complete this project in time,” Col. Michael C. Snyder, the deputy commanding officer of the 21st TSC, officer-in-charge of the Regional Support Element at MK Air Base and a native of Dallas, Ore., told his team of Army and Air Force personnel. “You should be immensely proud of what you’ve accomplished during the last couple months. Don’t let this moment pass without realizing we’ve come together as a team to achieve some amazing things.”
Lawmakers may have destroyed Kyrgyzstan’s reputation among investors in the process, but after a year of heated arguments, which often spilled out into the streets, parliament voted to accept a restructuring roadmap with the country’s largest investor on February 6. The arrangement evenly splits control of the Kumtor gold mine between Bishkek and Kumtor’s Canadian owners.
But Kumtor will probably remain divisive. Outside the high-altitude mine in Issyk-Kul Province, villagers have been holding another one of their periodic roadblocks in recent days, demanding concessions from the government and the mine. In a country with widespread unemployment and few opportunities, young men like those blocking the road this week are easily whipped into a fury. Many observers believe they are paid. The ostensible reason for the latest roadblock is the arrest of several local men last August on charges of trying to extort $3 million from the mine.
In the late-afternoon vote on February 6, after weeks of deliberation, 60 deputies voted for the resolution and 35 against. Two abstained and 23 were absent, according to a count published by AKIpress.
Under the agreement, Kyrgyzstan would trade its 33-percent share in Toronto-listed Centerra Gold for a 50-percent interest in a new company that would own and operate Kumtor. In 12 years, Kyrgyzstan would have the opportunity to purchase another 17 percent of the joint venture at market value.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is concerned about the possibility of the American military conducting intelligence operations in Kyrgyzstan and will bring up the issue with his Kyrgyzstani counterpart Almazbek Atambayev when the two meet at Sochi during the Olympics. That's according to Russian diplomatic and military stories quoted in a story in Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta which provides a useful report what Moscow is thinking these days about Central Asian security.
Atambayev, having managed the U.S.'s withdrawal from the Manas military base, still leaves on the territory of the country a large-scale foreign military aviation presence, including American (and their allies). Concern has been expressed by experts about the possibility of conducting military surveillance with them. But Russia, of course, has no need for that. Evidently Putin, in his conversations with his Kyrgyzstan colleague, will touch on this problem. Russia has contributed too much to strengthening regional security for its interests not to be considered,
The piece also mentions the billion-plus dollars in military aid that Russia has promised Kyrgyzstan, and complains that "for Kyrgyzstan that's a lot, but the leadership of the republic, it appears, is trying to sit on two chairs" [that is, the U.S. and Russia].
A woman cleans rice to start the process of making plov in the inner courtyard of a mixed ethnic family in central Osh. Plov is a traditional Central Asian slow-cooked dish made primarily of rice, and depending on the country, region, or city can include various cuts of meat (lamb, beef, or fish), vegetables, and dried fruits.
Zach Krahmer is a visual storyteller and photographer based in Osh, Kyrgyzstan. More of his work can be seen on his portfolio Web site.