A Ferghana Valley border clash this weekend yet again highlights the potential for violence in Central Asia’s most densely populated and ethnically diverse region.
Several hundred residents of the Uzbek enclave of Sokh reportedly attacked a Kyrgyz border post and took Kyrgyz citizens hostage on January 5 and 6, according to local news wires. Sokh (also spelled Soh) is an island of territory controlled by Uzbekistan and entirely surrounded by one of Kyrgyzstan’s poorest provinces, Batken.
Though Sokh is populated mostly by ethnic Tajiks, a minority in both countries, the episode is an unsettling reminder of the fighting between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan that left hundreds dead in 2010.
Kyrgyzstan's President Almazbek Atambayev's wishes for the U.S.'s Manas air base are well known: he wants it to become a civilian transport hub after the U.S. leaves, which Atambayev has said should be in 2014. The U.S.'s own plans for its military posture in Afghanistan are up in the air, and its plans for continuing using Manas are contingent on that, but it has at least demonstrated some interest in helping Kyrgyzstan transform the base into this civilian logistics center.
But now, the plot is thickening: Russia is getting involved. Kyrgyzstan's Ministry of Transportation and Communication announced that a delegation of Russian government and business aviation officials visited Manas recently and held "consultations on the creation of a joint Kyrgyzstan-Russian logistics center" at the airport.
The announcement made no mention of the U.S.'s air base at Manas, the airport outside Bishkek which also operates as a civilian airport. But the idea of Manas becoming a logistics center is so tied up with the U.S. leaving, that the message here is unmistakeable: Russia is hoping to take the place of the U.S.
Russia has been making some pretty aggressive moves in Kyrgyzstan lately. The state gas company Gazprom has tried to take full control of Kyrgyzstan's gas company, and the Kremlin has offered a huge military aid package to Kyrgyzstan, which Russian officials have said is intended to shore up their geopolitical position in Central Asia, at the expense of the U.S.'s. Is Russia now trying to gently show the Americans the door out of their air base?
It looks like Moscow isn't interested in buying part of Kyrgyzstan’s gas infrastructure. It wants all of it.
After a week of dangerous energy shortages in Kyrgyzstan, which continued to leave thousands of customers in the capital without gas on Friday, Bishkek is finalizing a deal to sell Kyrgyzgaz to Russia’s state-run behemoth, Gazprom, officials say.
The shortages began when neighboring Kazakhstan stopped gas supplies to Kyrgyzstan on December 14, citing the need to supply its own customers. Kyrgyzstan had also constantly defaulted on payments and reportedly owed the Kazakhs tens of millions of dollars. The shut off happened to coincide with a bout of extreme cold – temperatures in Bishkek have hovered around -20 Celsius (-4 Fahrenheit) for the past week – leading some to speculate the shortage was a bargaining ploy. In any case, as more Kyrgyzstanis turned to electricity to cook and heat their homes, their country's aging infrastructure faltered, resulting in mass blackouts.
For years, observers have warned of a crisis like the one currently gripping the country, but politicians have done little more than bicker and postpone solutions – like find ways to cut rampant corruption in the sector and raise energy tariffs to cover basic maintenance.
Kyrgyzstan has agreed to allow Russia to create a unified military base in the country, combining all of the various facilities that the Russian armed forces now operate there. This is something that Russia has been seeking for some time -- two years ago they proposed paying for such an arrangement in weapons. (So, one wonders if this new announcement is connected to the recent agreement to supply Kyrgyzstan with over a billion dollars in weaponry.) The agreement was reached in September, though just formally signed (and announced) by President Almazbek Atambayev this week and will go into effect in 2017, reports RIA Novosti:
It will include the four military facilities Russia has in Kyrgyzstan at present.
The agreement was signed for a term of 15 years with an option to extend for five years.
Russia has a weapon test range in Karakol, a signals center in Kara-Balt, a radio-seismic laboratory in Mayly-Suu and a Collective Security Treaty Organization airbase in Kant.
So why was this sort of bureaucratic reorganization so important to Russia? It will make it harder for Kyrgyzstan to kick out any of the particular facilities, notes Vasily Kashin, an analyst at the Moscow defense think tank Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies. He tells The Bug Pit:
A legal amendment that would restrict the rights of Kyrgyzstan’s minorities sailed through parliament last week with a vote of 84 to 12. Legislators must endorse the amendment to the law “On the State Language” in two more readings before it can come into force.
The draft amendment proposes to fine government officials (clerks and above) for speaking anything other than Kyrgyz in the process of performing their official duties. Moreover, all official documents, including tax returns, would need to be submitted to authorities in Kyrgyz and only Kyrgyz, Kloop.kg explains. Currently the law allows documents to be submitted either in Kyrgyz, the “state language,” or Russian, Kyrgyzstan’s “official language.”
Under the amendment, government bodies would no longer be required to provide Russian translation at official functions, parliament would no longer consider draft laws in anything but Kyrgyz, and civil servants would need to pass a rigorous Kyrgyz language test.
The amendment would thus bar from public service and civic life anyone who does not speak fluent Kyrgyz – that is, minorities and some of the best-educated Kyrgyz, who often speak Russian as a first language. According to the 2009 census, Kyrgyzstan is approximately 71 percent ethnic Kyrgyz; Russians and Uzbeks constitute another 22.3 percent of the population.
Russian’s status as Kyrgyzstan’s “official language” would become virtually meaningless, while the amendment could further isolate Kyrgyzstan internationally.
The U.S.'s Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan could be a target for "enemies," there's no way to be sure that corruption has been rooted out from the lucrative fuel contracts for the base, and Russia is Kyrgyzstan's strongest military partner. That's according to Roza Otunbayeva, the former president of Kyrgyzstan who made her first visit as ex-president to Washington this week. She was in town to receive an award from the Eurasia Foundation, and also took a bit of time to sit down with The Bug Pit to discuss some of the big issues in Kyrgyzstan and the region. Below is our interview, edited for clarity.
The Bug Pit: It's been argued that the focus on Afghanistan has distorted the U.S.'s policy toward Central Asia and made it “oversecuritized.” Do you agree?
Otunbayeva: No, it's not fair.... The United States responds to all our needs immediately. When we had the tragedy in 2010, we had two [military] bases, Russian and American. None of them were involved in our internal affairs, but the U.S. responded to our tragedy immediately, with the OTI program. Of course, I can't deny that that Manas is a tool for the U.S. But I don't think Kazakhstan or Tajikistan either will tell you that now only Afghanistan is the highlight of our relations, no.
BP: Manas has strengthened your relations with the U.S. and brought the government a lot of revenue, but it's also led to a lot of corruption, including at very high levels. Overall, is Manas a good thing for Kyrgyzstan?
President Vladimir Putin’s state-of-the-nation address today is being parsed for details on how he proposes to protect Russia’s "national and spiritual identity," boost the economy and military, and what, if anything, he plans to do about Russia’s runaway corruption.
But two comments in particular will interest Central Asia watchers.
There will be no more crossing from former Soviet republics into Russia without an international passport, Putin declared about halfway through the speech:
We still have a practice that the citizens of CIS states enter the Russian Federation using their domestic passports. […] In such circumstances, when the citizens of other countries enter using their domestic passports, it is almost impossible to ensure effective immigration control. I believe that no later than 2015 entry to Russia should be allowed only with the use of foreign-travel [passports], not the domestic passports of other countries.
("Domestic passports" are the main form of internal ID used in most former Soviet republics.)
So, by 2015 the millions of migrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus traveling to Russia for work will have a new hurdle to jump over.
But a few minutes later, Putin flags an exception:
However, without a doubt, within the framework of the Customs Union and the Common Economic Space the ... current system will continue to apply – maximally simplified rules for crossing the border and staying on the territory of member countries of the Customs Union and the Common Economic Space.
Authorities in Kyrgyzstan say they have detained the country’s most-wanted criminal kingpin. But contradictory stories about his arrest are already prompting questions. A slippery figure the US government calls a “significant foreign narcotics trafficker,” Kamchybek Kolbayev has enjoyed ambiguous relations with Kyrgyz authorities for years.
Kolbayev turned himself in at 5:00 am Saturday, a Supreme Court press release said today. A Court spokesperson told EurasiaNet.org that Kolbayev has been charged with a variety of crimes, including organizing a criminal group, narcotics possession, kidnapping, and illegal possession of firearms. Yet the State Committee on National Security (GKNB), which is holding Kolbayev, told EurasiaNet.org he has not been charged and is being held in temporary confinement for one month while investigators consider their options. The Prosecutor General’s office refused to comment.
That Kolbayev, who had been living in the United Arab Emirates, would surrender is surprising. He’d been fingered in just about every conversation about organized crime since the family of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev fled during a bloody uprising in April 2010. With the family’s departure, Kolbayev was believed to have lost his cover, or krysha as they call it in Russian, his “roof.”
Last week, Kyrgyz-language newspaper Uchur reported that Kolbayev had flown back into Kyrgyzstan unmolested and had headed straight for his native Issyk-Kul region.
American government statements on human rights in Central Asia tend to be pretty tepid, especially when they focus on countries necessary for transit routes into and out of Afghanistan.
A December 6 speech by Hillary Rodham Clinton, the US Secretary of State, was not much different, though she did single out the region for attention as part of what she called wider backsliding on human rights in the former Soviet world.
I just met with a group of the Civil Society Solidarity Platform leaders from a number of member states. They talked to me about the growing challenges and dangers that they are facing, about new restrictions on human rights from governments, new pressures on journalists, new assaults on NGOs. And I urge all of us to pay attention to their concerns.
For example, in Belarus, the Government continues to systematically repress human rights, detain political prisoners, and intimidate journalists. In Ukraine, the elections in October were a step backwards for democracy, and we remain deeply concerned about the selective prosecution of opposition leaders. In Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan, there are examples of the restrictions of the freedom of expression online and offline as well as the freedom of religion. In the Caucasus, we see constraints on judicial independence, attacks on journalists, and elections that are not always free and fair.
Clinton was speaking at an OSCE Ministerial Council meeting in Dublin (all five Central Asian states are OSCE members). She didn’t get into details on Central Asia, so here’s a quick recap of recent events:
--In Tajikistan, authorities have been blocking websites critical of President Emomali Rakhmon and his military’s violent assault on the Gorno-Badakhshan region this summer.
Three brothers of a journalist murdered in 2007 have been attacked outside their Bishkek home, Fergananews reports. One of the suspected assailants is the nephew of a prominent member of Kyrgyzstan's parliament.
Journalist Shokhrukh Saipov and students Ozodbek and Yusuf Saipov are younger brothers of Alisher Saipov, a well-known ethnic Uzbek journalist and editor who was gunned down outside the offices of his paper, "Siyosat" (Politics), in Osh on October 24, 2007.
Saipov’s murder has never been solved, and many regional experts believe Uzbekistan's secret services played a role. Saipov, who was 26 at the time of his death, was often critical of the regime of Islam Karimov in Tashkent.
Journalists and rights activists across the region are outraged at the attack on his brothers. Shokhrukh was inspired to become a journalist when Kyrgyz authorities failed to investigate his brother’s murder. He was also attacked in Osh in August 2011.
Aziza Abdurasulova, head of Kylym Shamy, a human rights watchdog in Bishkek, said Shokhrukh and Yusuf required medical care. Shokhrukh was beaten so badly he was unable to speak. They intend to press charges, she said.
Bishkek police have arrested Azamat Tekebayev, nephew of the head of the Ata-Meken party, MP Omurbek Tekebayev, as a suspect. It’s unclear what the motive was. Azamat and an accomplice, who has also been detained, say both sides started the fight.