Uzbekistan is reportedly closing its borders to all citizens from neighboring Central Asian countries in the most drastic measure adopted to date to enhance security for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit this month.
The plan was reported in local media on June 15 and partly confirmed by authorities in Tashkent.
“From June 15 to June 25, Uzbekistan will be halting the passage of people, transportation and cargo entering the country from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan,” KyrTAG news agency reported.
KyrTAG reported that an exception is being made for residents of the Kyrgyz enclave of Barak, which lies fully within Uzbek territory.
Closing borders has long become a customary practice in Uzbekistan ahead of major public events, such as the Nowruz holidays.
There had been rumors earlier this week that authorities in Tashkent would close the city off to all public transport from outside the capital from June 16 onward. Law enforcement officials denied that claim, however. (A report about the claimed transport ban on Nuz.uz has since been pulled).
Police in Kyrgyzstan have said that they have identified 4,000 people as being “adherents of extremists views,” a big jump from the figure reported last year.
The Interior Minister said on June 14 that in the first five months of the year, police registered 215 “expressions of religious of extremism” and that 63 related criminal cases have been opened.
In September, however, police officials were stating that their database of suspected extremist sympathizers numbered around 1,800.
Raim Salimov, the deputy head of the Interior Ministry’s 10th department, which is responsible for combating terrorism, said at the time that the bulk of that cohort, around 1,360 people, were members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a banned Islamic party whose goal is to see an Islamic caliphate created across the region. The group has always professed to eschew violent methods. Salimov also said last year that 74 percent of reported incidents of extremist behavior were recorded in the south.
There is an implied but unspoken inference in that particular data point insofar as it is ethnic Uzbeks, who mainly live in the south, that are the predominant targets of extremism-related prosecutions. That said, research over the years has shown that Hizb ut-Tahrir has in the south been able on occasion to overcome the ethnic divide, so the picture is not always so cut and dry.
Still, it is not immediately apparent how the sudden and drastic increase in identified extremists can be be explained.
There is some indication that the net is being cast wider and more indiscriminately.
So far, the India-Russia railway project is not a fully rail-based route, rather a rail-sea-road-rail-shipment arrangement. Goods coming by rail from Mumbai will be ferried to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas in the Persian Gulf, then carried north across Iran by rail to the city of Rasht. Trucks will carry the load to the Azerbaijani border town of Astara, and then a train will carry it to Moscow, said Javid Gurbanov, chairperson of Azerbaijan Railways.
Baku says the route, part of a north-south transit corridor, will carry 5 million tons of goods annually. For a smoother shipment, Iran and Azerbaijan are negotiating the construction of a rail link between the cities of Rasht and Astara. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is due in Baku in August to discuss funding and technical matters. Azerbaijani officials say they may lend part of the estimated $900 million to Iran for the railway project.
In a sign that Kazakhstan is intent of placing the recent shootouts in Aktobe at the feet of foreign parties, Interior Minister Kalmuhanbet Kasymov said on June 14 that investigators believe instructions for the attack were issued from Syria.
The international trail is just one out of multiple, sometimes outlandish, strands coming together to form the official account of the day of terror that claimed the lives of five civilians and three servicemen.
Authorities announced the conclusion on June 12 of what they dubbed an anti-terrorist operation after detaining the last suspected attacker.
Nurgali Bilisbekov, the deputy head of the National Security Committee, or KNB, explained in a post-operation briefing that the armed group appeared intent on capturing government buildings.
“According to preliminary data, after seizing the firearms, the terrorists intended to attack penitentiaries and administrative buildings,” Bilisbekov said.
Bilisbekov said only timely reaction from special forces troops prevented the plan from being fulfilled.
Kasymov offered the most detailed official version of events to date in his remarks to the press.
“The total number [of people involved in the attack], as it has been accurately established, is 45 people. But when they declared jihad and left their flats, 19 of them backed out. We have identified them all now and are interrogating them,” he said.
Kyrgyzstan has arrested yet another once-powerful politician on charges of plotting a coup — and in a surprising twist, authorities have linked their fight to quash a purported surge of political instability with alleged corruption at an economically crucial gold mine.
No fewer than seven politicians from two equally marginal opposition factions are currently facing trial on charges of seeking to violently overthrow the government after arrests in March and May that coincided with planned protests.
The latest figure to end up in the crosshairs of the ever-vigilant State National Security Committee, or GKNB, is Dastan Sarygulov, who led the state mining concern Kyrgyzaltyn from 1992 to 1999
Kyrgyzaltyn is significant because it represents the country’s stake in Toronto-listed Centerra Gold company, which operates the flagship Kumtor mine.
Sarygulov was among many former politicians to be dragged in for questioning in March over a coup plot whose existence has elicited much skepticism. Unlike three of his suspected co-plotters, who were slung into jail, Sarygulov remained under house arrest.
His name has now come up in relation to broad government probes into Kyrgyzstan into Kumtor. Few take the authorities’ claimed concerns of corruption or environmental damage created by the gold mining project at face value.
Kyrgyzstan and Centerra — in which the Central Asian state’s government owns an almost one-third stake — have long been engaged in bitter struggle over the fate of the concession. Bishkek had hoped to renegotiate the terms of the deal, but talks between the two parties collapsed last year, setting the stage for a dirtier and more unpredictable showdown.
The U.S.'s primary interests in Central Asia are making sure the region doesn't become a terrorist sanctuary and protecting it from Russian influence, a senior State Department official has testified. The statement suggests a shift in Washington (rhetorically, at least) toward a Central Asia policy oriented toward security and away from political reforms and human rights.
U.S. official statements about Central Asia policy usually describe Washington's interests as threefold: promoting political and economic reform, developing the region's oil and gas resources, and improving security. The introduction to the testimony of Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Daniel Rosenblum at a congressional hearing last year was typical:
Since the fall of the Soviet Union nearly 25 years ago, the United States has supported the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and independence of the states of Central Asia, while also promoting the political and economic reforms that can ensure their long-term stability and prosperity. U.S. security is directly tied to a stable Central Asia. Central Asia’s energy resources and transport corridors can help drive regional and global economic growth in the decades to come. And some of Central Asia’s most serious challenges – such as transnational crime, terrorism, violent extremism, and climate change – affect our national interests as well, and require us to work closely together with them.
Georgian soldiers take part in Exercise Noble Partner with the U.S. and UK in May 2016. (photo: U.S. Army)
Georgia has had to drop out of large-scale NATO military exercises because some of the soldiers slated to go were diagnosed with chicken pox.
This might not be a particularly newsworthy development for most countries but for Georgia, whose NATO membership aspirations are the foundation of its foreign policy, the episode has been controversial and embarrassing. Speculation arose that the chicken pox was just a cover story for Georgia's cold feet and fear of offending Russia, which government officials quickly tried to tamp down. Georgia's National Security Council has promised to take up the issue at its next meeting. And the Russian press eagerly seized on the event with headlines like "In Georgia, chicken pox turns out to be stronger than NATO."
The exercise, Anakonda 16, is taking place in Poland with 31,000 troops from 24 NATO and partner countries. NATO officials are framing the exercise as a "response to potential aggression from Russia against member states along the alliance’s eastern periphery." It will be followed by the alliance's summit in Warsaw, where the question of how to deal with Russia will be at the top of the agenda. Georgia, while not expecting to get an invitation for membership, nevertheless is hoping for "practical support" from NATO in its struggle against Russia.
For the first time in Uzbekistan’s post-Soviet history, the customary of breaking fast at sundown during the Ramadan period is being banned from mosques and restaurants.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Uzbek service, Ozodlik, reported this week that the ban was introduced not by the government itself, however, but by the state-run Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Uzbekistan.
“The ban on performing iftar in cafes, restaurants and mosques is not government policy. We have gone down this road bearing in mind the history of Islam. At the time of the Prophet Muhammed, iftar was organized solely for those who had little or nothing to eat. But now iftar, which had always been a manifestation of the need to care for the needy, has become another display of waste and ostentatious celebration,” Abdulaziz Mansur, the deputy head of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Uzbekistan, told Ozodlik in an interview.
Accordingly, the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Uzbekistan is inviting people to invite small groups of people home instead of gathering in large groups in public places.
“In Mecca people perform iftar because people (pilgrims) do not have their own home there. Our citizens have their own home. They should have iftar at their place, within their family circle,” Mansur said.
The holy month of Ramadan began this year on June 6.
This period is typically a considerable money-spinner for cafes and restaurants in the old part of the capital, Tashkent, which would put on special menus to celebrate the daily breaking of the fast.
A court in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana, has sentenced a key figure in a corruption case involving the upcoming EXPO-2017 fair to 14 years in jail.
The court on June 9 convicted Talgat Ermegiyaev, former head of fair organizer Astana EXPO-2017 company, after finding him guilty of embezzling 10.2 billion tenge ($30 million).
The conviction casts an unfortunate shadow over an event that was intended to showcase Kazakhstan as an innovative and modern economic powerhouse.
As part of his punishment, Ermegiyaev will also be stripped of six cars, shareholdings in companies that he owned and funds in three separate bank accounts.
Another 22 people were also on trial over the corruption probe. Twelve had fully admitted their guilt and assisted the investigation.
Among those who turned state witness were 61-year old Kazhymurat Usenov, former head of the construction department at Astana EXPO-2017.
This was not Usenov’s first brush with notoriety. In 2013, his son, Maksat, while drunk plowed his car into six people waiting at a bus stop, killing one of them. Maksat Usenov got off with just a fine, 45 days of house arrest and the loss of his driving license in a verdict that sparked widespread outrage. All the same, he was subsequently seen driving a car and again got into an accident in 2014. The scandal forced his father’s resignation.
Ermegiyaev is insistent he is innocent and claims he has been made a scapegoat.
Security forces in Kazakhstan on June 10 mopped up most of the remnants of the armed gang that sowed terror in western city of Aktobe over the weekend.
The Antiterrorism Center said in a statement that the gunman were located overnight in an apartment on Nekrasov Street in Aktobe. Troops with the National Security Committee and Interior Ministry surrounded the building and evacuated residents to safety.
Authorities said the gunmen refused to lay down their weapons and instead fired on security forces. Four of the gunmen were killed when the apartment was stormed.
Another man, identified by officials as an accomplice to the gunmen, was killed at another location when he opened fire on a patrol car.
A correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Kazakhstan service Azattyq reported seeing multiple armed personnel carriers and fire engines, as well as dozens of security forces, at the scene. The correspondent reported hearing at least two blasts.
Several journalists were forced to delete video footage and photos of the special operation, Azattyq reported.
Earlier in the week, the head of the National Security Committee said that six gunmen were on the run, which means at least one person still remains at large.
This brings the total death toll among the alleged perpetrators of the attacks on June 5 to at least 18. Seven people — four civilians and three servicemen — were killed on that day.
With the critical phase of operations nearing conclusion, attention would be expected to turn now to determining the motives of the group.