The Kremlin has not taken kindly to the U.S. ambassador's suggestion that Russia "bribed" Kyrgyzstan in 2009 to kick the U.S. out of the Manas air base. The controversy began Friday, when Ambassador Michael McFaul addressed a group of Russian students and reportedly told them that:
Russia had “bribed” Kyrgyzstan four years ago to prompt the country to shut down the U.S. military airbase in Manas airport near Kyrgyzstan's capital Bishkek. In his speech, he admitted that the United States had also offered a bribe to Kyrgyzstan, but ten times less.
The website of the U.S. embassy in Moscow, which posts texts of most of McFaul's public speeches, for some reason has only a slide presentation (pdf) of this particular address, which contains no reference to Kyrgyzstan or bribery, so it's not clear what his exact words were. But obviously he was referring to the episode when former Kyrgyzstan president Kurmanbek Bakiyev announced -- in Moscow -- that Kyrgyzstan was booting the U.S. out of the base. And at the same time, Russia announced a $2.15 billion aid package for Kyrgyzstan.
It took a few days, but on Monday Russia's Foreign Ministry reacted strongly, issuing a harsh statement:
The Russian Foreign Ministry was extremely bewildered by the U.S. ambassador’s statements… His estimates of Russian-U.S. cooperation go far beyond diplomatic etiquette and represent a deliberate distortion of a number of aspects of Russian-American dialogue...
Georgia's NATO aspirations didn't exactly get a ringing endorsement from a State Department official at a Congressional hearing Thursday previewing next month's alliance summit in Chicago. U.S. officials have been hinting that Georgia would get some sort of reward at the summit for their recent constructive steps, like compromising with the Kremlin on Russia's bid for the World Trade Organization. As the U.S.'s next ambassador to Tbilbisi, Richard Norland, said at his confirmation hearing last month:
"Serious efforts” were being undertaken by the U.S. administration to use upcoming NATO summit in Chicago “to signal acknowledgment for Georgia’s progress in these areas and to work with the Allies to develop a consensus on the next steps forward.”
That reward won't be a NATO Membership Action Plan, the holy grail for Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, and a virtual guarantee of future membership. But Washington still wants to signal to Georgia that they are valued -- they are, after all, the highest per-capita troop contributor to the coalition in Afghanistan -- while continuing to press them on political reforms. Norland said that the conduct of upcoming elections would be a "litmus test" for Georgia's NATO aspirations: parliamentary elections will be held this year and presidential elections next year, and Saakashvili appears determined to throw up as many obstacles as he can to his main opponent.
Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov Meets NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. Will he be shaking hands with Obama next?
U.S. President Barack Obama should meet with his Uzbekistan counterpart, Islam Karimov, at the upcoming NATO summit in Chicago, says the American-Uzbekistan Chamber of Commerce. The AUCC has written two letters, one to Obama and the other to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, arguing that an Obama-Karimov meeting would improve opportunities for American businesses in Uzbekistan:
[T]he Republic of Uzbekistan is important to U.S. interests in ensuring stability and security in the region, and under the Partnership for Peace Program, NATO and Uzbekistan are developing practical cooperation in a number of areas through Uzbekistan's Individual Partnership Program and the Planning and Review Process.
The Republic of Uzbekistan's political stability as well as its determination and commitment to ensure peace in the region are important features for business success. For AUCC member companies, the positive political dialogue between the United States of America and the Republic of Uzbekistan pursued by your office reinforces the U.S. business community's ability to increase investments and exports to the Uzbek market.
The AUCC would welcome your support for the request that you meet Uzbek President Islam A. Karimov during the NATO Summit in Chicago, IL. The U.S. business community believes that such a meeting with further enhance our bilateral relations, reiterate the U.S. commercial interest in this resource-rich country and strengthen our companies' business stance in the region.
The Bug Pit obtained copies of the letters, you can read the entire letter to Obama here. (The letter to Clinton is almost identical.)
The person who sent me the letter wasn't sure if Karimov was already planning to attend the NATO summit, but if he does, that will certainly be a bit of a spectacle.
A top U.S. military official has finished a trip around Central Asia, and while most of the official news about his visits with the region's leaders was prettyvague, there were a couple of interesting items from Kyrgyzstan.
After meeting with the U.S. official, CENTCOM commander General James Mattis, the chair of Kyrgyzstan's national security council Busurmankul Tabaldiyev suggested that Kyrgyzstan is open to keeping the Manas air base open after 2014. That would be a shift from recent public rhetoric from Bishkek, which has stressed the need to close the base as soon as the current agreement expires in 2014. From 24.kg, quoting Tabaldiyev:
Kyrgyzstan is interested in ensuring security and stability in the country and is ready to participate fully in the efforts of the international community to assist Afghanistan. The Kyrgyz side expressed its readiness to assist the U.S. government to continue after 2014, but in the interests of the country, the views of the people and the security of Kyrgyzstan.
In his meeting with Mattis, Tabaldiyev also apparently broached the topic of getting drone aircraft from the U.S., reports RFE/RL:
Tabaldiev told RFE/RL the request was for U.S. drones to be left for Kyrgyzstan during the withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan due by the end of 2014.
...Mattis, leader of the U.S. delegation, reportedly replied that Washington is ready to consider the request.
Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad discuss railway projects in Dushanbe.
This week, Dushanbe hosted the fifth meeting of the Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan, and the U.S., as expected, used the occasion to promote its "New Silk Road" vision of a future in which Afghanistan is a hub of commerce between Central and South Asia. "The region’s wealth of natural resources, nascent trade agreements, and a burgeoning network of transport and energy connections underscore the great economic promise of a more integrated South and Central Asia," said Robert Blake, assistant secretary of State for Central and South Asia, the U.S.'s senior representative at the meeting. "ut achieving greater economic cooperation – the essence of the New Silk Road vision – will not be easy or happen overnight. It will require strong buy-in and coordination by governments in the region, its international partners, and investment from the private sector."
So when participants announced that they would "accelerate" plans for a railway from Kashgar (in far western China) and Herat (in western Afghanistan), you might assume the U.S. would be thrilled. It doesn't get much more Silk Road than Kashgar and Herat, and getting China, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan on the same page for a regional project is no small feat.
The catch is that Iran is a driving force behind the Kashgar-Herat railway project. And the U.S. can't abide any cooperation with Iran, New Silk Road be damned. Blake was asked about this at a press conference after the meeting:
Question [BBC Persia]: Mr. Blake, we know that the United States and European countries likewise, you promote integration projects in the region between Central Asia and South Asia. How is it possible without Iran’s participation?
Ohanian, Panetta and other U.S. and Armenian officials meet in Washington
Armenia's defense minister Seyran Ohanian has wrapped up a three-day visit to the U.S., as military relations between the U.S. and Armenia quietly strengthen. Ohanian's visit was his first to the U.S. since he became defense minister in 2008, according to Armenian Reporter, which reported that he met with his counterpart Leon Panetta and CIA director David Petraeus, among other officials.
Last month, the two countries agreed to carry out their first-ever joint military exercises in April. And Wikileaked U.S. diplomatic cables show that Ohanian is someone the U.S. likes working with, Armenian Reporter notes:
Although this was Ohanyan's first visit to U.S. since his appointment as defense minister in 2008, Ohanyan is known to have a good rapport with Americans, meeting Petraeus and other senior U.S. officials during visits with Armenian peacekeeping units in Iraq and Afghanistan and to NATO headquarters in Brussels.
"The better we get to know Minister Ohanian, the more we like him as a partner in political-military efforts," U.S. Charge in Armenia Joseph Pennington wrote in a 2009 cable made available by Wikileaks. "He seems a straightforward interlocutor, who is respected in the Armenian government and within the Defense Ministry. His credibility as a soldier is very high, given his long experience commanding NKSDF [Nagorno Karabakh Self Defense Forces] troops."
"We are pleased to find General Ohanian interested and committed on Armenia's NATO-related defense reform efforts and Euro-Atlantic ties," Pennington wrote.
Georgian opposition politician Bidzina Ivanishvili is paying tens of thousands of dollars a month to Washington lobbyists, and it looks like it's already paying off. On Monday, Jim McDermott, a Democratic congressman from Washington state, introduced the "Republic of Georgia Democracy Act of 2012," which would require the U.S. to cut off all aid (military and otherwise) to Georgia unless the Secretary of State can certify that parliamentary elections scheduled in October are carried out in a free, fair and competitive manner. That fits with a recent rhetorical push by U.S. officials to impress upon Georgia's government the extent to which Washington is watching the conduct of its elections. The penalty may seem a bit harsh, though: when was the last time Bahrain -- to pick another prominent U.S. military aid recipient -- had a free election?
But what's most striking about the bill is its emphasis on Ivanishvili. The bill mentions the billionaire businessman no fewer than 13 times in its nine pages, without mentioning any other politician (other than President MIkheil Saakashvili, referring to his "increasingly dictatorial control over Georgia's government" and several times to the "Saakashvili regime"). It details the revocation of Ivanishvili's citizenship, the financial harassment of Ivanishvili and the suspicious death of an Ivanishvili supporter while in jail. Unsurprisingly, the bill's text was sent to The Bug Pit by a PR firm working for Ivanishvili. (The bill, introduced only Monday, does not appear to be online yet, I'll update with a link when it is.)
The U.S. sees Georgia's upcoming elections as a "litmus test" for its entry into NATO, the presumed next ambassador to Tbilisi said. The nominee for ambassador, Richard Norland, testified at his confirmation hearing in the Senate on Wednesday, and used the phrase "litmus test" twice, according to a report by Civil.ge:
“Given Georgia’s interests and Georgia’s aspirations to NATO membership and our support for those aspirations, how these elections are conducted is a very important litmus test and we’ll be watching carefully to make sure that the way these elections unfold are in keeping in NATO standards.”
“The Europe and the United States are closely watching the conduct of these elections to determine whether they meet the criteria that are expected of a NATO-member country,” Norland said...
“I think Georgian officials are beginning to understand, that in fact they are being watched, that this is being monitored closely and that it is a litmus test for their membership to NATO. We hope that they will take the right steps,” Norland said.
He had pretty strong words on the current state of political freedom in Tbilisi:
“There are reports of harassment of opposition candidates that trouble us deeply,” Norland said.
He said that the role of the Georgian state audit agency “Chamber of Control in party financing is drawing a lot of concern in Georgia and in the international community.”
President Mikheil Saakashvilii watches the Agile Spirit exercises with Lt Col. Richard Coates, commanding officer of the U.S. Marine contingent at the exercise.
U.S. Marines and Georgian soldiers are conducting joint military exercises and, in a development that everyone saw coming, it's become controversial, with Russia calling it a "provocation."
The exercises include 350 Marines and 400 Georgian troops and are scheduled to end Wednesday after nine days of drills. The U.S. contingent is part of the Romania-based Black Sea Rotational Force. Their goal is to build military-military relations with the Georgians, while the Georgians are training to go to Afghanistan. From a Marine Corps press release:
"We have a little different way of doing things but we all learn by training and experience, so it’s good for us to share," said Sgt. Besiki Gabeshuili, 26, Company Sergeant, Company A, 42nd Battalion, 4th Infantry Brigade. "This is my third time doing this type of training with the Marines and we are very excited because the experience helps prepare us to work together in the future."
The Marines and soldiers took a break from the ranges on the fourth day for weapons maintenance, hygiene and to prepare for the second half of the training. During the next three days Marines and Georgian soldiers participated in specialized classes consisting of cordon and search techniques, convoy tactics, counter improvised explosive device tactics, convoy operations and the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program.
Sounds routine enough, but not to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, via Civil.ge:
U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley
Leon Panetta speaks with the Manas Transit Center commander, Colonel James Jacobsen
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta visited Bishkek on Tuesday, meeting with Kyrgyzstan officials to discuss extending the lease of the Manas air base that the U.S. operates there. Kyrgyzstan's president, Almazbek Atambayev, has consistently said that he wants the U.S. out of there by 2014, and the U.S. seems to be treading carefully, giving the soft sell and not seeking to renegotiate the base's lease just yet. From the Armed Forces Press Service:
A senior defense official said that arrangement is in place through July 2014, and that the secretary will not negotiate any additional use of the facility on this trip. Rather, the official added, the visit is intended to underscore to the Kyrgyz government and to Atambyev, who was inaugurated in December, that the United States government views its relationship with Kyrgyzstan as central to Central Asian regional security.
Still, extending the base lease was still clearly on the agenda, even if implicitly. Via Reuters:
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there were no negotiations to keep Manas past 2014.
Still, the official suggested that the Pentagon wasn't taking Atambayev's position on Manas as the final word on the matter, saying there may be some "wiggle room."
Using the phrase "wiggle room" suggests that the U.S. is looking for a short-term extension -- i.e.long enough to get troops and equipment out of Afghanistan -- but not to stay in the base indefinitely. Atambayev presumably wouldn't have a problem with that -- as long as the price is right. This is probably the first step in a long process.