U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is visiting Uzbekistan today as part of her short Central Asian tour, and her actions there will be watched probably more closely than anywhere else on her trip. The U.S. is walking a tightrope in Uzbekistan, relying on the country heavily for its role as a transport hub for military cargo to Afghanistan but wary of embracing a government with one of the worst human rights records on the planet.
Human Rights Watch, in a statement calling on Clinton to make human rights a prominent part of the agenda in Tashkent, suggests that government officials are personally profiting from traffic on the Northern Distribution Network, and that the NDN is causing the U.S. to send a mixed message in Uzbekistan:
Although the US maintains a congressionally-mandated visa ban against Uzbek officials linked to serious human rights abuses, it uses routes through Uzbekistan as part of the Northern Distribution Network to supply forces in Afghanistan. US military contracts with Uzbeks as part of this supply chain are potentially as lucrative for persons close to the Uzbek government as direct US aid would be. Despite the State Department's re-designation of Uzbekistan in January 2009 as a "Country of Particular Concern" for systematic violations of religious freedom, the US government retains a waiver on the sanctions outlined in the designation, raising serious concerns that the US is sending a mixed message on the importance of human rights improvements in Uzbekistan.
Several weeks ago, Tajikistan's foreign minister announced that the country was in negotiations with Russia, and no other country, about using the Ayni air base. That appeared to end years of speculation about the base, strategically located just over 100 miles from the border of Afghanistan. It was long assumed India would use the base, which would have been its first military base abroad. India had spent millions to renovate the former Soviet base's runway and facilities, but then appeared to get pushed out of the running by Russia for reasons that remain murky (in fact, everything is murky about Ayni). There was also speculation about the U.S., China, Iran or France using the base, but those always seemed like long shots. So did India just get played by the Russians and Tajiks?
The chief of India's army visited Tajikistan a couple of weeks ago. No news seems to have come out about the visit (again, the murkiness) but it suggests that India hasn't entirely given up on Tajikistan. An Indian analyst puts a brave face on India's change of fortunes, in Asia Times:
The closure of the base option for India at Ayni is, however, not a setback for India's interests in the region, Angira Sen Sharma, associate fellow at the Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation, told Asia Times Online. India wields considerable soft power in Central Asia. A base at Ayni would have undermined that influence, she said.
News from Iran about its new military technology should always be taken with a large grain of salt, but nevertheless, this is interesting:
A senior Iranian Navy commander announced on Sunday that the country plans to launch a new home-made destroyer in the Caspian Sea which will enjoy more advanced naval equipment compared with Iran's first home-made destroyer Jamaran....
"The destroyer will be used in one of the combat units of the Islamic Republic of Iran's Navy in the Caspian Sea and will start its naval mission and operation in the lake in the near future," the commander announced.
(via Fars News Agency)
One confusing detail: the story goes on to say that the Jamaran will be deployed in the Persian Gulf and the new (and apparently unnamed) destroyer in the Caspian. But a few months ago Iran announced it was deploying a new destroyer in the Caspian; the logical conclusion was that that destroyer was a Jamaran-class vessel. But this new story doesn't mention that previous launch in the Caspian. Nor does it mention an announcement from August about new missile boats being sent to the Caspian, as well.
But whatever the case, at least rhetorically Iran is trying to assert its sovereignty in the Caspian. And coming just a week after the conclusion of the Caspian littoral summit, where regional leaders including Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad vowed to cooperate on security matters in the sea, this seems to be sending the opposite message.
Armenia got a dressing-down from the U.S. for selling arms to Iran, Azerbaijan has reservations about embarking on a U.S.-sponsored military "train and equip" program and also would oppose the U.S. fomenting unrest in Iran's ethnic Azeri regions. Those are some of the early revelations, from world of Eurasian security issues, in the first tranche of the latest Wikileaks data dump.
One State Department cable from December 2008 describes how in 2003 Armenia "facilitated Iran's purchase of rockets and machine guns," and those weapons were later found to have been used in an attack in Iraq by Shiite militants that killed one U.S. soldier and wounded six others. According to the cable (via The Guardian):
The direct role of high-level Armenian officials and the link of the weapons to an attack on U.S. forces make this case unique and highly troubling. These transfers may provide a basis for sanctions pursuant to U.S. legal authorities. We propose a series of steps that Armenia will need to take to prevent future transfers, which will be weighed in the consideration of sanctions. We hope to use the threat of sanctions as a tool to generate Armenian responsiveness so that we will not be forced to impose sanctions measures.
The cable also relays a letter from then-Deputy Defense Secretary John Negroponte to Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, threatening sanctions if Armenia doesn't clean up its act:
Notwithstanding the close relationship between our countries, neither the Administration nor the U.S. Congress can overlook this case. By law, the transfer of these weapons requires us to consider whether there is a basis for the imposition of U.S. sanctions. If sanctions are imposed, penalties could include the cutoff of U.S. assistance and certain export restrictions.
While the world awaits the big document dump from Wikileaks, some of those leaks have already been pre-leaking. One of the most explosive of those has been that the U.S. secretly aided Turkey's longtime foe the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and conversely, that Turkey had aided al Qaeda in Iraq. If true, this would obviously put some serious strain on an already strained relationship.
Hurriyet has been doing some good reporting from the Turkish side of this story and finds that, of course, all parties involved are denying that report:
“Turkey has never given support to any terrorist organization. Fighting against terror is our priority and we don’t make differentiations between terrorist organizations. Turkey has launched many operations against al-Qaeda,” a Turkish Foreign Ministry official told the Daily News.
Asked about the allegations that the U.S. helped the outlawed PKK, the same official said, “Turkey and the U.S. are carrying out an efficient cooperation in the fight against the PKK.”
And from the U.S. side:
Deborah Guido, spokeswoman for the U.S. embassy in Ankara, told the Daily News that the U.S. government’s policy “has never been nor will ever be in support of the PKK. Anything that implies otherwise is nonsense.”
Recalling that the United States considers the PKK a terrorist organization, Guido said: “Since 2007, our military cooperation with the Turkish government in fighting the PKK has shown results. The U.S. Treasury Department has also named top PKK figures as ‘drug kingpins’ in issuing further sanctions against the PKK.”
So what was behind Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan's decision to skip the NATO summit last weekend in Lisbon? The president's office said it was in protest of the language of the NATO joint communique, which emphasizes the principle of territorial integrity in resolving the conflicts of the South Caucasus, which would favor Azerbaijan's position in the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh.
But that language was the same as in the communique issued after the 2008 NATO summit. So why protest now?
I asked Emil Sanamyan, editor of the Armenian Reporter newspaper, and he pointed out that in May, Sargsyan went to NATO and asked them to follow the OSCE's three principles in Nagorno Karabakh, which include people's right to self-determination as well as territorial integrity and non-use of force. (Self-determination is the principle that favors the Armenian side, since Karabakh's population is Armenian, while nominally it remains part of Azerbaijani territory.) From Sargsyan's press conference at NATO:
During the meeting I also emphasized the need and importance for a balanced approach by NATO to the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh process. I expressed hope that future statements about NATO and documents of NATO on the Nagorno-Karabakh will be in keeping with the ministerial statement of the OSCE issued in December 2009, which evenly represents all three of the key underlying principles.
In light of those remarks, Samanyan suggested several possible motives behind Sargsyan's refusal to go to the summit:
If you take reasons provided at face value it is possible that Armenia from now on will take a tougher line on any perceived endorsement of Azerbaijan's claims on Nagorno Karabakh.
There has been uncertainty for some time (including on this blog) about the origin of the violence that has recently wracked Tajikistan. Is it part of a transnational Islamist movement, or a homegrown reaction to the central government's incompetence and repression? There are two sorts of people to trust in this sort of confusing situation: experienced experts and reporters on the ground. Well, one representative from each of those camps has recently weighed in on the situation, and their findings suggest that the situation remans as confusing as ever.
GlobalPost's Miriam Elder recently traveled to Garm, in the Rasht Valley where the violence has been centered, one of the few (only?) reporters to have recently done so. And residents there told her that some "mysterious outsiders" are involved:
“There were definite unknowns up there,” a local resident said, referring to the mountains where the fighting has raged, sparing the valley below thus far. “They were not from this area and they were not Tajiks.”
Of five dead militants brought to Garm’s hospital two weeks ago, two were Russian and one was Afghan, the resident said, citing a doctor working on the scene.
But John Heathershaw, a professor at the University of Exeter who has done fieldwork in Rasht and has published a book on post-war Tajikistan, did an interview with the Caucasian Review of International Affairs and says the emphasis on outsiders is just pro-government propaganda:
Most of the discussion around Turkey and the NATO missile defense system agreed upon this weekend at the Lisbon summit centered around whether or not Iran would be explicitly named as a threat, and the drama over whether Turkey would have to choose between East and West, as it was most simplistically framed.
But there are intriguing commercial angles, as well, as a good piece in Hurriyet today points out. For some time, Turkey has been shopping for a new air defense system of its own. And among the four top candidates are Russian and Chinese companies. As Hurriyet points out, the NATO system should be integrated with Turkey's own system, but that would make the Russian or Chinese systems a hard sell:
The United States and some of its Western partners are staunchly opposed to the integration of any Russian or Chinese system into the NATO missile shield. “American officials already have said that non-NATO elements would cause serious interoperability problems,” said one Turkish official.
One Ankara-based defense analyst said Western worries are related to both defense and commercial concerns: “They simply don’t want Turkey to select Russian or Chinese options, and part of their concern is commercial.”
Buying the Russian or Chinese systems seemed like a long shot from the beginning. Turkey buys most of its imported equipment from the U.S. or European companies, and the other top two candidates for the air defense system are U.S. and Italian. Hurriyet suggests that Turkey may be trying to dangle the threat of a Russian or Chinese option to get NATO financial subsidies to buy the Western systems, instead:
President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan arrives in Lisbon for the NATO summit; his Armenian counterpart stayed home
While most of the headlines from the just-concluded NATO summit in Lisbon have focused on the news that the alliance would remain in Afghanistan through 2014, and probably longer, behind the scenes there was plenty of action on the Eurasia front, as well.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili went to the summit, and got a much-coveted meeting with his U.S. counterpart, Barack Obama, and afterwards he took great pains to emphasize how special and unique the meeting was (via Civil.ge):
“I am very satisfied with this meeting,” Saakashvili told a group of Georgian journalists in Lisbon after meeting with President Obama late on November 19 evening. “As you know this was President Obama’s only meeting here at NATO summit, apart his meetings with [Afghan] President Karzai and with the hosts [referring to Portuguese leaders] – and you know that Afghanistan tops the agenda of this summit; actually he had no other meetings here except of these ones. Of course this is already in itself an important message.”
The White House also notes that Obama met with Turkish President Abdullah Gul. And the Kazakhstan state news agency Kazinform says that its president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, also met with Obama, but no one else, including the White House, seems to be reporting that.
The presidents of Iran, Azerbaijan, Russia, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan gather to talk the Caspian
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is on his way to the NATO summit in Lisbon, amid expectations that the meeting will mark a new era in NATO-Russia relations. But yesterday, at another summit -- in Baku, of the five nations surrounding the Caspian Sea -- he gave a Putinesque, thinly veiled warning about the West sticking its nose in that part of the world:
“If at any moment we relax in our mutual cooperation, there is no doubt that other states will want to interfere with our concerns — states that lack a know-how of or a relationship with the Caspian but whose interest stems from economic interests and political goals” he said.
It's not too hard to figure out what "other states" he might be talking about.
At the summit, the five countries signed a security cooperation agreement, the content of which does not seem to have been reported at all. But an Azerbaijani analyst says Russia's big concern is western military involvement in the Caspian:
Russia stands against any foreign naval forces in the Caspian Sea and is most concerned about NATO naval forces.
(And it probably goes without saying that Iran is even more against such a thing.)
But the overarching issue in the Caspian is how to delineate the waters -- and the oil and gas resources within -- between the five countries. And unsurprisingly, no apparent movement was made on that. The Moscow Times surveyed some analysts on the issue: