U.S. airmen load cargo into a plane as they prepare to shut down the base in May 2014. (photo: Transit Center at Manas)
The United States's most prominent military outpost in Central Asia, the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan, formally closed its doors on Tuesday. The commander of the base handed over a symbolic golden key to Kyrgyzstan military officials, and the U.S. ambassador to Kyrgyzstan said the last of the American troops will be gone this week.
In its 12 years of operation, Manas handled 5.3 million military personnel from 26 countries as the main transit point for troops entering and leaving Afghanistan, the base's commander, Colonel John Millard, said at the ceremony.
Those 12 years saw plenty of rocky periods of negotiations between Bishkek and Washington over the base's presence, as the Kyrgyzstan government faced both pressure from Russia and widespread public suspicion over the base. In 2009, the Kyrgyzstan government announced that it would close down the base, only to reverse its decision after the U.S. upped the rent from $17 million to $60 million annually. But President Almazbek Atambayev campaigned in 2011 on a promise to shut the base down, and whatever the U.S. offered to keep it open apparently wasn't enough, and last year announced that they would leave the base and the transit operations would move to Romania for the remainder of the Afghanistan mission.
As if to symbolize the rocky relationship, the last news item to come out of Manas was the conviction on Monday of a U.S. civilian contractor at the base who attempted to rape a local woman; he was sentenced to four years in prison.
Kyrgyzstan’s largest industrial enterprise, the Canadian-operated Kumtor gold mine, says it will stop production next week if the Kyrgyz government does not approve the necessary work permits. The announcement, which sent the company’s stock plummeting to its lowest point this year, comes less than a month after a rancorous board meeting where Kyrgyz representatives complained their Canadian partners ignored their decisive vote on the company’s management structure.
Toronto-listed Centerra Gold, which is one-third owned by Kyrgyzaltyn, the Kyrgyz government’s state-owned gold company, says its has worked since late 2013 to secure the necessary mining and environmental permits and approval of its 2014 action plan.
“Unfortunately, this year, despite repeated submissions and discussions with senior officials, such approvals and permits have not been provided. The continuing absence of such approval and permits creates significant uncertainty and risks for Centerra and its employees,” the company said in a June 2 statement.
Without the permits, Kumtor will begin stopping operations on Friday, June 13. Slowing down or temporarily stopping work at Kumtor negatively impacts revenues for longer than any stoppage, because work can only be gradually resumed at the high-altitude, high-tech mine in Kyrgyzstan’s Tien Shan mountains.
It has become standard for rights advocates to use Uzbekistan’s controversial policies – forced labor in the cotton fields and the hounding of independent religious groups, for example – to demand Uzbekistan’s international partners push for reform. But a separatist group from within Uzbekistan taking its campaign to the World Bank is something new.
On June 1, a little-known freedom movement in Uzbekistan’s resources-rich, but impoverished northwestern region of Karakalpakstan urged the president of the World Bank Group, Jim Yong Kim, to postpone loans to the Uzbek government until Tashkent has taken "concrete steps to end the use of forced labor" in the cotton sector. Alga Karakalpakstan ("Forward Karakalpakstan") said the $411 million for water management improvement and horticulture projects in cotton-growing Karakalpakstan will encourage the government to continue abusing the minority’s rights.
"The government owns all the land of Uzbekistan and forces farmers to meet annual quotas for cotton, and sell it to the state at a low purchasing price—under the threat of losing land, criminal charges and physical violence," said the English-language letter to Kim, describing a widely documented practice. "Every autumn, the Uzbek government forcibly mobilized 16-17 year old students of colleges and universities, pensioners, education and health professionals, and other public sector workers to pick cotton."
Abkhazia’s hair-trigger uprising ended in less than a week, before it could be properly understood or even noticed by the outside world. The proximity to events in Ukraine, both in terms of geography and the pattern, grabbed attention, but in Abkhazia no geopolitical shifts are expected. Rather, it's a change from within.
De-facto President Aleksander Ankvab resigned on June 1 after putting up only token resistance to a diverse group of opposition groups who have taken over the building from which he governed. A new presidential vote was called for August 24. In the meantime, de-facto Parliamentary Speaker Valery Bganba is serving as the region's leader.
Local observers see this outcome as both the result of Ankvab's own policy-shortcomings and as a failure of the breakaway region's system of governance.
In commentary broadcast by the online Asarkia TV, Inal Khashig, editor-in-chief of the Sokhumi-based Chegemskaya Pravda newspaper, argued that earlier expectations that the 61-year-old Ankvab would serve as Abkhazia's "chief foreman" and fix all of the territory's many problems, ranging from limited jobs to a crumbling public order, had failed to be met. “What was expected of him was to set things in order in various fields,” Khashig said.
Federal Prosecutors unsealed an indictment on May 30 charging Khairullozhon Matanov, a 23-year-old citizen of Kyrgyzstan, with four counts of obstructing justice in connection with the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.
The indictment asserts Matanov was a close acquaintance of the accused Boston Marathon bombers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and that he had repeated contact with the duo in the days following the April 15, 2013, tragedy. In particular, it outlines that Matanov had dinner with the Tsarnaev brothers just hours after two home-made bombs detonated near the marathon finish line. In addition, “in the hours and days following the bombings, Matanov contacted and attempted to contact Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev by cellphone and saw Tamerlan in person at least twice.”
Matanov is specifically charged with destroying potential evidence and making false statements that impeded the criminal investigation into the Tsarnaevs’ alleged actions. Authorities identified the Tsarnaevs as prime suspects on April 18, 2013.
The indictment notes that Matanov spoke with federal investigators several times on April 20, 2013. “Although Matanov soon dropped the pretense that he and Tamerlan Tsarnaev had not seen each other much, he continued to falsify, conceal and cover up evidence of the extent of his friendship, contact and communication with the Tsarnaevs during the week of the bombings, especially during the hours following the bombings,” the indictment states.
“One subject about which Matanov misinformed federal investigators concerned his interactions with the Tsarnaevs on April 15, 2013, the afternoon and evening of the bombings," it adds. Tamerlan Tsarnaev died during a shootout with law-enforcement officers in the early hours of April 19, 2013. Dzhokhar was taken into custody late the same day; his trial is scheduled to begin November 3 in US District Court in Boston.
Abkhazia’s two self-proclaimed governments took a break from both fighting and negotiations on May 30 as the embattled Black-Sea region entered into the fourth day of de-facto diarchy.
“Now, there is a bit of calm in the negotiation process . . . With this in mind, we are working on the next format of the meetings [with the opposition],” commented de-facto National Security Chief Nugzar Ashuba, the separatist administration’s point-man for talks with opposition groups which have claimed power.
Ankvab has ruled out the use of force against the opposition, but the opposition, for its part, warned on May 30 that responsibility for any violent clashes will lie with Abkhazia's 61-year-old de-facto leader.
A council of opposition parties continues to occupy the de-facto president’s office, which they took over by force on May 27, and claims that it is now the region's governing power. Ankvab has taken shelter at the Russian military base in Gudauta, northwest of the capital, Sokhumi, Ekho Kavkaza reported. His national security chief shuttles back and forth between him and the opposition. Two officials from Moscow, Abkhazia's chaperone, are on hand to facilitate the talks.
The US government is apparently not happy that Kyrgyzstan is due to release an alleged criminal kingpin next month after he has served only a fraction of his sentence.
In a country where crime bosses and politicians enjoy cozy relations, Kamchi Kolbayev – whom President Obama identified as a “significant foreign narcotics trafficker” in June 2011 – has become synonymous with sleaze in the judiciary.
Kolbayev was jailed last year for extortion. But at some point his 5 1/2-year sentence was cut to three years “without explanation,” RFE/RL points out. Now, because he served part of his time in a pre-trial detention facility, where one day is the equivalent of two against a sentence, he’s almost free.
The US State Department seems to think Kyrgyzstan’s underfunded, mafia-ridden prisons, where criminals often call the shots, has done little to stop Kolbayev’s activities. In a May 29 statement, State offered a $1 million reward for “information leading to the disruption of the financial mechanisms of the criminal network of Kamchybek Kolbayev.”
It goes without saying that the Gezi Park protests, which started a year ago and rocked Istanbul and other cities for several weeks, were a watershed moment for Turkey. A profound tipping point, there's very little in Turkish political and social life that has not somehow been influenced by the Gezi events. At the same time, Gezi's legacy is still evolving, its impact seen on developments that are both encouraging and dispiriting.
This mix of positive and negative changes can be seen regarding the fate of Gezi Park itself. At the most basic level, the effort to save the Istanbul park from being turned into a shopping mall -- which is what led to the protests in the first place -- was a success, with Gezi today still serving as a rare green space in the heart of Istanbul. On the other hand, as evidenced by the ongoing construction of the third bridge over the Bosphorus, the protests have done very little to slow down the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government's appetite for environmentally costly state-sponsored megaprojects that are greenlighted with little oversight or input from the public.
And while the protests were instrumental in mobilizing a new class of political activists and in raising awareness about a host of issues that had previously been ignored (for more take a look at this very good piece by the Guardian's Constanze Letsch), that energy has yet to be directed into an organized political effort that can successfully challenge the AKP.
As a story in today's New York Times makes clear, among the many things Ukraine lost when Russia recently annexed Crimea was the historic Massandra winery, which was first set up by Czar Nicholas II in 1894. From the NYT:
Agriculture is a crucial sector that the Kremlin hopes to rejuvenate to make Crimea an economic success story under Russian tutelage. The new administration hopes to exploit the wine industry not least to draw more tourists, blaming Ukraine for neglecting both when it ran Crimea.
“Thank God it has not been completely ruined within these 23 years,” said Yelena Yurchenko, Crimea’s minister of tourism and resorts, speaking of viniculture. “Of course it would be in better shape if there had been investments in this field.”
Actually, while much of Crimea was bemoaning empty hotel rooms and a scant number of tourists, the bedrock of the economy, the team at Massandra was in a buoyant mood. Wines flew off the shelves at their three local stores last month, on track to double the sales volume from last year, they said.
The winery attributed the increase to many first-time Russian visitors’ eagerly snapping up potable souvenirs. The czar’s former winery now caters more to those day-to-day visitors than to the elite, producing 10 million bottles a year. Winemaking in Crimea dates back more than 3,500 years, but the intense Black Sea sunshine means it is most known for sweet wines and sherry.
Protesters in breakaway Abkhazia on May 29 called for joining Russia's Customs Union with Kazakhstan and Belarus in an apparent bid to win Moscow over to their side as they push for the ouster of the Black-Sea territory's de-facto government.
“We count on Russia’s support in this matter,” declared a joint statement of the opposition groups who have defied the rule of de-facto President Alexander Ankvab, Kavkazsky Uzel news service reported.
Moscow, which has poured both hundreds of troops and millions of rubles into Abkhazia since recognition of its independence from Georgia in 2008, has not responded.
But events may soon veer in another direction. The region’s de-facto prime minister, Leonid Lakerbaia, said on the afternoon of May 29 that the de-facto government may resign as if tensions continue to escalate.
Accusing the region's authorities of misusing Russian aid, mismanaging the economy and authoritarianism, protesters on May 28 stormed the building that houses Ankvab's office in the Abkhaz capital, Sokhumi . Moscow, in the role of concerned big brother, dispatched two troubleshooters, President Vladimir Putin’s aide Vladislav Surkov and Deputy National Security Chief Rashid Nurgaliyev, to mediate.
Faced with demands to step down and having lost physical control of his own office, Ankvab says he is going nowhere, and has called for a peaceful resolution of the crisis.