Russia


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.

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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.

As expected, Tajikistan has adopted legislation to downgrade the official status of the Russian language in a move that has reportedly had the country’s minorities up in arms.

Theories abound as to what might have provoked this reform; most of them pointing to malicious anti-Russian intent on Dushanbe’s part. Proponents of the modified law insist, however, that there is no chauvinism implicit in the measure and that the use of Russian remain enshrined in the constitution.

So what exactly is it that changed as of Wednesday, when the law came into effect.

Most notably, Tajik citizens are now legally bound to know Tajik, although how this will be policed is anyone’e guess.

Russian news agency Interfax explains further:

The bill also compels to use the official language when writing law, managing paperwork, conducting social events, research, posting announcements and advertisements, in official correspondence between country’s citizens, and in naming all companies and institutions regardless of the form of ownership. The current law (ed: old law) allows to use Russian at trials, in letters to authorities and governmental agencies, and to use Uzbek in the areas populated mainly by ethnic Uzbeks.

On the face of it, there seems to be substantial grounds for believing that this is an intended slight at Moscow, whose relations with Tajikistan have been strained amid disagreement over an array of issues.

Among these is the matter of reported Tajik demands for payment to host Russia’s 201st military base. Dushanbe routinely attempts to scotch such speculation, but the stubbornness with which this question lingers makes it clear that Moscow will have to settle this expectation at some date. Apart from financial considerations, however, Russia evidently feels that President Emomali Rakhmon should be grateful for the presence of the 201st, which saved his bacon on more than one occasion in the more turbulent times.

"What did you say?"

"What did you say?"

And it all seemed so rosy and promising last year. In August 2008, ahead of the annual SCO summit, hosted in Dushanbe, Russian President Medvedev and Rakhmon pledged to boost their strategic partnership, jointly explore for gas in Tajikistan and make the development of the hydropower industry a priority. Russia’s commitment was put into action in July, when Medvedev inaugurated the Sangtuda-1 hydropower plant, which could eventually provide power-starved Tajikistan with up to 12 percent of its annual electricity production.

As bright the prospects for Sangtuda might be, the Tajiks had set their aims higher. Until the Russians went and spoiled things, that is.

During a visit to Uzbekistan in January, Medvedev cautioned unnamed Central Asian states _ implicitly upstream Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan _ against exploiting their water resources without consulting regional neighbors.

This is important for Tajikistan, since it will struggle to complete its ambitious hydropower station on the Rogun river without Moscow’s financial backing. Russia had pledged to stump up the cash for the project, but those promises appear to have run aground amid disagreement over commercial terms and Moscow’s keenness to keep Uzbekistan sweet.

But is it likely that this is what lies behind the language law, or could Dushanbe be serious about this one.

The respected Prof. Lutz Rzehak

The respected Prof. Lutz Rzehak

Speaking to Deutsche Welle’s Russian service, Tajik language expert Lutz Rzehak from Berlin’s Humboldt State broadly supports an initiative that he thinks only meets the requirements of the mostly non-Russian speaking population.

As he also notes, since the adoption of the original language law back in 1989, the demographic make-up of the country has changed radically, so the re-evaluation of the Tajik language simply reflects the real situation in the country.

But what then of the million or so ethnic Uzbeks that live in Tajikistan, which easily outnumber the 50,000-odd Slavs? Granted, Uzbek could not be endowed with the status of a language of “inter-ethnic communication,” the unwieldy term preferred by Tajik officials. As the presumed tongue of choice of a sizeable minority, however, it certainly deserves greater formal acknowledgement than it receives.

And we should not forget the Pamiris peoples of the Gorno-Badakshan autonomous region, who constitute yet more distinct ethnic and linguistic entities.

Like all hasty legislation, this Tajik law has quite blithely overlooked the concerns over whole swathes of the country, and perhaps that is no mistake.

Even if this is nothing more than a belated assay at manufacturing a consolidated pan-Tajik, which is perhaps a questionable project when conducted in this fashion, there remains a distinct impression that horse has been put before the cart.

As if the country’s higher education institutes were not already in a state of utter shambles, those same universities will now presumably be compelled to conduct instruction exclusively in Tajik. Most advanced textbooks are in Russian, and that there is little prospect that will change any time soon.

The only tangible outcome this law seems likely to wreak is that of accelerating the process of transforming Tajikistan into a nation of monolingual semi-literates.

Unless the Tajik government has a trick up its sleeve, which seems highly unlikely, the outlook looks grim.

Depending on who one asks, Russia has either sunken its claws further yet into Central Asia, or it has had to settle with an embarrassing compromise in its strategic designs over the region.

On Aug. 1, Russia appeared to seal a double whammy by getting Kyrgyzstan to allow it to drastically increase the number of troops it deploys in the country, while also all but being assured a new base. The former achievement would imply the latter, but that issue was cunningly hidden in the bilateral for reasons I shall explore below.

Specifically, the Russians will get to send down an additional battalion – which could mean something in the area of around 300 or so troops, plus hundreds of other service employees – and will create a joint anti-terrorism training center.

That agreement will only be officially confirmed by Nov. 1, before which time anything could happen, knowing the Kyrgyz government capricious ways. In the meantime, Moscow and Bishkek will trash out some finer points, all clearly very much sought after by the Russians.

First, “the status of personnel at the joint military bases (Ed: note the plural) and their family members will be equal to that of administrative and technical staff at the Russian Embassy in Kyrgyzstan”. This means that while the Americans at Manas base are theoretically _ and only theoretically _ subject to prosecution, the Russians will be able to raise hell with impunity. This is not necessarily such an important point in reality, but it does make a mockery of Kyrgyz claims of wanting to be able to have the scope to apply criminal sanctions to miscreant foreign military staff.

"I swear I will never double-cross anyone ever again. Probably."

"I swear I will never double-cross anyone ever again. Probably."

Second, Russian soldiers will work to protect the sovereignty and security of Kyrgyzstan, as well as the safety of Russian military facilities, against attacks by international terrorist groups. Kyrgyzstan’s government has in effect tendered out its national security, which is a deeply humiliating admission of its own wretched inability to enforce its writ and defend its borders. Since any group or any person seem prone to being assigned with terrorist designs in Kyrgyzstan these days, Moscow may very literally be finding itself militarily propping up President Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s banana republic (without the bananas). Bakiyev is evidently highly paranoid, not just about Islamic bogeymen, but also the malign elite schemers that he keeps closest to himself. Increased Russian military presence sends a clear signal that Bakiyev is Moscow’s man; until they tire of his double-faced chicanery, that is.

Another all but settled issue is the term of the increased Russian deployment. Under the memorandum signed by Bakiyev and President Dimitry Medvedev in Cholpon-Ata, the Russian will be able to stay for a whopping 49 years, with the option of an additional 25-year extension. All in all, that could end up being almost as long as Kyrgyzstan’s existence as a Soviet republic, which seems appropriate.

No matter how you look at it, this has to be a good deal for Russia, although heavens only knows what it is that Moscow actually wants all those troops knocking about Central Asia for anyway. Unlike the United States, there is no actual war that Russia can usefully be engaged in around this part of the world. It is for this reason that some of the media coverage has been fairly misleading about the significance of the Cholpon-Ata Accord, as it shall henceforth be known.

Reuters went rather speciously with the headline: “Russia trumps U.S. with new Central Asia army base,” which misses the point altogether. Washington may have long-term concerns about this kind of Muscovite military hegemony in the region, but as long as it has its own base, it really does not care. On a recent visit to Bishkek, U.S. Under Secretary of State William Burns spoke in terms very similar to the Cholpon-Ata accord when answering a question about the possibility of a second Russian base:

“Our view is that any step that strengthens the sovereignty and independence and security of Kyrgyzstan is a sensible one.”

That is weasel opt-out response that suggests either that a Russian base either (a) strengthens Kyrgyz security (b) weakens Kyrgyz independence or (c) all the above. What it really means, though, is that the United States has its base and all the rest, including democratic standards in Kyrgyzstan, can go to hell.

On a less positive note for Russia, supposedly, would be the failure to achieve a consensus among Collective Security Treaty Organisation members on the creation of the NATO-style rapid reaction forces.

The Moscow Times suggests this was down to intransigence from the Belarusians, who must still be crying over Russia’s milk export ban. President Alexander Lukashenko reportedly “refused to sign an agreement Saturday that would create [the] rapid-reaction security force.”

That claim is factually erroneous as the only full session of the CSTO was in any event held on Friday, a day that I am reliably informed Lukashenko mostly spent cycling with his son on the shores of Issyk-Kul Lake.

Most likely, the fly in the ointment is perennial party-pooper, Uzbek strongman Islam Karimov. If the notion of rapid-reaction force irks Uzbekistan, the suggestion they should be camped just minutes drive away from the borders of its volatile Ferghana Valley will be enough to send it into conniption fits. Hence, the Cholpon-Ata Accord makes no mention of the locations in which extra Russian troops will be dislocated.

Sure enough, Karimov flew out Kyrgyzstan around midday on Saturday, leaving Kazakh leader Nursultan Nazarbayev to laze by the beach, apparently.

Reports of the Uzbek digging trenches around its Ferghana border, which recently emerged to much hilarity, may indeed have been a sharp diplomatic reminder to dispel any Russian schemes of deploying CSTO rapid-reaction forces in their general direction.

Of course, Russia would never think of doing that, unless the unthinkable happens; Karimov dies unexpectedly and the country descends into violent civil war. But it could happen, and that is the idea that disturbs neurotic Tashkent so intensely.

Wanting to be less cynical, one could give Kyrgyzstan and Russia the benefit of the doubt, and surmise that the anti-terrorism training center will be purely engaged in maintaining domestic security and ensuring that militants take over the whole region. But this scenario has always seemed fanciful, even in southern Kyrgyzstan, where a politicized brand of radical Islam has long enjoyed a robust following.

As is often the case, it is wisest in these apparently global strategic tussles to try and adopt a smaller domestic viewpoint. Instead of seeing this as the latest chapter in the tiresome fabled Great Game, it would be more instructive to understand Russian activity in Central Asia as the inevitable outcome of Kyrgyz political weakness and the result of petty regional rivalries.

For largely sentimental, revanchist reasons, Moscow is enamoured with its image as a benevolent father figure that sows, or rather imposes, harmony among its fractious offspring. By achieving what it has, Russia has turned itself into a stakeholder in future Central Asian developments, a role that the United States should keep at a safe distance.

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?

The electricity crisis in Tajikistan has taken yet a further turn for the worse, as state power company Barki Tojik announces that supplies to the capital, Dushanbe, will henceforth be limited to 15 hours per day. Even worse, those parts of the country currently receiving two-three hours of electricity daily _ namely the Sogd and Khatlon regions _ face yet further cuts.

Luxury Goods Sale in Tajikistan

Luxury Goods Sale in Tajikistan

The most desperate aspect of all this hardship, however, is that it is eminently avoidable and has been caused in part by an unpleasant episode of customary Central Asian bickering.

Back in October, Tajikistan sealed a deal with Turkmenistan to import electricity at $0.03 per kilowatt hour. As agreed, 400 million kilowatt hours of electricity were delivered between November and the end of last year. Under the agreement, the Turkmens agreed to supply a further 1.2 billion kilowatt hours of electricity annually until 2012. While not meeting the disastrous shortfall in power supplies, the agreement would have given the Tajiks much-needed relief and avoided the scale of power cuts seen last year, which virtually brought the country to a standstill as it suffered one of its worst winters in living memory.

Anyway, that deal was scuppered at the start of the month by Uzbekistan, which lies between the two countries and has seemingly refused to agree to a new transit agreement.

Beyond mere comic book villainy, there is a back-story to all this that should shed some light on why it is exactly that Tashkent is behaving the way it is.

According to their official version, the Uzbeks have had technical problems at a local substation, making electricity transits impossible.

Tajik officials, however, are skeptical and say that their requests to visit the site and inspect the pace of repair have been abruptly rebuffed.

Furthermore, Tajik Deputy Energy Minister Pulod Muhiddinov says the Uzbeks promised not to halt Turkmen electricity deliveries if Tajikistan would agreed to buy gas for $249 per 1,000 cubic meters, a pretty hefty sum for Dushanbe.

Tajikistan duly agreed to that arrangement at the end of December, only for the Uzbeks to renege on their word, says Muhiddinov.

Writing at Ferghana.ru, Sanobar Shermatova suggests a further kink in the tale (link in Russian):

The conflict of interests reached its ultimatum at the end of last year, when Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan agreed on sharing water, gas and fuel without consulting Uzbekistan. The reaction came immediately: Uzbekistan announced it would suspend its membership in the Eurasian Economic Community (Eurasec), closed its border with Tajikistan, and increased its gas prices to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The offence even reached the Russian leadership, which was called upon to act as referee as Uzbekistan sought Moscow’s support in its neighborly dispute.

The specifics of this account are not altogether clear or certain, not least the supposed tri-partite agreement from late last year, which does not appear to have been reported anywhere. What is certain, however, is that Uzbekistan has chosen to throw itself into open hostility with its neighbors.

Nurek Damn!

Nurek Damn!

In turn, Tajikistan has warned that now it is running short of electricity, it has been forced to drain additional supplies from the Nurek and Kairakkum reservoirs to generate hydropower. In doing so, it will cause a water shortage over the summer months in downstream nations _ namely Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan (ironically) _ and thereby possibly result in the ruin of vital cash crops in those countries. Uzbekistan in particular, with its heavy reliance on agricultural output for export revenue and internal consumption needs, could be catastrophically affected for yet another year.

Unwisely sticking his oar in and appearing to take a pro-Uzbek stance, Russian President Dimitry Medvedev also spoke out on the water issue while visiting Uzbekistan a few days ago by suggesting that Tajikistan’s grand plans to build a number of hydropower stations along its rivers could cause regional resource crises and should be discussed by all Central Asian nations. This is a particularly strange observation, since Russia is involved in building the giant Rogun power station on Vakhsh river _ a point not lost on the Tajik foreign ministry, which duly complained to the Russian embassy in Dushanbe.

This signal appeared to suggest that Moscow will likely favour Uzbek reasons in future regional disputes, which is yet another intriguing twist in the broader play for influence in Central Asia. Russia’s services as a fig-leaf for Uzbekistan’s gross human rights violations have become effectively redundant, since Tashkent clearly doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks of it anyway. But Uzbekistan has now found this new purpose for its former Soviet comrade _ one that could avoid Karimov falling back into the arms of his erstwhile American sponsors. In return, Medvedev bagged a useful gas deal that will help replenish Gazprom export reserves and also secured a guarantee to expand the Central Asia-Center gas pipeline, which will be needed if Turkmenistan is to meet its ambitious gas contracts.

Not Tajik

Bob Hope: Not Tajik

To put a new spin on the old gag, the United States had Johnny Cash and Bob Hope; Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have no cash and no hope. Reliant on Russian largesse, they have little room for maneuver, with the slender exception of the water issue. Abusing of that, however, would be self-destructive in the extreme and ultimately pointless.

Of course, this whole ugly spectacle is fundamentally needless and another reminder of why the collapse of the Soviet Union was, if not a tragedy, a wretched inconvenience for this part of the world. Countless summits have been held over the years to regulate cooperation, but again and again, the rhetoric and high hopes have been dashed by petty disputes and pride.

And, if isn’t too trite to point out, the regular long-suffering citizens of Central Asia will be the ones that continue to bear the brunt.

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