January has been a busy month for Kyrgyzstan’s security services as they tackle what they call a growing threat from militants loyal to the Islamic State. As usual, there is little evidence to support their claims and plenty of reasons to fear that heavy-handed tactics and docile judges could only make the problem worse.
On January 27 the State Committee for National Security (GKNB) snatched six alleged militants in Osh. A GKNB spokesman accused the group of planning attacks in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Four of the individuals, authorities suspect, had trained in Syria.
Just two days later Radio Azattyq reported that the GKNB had nabbed a 29-year-old man near Bishkek and accused him of sending five relatives to the Islamic State-controlled city of Raqqa in Syria. The week before, authorities in Osh arrested a 22-year-old, claiming he had spent four months in Syria. Also earlier in the month, six alleged jihadi recruiters were arrested in a series of raids across Kyrgyzstan’s impoverished south. Three women, alleged members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir – a London-based proselytizing group with no known ties to violence – were also seized, Interfax reported.
Georgian soldiers undergo U.S. Marine Corps training at the Vaziani training base in 2013. Vaziani is one of the possible locations for a NATO training base to be set up in Georgia this year. (photo: U.S. Marine Corps)
NATO's planned military training center in Georgia will start operations this year, a senior alliance official said on a visit to Tbilisi.
"Starting this year, we aim to hold periodic military exercises here in your country, with NATO Allies as well as with other interested NATO partners," said NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow at a January 30 speech in Tbilisi.
The exercises will be held at a "Joint Training and Evaluation Centre," the establishment of which NATO and Georgia announced last September. A location for the center still hasn't been determined, but one of the items on Vershbow's agenda in Georgia was to scout out locations; Civil.ge reported that one of the candidates sites he visited was the Vaziani training range near Tbilisi.
"This will be the most visible element of a NATO presence in Georgia. The Centre could host live and simulated training and certification for Allied and partner military units, in particular for units committed to the NATO Response Force," Vershbow said. "And it could also host exercises and training in support of our Connected Forces initiative."
But much remains uncertain about the center. According to Civil.ge, Vershbow said that NATO and Georgia "have yet to “flesh out the goals and purposes of the center," and that it's still not clear whether the center will host only command exercises (i.e. officers on computers) or field exercises with soldiers.
Tashkent's government buildings are grandiose but redundant status symbols, empty and locked to discourage prying visitors. (EurasiaNet)
Editor’s Note: EurasiaNet.org received this colorful and revealing account from a traveler who wishes to remain anonymous to have the chance to visit Uzbekistan again.
The Washington Post recently described Uzbekistan as the North Korea you’ve never heard of, conjuring images of a country sealed off from the rest of the world. Is that really what it’s like? For many journalists and others it’s difficult to visit. I recently had the chance, on a business trip for a few days. Here are a few fleeting impressions. (The Washington Post was talking about politics – I’ll stick to a traveller’s experiences.)
I’ve never been to Pyongyang or North Korea, but Tashkent is certainly an impressively big, bustling city (biggest in Central Asia, population 2.2 million) with many of the modern trappings of Western urban life: six-lane highways crisscrossing the central district and a (wonderfully old-fashioned) subway system; American-style malls for the general public and upscale fashion boutiques for the rich; and electronic advertising displays at road junctions promoting luxury watch and jewelry brands.
The city’s café and restaurant scene comes across as cosmopolitan: I sipped cappuccino in a coffee shop that could have been in New York given the number of iPhones and laptops (although it was odd that all the Western newspapers on offer were several years old) and I drank in a ‘European’ beer hall, tapping my feet to a cheesy rock band playing Pink Floyd covers, that, at a push, could have been in Prague.
In a twist on modernity, the city center is also full of shiny white marble palaces – government and parliamentary buildings, cultural centers and embassies of other Central Asian countries – that come across as grandiose but redundant status symbols, empty and locked to discourage prying visitors.
A private militia to combat ISIS and the Taliban has been formed in northern Afghanistan, as Afghan and Central Asian officials continue to debate to what extent there is an ISIS presence in the region.
It's not clear how serious the new anti-ISIS militia is: "several dozen" members announced its presence at the provincial council office in Mazar-e-Sharif this week, according to a report by Khaama Press. But they claim to have 5,000 people ready to fight ISIS and the Taliban, and if nothing else they have a keen instinct for PR: their uniforms are the tricolor of Afghanistan's flag -- red, green, and black -- and their name is "Marg," or "Death."
Also this week, a senior Russian defense ministry official visited Tajikistan where he invoked the growing terror threat. The official, Deputy Defense Minister Anatoliy Antonov, called Tajikistan "our outpost in the fight against terror." The officials discussed Russian aid to Tajikistan but no details were announced; Central Asia expert Arkady Dubnov told Nezavisimaya Gazeta (in a piece headlined "ISIS Tests Strength of Central Asia's Borders") that the purpose of the visit was to assuage concerns in Dushanbe about slow deliveries of the military aid Russia has promised Tajikistan.
Kazakhstan’s public health officials in charge of the fight against HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis have conned a flagship global project out of over $5 million by using “smokescreen companies” to rig bids and overcharge for goods and services, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria has said.
A probe by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), the Switzerland-based fund’s oversight arm, “found evidence of systematic collusive, fraudulent, and corrupt practices by local vendors and other parties” involving a total of 76 contracts worth some $16.5 million, it said in a January 28 statement.
As a result of the contracts, awarded by two health centers under the remit of the Ministry of Health, the Global Fund was swindled out of at least $5.4 million through “systematic overpricing for printing, office equipment, health products and food parcels,” the OIG claimed.
There was no evidence that the goods – which included “condoms and a whole range of other goods and services for patients with HIV and/or tuberculosis” – had not been delivered, however.
The OIG is urging the Global Fund to take measures to recover at least $5.4 million, although it described that figure as a conservative estimate of what it had been conned out of by Kazakhstan’s Republican Center for Prophylactics and Control of AIDS (RCAIDS) and National Center of Tuberculosis Problems (NCTP).
Four individuals – called the “Ring Leaders” in the report and identified only as Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta – were allegedly the main beneficiaries of the con, involving 17 companies which were part of an interlinked web colluding with each other. Other public healthcare officials were aware of the scheme, the OIG alleged.
A UN rapporteur has issued some damning findings on civil liberties in Kazakhstan, following a visit to monitor how Astana is upholding its commitments to freedom of assembly.
“I am deeply disappointed by an incident that has left me very worried about the safety of individuals I met during my trip, and generally concerned about the situation of human rights in Kazakhstan,” Maina Kiai, the UN’s special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, said in a January 27 statement.
He was alluding to an incident in which unidentified individuals photographed his interlocutors in the city of Aktau, “in a manner commonly associated with secret police surveillance.” Kiai complained to the authorities and an arrest was made, but the rapporteur did not recognize the suspect (whom he was allowed to meet) as one of the perpetrators.
Kiai found that Astana offers “limited space for the expression of dissenting views.” He highlighted “a general fear of engaging in oppositional political activity or expression within the population,” partly due to “legislation that seeks to control the civil society sector, imposes serious punishments for organizing and participating in peaceful assemblies, stigmatizes and criminalizes dissent, facilitates the imprisonment of opposition political figures, and in general perpetuates a narrative that portrays critical political expression as threatening the stability of the state.”
The United States's donation of over 300 armored vehicles to Uzbekistan represents the triumph of realpolitik over the promotion of American values, Russian analysts argue.
Last week U.S. officials announced that they were donating over 300 Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles to Uzbekistan; it will be the biggest ever transfer of American military equipment to a Central Asian country. It was surprising in many ways: American military interest in Central Asia had appeared to be on the wane, and U.S. military aid to Uzbekistan -- one of the worst human rights violators on the planet -- was at a largely token level, with little apparent justification for Washington to change that.
In days since the deal was announced, the response from the region has been muted. No officials from Russia or Central Asia -- including Uzbekistan -- have commented on the deal. But among Russia's Central Asian analyst community, of course, the announcement was big news. Most saw it in terms of the U.S.'s desire to improve ties with Uzbekistan, turning the latter into an American foothold in the region.
Just because Russian officials haven't said anything publicly doesn't mean that they are indifferent, said Daniil Kislov, the Moscow-based editor of the Central Asia news website Fergana News. "The transfer of American equipment to Uzbekistan raised concern among officials in Moscow," he said in an interview with Svobodnaya Pressa; the headline of the piece was "The U.S. Will Encroach On Russia From the South."
A Chinese company that has had a string of bad luck in Kyrgyzstan is not getting much support from the country's investment-hungry government—or from Russia.
China’s state-controlled Junda China Petrol Company runs a troubled but potentially strategic oil refinery in northern Kyrgyzstan. The problem now is that Junda doesn’t have enough crude to fuel its $430 million plant. And the regional oil producers, Kazakhstan and Russia, are unwilling to help.
Last week Kyrgyzstan’s Vice Prime Minister Valery Dil called Junda's decision to build a refinery without planning for crude supplies “ridiculous,” in quotes picked up by 24.kg.
"To build a huge refinery and not know where to get the oil, that’s ridiculous,” Dil said.
Those are not exactly welcoming words for a large foreign benefactor already struggling to find reasons to keep investing in perennially troubled Kyrgyzstan. In its short history, Junda itself has faced environmental protests and labor disputes, which one lawmaker claims are backed by opposition politicians bent on using the facility as a weapon in a political confrontation with the government.
Dil also confirmed that Russia and Kazakhstan have refused to supply crude tax-free, though his colleague, Economy Minister Temir Sariev, recently had been hopeful that Kyrgyzstan’s membership in the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union would help solve this problem.
A prosecutor warns supporters of embattled news outlet Adam Bol on January 23 that they are breaking Kazakhstan’s stringent public assembly laws.
Kazakhstan’s authorities have taken a hard line against would-be protesters, rounding them up and throwing them in police cells to prevent them attending a public meeting in defense of a hard-hitting current affairs magazine that has been closed down.
The arrests came in the middle of a visit to Kazakhstan by a UN rapporteur to monitor how Astana upholds the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
Police arrested Guljan Yergaliyeva, the editor-in-chief of the Adam Bol outlet (who is on hunger strike in protest at the closure of her magazine), editors Ayan Sharipbayev and Miras Nurmukhanbetov, and prominent freedom of speech activist Rozlana Taukina as soon as they set off to attend the event on Almaty’s main Republic Square January 23.
“I understood [the police] were waiting for me, but I still intended to go and I went out to go and meet our readers, but our car was forcibly stopped and I was forcibly dragged out [by police officers],” Yergaliyeva said in a video address posted on Facebook after her release.
“They break the law themselves, they repress us,” added Yergaliyeva, who is on the sixth day of a hunger strike in protest at the closure of her magazine last November on the grounds that its reporting on Ukraine contained calls for war or violence.
An MRAP vehicle, of the type the U.S. is donating to Uzbekistan, undergoes testing. (photo: U.S. Marine Corps)
The United States is donating over 300 armored vehicles to Uzbekistan's military, American officials have announced. The deal, the largest ever transfer of military hardware from the U.S. to an ex-Soviet Central Asian states, comes just three years after Washington lifted a ban on weapons exports to Uzbekistan because of the country's poor record on human rights.
In an interview with the Voice of America's Uzbek service, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Central Asia Daniel Rosenblum said that the U.S. is giving Uzbekistan 308 Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, along with an additional 20 support vehicles.
The possibility of the U.S. donating MRAPs has been discussed for some time now, but it's usually been framed in terms of getting equipment the U.S. discards as it pulls out from Afghanistan. That won't be the case with these vehicles, however, they are instead being delivered from the U.S. and other American military bases abroad under the Excess Defense Articles program, the standard way that the U.S. military gives leftover equipment to allies. Uzbekistan's government is paying the cost to ship them to Uzbekistan, Rosenblum said.
The U.S. has given Central Asian states some used gear under the EDA program in the past, notably patrol ships to Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan and utility helicopters to Kazakhstan. But this dwarfs any of those transfers. It's not yet clear what variant of the MRAP Uzbekistan will be getting, but the DoD has valued most of the MRAPs it's given away lately at about $100,000 each, which would make this deal worth over $30 million.