Uzbekistan has withdrawn its troops from a contested section of border with Kyrgyzstan, bringing a close to the uneasy tensions of the past week, according to a statement from Kyrgyzstan’s presidential administration.
The chairman of the State Border Service, Raimberdi Duishenbiev, told President Almazbek Atambayev that the Uzbek forces had pulled out their equipment and manpower from the Chalasart settlement, in the Aksy district of the Jalal-Abad region, as of 8:00 a.m. local time on March 26.
In accordance with the outcome of negotiations, which took place on March 25, border defenses will now revert to routine levels.
Uzbek troops arrived in the area on March 18 and occupied an unmarked section of road linking the Kyrgyz settlements of Kerben and Ala-Buka. Kyrgyz officials said Uzbekistan’s military deployed armored personnel carriers, two Kamaz trucks and up to 40 troops to the disputed area, which is around 50 kilometers (31 miles) north of the Ferghana city of Namangan.
That sparked a hasty mobilization of troops by the Kyrgyz army, which warned that it would not stand down before the Uzbeks gave assurances they would do the same. On the southern flank of Uzbekistan’s portion of the Ferghana Valley, Kyrgyz troops also blocked roads linking the Uzbek enclaves of Sokh and Shahimardan to the rest of the country, effectively stranding its residents. Those troops have also now been pulled back.
On March 21, both sides agreed on measures to soothe tensions in Chalasart by bringing down troop numbers to eight apiece, according to Kyrgyz officials.
General Philip Breedlove, commander of U.S. European Command, visits a farmer in Georgia whose land was divided by a Russian-built fence on the administrative boundary with South Ossetia. (photo: MoD Georgia)
The top United States military official in Europe has visited Georgia, promising "bigger and better" joint military exercises and telling Georgians that to deter Russian aggression they should build ties with NATO and the U.S.
General Philip Breedlove, commander of U.S. European Command, visited Georgia March 22-23. Breedlove has become known as one of the most anti-Russia hawks among current U.S. officials, and in Tbilisi he did not disappoint:
As your brave valiant nation has witnessed, Russia continues to extend its coercive and corrosive influence on its periphery. Now it's also trying to reestablish leading and aggressive role in a world stage. Russia automatically seeks to overturn the established rules and principles of the international system, fracture the unity of the free world and to challenge our solidity.
While the likelihood of an imminent border conflict between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan may be dimming, the tension has been ably exploited by Bishkek to head off opposition forces in the act of gathering their strengths.
On March 24, the State Committee for National Security (GKNB) announced that it had detained two individuals on suspicion of plotting to overthrow the government. No full names were provided, but the initials of the suspects, B.A. and K.K., have been reported as being those of Bektur Asanov and Kubanychbek Kadyrov, both figures associated with the emergent southern-based opposition.
Moves against the pair followed the leak of recorded phone conversations — allegedly among Asanov, Kadyrov, another prominent and veteran opposition figure and seasoned rabble-rouser, Azimbek Beknazarov, and a former top government official, Duulatbek Turdunaliev — about purported plans to sow instability and seize power.
Kadyrov, for one, has called the recording a crude edit and complained that his constitutional rights were violated when his phone conversations were recorded.
Whether the recording is indeed fake or not, Kadyrov may be onto something.
The GKNB has claimed that the recordings were obtained through a court order related to a criminal investigation. The security services have not been forthcoming about the nature of that investigation, however, and the sudden timely appearance of the recording online suggests this intercept was part of an orchestrated effort to discredit the opposition.
Separatist Abkhazia wants to have a boat link to no less separatist Crimea to ship tourists and trade across the Black Sea.
A Crimea-based ferry company, which suspended commutes to Turkey out of supposed patriotic considerations in the wake of the hostility between Turkey and Russia, now plans to send its ferry shuttling to and from Abkhazia. De-facto officials on the peninsula, which Russia wrested away from Ukraine in 2014, hope that this water link with Abkhazia, another Moscow protégé, can help mitigate the economic impact of the diplomatic chill and severed trade ties between Russia and Turkey.
“[The Crimean capital of] Sevastopol is mainly interested in bringing food products – vegetables and fruits -- from Abkhazia to replace imports from Turkey,” said Kiril Moskalenko, spokesperson for the Sevastopol Governor’s Office, the Russian-government-financed Sputnik news service reported. He said he is not quite sure what products Crimea can offer Abkhazia in return. Some, especially Abkhazia’s de-facto government, hope that one such commodity could be tourists.
Russia-endowed Abkhazia reportedly is now a shell of its former Soviet Riviera self. Russian tourists often complain about the lack of infrastructure and basic services, but many are still drawn by the palm trees and mountain vistas, and Abkhazia’s former reputation as the most desirable seaside resort in the USSR.
For Crimeans, as for many Russians, Abkhazia likely appears as an affordably exotic vacation destination. The peninsula’s tour companies say that the West’s sanctions and refusal to call Crimea part of Russia made it harder for Crimean residents to travel abroad.
When Kazakhstan’s ruling party unveiled its candidate list for the March 20 snap parliamentary election, it seemed to be summoning the spirit of that old MGM slogan, “More stars than there are in heaven.”
Alas, with the results now in, the beautiful and the young have receded into the distance and the lower house of parliament, or Mazhilis, will have to contend with the same aging countenances as before.
Only one of the high-profile celebrity candidates who was on the party list of the ruling Nur Otan party will take up a seat in the new parliament, it emerged as parties revealed the names of their MPs on March 24, four days after a lackluster election featuring no genuine opposition.
Chat show host Artur Platonov is taking up a seat in parliament, but other popular figures on the Nur Otan list, such as world champion boxer Gennady Golovkin, Olympic gold medal-winning weightlifter Ilya Ilyin and pop singer Kairat Nurtas, will not be joining the ranks of MPs.
This suggests that criticism that Nur Otan’s list was a cynical bid to shore up voter support amid political apathy given the lack of opposition in an election taking place during a serious economic crisis may not have been groundless.
Nur Otan’s parliamentary representation features 33 MPs who were in the outgoing parliament, along with a host of party apparatchiks and former officials as well as a smattering of business people, according to a list published by Tengri News.
The annual collapse in migrant laborer remittances from Russia to Tajikistan has proven just as catastrophic as expected.
Russia’s Central Bank announced last week that the amount of money transferred to Tajikistan last year has fallen almost 67 percent, from $3.8 billion in 2014 to $1.28 billion last year. The figure in 2013 was $4.16 billion.
The rout has affected all countries in the region. In Uzbekistan, remittances fell to $2.37 billion last year from $5.58 billion in 2014. In Kyrgyzstan, they dropped from $2.03 billion to $1.08 billion over the same period.
But no country will be a deeply affected as Tajikistan, where remittances account for roughly half of the gross domestic product.
The impact will be felt most strongly by communities where food security is weak and in which cash from relatives abroad constitutes a very literal lifeline. The World Food Program estimates that food security is an issue for around 20 percent of rural households.
“Fifty five percent of rural households depend on remittances as their main source of income, and a record 81 percent of remittances is spent on food expenditures,” the World Food Program noted in a recent report.
There are two obvious underlying causes for the drop in remittances. One being the fall in the value of the Russian ruble, which is hovering around 70 mark against the dollar compared to 30 before the current economic crisis began. The economic slump has also led to a 25 percent drop in the number of Tajiks going to Russia between 2014 and 2015. Around 400,000 Tajiks are currently banned from going to Russian as a result of deportation orders, according to Tajik Labor Ministry figures.
Kyrgyzstan’s opposition has reportedly nixed plans to hold a large rally in the southern city of Osh amid stewing tensions on the border with Uzbekistan and an escalating public relations war with the government.
One opposition figure, former Jalal-Abad governor Bektur Asanov, told local media the decision to call off the Kurultai, or people’s assembly, on March 24 was taken amid fears of a government “provocation.”
Prior to the announcement, the government had announced plans to bolster security in Osh for the event with a deployment of 3,000 police and 2,000 volunteers.
The show of force indicated Bishkek was taking the opposition more seriously in light of the standoff between Kyrgyz and Uzbek troops at a disputed section of the border.
That is understandable following a March 22 rally in Kerben, a Kyrgyz settlement very close to the elevated territory where both Tashkent and Bishkek have stationed troops and armored vehicles.
The rally organized by regional opposition figures targeted perceived government negligence over the border issue and gathered 700 people according to the Interior Ministry. The opposition claimed the crowd was as large as 2,500 people.
Prime Minister Temir Sariyev flew down to address the Kerben gathering, while nationalist opposition leader and all-round troublemaker Kamchibek Tashiyev, who donned military fatigues for the event, was warmly welcomed by the crowd after issuing calls to resolve the standoff with Tashkent through “people’s diplomacy.”
As explained by news website Zanoza.kg, government and opposition offered competing narratives vis-a-vis the mood at the Kerben rally. One painted Sariyev as a timely pacifier, the other as a sore loser who escaped with the microphone in his hand having been poorly received by angry locals.
Speculation about security threats in Central Asia has largely focused on the border with Afghanistan and the prospect of Islamist militants infiltrating the former Soviet space. This month, for example, Russia and Tajikistan conducted joint military exercises along the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border including over 50,000 troops and Russian strategic bombers.
But those who actually live along that border have a much different perception of what threatens them, worrying much more about isolation and poverty than military incursions, new research has found.
The authors of the report, Strangers Across the Amu River: Community Perceptions Along the Tajik-Afghan Borders, surveyed nine border communities in those two countries. "Border communities often have a different perception of the opportunities and threats posed by borders than do policy makers sitting in distant capitals," the report's authors -- Shahrbanou Tadjbakhsh, Kosimsho Iskandarov, and Abdul Ahad Mohammadi -- write. "The Tajik and Afghan border districts tend to be economically impoverished, environmentally insecure and isolated from the centre, thereby presenting limited opportunities for economic stability and growth—the primary concern of surveyed communities situated in such areas."
The study also found that residents see both positives and negatives of living on the border:
They lay a kilometer-long, underground pipeline to leach into the British Petroleum-operated, more than 800-kilometer-long Western Route Export Pipeline, which carries 100,000 barrels of oil daily from Azerbaijan’s Caspian Sea coast to Georgia’s Black Sea coast. Known as the Baku-Supsa pipeline for the terminals at both ends, the conduit was the first link in the country’s energy-export network.
The suspects built their own terminal in Ruisi, about a 20-minute drive west of Joseph Stalin’s birthplace, Gori, and created a parallel world of shipping, processing and retailing the Caspian Sea oil. A police video showed rows of large tanks used to collect the stolen oil. A makeshift tap was installed on the body of the Baku-Supsa pipeline to turn off and on the flow into its new, mini- branch.
From Ruisi, the oil was loaded onto trucks and camouflaged as vegetables – cabbage, to be exact, police said – and driven about 90 minutes east to the capital, Tbilisi. A makeshift refinery there then turned the cabbage-concealed crude into petroleum products.
Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon meets General Fang Fenghui, chief of general staff of the People's Liberation Army, in Dushanbe in February. (photo: president.tj)
China's plans to create a new Central Asian security bloc have raised concerns in Moscow that Russia is declining geopolitically in Central Asia and may now be competing with China.
General Fang Fenghui, the chief of general staff of the People's Liberation Army, said on a visit to Kabul this month that China was proposing an anti-terror regional alliance consisting of Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, and Tajikistan. Almost no details about the grouping have been announced, but a spokesman for Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani "said the Chinese military chief asked for Afghanistan's participation in the Chinese-proposed anti-terrorism mechanism with Pakistan and Tajikistan," VOA reported. "President Ghani has endorsed the proposal," the spokesman said.
China has been exploring a greater role in Afghan security; during Fang's visit he also promised $70 million in military aid to Afghanistan. But the fact that this proposed alliance would include Tajikistan, and exclude Russia, has raised alarm bells in Moscow. Russia has, until now, seen itself either as the primary security provider in Central Asia or, at times, a partner with China. But that may be changing.