Tajikistan likes to brand itself as the last Central Asian Eldorado, a place that (once the deep-pocketed foreigners get over their corruption concerns) will be swimming in hydrocarbon and mineral wealth – or at least look something like Kazakhstan.
So far though, in its 20-plus years of independence, Tajikistan has enjoyed little foreign investment, even though it boasts over 600 documented mineral stores, including what’s believed to be one of the largest silver deposits in the world.
A new poll has found that nearly half of Tajiks would welcome foreign investment in their mining sector, while more than a fifth were against it. These figures are almost the mirror opposite of sentiments in neighboring Kyrgyzstan. Asked how they “feel about foreign companies developing mineral resources,” 45 percent of Tajiks said they were in favor, while 21 percent said they were opposed. In Kyrgyzstan, only 25 percent responded positively, with 43 percent opposed. (The poll was released on August 5 by regional pollster M-Vector, covering 1,008 respondents across Tajikistan and 2,656 in Kyrgyzstan.)
The pollsters offer no hypotheses about the difference, but why not bounce around some unscientific ideas about the possible reasons that people in two desperately poor, mountainous post-Soviet states bordering China have such different views on outsiders extracting their natural wealth for a fee?
The new head of U.S. Central Command has made his first trip to Central Asia, visiting Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and -- intriguingly -- not Kyrgyzstan. One source close to CENTCOM also pointed out to The Bug Pit that the commander, General Lloyd Austin, has been everywhere else in his area of responsibility before stopping into Central Asia, suggesting what sort of priority the region is.
The official statements about the visit were predictably vague: In Tashkent, "there was an exchange of opinions on the perspective of peaceful resolution of the situation in Afghanistan." In Dushanbe, Austin discussed "assistance in strengthening stability and security in Afghanistan and prevention of risk of spread of terrorism and extremism."
So, we are left to guess about what were the topics of discussion. No doubt at the top of the agenda was the logistical support that those countries provide to U.S. forces and equipment entering and leaving Afghanistan. A piece in Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta sees a sinister hand in the timing of Austin's visit to Tajikistan, coming just before President Emomali Rahmon's trip to Russia: "In recent years a practice has developed: on the eve of Russian-Tajik discussions, without fail, an American envoy appears." That doesn't seem likely; the U.S. government usually isn't efficient enough to pull of that degree of deviousness.
A simmering water dispute between Astana and Bishkek is heating up, with Kyrgyzstan threatening to cut electricity to its neighbor and reportedly accusing Kazakh officials of attempted extortion – then denying it.
The dispute escalated on July 29 when Kyrgyzstan’s energy minister alleged, according to both Kyrgyz and Kazakh media reports, that unnamed Kazakh officials had attempted to bribe him during water and energy negotiations.
“They openly offered a bribe for the sale of energy at a low price to Kazakhstani consumers,” Osmonbek Artykbayev said in remarks quoted by CA-News.org. Kyrgyz negotiators “managed to hold out,” he was reported to have said.
On July 30, Artykbayev denied ever making such an accusation, using the time-honored explanation that reporters had distorted his words. He said he had been explaining how his ministry had stepped up the fight against corruption in the energy sector. “Unfortunately my words about the fight against corruption were incorrectly interpreted in individual media outlets,” Artykbayev said in remarks quoted by Tengri News.
Last month Artykbayev threatened to halt electric power exports to Kazakhstan, citing a water shortage. “It’s a difficult question, but there is not enough water in the Toktogul Reservoir, and we are faced with the question of supplying our own population,” Tengri News quoted him as saying on June 27. Kyrgyzstan generates over 90 percent of its electricity from hydropower.
The government of Kyrgyzstan is working with a Washington, D.C., law firm to reopen the securities fraud case against Maxim Bakiyev, the son of the former president. Kyrgyzstan had made clear its displeasure with the U.S., after the Department of Justice dropped the case without explanation, and the move may have even played a role in the U.S.'s apparent eviction from its air base in Kyrgyzstan. So it's not too surprising that they are continuing to pursue this. But a story about the issue in Buzzfeed contains a number of intriguing details.
One is that the law firm, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer and Feld, is working pro bono. Why it is doing so remains unclear, and the Buzzfeed piece implies there is a hidden agenda.
“It’s not a usual path to represent a country pro bono,” McCarthy [the firm's head lawyer on the case] conceded. He named the firm’s “respect for Roza Otunbayeva” as a main motivating factor in taking the job. When asked what Akin Gump was getting out of the deal, McCarthy said “it motivates me and my team personally as well” and that Akin Gump wants to help Kyrgyzstan “stay the course” when it comes to corruption.
Another interesting piece of news the story broke is the apparent reason that the U.S. dropped the charges:
A person working on the deal who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that State Department officials had told Akin Gump representatives that the case was dropped because Eugene Gourevitch, the Bakiyev family’s financial adviser who was the cooperating witness on the case, had recanted his testimony. Gourevitch is currently in an Italian jail facing charges related to a $2.7 billion carousel scheme.
At least one Uzbek border guard was killed in a clash with his Kyrgyz counterparts on July 23. But that’s about all the local media on both sides of the frontier agree on. Officials from the hostile neighbors are presenting differing accounts of the skirmish, including where it occurred.
Tashkent’s 12news.uz website describes a “provocation” on a farm in Namangan Region at around 9:30 a.m. Uzbek time (10:30 a.m. in Kyrgyzstan), when two Uzbek patrolmen tried to stop several “drunk” Kyrgyz guards armed with machine guns who had "intruded" onto Uzbekistan's territory. When the Uzbek guards tried to approach their Kyrgyz colleagues to "explain the seriousness of the situation," the latter opened fire without warning, killing one on the spot and seriously wounding the other in the chest. "Having finished their dirty job, the Kyrgyz bandits left our country," 12news.uz said.
The Uzbek Border Service found spent shells about 100 meters into Uzbek territory, the website said, adding that the second guard died in hospital.
Over a third of Russians believe an influx of “other ethnicities” poses a “very real” threat to Russia’s national security, a poll released July 22 says. Fewer Russians fear terrorism or environmental disaster, the poll found.
According to the state-run All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM), 35 percent of Russians feel migrants from abroad are a top threat to Russia’s security. Thirty-three percent believes the “degradation of culture, science and education” poses a grave threat. Twenty-eight percent names terrorism and the same proportion cites ecological catastrophe as “very real” threats.
A VTsIOM spokeswoman told RIA Novosti that the question about “other ethnicities” referred to “migration from abroad.” Migration is seen as less of a threat than it was eight years ago, however; in 2005, 58 percent of Russians named it a top threat facing the country.
VTsIOM interviewed 1,600 people across the country in June for the poll, asking them to rate the likelihood of 20 potential security threats.
The influx of foreign laborers has climbed considerably over the last decade as Russia has experienced an oil-fueled economic boom and its own population continues to decline. Russia’s Federal Migration Service estimates the number of migrant workers in Russia is around 5 million, of which 60 percent are illegals. The number is growing quickly, too. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Russia is more dependent on illegal migrants than any other country. They account for approximately 7 percent of the workforce.
Update, July 18: A trusty source close to Washington tells EurasiaNet.org that Economics Minister Temir Sariev's allegations are "way off" and characterized him as a "populist" with an unclear agenda. But someone is going to be very unpopular when that money doesn't come home. Stay tuned.
The son of Kyrgyzstan’s deposed dictator might be living a cushy life in the United Kingdom, but money he stashed in the United States is reportedly now sitting behind bars.
Russia’s Kommersant daily, citing Kyrgyzstan’s Economics Minister, reported on July 17 that Washington has frozen three of Maxim Bakiyev’s American bank accounts, which held $74.4 million.
Bakiyev is the son of former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was ousted amid street violence in April 2010. The younger Bakiyev, who fled to the UK, was known in Kyrgyzstan as the “prince” for parlaying his father’s influence into lucrative and opaque business deals. To this day, in Kyrgyzstan he might be more reviled than his father. In March, a Bishkek court found the younger Bakiyev guilty in absentia of embezzling over $100 million in state funds. He received a 25-year prison sentence.
Late last year, the Department of Justice tried to extradite the younger Bakiyev from London to the United States to face charges of conspiracy to commit securities fraud and obstruction of justice. An affidavit, filed last April in the US District Court for the Eastern District of New York, appeared to finger Maxim as “co-conspirator #1” in an insider trading case involving US securities. (The affidavit did not name Maxim Bakiyev.)
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.