There are high-level contacts between government officials and organized crime in Uzbekistan, according to a couple of recently released WikiLeaks cables. One describes a party held by the wife of "Tashkent crime boss" Salim Abduvaliyev and attended by the wives of several top government officials. The other details Abduvaliyev's role in arranging corrupt government contracts, and concludes:
Corruption is rampant in the GOU [government of Uzbekistan]. Tenders and government positions can be fairly easily secured by paying the right amount of money to the appropriate individual.
You mean like the contracts given for operations on the Northern Distribution Network, to ship military goods to Afghanistan? Of course whatever U.S. contracts are given out there are managed by the U.S. government, not by Uzbekistan, so it's not clear what, if any, influence Abduvaliyev or anyone else would have on those deals. But it's worth wondering about.
The AP, reporting on the cables, ties the revelations from the cable to the Northern Distribution Network and Uzbekistan's increasing cooperation with the U.S. military, noting that the "accusations... could reawaken concerns over U.S. dealings with the authoritarian Central Asian nation." I'll give you a second here for you to stop laughing. You can't blame the reporter for trying to find a news peg that will make readers care. But it'll take a lot more than that to stop dealing with corrupt, authoritarian states. But yes, if nothing else it does illustrate that U.S. officials are plenty aware of the fact that dealing with the Uzbekistan government is likely to enmesh you in corruption.
In terms of democratization, most of the post-Soviet states in the Caucasus and Central Asia remain stuck in the mud, according to an annual survey issued by US-based advocacy organization Freedom House. The exception to the rule in 2010 was Kyrgyzstan, which was deemed to have registered modest democratization gains.
In considering the long-term prospects for a new war in Nagorno Karabakh, the key factor is of course Azerbaijan's growing wealth, especially relative to Armenia's stangnancy. But that could lead to two opposing results: either Azerbaijan would not want to risk damaging its vibrant economy by starting a war, or its oil-funded military will be so much stronger than Armenia's that trying to retake Karabakh would be inevitable.
Azerbaijan scholar and consultant Svante Cornell has written a new book on the country, Azerbaijan Since Independence, which he introduced at an event yesterday in DC. And the part that was most interesting to me was that he came down very much on the side of war being inevitable.
His argument: that while an Azerbaijan invasion of Karabakh would elicit international condemnation, it would probably be short-lived and not amount to much, comparable to what happened with Croatia when it ethnically cleansed the Serb-dominated eastern part of the country in the 1990s. (UPDATE: I should have mentioned originally, this assumes that the invasion would be quick; if not, a protracted conflict would cause a lot of foreign companies to not be interested in operating there.)(SECOND UPDATE: Cornell writes to clarify that the above are not his personal views, but those of "parts of the Azerbaijani leadership." That was clear in his talk, in my writing I just unfortunately conflated his views and the ones he was reporting. My apologies.)
In addition, Azerbaijan, as the party unhappy with the status quo, always has an interest in keeping the situation at high tension. And that raises the risk of an accidental escalation of a small incident into a full-scale war.
Patriot anti-missile system -- soon in the hands of the Georgians?
ITAR-TASS, via RT, is reporting that the U.S. plans to "supply Georgia with more anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons worth tens of millions of dollars." The RT report -- sourced to unnamed Russian intelligence officials -- continues:
[T]he weapons will be supplied through third-party countries, as is usually practiced by the United States.
“According to the verified data that is in our possession, these promises were made by Deputy Defense Secretary of the United States Mr. Alexander Vershbowand Senator John McCain to the Georgian Minister for Eurointegration Georgy Baramidze during the latter’s visit to Washington in December last year. In reply to the Georgian emissary’s persistent requests for urgent supplies of anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons “for fighting off the Russian aggression” in connection with the stationing of Russian anti-aircraft complex S-300 in Abkhazia and a battalion of Smerch multiple-launch missile systems in South Ossetia. The American side has pointed that in the light of the productive meeting of the two countries’ presidents in the framework of the NATO summit in Lisbon in November 2010, the United States administration is holding consultation on the subject and the decision will be taken soon,” the source said.
The special services source said that, according to Russian estimates, the weapons to be supplied could be the Patriot anti-missile complexes, the Stinger and Igla-3 shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles, as well as the anti-tank missiles Javelin and Hellfire-2.
There are many reasons for skepticism here. I'll skip the most obvious one -- RT. But in addition to that, there is little point in a secret arms deal. As we've said before, much of the reason Saakashvili wants U.S. weapons is for the message it would send to Russia, that U.S. support is solid. A secret deal doesn't accomplish that.
Someone alert Thomas Friedman -- or maybe Mullah Omar: As readers of this blog probably know, Orthodox Christmas was last week, and Georgian and American soldiers got to celebrate it in Delaram, Afghanistan, where the Georgians are based as part of the international coalition. The video report below, by a U.S. Marine Corps media team, shows a remarkably well provisioned Georgian "church" inside what appears to be a U.S. military tent, complete with icons, candles, incense and an impressively bearded priest:
The government of Tajikistan says it's close to wiping out the rebels who have been causing trouble in the Rasht Valley. According to a report on Central Asia Online, there are only a handful of rebels remaining, led by the elusive Mullo Abdullo Rakhimov and including some foreign "mercenaries":
“According to our intelligence, the Rakhimov group is now in the Rasht District,” Interior Ministry chief of staff Tokhir Normatov said. “They are 10-12 in number; the special services now are busy establishing the location of these militants, who could at any moment again destabilise the region.”
A source in the State Committee for National Security (GKNB) put the number of followers at 16, included one man said to be severely wounded.
“We are not taking any active measures right now; we’re just searching,” the GKNB source said. “At some point sooner or later, he and his men will descend into the (Rasht) Valley, and we’ll catch them then. That’s how it was with Ali Bedaki, whom we captured in Runob, when he came downhill. It’s hard to look for anyone in the mountains; there are so many burrows where one could hide. But sooner or later, hunger and cold will force them to descend.”
However, in addition to the usual reasons for skepticism about the official version of events, Asia Plus reports that the bodies of those killed in the recent operation in Rasht (which netted Ali Bedaki) have been taken to Dushanbe "for further analysis," won't be handed over to the relatives and in fact will be buried in a secret place:
That is apparently the claim of former top Turkish intelligence official Osman Nuri Gundes, who has published a memoir alleging that the Fethullah Gulen movement has been sheltering CIA agents in Central Asia since the 1990s. According to the Washington Post's SpyTalk blog, "in the 1990s, Gundes alleges, the movement "sheltered 130 CIA agents" at its schools in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan alone."
The Gulen movement already is a controversial one in Central Asia, with governments cracking down to varying degrees because of the group's alleged Islamist or pan-Turkic bent. And that's without allegations of being a CIA stalking horse.
SpyTalk's author, Jeff Stein, talked to a couple of former CIA officials involved with Central Asia and they poured cold water on the allegation:
Former CIA operative Robert Baer, chief of the agency’s Central Asia and Caucasus operations from 1995 through 1997, called the allegations bogus. "The CIA didn't have any ‘agents’ in Central Asia during my tenure,” he said.
It’s possible, Baer granted, that the CIA “turned around this ship after I left,” but only the spy agency could say for sure, and the CIA does not comment on operational sources and methods.
A U.S. intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, also said Gundes’s “accounts are ringing no bells whatsoever.”
But that's what they would say, isn't it... Anyway, Sibel Edmonds, the FBI-translator-turned-whistleblower, says that account doesn't go far enough, and the Gulen movement is an extremist Islamist one -- and that the CIA is cooperating with them nevertheless:
Got a question for Kazakhstan's Defense Minister Adilbek Zhaksybekov? Well, ask him on his website -- and he just might answer.
Defense ministries in Central Asia are not known for their open, transparent operations -- in fact, as far as I can tell, Kazakhstan is the only one of the five Central Asian republics to even have a website for its ministry of defense. Yet Kazakhstan goes a step further, and opens it up for anyone to ask the defense minister a question. The website was set up in January 2010, and according to the statistics published on the site, an average of 56 questions per month have been asked, and 43 of those are published.
Most are from soldiers or their families, and have to do with daily life issues for members of the army, like pay, pensions, education and especially housing. And Zhaksybekov acknowledges that housing is a problem. To one 58-year-old who is due to retire from the military but can't get the apartment he's been promised, Zhaksybekov replies (translation by Google):
Your appeal on the issue of housing, considered.
Despite the measures taken to provide housing for members of the Armed Forces, housing remains one of the most important.
Currently, the order of Minister of Defence of the Republic of Kazakhstan established housing commissions Akmolinskiy army and admission shelter, your question will be discussed at a meeting of the above housing commission.
Often, real accountability seems lacking. One person complains that soldiers are paid so badly they "have to beg for bread by the 20th of every month." Zhaksybekov responds, as he does in many such cases, legalistically:
As we head into the new year, it's a good time to take a look at the year that was, and what the upcoming year might offer. While it's a fool's errand to make predictions about what might happen in 2011, several trends over the last year emerged that seem likely to continue to develop over the next year.
The Northern Distribution Network continues to grow both in scope and in importance to the U.S. and NATO war effort in Afghanistan, and there's no reason to expect that to change. For example, the expected completion of the Uzbekistan-built railroad to Mazar-e-Sharif in 2011 will be a boon. What will be interesting to see is whether the U.S. is able to negotiate passage of lethal equipment -- as of now they can only send nonlethal supplies on the NDN, but the Pentagon would like that to change.
The drama over the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan will no doubt continue, and now that a government has been formed in Bishkek it's logical to expect that they will begin to press the U.S. for a renegotiation of the base rental terms.
Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and (to a lesser extent) Turkmenistan have been quite active in building up their militaries, and show no signs of slowing down. The Kazakhstan/Eurocopter joint venture, for example, is scheduled to start producing its first made-in-Kazakhstan helicopters by the end of 2011.