Numerous diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks have exposed the secret collaboration the US has struggled to maintain with the authoritarian government of Turkmenistan for the sake of cooperation on the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) supplying NATO troops in Afghanistan – even as it has tried to raise human rights concerns, never a favorite topic for Ashgabat. A newly-released cable shows how manipulative the Turkmen government has been on repeatedly inviting -- and then canceling -- a visit to Turkmenistan by a US government commission that monitors religious freedom.
As reporting from EurasiaNet's Deirdre Tynan has shown, the US has even made large payments to "neutral Turkmenistan," as the Central Asian regime has long styled itself, to keep in place thousands of US military overflights to Afghanistan every year. Yet, despite such fees, Ashgabat has not grown more cooperative, and has been no more willing to make concessions on human rights, either.
An alleged cable from Ashgabat released by WikiLeaks on September 1 of this year and dated December 28, 2008 shows how the Turkmens played hard ball. From the looks of it, while renewing the overflights agreement, they simply stopped allowing the planes to land and began to bargain. They requested a meeting with then chargé Sylvia Reed Curran on December 25, 2009 – the Christmas holiday for the US – to discuss a forthcoming bilateral forum and Turkmenistan’s denial of blanket approval of the landings:
The State Department released its annual International Religious Freedom Report on September 13, writing of "troubling government practices" that persist in Turkmenistan regarding the treatment of religious groups, yet failed to designate Turkmenistan as a "country of particular concern" (CPC).
By contrast, neighboring Uzbekistan did get the CPC designation for its arrest of thousands of pious Muslims and other religious believers operating outside of the confines of state-authorized religious groups. Turkmenistan follows the same practices as Uzbekistan in ruthlessly suppressing any form of religious devotion or activism outside of strict state control, and has also failed to reform its religious law or register religious groups that comply with existing law. Yet the CPC designation, recommended by the bi-partisan US Commission on International Religious Freedom (CIRF), is not something the US government wants to confer on Turkmenistan, believing it to be counterproductive even in human rights terms, and of course eager to gain further cooperation on the Northern Distribution Network
The US has placed great weight on its policy of engagement and cooperation and private diplomatic intervention to gain concessions, and last year cited the registration of a small Catholic parish made up of expatriates as “progress." But the report admits that religious freedom "diminished slightly" in the 2010 with the registration of only one Muslim group, Ibrahim Edhem, located in Dashoguz province, yet others still unable to legalize.
Red and blue are primary colors. So it could just be a coincidence. But in the heated battle for Kyrgyzstan’s presidency, one website is pointing out that Prime Minister Almazbek Atambayev’s new logo bears a striking resemblance to … Valvoline motor oil!
Bloggers in Kyrgyzstan have been sniggering at the comparison since the campaign began last week. In Atambayev’s logo, the letter ‘A’ in his name looks very much like the Valvoline ‘V’ flipped upside down.
This was not lost on the “information-analytical portal” Sayasat.kg (politics.kg, in Kyrgyz), which describes itself as independent, but is actually backed by one of Atambayev’s competitors. Sayasat.kg calls Atambayev disingenuous and two-faced, using perevyortysh, a Russian word with the root “to turn upside down.”
This is not the first time that Atambayev’s campaign team has been accused of zealously trawling the Internet for inspiration. In 2009, when he ran against then-President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, Atambayev was teased for using a logo that looked suspiciously like that of a very popular American candidate – namely, Barack Obama.
Since the U.S. has moved to remove human rights-related restrictions from military aid to Uzbekistan, the Obama administration has been criticized for abandoning its scruples for the sake of Tashkent's cooperation on hosting supply lines to Afghanistan. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was asked about that yesterday, and she said there has been progress on human rights and political freedoms:
With respect to Uzbekistan, we value our relationship with Uzbekistan. They have been very helpful to us with respect to the Northern Distribution Network. They have also been helpful with Afghanistan in terms of reconstruction. They are deeply involved in assisting Afghans and the Afghan Government to try to rebuild and make Afghanistan a more prosperous, peaceful country. We believe that our continuing dialogue with officials of the government is essential. It always raises, as I have and as others from our government continue to do so, our concerns about human rights and political freedoms. But at the same time we are working with the Uzbeks to make progress, and we are seeing some signs of that, and we would clearly like to deepen our relationship on all issues.
Now, that contention is going to get a lot of scrutiny. She didn't give any examples of how the situation in Uzbekistan has improved. The most recent State Department human rights report does highlight a few areas in which Uzbekistan has improved. For example:
“You're jealous because we are pretty, athletic and rich,” has essentially become Baku's way to smack back at the BBC after the broadcaster reported that Azerbaijan was alleged to have handed over $9 million to buy gold medals for its boxers at London's 2012 Olympics.
But Azerbaijan need not worry about securing medals, he continued. In Ahmedov's telling, the World Championships alone could get Azerbaijani boxers a ticket to the 2012 Olympics.“All of this obviously causes envy,” he concluded.
It may be doubtful whether such an argument could ever stand up in court, but, with investigation plans still pending, Azerbaijan is clearly making its move to punch the allegations into a knockout before the upcoming Olympic games.
Nazarbayev, who likes to tout his role in dismantling the nuclear weapons he inherited from the Soviet Union, has been up for the prize several times before at home. But those efforts failed. And because he rules over Central Asia’s fastest-growing economy, where living standards are rapidly outpacing those in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, it should come as no surprise that a grateful neighbor should step up and help.
Of course, not all Kyrgyz deputies are happy to see their country groveling before its stronger neighbor. When Speaker Akmatbek Keldibekov (no convincing peacemaker himself) suddenly tabled the proposal at the end of the parliamentary session on September 29, one deputy cried, “This really looks like sheer toadyism!”
"This flattery ... had not been discussed before and appeared on the agenda all of a sudden at the last moment," Reuters quoted MP Kanybek Imanaliyev from the Ar-Namys party as saying. "It looks like some [Kyrgyz] politicians have vested interests in this."
Most of the coverage of the news that the U.S. has decided to resume military aid (specifically, money to buy equipment, or Foreign Military Financing) has focused on why the U.S. did it, including this story from yesterday on EurasiaNet. But another question is: what does Uzbekistan get out of it? An obvious answer is, money, but the amount of money in question (at least so far) is very small, $100,000.
Maybe this will just open the door to more money in the future. But looking at the Wikileaked cables that describe the back-and-forth between the U.S. and Uzbekistan governments over the question of FMF, it doesn't seem that Uzbekistan is particularly concerned about the stuff per se, but in a more symbolic significance. For example, this cable from February 2010, after President Islam Karimov called for strengthening relations with the U.S.:
The fact that Karimov has effectively tasked his government to advance the relationship with the U.S. presents an important opportunity at a critical time as the USG manages the Afghanistan plus up. Karimov and the GOU are seeking legitimacy and recognition in two ways: First, they want the recognition and prestige that would accrue from a visit by Secretary Clinton to Uzbekistan. Second, they want to see progress on the issue of military-technical cooperation and what they know would be the concomitant lifting or waiving of the Congressional restrictions on FMF and IMET. Our challenge is to leverage this opening to our best advantage, but we cannot assume that time is our ally. The GOU is clearly looking for "signals," and, as part of any additional NDN-related requests, we would be well-served to be able to offer tangible responses to the Uzbeks on the question of a high-level visit or military-technical cooperation.
The phrase “I was in Ukraine” often brings lascivious and knowing smiles among male company in Georgia, where a visit to Ukraine is seen as all but synonymous with a sex holiday. Now, a group of Ukrainian feminist activists has made it its mission to convince Georgian -- and other -- men that "Ukraine Is Not a Brothel!"
Hoisting posters marked “Not for Sale!," a visiting delegation of Ukraine’s feminist group FEMEN, famed for its topless protests, marched last week on downtown Tbilisi, where a giant outdoor video screen and leaflets distributed to passers-by often promote a Ukrainian striptease show.
Such shows might seem an anomaly, at first glance. Tbilisi is not exactly Bangkok, after all, and the Georgian Orthodox Church holds increasing sway. But, to FEMEN, their staging is part of a bigger problem than any local problem of male machoism.
Ukraine, they say, is increasingly seen as "Europe's biggest brothel."
In Georgia, oddly enough, diplomatic tensions may have played a role in promoting that image. Russia used to suffer locally from the same reputation, but, as ties between Tbilisi and Moscow soured, the stereotype passed to Ukraine.
Casinos have suddenly become a hot topic in Kyrgyzstan as various factions in parliament wrestle with accusations that they use the gambling houses to launder drug money.
On September 29, parliament approved a bill banning “gambling activity” as of January 1. Outside the building, protestors lamented that thousands of citizens working in the industry will lose their jobs due to the alleged illicit activities of the country’s leaders. One protestor, who called himself Timur, told EurasiaNet.org that the new ban stinks of inequality: “We pay taxes, we contribute to society. And you see these people [lawmakers and other officials] driving around in Lexuses that cost tens of thousands of dollars. Where does the money come from?”
That is a question on a lot of people’s minds in Bishkek these days. For the past several weeks, a heretofore unheard of group has shouted allegations that the leading candidate in the next month's presidential election, Prime Minister Almazbek Atambayev, uses casinos to launder profits from drug trafficking. Atambayev has not responded to the allegations.
The groups included human rights organizations Amnesty International USA, the Berlin-based European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, Freedom House, Freedom Now, and Human Rights Watch; labor unions AFL-CIO and labor rights groups International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF and The Child Labor Coalition as well as Tashkent-based organizations such as the Expert Working Group and the exile groups Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights.
“We call on you to stand behind your strong past statements regarding human rights abuses in Uzbekistan,” the signatories said in their letter to Clinton. “We strongly urge you to oppose passage of the law and not to invoke this waiver.” The Obama administration has called on Congress to support the waiver to enable such assistance as bullet-proof jackets for Uzbek law-enforcers.
The language already approved on September 21 will likely be included in an eventual foreign operations bill voted on later this year, barring the unlikely case of any senator willing to hold up the whole bill over Uzbekistan.