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.
Last month, Kyrgyzstan’s Education Ministry announced two tenders worth almost $3 million to print more than 1 million textbooks. But it appears the ministry did not want just anyone to bid.
Someone involved in posting the tenders on the government’s procurement website included a couple of Latin-script vowels within Russian keywords (written in the Cyrillic script), making it impossible to search for the announcement.
For example, there is no difference to the naked eye between these two words: books and bооks. But the second word contains two Cyrillic o’s. That makes it impossible to find with an Internet search, which requires an exact match.
In the same way, the Education Ministry used the Latin letters a, e and o (which also appear in the Cyrillic alphabet) in its tender announcements, which are worth a total of $2.8 million. Reporters at Kloop.kg, who revealed the trick, recorded video evidence of how the announcements were hidden.
Anyone who didn’t know about the Latin letters would struggle to find the tender announcements. Anyone who did – someone colluding with a ministry official, for example – would have a massive advantage.
Kyrgyz officials didn’t think up this scheme on their own.
Back in 2012, Russian anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny, known for revealing fraud in state procurements there, described how officials “embezzle millions and billions” using this tactic.
Kyrgyzstan’s problems probably featured pretty low on Vladimir Putin’s to-do list when he traveled to Tashkent this week.
Some in Kyrgyzstan believe the Russian president, and only he, can end their country’s intractable disputes with its neighbor. There was hope, for example, that Putin could get Karimov to resume gas supplies to southern Kyrgyzstan.
Though Putin had a nice package of goodies for his Uzbek counterpart on December 10 – he wrote off most of Tashkent’s debt and showed support only a few months before Karimov is expected to stand for reelection – it is unclear what he got for Russia.
Per usual, Karimov ducked a press conference. And he did not publically opine on the elephant in the room: Tashkent’s future role, if any, in relation to Putin's Eurasian Economic Union.
One of the items supposedly on the agenda, however, was gas.
The standoff in the Fergana Valley directly involves Russia. Russia’s Gazprom had just taken control of Kyrgyzgaz in April when UzTransGaz said it had no obligation to supply Gazprom. Kyrgyzstan’s second-largest city has been without gas ever since.
The meeting failed to produce a breakthrough, Kyrgyz media reported.
Many analysts assume Uzbekistan is using gas to gain leverage over its poverty-stricken upstream neighbor as well as that neighbor's benefactor—Russia.
Russia's ruble became worth less than a Kyrgyz som for the first time on December 12. (xe.com)
The Russian ruble crossed a psychological barrier in Kyrgyzstan on December 12, becoming worth less than the som for the first time. Across Central Asia, the ruble’s slide is pushing local currencies to new lows. But they can’t seem to fall fast enough to keep a competitive advantage.
Central Asian economies are deeply dependent on Russia as an export market. When the ruble is weak, Central Asia’s exports are relatively expensive for Russian consumers. So, weaker local currencies benefit the region’s producers. Of course falling currencies also mean inflation, as the price of imported goods from outside the region shoots up—as does the cost of servicing foreign debt. The World Bank projects inflation in Kyrgyzstan this year to top 10 percent. In Tajikistan, food prices rose 10.5 percent in November alone, according to a Deutsche Welle report.
Thanks to Kyrgyzstan’s on-again, off-again experiment with democracy, the Central Asian country has fewer journalists in jail than most of its neighbors. But over the last few months, a number of officials have signaled a cooling attitude toward the fourth estate. A theme stands out: Journalists are the reason Kyrgyzstan has a poor reputation; they must write nice things and stop criticizing.
Together with restrictive new legislation the officials’ comments paint a profile of an elite increasingly intolerant of criticism. Journalists are worried; one local editor says the attacks are encouraging self-censorship.
President Almazbek Atambayev deployed a wide brush on October 27, venting at a session of the national council on sustainable development:
“For the image of a country where corruption is a real disaster, even by comparison with African countries, we have our journalists to thank. Not in a single [other] country does the press pour dirt on officials like ours. They write that everything is bad in Kyrgyzstan, that corruption is blooming. This is disrespect for the country and for the truth. There’s this idea that the more dirt a journalist has poured on, the more freedom-loving and better he is.”
“[Journalists] get offended, because I say this very often, but this is the truth. I hope that the conscience of the majority awakens and they will start publishing impartial information.” [Sources: first paragraph Vechernii Bishkek; second paragraph BBC Monitoring translation of KyrTAG, which is paywalled.]
Rossiya Segondya's Moscow headquarters: Now broadcasting in Kyrgyz.
Kyrgyzstan is doubtless “tired of the propaganda of the unipolar world.” But the country should prepare for a potential uptick in propaganda from a more familiar source—Russia. A newly minted Kremlin media outlet called Sputnik has opened a hub in Bishkek.
Dmitry Kiselyov, who heads the state-backed media giant Rossiya Segodnya (formerly RIA Novosti) that launched Sputnik last month, does not do irony.
His “unipolar world” reference at Sputnik’s unveiling was a dig at the United States. But if you were in Kyrgyzstan, you could be forgiven for thinking he meant Russia, which already dominates Central Asian media and has a sweeping impact on public opinion.
Competition seems to be the name of the game. Sputnik’s name, “so recognizable, so warm, so to the point and so romantic,” according to Kiselyov, is steeped in the nostalgia of Cold War rivalry.
Sputnik will handle Rossiya Segodnya’s in-country reporting in foreign countries, the conglomerate confirmed in a December 10 press release.
Sputnik will be available in Kyrgyz, too, shoring up the Kremlin’s influence in a region where Russian proficiency is rapidly subsiding.
The new Kyrgyz chief editor, Yelena Cheremenina, is a former professor of media ethics at the Kyrgyz-Russian Slavic University in Bishkek. She also sits on Kyrgyzstan’s independent media watchdog, the Commission for Media Complaints.
A Russian pilot and his Su-25SM, newly relocated to the Kant air base in Kyrgyzstan. (photo: mil.ru)
Russia has reinforced its air base in Kyrgyzstan with five new aircraft, as Russian officials said the base's role would "only increase" in light of the Western military withdrawal from Afghanistan.
On December 8, Russia transferred five Su-25SM close air support/ground attack jets to the Kant base, outside Bishkek. This would appear to be the reinforcement that Russia promised, in October 2013, to have carried out by December of that year.
In spite of the delay, it would appear that Russia is advancing in its effort to turn Kant into the Central Asian base for the nascent joint air forces of the Collective Security Treaty Organization.
Ahead of the transfer the commander of Russia's Central Military District, Vladimir Zarudnitskiy, met with the chief of general staff of Kyrgyzstan's armed forces, General-Major Asanbek Alymkozhoyev.
The two "discussed regional security in light of the withdrawal of NATO coalition forces from Afghanistan. The sides agreed that the role of the Kant base in the region would only grow," according to a Russian military release.
Russia has been carrying out technical upgrades like renovating the runway at Kant for the last several years. In October, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu connected the upgrades at Kant to a general buildup of Russian forces in CSTO countries. “We keep developing our bases abroad: in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Armenia. We are developing them rather actively,” Shoigu said.
If Central Asia’s two poorest countries ever get around to building their massive but long-delayed hydropower dams, the facilities may be useful for a few decades. After that, they’ll be rendered obsolete by a fast-warming climate that is melting the region’s once-abundant glaciers and threatens to reduce precipitation sharply.
So suggests an alarming new World Bank report on the effects of climate change around the developing world.
“Turn Down the Heat: Confronting the New Climate Normal,” released in late November, offers just about everyone in Central Asia some bad news, especially the region’s megalomaniacal dam builders. In landlocked Eurasia, the temperatures are expected to rise “above the global mean land warming,” bringing a slew of unpleasant consequences, from decreased crop yields to contentious water shortages.
Effects like these are difficult to assess and prepare for even in places with relatively responsible and capable governments. How will they be dealt with by dysfunctional, near-sighted and volatile governments in impoverished, corrupt countries like Central Asia’s?
The 275-page report starts with the informed assumption that an increase in global average temperatures of 1.5 degrees Celsius by mid-century is unavoidable. It also looks at two more frightening, but plausible, scenarios: an increase of 2 degrees and 4 degrees. (Temperatures have already warmed by 0.8 degrees above pre-industrial levels.)
No matter which model they apply, forecasters predict a dramatic reduction in the size of Central Asia’s glaciers and amount of precipitation. That translates into a sharp decrease in the water flows the largely arid region can expect for hydropower and agriculture.
Kyrgyzstan’s preparations to join a Russia-led economic bloc are proceeding at breakneck speed.
Wholesale changes to dozens of regulations are sailing through Kyrgyzstan’s parliament as a December 23 deadline for signing Eurasian Economic Union accession documents approaches.
The legislature can play host to stormy debates when it wants to, but when the subject is the finer details of the tax code and trade policy, it appears MPs can’t really be bothered. The amendments legislators are passing may have far-reaching implications for the local economy, however.
Moscow, upon whom Kyrgyzstan’s dependence grows by the day, has now confirmed it will provide up to $1.2 billion over the next two years to ease the country’s entry into the Customs Union and Eurasian Economic Union (which includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia), after Russia’s State Duma ratified the package November 26. Kyrgyz policymakers had talked up the aid package with little by way of confirmation from the Kremlin. The first $100 million, a grant, should be disbursed before the end of this year.
According to Russia’s state-run TASS news agency, the money:
…is designed to develop cooperation in [the] agro-industrial sector, the sewing and textile industries, processing, mining and metallurgical industries, transport, housing construction, development of entrepreneurship and infrastructure. A special development fund is going to be set up in the form of an international organization. Its status, functions, structure and rules of functioning will be defined in a separate agreement.