Tajikistan has created a "second line of defense" along the border with Afghanistan in response to the flare-up in fighting in northern Afghanistan's Kunduz province, government officials have said.
"In connection with the battles between the security forces of Afghanistan and Taliban fighters in the Afghan province of Kunduz, it's been decided to create a second line of defense, and it was carried out in recent days," said one government official. (Tajikistan newspaper Asia-Plus and Russian news agency Interfax seem to have gotten identical statements; Asia Plus identifies the source as a Ministry of Defense official.)
"We are in constant contact with Afghan security forces, and our allies in the CSTO [Collective Security Treaty Organization]. Tajikistan today is able to prevent the escalation of tension in its border areas," the official continued.
The official didn't specify what is meant by a "second line of defense," and for much of the 800-mile long Afghanistan-Tajikistan border there is barely a first line of defense. Aid that Russia has promised to shore up border defenses has been slow to arrive, so it's not clear what might be forming this extra defense.
The fighting in Kunduz has displaced 2,000 families and killed 20 Afghan troops and 150 Taliban fighters, according to Afghanistan officials. Tajikistan officials last week said that the fighting represented no threat to their country.
The United States and the European Union have taken renewed interest in constructing a pipeline to take natural gas from Turkmenistan across the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan and westward to Europe. The move is motivated by a desire to further decrease Europe's dependence on Russian gas in the wake of Moscow's newly assertive foreign policy posture, but regional analysts say the pipeline could also increase tensions around the Caspian.
European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic visited Ashgabat this week for talks with energy ministers of Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Turkmenistan. He told Reuters that the EU expects to start receiving gas from Turkmenistan by 2019.
"[W]e discussed all aspects referring to the trans-Caspian pipeline," Sefcovic said. "We made a big step in the strategic direction... Now there is a political decision that Turkmenistan will become part of this project and will feed the European direction."
The possibility of a trans-Caspian pipeline has been long discussed but has been hindered by a number of obstacles, not least of which is the opposition of Russia, which stands to lose market share in Europe were the pipeline to be built. Russia is the single-largest supplier of gas to Europe, holding about 30 percent of the market share (and far more in some Eastern European countries). And the volatility in Moscow has renewed efforts in Brussels and Washington to reduce that dependency.
Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon at a meeting with senior security officials April 22. (photo: president.tj)
While heavy fighting has broken out in northern Afghanistan, near the border of Tajikistan, officials in Dushanbe say they have the situation under control.
Last week, the Taliban formally announced the beginning of their spring offensive. While attacks have spiked across the country, northeastern Afghanistan has seen unusual amounts of violence. Earlier this month fighting broke out in Afghan Badakhshan, the narrow panhandle bordering the Tajikistan region of the same name. Dozens of fighters on both sides were reportedly killed in those clashes.
Now, heavy fighting has erupted in Kunduz, about 60 kilometers from the border of southern Tajikistan. That fighting has killed at least 30 people and forced President Ashraf Ghani to delay his planned trip to India on Monday. (It's also reportedly come close to the Tajikistan consulate in the city.)
The violence has of course not gone unnoticed in Dushanbe. Last week President Emomali Rahmon convened senior security officials to discuss Afghanistan and ordered "increasing military readiness for the protection of state borders, and the fight against terrorism, extremism and illegal drug trafficking."
Special operations troops from SCO member state militaries at the opening ceremony of joint exercises in Tokmok, Kyrgyzstan. (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
The China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization is holding joint exercises with special operations forces from Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan -- and they're doing it at a military base in Kyrgyzstan that the United States spent $9 million to build.
The SCO exercises taking place this week involve 20-25 special operations troops from each participating country (all the member states except Uzbekistan, which typically sits out SCO military exercises). During the five-day exercise the troops will practice deploying to mountain areas, deploying from helicopters, seeking and destroying terrorist groups, rescuing hostages, and treating and evacuating wounded troops. Pretty standard stuff for a joint special operations exercise.
What makes this drill stand out is the site: the base of the Scorpions special operations unit in Tokmok, Kyrgyzstan. Readers may recall that this is the base that U.S. Central Command and the U.S. embassy in Bishkek spent $9 million to build. It's no wonder it was attractive to the SCO, given that a Wikileaked U.S. diplomatic cable from the opening ceremony of the base in 2009 described it as "the gold standard in Central Asian construction ... far exceeds any other facility the Kyrgyz currently have." The facility includes
"officer and enlisted housing, classroom training facilities, a multipurpose facility, a dining facility and shower/sauna complex."
Kazakhstani and Russian pilots take part in the ceremony handing over four Su-30SM fighter jets in Taldykorgan, Kazakhstan. (photos: Ministry of Defense, Kazakhstan)
Kazakhstan has acquired four state-of-the-art fighter jets from Russia, part of a deal that could include up to 36 of the aircraft by 2020 in what Kazakhstan media called "one of the biggest deals on the defense market in the last decade."
The Su-30SM fighters were handed over at a ceremony April 17 at the Taldykorgan air force base. "This shows the increasing military power of the Kazakhstan armed forces... The Su-30SM will substantially improve the defense of the air borders of the republic of Kazakhstan," said the commander of Kazakhstan's air forces, General-Major Nurlan Ormanbetov.
The Su-30SM is a so-called Generation 4++ fighter, and thus far has only been ordered by the Russian air force. (The only 5th-generation fighter in operation is the Lockheed Martin F-22.)
Russian newspaper Vedemosti reported that the deal (which includes training on the new aircraft for pilots and mechanics) was worth 5 billion rubles (about $90 million at the current exchange rate). That was "close to the price for the Russian air force" thanks to the favorable pricing for Russia's allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization. If Kazakhstan buys all 36 aircraft, the deal would total $2 billion, Vedemosti reported.
The new United States embassy in Kyrgyzstan continues to be the object of elaborate conspiracy theories in the Kyrgyz and Russian press, which now suggest that Washington is sneaking in equipment to help carry out a color revolution.
This conspiracy theory was kicked off by Kyrgyzstan newspaper Delo No., which reported that the U.S. flew in 152 tons of "unknown cargo" on a Ukrainian airplane. The cargo flew under the "diplomatic pouch," the mail service by which diplomats around the world can send mail without it being inspected by the receiving country.
"The situation in the world, and in our region especially, has recently become so explosive that any actions of the Americans should be regarded with suspicion. All the more so with American diplomats," the paper wrote. "And the diplomatic pouch of any country could theoretically be used to transport anything, including weapons. Before, the Americans in Kyrgyzstan had the possibility to get any cargo, into which the Kyrgyzstani authorities couldn't stick their nose, through their military base. Now there's no base, and the U.S. embassy was was unable to hide itself with the diplomatic pouch in the Manas civilian airport."
The paper puts forward two possible explanations for the secret cargo: one, that it is carrying cash in small denominations in order to pay protesters to carry out a "Maidan" in Bishkek. Another is that it is "espionage equipment for the enormous basements of the new U.S. embassy building in Bishkek."
The Russian military is handing Astana more than a million hectares of land it has been renting in Kazakhstan, which hopes to use the territory to boost its extractive industries.
During talks in Moscow on April 16, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and his Kazakhstani counterpart Imangali Tasmagambetov finalized the deal that will see 1.6 million hectares of land that is part of two military testing grounds ceded to Kazakhstan, Russian news agency TASS reported.
“Unused territories and sectors where communications routes and mineral wealth are located will be removed from the lease and handed over to Kazakhstan,” Shoigu said.
The land is part of two military facilities operated by Russia in Kazakhstan: the Saryshagan anti-ballistic missile testing ground at Lake Balkhash in the southeast and a flight testing center in Aktobe in the energy-rich west.
“We have taken into account all the desires of the Kazakhstani side in removing the land from the lease,” Shoigu added.
For Kazakhstan, the deal reasserts its sovereignty over the territory and opens up the opportunity to build infrastructure and prospect for energy and mineral resources, just as Astana launches a program to increase Kazakhstan’s proven reserves.
“This agreement is linked to the economic interests of the Republic of Kazakhstan,” the country’s Ministry of Defense said in a tight-lipped statement. The land “will be used in the interests of the oil-and-gas sector, the construction of housing, railroads, and highways, and for other needs.”
Tajikistan is purportedly the linchpin of Moscow's security strategy in Central Asia, but local employees of the Russian military base there have protested that they haven't been paid their wages for six months.
According to RFE/RL's Tajik service, "dozens" of locals who work at the base in Kulyab, in southern Tajikistan near the border with Afghanistan, protested on April 15 to call attention to the slow payment. Russian base officials told the service that a third party company is responsible for the support staff, but that company has said that the base hasn't paid them.
If Russia isn't in fact making its payments on the base, that bodes ill for the ambitious plans that the Kremlin has announced for the base. Earlier this month, Russia announced that by 2020 it will increase the number of soldiers stationed there from 6,000 to 9,000. (It's already Russia's largest military base abroad.)
Russia is ostensibly concerned about Tajikistan's long border with Afghanistan, and has lately been ratcheting up the rhetoric about the possibility of Islamist radical spillover from Afghanistan into Central Asia. The new Russian-led security bloc, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, last week held a meeting in the northern Tajikistan city of Khujand, where "particular attention was given to the current situation in Afghanistan with regard to the activities of the IS international terrorist organization."
A worker from Tajikistan has dropped dead while standing in line to apply for a Russian work permit at a new migrant-processing center near Moscow. His death comes after a barrage of reports about poor conditions at the Multifunctional Migration Center, in Sakharovo.
Komiljon Esanov, 48, had been waiting in line for two days when he became ill, according to Fergana News. By the time an ambulance arrived an hour later he was already dead.
"I think my father died of hunger and thirst while standing in the crowd. We have been queuing for work permits here for several days, and there is no order or system," Esanov’s son Dilshod, who was waiting with his father in line, was quoted as saying by the Dushanbe-based Ozodagon news agency.
The Russian authorities have promised to investigate the cause of death.
When the Sakharovo center opened in January, many migrants viewed it as a positive change. Previously they had to go to at least five different sites to have their fingerprints taken, sit mandatory Russian-language test, purchase health insurance, and collect necessary stamps. Now they can take care of all that paperwork at once.
But the Federal Migration Service’s attempt to streamline the process seems to have failed. With over a million Central Asian migrants working in Moscow alone, the center quickly suffered from overcrowding.
The center can only serve 2,000 people per day, but often up to 5,000 migrants wait in line to get their documents sorted. Many arrive as early as 5 a.m. to start queuing.
What a difference a month can make. In the final days of February, Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev was engaged in an emotional and unseemly spat with Belarus over the death of a Kyrgyz gangster.
By the end of his 10-day European tour this week, Atambayev was positioning himself as a peacemaker between Brussels and Moscow – one eager to continue receiving Western aid. Kyrgyzstan is due to join the Russia-led Eurasia Economic Union next month.
Atambayev made some revealing comments during an April 1 interview with Euronews – an outlet notorious for softball questions and sympathetic interviews with regional leaders. He used the opportunity to praise Russia’s leadership, present himself as a wise leader dabbling in international diplomacy, and remind Western donors that their assistance hasn’t been enough.
Euronews: “Mr. President, welcome to Euronews. Can we regard your visit to Brussels as something of a farewell before Kyrgyzstan joins the Eurasian Economic Union in May and when you will stop getting closer to the European Union?”
Atambayev: “On the contrary. I think, as a part of the Eurasian Union, Kyrgyzstan will be pushing it towards tight engagement with the European Union. Europe should extend from Lisbon and Brussels – to Vladivostok, and of course, I think, to Bishkek.”