Kyrgyzstan news media have reported that the U.S. has agreed to close the Manas air base it operates there, and U.S. officials have declined to deny the reports, making it seem more likely than ever that this is in fact the end of the line for the beleaguered base.
Last week, a U.S. State Department team headed by Ambassador Eric John, Senior Advisor for Security Negotiations and Agreements in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, visited Bishkek. The U.S. embassy statement about his visit only mentioned Manas in passing: "Kyrgyzstan’s support of international efforts in Afghanistan through its hosting of the Transit Center at Manas International Airport is one facet of this overall cooperation."
Today, news agency KyrTag reported that the Kyrgyzstan side informed the U.S. that their last day would be 11 July, 2014:
"We discussed this in the recent meeting with the working group from the U.S. The discussion was conducted in the framework of the well known position of Kyrgyzstan on this question," said [Erines Otorbayev, deputy minister of foreign affairs].
Otorbayev added that the American side must start removing military objects and personal equipment by 11 July, because after that day there should not be any U.S. military presence at the Manas airport."
Russia is going to start sending $1 billion in weapons to Kyrgyzstan this year, said Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. That appears to be an acceleration of earlier plans; just the day before Shoigu had said that the shipments would start next year.
Igor Korotchenko, the editor of a Kremlin-affiliated defense magazine, said that the shipments would likely include: "tanks, armored vehicles and personnel carriers, as well as rocket launchers, artillery, small arms, and surveillance and communication systems."
Possibly relatedly, Kyrgyzstan's government announced that it would sell its shares in the Soviet-legacy Dastan torpedo factory and that "Kyrgyzstan's government said Russian investors would be given priority in purchasing the shares in the factory ... at an auction in the fall."
Some good context for these moves can be found in a useful new paper (pdf) published by two of the best scholars dealing with Central Asian geopolitical issues, Alex Cooley and Marlene Laruelle. The paper, titled "The Changing Logic of Russian Strategy in Central Asia: From Privileged Sphere to Divide and Rule?" details how the Kremlin has recently moved towards prioritizing its ties with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as client states:
So now that Kyrgyzstan President Almazbek Atambayev has signed the law annulling the agreement with the U.S. to host the Manas air base, what's the future of the base? It's still not clear that the law will have any legal impact, as the date it specifies for the U.S. departure was the date that the current agreement was supposed to expire anyway. While the law seems an obvious political signal, what is the government trying to say?
In a must-read analysis for the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, Erica Marat notes that until recently, Kyrgyzstan's parliament was poised to defeat the bill calling for the annulment of the base agreement. But then a number of events changed their calculation. From the U.S. side, the Department of Justice dropped charges against former first-son Maxim Bakiyev, to the dismay of many in the new government. Meanwhile, Russia -- which has long opposed the base's existence -- agreed to fund a strategic hydropower plant and to forgive $500 million of Kyrgyzstan's debt. Thus, the 91-5 vote in parliament in favor of annulment.
The United Nation’s Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) released its annual World Drug Report today. There are not a lot of surprises for Central Asia watchers, but the study is a good reminder of just how entrenched Afghan narcotics are in the region.
Afghanistan remains the world’s largest producer of illicit opiates, accounting for 74 percent of global production in 2012. Those narcotics continue to pass relatively unhindered from Afghanistan through Central Asia for markets in Russia and Eastern Europe. On the way, they wreck havoc, as increasing numbers of Central Asians succumb to heroin addiction and HIV.
What’s being done? The striking chart to the right shows how, over the past ten years, interdiction in the region has actually fallen, especially in Tajikistan (shown in pink).
Over the same period, Afghan drug production generally increased (with the exception of 2012, when, due to adverse weather and disease, production fell by 36 percent). “A preliminary assessment of opium poppy cultivation trends in Afghanistan in 2013 revealed that such cultivation is likely to increase in the main opium growing regions, which would be the third consecutive increase since 2010,” the report says.
Why, then, the dramatic decline in seizures in Central Asia? The UNODC sort of sidesteps issue:
Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld with the Spring 2013 class of Rumsfeld Fellows from the Caucasus and Central Asia. (photo: Rumsfeld Foundation)
The story of yesterday's parliamentary vote in Kyrgyzstan to annul the lease of the U.S. air base there included an intriguing subplot: the presence of ex-U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in Bishkek. Officially, he was there on the business of the Rumsfeld Foundation, a group that offers short-term fellowships to young scholars from Central Asia and the Caucasus to study in Washington, D.C. And the timing of the visit, at the same time as the parliamentary vote, was just a coincidence.
But as anyone following Central Asian politics knows, there is no such thing as coincidence. And the Kyrgyzstan and Russian press has been rife with speculation about what Rumsfeld's real agenda was in Bishkek. From FerganaNews:
"The goal of Rumsfeld's visit, obviously, is to conduct informal meetings with political groups making the decision about the base," said a Fergana source close to government circles. Regardless of the fact that Rumsfled is not appearing in an official capacity as a U.S. government representative, he moves around Bishkek in an embassy car with the flag of the United States. According to Fergana's information, Wednesday evening Rumsfeld already conducted a series of meetings in the elite cottages of Ala-Archa 2, location of the mansions of nearly every representative of the Kyrgyz elite, from criminal authorities to the highest-ranking officials.
Rumsfeld's visit must be understood in the context of the situation around Manas... Most likely, the talks were conducted with various political powers in Kyrgyzstan. Whatever the outcome of Rumsfeld's visit, it will seriously affect the further development of the current situation, in Central Asia as well as in Kyrgyzstan.
A Bishkek court has acquitted and released three opposition leaders previously convicted for attempting to seize power violently. In March, Kamchybek Tashiev and two other lawmakers from the nationalist Ata-Jurt party received sentences of between six months and one year for leading unrest outside parliament last autumn.
But the end to this saga did not come without more violence. Tashiev, Sadyr Japarov and Talant Mamytov were released on June 17 after their supporters threw shoes and bottles at the judge and a prosecutor who was demanding an even longer sentence, AKIpress reports.
The Prosecutor General’s office told 24.kg that the court caved to public pressure and said it intends to pursue charges at the Supreme Court.
The case of Tashiev et al. is linked to regular protests over the fate of the lucrative Kumtor gold mine in Issyk-Kul Province. At the October rally, where Tashiev led protestors over the fence surrounding parliament and vowed to “replace this government,” the three Ata-Jurt deputies demanded the nationalization of Kumtor, the largest foreign-run gold mine in Central Asia, which accounts for over 50 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s exports.
Almost 24 hours after the vote, and after a widespread public outcry in Bishkek, parliament has published the text of the controversial resolution it passed last night. It turns out, though MP Irgal Kadyralieva is still insisting to the press that she wishes to protect the Kyrgyz "gene pool,” the final resolution does not limit travel for women based on their age.
In the confusion -- fueled by multiple press appearances where Kadyralieva insisted women under age 22 or 23 must be forbidden from traveling abroad without a parent's consent -- early on June 13 activists in Bishkek lashed out at the resolution.
“This legal act is absurd,” Vechernii Bishkek quoted Aikanysh Jeenbaeva, co-founder of the Bishkek Feminist Collective SQ as saying. “It's not going to protect anyone. It will only increase corruption. Now girls will have to pay bribes at the border.”
“Deputies acted ignorantly by passing the resolution,” human rights Ombudsman Tursunbek Akun was quoted as saying. “Don't they know that they're violating the Constitution, civil rights, and freedom of movement?”
An Afghan Mi-17 helicopter, the same type India is reportedly giving to Tajikistan. (photo: U.S. Army)
India will give two military transportation helicopters to Tajikistan when its defense minister visits Dushanbe in July, Indian press is reporting. During his visit next month, A K Antony also will inaugurate a military hospital in Farkhor in southern Tajikistan, according to a report from the Press Trust of India.
I asked a well-connected Indian defense journalist about this and he said his sources confirmed the report, and that the helicopters in question would be two Mi-17s. The plan to give them to Tajikistan had been made some time ago, but India's requirements for UN peacekeeping and for fighting the Naxal rebellion in India meant that there were no spare aircraft until now, the source tells The Bug Pit.
Separately, another news item also speaks to how Central Asia's militaries are looking to new sources for hardware: Kyrgyzstan is reportedly acquiring air defense systems from China. From CentrAsia.ru:
"Our cooperation will enter a new level and will continue to gather momentum. Moreover, we are glad that the company [CETC International] expresses interest in realizing projects of air defense systems and radar stations, as these questions are relevant for us," said [Kyrgyzstan's deputy defense minister Colonel Zamir] Suerklov.
It's not clear whether Kyrgyzstan is buying these systems or China is giving them as aid, or what kind of air defense we're talking about. Either way, it's an intriguing development given that Russia just promised Bishkek more than $1 billion in military aid, and that there are ongoing plans to create a joint CSTO air defense system.
A small, Kyrgyzstan-based airline is helping Tehran “move suspected illicit cargo” to support Bashar al-Assad’s bloody crackdown in Syria, the US Treasury Department says.
Treasury has sanctioned Kyrgyz Trans Avia (KTA) for leasing and selling aircraft to Iran’s Mahan Air. Washington blacklisted Mahan Air in October 2011 “for providing financial, material and technological support to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF) and has transported personnel, weapons and goods on behalf of Lebanese Hizballah,” a May 31 Treasury statement says.
KTA was designated pursuant to E.O. 13224 for providing financial, material, or technological support for, or financial or other services to Mahan Air, by leasing aircraft to Mahan Air. KTA has been publicly identified as an umbrella company purposely established for importing aircraft to Iran. In this regard, between 2009 and 2010, KTA acted as an intermediary for Mahan Air's acquisition of eight aircraft, all of which are now identified by Treasury as blocked property operated by Mahan Air. Some of the aircraft supplied by KTA to Mahan Air are used, interchangeably, to move suspected illicit cargo to the Syrian regime and provide civilian passenger flights to Europe and Asia.
The designation prohibits US citizens, permanent residents, and American companies from dealing with KTA or its director, 58-year-old Lidia Kim, who Treasury designated “for acting for or on behalf of KTA by serving as the director of the company. Kim has received funds from a Mahan Air front company for equipment provided to the airline.” KTC is listed as headquartered at Erkindik 35 in Bishkek.
In the same announcement, Treasury sanctioned Ukraine’s Ukrainian-Mediterranean Airlines (Um Air) for similar activity.
Protests outside the Kumtor gold mine in northern Kyrgyzstan have ended and the mine has resumed operations. But related unrest shifted south over the weekend.
Outside Jalal-Abad, Kyrgyzstan’s third-largest city, demonstrators are blocking the country’s only north-south highway, creating a traffic jam several kilometers long, local media report. Since Friday, protestors also have occupied parts of the main government building in the city.
They are demanding the release of three nationalist lawmakers serving short jail terms for stoking unrest last October amid calls to nationalize the profitable mine, which, in a good year, produces 12 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s GDP.
Jalal-Abad is the stronghold of Kamchybek Tashiev. In that October incident, he led supporters over the fence surrounding parliament, vowing to “replace this government.” A Bishkek court this March found Tashiev, Sadyr Japarov and Talant Mamytov – all lawmakers with the Ata-Jurt party, which draws its support largely from the south – guilty of trying to overthrow the government. The sentences were seen as light, but deprived the three of their parliamentary seats. Tashiev, who announced a hunger strike today, is due to be released this autumn.