The Collective Security Treaty Organization held a summit in Moscow at the end of last week, and on top of the agenda was the organization's nascent rapid reaction force. The CSTO, recall, has been positioning itself as a Russia-oriented NATO with the ability to intervene militarily and defend member states. But when CSTO member Kyrgyzstan erupted in violence earlier this year, the CSTO did nothing, exposing the organization to criticism that it is a paper tiger.
What exactly were the lessons of Kyrgyzstan for the CSTO? That depends on whom you ask.
Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov spoke at the opening of the summit, and different press accounts have different takes on what he said:
Iran's Press TV: "The events in Kyrgyzstan became a test of strength of the organization. They revealed the need to refine the rapid reaction force."
China's People's Daily: "It is obvious to all of us that the events in Kyrgyzstan became a test of strength to the Organization. Through joint efforts we managed to stabilize the situation."
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev gave a somewhat vague pronunciation, which you could interpret many ways: "The organization did not commit any fatal mistakes" in Kyrgyzstan.
Whatever the case, the CSTO did agree that it was necessary to fix the rapid reaction capability. Lavrov, speaking before the summit, said that was the top priority: "The most important cluster of matters agreed upon today is the changes to be made to the statutes of the CSTO in order to improve the efficiency of our organization in the field of emergency response."
Officials at Kyrgyzstan’s Education Ministry have little reason to celebrate this holiday season. The troubled Central Asian country ranked last in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which aims to predict and gradually improve nations’ “economic and social well-being” through regular, comparative evaluations of teenagers’ proficiency in reading, math and science.
The latest results of the PISA tests, administered since 2000 at three-year intervals to 15-year-olds in dozens of countries by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), were released December 7 with Kyrgyzstan coming in 65th. Its mean score suggests that high-school students in the impoverished nation lag some four and a half years behind their peers from OECD countries in terms of formal schooling and more than six years behind top-scoring Shanghai, China.
One particularly troubling result showed that more than 80 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s 15-year-olds had reading skills below Level 2, considered “a baseline level of proficiency, at which students begin to demonstrate the reading literacy competencies that will enable them to participate effectively and productively in life.” Nearly 60 percent of tested students in Kyrgyzstan perform below level 1a.
In Kyrgyzstan, stories about the former president’s naughty son Maxim Bakiyev receive about as many column inches as the royal family in Britain’s tabloids. So, nodding to the temptation, this one is purely for the juice.
Maxim, that infamous playboy, surrounded himself with groveling businessmen and politicians in his father’s kingdom, but that did not buy him their loyalty, suggests another wikileaked cable available on the Russky Reporter website.
The cable describes an ostentatious opening party for Maxim’s newest resort on Lake Issyk-Kul in June 2009:
The main focus of the event was not the hotel, which nearly all attendees commented was done shoddily and in poor taste, but Maxim and his entourage. Maxim arrived at a nearby airport in his private plane, traveled to the hotel in a large motorcade with police escort, and moved around the party itself with eight bodyguards. Maxim mingled among the guests with his official wife Aijana (he is well known to have another girlfriend) on one side and Prime Minister Igor Chudinov on the other. Neither Aijana nor Chudinov looked happy to be there.
The author, former US Charge d’Affaires Lee Litzenberger, suggested throughout the cable that Maxim was widely disliked by his anxious coterie of businessmen, with one “otherwise loyal” interlocutor suggesting “the President is letting his son get away with too much -- and that these excesses will hurt the family and country in the end.”
At the main border crossing heading from Kyrgyzstan to Kazakhstan, freight trucks line the road for hundreds of meters for a days-long wait. Cars, taxis and minibuses jostle for the remaining road. The modest bridge spanning the Chui River has been largely gridlocked throughout 2010.
Cross into Kazakhstan, and there are no queues. A crowd loiters around the gates, looking for passengers, family members, business partners. The whole scene is reminiscent more of a prison gate than an international border crossing.
Just twenty years ago, the Chui River was the trivial line between two brotherly republics of the Soviet Union. Now, a new Customs Union of Belarus-Kazakhstan and Russia (CU) intends to secure those countries from cheap transit goods, criminal activity, smuggling, and even anti-government unrest perceived, across this newly strengthened frontier, as emanating from Kyrgyzstan.
Of the 11 border crossings between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, six are currently closed, Kyrgyz customs agents say, and Kazakhstan has imposed tightened restrictions at two more.
Fifteen kilometers east at Ak-Tilek, a simple printed sign taped to a shuttered gate indicates that this key freight crossing is closed. In addition to locally produced goods, huge amounts of consumer products transiting Kyrgyzstan from China were once transited here, feeding local economies on both sides of the border.
“All that traffic is now diverted to Kordai and is completely backed up,” reports the lone Kyrgyz customs officer at Ak-Tilek. Relief probably will not come soon. “The Kazakhs say they are reconstructing their facilities, and they say they won’t open again for a long time. Probably a year.”
According to a fresh trickle of news from WikiLeaks, Maxim Bakiyev told a US diplomat that Washington had him to thank for keeping open the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan after his father, then-President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, declared he would close it.
The cable -- allegedly sent a day after the announcement that the base would be renamed a “transit center” -- details a dinner date between the former US Charge d’Affaires, Lee Litzenberger, ex-Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Kadyrbek Sarbayev and Maxim in July 2009.
Litzenberger notes that the “slightly spoiled” Maxim is a casual dresser, unshaven, slightly overweight and balding, with a penchant for personalized cigars and scotch.
At the dinner, held in an “almost tastefully decorated” annex to a plush Bishkek restaurant, Sarbayev reportedly told Litzenberger that Maxim had used his influence to convince Bakiyev Snr to keep the base open after he promised Moscow he would close it in return for a wad of cash.
As we reported yesterday, Kyrgyz authorities have said that two violent incidents this week were the work of Islamic militants. But authorities quickly arrived at this conclusion, without providing evidence, after presenting some odd accounts of the November 29 shootout in Osh and the November 30 bomb explosion in Bishkek. For the record:
During U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's quick visit yesterday to Kyrgyzstan, the big news was her announcement that the U.S. would help Kyrgyzstan set up an "entity" that could provide part of the fuel supply for the Manas air base there. This, you may recall, has been a big issue with the new government in Bishkek, which wasn't happy when the Pentagon re-awarded the fuel contract to Mina Corp., which is unpopular in Kyrgyzstan because of its alleged ties to the former government of Kurmanbek Bakiyev.
The deal has been in the offing for a while, as my colleague Deirdre Tynan has reported. Clinton and Otunbayeva, in their press conference yesterday, did not give many of the details, but Deirdre reports that it will include Gazprom, as Kyrgyzstan had proposed. That will undoubtedly raise the hackles of Russophobes in Washington, but also should ensure that Russia's opposition to the base will be muted, since they'll have a financial stake in it. Clinton, at her press conference yesterday:
It's an important issue in our bilateral relationship. We are committed to transparency. The fuel contract was a result of an open bidding process, but we recognize that the government of Kyrgyzstan is conducting its own investigation into the fuel company. That is its perfect right. And that investigation is not completed. We will, of course, receive the results of any investigation that is conducted by the government.
Inhale deeply, again. Three days after we breathed a collective sigh of relief that Kyrgyzstan’s squabbling politicians had somehow, after six weeks of backroom dealing, agreed to form a governing coalition, that “coalition” did not gather enough votes – from its own members – to assume power.
During a late, secret vote on December 2, the designated speaker, Omurbek Tekebayev, only received 58 votes, AKIpress reports. Sixty-one of the parliament’s 120 are required. The coalition-that-shall-not-be – comprising Tekebayev’s own Ata-Meken, the Social Democratic Party, and Respublika – holds 67 seats, highlighting dissension in the ranks.
The parliament has gone into crisis mode and Social Democrat leader Almazbek Atambayev, the would-be prime minister, says he intends to ask provisional President Roza Otunbayeva to pass the mandate for forming a coalition onto another party.
Kyrgyzstan watchers have zeroed in on a juicy dispatch from the latest influx of wikileaked diplomatic cables: Ostensibly written by current U.S. Ambassador Tatiana Gfoeller in October 2008, the cable describes an “astonishingly candid” discussion with the United Kingdom’s Prince Andrew and a group of British businessmen in Bishkek.
The leitmotif is corruption, which the businessmen lamented was “appallingly high […] in the Kyrgyz economy.”
The conversation took place during the reign of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, ousted in street riots this April, in part because he and his family were widely believed to be lining their pockets at the expense of the Kyrgyz people.
In an astonishing display of candor in a public hotel where the brunch was taking place, all of the businessmen then chorused that nothing gets done in Kyrgyzstan if President Bakiyev’s son Maxim does not get “his cut.” Prince Andrew took up the topic with gusto, saying that he keeps hearing Maxim’s name “over and over again” whenever he discusses doing business in this country. Emboldened, one businessman said that doing business here is “like doing business in the Yukon” in the nineteenth century, i.e. only those willing to participate in local corrupt practices are able to make any money. His colleagues all heartily agreed, with one pointing out that “nothing ever changes here. Before all you heard was [former President Askar] Akayev’s son’s name. Now it’s Bakiyev’s son’s name.”
Mina Corp, the secretive fuel supplier to the US-led Manas air base near Bishkek, may not care much for the newly formed coalition between Ata-Meken, the Social Democratic Party and Respublika.
As EurasiaNet.org previously observed: “Some powerful Kyrgyz politicians, including the Social Democratic Party chairman, Almazbek Atambayev, and the Respublika Party leader, Omurbek Babanov, are noted opponents of Mina Corp’s fuel supply role. Both Atambayev and Babanov may soon occupy influential positions in the Kyrgyz cabinet, depending on the outcome of coalition talks in Bishkek.”
Mina Corp has sought to portray Babanov, who will be first deputy prime minister in the new government, as something of a rival. His nephew, Janybek Sagadylda uulu runs a fuel company, Atek Oil.
In an interview with EurasiaNet.org in August, Sagadylda uulu insisted that Atek Oil had no interest in doing business with the Manas air base.
When asked if Atek Oil would be interested in doing so in the future, the answer was a flat “no.”
Sources privy to the ongoing US-Kyrgyz negotiations privately venture that this may be Mina Corp’s last year as the fuel supplier to Manas. But in the unpredictable world of Kyrgyz politics, that could be a year longer than this new coalition lasts.