Kyrgyzstan's president has suggested that Russia's military base in the country will have to leave at some point, perhaps in an effort to signal that even as relations with the United States suffer, he doesn't intend the country to be a Russian vassal.
"We have a long term agreement, but sooner or later in the future Kyrgyzstan will have to defend itself, without relying on the bases of brotherly friendly countries," Almazbek Atambayev said at a press conference on July 27.
He did suggest that the base's presence was still welcome today: the base's establishment "was due to threats which the republic can not withstand still today, so the decision on the opening of the base was correct and remains relevant today," he added.
But the reference to the base leaving some day recalled a somewhat stronger statement Atambayev made in 2012 when he publicly questioned whether Kyrgyzstan needed a Russian base. And it comes at a particularly geopolitically volatile time for Bishkek; last week the government canceled a key treaty with the United States in what is probably the most serious diplomatic crisis with Washington in the short history of their bilateral relations. So is Atambayev trying to show that, just because he's angry at Washington, that doesn't mean the country is automatically in Moscow's camp?
In any case, the importance of the air base, at Kant near Bishkek, has risen substantially since 2012. Russia set up the base in 2003, its first new foreign military base since the collapse of the Soviet Union. It had been more or less merely a geopolitical placeholder with no apparent function except as a response of sorts to the U.S. setting up its own air base in the country.
Authorities in Kyrgyzstan have fallen largely silent about the alleged Islamic State cell that they neutralized earlier this month, only for the group itself to purportedly address a video message to the nation.
The nine-minute clip, titled “Address to the people of Kyrgyzstan,” was posted on July 25 and remained online for only a few hours before being taken down, news website Kloop.kg reported.
As Kloop reported, the video consisted of an address to camera by a man speaking in Kyrgyz who appealed to viewers with calls for the Kyrgyz people to “relocate to the lands of Islamic State from infidel nations.” The speech was accompanied by Russian subtitles.
It is specified by the speaker that Kyrgyzstan is one such “infidel nation,” because of the country’s embrace of “man-created laws and rules, “such as democracy.
The video was stamped with the logo of Furat Media, the Russian-language wing of the IS group’s online propaganda operation. Pending further verification by security experts, the authenticity of the video remains in question.
Authorities have for months been warning of a Kyrgyz contingent within the IS group. According to the Interior Ministry’s latest estimates, 422 citizens of Kyrgyzstan, including 55 women, are engaged in combat activities with radical Islamic organizations in Iraq and Syria.
Kloop notes that the footage issued over the weekend was bereft of the scenes of brutality or violence that have increasingly come to typify the IS group’s output.
The takedown of a once-powerful politician in Kyrgyzstan who served as mayor of Osh when that city was devastated by a wave of deadly ethnic clashes in 2010 appears to have been completed.
News website 24.kg reported that Osh city court on July 22 sentenced Melis Myrzakmatov, who is evading capture in an overseas location, to seven years in jail for abuse of office.
The case revolves around alleged financial misdemeanors involved in the construction of an elevated bridge in Osh. Prosecutors have said no cost estimates exercise were performed before tenders were issued and that the entire affair has already cost the state more than $450,000. (Myrzakmatov’s successor, Aitmamat Kadyrbaev, has pledged to complete the job and name it in honor of Russian President Vladimir Putin.)
Myrzakmatov’s current whereabouts are not known with certainty, although newspaper Vecherny Bishkek in December cited a source among the ex-mayor’s associates as saying he had taken refuge in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region
Given his once untouchable status, Myrzakmatov’s downfall has been observed with some incredulity by long-term watchers of the region. He distinguished himself during the 2010 unrest for his markedly nationalistic tone, which earned him the contempt of his city’s ethnic Uzbek community and admiration from sections of the Kyrgyz population. Some believe he had a role in instigating the violence that scarred the city.
Attempts by the government to remove Myrzakmatov from power were met with open contempt. He was finally unseated in December 2013, however.
In the face of widespread hopes of a last-minute change of heart, Kyrgyzstan’s government has torn up a foundational treaty in the Central Asian nation’s ties with the United States.
By signing off on the cancellation of the 1993 treaty on July 21, Prime Minister Temir Sariev stands to endanger the millions of dollars worth of assistance that Washington provides to Kyrgyzstan every year.
Bishkek has adopted the measure in response to the U.S. State Department bestowing the 2014 Human Rights Defender Award on jailed activist Azimjan Askarov.
In September 2010, Askarov, an ethnic Uzbek, was sentenced to life imprisonment for what Kyrgyz authorities say was his role in inciting the mob killing of a police officer during the ethnic unrest in June that year. Western governments and advocacy groups have regularly mounted staunch defenses of Askarov, saying that he was framed and later found guilty in a trial marred by irregularities.
The U.S. award enraged Bishkek, which has described the recognition of Askarov as an attempt to destabilize the country and sow interethnic tension.
The 1993 treaty provides for a tariff waiver on goods imported into Kyrgyzstan as part of U.S. aid programs. It also exempts non-Kyrgyz employees of U.S. government or private aid programs from income and social security taxes.
It seems unlikely that the risk-averse U.S. government will entertain the prospect of being majorly exposed to tax checks in a country where such inspections are regularly conducted by officials seeking bribes, as investors have had cause to learn to their detriment. The change, which comes into effect on Aug. 20, will also require a cumbersome layer of bureaucratic wrangling that could in any event stand to hamstring programs for an indefinite period.
The targets of a special forces raid in Bishkek were ISIS members planning attacks on the Russian air base in Kyrgyzstan and on a celebration in the center of Bishkek marking the end of Ramadan, Kyrgyzstani security officials announced.
"The underground terrorist group was planning terror acts at a mass gathering for Orozo Ait (Eid) on July 17, and also on the territory of the air base of the Russian Ministry of Defense located in the city of Kant," Kyrgyzstan's state security service GKNB said in a statement.
The raid, in which six alleged terrorists were killed and another seven arrested, occasioned a lot of skepticism among Kyrgyzstanis, both for the fact that it took place in a heavily populated neighborhood and that the government provided no evidence that the people it targeted were in fact terrorists. ISIS is a convenient bugaboo for post-Soviet governments, though there is little evidence that the group has any designs on the region, let alone any current presence.
And the supposed targeting of the Russian base hardly adds credibility to the authorities' version of events. Russia established the base in 2003, its first new foreign military base since the fall of the Soviet Union. It had been more or less merely a geopolitical placeholder with no apparent function, but in recent years Russia has renovated it, increased the number of aircraft deployed there, and announced plans to make it the Central Asian hub of the planned joint air forces of the Collective Security Treaty Organization.
A nasty row has broken out between the United States and Kyrgyzstan over Washington’s decision this month to bestow the 2014 Human Rights Defender Award on jailed activist Azimjan Askarov.
In September 2010, Askarov was sentenced to life imprisonment for what Kyrgyz authorities say was his role in inciting the mob killing of a police officer during the ethnic unrest in June that year.
Western governments and advocacy groups have regularly mounted staunch defenses of Askarov, saying that he was framed and later found guilty in a trial marred by irregularities.
The U.S. decision to grant Askarov with an award has enraged Kyrgyzstan, whose government reacted on July 17 with the announcement that it is to repeal a 1993 treaty between the two countries.
The statement said that the award “did not ahere to levels of cordial relations between Kyrgyzstan and the United States and could damage government efforts to strengthen interethnic harmony.” The government also argued that U.S. actions were threatening peace and social stability in Kyrgyzstan.
As to Askarov’s guilt, Kyrgyzstan says they can be no doubt: “The decision of the court was taken on the basis of undeniable evidence, Askarov’s guilt has been proven in all instances. The Kyrgyz Republic stands for the supremacy of the law. The justice system is an independent branch of power.”
In an episode that is going to sow fears of an imminent surge of terrorist activity in Central Asia, authorities in Kyrgyzstan said July 16 that they killed four gunmen who they said were planning attacks in the capital, Bishkek.
A spokesman for the security services at the scene of the shootout said special forces were forced to open fire after the armed group resisted arrest.
“During the special operation, four security service special unit officers were wounded and later hospitalized,” the State Committee for National Security said in a statement.
Officials were unable to provide more than a few cursory details in the wake of the shootout, but the security services spokesman described the men as belonging to an international group. Local media reported that the group was comprised of citizens of Kazakhstan and that they were militants with the Islamic State group, but officials declined to confirm either of those claims.
Plumes of black smoke could be seen rising in the early evening above the central neighborhood where the shootout took place. Police cordoned off the street where the fighting occured, but crowds of local residents stood and watched from the distance for hours after the worst of the unrest had subsided.
Sustained gunfire and blasts can be heard in footage of the clash uploaded to the Internet. Onlookers at the scene shared video footage of one person with his hands behind his back being marched away from the area. It was not immediately clear if the man was involved in the unrest.
Tweets by Indian officials showing the Indian-Tajikistan military hospital near the border of Afghanistan. (photos: twitter)
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has wrapped up his ambitious post-Soviet trip with a stop in Tajikistan and the joint Indian-Tajikistan hospital near the border with Afghanistan. "This is the last stop on my visit to the five Central Asian countries," Modi said in Dushanbe. "But, we sometimes save the special one for the last."
Tajikistan isn't quite as special to India as it was a few years ago, when Delhi spent tens of millions of dollars to renovate the Ayni air base with the evident aim of establishing it was India's first Central Asian military outpost. Those hopes were dashed -- most likely by Russia -- at least five years ago (Ayni is almost never publicly discussed, and so developments tend to become known to the public with a significant delay).
But some in Delhi seem to still hold on to hope, and the U.K. tabloid Daily Mail reported ahead of Modi's visit that Ayni would be on the agenda. "[Indian] Government sources told Mail Today that use of the Ayni airbase for the Indian Air Force, tops the agenda," the paper reported. “'Getting a foreign airbase, particularly in Central Asia is a significant development. But in this case, two other countries, Tajikistan and Russia, have to agree,' former Air Chief Marshal PV Naik told Mail Today."
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is planning to visit all five Central Asian republics next week; the visit is expected to focus on energy cooperation but will also seek to boost India's growing military ties in the region and will include a visit to the newly built Indian military hospital in Tajikistan.
The tour will take place July 6-13, and will also include a stop in Ufa, Russia, for the summits of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and BRICS -- India is a current member of the latter and is expected to join the former as a full member (along with Pakistan) at this summit.
"Countering the spread of Islamic State (IS) terror will be a key part" of the visit," The Hindu newspaper reported, citing "sources."
"The Prime Minister will discuss counter-terror technology, training forces and also countering radicalism. Significantly, the government had also appointed former [Intelligence Bureau] chief Asif Ibrahim as a special envoy recently, with a mandate to discuss the spread of IS and terrorism, and liaise with governments abroad on the issue," the newspaper reported. “'Given India’s efforts to counter Islamic radicalism, these Central Asian states, are natural allies,' an Indian official said."
Kyrgyzstan’s parliament on June 24 voted almost unanimously to approve a sweeping anti-gay bill that rights activists call an open invitation to attack gays and lesbians.
The bill is a tougher version of the so-called “gay propaganda” law Russian President Vladimir Putin signed in 2013. It mandates up to a year in prison for vaguely defined offences, such as forming a “positive attitude toward nontraditional sexual relations.”
Parliament must vote one more time, but the overwhelming support today – legislators voted 90-2 in favor, Kloop.kg reports – suggests ratification is mere formality.
The Central Asian country decriminalized homosexuality in 1998, but violence against the community, including from the police, has “visibly increased” since the draft law was introduced last year, the Bishkek-based advocacy group Labrys has said.
“The law will effectively make it illegal to advocate for, provide information about, or organize a peaceful assembly” in support of gay, lesbian and transgender peoples’ rights, Labrys said in a February statement. “Even a public act of ‘coming out’ could be considered ‘propaganda’ and result in a prison term for up to a year.”
The bill passed its first reading in October by a vote of 79 to 7 and then stalled over the winter as activists blasted its vague wording. But little had changed in the draft voted on today. After a third vote, it will go to President Almazbek Atambayev for his signature. He has said nothing to suggest he will use his veto.