By Arslan Sabyrbekov (11/11/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
The U.S. ambassador to Kyrgyzstan has expressed her concern over the country’s ability to maintain and follow the democratic trajectory in light of increasing ties with the Kremlin.
“Kyrgyzstan’s growing cooperation with Russia is a challenge to our efforts to support Kyrgyzstan’s democracy,” Ambassador Pamela Spratlen wrote in an article published on the website of the Council of American Ambassadors earlier this week. “Kyrgyzstan’s new leadership would welcome a partnership with the United States, but places a priority on its relationship with Russia, which often comes at our expense. It remains an unanswered question how Kyrgyzstan can maintain its democratic trajectory while pursuing this partnership,” Spratlen wrote. The Ambassador did not elaborate on how exactly Kyrgyzstan’s democracy was under threat, but she did note that, as a result of pressure from the Kremlin, Bishkek was forced to evict the U.S. Military airbase at Manas, is set to join the Russia-led Customs Union and has largely accepted the Russian narrative of what is happening in Ukraine due to the massive presence of Russian media sources in the country.
The statement of Washington’s envoy drew heated discussions in the local political and expert circles. According to Kyrgyzstan’s former General Prosecutor Kubatbek Baibolov, the Ambassador’s concerns are not groundless. “It is not a secret that over the course of only one year, Kyrgyzstan has taken a big step back in its democratic development and reforms. Look at how law enforcement bodies are now treating peaceful protesters and civil society groups protesting the decision of the authorities to enter the Russia-led Customs Union,” noted Baibolov.
Indeed, signs abound that Central Asia’s only democracy is increasingly unable or unwilling to maintain its democratic trajectory. The country has recently adopted initiatives that speak against the fundamental principles of democracy. Last month, Kyrgyzstan’s parliament outlawed the promotion of positive attitudes towards non-traditional sexual relations. Many observers detect the hand of the Kremlin, which passed a similar law banning “gay propaganda” last year. The U.S. Embassy in Bishkek issued a statement condemning the legislation, saying that it violates fundamental human rights principles, Kyrgyzstan’s democratic gains and constitutional guarantees. The parliament’s press office shot back, stating that the U.S. was interfering in Kyrgyzstan’s internal affairs.
In addition to this law, discussions are ongoing regarding the adoption of a law similar to that in Russia, requiring foreign-funded NGOs to register as “foreign agents.” The law presents a real threat to Kyrgyzstan’s relatively vibrant civil society and aims to limit their activities. These initiatives are not coincidental and indicate Moscow’s efforts to impose undemocratic views on its allies. As New York Times columnist Masha Gessen put it, “the promotion of Russian style legislation and ideology is a stealthy expansionist project.”
As ambassador Spratlen also noted, all these worrying developments seem to demonstrate that Kyrgyzstan’s increasing cooperation with Moscow might be coming at the expense of the country’s democratic achievements. A common view among local political analysts is that due to the country’s heavy economic dependency on Moscow, Bishkek has no other option but to join the Kremlin’s integration projects. According to the ex-speaker of the Kyrgyz Parliament Zainidin Kurmanov, from the economic standpoint, neither the European Union, nor the U.S. have much to offer Central Asia’s only democracy, facing serious socio-economic challenges and risks. In his words, “further cooperation with the EU and the U.S. can take place in the framework of the democratic governance agenda.”
During her recent visit to Bishkek, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Fatema Sumar reiterated Washington’s readiness to further support democracy in Kyrgyzstan and called on the country to stay open and strengthen its relatively active civil society. Commenting on ambassador Spratlen’s article, Sumar replied that it contained nothing that the State Department hadn’t stated before.
In the meantime, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has approved Spratlen’s nomination as U.S. Ambassador to neighboring Uzbekistan. If confirmed for the post by the full Senate, it will be Spratlen’s second ambassadorial post, in a country that is far less democratic and is considered by many to be reemerging as Washington’s main regional partner.
The author writes in his personal capacity. The views expressed are his own and do not represent the views of the organization for which he works.
By Erik Davtyan (11/11/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
On October 9-10, Armenia’s President Serzh Sargsyan paid a working visit to Minsk to take part in a session of the Council of Heads of the member states of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). After the CIS summit, Sargsyan participated in a session of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council, during which he signed the agreement on Armenia’s accession to the Treaty on the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). Thanking the heads of states for their political support in this process, the Armenian president assured that Armenia “will show a high sense of responsibility towards its membership in the Eurasian Economic Union” and expressed the hope that the heads of the EEU member countries will facilitate the ratification of the agreement in their national parliaments till the end of this year. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin expressed his deep conviction that “Armenia is ready to work equally with Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus in the framework of the EEU.”
The process of Armenia’s accession to the EEU started more than a year ago, after it was declared as a foreign policy objective in Sargsyan’s statement on “Armenia’s desire to get accessed to the Customs Union,” made on September 3, 2013. Considering that the statement was made on the threshold of the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius, where Armenia was expected to initial an Association Agreement with the EU, it represented a turning point of Armenian foreign policy.
The post-soviet direction of Armenian foreign policy and especially Armenian-Russian relations is one of the most debated topics in Armenian politics and Armenia’s accession to the EEU was given highly diverse verdicts from different observers. According to Aram Safarian, president of the NGO Integration and Development, Armenia’s “accession to the EEU will reinforce the security of Armenia and will present Armenia’s stance in the region in a more favorable way.” The same view was shared by economist Ashot Tavadian, a member of the Scientific Council of the Eurasian Bank. In an interview to Armenian daily Hayots Ashkharh, Tavadian said that if it would have remained outside the EEU, Armenia would have faced serious challenges in the spheres of energy, direct investments and export.
The agreement, signed on October 10, was closely scrutinized by Armenia’s political parties. According to the deputy of the Prosperous Armenia (PA) party’s faction of the National Assembly, Stepan Margaryan, PA favors any integration process that Armenia can join. In an interview to Zhoghovurd daily, Shirak Torosyan, a member of the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Foreign Relations, emphasized that there are currently no beneficial alternatives to the Eurasian market, and believed that especially the customs regulations that will be introduced in the EEU members will be economically beneficial for Armenia.
In contrast, the Heritage party is the only political party that strongly disapproves of the Eurasian vector in Armenia’s foreign policy. Expressing their viewpoint to Tert.am, members of the Heritage Faction in the National Assembly, Tevan Poghosyan and Alexander Arzoumanian said their faction is against Armenia’s participation in Eurasian integration processes and will vote against the ratification of the agreement.
The former head of the Armenia’s National Security Service Davit Shahnazaryan stated in an interview to Aravot that since Armenia has little economic cooperation and actually shares no common borders with the other members of the EEU, Armenia will face economic challenges that could lead to a significant economic decline and a deterioration in living conditions. Moreover, some experts insist that the October 10 agreement was unconstitutional. Artak Zeynalyan and Daniel Ioannisyan, respectively representing the NGOs Rule of Right and Union of Informed Citizens, claim that certain clauses of Armenia’s Constitution do not allow the partial delegation of state sovereignty to other institutions.
Commenting on the possible effects of Armenia’s EEU membership on regional geopolitics, the founding director of the Regional Studies Center (RSC), Richard Giragosian, said that Armenia’s accession to the EEU may have a negative impact on Armenian-Georgian relations, as well as on the prospect for opening the border between Turkey and Armenia. According to political scientist Levon Shirinyan, Armenia should take advantage of its EEU membership and avoid the challenges. The expert believes that “Armenia can become a scientific-industrial unit which will serve the economic, scientific and technical market of the Eurasian Union.”
By Mina Muradova (10/29/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
Russia intends to create a “collective security” system on the Caspian Sea to step up its naval cooperation with Azerbaijan as Moscow seeks to limit the presence of foreign militaries on the Caspian Sea.
“We agreed on the principles of interaction … This is a real breakthrough,” President Vladimir Putin said after the fourth Caspian summit in Astrakhan on September 29. According to Putin, the parties made progress in preparing the convention on the legal status of the Caspian Sea “due to the coordination of key principles of the Caspian littoral states’ activity at sea.” These principles were reflected in a political statement signed by leaders of the five littoral states. According to Putin, the political statement “will become a cornerstone of the convention” and while he admitted that not all problems were settled in full, “their number has become far fewer.” The presidents managed to agree on clear formulations on the delimitation of water spaces, natural resources, and the regime of navigation and fisheries.
The Caspian Sea is a unique water area in terms of its ecology, which includes more than 500 kinds of sea plants and 854 kinds of fish species, including the Caspian sturgeon. The Sea contains an estimated 18 billion tons of hydrocarbon resources, with proven reserves of four billion tons.
The statement confirms the exclusive right of the littoral states’ armed forces to conduct military activity in the Caspian Sea as one of the fundamental principles for ensuring security and stability. “Such a regime was historically established. We’re not going to change it,” Putin said, adding that the five littoral states intend to solve all problems of the Caspian region exclusively among themselves.
Baku welcomed the results of the summit and Deputy Foreign Minister Khalaf Khalafov told journalists that the signed documents “fully meet” Azerbaijan’s national interests and do not contradict national legislation. “The basic principles of the agreements – the creation of a stable balance of weapons, taking into account the interests of littoral countries while carrying out military exercises in the sea, complying with the measures of mutual trust and meet Azerbaijan’s interests,” Khalafov said.
Azerbaijan’s compliance appears to be a primary objective of Russia’s Caspian policy, as this Caucasian country has relied mostly on U.S. advice in building its navy. Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Baku on October 13, two weeks after the presidents of the five Caspian states agreed to prevent the military presence of non-littoral states in the Caspian Sea. Reporting on Shoigu’s visit, RIA Novosti framed it as part of a concerted “Eastern foreign policy direction” to counter the effects of the Ukraine crisis: “For Russia the results of the [Caspian] summit were yet another remarkable success for the Eastern foreign policy direction that is taking place in the wake of a serious worsening of relations with the West as a result of the events around Ukraine. Earlier this year Moscow achieved a historic gas agreement with Beijing. It also managed to seriously advance the development of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which India and Pakistan will join next year.”
Shoigu’s visit is considered as the first active defense contact between the two nations after Azerbaijan and Russia failed to reach an agreement to extend the lease of the radar station in Gabala. “Now the period of disagreements seems to have been overcome with varying degrees of success, evidenced by intensive military and technical cooperation between the two countries,” Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper said referring to a source in the Russian defense ministry.
At present, the two countries are carrying out a program for developing cooperation in the military and military-technical fields for 2013-2016. 57 Azerbaijani servicemen are studying at the Russian Defense Ministry’s schools. According to Shoigu, “Education and training of personnel is a very serious task due to the supplies of military hardware for the Azerbaijani army within the military-technical cooperation” while cooperation in the Caspian Sea between the Russian and Azerbaijani navies is “a very important aspect.”
Shoigu’s delegation included the Russian navy’s top commander Viktor Chirkov, who met with President Ilham Aliyev and his counterpart, Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov. At the meeting, Shoigu termed Azerbaijan a “strategic partner of Russia” and the two Defense Ministers signed a plan on cooperation for 2015. Shoigu said that “everything connected with the Caspian is important to Russia,” and later confirmed that Russia’s agreements with Azerbaijan include joint military maneuvers in the Caspian Sea to be carried out in 2015.
Shoigu said the documents establish cooperation on army-command training and maritime tactical exercises. He also discussed with his Azerbaijani counterpart the possibility of creating a collective security system for the Caspian states, which could as a “first step” include joint measures to prevent maritime and air incidents.
The U.S. State Department commented on the Caspian summit declaration that it does not intend to change its military cooperation with Baku. According to State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki, “We have seen the joint statement issued by the Caspian Five that, among other things, calls for the non-presence of armed forces in the Caspian Sea not belonging to one of the Caspian Five countries … We maintain a strong security cooperation relationship with Azerbaijan, focusing on border security, counterterrorism, NATO interoperability, and its capacity to contribute peacekeepers to international missions. We do not anticipate the Caspian Five joint statement will change that.”
By Oleg Salimov (10/29/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rakhmon continues persecution of his former Minister of Industry, businessman, and politician Zaid Saidov. On October 16, Tajikistan’s Anticorruption Agency raised several new criminal charges against Saidov, who already serves a 26-year prison term as of December 2013. Presumed by Rakhmon to be a potential political challenger, Saidov was convicted on charges of rape, polygamy, fraud, and bribery. The new charges include document forgery; abuse of office; misappropriation; illegal actions towards property subject to inventory, arrest, or confiscation; and tax evasion. The abuse of office was among the first charges pressed against Saidov at the moment of his arrest. However, when announcing the verdict, the court ordained this charge to supplementary examination. The cumulative punishment for the new charges against Saidov envisions up to 15 additional years of imprisonment.
Saidov’s rapid downfall was provoked by his announced intention to organize a new political party in Tajikistan, which was supposed to focus on addressing the concerns of business owners and entrepreneurs. The criminal charges against Saidov were brought up soon after the announcement, resulting in his arrest in May 2013 (see 04/09/2013 issue of the CACI Analyst). His ensuing conviction to a 26 year prison term and the confiscation of his property was widely seen by local and international human rights organizations as a punishment for political initiative and a warning to other potential challengers to Rakhmon.
Tajikistan’s Supreme Court rejected Saidov’s appeal in May 2014. After losing the appeal, the lawyers representing Saidov were determined to obtain an assertion of their client’s innocence in the International Court of Human Rights. The lawyers also consecutively criticized the Anticorruption agency for fabricating its case against Saidov and Tajik courts for ignoring the defenders’ arguments, evidence, and relevant materials. According to Saidov’s lawyers, the takeover of numerous successful businesses belonging to Saidov is another motive behind his conviction and the new charges. At the moment of his arrest, Saidov owned and co-owned 13 business enterprises ranging from fertilizers to light industry and education. Some of the businesses, including the large company TajikAzot were confiscated soon after the conviction. The new charges aim to expropriate Saidov’s remaining assets as well as punishing all individuals connected to him.
Saidov’s lawyers were among the first victims, as two out of three were accused by the Anticorruption agency of committing fraud and bribery. Fakhriddin Zakirov was arrested in March 2014 and Shukhrat Kudratov in July 2014. Previously, Saidov’s lawyers reported receiving warnings, threats, and harassment while working on Saidov’s case. A day before his arrest, Kudratov published an open letter stating the political motives for Saidov’s conviction sanctioned by the country’s top political elite. Just like the trial against Saidov, Zakirov’s case, which started on October 3, is conducted behind closed doors with no reporters or journalists allowed. The international Commission of Jurists in Switzerland expressed grave concerns regarding the persecution of Saidov’s lawyers due to their client’s political views. Two new lawyers will join Saidov’s team of defenders, replacing Zakirov and Kudratov who are still under arrest.
Saidov’s relatives are also targeted by Rakhmon’s regime. In August 2014, the Anticorruption agency initiated a document forgery case against Zaid Saidov’s son Khairullo. In January this year, the Higher Economic Court of Tajikistan reopened a case against Saidov’s other son, Khurshed, accusing him of illegal gain of property. In August 2013, Saidov’s friends and relatives took part in a symbolic action of support releasing one hundred white pigeons and balloons with Saidov’s portrait. They were soon arrested and spent several days in jail on charges of hooliganism.
The latest charges against Saidov involve 14 alleged accomplices including 6 unnamed city of Dushanbe officials. The assumed criminal ring headed by Saidov is suspected of financial manipulations and misuse of funds allocated for construction purposes. The group is also accused of repeated tax evasion.
There is a high probability that the 56-year-old Saidov will spend the rest of his life in prison. Besides losing his freedom, Saidov will be deprived of all his financial assets. New charges will likely continue to emerge until President Rakhmon is fully ascertained of Saidov’s complete political and financial destruction. Saidov’s case demonstrates that Rakhmon’s regime is determined to annihilate all potential opposition in Tajikistan while acquiring considerable financial assets from convicted persons, and does not shy from targeting business, personal, and political companions and manipulating the legal system in the process.
The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst is a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Transatlantic Research and Policy Center affiliated with the American Foreign Policy Council, Washington DC., and the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm. For 15 years, the Analyst has brought cutting edge analysis of the region geared toward a practitioner audience.