The astonishingly cretinous will they/won’t they story of the U.S. Manas air transit center (in plain English, an air base) is creaking into life for another sorry round.

This time it is the Kyrgyzstan national boxing palladium — also known as the parliament — that is threatening, in language suggestive of a regretful nun casting off her habits, to “renounce” the treaty for the airbase’s presence at Bishkek’s international airport.

Something smells fishy here though. And it isn’t just recently released opposition head-case Kamchibek Tashiyev’s underpants.

First of all, the base deal is in any case set to expire in June 2014. This makes parliament’s move a formality so pointless it is surprising the chronically work-shy Kyrgyz legislators can be induced to withdraw their snouts from the trough for the time it will take for the vote to go ahead.

Empty symbolism then? In truth, this is an area the Zhogorku Kenesh excels.

The initiative comes from the government, however, which has somehow managed to fit this into its frenetic schedule between bouts of saving the country from economic, social and moral collapse. The renunciation bill is being presented to parliament, which has already approved the motion at committee stage, by deputy foreign minister Erlan Abdyldayev.

Kyrgyz budget will lose $200 million after the Manas transit center agreement denunciation; KyrTAG quotes the country’s first vice-prime Minister Djoomart Otorbayev as saying on Monday.

Earlier this month, deputy prime Joomart Otorbayev was cheerily informing the country how much further into staggering penury this will drive the state coffers. The United States pays around $60 million in lease annually for the base, which provides employment to 1,000 people and reportedly provides income for hundreds of supply companies.

One line of reasoning is that this is all part of a reorientation toward Russia, which purportedly intends to substantially expand its relatively modest Kant air base outside Bishkek. Following a visit to Kant earlier this year by Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, reports appeared alluding to plans to expand the runway, modernize facilities and generally turn the base in a top-notch aviation outpost for the NATO-style Collective Security Treaty Organisation.

If it is the Russians trying to push the Americans out (again), then one wonders what Moscow’s motivations are. It is almost as though they were trying to slow down progress in the withdrawal from Afghanistan, which will likely take place in unseemly haste whatever happens.

In fact, if the base agreement were to be allowed to expire in June (as has been amply advertised for years now), the Americans will simply have to remove all permanent military presence in Kyrgyzstan and ferry their soldiers out on packed long-haul flights like sweaty British holidaymakers on their way to Pattaya. Logistically, this seems like a major hitch rather than an apocalyptic cataclysm, despite all the fretting and underpants-soiling among useless, lamebrain American diplomats.

Only this week, the foreign affairs committee in parliament approved giving British military transportation transit rights through Kyrgyz airspace. In the event of an emergency, the aircraft could even land at Manas, said Transportation Minister Maksatbek Diykanov, before presumably adding a theatrical wink.

There may be more significance in this affair to be found on Kyrgyzstan’s bacchanalian local political scene.

Kicking out the Americans will play well after years of fairly absurd claims they have been poisoning the Kyrgyz countryside and killing every first born child and heaven knows what else. (Admittedly, crashing a plane and possibly narrowly missing some densely populated village the other month can’t really have helped their cause).

This nationalist, philo-Russian stance will prove particularly useful now that the xenophobic contingent has come back into force with the release of pugnacious southerner Tashiyev and his chums. Also in that general political quarter, serious competition is in the offing from roly-poly Osh mayor Melis Myrzakmatov, who now scrubs up well, has stopped speaking with his mouth full and could make a run on a national stage when the opportunity presents itself; namely, at the next presidential elections.

Not that having been the government that kicked out the Americans will be particularly significant electorally, but having the Kremlin onside will surely help. The last person that angered Moscow over Manas is now moodily sucking on kompot cordials through a straw in the garden of a Belarusian dacha like something out of the world’s worst staging of Chekhov.

It is the relaxed air with which Bishkek says thank you, but no thank you to substantial amounts of easy cash from the Americans that creates much room for doubt.

The speculation doing the rounds when this pointless denunciation/renunciation thing first became public was that Kyrgyzstan might be in the process of pulling another three-card trick: Putting the proposal to parliament, which would then vote down the bill and then give the government coverage to negotiate another lucrative one-year extension. This scenario would require a pliant parliament, however, and this lot of legislators is anything but cooperative.

If the base does go, the government needs to find a way of plugging a new circa $100 million annual hole in the budget. With the Kumtor gold mine cash cow constantly tottering due to public unrest, incited by the rabble-rousing nationalists, the addition to the deficit almost seems like a triviality, but still.

For all the belly-aching, Manas won’t make or break Kyrgyzstan. Its disappearance will only simply further isolate a country that needs as many friends as it can get and further pauperize a state barely able to provide for its population.

The only thing that matter about Manas is how little it ultimately matters.


Abilov: “Please God let this referendum work!”

For anybody that has ever wondered whether Kazakhstan even has a political opposition, the answer is that it does, but not a very useful one.
Matters began promisingly on March 16 when one phalanx of the opposition met for an hours-long meeting to discuss a raft of referendum proposals that they hope could propel them into some kind of political relevance. The unwritten mantra among politicians in Kazakhstan is that if something is worth talking about, it is worth talking about for hour after endless hour.
Despite officially being banned, Respublika weekly newspaper usefully summed up the meeting with this pithy headline summary: “Opposition Says to Authorities: No to Eurasian Union, Yes to Elected Mayors.”
Other than backing referendums on those issues, the meeting also called for votes on whether to nationalize Kazakhmys, ArcelorMittal Temirtau, Kazzinc, ENRC and Halyk Bank, and on whether to prohibit the building of a nuclear fuel bank and an atomic power plant in Kazakhstan.
Overall, the proposals offer the suggestion of a nationalist-populist agenda that the largely anodyne opposition must hope will finally put a tiger in its tank.
The turnout at the meeting of 512 attendees was hailed as a success by Azat party leader Bulat Abilov.
“When, at the start of September, we proposed this referendum initiative, many told us that that we couldn’t bring people out and hold a meeting, that we would be harassed,” Abilov said.
But making the government see the error of its ways is imperative, he said.
The referendum, which will now need to be submitted to the election commission for approval, is also a useful platform for Abilov to return to the public eye.
He largely slipped from view last year after being jailed twice for participating in unauthorized rallies in which he vowed unending resistance to callous government indifference over the bloody suppression of unrest in Zhanaozen in late 2011. Presumably fearing a sentence longer than the two-week jail sentence slaps on the wrist he received, he judiciously tip-toed away from the whole Zhanaozen issue.

Zhanuzakov: "Alga Kazakhstan! No Alga Going to Jail!"

Zhanuzakov: “Alga Kazakhstan! No Alga Going to Jail!”

Other notable speakers at the March 16 meeting were the young, photogenic and well-spoken political analyst Mukhtar Taizhan and the leader of banned Alga political movement Marat Zhanuzakov.
Taizhan, who has spoken copiously elsewhere in opposition to the Customs Union/Eurasian Union and has thus set out his stall as a reasonable nationalist of sorts, is a figure to watch in the future. But many eyes will have been on Zhanuzakov, who has the unenviable task of taking over the helm of a party whose previous leader is now serving a seven-year prison sentence.
An interview with Respublika after his first public airing in the new role reveals a combative figure apparently intent on pursuing similar territory to his predecessor; namely the corruption and economic malfeasance that has hampered Kazakhstan’s potential.
The elephant in the room here is that both Respublika and Alga are known to be financed by fugitive businessman Mukhtar Ablyazov, which renders that position inevitably problematic, given that he has all but admitted to gross embezzlement.
The referendum proposals are certainly not without promise and clearly designed as a quixotically mischievous attempt to wrong-foot the government, since their chances of actually going to vote are negligible. On the Customs Union _ or the Eurasian Union as the opposition has taken to calling it, in a transparent attempt to raise nationalist hackles _ the public jury is clearly still out.
As KIMEP University Professor Nargis Kassenova has lucidly argued, the Customs Union has largely proved a hindrance to businesses in Kazakhstan by causing bureaucratic complications and raising the cost of Chinese and Western imports.
Speaking for the defence, independent political analyst Andrei Chebotaryev criticized the proposed Customs Union referendum, calling it a short-sighted policy as, in his opinion, voters may actually end up backing the economic bloc were they given the choice.
Media reports of Chebotaryev’s remarks do not dwell on how he reached that conclusion.
While it may have been smiles all around at the referendum meeting, it was a different story at the gathering of that other hapless opposition stalwart _ the All-National Social-Democratic Party, or OSDP.
With the unhappy marriage between the prima donnas in the Azat-OSDP union having more or less culminated in divorce, OSDP is now busy eating itself if events at their congress on March 20 are anything to go by.
Despite being party deputy secretary, Amirzhan Kosanov was told on the eve of the meeting that he need not bother to turn up, which was as good as an invitation to make a fuss.
“I did not want any scandal,” Kosanov says in this video, before launching into a lengthy invective in front of the bouncers keeping him out of the congress.
“Somebody is intentionally creating a provocation and attempting to discredit the party,” Kosanov says.
That statement seems to assume OSDP is unable to discredit itself on its own, which is patently not the case.
In his rambling peroration, Kosanov calls for greater efforts by a unified opposition in attracting young people _ indeed a pressing issue for these movements’ greying ranks.
As it happens, ODSP Zharmakhan Tuyakbay has announced that the party has approved the creation of a youth wing and that a woman’s wing has also begun operations.
This looks like too little and well over a decade too late.
The imminent death of this tired and aged opposition generation has become a recurrent refrain among political commentators. As this piece from December in Central Asia Monitor harshly but not unfairly notes, “people with big names do not join the opposition, even from among those injured by the authorities (incidentally, this is not to the opposition camp’s credit because it hints at its gradual degeneration).”

Mambetalin: "Shut your gob, you glamorous bitch!"

Mambetalin: “Shut your gob, you glamorous bitch!”

Central Asia Monitor also alludes to relatively youthful Serikh Mambetalin, the delusional former leader of the now-nationalist, now-environmentalist, now-nothing Rukhaniyat party, as another missed opportunity.
Mambetalin these days prefers to hang out in social media sites, where the newspaper tartly notes he indulges in petty name-calling, dismissing people as “glamourous bitches” and telling them to “shut their gob.”
Rukhaniyat, which once included Taizhan in its ranks until he wisely dropped out, collapsed farcically in the weeks ahead of the show elections in January 2011 that led to the formation of the sitting rubber stamp non-parliament.
(Somewhat hilariously, former KazTransGas chairman Serik Sultangali was in February elected the new chair of Rukhaniyat. As party founder Altyntash Jaganova told a party congress, Rukhaniyat’s vision has always coincided with the ideas of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, which must have come as a surprise to Mambetalin.)
Central Asia Monitor, which seems to specialize in these obituaries on the opposition, ran with another piece earlier this month that revisited the same theme, albeit in an almost entirely incoherent fashion.
“An opposition that cannot see itself in power and simply occupies a certain political niche will never work up to the required standard,” writes commentator Bolat Shakuyev, without ever really getting to the point.
The standard is indeed low, but the burning question is whether it matters that Kazakhstan does not actually have an opposition party worthy of that title.
The government evidently doesn’t appear to believe so, but then again they were the people that let the issue of striking oil workers fester in Zhanaozen until it descended into bloodshed.
It is obvious that few lessons have really been learned from that tragic and quite possibly avoidable episode _ other than how best to massage the public relations fallout that is.
On the contrary, Alga, the one party vocally talking about Zhanaozen and warning of the dangers it represented in advance was instead accused of actually inciting the unrest and had its leader jailed in a kangaroo court.
The opposition is hapless and helpless, but there is no indication the government under the increasingly senescent Nazarbayev is possessed of a whole lot more vision.
The authorities’ strategy at the moment is a blind gamble on black: letting the population bumble around ideologically rudderless and hoping the oil money will be enough to quell any signs of unrest.

In the wake of the assumed death of Kyrgyz ex-presidential chief-of-staff, Medet Sadyrkulov, some interesting fissures are coming to light in what has generally been believed to be a monolithic pro-government bloc in parliament.

Three political groupings are represented in the Jogorku Kenesh: the pro-presidential Ak Zhol party with an overwhelming 71 deputies, the soft Communist Party opposition with 8 deputies, and the more combative Social Democrats with 11 seats.

One of the saddest outcomes of the tainted parliamentary elections of December 2007 was that this legislative chamber, easily the most lively in Central Asia, was neutered and turned effectively into a rubber stamp body for President Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s administration. Over the past few months, however, there have been increasingly rumbling about potential schisms within the dominant Ak Zhol group _ a possibility that has become ever more likely with Sadyrkulov’s death.

A substantial section of Ak Zhol deputies have an obvious loyalty toward Sadyrkulov, being former members of the Moya Strana (My Country) party that he once headed and saw merged into the larger grouping.

Galina Kulikova

Galina Kulikova

On Tuesday, former Moya Strana coordinator Galina Kulikova demanded Ak Zhol convene in an emergency meeting and called on Bakiyev to attend. The proposed topic of the meeting is to be what she described as shortcomings in the investigation into the crash in which it is believed Sadyrkulov was killed.

Meanwhile, Ak Zhol deputy Erik Arsaliyev, who lent the Lexus to Sadyrkulov, questioned the likelihood of the accident resulting in a fatality. He noted that the fuel tank in the Lexus is on the opposite side from where the collision took place, and so it was unlikely for the vehicle to catch fire the way it did.

(Incidentally, see this TV report for an interesting computer-generated reconstruction of the collision, which now appears to have taken place on a desolate road by a lake, although pictures from the scene suggested otherwise).

According to this article published in Reporter-Bishkek last year _ one of whose reporters recently fell victim to an unexplained beating _ Arsaliyev lies within the sphere of influence of an Ak Zhol faction headed by Sadyrkulov and Elmira Ibraimova, who also resigned as deputy prime minister in January. Ibraimova has been trenchant in her accusations against the government, insisting that Sadyrkulov’s was indeed murder. It was also she that has been telling all and sundry that Sadyrkulov warned her in previous weeks that he has been under surveillance and had received death threats. The important point here is that while some of Ibraimova’s words may verge on the hysterical, not to speak of self-regarding, she is clearly not a frivolous person without influence. Also, unlike Sadyrkulov, Ibraimova has manifestly pitched her tent broadly within the anti-government camp.

Elmira Ibraimova

Elmira Ibraimova

Zainidin Kurmanov, also formerly of Moya Strana, is yet another voice in the list of indignant deputies demanding a more probing inquiry into Sadyrkulov’s death.

What seems quite probable is that most those deputies (barring Social Democrats) coming out with the kind of stern words on this shady affair that we have seen so far will prove to be members of this broad faction encompassing Moya Strana and the Sadyrkulov-Ibraimova alliance, which may include anything up to 30-40 people, if the Reporter-Bishkek article is anything to go by.

Conversely, Sadyrkulov’s convenient death may have been just what the doctor ordered, so to speak. Any large-scale defections or rumblings may have been suitable averted by this macabre occurrence.

Ak Zhol may be on the brink of an almighty schism, in which case all bets are off. If the break-up of this political monolith is averted, however, it is difficult to see what difference the planned opposition marches will have.

The most bizarre aspect about Kyrgyz ex-presidential chief-of-staff Medet Sadyrkulov’s death is that nobody in government seems willing to allow the fact to be officially confirmed.

Piecing together the facts from official pronouncements and often contradictory media reports, it is not easy to divine specifically what happened that fateful Friday morning.

Medet Sadyrkulov

Medet Sadyrkulov

According to the most credible scenario, Sadyrkulov was returning from Almaty, Kazakhstan, together with political analyst Sergei Slepchenko and a driver. At 2 a.m., Slepchenko is reported to have called his wife to tell her that he was on his way back from Almaty. Half an hour later, their car, a Toyota Lexus 470 sports utility vehicle, crossed the border into Kyrgyzstan. Anywhere between 4 a.m. and 5:30 a.m. the Lexus was involved in a collision with an Audi 100 somewhere in the “Tyopliye Klyuchi” spa resort area situated around 40 kilometers outside Bishkek, where Sadyrkulov is purported to own a dacha.

The exact dynamics of the accident are far from clear, but it appear the driver of the Audi lost control of his vehicle, veered away from his lane, and collided with the Lexus. There are contradictory accounts about whether the Lexus was stationary or in movement at the time, a key detail given the varying age and size of the respective vehicles. According to police accounts, the crash appears to have provoked a furious fire in which the three passengers in the Lexus died.

The driver of the Audi, named by Interior Ministry officials only as O. Osmonov, born in 1985, survived the accident, although his current status and whereabouts are also unclear.

It transpired that the Lexus belonged to parliament deputy Erik Arsaliyev, who had lent the car to Sadyrkulov for the trip.

The Interior Ministry and the Health Ministry are both declining to make any definitive statement on the identity of the dead individuals found on the site of the crash. Oddly, even an examination of the remains by Sadyrkulov’s dentist was seemingly insufficient to allow for a definitive verdict. The Health Ministry says it will only know for sure after it receives the results of DNA tests from a laboratory in Kazakhstan, which could more than two weeks.

Every beyond and including the chronology above is now grounds for speculation, and has been feverishly seized upon by the opposition.

To start in proper order, however, it is worth wondering why naming the victims is so evidently being dragged out. In the primitive mentality of the Kyrgyz authorities, it must be believed that the furore around this death will die down in an information vacuum. Also, since the opposition is planning their major nationwide protests for the end of March, final verification may be delayed until after that, thereby preventing Sadyrkulov from being used a fallen martyr. If that is the case, it is misguided, since the opposition will only be able to make more capital out of the fact the authorities are seemingly trying to cover something up.

At this stage, it is important to ascertain a number of points: Was Sadyrkulov, as his colleagues and opposition representatives have been saying, indeed murdered? What was his current relationship with President Kurmanbek Bakiyev? Could he truly have been described as a government opponent? Who stands to benefit from Sadyrkulov’s death?

Once again, addressing these questions requires in first order a dispassionate assembly of the hard facts at our disposal _ the “known knowns” as celebrated philosopher Donald Rumsfeld once described them.

Sadyrkulov served as the head of Bakiyev’s presidential administration until January, when he tendered his surprise resignation amid a flurry of speculation. Sadyrkulov insisted that his departure from government was taken voluntarily, and Bakiyev pledged at the time that he would offer him a new position.

Most of the hypotheses surrounding Sadyrkulov’s decision to step down revolve around his perceived lack of loyalty to the current ruling establishment. Depending on who you believe, Sadyrkulov was either a key player among the northern clans traditionally opposed to people of Bakiyev’s background _ who comes from the south. Alternatively, he allied himself with no particular grouping and simply acted as a broker between rival camps.

But what is certain is that for as long as Sadyrkulov was at Bakiyev’s side, he served him well and rigorously, playing an instrumental role in strengthening presidential powers in ways that caused much consternation among the opposition.

Less two weeks after resigning, Sadyrkulov met again with Bakiyev, at which time he said he turned down an offer to take up a new job as Foreign Minister.

From there onwards, we must rely on opposition conjectures and claims for the nature of Sadyrkulov’s activities.

Opposition leaders Omurbek Tekebayev and Almazbek Atambayev, of the Ata-Meken and Social Democratic parties respectively, have both claimed that Sadyrkulov has been holding talks with government opponents about backing them against the current leadership. In addition to lending the opposition his political support, Sadyrkulov was also purportedly on a money-raising drive.

Since Sadyrkulov was hardly the model democrat, however, we can only surmise the motivations were predicated on a jostle for power and influence rather than any specific political grievances.

One issue that has been somewhat overlooked is Sadyrkulov’s party political role as the chairman of the Moya Strana (My Country) party, which was rolled into the pro-government Ak Zhol party some time ago. If those deputies with connections to that previous political grouping have been mulling where they stand within the increasingly fissiparous Ak Zhol, the murky circumstances of Sadyrkulov’s demise may help them to make up their minds either way.

Again though, it is imperative to stress that Sadyrkulov was not an opposition politician by any stretch of the imagination, and it is far from evident whether he would ever truly have become one. The danger he posed to the government, however, was that he was instrumentally capable of undermining its authority by drawing away significant support in his capacity as a political actor. In that respect, his departure from the scene could guarantee Bakiyev’s regime some breathing space ahead of further crackdowns and consolidation of power.

For anyone that has not been paying attention, this is a very select highlight of some of the government’s apparent attempts to clamp down on dissenting voices:

March, 2009: Ex-foreign minister and leader of the For Justice opposition movement Alikbek Dzhekshenkulov is arrested on suspicion of murder. If found guilty, he could face up to 20 years in prison.

March, 2009: Reporter-Bishkek newspaper journalist Syrgak Abdyldayev is stabbed repeatedly and beaten severely by four assailants after leaving his office in an attack that opposition parties described as an attempt to stamp out freedom of expression.

January, 2009: Tekebaev is detained in the Talas region on an illegal weapons charge. He is unable to travel to a Moscow conference on the future development of Kyrgyz politics. The charges are later dropped.

December, 2008: The state radio station takes BBC programming off the airwaves, only days after withdrawing broadcasting rights from U.S.-funded Radio Liberty’s Kyrgyz Service. Both broadcaster feature critical content and give a platform to opposition politicians.

October, 2008: A leading Social Democratic party member, Ruslan Shabotoyev, goes missing. Shabotoyev left his house late at night after being called out to an unexpected meeting. His cell phone was disconnected shortly after and he has not been heard from since.

September, 2008: The former head of the state election-monitoring body, Klara Kabilova, resigns her post and flee the country claiming she has been on the receiving end of threats from Bakiyev’s son.

September, 2008: Police arrest the editor of the Alibi opposition newspaper, Babyrbek Dzheenbekov, for failing to pay court-ordered libel damages Bakiyev’s nephew.

On and on it goes.

This speculation is all very well, but at the heart of it are deaths that remain mysterious and unexplained. As indicated above, the cause of the fire that is reputed to have incinerated the passengers of the Lexus SUV was caused by a collision with an Audi 100, a car considerably older and smaller than that the people-carrier in which Sadyrkulov was travelling.

Scene of the Crash

Scene of the Crash

According to some initial reports, passengers in the Lexus appeared to have made no attempt to escape the vehicle, indicating that at the very least they must have been rendered unconscious on impact. Studying a picture of the wreckage featured on the Radio Free Europe site, it defies belief how this could have been the case.

The Lexus looks as though it was left virtually intact from any collision. If the driver of the Audi, a common second-hand feature on Kyrgyz roads that was last issued in the mid-1990s, could have survived, he would presumably have left the car and made some distance between distance between himself and the flames soon after impact, since his vehicle is also shown to have been completely burnt out. In which case, one would have to ask why he would have done nothing to attempt to assist the passengers in the Lexus.

Even the position of the two cars looks odd. The Lexus looks as though it was parked in the spot, while the Audi appear to have come in from a very odd angle.

If Osmonov is able to regain normal health and is ever able to talk about what precisely happened that morning, it will be interesting to hear what he has to say.

And where now for Kyrgyz politics?

Opposition parties will attempt to follow through with threats to hold protests later this month, but with the alleged loss of a political and potential financial supporter, it is easy to imagine that the momentum may be too weak for anything significant. If the allegations about “political murder” have any grounds in truth, it is also easy to conclude that some will be genuinely rattled by the latest developments and decide to tone down their criticism.

Make Music Not Revolution

Make Music Not Revolution

Even if protests do proceed, the authorities are already mobilizing to thwart them logistically; in Bishkek at least. As a reader at pointed out recently, city government has announced that it plans to begin renovating Ala-Too Square _ the scene of the dramatic climax to the revolutionary uprising in May 2005 _ just a matter of days before the opposition are due to hold their protests. As if Bishkek didn’t need more important things, the mayor’s office says that it plans to build a 20-meter high musical fountain on the square and that much of the main thoroughfare will be shut off until June.

The upshot of this is that Bakiyev looks to have won the day again, but at what cost does not bear thinking about. Diplomatically isolated in the wake of the U.S. base closure decision, Bakiyev now has free rein to turn his rule into a brutalized and despotic banana republic to all intents and purpose; without the bananas, that is.

Bridging the Panj River


U.S. 'R' US: Bridging the Panj River


Joshua Foust over at Registan has weighed in on the Manas air base saga, but I feel he may have wandered into some factual and analytical inexactitudes that I wanted to raise here for the conscientious Central Asia observer.

The most interesting point has to do with the apparent revelation in an Associated Press report that the Pentagon intends to resume “military cooperation” with Uzbekistan. Foust scoffs at the suggestion that this is a novel revelation, but I think that is a mistake.

The suggestion that the U.S. is trying improve military ties with Uzbekistan is indeed news, if it is actually true. Any negotiations we are so far aware of have focused on using the country as a transit point for non-military goods, such as food, building material and medical supplies. Military cooperation would entail engagement of quite a different order and could indeed raise ethical questions, if you are the kind of person that asks them.

My issue with the report is that rings decidedly false, and I would not be surprised if this is the United States military’s attempt to play its own card in the now-desperate information war it is waging with Kyrgyzstan; an attempt to scare Bishkek into desisting from overplaying its poker hand in the bid for extra money, which is clearly how Washington views this whole affaire.

Again, the story just doesn’t seem very likely, for a number of reasons. While there has been some rapprochement between the U.S. and Uzbekistan, it has been slow and pretty low-key. Resurrecting the K2 base is probably never likely to be on the agenda in Karimov’s lifetime for any number of reasons. Also, Uzbekistan looks as though it is prepared to commit to its membership in the CSTO _ the fact that Karimov deigned to go the body’s summit in Moscow is a rare concession that should not be underestimated.

Foust is also wrong in saying that March 2008 marked a turning point in that the Uzbeks allowed NATO countries to resupply from Termez. The Germans have been using that as a supply facility since coalition operations began in Afghanistan. What Robert Simmons said in Moscow last year was that U.S. personnel were travelling through a facility in Uzbekistan _ though he never actually mentioned Termez by name, contrary to what was claimed by some Russian news reports. All in all, it was a fundamentally pretty trivial development, regardless of what the media reports may have suggested.

It might also be nitpicking to question whether the United States thought (or thinks) Uzbekistan is the only choice for transit, but here goes. What is becoming clear is that the policy is now to pursue multiple routes, for the simple reason that it undermines attempts by any single rogue state from making a nuisance of itself.

Foust says Uzbekistan has the only high-capacity border crossing into Afghanistan, meaning the misnamed Bridge of Friendship. That is an assertion easily made if you have never tried crossing the bastard thing, but I know what he means.

However, the United States is clearly intent on making further use of Tajikistan in the future, which explains why they are in talks with authorities there to fund the building of yet another bridge to match the spiffy one across the Panj River that they already paid for a few years back. While there could be no talk getting there from Europe overland, which would either take you through Uzbekistan anyway or go via some hellishly winding and bumpy roads, there is always the option of sourcing goods locally. This is something U.S. diplomats have already spoken about doing in Kazakhstan, and there is no reason the approach could not be used elsewhere _ it would after all be a useful economic boost for particularly poverty-stricken areas like southern Tajikistan.

It is also glib to dismiss efforts to engage Turkmenistan’s role to play. At least the U.S. military thinks so; or General David Petraeus, CENTCOM commander, would not have bothered going there last month with the express intent of discussing how Ashgabat could assist operations on Afghanistan. On paper, Turkmenistan has said it is interested in helping stability in Afghanistan, and given its insistence on the neutrality formula, that could really only possibly mean assisting in transportation arrangement for non-military supplies.

Again, a lot of people seem to labouring under some kind of misapprehension about what these transit routes are all about exactly. It is not even clear that any military personnel will even be engaged in moving these goods from point A to point B, until they get to the Afghan border. It is, after all, almost certainly cheaper to contract these logistical services to private companies, which helpfully obviates cause for concern among any of the affected states that the operation would in any way be impinging on their diplomatic and strategic status.

On one point I am still just about in agreement with Foust, though I may in time have to eat many of the words I spent on my previous post. It is clear to any fool with eyes that Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev is angling for money. That fact alone lets in the slightest chink of light into the gloom, if you are someone that believes Manas air base should stay put. The United States, though, have clearly not been very forthcoming on this matter, a fact that must frustrate Kyrgyzstan more than somewhat.

Even so, they have allowed some slight room for a demarche. In spite of government officials harping on endlessly about how it is the end of the road for Manas, the parliamentary vote on a government-sponsored draft bill to revoke the basing agreement has been delayed till at least Thursday, while deputies really chew it over, at the urging of the government itself no less.

This is patently a lot of hogwash. The bill is a work of febrile stupidity even by Kyrgyz parliamentary standards. Although it is true that Manas has been in situ far longer than most Kyrgyz people could have expected, it is quite absurd of the government to argue the base is no longer needed because operations to bring stability to Afghanistan have been successfully completed. It is quite peculiar that a government that squeals with terror over Hizb Ut-Tahrir should express such airy confidence about a country besieged by the Taliban.

In one of the more breath-taking passages in the statement accompanying bill, the government actually quotes Human Rights Watch as saying that too many civilian casualties have been killed in U.S. and NATO bombing sorties. Presumably, this is not the same Human Rights Watch that just this week criticized Kyrgyzstan for allowing Uzbek special services to snatch refugees and asylum seekers off its streets.

No, the process is being dragged out for longer than it needs to be, specifically because there must still be some hope that the U.S. will come up with an offer that Bishkek can’t refuse.

It is interesting to speculate what such an offer might be. Last time that Bakiyev was making rent demands it was $200 million per year. The U.S. currently pays $150 million between rent and other assorted goods and services.

Pig Wearing Lipstick

Aid Package: Pig Wearing Lipstick

For the sake of perspective, we should consider looking at what the Russians brought to the table. A lot of figures are being bandied about, but this is the full breakdown of the four-point deal:

1) Russia will issue a line of credit of $300 million to be paid on April 30 this year. The interest charged on the loan will be 0.75 per annum, and the sum is repayable over a 40-year period in biannual installments. The first payment is due on March 15, 2016, and the final payment has to be made by Sept. 15, 2049.

2) Russia will cancel all Kyrgyzstan’s remaining g debts, which total a little over $193 million. In exchange for that, however, Russia gets a 48 percent stake in Dastan, a company that produces marine torpedoes, oddly enough. It will also receive ownership of some building in Bishkek, although I’m not quite certain which one they are talking about.

3) The Russian Finance Ministry will give $150 million in financial assistance to be transferred on April 30, 2009.

This part is the only real gift as such, and it would be an interesting parlour game to speculate where all this cash will end up. Already, lobbyists are said to lining up to ask for money to build dairy and tobacco factories.

4) Most interesting, is the last agreement on the construction of the Kambaratinsk hydroelectricity generation plant. The Russian and Kyrgyz governments will take joint 50/50 ownership of a company that will oversee the construction of the facility via their state-owned power companies _ OAO Inter RAO UES and OAO Electrical Stations respectively.

Russia will “enable the raising of $1.7 billion for the construction building of Kambaratinsk in credit (with a grace period of eight years and loan maturity of 20 years) for the company” building the plant over a four-year period, starting from 2009.

Since this is the part of the deal that is the most eye-catching in numerical terms, it might be worth considering its exact significance. Again, it seems that the money is in fact little more than a loan, which will not in all likelihood even be issued by the Russian government. Not that it makes any difference if the government is stumping up the cash or not, but what investor in their right mind would sink their money into a project fraught with as many disastrous possibilities as a Central Asian hydroelectric dam. In any event, the actual building work will most likely be done by a Russian company. At best, this is a grand job creation scheme that could employ a few hundred people for a few years some time over the coming decade. The actual electricity won’t come online for probably six-seven years at a generous estimate.

It is also odd that Russia should backing this giant hydroelectric plant only a couple of weeks after President Dimitry Medvedev angered the Tajiks by suggesting they should ask permission from all their downstream neighbors if they wanted to build Roghun Dam.

Bakiyev plays hardball

Bakiyev plays hardball

The upshot of this all being that Kyrgyzstan hasn’t really got that great a deal. Really, money in the pocket _ pocket being the operative word _ totals no more than $450 million. The cancelled debt is a bad joke; as if Kyrgyzstan could pay it back even if it wanted to. If the United States had been prepared to look at $200-250 per annum in Manas fees and aid over the next two to three years, it would have easily presented a tempting offer of no-strings-attached cash on the table. Indeed, since operations at the air base were set to step up a few notches, it is quite likely that figure would have been reached without breaking too much sweat anyway.

As things stand now, the Kyrgyz parliament may possibly have passed the point of no return on Friday, however, by ratifying the four-point agreement detailed above. Strangely, this decidedly suspicious bit of legislation passed quickly and without the slightest murmur of discussion about what might lie behind it, or how and when the monies in question will be spent.

Having given the aid the green light, it remains to see how Kyrgyzstan could even begin to weasel out of its obligations to Russia on Manas. Provided it did commit itself at all.

After all, is it beyond the realms of possibility that this whole plot has been cooked up in concert by Bishkek and Moscow?

Consider the following premises and possibilities:

          While Russia wants Manas closed, it should really be fairly low on its list of actual practical priorities, and it does see some benefit in somebody addressing the problems of regional instability.

          Medvedev has talked in recent days about wanting to see movement on halting NATO expansion and plans to develop the missile defense shield in Europe.

          Linking these issues allows for reaching a compromise that sees Russia getting its way on either NATO or the defense shield, the United States holding onto Manas, and Kyrgyzstan getting much-needed cash from Moscow and Washington.

Ultimately, if it is a gambit, it is likely doomed to failure because of the perceived strategic costs to the U.S., but not because of the monetary concerns. Its failure would also mean Bakiyev has been played like a chump: No Manas rent, no diplomatic leverage, and a pretty meager pot of real cash to show for it.

Well, it seems that Kyrgyzstan may have finally have gone and done it. President Kurmanbek Bakiyev announced Tuesday while in Moscow that his country will end U.S. use of Manas airbase, apparently striking a mortal blow for U.S. plans to boost troop presence in Afghanistan.

But wait a minute, let’s not forget that in Bakiyev we are dealing with a man so slippery he could slide under a snake while wearing a top hat, to quote a a long-dead British parliamentary wit.

The standard line that has been recited for weeks now is that Kyrgyzstan is acting at Moscow’s behest and on pain of losing what was confirmed today will be $2 billion in loans and $150 million. Taking a good look at those numbers, it is far from clear what exactly Bishkek gets out of this quid pro quo deal. It is true that in the age of subprime, some people have lost all understanding of basic economic principles, but presumably everybody is familiar with the concept of a loan. This is not a gift and will only serve to weigh Bishkek yet further under the Muscovite yoke. Gazprom has already taken a sizeable bite out of the Kyrgyzgas state gas monopoly, and we can only imagine what else the Russian government will eventually claim ownership to.

"Something about this deal reeks," says Manas-based U.S. officer

"Something about this deal reeks," says Manas-based U.S. officer

As for the $150 million in aid, the sum is too pathetic for words. Again, basic economics comes in handy here. The United States already pumps roughly that amount of money through rent at Manas, service contracts, catering and so forth every year.  By booting the Americans out, Kyrgyzstan is not just killing the goose that laid the golden egg, but also wiping its behind with it, in the style of Henry VIII, for good measure.

Add to that the fact that in diplomatic terms, this makes Kyrgyzstan just another breadbasket that nobody cares about and that they no longer have any cards to play in dealings with Moscow.

It will have proved to be a staggeringly stupid decision; if it actually happens of course.

Like the scheming two-bit bazaar operator that he is, Bakiyev again raised the issue of cash in his remarks on Tuesday. Extract from AP:

“It should be said that during this time… we discussed not just once with our American partners the subject of economic compensation for the stationing (of US forces at the base),” he said on Russian state-run TV. “But unfortunately we have not found any understanding on the part of the United States.

“So literally just days ago, the Kyrgyz government made the decision on ending the term for the American base on the territory of Kyrgyzstan,” he said.

Money seems, in fact, to have been the only motivation for this decision _ so it is not inconceivable that he could be persuaded to change his mind if the situation changes.

Bakiyev also has another “get out of prison card” in the shape of parliament, which is the only body authorized to make the final decision on whether Manas should be shut down or not. They will discuss the Manas situation later in the month, according to their schedule announced earlier Tuesday. If they should decide not to support Bakiyev’s order and perhaps suggest instead that rent negotiations could resume, well, Bakiyev being a servant of the lawmakers would have no choice but to concede to the will of the people’s representatives.

If Bakiyev is not an idiot (and this is a matter of some debate) he will play this so that he comes out of this smelling of roses, gathering handsome cheques from all and sundry. The potentially unpopular decision to keep Manas open would be deflected onto parliament, which is the product of essentially rigged polls anyway, so no loss there. But remember that political opposition is heating up in Kyrgyzstan and Bakiyev needs all the PR he can get.

For all we know, this little pantomime was cooked up by none other than the Kremlin itself. There is constant talk about Moscow’s disgruntlement with U.S. presence in its strategic backyard, but this is to misunderstand where Russia’s real priorities lie. Logically, U.S. involvement in Afghanistan suits them just fine and they should be compliant with anything that preserves the status quo. Any public signal of discontent from Moscow really should be read as nothing more than a sop to the dying generation of Brezhnev-era military brass who still cling to outdated notions of Russian military greatness and strategic girth _ a tragicomically absurd notion.

If Bakiyev eventually does the right thing, he gets the money and saves Moscow having to shell out even more aid cash by pumping the Americans for more. Russia get to have the U.S. still mired in the Afghan mess, while actually doing some useful work. And the U.S. get to keep their base another day and splurge a few more bucks for it. But what’s $50 million here and there between friends?

Not wanting to left out of the mad rush of Cabinet reshuffles sweeping across Central Asia (see here and here), Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev has dismissed a gaggle of ministers, governors, mayors, administration officials, and even several ambassadors.

The most high-profile casualties are Agriculture Minister Arstanbek Nogoyev, Education Minister Ishenkul Boldzhurova, head of the presidential administration Murat Ismailov, and First Deputy Prime Minister Iskenderbek Aidaraliyev. Among the many others to get their marching orders are the mayor of Osh, the governor of Chui region, and the ambassadors in China and Istanbul.

It is not clear where all these people will be marching to precisely, due to the vague wording of the presidential edict, which states that they are leaving their posts “to take up another job.”

Bakiyev show ministers the door

Bakiyev shows ministers the door

Being Kyrgyzstan _ where the pundit train works all hours _ the response has been quick.

Ata Meken opposition party leader Omurbek Tekebayev says the officials in question were dismissed for adopting a “neutral policy,” which is to say that they did not devote themselves to protecting the interests of the rivaling clans under Bakiyev’s tent: 

Dismissal is the penalty for showing disloyalty to the authorities.

As he notes, not unfairly, while the general population expected some changes at the ministries responsible for mishandling the disastrous energy crisis, those people have remained in place without even being subjected to an official rebuke.

Political analyst Nur Omarov takes a roughly similar line, arguing that the cadre rotation is unlikely to have any positive effect on the management of government, though he is more benevolent about the general standard of the current team:

In my opinion, it would be much more logical,  considering the difficult current socio-economic situation, not to change personnel, as the time is not the most appropriate.

Instead, he argues that the reshuffle should have been preceded by a radical overhaul of the structure of government, including a streamlining of ministries and state agencies. The changes effected on Friday are purely cosmetic, he says.

Another independent political observer, Mars Sariyev, suggest that Bakiyev has simply created a minor government crisis now, so as to avoid a larger one down the road. He also argues that changes could be positive if the government attracts talent from the opposition _ a little bit of wishful thinking perhaps.

The general consensus among government critics seems to be, however, that the reshuffle is a strategic repositioning ahead of early presidential elections, possibly to be held next year.

The whole thing is frankly bewildering and a worrying indication of the Kyrgyz political system’s proneness to spiraling into complete chaos. For the disinterested onlooker, it is extremely hard to fathom the alleged maelstrom of family intrigue that dominates the national political scene, but it is more than apparent that continuity is probably not likely as things stand.

On these matters, it is usually best to defer to knowledge of Erica Marat at Jamestown, who is rich mine of information, if prone to favouring a conspiracy theory over a sanguine political analysis. In Marat’s defense though, conspiracy theories are usually true in Kyrgyzstan, of course.

In the meantime, we wait and see.

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