On July 16, the government of Kyrgyzstan reported that security forces had killed several militants in two separate raids conducted in Bishkek and a town just outside of the capital called Lebedinovka. According to Bruce Pannier of RFE/RL, when raided by forces under the command of Kyrgyzstan’s State Committee for National Security (UKMK), the militants engaged the government security personnel, resulting in a shootout which led to the deaths of four alleged militants in Bishkek and at least two in Lebedinovka:
Four militants were reported killed in Bishkek and at least two in Lebedinovka, although some Kyrgyz media sources report four were killed in Lebedinovka. Seven militants were said to have been captured. Four members of the security force were wounded in the battles. (Bruce Pannier, RFE/RL, July 17, 2015)
Media in Kyrgyzstan almost immediately began attributing the militants to the Islamic State (ISIS), a group that has thus far not presented an outsized threat to Kyrgyzstan itself. The rise of ISIS and the heightened profile the group has garnered internationally since their successful surge into Iraq from Syria in June 2014 has presented two threats to Central Asia in particular. While recruitment is often reported as particularly high in Central Asia (especially in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan), the numbers cited often by those studying the ranks of ISIS in Syria have been disputed by many Central Asia experts.
The regimes of the Central Asian states have repeatedly been accused by analysts and political opposition of cynically using the rise of ISIS to jail legitimate political opposition, marginalize dissent, and further consolidate their power bases. I addressed the threat that rising militancy in Syria and the surging anti-government forces battling in Northern Afghanistan present to states such as Kyrgyzstan in my article Afghanistan and Central Asia: A Collective Security Problem. I elaborated on the theories with specific focus upon Tajikistan in Tajikistan: Intrigue, Assassinations, and Defections (Part One).
Kyrgyzstan has been noted by some as presenting fertile ground for radicalization of disenfranchised young men by ISIS. However, these claims are often disputed among Central Asia experts who cite repressive government policies and anti-democratic regimes as purveyors of the narrative. The range of fighters from Kyrgyzstan believed to have traveled to fight in Syria since 2011 has been assessed as high as several hundred. However those numbers are often disputed as well. Experts such as Catherine Putz have asserted that the Kyrgyzstan government’s claims are often dubious, consistently skewed by an effort to portray the minority Uzbeks living in the southern areas of the country (particularly in Fergana Valley) as those ISIS fighters.
Kyrgyz officials stated that the leader of the group targeted on Thursday was an ethnic Kazakh, though Pannier reports that some media have cited sources that claim there were Kyrgyz among the militants in the group raided. Pannier noted that the leader of the group, a Kazakh national named Zhanbolat Amirov, had been recently imprisoned and only recently in the past month. Pannier also notes interestingly that if Amirov had indeed been both imprisoned and the leader of the group, these facts raise questions about how he could have managed to plan to carry out an attack so quickly upon his release:
Kyrgyz authorities claim Amirov was the leader of the terrorist group targeted in the July 16 raid, but it is unclear how, if he had been in prison until late last month, he was able to organize the alleged attacks.
And according to the UKMK, those attacks were meant to target a large gathering of people somewhere in Bishkek and timed for July 17, as Muslims ended the holy period of Ramadan, and another attack would be made on the Russian-led Kant air force base some 40 kilometers outside of Bishkek. (Pannier, RFE/RL, July 17, 2015)
In another interesting move this week, the Kyrgyzstan government in Bishkek announced that a “rapid reaction battalion” under the command of the Kyrgyzstan National Guard would be stationed at the former Manas Air Base which was opened in December 2001 by the United States as part of a regional strategy to provide logistical support to military operations in Afghanistan following the invasion that October.
Joshua Kucera, a Central Asia expert at EurasiaNet.Org, addressed government claims that the suspected targets of the group included the Kant Air Base, a military post run by the Russian Ministry of Defense. Kucera questioned Kyrgyz authorities’ claims with regard to the base. Among the more compelling of his arguments is that there is no real functionality to the base itself. Established in 2003, Kucera describes it appropriately as a “…geopolitical place holder…”. Kucera also notes that the Russian government has increased funding for infrastructural improvements to the base in recent years and states (again, appropriately) that the base is essentially being groomed for its role as a hub for Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) joint member operations. Most interesting and compelling of Kucera’s notes is that Islamist militants targeting the Kant base would fit rather neatly into a narrative that Moscow has been nurturing over the course of the last year:
But it’s not clear why, of all the possible targets in Kyrgyzstan, ISIS would choose the Russian air base. It’s more clear, however, how this fits into a Kremlin-approved narrative, which sees ISIS as a tool in the hands of American geopolitics. And U.S.-Kyrgyzstan relations are experiencing a rocky period now, with the U.S. State Department giving an award to a human rights activist whom Bishkek sees as a criminal guilty of inciting ethnic hatred and violence in the Osh pogroms of 2010.
As ISIS continues a fairly polished and sophisticated media campaign in Syria, Central Asian militants have begun taking a more central role in the effort. Most recently, the defection of former Tajikistan Special Police Commander Gulmurod Khalimov to ISIS has led to videos in which Khalimov threatens the Dushanbe regime, the U.S., and even his own brother. Recently, I noted that the defection of Khalimov and the claims of the Dushanbe regime that Tajiks represent an increasingly high number of ISIS recruits fighting in Syria could be motivated by a cynical effort to marginalize political dissent. You can find that analysis in Tajikistan: Intrigue, Assassinations, and Defections (Part One).
Analysts have begun assessing the likelihood that ISIS could present an increased threat to the regimes of Central Asia. An important variable in analyzing the threats posed by ISIS or other militants is the use of the narrative of a growing fear of increased recruitment to justify crackdowns on political opposition by the ruling regimes. It is important not to lose sight of the motivations of the regimes in Central Asia in maintaining a semblance of encroaching Islamist radicalization in assessing the real likelihood of the advance of ISIS into Central Asia.
U.S. State Department Honors Political Dissident, Bishkek Bristles
Adding to the geopolitical battle growing between the United States and Russia in Kyrgyzstan is the recent United States Department of State decision to honor jailed dissident Azimjan Askarov, an ethnic Uzbek, with the 2014 Human Rights Defender Award. Askarov was arrested in 2010 in response to his documentation of ethnic violence in Osh and Jalalabad in Kyrgyzstan’s south. Riots between ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz led hundreds of thousands of Uzbeks to flee as refugees to neighboring Uzbekistan. Official figures state that 893 people were killed though many observers assert that the number of dead surpassed 2,000. Askarov was subsequently sentenced to a term of life in prison. He has lost appeals of the sentence.
The decision to award Askarov with a public recognition of his role as a human rights defender has angered the Kyrgyzstan government. Kyrgyzstan’s government has reacted angrily to the announcement of the U.S. award, summoning U.S. Charge d’Affaires Richard Miles and protested the award. You can read the official statement of Kyrgyzstan’s government here.
The government continues to view Askarov as a divisive figure and emblematic of the violence of 2010. It continues to assert that Askarov did more than simply chronicle the violence and actually organized Uzbeks and incited much of the conflict:
The Kyrgyz government said in a statement that the decision “contradicts the friendly relations between Kyrgyzstan and the United States and can damage the government’s efforts to consolidate interethnic harmony.” The government also said it intended to unilaterally denounce a 1993 Kyrgyz-U.S. cooperation agreement. (RFE/RL Kyrgyz Service, July 17, 2015)
Catherine Putz of The Diplomat has commented as well, noting the strain of paranoia that continues to permeate the regimes that govern the post-Soviet space of Central Asia states:
Conspiracy theories arguing that the U.S. is attempting to engineer a “color revolution” in Kyrgyzstan are particularly virulent. These theories play into modern history and current events–memories of the revolutions, the country’s troubled economy and Russia’s resurgent presence in the region. The early 2015 appointment of Richard Miles as charge d’affaires at the U.S. embassy in Bishkek pushed the conspiracy mills into overdrive–he had been ambassador to Georgia during the 2003 Rose Revolution. (Putz, The Diplomat, July 17, 2015)
The regimes in Central Asia have grown increasingly wary of U.S. interests and influence in the region. This is in part due to a latent fear of perceived U.S. support for regime change through so-called Color Revolutions. Often the ruling governments point to previous democratic movements that resulted in the overturning of regimes in favor of representative governments in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. Among the revolutions often referenced are the Rose Revolution in Georgia (2003) and the Orange (2004-2005) and Euromaidan revolutions in Ukraine (2013-2014). These two upheavals have supplanted Russia-friendly regimes and resulted in democratically elected governments in two countries that have often pursued tracts towards integration in European institutions which have historically been dominated by American and Western European governments. Kyrgyzstan itself has a chapter in the history of the Color Revolutions (“Tulip”) in March 2005. Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev fled the country after being effectively overthrown following parliamentary elections the previous month. Akayev officially resigned in April at the Kyrgyzstan embassy in Moscow after fleeing with family and associates. Akayev escaped first to Kazakhstan before traveling on to Russia.
Interestingly, Miles was ambassador to Georgia during the period which gave birth to the Rose Revolution in 2003. Following the ouster of former President Eduard Shevardnadze, pro-Western leader Mikheil Saakashvili rose to the presidency via election. Saakashvili has since been charged in Georgia with abuse of power and corruption.
Increased Russian Influence in Central Asia
Throughout the past 12 months, Russia has noticeably increased its military presence throughout Central Asia. CSTO exercises conducted this past spring included joint maneuvers with a counterterrorism mission near the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border. Additionally, open source photographs of apparent Russian military equipment being deployed to bases in Tajikistan have further burgeoned assessments made by both myself and other Central Asia analysts that Russia has specifically targeted Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan for increased Russian military presence. Russian officials have consistently amplified the threat of ISIS in particular, inflating the numbers of Central Asian ISIS recruits to galvanize fear among regimes in Central Asia of a threat to their rule while simultaneously reinforcing the same regimes’ efforts to leverage the fear of encroaching ISIS for purposes of jailing dissidents and marginalizing political opposition.
The degradation of relations between the U.S. and Russia that began during the reign of Russian President Vladimir Putin has been increasingly reinforced by Russian policies aimed at diminishing the influence of the U.S. in Central Asia. As a result, the ruling regimes of the region often have their fears of democratic uprising bolstered by Russian officials. As Moscow has pursued increased influence in the region, many of the regimes in Central Asia have used fear of U.S. fomentation of instability through democratic upheaval to fortify their rule. Influential Kremlin officials, nurturing similar paranoia about U.S. efforts to unseat the Moscow regime, have crafted policies to allow greater monitoring of foreign-based Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) inside Russia. Moscow asserts that these NGOs act as front groups for the U.S. government in fomenting dissent against governments and inspiring democratic movements to overthrow the regimes.
Russia’s interest in reinforcing Central Asian regime paranoia about “interference” from Washington is driven by geopolitics. As Russia’s influence in Central Asia has tangibly increased in recent years, Moscow’s goal continues to be mitigating the influence of the U.S. while also planning to reduce U.S. interference in the region following anticipated withdrawal of U.S. military forces in Afghanistan. The comparative advantage the U.S. has had in influencing regimes in the region over the course of the last 15 years has largely been driven by strategic necessity; the U.S. required access to bases in Central Asia as an essential component of its strategic operational planning for supply lines to support regional military operations following the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan. These relations were often cultivated in support of U.S. efforts to sustain the rights to bases in the region in order to support ongoing military operations in Afghanistan following the toppling of the Taliban regime.
Until it was turned back over to Kyrgyzstan’s government in 2014, the Manas Air Base remained an essential part of U.S. military strategy for transporting personnel and other materials to Afghanistan. Over the course of the previous 12 and a half years, relations between Washington and Bishkek were occasionally strained over a spate of incidents which included the dumping of fuel by approaching aircraft over local fields, tough negotiations over increases in rent for access to the property, and 2009 Russian efforts to have the U.S. evicted from the base. Eventually Russian efforts would pay off after the U.S. and Kyrgyzstan agreed to have the base turned over to Bishkek control in 2014. The move signified in a large way the reincorporation of Kyrgyzstan into Moscow’s sphere of influence:
Significantly, Russian influence resulted in the recent closure of the massive US air base Manas outside the capital Bishkek, marking the end of American military presence in the region. “In essence, the closing of Manas marks Kyrgyzstan’s new era as a Russian client state,” said Central Asia specialist Alexander Cooley, professor of political science at Barnard College at Columbia University. (Stephanie Ott, The Guardian UK, September 18, 2014)
In all, the closing of the base in Manas could eventually represent an important strategic victory for Moscow, one compounded by strained relations between Washington and Bishkek over human rights policies, the imprisonment of political opposition leaders, and domestic democracy movements.
As Kyrgyzstan and the U.S. prepare for a period marked by disagreement over the Askarov affair, strategists in Moscow will no doubt see another opportunity to exploit a fissure in relations between the U.S. and a regime in Central Asia. As Moscow has done throughout the previous decade, efforts to exacerbate that fissure will be a priority for the Russian government. Financial, economic, and military related inducements to create distance in between Washington and Bishkek will be leveraged by strategists in Russia anxious to grow Moscow’s influence in the post Soviet space of Central Asia. What form this battle takes on will have consequences for democratic movements not only in Kyrgyzstan but quite possibly in neighboring Tajikistan and Uzbekistan as well.
So goes the new Great Game playing out in Central Asia.
(Featured photo courtesy of U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman George Goslin: Members of the Kyrgyz military discuss training techniques during a joint military training exchange, Nov. 19, 2013, at Transit Center at Manas, Kyrgyzstan. EOD members are trained to handle live explosives every day, as well as detect, identify, render safe, recover and dispose of explosives and ordnance to include conventional military munitions and terrorist homemade items. November 19, 2013.)
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