Security and energy topped the agenda on the first day of European Union foreign affairs envoy Catherine Ashton’s visit to Central Asia, disappointing campaigners hoping she would make vocal calls for improvements to what they see as the five states’ dismal human rights records.
Following the EU-Central Asia Ministerial meeting in Kyrgyzstan on November 27, Ashton cited first security (due to the region’s proximity to Afghanistan) then energy and trade as key to “the growing importance of Central Asia.”
“We face shared security challenges. We have great potential to further develop our energy, trade and economic relations,” she said, only then pointing to the EU’s desire to “support the efforts of the countries of Central Asia as you take that journey of political and economic reforms.”
She listed topics of discussion as education; the rule of law; the environment; and energy and water resources (a particular bone of regional contention). “And we talked about democratization and human rights and the development of civil society,” Ashton then added.
Human rights campaigners had been hoping for stronger language from the EU foreign policy chief, who promised ahead of her visit in an interview with Radio Free Europe to make human rights “a core part of the dialogue.”
Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s “southern capital,” has been angling for the trappings of a true, national capital. Last month, the city’s mayor unveiled his own anthem and flag. Now he wants his own police force.
Melisbek Myrzakmatov said on November 10 that his municipal police plans are in the drafting stages, but could come to fruition in the near future. According to AKIpress, the new force, including a special forces unit, would be independent of Bishkek’s Interior Ministry. The mayor complained that police currently carry out political orders, not legal ones, on behalf of Bishkek. The Interior Ministry called the move illegal.
Myrzakmatov’s latest show of nonalignment with Bishkek will pose a big test for President-Elect Almazbek Atambayev. Among Western investigators, the meaty-armed mayor, perhaps more than any other official, has been linked to the ethnic violence last year between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, which killed over 400, and is often described as part of the reason his city remains divided. The central government, almost 700 kilometers away, beyond a twisting mountain road, has been powerless to remove him. Appointed by ousted ex-President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in January 2009, Myrzakmatov won’t budge. When Bishkek tried to fire him in August 2010, shortly after the ethnic bloodletting, he brought his supporters into the streets and declared the central government has “no legal force in the south.”
Only a few days after stopping an Iranian airplane en route to Syria that was reportedly carrying weapons, Turkey is now dealing with another case of arms smuggling, this time one that originated within its own borders.
According to reports from Dubai, police officials there found some 16,000 pistols concealed inside cargo headed for Yemen from a ship which started its trip in Turkey. The weapons were hidden inside boxes marked as furniture from Turkey.
Turkish officials are investigating the shipment. More details here and here.
According to a Turkish wire service report, the crew of an Iranian cargo airplane has been arrested after weapons were found hidden on the plane, which had been forced to land in Turkey while transiting the country on its way to Syria. The airplane was the second Iranian cargo aircraft flying over Turkish airspace to be forced down for an inspection in recent days.
The arrest of the crew of the Iranian plane comes only week after Israeli commandos seized a weapons-laden ship that was traveling from a Syrian port to Alexandria, Egypt, and which had also made a stop at the Turkish harbor of Mersin. According to Israeli officials, the weapons originated in Iran and were ultimately headed for Gaza.
[UPDATE -- AFP has more on the story. A statement released by the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, meanwhile, said the airplane was stopped under the scope of UN sanctions against Iran and only that "banned items" were found during a search.]
[UPDATE II -- Reuters has details from a report Turkey filed on the incident to the UN.]
Washington is planning to construct a new military training center in Tajikistan, the strategic country located between flailing Kyrgyzstan and failed Afghanistan, AFP reports, citing US Ambassador Ken Gross.
"The plan ... is almost 10 million dollars to build this national training centre for the Tajik armed forces," Ken Gross told journalists at a briefing in the capital, Dushanbe.
Gross said the facility would be run by the Tajik national guards' service and no US troops would be based there, though he said US military personnel could be brought in to assist in training.
"If requested, we might have people come in to help in training missions," the US envoy said.
Though the deal has yet to be inked, the facility is slated to open next year.
Central Asia-watchers will be eager to see what jealous older brother Russia, which already operates three bases for its 201st Motor Rifle Division in Tajikistan, will want in exchange for America stepping further into its “sphere of interest.”
Russian state media went feral when the US proposed a training center -- for half the price of the proposed Tajik one -- in southern Kyrgyzstan this March.
The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) will send “specialist equipment” to Kyrgyzstan but is still debating what help, if any, it can provide to protect strategic sites such as the Toktogul Reservoir in the troubled state.
“It was one of the topics discussed in Moscow yesterday [June 17] and they promised to consider this question,” an assistant to the newly appointed head of the Kyrgyz security council, Alik Orozov, told EurasiaNet.org.
In the meantime, the CSTO equipment earmarked for Kyrgyzstan is likely to include helicopters without weapons and other “non-lethal” military hardware that can be used for crowd control, RIA Novosti reported on June 18.
The CSTO could also send “specialists who know how to plan and prepare operations to prevent mass disorder, identify plotters and contain gangs that provoke the situation,” a CSTO spokesperson was quoted as saying.
It’s not quite the assistance Kyrgyzstan wanted. However questions remain over what sort of quid pro quo arrangements Moscow may seek in return for small favors.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said the American base at Manas airport should not become a permanent fixture and its future should be a “question for discussion.”
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