With the Russian government agreeing to finally pay Kyrgyzstan rent for the military facilities that Russia operates there, pressure is increasing on the Kremlin to pay up for the other military bases it operates in the former Soviet Union.
Just days after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev agreed to pay his Kyrgyzstan counterpart Almazbek Atambayev $15 million in back rent for the Kant air base and other facilities, Tajikistan is signaling that it, too, intends to pay hardball. The two countries agreed in principle back in September to extend the lease of the base for Russia's 201st division for another 49 years. But the issue of payment was left until later, and on Tuesday Dushanbe's ambassador to Moscow suggested they would drive a hard bargain, in an interview with RFE/RL:
"[N]o one in the world today intends to give up even a small plot of their land for nothing." The Tajik ambassador said, "our country should keep this in mind, whether there should be payment of some $300 million or compensation through providing military-technical aid," adding "nobody will say thank you to those who give up their land for free to others."
The $300 million figure has been mentioned in Tajikistan but Dostiev conceded that even 10 percent of that amount of money would be acceptable.
Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev may be returning from Russia with a promise of $15 million in outstanding rent for the Russian base at Kant – “measly,” he’s called it – but at home there’s more shock than celebration. Somehow the new president managed to upset both nationalists and the more liberal minded during his trip.
First, during the unveiling of a statue for Kyrgyz mythic hero Manas in Moscow on February 24, which Atambayev personally helped finance, the president said that Manas, in whatever distant past he inhabited, was “an ethnic Russian” because he and the ancestors of the Kyrgyz both originated in Siberia.
"Manas never divided people by ethnicity and this was his strong point. The monument to Manas is a symbol of the unity of our nations,” the KyrTAG news agency quoted him as saying. “We have common history and, certainly, a common future.”
That’s nice, but at home Manas is a rallying point for ethnic Kyrgyz identity, and has been boosted in the post-Soviet period to help coalesce the nation. “Manas mania” has gripped the country since ethnic violence between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in 2010, with a costly new statue of Manas erected in Bishkek’s central square and some calling for the capital itself to be renamed Manas. In this climate, suggesting the hero of the eponymous epic was not an ethnic Kyrgyz sounds heretical.
The presidents of Russia and Kyrgyzstan, Dmitry Medvedev and Almazbek Atambayev, meet in Moscow.
Kyrgyzstan President Almazbek Atambayev has something to bring home from his visit to Moscow: $15 million in past due rents for the various military facilities that Russia operates in Central Asia. From RIA Novosti:
Both Russia and the United State have important military bases in the country. However, Washington has paid its lease "without any delays," Kyrgyz media said.
Russia has not paid "the measly rent" for its Kant air base for four years, Atambayev told Ekho Moskvy radio.
He also complained that Russia did not meet its obligations. "They should be training our pilots. Well, they're not," he said.
Russia also is looking at forgiving some of Kyrgyzstan's $500 million debt to Moscow, reports Bloomberg:
Russia’s government understands the former Soviet state is facing a “severe financial and economic situation” and is ready to look at alternatives, it said....
Kyrgyzstan hopes to repay part of its debt to Russia by transferring shares from defense company OAO Dastan, Russian news agency Interfax reported, citing an interview with Kyrgyz Finance Minister Akylbek Zhaparov.
That would be an intriguing turn in the saga over Dastan, which has been a bargaining chip between Russia and Kyrgyzstan but more recently was the subject of interest from India, so that will be something to keep an eye on.
Atambayev seems to be playing the same sort of hardball with Russia as he is with the U.S. and its Manas air base, and while in Moscow publicly suggested that Kyrgyzstan didn't need any Russian military facilities, reports ITAR-TASS:
In Kyrgyzstan, it’s never quite clear whether the battle against organized crime is genuine or a covert turf war between powerful interest groups.
Whatever the case may be, this week Washington has stepped up its support in the effort to tackle one apparent kingpin. On February 23, the Treasury Department imposed sanctions on one of Kyrgyzstan’s most wanted, alleged narkobaron Kamchybek Kolbayev. President Barack Obama had added him to a list of global drug barons in June, prohibiting US companies and citizens from doing business with him, but the sanctions didn’t kick in until now. Treasury says Kolbayev is a midlevel manager in a international operation known as the “Brothers’ Circle” -- “a multi-ethnic criminal group composed of leaders and senior members of several Eurasian criminal groups largely based in countries of the former Soviet Union but operating in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America.”
Kamchybek Kolbayev acts for or on behalf of the Brothers' Circle by serving as the Brothers' Circle "overseer" for its Central Asian activities, including narcotics trafficking. In June 2011, President Obama identified Kolbayev as a significant foreign narcotics trafficker under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act. Kolbayev is wanted in Kyrgyzstan for organized crimes and crimes involving the use of weapons/explosives, and organized/transnational crime.
A Russian Foreign Ministry official has said that the U.S. might use its air base at Manas to attack Iran. At a Moscow briefing today, spokesman Alexander Lukashevich echoed the recent claim of Kyrgyzstan's President Almazbek Atambayev that a U.S.-Iran war could embroil Kyrgyzstan:
"It cannot be excluded that this site could be used in a potential conflict with Iran," foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich told reporters. "We hope that such an apocalyptic scenario will not be realised...."
Lukashevich said using the airbase as a launch-pad to strike Iran would require "changes or rather violations" to the lease agreement between Washington and Bishkek.
"The statements from Washington which do not rule out a military solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis have caused serious worries in the Central Asian region," he said.
"The worries are shared not just by Kyrgyzstan -- where a debate has erupted about the risk of a retaliatory strike from Iran -- but other Central Asian countries," he added.
Now, if the U.S. wanted to attack Iran, it would have no shortage of launching pads. It has an air base in neighboring Turkey, an entire naval fleet in Bahrain, and of course a substantial military presence in Afghanistan. Why they would choose to use distant Kyrgyzstan, which would require crossing at least two other countries' airspaces along the way, instead of those far easier options, is something that neither Atambayev nor Lukashevich have explained.
Recall that the Iranian ambassador to Bishkek spoke out publicly to quash such speculation when Atambayev first voiced it. When it's the Iranian official who is the voice of reason, well...
Authorities in Bishkek have blocked the independent Russian-language news site Fergananews.com, eight months after a controversial parliament resolution saying the site should not be accessible to readers in Kyrgyzstan. It is unclear why the decision took so long to implement.
Kyrgyzstan’s legislature voted unanimously to block the Moscow-based website for perceived bias last June, around the one-year anniversary of interethnic bloodshed between Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities in the country’s south. The decision came at a time when many ethnic Kyrgyz felt unfairly demonized by the international community, while politicians parlayed the sentiment into nationalist chest thumping. According to the parliamentary resolution, Fergananews (previously Ferghana.ru), which covered the 2010 ethnic violence and its aftermath in exhaustive and critical detail, “ignites ethnic hatred.”
Press-freedom activists have condemned the move, with Reporters Without Borders calling it “absurd and outrageous.”
“Blocking a news website that is as professional and impartial as Fergana’s is a major step backwards for a country that aspires to be ‘Central Asia’s first parliamentary democracy,’” the Paris-based watchdog said in a statement on February 21.
According to Fergananews, Kyrgyz Telecom, Kyrgyzstan’s largest Internet service provider, blocked the site after a request from the State Agency for Communications earlier this month. Other ISPs have not yet followed, so the site is still available for some users.
Delivering the usual grim assessment on press freedom in Central Asia, the Committee to Protect Journalists says the region’s media continue to be shaken by “tactics to intimidate, harass and imprison journalists.” CPJ released its annual Attacks on the Press report on February 21.
Even in Kyrgyzstan, celebrated for its shift from authoritarian leadership to parliamentary rule, attacks on journalists continue to rise. In 2011, eight media workers were assaulted, CPJ counted, while ethnic Uzbeks working in the field were forced to flee or, in the case of Azimjan Askarov, remain languishing in prison.
“Rising violence, censorship, and politically motivated prosecutions against the media marred the year in Kyrgyzstan. Parliament decriminalized libel, but moved to censor foreign press coverage. Ethnic Uzbek journalists were targeted for legal reprisals” in the wake of ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan in 2010. The report adds:
After the June 2010 conflict, ethnic Uzbek media owners Khalil Khudaiberdiyev and Dzhavlon Mirzakhodzhayev faced attacks, harassment, and retaliatory prosecution. Authorities forced Khudaiberdiyev to sell his company, Osh TV. Mirzakhodzhayev suspended operation of Mezon TV and the newspapers Portfeland Itogi Nedeli. The outlets had produced news in Uzbek, as well as in Russian and Kyrgyz. As both owners fled the country, the country's largest ethnic minority was left without access to news in its native language.
From top: Nearly all US troops going to and from Afghanistan transit through the airbase in Manas, Kyrgyzstan.; Barracks, or top-secret intelligence gathering facilities?; Wing commander headquarters.
Over the past year, the U.S. air base in Kyrgyzstan has expanded its programs of outreach to the local community and to Kyrgyzstan's military and government, strengthening the base's role as a public diplomacy tool of the U.S. government.
Most of what the base (officially called the Transit Center at Manas) does has nothing to do with Kyrgyzstan. Its two main missions are serving as a transit and processing point for nearly all troops entering and leaving their tours in Afghanistan, and as a base for aerial refueling aircraft. Those are functions that can't as easily be carried out in Afghanistan itself. Most troops arrive to Manas on chartered civilian aircraft, which can't land in Afghanistan because of the security situation there. (At Manas, they transfer on to military aircraft for the rest of the trip into Afghanistan.) And the U.S. and NATO have maxed out Afghanistan's existing airport space with attack aircraft, as well as smaller transport planes and helicopters, requiring larger planes like the refueling tankers to be based outside the country.
As a result of Manas's sole focus on Afghanistan, there isn't any inherent connection between the base and Kyrgyzstan, other than the high-level negotiations that take place between Bishkek and Washington over the base's presence, rent and so on. And there remains a great deal of suspicion among Kyrgyz people and government officials about what exactly it is that goes on at Manas (suspicion enthusiastically fueled by Russian media). That, in turn, has fueled recurrent drama over the base's continuing presence in Kyrgyzstan; current President Almazbek Atambayev has frequently threatened to shut the base down.
Authorities around Central Asia seem to have it in for Valentine’s Day.
Uzbekistan has cancelled concerts marking the holiday and instructed young people instead to celebrate the birthday of a local hero—Moghul emperor Babur, who was born in Andijan in 1483 and conquered much of South Asia. The Associated Press recently cited an Uzbek newspaper article calling Valentine's Day the work of “forces with evil goals bent on putting an end to national values.”
Students in western Kazakhstan say their university wouldn’t let them celebrate the holiday, which has become popular in the generation since independence. And in Kyrgyzstan, a parliamentary deputy says Valentine’s promotes an “alien ideology,” which drives people to suicide (when they don’t get enough cards).
In Turkmenistan, officials are apparently too busy still celebrating President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s dazzling 97 percent victory in Sunday’s election to discuss much else. Never mind, it’s clear whom everyone loves there.
So what’s with the assault on Valentine’s Day? Yes, it’s nominally a Christian holiday in a predominantly Muslim region, but the elites who call the shots are secular. Could it be that menace of the heart, jealousy, gripping Central Asia’s leaders?
A week-old strike at Kyrgyzstan’s largest gold mine is costing Bishkek approximately $380,000 per day, according to the Vechernii Bishkek newspaper. Judging by a brief slowdown last year, the walkout could sharply affect growth forecasts.
Workers at the Kumtor Gold Mine, which accounts for nearly 12 percent of the impoverished nation’s GDP and 54 percent of industrial output, laid down their tools on February 7, demanding parent company Centerra Gold pay the state’s recently introduced social security deductions, rather than see them withheld from their salaries.
Centerra, which is one-third controlled by the government and listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange, believes the strike is illegal because it violates a collective agreement with workers, Reuters reported on February 7. Centerra’s Kumtor Operating Company said that no other company in Kyrgyzstan was paying the mandatory contribution on behalf of its employees.
Bishkek’s KyrTAG news agency reports that six-hour talks between union representatives and Centerra on February 10 failed to reach any consensus.