Central Asian governments are failing to address problems posed by violent radicalization, instead encouraging a growing number of Central Asians to take up arms in Syria and Iraq on behalf of the Islamic State. So says a new report by the International Crisis Group (ICG), “Syria Calling: Radicalisation in Central Asia.”
Estimates of the number of Central Asians currently living in the Islamic State (IS) vary. The ICG calls Central Asian government figures “conservative” and instead gives greater credence to Western officials’ counts, placing the number between 2,000 and 4,000—most from the “long-rebellious” Fergana Valley.
Poverty, migration, marginalization and state repression push Central Asians to join radical groups, the report says. But the Islamic State also provides “a meaningful alternative to post-Soviet life.”
The report debunks the myth, oft championed by Central Asian regimes, that it is only young, poor and uneducated men who have travelled to Syria and Iraq. Instead, the ICG documents the broad appeal that the Islamic State has in the region. Jihad appeals to rich and poor, educated and uneducated alike.
Many fighters are recruited through family networks, with as many as 20 Tajiks from one village departing together in September 2014. A commitment to holy war, the report argues, is the main reason that Central Asians are drawn to the Islamic State.
One unique aspect of the report is its focus on the growing number of women who join radical Islamic groups. Although many women travel to be with their husbands in Syria and Iraq, some go alone. ICG interviewed one woman from a group of four preparing to go to Syria. She told the researcher: “[Our husbands are] against religion, against Islam. My friends do not want to live with them anymore.”
Three shootings took place on three different sections of Central Asian frontier over the weekend, highlighting how violence-prone the region’s porous borders have become.
The first incident, at a Kyrgyz border post near Tajikistan, left one border guard dead and two wounded. A private has now allegedly confessed to killing his superior in the January 16 shooting, Kloop.kg reports.
Conditions for junior soldiers in Central Asia’s militaries are notoriously abysmal, with senior officers meting out physical abuse and sometimes requiring their underlings to perform in slave-like conditions. So fragging is not inconceivable.
Two days later, Kyrgyz border guards shot a man they describe as an Uzbek hunter who crossed the border illegally, with two others, and opened fire. The Kyrgyz Border Service says it has handed over the wounded man to the Uzbek authorities, which apprehended the other two when they retreated back home. (Update: An Uzbek official later said Kyrgyz border guards had illegally crossed into Uzbekistan and illegally seized the hunters' rifles before retreating.)
Also on January 18, on the drug-saturated Tajik-Afghan border where shootings are common, a Tajik conscript was shot by drug smugglers, Tajik authorities say.
Astana is slashing growth expectations and cutting its budget revenue forecasts as Kazakhstan eyes its gloomiest economic outlook for years, sources in parliament report.
The government intends to cut this year’s GDP growth forecast to 1.5 percent (against its previous forecast of 4.8 percent) and reduce budget spending by a whopping $7 billion, sources in the ruling Nur Otan party told Vlast.kz following a presentation to parliament by National Economy Minister Yerbolat Dosayev on January 16.
Such growth would represent a significant slowdown on last year’s 4.3 percent, and would be Kazakhstan’s lowest since 2009, the height of the global credit crunch.
As President Nursultan Nazarbayev acknowledged last week, Kazakhstan is facing a litany of economic problems, from low prices for oil and metallurgical output to the knock-on effect of Western sanctions against Russia and pressures on the tenge as a result of the ruble’s precipitous fall.
The government is cutting the oil price on which its budget is based from $80 to $50 in its revised budget (which will have to be approved by parliament), Dosayev confirmed, after global prices dipped below $50 this month.
Kazakhstani soldiers take part in exercises against "extremist, terrorist and separatist organizations." (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
Kazakhstan's armed forces are carrying out exercises against "separatists," citing "geopolitical shifts" as the justification. But while the reference to separatists may make the Kremlin a bit uneasy, the scenario seems to be oriented toward Chinese separatists, rather than Ukrainian.
The exercise is being conducted from January 15-17 by land forces command staff. "According to the scenario of the joint staff training, groups from extremist, terrorist and separatist organizations, disguised as refugees, infiltrate the territory of a hypothetical government," according to a release from the Ministry of Defense. "During the course of the training the soldiers blocked and destroyed illegal armed formations and repelled the invasion."
The "relevance of the training" was the result of "contemporary geopolitical shifts," the MoD added. So what geopolitical shifts is Astana worried about?
The last line seems to point to a Ukraine scenario; as Ukrainian website depo.ua suggests, "ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan complain about 'oppression' and eagerly await the arrival of 'little green men' from Russia." While Kazakhstan has clearly been rattled by the events in Ukraine, and has undertaken serious efforts to shore up its statehood as a result, ethnic Russians are hardly begging for Moscow's intervention.
Stephen Kotkin, a Princeton historian and author of a new biography of Joseph Stalin, sees similarities in the former Soviet dictator’s leadership style and that of Russia’s incumbent strongman, Vladimir Putin.
Speaking at the Open Society Foundations in New York on January 15, Kotkin acknowledged some of the parallels between Stalin and Putin that have been pointed out by reviewers of his recently released book. “We are not talking about a figure on the scale of Stalin,” Kotkin stressed, referring to Putin. But “there’s an uncanny resonance in some of the history.” [Editor’s note: EurasiaNet.org operates under the auspices of OSF].
Stalin’s image has enjoyed a revival in recent years in Russia. During the January 15 discussion, Kotkin listed four factors that made Stalin’s ruthless dictatorship possible: geopolitics, institutions, ideas, and personality. He then noted modern-day parallels in two of those areas – institutional structure and ideology.
“You have a country [Russia] that has a special role in history. At the very least, it needs to play a leading role in the world … and that makes it very difficult for them to integrate with other countries,” Kotkin said. “The second piece that’s uncanny is they [Russians] are constantly struggling for a strong state, and they end up building a personalized regime.”
According to Kotkin, two ideological tenets provide a foundation for Russian exceptionalism today -- anti-Americanism and social conservativism. “Conservative nationalism is a full package of ideas,” one that is eagerly reinforced through textbooks and media, Kotkin said.
Shortly after an Islamic State propaganda video featuring Kazakh-speaking children called for the slaughter of infidels, a new clip has emerged in which one of those children appears to execute two “spies” with possible Kazakhstan links.
The latest video sparked a denial from Kazakhstan’s intelligence service that the two men are Kazakhstani citizens—even as reporters unearthed possible links.
The video shows the men, speaking in Russian, supposedly confessing to being spies for Russian intelligence. The video then seems to show them being shot by a young boy closely resembling a child who appeared in the previous video. One of the men claimed to hail from Kazakhstan.
There is no independent confirmation that the events took place as depicted in the video, which analysts say could be a montage designed and acted out for propaganda purposes.
It has been “authoritatively established” that two alleged spies are not Kazakhstani citizens, the National Security Committee (known as the KNB) said in a statement. The KNB did not rule out the possibility that they could have roots in the country.
One of the men in the video identifies himself as Zhanbolat Mamayev and states his place of birth as Kazakhstan’s southern Zhambyl Region, where RFE/RL tracked down two people who remembered a boy by that name studying at a school in a village called Oytal (the school’s deputy principal and a former pupil). RFE/RL also located social networking sites that could belong to the same man, linking him to Kazakhstan’s Zhambyl Region.
Four of the five Central Asian states have failed to meet basic fiscal transparency standards, according to the U.S. State Department’s latest Annual Fiscal Transparency report. The study does not appear to affect whether a country receives U.S. government funding, however.
In addition to ascertaining whether countries meet State’s minimum standards (such as publishing receipts and expenditures in publicly available national budget documentation and bidding and contract information for natural resource extraction), the study assesses progress—or lack thereof.
Published by the Office of Monetary Affairs since 2008, the report only includes “those governments it anticipated would receive bilateral allocations of assistance” in fiscal year 2014. The latest version of the report was released January 14.
This year, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan were all judged to have made “no significant progress” toward meeting minimum fiscal transparency standards, joining 35 other countries in that category. Overall, 50 fell below the minimum-standards threshold.
Kyrgyzstan, which has harnessed international assistance from USAID and other donors to improve public access to state budgets was judged to have met minimum transparency standards for the second year running.
In 2012, Tajikistan made significant progress toward the benchmark. It has slipped over the last two years, however.
Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, which routinely rank at the bottom of Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, have never glittered in this report.
For a landlocked country, Turkmenistan is getting into the seafaring spirit: Ashgabat’s new showpiece ferry Berkarar has been shuttling its way around the Caspian Sea – defined by geographers as an inland lake – making trips to both Azerbaijan and Russia so far this year.
The ferry was built in the Uljanik Shipyard in Pula, Croatia – which has produced ferries for the Caspian littoral states since communist times – and delivered to the reclusive Central Asian country in December. Ashgabat has also commissioned a second, smaller ship, Bagtiyar, which is scheduled to arrive this summer. They carry both freight and passengers.
Azerbaijani newswire Trend.az gushed about Berkarar’s latest voyage, from Turkmenbashi to the Azerbaijani capital: “The ferry impresses with its dimensions; it has a length of 155.8 meters, width of 17.5 meters, and height of 12.2 meters,” Trend reported on January 14.
Berkarar can carry “56 trucks loaded with 40-foot containers,” according to News Central Asia’s detailed report on the vessel.
So, provided there are enough goods to fill them, the ferries could help expand regional trade across the contested waters of the Caspian.
A Turkish company is currently modernizing Turkmenistan’s Turkmenbashi port, a commission that is expected to finish in 2017.
The move by the U.S. Congress to deny secondhand warships to Turkey could portend an "arms embargo" from Washington, some military officials in Ankara are warning.
Last month, Congress approved the transfer of several naval frigates to Mexico and Taiwan, excluding Turkey -- which had been slated as one of the original recipients -- over concerns about its policies toward Israel and Cyrpus.
While the ships would have been of use to Turkey only as the source for spare parts, the move nevertheless has raised alarm in Ankara, according to Hurriyet Daily News.
“These are almost useless vessels of no strategic importance for the Turkish Navy,” one senior defense official in Ankara told the newspaper. “The Americans know that the ships would not be great naval assets for Turkey. We think the decision not to transfer the ships to Turkey may be reflecting the likelihood of a broader embargo in the future.”
Another official, also speaking anonymously, suggested that the reprisal could go the other way:
A defense procurement official in Ankara said any further U.S. move “that may look like an embargo due to political rifts” would trigger reaction and risk U.S. defense business in Turkey.
“The unfriendly U.S. move came at a time when our U.S. [and European] allies are trying to convince us that going for a Chinese solution in our air defense program is not a good idea. The timing of the frigate decision is puzzling. The Americans know very well which contracts potentially involving U.S. defense business in Turkey could be jeopardized and how much harm that may make to U.S. industry,” said the official.
A Russian soldier who allegedly massacred an Armenian family is expected to stand trial in Armenia, not Russia. Armenian General Prosecutor Gevorg Kostanian on January 15 made this clear to outraged citizens, who were worried that Armenia would defer justice to its Russian big brother.
The January 12 slaughter of six people in the northwestern town of Gyumri, the site of Russia’s 102nd army base, could not have come at a worse time for Armenia. Just ten days previously, its controversial membership in the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union had become official. The sign-on took place amidst heavy criticism of Yerevan’s economic and security dependence on Russia.
The Gyumri murder now has put Armenia’s policies toward Russia further to the test. Angry Gyumri residents have demanded the handover of the alleged culprit, Private Valery Permyakov, and accused the authorities of mollycoddling Moscow.
Russia’s ambassador to Armenia, Ivan Volynkin, appears aware of the risks of such sentiments. In January 15 comments to the state-financed Russian news outlet Sputnik (picked up by Armenian news outlets), he expressed condolences for the tragedy, but emphasized that “this problem must not be politicized."
"Crime has no nationality, especially in this case," he emphasized.
Armenia’s small Heritage Party, the most outspoken of Armenian political party against economic integration with Russia, so far has called only for a transparent investigation into the crime.