Kazakhstan is close to opening a nuclear fuel bank that would allow countries a safe, reliable means of getting fuel for their nuclear power plants, and would theoretically make it more difficult for would-be rogue nuclear states to secretly build weapons. From the Wall Street Journal:
Kazakhstan believes the international community's first nuclear fuel bank can be up and running on Kazakh soil by late next year, potentially supporting the Obama administration's broader efforts to combat the spread of nuclear weapons...
In an interview, Kazakh Foreign Minister Yerzhan Kazykhanov said his government hopes consultations with the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, on the future fuel bank's location can be completed by this spring. He added the government then hopes to bring the facility on line by late 2013...
The IAEA and donors have already pledged $150 million for the project.
An official at the Vienna-based agency said consultations with Kazakhstan were progressing but the target date for the fuel bank's inauguration wasn't yet "set in stone."
The idea of such a fuel bank has been floating around pretty much since the beginning of the nuclear age, but now it seems like it could actually be coming to fruition. I asked Togzhan Kassenova, a nonproliferation expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, what was different now, and she said the fact that the IAEA itself acknowledged that talks were moving forward. "At this point it appears likely that the IAEA/NTI [Nuclear Threat Initiative] bank will be established," she says, adding that there also have been no offers from elsewhere to host the bank.
France is finding it difficult these days to get its troops to and from the fight in Afghanistan. In an interview with L'Orient-Le Jour, the French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet says that withdrawing troops from Afghanistan via Uzbekistan and the rest of the Northern Distribution Network is "too costly." From RFE/RL, which cited the interview:
Longuet said the route was "not optimal" for withdrawing NATO forces but conceded the better option -- via Pakistan -- was currently more complicated due to "spoiled relations" between NATO countries, particularly the U.S., and the Pakistani government.
That chill in ties followed a November 26 NATO air strike that hit Pakistani troops on Pakistan's side of the Afghan border, killing 26 soldiers.
The interview doesn't give any indication of how France intends to deal with that dilemma. France, of course, just announced that it is withdrawing from Afghanistan a year earlier than planned, after four of its troops were killed by a rogue Afghanistan government soldier. That, too, could be pinned on the Americans; the killer allegedly attacked the French because he was angry about a video showing U.S. Marines urinating on dead Taliban members.
That's the thesis of a smart political scientist, who argues that the air base, as a concentrated source of wealth for whoever is in power, has provided a temptation for autocrats to consolidate power and for rivals to that power to challenge them. In his new book Chaos, Violence, Dynasty: Politics and Islam in Central Asia, Eric McGlinchey analyzes the differing political paths taken by independent Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.
The reason Kyrgyzstan has been more unstable has to do with the Kremlin's policies in the region in the late 1980s. But the catalyst that has led to two dramatic overthrows of the government is Manas, McGlinchey argues. Under the first post-Soviet president, Askar Akaev, Kyrgyzstan was propped up by foreign aid, the diffuse nature of which forced him to spread it around to other members of the country's fractured political elite to keep them on his side.
The Manas air base changed this dynamic, however. Although political and economic reform aid continued to flow, this aid was overshadowed both in the popular imagination and ultimately by the huge amount of wealth that was directly accruing to the Akaev family through American fueling contracts. Members of Akaev's winning coalition, perceiving they were not receiving their fair cut of the Manas wealth, began defecting and agitating for Akaev's overthrow.
And of course, as has been well documented, when Kurmanbek Bakiyev took power in 2005, he began to do the same thing as Akaev had, using the massive fuel contracts for Manas as a way to enrich his family.
An Elbit Skylark, the model for Georgia's new drone?
Georgia is building its own drone aircraft, a leading member of parliament has told the Voice of America Georgian Service. The development of the drone has thus far been carried out in secret, but it may be unveiled at a military parade on May 26, Georgia's independence day.
The development of the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) is part of the explanation for why the Georgian government and Elbit, an Israeli defense manufacturer, had gone to court over what Elbit says was a breach of contract. That lawsuit was just settled about a month ago for $35 million. Givi Targamadze, the chair of the parliament's defense and security committee, told VOA that Georgia returned the drones it bought from Elbit.
"The fact is that Georgia started the production of drones. Accordingly, we do not need the apparatus of Israeli manufacture and can safely return the equipment back."
That is actually a translation of a Russian translation of the original VOA article, which is only in Georgian, so I hope nothing was lost. Anyway, that seems a strange way to do business, but we don't know the details of the contract and Elbit has declined to comment on this lawsuit, so we may never know.
There are no technical details on the drone, including what its mission (surveillance? attack?) might be, or even its name. VOA quotes an expert, George Antadze, saying that there are several variants:
I have all the information available to the Georgian side has already completed work on the unmanned aircraft, there are working prototypes of these devices, the issue is not only one type, but several different types of unmanned aircraft.
Georgia's prospects in NATO, after being more or less left for dead in the wake of the 2008 war with Russia, have lately appeared to be improving. NATO has recently changed its rhetoric on Georgia, for the first time calling it an "aspirant" along with several Balkan countries. And U.S. officials have said Georgia is making "significant progress" that should be recognized at the next NATO summit, in Chicago in May.
So what does this mean? Does Georgia have a shot at NATO membership after all? As a story on EurasiaNet's main page today explains, not really: President Obama, after his meeting with his Georgian counterpart Mikheil Saakashvili, used the word "ultimately" to describe Georgia's entrance into NATO, which suggests he doesn't see it happening any time soon. And even if the White House were to again back Georgian NATO membership as strongly as the Bush administration did pre-August 2008, there would still be the matter of the big Western European countries who oppose Georgia's membership. So what to do?
The defense official quoted in the EurasiaNet piece had more thoughts on this (though there wasn't room in that piece). A Membership Action Plan, the holy grail for Georgia, is not a possibility. That subject won't even be discussed at the summit: remember, this will be in May of an election year. "It's about U.S. internal politics, so this summit needs to look good. We don't need a food fight like in '08, between us and the Germans, or the pro-Georgia camp vs. the camp that's not too keen on Georgia. We don't need that. So the whole Georgia issue isn't going to be raised," the official said.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has asserted that his recent visit to the United States raised US-Georgian strategic ties to a “new level.” American officials have been much more reticent on bilateral defense issues, raising questions about what exactly was discussed in Washington.
NATO and Russia are working on an agreement to set up a multi-modal transport hub in Ulyanovsk, in Russia's Volga region, to assist the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan, reports the Russian newspaper Kommersant, citing Russian diplomats. Via Johnson's Russia List:
Talks on establishing a NATO logistics base in central Russia started one-and-a-half years ago. A source from the Russian Foreign Ministry said that the United States proposed a Russian city where "cargo from Afghanistan could be airlifted and then forwarded by rail to Latvia or Estonia." After discussing several locations, both parties agreed to set up the hub in Ulyanovsk because its airport is best suited to the task in that region due to the proximity of railway lines.
Russian Railways and Volga-Dnieper Airlines, which are already involved in delivering NATO cargo from Afghanistan to Europe, are expected to benefit, as the project will increase cargo traffic considerably.
The report adds that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will soon sign an agreement on the proposal.
Intriguingly, one of the reasons that the facility at Ulyanovsk will be needed is because Uzbekistan is wary of the reverse transit, specifically about the possibility of drugs or arms being smuggled in along with it:
[The Ulyanovsk hub] is also important because of Uzbekistan, whose territory is currently used for the supply of goods to Afghanistan, does not want to allow them in the opposite direction.
"The Uzbeks are afraid of the importation of drugs and weapons. It's not so easy to check whole trainloads of military equipment," says the diplomat.
The United States is gently pressing Kazakhstan to do more to reform its political system in the wake of parliamentary elections that failed to meet international standards and a violent crackdown on labor protests in the country's oil-rich western region.
Uzbekistan is slated to get some new night vision goggles, bulletproof vests and GPS equipment from the U.S., a State Department official has said. A couple of weeks ago, the U.S. formally notified Congress that it intends to again start giving Uzbekistan military aid, which had been halted since 2002 because of concerns about human rights. At the time it wasn't clear what exactly would be given to Tashkent under the waiver, but now the State Department has described in a little more detail what is under discussion here. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, at a press conference on February 1:
Examples of the kinds of things that this waiver was given for – this will enhance the Uzbeks’ ability to counteract transnational terrorism and all – things like night vision goggles, personal protection equipment, global positioning systems. It’s defensive in nature, and it’s also supportive of their ability to secure the routes in and out of Afghanistan.
It's not clear that there is in fact any significant threat to the NDN in Uzbekistan. The closest thing so far, initially called a "terror" attack by the Uzbek authorities, appears more and more to be looking like an inside job. More likely, this is the pretext that the Uzbekistan government is using to justify the aid, knowing that that will resonate with U.S. policymakers; their real interest is likely geopolitical, that is showing Russia that they have other options for security other than Moscow and the CSTO.
At the press conference, Nuland also addressed the question of human rights and this aid:
What's the biggest "threat" emanating from the Caucasus and Central Asia? Every year the head of the U.S. intelligence community is required to give to Congress a "Worldwide Threat Assessment" describing all the things that could go wrong for the U.S. around the world. Yesterday, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper submitted this year's version (pdf), and our humble region got four paragraphs in the 30-page report. The facts in the report won't be news to readers of The Bug Pit, but what threats the intelligence community chooses to highlight are worth looking at:
The unresolved conflicts of the Caucasus and the fragility of some Central Asian states represent the most likely flashpoints in the Eurasia region. Moscow‟s occupation and military presence in and expanded political-economic ties to Georgia‟s separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia account for some of the tensions. Meanwhile, Tbilisi charged Russia with complicity in a series of bombings in Georgia in 2010 and 2011, while the Kremlin has been suspicious about Georgian engagement with ethnic groups in Russia‟s North Caucasus. Georgia‟s new constitution strengthens the office of the Prime Minister after the 2013 presidential election, leading some to expect that President Saakashvili may seek to stay in power by serving as Prime Minister, which could impact the prospect for reducing tensions.