Uyghur activists in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have been forbidden from traveling to the U.S. for a conference, and they say it's as a result of pressure from China and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
One of the activists in Kazakhstan, Kahriman Ghojamberdi, told Radio Free Asia's Uyghur service that customs officials at the airport in Almaty surreptitiously ripped out pages in his passport, and then told him that his passport was invalid for travel:
“Obviously, it is a slander to block me from the conference by orders from China. The Central Asian countries are acting as one of the provinces of China since the Shanghai Cooperation Organization was established,” Ghojamberdi said.
Four activists from Kyrgyzstan apparently had the same thing happen, and Ghojamberdi said several other Uyghurs in Kazakhstan were harassed by police and intimidated into not going to the conference:
“In the past 30 days most of my friends who received invitations from Washington to attend the congress were ‘investigated’ by Kazakh police and ‘persuaded’ not to attend the conference."
The SCO, recall, is the regional security organization consisting of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Just a month ago, the U.S. mooted the idea of cooperating with the group, while a human rights group put out a report explaining the risks of these sorts of anti-Uyghur crackdowns in Central Asia under the auspices of the SCO.
The U.S. is showing no signs of leaving its air base at Manas, but Kyrgyzstan's prime minister, Almazbek Atambayev, has some ideas for what he wants to happen to it after the Americans go home. On an official visit to Turkey, Atambayev said that he wanted Manas to become a "public transit center," used for trade rather than military:
“Over a thousand people work at airbase,” he said. “What shall we do with them when U.S. withdraw it troops from Afghanistan? We must establish modern transit center at the place of airbase. And, as a first step toward this idea, we have agreed with Primes Minister of Turkey to open cargo flight Istanbul – Bishkek – Shanghai.”
According to him, Kyrgyzstan may become a transit country out of dead-locked country. Construction of railway from People's Republic of China to Uzbekistan will serve to this purpose. “We can make a profit on goods transit,” stressed Almazbek Atambayev.
Atambayev was clearly thinking big in Ankara, and this proposal seems to be only one part of a hazily envisioned future of a pan-Turkic/Slavic union. "I think eventually we will create a common space with Russia and Turkey, with its headquarters in Bishkek," he said. Indeed, a U.S. air base would seem to be an awkward fit then...
Is the demilitarization of the Caspian Sea still a viable possibility? Representatives of the five Caspian littoral states (Azerbaijan, Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Iran) just finished meeting in Baku, and their statements to the press afterwards suggested that all was peace and harmony on the sea. Via Contact.az:
The question of military activity is an important element of the legal status of the Caspian Sea, said [Azerbaijan's] Deputy Foreign Minister Khalaf Khalafov. "The work in this direction is going on. There are different approaches. There is an idea of demilitarization. There is an idea of regulating the activity of armed forces. Of course, we have not come yet to a common opinion," Khalafov said on April 27.
The Russian representative at the talks, Alexander Golovin, agreed:
[Golovin] stressed that "all the littoral states agree that the Caspian should be a sea of peace and friendship." "And accordingly, none of the littoral states is going to start up the arms race, or compete in the military sphere with each other," Golovin said. This is not the field of activity on which the littoral states must spend their efforts, he said.
So they say. But actions speak louder than words, and here are a few of the recent developments on the sea:
Georgia is among the locations that the U.S. is looking at to expand its facilities in the Black Sea region for transit of military cargo to Afghanistan.
Last month, the commander of U.S. European Command, said that the U.S. was looking at locations in the Black Sea/Caucasus region to "further U.S. expeditionary capability." Today I talked with Colonel William Summers, European Deployment and Distribution Operations Center Chief at EUCOM, who gave me a few more details. “The countries that we are looking at engaging with, while providing ourselves flexibility, are Romania and Bulgaria, as well as Georgia,” he said.
The main location will be Constanta, Romania, which will be used starting next month to transport cargo to Afghanistan on the Northern Distribution Network. But the U.S. is looking at further locations where it could transport materiel via ship to the Black Sea, then onward to Afghanistan by air. Georgia is difficult, he said, because the only airport in the country that has adequate facilities is Tbilisi, which would require a somewhat lengthy road or rail transit from the sea port at Poti. But it's still under consideration, he said.
The reason for the expansion is to allow the U.S. greater flexibility in case one part of the NDN becomes unusable, as well as to build relationships with the countries in the region, Col Summers said. But the amount of additional construction or U.S. forces required would be small, he added.
As Deirdre Tynan has reported, the NDN now accounts for 50 percent of non-lethal cargo shipped to Afghanistan, but the U.S. is hoping to increase that to 75 percent of that by the end of 2011. Col Summers said that NDN traffic is currently split about 50-50 between the northern leg, via Russia, and the southern leg, via the Black Sea/Caucasus. So they're going to need some extra capacity.
There still isn't much known about the proposed U.S. or Russian-built counterterror training centers in southern Kyrgyzstan. But if -- as many observers suggest -- their real, if unstated, purpose is to check the possibility of aggression by Uzbekistan, the Pentagon's participation in the project is putting it in a somewhat precarious position. Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan are its two closest military allies in Central Asia, and conflict between the two countries, while still not likely, is certainly possible. Where would that put the U.S.? A piece in The Diplomat discusses that question:
US officials haven’t discussed many of the details of their plans for their training base, but the United States has an obvious interest in shoring up its defence relationship with Kyrgyzstan: its Manas air base, near Bishkek, is a key transit and refuelling hub for operations in Afghanistan, and has been the subject of controversy in Kyrgyzstan, and there have been many calls to evict the base. By building a counter-terror training centre in the south, the Pentagon likely hopes to solidify its ties with Kyrgyzstan, decreasing the chances US forces will be kicked out of Manas.
But the United States is perhaps even more invested in the military relationship with Uzbekistan, which is the key node of the Northern Distribution Network, the supply line that carries military cargo to Afghanistan through the former Soviet Union.
The news last week that Azerbaijan had unilaterally and without explanation put off planned military exercises with the U.S. led many commentators, The Bug Pit included, to conclude that the exercises weren't going to happen. But that may have been a hasty conclusion. The exercises appear to be back on the table, as U.S. Ambassador to Baku Matthew Bryza met today with the Azerbaijani Minister of Defense, Safar Abiyev. And according to the defense ministry, among the topics discussed was the date to hold the exercise.
On Friday, a defense ministry spokesman argued that there was no political reason for postponing the exercise, but didn't offer any other reason:
“We have expressed our position on this issue. There is no obscurity. May be, everything will be solved.
We don’t see any necessity to give a political color to this situation and to create a problem from it. Unfortunately, we face with such attempts”, said spokesman for the Defense Ministry of Azerbaijan, Lieutenant-Colonel Eldar Sabiroghlu answering APA’s question on the postponement of US-Azerbaijan joint military exercises.
Sabiroghlu said that the Defense Ministry was not engaged in the politics, and declared its concrete position to the organization’s temporary stop of the exercises: “Basing on the bilateral military cooperation, we continue our cooperation in other directions now”.
See, there's no obscurity at all! So wait, why was the exercise postponed again?
Kazakhstan's recently announced goal to become a regional arms producer is bearing fruit, with Kazakhstan defense manufacturer Tehnoexport setting up a joint venture in Kyrgyzstan to repair and upgrade Kyrgyzstan's military equipment. From KyrTAG (in Russian, translation by BBC Monitoring):
"The plant will be located in an unused area of a military unit in the town of Balykchy [northeastern Issyk-Kul Region]. We are creating 300 jobs through the project. For the purposes of supporting small towns, we plan to employ local people mainly retired military servicemen with a technical education. Pay will be good between 10,000 and 15,000 soms", [director-general of the Kyrgyz Kural state enterprise at the Kyrgyz Defence Ministry] Jyrgalbek Sagynbayev explained....
"Talks are in progress with China, Russia and Turkey on setting up similar joint enterprises. They are ready for cooperation", Jyrgalbek Sagynbayev added.
Another source, Central Asia Online, says that it is Kyrgyzstan's tanks that are the focus of the repair effort. Seems like a strange priority for a poor country that isn't facing an obvious conventional military threat. But then, presumably some of Kyrgyzstan's tanks were likely damaged after being used in the anti-Uzbek pogroms in Osh last year...
For the second year in a row, Azerbaijan has cancelled military exercises with the U.S. without explanation. There has been little official comment; the news agency APA quotes Defense Ministry spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Eldar Sabiroglu as saying he doesn't know why it was cancelled:
Sabiroglu refused to comment, since he had no detailed information about the adjournment of the exercise.
To the question “Can this have any influence on Azerbaijan-US military cooperation?” spokesman said: “I do not believe it may happen. US-Azerbaijan military cooperation will continue,” he said.
APA also asked the U.S. embassy spokesman, who said he had no information on it:
Touching on the postponement of the US-Azerbaijan joint exercises, Terry Davidson said the exercises had been postponed by Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry.
“You’d better ask them,” he said.
Last year, the reason for the cancellation was reportedly the U.S. support for the Armenia-Turkey protocols. But the protocols are more or less dead now, so there is presumably another reason. One alternative explanation for last year's cancellation was Russian pressure (the default explanation when something mysterious happens in this part of the world). But that theory was given some credence by a WikiLeaks-released cable that discussed controversy over the 2009 version of the exercise (the only year in which the Regional Response exercise has actually taken place):
The Georgian parliament has annulled a deal allowing Russia to transit military cargo to its base in Armenia via Georgia. This is just formalizing the de facto situation -- transit via Georgia to the Russian base in Gyumri was already halted, de facto, after the war in 2008 over South Ossetia. From Civil.ge:
Georgian Parliament unanimously endorsed on April 19 government’s proposal to annul a five-year agreement with Russia setting out procedures for transit of Russian military personnel and cargo to Armenia via Georgia.
The agreement on transit of military personnel and cargo, giving Russia access to its 102nd military base in Gyumri, Armenia through land and air via Georgia, was signed in March, 2006 in parallel with a separate agreement based on which Russia pulled out its military bases from Batumi and Akhalkalaki. The both of the agreements were ratified by the Georgian Parliament on April 13, 2006.
Equipment that Armenia is buying from/being given by Russia is still allowed to transit Georgia, as was highlighted by a 2010 diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks and published by Russkiy Reporter magazine, the transit had been of concern to Georgia for fear that some of the equipment being sent to Armenia is more than Armenia might need and could be instead destined for Russian forces in Armenia with the potential of being used against Georgia:
So, the prospect of an emerging Israeli-Abkhaz defense alliance didn't last long. Israel's ambassador to Georgia has said that, contrary to reports last week in Abkhazian media, Israel is not going to sell weapons to the de facto authorities in Sukhumi:
“We do not recognize them as independent states and we are not going to sell them any kind of arms. It is possible that some private businessmen visited Abkhazia, but they cannot speak under the name of the [Israeli] Government. I reiterate, we are not going to sell arms to them,” information agency Interpressnews quoted Ambassador [Itzhak] Gerberg as saying.
The Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned Gerberg over the allegations, and is apparently satisfied with what it heard:
Georgian Foreign Ministry said it had summoned Israeli ambassador in Tbilisi and had “a detailed discussion” over visit to breakaway Abkhazia by executives from the Israeli security consulting firm, Global CST, Nino Kalandadze, the Georgian deputy foreign minister, said on Monday.
“Both privately and in his public statement the Ambassador unequivocally confirmed, that Israel has no intention whatsoever to have any military cooperation with de facto [Abkhaz authorities],” Kalandadze said.
It's worth remembering here that Israel did sell $400 million worth of drone aircraft to Russia. The degree to which Abkhazia's defense and security services are under Moscow's control is a big question, and one wonders what the Russian role in this aborted deal might have been.