International concern over what’s passing through Tajikistan’s sieve-like borders continues to grow: drugs? guns? Islamic militants? This week, several foreign officials rushed to Dushanbe to sound the alarm, anticipating the dreaded NATO drawdown in neighboring Afghanistan. But while the Americans, the Russians and even the Europeans simultaneously bemoaned the challenges of keeping illicit goods and bad people from crossing into ex-Soviet Central Asia, their conspicuous lack of joint meetings suggested that cooperation -- official statements notwithstanding -- is not a priority.
Moscow, which patrolled Tajikistan’s 1,300-kilometer border with Afghanistan from tsarist times until 2005, is signaling it would like to lead an international coalition there – but without the West’s help, thank you very much. At a conference in Dushanbe, Nikolai Bordyuzha, the secretary general of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, said CSTO members should tackle the threat together “because problems which emerge on this border then echo on the territory of the Russian Federation, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and other CSTO member states," Interfax-Kazakhstan reported.
NATO, he suggested, should finish what it started in Afghanistan and keep the situation there from poisoning neighboring countries.
Eugene Gourevitch, the former head of MGN Capital and ex-board member of numerous strategic objects under former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, has been sentenced in absentia to 15 years in a maximum-security prison for corruption, Kyrgyz media outlets are reporting.
Gourevitch told EurasiaNet.org that the conviction for his role in selling Aalam Services to Manas Aerofuels in 2009 at a knockdown price is politically motivated and evidence of the “total failure” of the Kyrgyz justice system.
“I believe this verdict violates not only Kyrgyz laws, but also common sense. Board members adopted all resolutions unanimously. The CEO executed the decisions of the Board. The trial and verdict are clearly of a political nature and demonstrate the total failure of the Kyrgyz justice system,” he said on March 16.
The investigation into the sale of Aalam Services, the main fuel depot at the Manas International Airport and US air base near Bishkek, opened in May 2010, shortly after Bakiyev was overthrown.
But another defendant in this case, former head of the airport, Bakytbek Sydykov, was acquitted on March 3.
The buyer of Aalam Services, Manas Aerofuels, was created and financed by Mina Corp, the Gibraltar-registered company that holds the previous and current US government contract to supply aviation fuel to the Manas air base.
Kyrgyzstan President Roza Otunbayeva has said both the U.S. and Russia may be setting up counterterror training centers in the instable southern part of the country. From RIA Novosti:
"Two objects may be created, both U.S. and Russian," Otunbayeva said. "There is nothing bad in this, we should be pragmatists," she continued. "We are ready to get instructions on fighting terrorism, we have no experience in these issues," she added.
According to a KirTAG report (in Russian), the Russian facility would be in Osh, and the U.S. one in Batken, or the nearby town of Kyzyl-Kiya.
She didn't give too many details about the proposed centers and what they would entail, but both have been talked about (in general terms) for some time. A few points worth noting on this:
-- both of these ideas had appeared moribund -- they'd been discussed a while ago but there has been little apparent movement for some time. But the U.S. was most recently proposing to build its center in Osh, though in the past it had discussed doing it in Batken. I also recall Otunbayeva saying somewhat recently that she wanted the Russians to build their facility in Kyzyl-Kiya, but that they weren't interested. Not sure what's behind the new ideas for the placement of the centers.
-- she's presenting the U.S. and Russian centers together, and took pains to play down any sort of competition between the two: "The 'reset' of the Obama administration showed how the relationship between America and Russia is evolving. These countries understand the need to confront together the challenges facing mankind," Otunbayeva said.
-- She emphasized that the U.S.-built facility in Batken would be a Kyrgyz center; she did not seem to say the same about the Russian one in Osh.
Simultaneous nighttime fires struck three restaurants in Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek, this week, all of them specializing in Russian or Ukrainian cuisine. While investigators poke around in the debris, locals are left scratching their heads, with some worried about a violent turf war, some warning of anti-Slavic nationalism, and others just wondering whether they’ll still be able to enjoy their favorite cured pig fat and pepper-infused vodka.
All three fires began between 4:15 and 4:30 a.m. on March 7, the second day of a three-day weekend in honor of International Women’s Day, a state holiday. So far, one person has been reported injured.
The worst damaged, according to local press, was the biggest of the three restaurants, Pechki-Lavochki, which lost its entire outdoor terrace to the blaze, complete with tables and chairs. Fire inspector Ulan Rysaliev told reporters that a security camera had recorded trespassers nearby and an arson probe is underway.
Investigators likewise suspect foul play at Zaporozhskaya Sech, a Ukrainian restaurant with some of the finest fatback this side of the Black Sea. There, a 23-year-old security guard sustained bad burns after kicking aside a Molotov cocktail hurled into a bathroom window. Several media reports said the assailants tried to set fire to the restaurant from the outside as well, leaving behind an empty five-liter gas canister, but the building’s fire-resistant coating thwarted the attempt.
So Kyrgyzstan President Roza Otunbayeva's visit to Washington is over, and while publicly the agenda was dominated by her acceptance of the "International Women of Courage" award and talk of democracy, we can assume that behind the scenes the discussions were heavy on the issue of the Manas air base that the U.S. operates in Kyrgyzstan.
A couple of weeks ago, the Kyrgyzstan parliament proposed a law that would tax fuel going to Manas, to the tune of about $40 million a year, which the U.S. is "vehemently opposing."
Otunbayeva, in her public comments, did not mention the base at all. I did talk to someone with knowledge of her visit, who says that Otunbayeva guaranteed that the base will function normally for at least another year, when a new government will take over.
And she met with President Obama and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, and the White House's official statement afterward mentioned Manas, in very conciliatory terms:
President Obama reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to support Kyrgyzstan’s efforts to consolidate its democracy. He thanked Otunbayeva for Kyrgyzstan’s support for the Transit Center at Manas and said the U.S. has taken steps to improve transparency about the Transit Center and payments connected to it, and pledged to maximize the benefits for the Kyrgyz people.
The mention of transparency and maximizing benefits of course refers to the ongoing controversy about the mysterious fuel deals that the Pentagon has made with companies Mina Corp. and Red Star to supply fuel, which have caused a lot of indignation in Kyrgyzstan.
Kyrgyzstanis looking for a quick buck could do no worse than giving birth to triplets and naming them after the country's leading politicians.
At least that's what a family in the southern Batken region has just done. The KyrTAG news agency says parliament has unanimously voted to give 1 million Kyrgyzstani soms ($20,000) to a family that decided to named their newborn sons after the leaders of the three coalition parties: Prime Minister Almazbek Atambayev, Ata-Zhurt leader and parliament speaker Akhmatbek Keldibekov, and Respublika leader Omurbek Babanov.
According to KyrTAG, a set of triplets -- one girl and two boys born last year -- were named in a similar vein after the provisional government leaders that came to power in the April 7 uprising: Atambayev, President Roza Otunbayeva and Ata-Meken leader Omurbek Tekebayev. That earned the family 50,000 soms, a cow, and a house worth 250,000 soms.
But with all the speculation currently swirling about Kyrgyzstan's shaky coalition government possibly falling apart in the near future, things don't bode well for sibling ties between little Akhmatbek, Almazbek and Omurbek.
Those concerned about the danger of drugs and militants in Central Asia know that all roads lead to -- or through – Tajikistan, the impoverished failing state on Afghanistan’s northern border. In recent weeks, apprehensions about the country’s sieve-like borders have been stirred up in Moscow and Washington alike. Can the two find enough mutual ground to cooperate on border security in the region, or will mistrust keep them at odds?
In Russia, the latest alarm bell sounded two days ago, when Semyon Bagdasarov, a member of the State Duma’s International Affairs Committee, said the Tajiks are not keeping Afghan drugs out of Central Asia -- and, by extension, out of Russia -- and should either hand control of the Afghan border back to Moscow, or suffer the consequences.
“Either we go back there and there is control of the situation, or it is time for us to introduce a visa regime with Tajikistan,” the Avesta.tj news service reports Bagdasarov as saying. (By some estimates, as many as a million Tajiks work, legally and illegally, in Russia. Moscow raises the specter of a visa requirement from time to time, usually when it is pressuring Dushanbe for some concession.)
Bagdasarov’s insistence that Russia take more responsibility for the porous, 1,300-kilometer border is not surprising. He’s said as much before. But chatter in favor of a return of Russian troops (who guarded the border from tsarist times until 2005) is growing louder. The fashionable position in Moscow seems to be that Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the sick men of Central Asia, cannot provide adequate security.
Maybe the protesters had lost faith in Kyrgyzstan’s justice system and figured they had a better chance of being heard if they took their anger into the street: On March 3, a group of 40 tried to storm the Bishkek office of noted human rights activist Toktaiym Umetalieva. Her offense? Invoking the principle that people are innocent until proven guilty.
The crowd, held back by police, was reportedly made up of relatives of four police officers shot dead in early January. Umetalieva had sparked her detractors’ anger by doubting the official account of the standoff, which identified the suspects, arrested soon after the shootout, as Islamic radicals. She has pointed out that, after two months, no one has produced proof and said, as other independent analysts have, that Kyrgyzstan’s security forces are exaggerating the threat of radical Islam.
“By defending killers, Toktaiym Umetalieva becomes a killer herself!" read a banner held by one of the protesters, according to 24.kg. Someone in the crowd demanded she be prosecuted, “otherwise we will pull her out and perform our own justice!”
Kyrgyzstan's president Roza Otunbayeva visited Brussels this week and met with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. And Otunbayeva said she was asking for help from NATO in dealing with terror threats coming from Afghanistan. From her press conference with Rasmussen:
And first of all, I would stress on the issues of the neighbouring Afghanistan and I must tell you that my serious of worries about the borders; borders with Tajikistan and then with Afghanistan. This is a concern which we have. And so we must strengthen our border troops, and I talked with the Secretary General about this matter.
We faced terroristic acts last... late last year, of last year, and this is new chapter on terroristic work which we want to learn and really to develop among the people and also with the ministries relevant. This is what we want very much to learn from NATO.
And certainly we are talking about this partnership program, Secretary General, this acronyms which you mentioned, a purpose(?) under way, and the progress between Kyrgyzstan and NATO and we want to have a real progress. We talked about this, and I hope that in our development between NATO and Kyrgyzstan we reach concrete results of this year and we're looking forward to strengthen our security forces with the NATO assistance and we want to learn from this Alliance of free societies, democratic countries, how to make safe our country.
Both the U.S. and Russia have talked about setting up anti-terror training facilities in southern Kyrgyzstan, but nothing has yet come of either of those.
Uzbek-Kyrgyz babies: What could be a better way to build peace in pogrom-torn southern Kyrgyzstan?
The Soviets gave women “hero mother” awards for having lots of children. Vladimir Putin organizes camps where young Russians learn to be healthy, sexually active patriots.
Now, with a nod toward a Benetton commercial, amateur eugenicists in Osh Province -- actually, a handful of local officials -- have proposed a new technique to make Uzbeks and Kyrgyz friends again: inter-ethnic marriages. And with the marriages, we can assume, should arrive a generation of children a little more tolerant than their parents’.
Of course, mixed marriages aren’t new in the region. But many took a blow during the ethnic unrest last summer, when 400 people died and hundreds of thousands fled. Resentments still abound and it seems the tensions could explode into more bloodletting at any moment.
That’s what makes this initiative, however small and quixotic, special. Framed as a means to get any teachers to marry, officials promise to pay 20,000 som (about $420) to newlyweds from the poverty-racked profession and a whopping 100,000 som for every union between Uzbek and Kyrgyz teachers.
Baby steps, perhaps, but hopefully toward a lasting peace.