Officials in Kazakhstan are working to solidify international backing for the country’s early presidential election on April 3. So far, Astana has found the international community to be generally supportive.
As U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is in Russia talking nice about cooperation over supply lines to Afghanistan through Central Asia, other U.S. officials are giving indications that Washington is interested in cooperating more with China in Central Asia. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia just visited China, where he mentioned that the U.S. might be interested in collaborating with China in Central Asia -- via the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. This would be a remarkable about-face for Washington, which has held the SCO at arm's length (to put it generously). And it would be even more remarkable if the SCO reciprocated, given its history as an organization basically dedicated to keeping the U.S. out of Central Asia.
Blake gave a press conference in Beijing, and this was in his opening statement:
In addition to our bilateral engagement we talked about the importance of greater engagement with relevant regional organizations. In Central Asia the Shanghai Cooperation Organization seeks to bolster security, economic and cultural cooperation between China, Russia and Central Asia. We see the potential for greater U.S.-China dialogue on areas of mutual interest such as counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism in support of the SCO’s efforts.
Through greater engagement with regional organizations across South and Central Asia we seek to facilitate spheres of cooperation among regional organizations that reflect the geopolitical and economic realities of a 21st Century Asia. China’s support will be critical in this effort.
And then later, in the Q&A:
QUESTION: [Inaudible] the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, so will it become a principle in terms of U.S. and China cooperation of Central Asia?
Georgia's government believes it's never too early to teach the youth about the importance of the Euro-Atlantic security architecture, and has been opening up "NATO Corners" in schools across the country. The corners are "mini-libraries" that include "informational materials on NATO, Georgia’s relations with NATO and other international organizations, papers on international politics, etc." There are even NATO-themed comic books, and a cartoon, “Ani and Rati’s Wonderful Journey to NATO." (Sadly, YouTube does not appear to have the cartoon.) The centers are sponsored by various NATO member embassies.
But Georgia apparently has gone one step too far with its latest NATO Corner, in a school in Ergneti, on the de facto border with South Ossetia, and the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a stern statement:
“The choice of the settlement of Ergneti for carrying out the propaganda action was not accidental obviously, after all this is the venue for regular meetings within the framework of the mechanism on incidents prevention and response on the South Ossetian-Georgian border which Russian border guards and representatives of the EU Observer Mission also participate in.
“The Georgian side’s intention is clear - to try to get the North-Atlantic Alliance involved this or that way in settling the much talked-about “problems of territorial integrity of Georgia”. At that, as a matter of fact, for some reasons they forget to inquire about the opinion of neighboring states – the Republic of Abkhazia and the Republic of South Ossetia”, Russian MFA Spokesman adds.
When Human Rights Watch announced that they had been kicked out of Uzbekistan earlier this week, the director of the organization's office in Tashkent, Steve Swerdlow, invoked the U.S.'s growing military relationship with Uzbekistan:
"Uzbekistan is increasingly playing a strategic role in the war in Afghanistan," Swerdlow says. "For that reason, NATO and Germany, which has an air base in Uzbekistan now, and the United States, which is using what is known as the northern distribution network to route these supplies, and the EU, have been increasingly warming ties with Uzbekistan and engaging with the government."
Swerdlow calls on the international community, in particular the United States and the European Union, to condemn Uzbekistan's actions in regard to HRW and overall human rights issues in the country.
(As an aside: This news seemed to make a bigger splash in the wider media than any story from Uzbekistan in some time. Why does it make so much more news when an international human rights organization is kicked out than when, say, actual human rights violations happen?)
The relationship between U.S.-backed human rights advocates and U.S.-Uzbekistan military cooperation is naturally fraught, as Uzbekistan is one of the most repressive governments on the planet, and the U.S. faces at least some pressure to make note of that. The Guardian has reported, citing a U.S. diplomatic cable, that Uzbekistan's president, Islam Karimov, has explicitly threatened to shut down the Northern Distribution Network, over Washington's support for an Uzbekistan human rights campaigner. (The cable still hasn't been released.)
[T]he dictatorial president recently flew into a rage because the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, presented a Women of Courage award in Washington to a newly released Uzbek human rights campaigner, Mutabar Tadjibayeva.
After an incident in which an Armenian sniper allegedly shot an Azerbaijani child across the line of contact between the two sides in the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh, the OSCE has called on both sides to remove their snipers from the line of contact.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Audronius Azubalis, the new chairman-in-office after Kazakhstan's chairing of the organization last year, made the comments at a briefing in Kazakhstan. From Reuters:
"Withdrawal of snipers would set a good example and would be appreciated by the political community."
"We will take what your president and your minister [referring to the Kazakh leadership] did and try to promote resolution by one millimetre, two millimetres, at least to have snipers withdrawn, at least to execute, one, two or three security measures, measures of trust. We will see how it goes."
The child's death is under dispute. According to the Azerbaijan news agency APA, the victim was a ten-year-old boy, Fariz Badalov, who was shot while playing outside his house. But Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan denied that the incident occurred:
The Armenian President noted that the recent statement is a slander, since hostilities against civilians, let alone against children, run counter to the moral portrait of Armenian soldiers. As for the certain incident, similar accusations are baseless, since even territorial peculiarities of the region make it impossible.
Kyrgyzstan President Roza Otunbayeva has said both the U.S. and Russia may be setting up counterterror training centers in the instable southern part of the country. From RIA Novosti:
"Two objects may be created, both U.S. and Russian," Otunbayeva said. "There is nothing bad in this, we should be pragmatists," she continued. "We are ready to get instructions on fighting terrorism, we have no experience in these issues," she added.
According to a KirTAG report (in Russian), the Russian facility would be in Osh, and the U.S. one in Batken, or the nearby town of Kyzyl-Kiya.
She didn't give too many details about the proposed centers and what they would entail, but both have been talked about (in general terms) for some time. A few points worth noting on this:
-- both of these ideas had appeared moribund -- they'd been discussed a while ago but there has been little apparent movement for some time. But the U.S. was most recently proposing to build its center in Osh, though in the past it had discussed doing it in Batken. I also recall Otunbayeva saying somewhat recently that she wanted the Russians to build their facility in Kyzyl-Kiya, but that they weren't interested. Not sure what's behind the new ideas for the placement of the centers.
-- she's presenting the U.S. and Russian centers together, and took pains to play down any sort of competition between the two: "The 'reset' of the Obama administration showed how the relationship between America and Russia is evolving. These countries understand the need to confront together the challenges facing mankind," Otunbayeva said.
-- She emphasized that the U.S.-built facility in Batken would be a Kyrgyz center; she did not seem to say the same about the Russian one in Osh.
The U.S. is planning to help Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan develop their navies, emphasizing the increasing importance of Caspian Sea security and the possibility of the sea's militarization, with all five bordering countries (including Iran and Russia) planning to build up their strength in the oil- and gas-rich sea.
In a just-released 875-page document (pdf), the State Department (which administers military aid, not the Pentagon) gives more information about what it plans to spend its money on. As previously reported, the Obama administration is proposing to cut its military aid to the Caucasus and Central Asia by about 8 percent, from $36.7 million in last year's request to $34 million this year. More than half that aid, $18 million, is earmarked for Georgia. But in the initial announcement, there wasn't much explanation for where the money is going. ($34 million, after all, is a drop in the $47 billion ocean of the total proposed State Department budget.)
Reading through the plans for military aid in the region, the most intriguing thing is that there is a clear emphasis on aid for the navies of the countries that border the Caspian. Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are all planning on building navies more or less from scratch, rich with oil money and anxious to protect their investments (and flex their muscles). The U.S. has helped these countries with their naval capabilities in the past, with the ill-fated Caspian Guard program and by donating some leftover patrol boats to the three countries. But that was before any of these countries got serious themselves about their navies, and was a bit ad hoc. It's hard to tell how serious the new plans are, and of course the amounts of money are still pretty small, but it does seem to be a concerted effort to build naval capacity in the Caspian.
The "most important" interest for the U.S. in Central Asia is the support of those countries for the war in Afghanistan, a top U.S. diplomat said yesterday. Robert Blake, the assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, testified before a Congressional committee, and in his written testimony (pdf) highlighted the Afghanistan connection:
The President’s Fiscal 2012 budget request includes a 6% decrease in funding for the region compared to budgeted levels for Central Asia in FY 2010. This decrease reflects our commitment to a lean, strategically targeted budget that will advance our interests in Central Asia. The most important of these is the support of Central Asian states for international efforts in Afghanistan.
Blake highlighted what the various Central Asian countries are doing to help the effort in Afghanistan, including Kazakhstan's scholarships for Afghan students, Uzbekistan's and Turkmenistan's provision of electricity to northern Afghanistan, and of course the Northern Distribution Network and Manas air base.
So Kyrgyzstan President Roza Otunbayeva's visit to Washington is over, and while publicly the agenda was dominated by her acceptance of the "International Women of Courage" award and talk of democracy, we can assume that behind the scenes the discussions were heavy on the issue of the Manas air base that the U.S. operates in Kyrgyzstan.
A couple of weeks ago, the Kyrgyzstan parliament proposed a law that would tax fuel going to Manas, to the tune of about $40 million a year, which the U.S. is "vehemently opposing."
Otunbayeva, in her public comments, did not mention the base at all. I did talk to someone with knowledge of her visit, who says that Otunbayeva guaranteed that the base will function normally for at least another year, when a new government will take over.
And she met with President Obama and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, and the White House's official statement afterward mentioned Manas, in very conciliatory terms:
President Obama reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to support Kyrgyzstan’s efforts to consolidate its democracy. He thanked Otunbayeva for Kyrgyzstan’s support for the Transit Center at Manas and said the U.S. has taken steps to improve transparency about the Transit Center and payments connected to it, and pledged to maximize the benefits for the Kyrgyz people.
The mention of transparency and maximizing benefits of course refers to the ongoing controversy about the mysterious fuel deals that the Pentagon has made with companies Mina Corp. and Red Star to supply fuel, which have caused a lot of indignation in Kyrgyzstan.
Training and education is not the sexiest aspect of the military; it's much more fun to read (and write) about operations and weapons purchases. But as scholar Sébastien Peyrouse correctly points out, training is often overlooked and often more important than we think. He has a piece on Central Asian military training in The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies (the entire issue, in fact, is on “Security and Defense Reform in Central Asia.") The conclusions aren't too shocking and parallel the larger sociopolitical situation in the region: the situation overall is poor, Kazakhstan is in the best shape, but Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are hampered by their insularity and Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan by their poverty:
Numerous difficulties are compounded in Central Asia: a loss of the Soviet-trained and most competent personnel; administrative sluggishness and the inertia of the administrative military machine; bad will on behalf of some of the high-ranked officers to participate in reform; rampant corruption that hampers modernization; deterioration of military morality and the military’s image in society; demotivating salaries for soldiers and officers who are not involved in the shadow economy networks, and so on. The conjunction between managing the Soviet heritage, dealing with financial difficulties, and solving 21st-century security challenges is therefore complex, and it risks impeding the overall military capacities of some of the Central Asian states.