A Russian soldier launches a "Leer" drone. (photo: Russian Ministry of Defense)
Russian troops in Tajikistan have received surveillance drones designed for "terrain reconnaissance and detection of radioactivity," the Russian military has announced. "The UAVs have substantially raised the military capability of the units carrying out the surveillance mission during day and night," the report said. The UAVs in question are the "Granat," "Zastava," and "Leer." All are relatively small -- the Granat and Zastava are portable. And the Leer is apparently especially designed for "detecting radiation, creating interference for radio signals and suppressing specific frequencies."
It's not clear what radiation threat there may be in Tajikistan, but the small surveillance drones would be consistent with Russia's stated mission of trying to stop the spillover of militants from Afghanistan into Tajikistan. It's also possible that the drones are just for show. As regional security expert Mark Galeotti wrote in a recent analysis in openDemocracy, Russia's belated enthusiasm for drones is partly for show: "Of course, this is the age of the drone, and Moscow must be wanting to achieve parity with its rivals... [I]n 2012, Putin acknowledged that ‘unpiloted aircraft are being used more and more actively in armed conflicts; and I must say, they are being used effectively’ and so ‘we need the full line, including automated strike aircraft, reconnaissance drones and other systems… It is imperative to involve best engineering and science bureaus and centres in this effort.'" But Galeotti notes that Russia is far behind other countries like the U.S. -- by as much as two decades -- and is fast trying to catch up.
While foreign military aid to the countries of Central Asia is unlikely to have a large impact on security in the region, it's unclear whether the positive effects will outweigh the negative ones. That's according to a comprehensive new report (pdf), "External Support for Central Asian Military and Security Forces," written by Dmitry Gorenburg for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (and supported by the Open Society Foundations, which also funds EurasiaNet).
The 90-page paper is the most exhaustive accounting of military aid given to the Central Asian countries. While "Russia remains the main source of military and security assistance for most Central Asian states" the report also looks at American and other countries' military aid, Both the U.S. and Russian aid is based primarily on quid pro quos, Gorenburg argues: for Russia it is for the sake of "basing rights and a certain level of acquiescence on Russian foreign policy priorities" while for the U.S. it's been "assuring continued access for transferring supplies and personnel to Afghanistan."'
Gorenburg notes that the possibility of Central Asian militaries receiving excess U.S. military equipment from Afghanistan is insignificant relative to the amount of attention it gets:
Central Asia’s autocrats were no doubt watching askance as Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich fell from power this weekend. But regional media coverage of the dramatic developments in that other volatile former Soviet republic, while generally cautious, has presented a few surprises.
Of course, given the unpleasant parallels between Yanukovich’s governing style and the rule of Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan and Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov in Turkmenistan, those countries’ tightly controlled media have maintained a studied silence on popular protests that overthrew an entrenched leader.
However, one Uzbek website that sometimes takes a maverick stance did broach the topic – pooh-poohing the idea of a Ukraine-style scenario playing out in Uzbekistan.
The circumstances in the two countries do not bear comparison, argued a commentary published February 25 on Uzmetronom, a site believed to have links to the powerful SNB domestic intelligence agency. Karimov is not susceptible to Western pressure, said editor-in-chief Sergey Yezhkov, and it is more in his nature to make a last stand than to give up power.
Officials also know where their bread is buttered, Yezhkov continued, and take the view that “better a bit of bread and butter today (being in power guarantees this) than uncertainty in the future.” Finally, ordinary people have something to lose: “It is paradoxical, but [even] with serious restrictions on political and civil liberties [and] a difficult economic situation… [still] no harbingers or signs of a rebellion are observed in Uzbekistan.”
A court in Dushanbe has ordered a local journalist to pay over $6,200 in moral damages for insulting a group of state-appointed intellectuals, local media reported on February 25. The average monthly salary in Tajikistan is about $200.
The suit was in response to a commentary Asia-Plus editor Olga Tutubalina wrote last May, where she condemned the cozy relationships many writers and artists enjoy with the administration of President Imomali Rakhmon. Quoting a letter that Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin supposedly wrote, she asserted that the official creative class – which receives extensive state perks for supporting the state – is “not [the nation’s] brains but its shit.”
The Firdavsi District court ruled that Tutubalina must apologize and that Asia-Plus must publish a retraction, in addition to the crippling 30,000 somoni in damages, according to Asia-Plus’s account.
Last summer, Tutubalina told EurasiaNet.org that she did not mean to insult anyone and insisted she had nothing to apologize for. “One particular segment of the intelligentsia does not deserve respect. I meant those who speak only when they get permission from above,” she said. Asia-Plus's lawyers plan to appeal.
A global survey of 223 cities ranks some of the capitals in Central Asia and the South Caucasus the world’s worst places for foreigners to live. Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe, for example – where officials build themselves multi-million-dollar palaces and ignore basic property rights, education, and a failing healthcare system – now ranks the worst city in Asia for expatriates to make a home.
The annual ranking, released February 19 by Mercer, a New York-based human resources consultancy, measures cities based on quality of living for foreigners, not locals. The company takes into consideration 39 factors including political stability, the effectiveness of law enforcement, censorship, pollution and healthcare, electricity supplies, the quality of schools and public services, availability of consumer goods and climate. The scores are “weighted to reflect their importance to expatriates.” The ranking has been published since 1994.
A decade ago, Asia would probably have offered more competition at the lower end of the rankings. But with stunning economic growth across much of the continent, today it is post-Soviet Central Asia that sweeps the bottom of the table. Dushanbe (ranked 209 globally) was one-upped in Asia by the capital of Bangladesh, Dhaka (208), and fell two places in two years. Ashgabat came third from the bottom in Asia at 206, falling seven places since 2012. Fourth- and fifth-worst, respectively, Bishkek ranked 204 and Tashkent 202. (Almaty ranked 169 in 2012; Astana wasn’t surveyed. If you want to know where they rank this year, you’ll have to shell out $499 for the report.)
The General Atomics "Avenger" UAV, which may soon be based in Central Asia. (photo: General Atomics)
The U.S. is making plans to set up drone bases in Central Asia in the case that the government of Afghanistan doesn't allow U.S. troops to remain in that country past this year, the Los Angeles Times has reported. The military wants to maintain the ability to carry out attacks against militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan even if it has no military presence in those countries, and the next best options are the Central Asian states. The officials interviewed didn't specify which countries were being considered: "There are contingency plans for alternatives in the north," said one official quoted by the paper.
So which would it be? The story's publication prompted much speculation among Central Asia watchers as to where the putative base might be located. Each of the three Central Asian states bordering Afghanistan would have serious downsides from the U.S.'s perspective. Tajikistan is highly susceptible to Russian pressure, and the Kremlin is surely not inclined to let the U.S. reestablish its military presence in Central Asia. Uzbekistan might be willing to host a base and is relatively immune to Russian pressure, but is a bit of a bete noire in Washington and setting up a drone base there would surely face resistance from human rights-inclined members of Congress. And Turkmenistan would have some of the same problems as Uzbekistan, but also has a proudly held neutrality that would seem to preclude hosting U.S. drones.
One wrinkle that could affect the decision is whether the bases are run by the military or the CIA. As the Times notes, the current drone program in Afghanistan and Pakistan is operated by the CIA, which can remain covert. President Barack Obama has said he wants to shift U.S. drone programs to the military, but in this case that would require the bases to be relatively public:
Russian President Vladimir Putin is concerned about the possibility of the American military conducting intelligence operations in Kyrgyzstan and will bring up the issue with his Kyrgyzstani counterpart Almazbek Atambayev when the two meet at Sochi during the Olympics. That's according to Russian diplomatic and military stories quoted in a story in Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta which provides a useful report what Moscow is thinking these days about Central Asian security.
Atambayev, having managed the U.S.'s withdrawal from the Manas military base, still leaves on the territory of the country a large-scale foreign military aviation presence, including American (and their allies). Concern has been expressed by experts about the possibility of conducting military surveillance with them. But Russia, of course, has no need for that. Evidently Putin, in his conversations with his Kyrgyzstan colleague, will touch on this problem. Russia has contributed too much to strengthening regional security for its interests not to be considered,
The piece also mentions the billion-plus dollars in military aid that Russia has promised Kyrgyzstan, and complains that "for Kyrgyzstan that's a lot, but the leadership of the republic, it appears, is trying to sit on two chairs" [that is, the U.S. and Russia].
A paramilitary band led by a veteran of the Tajikistan civil war has reportedly been deployed to the border with Kyrgyzstan, prompting Bishkek to send an official note of protest to Dushanbe. Arkady Dubnov, the top Russian journalist covering Central Asia, reported this week that Shoh Iskandarov, a former opposition commander who later joined the government, is leading a paramilitary group of about 150 men in the Isfara region. That's near the Kyrgyzstan border, which was recently the site of fighting that included heavy weaponry. Although the situation has calmed somewhat since the fighting on January 11, and both sides have agreed to pull back their forces, the alleged arrival of Iskandarov adds a potentially dramatic new element into the tense situation.
Tajikistan has yet to officially comment on whether or not Iskandarov is in fact getting involved in the border conflict, but Kyrgyzstani website 24.kg reported that the Kyrgyzstan Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent an official note of protest to Dushanbe over his arrival, complaining about the "unacceptable massing of armed forces in the border region."
The Collective Security Treaty Organization, Russia's post-Soviet security bloc, has laid out its priorities for the upcoming year, and it appears that the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan conflict -- the year's most pressing security issue -- remains low on the agenda.
On January 21, CSTO General Secretary Nikolay Bordyuzha gave a press conference in Moscow with the intention of summarizing the organization's goals for 2014. And tellingly, the CSTO's official account of the event contains no mention of the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan conflict. He did, however, speak about it. A report in the Russian official military newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda said that Bordyuzha "spoke out against the use of force by CSTO units for the settlement of the conflict between member states of the organization. Speaking of the recent Tajik-Kyrgyz border incident, he expressed the opinion that this is an issue between the two countries and no one, except for them, can resolve it."
And according to ITAR-TASS, Boryuzha said that the organization's involvement has been limited to phone consultations: "We are in constant contact with the heads of government, discussed measures for the containment of this conflict. Today there remain several unresolved questions such as the closure of checkpoints from the Kyrgyz side and the presence on the border of military forces of both republics," he said.
Nearly a week after a border shootout between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, Dushanbe admitted firing mortars, raising the specter of further militarization along the disputed frontier. And conflicting stories about exactly what happened have developed into a heated diplomatic row with the potential to do long-lasting damage to once-decent ties.
On January 17, six days after the violence, a Tajik official finally commented on allegations that his troops had fired mortar rounds at Kyrgyz border guards. Yes, Tajikistan did, said Major-General Sharaf Faizullayev, first deputy commander of Tajikistan’s border troops. But the outnumbered Tajiks used mortars only to protect themselves after first being fired upon by Kyrgyz sharpshooters and without the intention to hurt anyone, he said.
"Given the numerical superiority of the Kyrgyz border guards and the intensity of their fire, a decision was made to use a small-caliber mortar to curb [the Kyrgyz’s] fire with the aim of evacuating the wounded," Faizullayev said in comments carried by Dushanbe’s Asia-Plus news agency. He added that the fighting occurred on Tajik territory.