Monday, April 21, 2014


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Who Is Out To Get Tajikistan's Islamic Party?

The IRPT is not just the sole officially registered Islamic party in Tajikistan; it is the only officially registered Islamic party in all of Central Asia, a region ruled by officials who grew up in the officially atheist Soviet Union.

It's only halfway through April and it has already been a tough year for the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT).

State media has been reporting the alleged misadventures of IRPT members, which is not so unusual. But there has been a recent focus on salacious, and in this conservative Muslim country, scandalous sexual misdeeds of IRPT members and an alleged member, which the IRPT says is part of a government campaign to blacken the party's image.

RFE/RL's Tajik Service, Radio Ozodi, has been following the critical reports inside Tajikistan about the IRPT in recent weeks. Ozodi notes in its reports that next February the country holds parliamentary elections, so the recent misfortunes of opposition parties, and any in the coming months, might not be a coincidence.

The most recent PR blow to the IRPT came last week when two different videos were posted on Tajik social-network sites. Each purportedly showed an IRPT member in a sexual encounter, one with a woman, and the other with a young man.

The video allegedly of the IRPT member and woman is certainly an embarrassing indiscretion but there have been similar videos posted in Tajikistan in recent months so the public's sense of shock is not what it once was.

The video of the two men, however, could cause some damage to the IRPT's reputation.

Tajikistan's chief mufti, Saidmukarram Abdulkodirzoda, the state-selected head of Tajikistan's Muslims, said in a Friday sermon in February: "I am ashamed that this topic is to be discussed in the mosque. Unfortunately, I have heard about the homosexual orientation of educated and cultural people, who refused relationships with their wives and women and who commit the sin of sodomy."

These words indicate that for many the second video won't be forgotten very quickly in Tajikistan.

There's more. There's always more.

A voice on the videos claims they were secretly filmed by the IRPT by a sort of behavior-police unit formed by deputy IRPT leader Muhammadali Hait meant to expose immoral conduct by members.

In comments to Ozodi, Hait flatly rejected any such IRPT unit exists and said the videos were likely "produced" by people splicing and altering film at the Interior Ministry.

Hait pointed out the posting of the videos was only the latest in what he and other IRPT leaders say is a state-sponsored campaign to deprive the IRPT of any credibility. And they do have other examples.

On February 7, two state television channels reported an IRPT member in the northern town of Isfara had raped his two stepdaughters and one of them was pregnant as a result. The reports showed the suspect's IRPT membership card.

The IRPT said the suspect, Mahmadullo Kholov, was never an IRPT member and that the serial number of the card shown in the state television reports was for a card belonging to a female IRPT member in Isfara named Aziza Solivaya.

The IRPT said the card was a fake printed by the Interior Ministry.

On February 14, state television reported that IRPT member Bahriddin Muminov was imprisoned after being convicted of traveling to Syria to join the Jabhat al-Nusra group fighting government forces. The IRPT admitted Muminov was a member, but denied sending him to Syria or having any influence over his decision to go there.

The IRPT also complained it was the second time in just over a week state television aired reports connecting the party to crimes committed by an individual. A statement posted on the IRPT website Nahzat.tj on February 17 claimed hypocrisy: "Officials who are members of the ruling party [People's Democratic Party of Tajikistan] also commit crimes. What an injustice that television reports do not disclose their affiliation to the party."

It's a legitimate complaint. Tajikistan ranked 154th out of 177 countries on Transparency International's "Corruption Perception Index" for 2013. Everyone in Tajikistan knows there is plenty of corruption in the government but that, naturally, is not reported by state media.

There has also been what could be described as petty harassment of the IRPT.

In January, when IRPT leaders traveled to the Isfara area to investigate the death of a member while in prison and could not find accommodations, a local resident who was also an IRPT member allowed the group to stay at his house. When the IRPT delegation left, local police summoned the man for questioning and told him not to repeat his generosity.

Last November, authorities visited a store owned by an IRPT member in northern Tajikistan's Asht district that was selling school textbooks, language books, and such. State inspectors declared some books had mildew, which is a violation of the law. Other books contained print that was deemed too small. The shop was ordered closed.

This campaign against the IRPT is worrying because elections are coming and unlike Tajikistan's presidential election that incumbent President Emomali Rahmon always wins, opposition parties do have a small chance in elections for parliament. The IRPT has two seats in parliament now.

But this smear campaign is more concerning because the IRPT has become a relatively moderate Islamic party since the days of the 1992-97 civil war when its forces battled the government. Harassing IRPT members and seeking to tarnish the party's reputation plays into the hands of more radical Islamic groups.

The IRPT is not just the sole officially registered Islamic party in Tajikistan; it is the only officially registered Islamic party in all of Central Asia, a region ruled by officials who grew up in the officially atheist Soviet Union.

Central Asia is the land of Islam and has been for more than 1,000 years and future governments in the region are going to have to strike a balance with the religion, its leaders, and its adherents.

Hounding the IRPT serves no good purpose. The party is not strong enough to challenge the current regime but it does provide an outlet for those who see a need for Islam to play a greater role in the politics of Tajikistan.

-- Bruce Pannier with contributions from Mirzo Salimov of RFE/RL's Tajik Service and Farangiz Najibullah

A Return To The Hermit Kingdom Of Turkmenistan

Police have a more visible presence around the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat. (file photo)

It's been difficult to know exactly what is happening inside Turkmenistan for some two decades now.

Only small snippets of information get out about the social situation and the lives of the people living there.

These bits of news from Turkmenistan are faithfully chronicled by the websites of Turkmen outside the country, but generally focus on the negative aspects of governance in the country (and there are many of those).
 
One young person from RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, Azatlyk, returned to Turkmenistan earlier this year after four years outside the country.

Young enough to be termed a member of the Altyn Asr ("Golden Era") generation (i.e. the supposedly "blessed" generation who came of age under the "wise leadership" of Saparmurat Niyazov following  Turkmen independence in 1991), this individual recounted to Qishloq Ovozi what was different and what was the same.

Not everything there is bad it seems.
 
(Note: Given the nature of the Turkmen regime, Qishloq Ovozi is withholding the name of this RFE/RL colleague who still has family and friends back home)
 
We shall call our young Turkmen friend the "Vatanchi (Homelander)."
 
The customs official at Ashgabat airport had a predictable welcome for Vatanchi. "What were you doing there [in Prague]?" he "rudely" asked. Another customs official arrived and the two engaged in a brief, hushed conversation. Vatanchi was waved through.
 
Only four years after Vatanchi last looked upon Ashgabat, the downtown appeared different Vatanchi said the current Turkmen president's love of white marble buildings has turned central Ashgabat into a monotonous assortment of various government and commercial buildings that bear a strong resemblance to one another.
 
Buildings that pre-dated President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, or even Turkmenistan's independence, and once broke up the long blocks of white, new buildings have been almost all razed.
 
Just outside the city center the buildings have fresh coats of paint but Vatanchi said there is no change to the apartment buildings inside.
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Vatanchi noticed changes while walking around the capital. Some old women, Vatanchi lamented, are forced to try to sell small items -- socks, onions -- on street corners to get money, which our young Turkmen friend said is a great shame in a culture that usually holds its elders in high esteem.
 
There are more cars on the roads, even more luxury cars. In fact, Vatanchi noticed that more people seem to have more access to money now than they did four years ago.
 
Vatanchi was not convinced that was a good thing since the general poverty of nearly all had previously formed a strong bond among the people. Now, Vatanchi said, there is a small economic gap opening up between the people in Ashgabat.
 
The list of available goods sounded promising. Vatanchi said people were wearing Western clothes; most young people seemed to have mobile phones and the selection of food was much better.
 
But Vatanchi noted, "Internet connections are a problem."
 
Police are more visible around the city, but Vatanchi said their presence is hardly necessary.
 
"You can feel the presence of the security service. It's a feeling you're controlled, watched," Vatanchi said.
 
Restrictions on traveling within the country have eased and it is now possible to drive from one city to another without any problems. But inside the cities there is a (undeclared) curfew at 11 p.m. and the streets are empty.
 
Sadly, but understandably, people are politically apathetic. No one wants to talk about politics, certainly not Turkmenistan's domestic politics.
 
The Turkmen people are not apathetic about community concerns, however. In the past, the people addressed complaints about utilities or poor roads to the country's president to try to scare city or district officials into taking some action.
 
Now people tell these officials, "I will complain to Azatlyk if the problem is not solved," Vatanchi said, adding that some have traveled to neighboring Uzbekistan just to get a phone or computer connection to Azatlyk and vent their grievances.
 
-- Bruce Pannier

The Wait Goes On At Kashagan

An oil rig and infrastructure of D Island, the main processing hub, at the Kashagan offshore oil field in the Caspian Sea on August 21

April is the month people involved in Kazakhstan’s massive Kashagan oil-field project have been waiting for, and many have been dreading.
 
The consortium operating the oil field is due to present the results of inspections that determined why the frequently delayed project suspended work in September, just weeks after production finally started when the pipeline started leaking.
 
And more importantly, North Caspian Operating Company (NCOC) should be able to give a new date for when production would start again.
 
But it appears the news is worse than most expected.
 
NCOC is expected to release findings soon that show toxic gas has corroded the pipelines leading from the offshore field to the mainland; that those pipelines will need to be totally replaced with much more durable, and expensive, new pipe; and that it will be at least two years until commercial production starts at Kashagan.
 
Kashagan has proven an elusive prize. The field contains an estimated 13 billion barrels of recoverable oil reserves, one of the largest oil fields discovered in the last 50 years.
 
But as Jennifer DeLay, senior editor at "FSU Oil & Gas Monitor" (a publication of the Scotland-based Newsbase group), told Qishloq Ovozi, the project is already almost a decade behind schedule and the estimated cost of the project has shot up from the original $50 billion to $135 billion, and that is not counting the cost of the new pipe that seems now to be required.
 
Some now refer to Kashagan as “Cash-all-gone.”
 
Steve Levine, who I think anyone would agree is a leading authority on Kazakhstan’s oil sector, wrote on April 6 that the new pipeline will need to be made of a nickel-based alloy that can cost 10 to 15 times more than ordinary pipeline.
 
And according to Mr. Levine, two nearly 90-kilometer pipelines -- one for oil and one for gas -- will need to be replaced.
 
Kazakh officials have said the failure of Kashagan to start production is reducing the country’s economic growth forecasts by 2-3 percent.
 
And the Kazakh government is showing its impatience. The Ministry of Environmental Protection hit the NCOC with a $737 million fine on March 7 for flaring sour gas at Kashagan’s processing plants during the brief time the field was producing.
 
Just before the announcement of the fine, then-Prime Minister Serik Akhmetov said production at Kashagan could start again by the middle of this year or maybe sometime in the second half of the year.
 
As mentioned, this is only the most recent problem in a project that has been plagued by setbacks from the start.
 
DeLay of the "FSU Oil & Gas Monitor" explained that going into the project everyone knew there was big money to be made but there were also some serious challenges to be overcome.
 
She said high reservoir pressure and high sulfur content posed technical difficulties, and the project “also had to build a platform capable of operating in ice conditions, since the field is located in a section of the Caspian Sea that freezes over in the winter.”
 
The shareholders in the NCOC consortium have also changed since it was formed in 1993 under a different name (Kazakhstancaspiishelf).
 
DeLay recounted that Italy’s Eni was appointed to act as the project’s operator in 2001, the same year BP and Statoil sold their shares to other partners and left the project. Eni became the operator of the project in part because the Italian company pledged to start production at Kashagan by 2005.
 
In 2003 BG followed, but only after the company tried to sell its shares to Chinese companies CNOOC and Sinopec, a move that was halted when consortium partners invoked their preemptive privilege. Kazakhstan’s government took half of BG’s shares, transferring them to KazMunaiGaz, and the other half of BG’s shares were shared out among the consortium partners.
 
ConocoPhillips tried to sell its 8.4-percent stake to India’s ONGC-Videsh in 2012, but that sale was preempted by the Kazakh government, which later sold the shares instead to the China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC), the same month Kashagan started production.
 
Currently the consortium comprises KazMunaiGaz 16.81 percent, Eni 16.81 percent, ExxonMobil 16.81 percent, Shell 16.81 percent, Total 16.81 percent, CNPC 8.40 percent, and Japan’s INPEX 7.56 percent.
 
Some have speculated the Kazakh government might use this latest postponement in production at Kashagan to acquire more shares in the project. The Kazakh government has previously used large fines as a bargaining chip to get shares in projects on Kazakhstan’s territory.
 
There is also a 2007 law in Kazakhstan that gives the government the right to alter or cancel contracts with foreign oil companies if their activities are deemed to be threatening the national interest.
 
But DeLay said she did not think the Kazakh government would take such a step just yet. “I would speculate that the government might not be willing to take such a step any time soon, given that yet another shift in the shareholder lineup might lead to even more delays.”
 
The NCOC website does state: “The Kashagan project is one of the most challenging projects ever undertaken.”


 -- Bruce Pannier with contributions from Yedige Magauin of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service

Sanctions On Russia Open Southern Corridor

Gazprom launches production at a northern Russian gas plant (file photo)

Amid events in Ukraine, the European Union is pondering how to decrease its dependence on Russian energy supplies. Already there is talk in Europe, and further away, that as the door to Russian resources closes a bit, the Southern Corridor should finally be opened and realize its potential.
 
The major hold-up for the Southern Corridor has been the reluctance of Caspian Basin countries, particularly the Central Asian countries, to sign on to any deals until they could see work starting on pipelines. The European side has been waiting for the supplier countries to commit contractually to energy projects before starting construction of pipelines.
 
But both sides were able to delay making big decisions because of Russia, which supplied Europe with gas and oil and which provided Caspian Basin countries with existing energy-export routes.
 
Now, not only is the EU more determined to reduce its dependence on Russian energy supplies, but there is also the real possibility that sanctions or an outright suspension of Russian gas through Ukrainian pipelines could leave EU countries with insufficient energy supplies and Caspian Basin countries with a glut of oil and gas.
 
Kazakhstan’s oil and gas minister, Uzaqbai Qarabalin, told parliament on April 7 the country is looking for additional export routes and named the reason why the issue is important now: fear that sanctions on Russia might leave Kazakhstan without its primary export route.
 
Kazakhstan exports about one-third of 82 million tons of oil the country produces via Russian pipelines. Qarabalin suggested Kazakhstan’s export potential via Russian pipelines could become limited and said, “We have to think about other possibilities.”
 
While Qarabalin did not specifically mention the Southern Corridor, he did speak about using Kazakhstan's Caspian Sea port at Aktau, which is one of the links the EU incorporates into its plans for the corridor.
 
The EU “Southern Corridor” project envisages a network of pipelines, railways, roads and tanker fleets carrying oil and gas from Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and possibly Uzbekistan, to Europe.
 
The project has made slow progress since the plan was unveiled in Prague in May 2009, just months after a dispute between Kyiv and Moscow left large areas of eastern and central Europe with greatly reduced supplies of gas.
 
But there has been some progress in the Southern Corridor scheme in the last five years, and Aktau is one example.
 
Aktau is undergoing massive expansion and renovation and could, according to Qarabalin, ship up to 20 million tons of oil annually within a couple of years.
 
Kazakhstan is building up its tanker fleet, as is Turkmenistan, to ship oil and other petroleum products from the eastern Caspian to the Caucasus in the western Caspian.
 
Late last year, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan renewed an agreement -- suspended over a pricing dispute in 2010 -- for shipping Kazakh oil through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline. This year, Kazakhstan is due to export 4 million tons of oil through the BTC pipeline. Turkmenistan is also regularly sending tankers to Baku with oil to be pumped into the BTC.
 
Qarabalin also mentioned Georgia’s Black Sea port at Batumi, where Kazakhstan owns the marine terminal. This route involves transportation from Baku by rail; and in order to better service shipments between the Caspian and Black seas, Azerbaijan has in the last few years purchased hundreds of special railway wagons to carry oil and LNG and upgraded the railway lines.
 
Azerbaijan is the critical link for the Southern Corridor. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry specifically mentioned Azerbaijan as part of Europe’s energy future during a U.S.-EU Energy Council meeting in Brussels on April 2. Kerry said part of the priority for European energy security “is going to be to look at how do we get more natural gas through...the Southern Corridor, from Azerbaijan to Turkey and on to Europe.”
 
Azerbaijan and Turkey have already started a new gas route in the Southern Corridor with the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP), which in Europe will become the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) and bring up to 20 billion cubic meters (bcm) of Azerbaijani gas through Greece and Albania, across the Adriatic Sea to Italy.
 
There are also several projects that could significantly boost the amount of gas Caspian Basin countries could send to Europe via the Southern Corridor. Among them are the Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan, the White Stream pipeline to carry Caspian gas to Romania and Ukraine, and even an evolved version of the Nabucco pipeline project, once the EU’s choice for a gas pipeline between the Caspian and Europe.
 
More routes would be needed as Russia currently supplies Europe with some 280 bcm of gas and between 70 percent and 80 percent of Russia's 230 million tons of oil exports goes to Europe.
 
But the economic need for the Southern Corridor to open wide has never been greater, and both Europe and the countries of the Caspian Basin have new impetus to see the plan realized.

-- Bruce Pannier

Kazakhstan’s Emergency Media Law

Under the new law, newspapers would have to seek approval for their texts in times of crisis.

RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service, Azattyq, reports that Kazakhstan’s media has new regulations it must follow in times of crisis. If the country finds itself in a state of emergency, experiencing moments of great uncertainty, when the people of the nation will most need news, media outlets will have to observe a break (or brake) on delivering information about what is happening.
 
That is due to a new rule, made public at the start of April that sets new rules for publishing or broadcasting information after a state of emergency has been declared in Kazakhstan.
 
The new rules obligate owners of media outlets -- print, radio, or television -- to hand over texts of their reports to the local "komendatura," the officials in charge of preserving order during a state of emergency, 24 hours before the reports are published or broadcast.
 
If those local authorities find problems in any reports they can halt the airing or publication of the report.
 
If the report is disseminated without approval and is found to be unsuitable, the komendatura can order the “offending” media outlet to suspend its activities.
 
It effectively gives state media a monopoly on the dissemination of information during an emergency situation.
 
Tamara Kaleeva, the head of Kazakhstan’s independent media rights organization Adil Soz, told Azattyq one reason for the new regulations provide a legal basis for preventing information from getting out about unrest in Kazakhstan.
 
She pointed out during the violence in the western Kazakh city of Zhanaozen in December 2011 that left 17 people dead, authorities had to justify shutting down media, suspending Internet access, and cutting off mobile phone service.
 
Kaleeva also said the new rules are a response to recent events in Ukraine, where three months of protests led to the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych. 
 
Learning The Wrong Lessons
 
That is the classic reaction of Central Asian governments to unrest nearby, certainly to social upheaval in the CIS.
 
When neighboring governments experience social unrest, Central Asian governments traditionally do not look at the roots of the problems -- social inequality, unemployment, state corruption -- and seek to cure these deficiencies in their own countries.
 
Instead, the Central Asian governments try to determine which legislative gaps and security slip-ups allowed social unrest to start. Then they take measures to ensure the same “mistakes” cannot be repeated in their countries.
 
Just look at any of the major unrest in Kyrgyzstan in the last 10 years and then look at the new amendments, rules, and regulations passed in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan in the weeks that followed. New restrictions are placed on freedom of assembly, freedom of speech and more authority is given to law enforcement agencies, among other changes.
 
On that note, Kazakhstan is not the only Central Asian country to have acted in the wake of events in Ukraine.
 
RFE/RL’s Tajik Service, Radio Ozodi, reported at the start of March that a new rule went into effect in the Tajik capital Dushanbe.
 
Officials went in search of people who had spare tires at their homes (besides the one spare tire every car should have). Those possessing old spare tires, or a suspicious number of spare tires, were ordered to take the tires to an area 40 kilometers outside the capital and leave them there.
 
No Maidan bonfire in Dushanbe.
 
-- Bruce Pannier. Kazis Toguzbaev and Assem Tokaeva of RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service and Salimjon Aioubov and Tohir Safarov of RFE/RL’s Tajik Service helped in the preparation of this report.

Good News From Qarqeen

A migrating bank of the Amu-Darya river

Long-awaited help has been promised for the Turkmen of the Qarqeen area in northern Afghanistan and RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, Azatlyk, can claim some credit for that.
 
Azatlyk recently did extensive reporting on the plight of Turkmen on the Afghan side of the border, their problems with militants, with Turkmenistan’s border guards, and security forces, and with the river that divides the Turkmen people.
 
The appeals from the people of Qarqeen district in Jowzjan Province had previously gone unheeded, especially those being made to their neighbors -- the ethnic Turkmen of Turkmenistan.
 
The governor of Afghanistan’s northern Jowzjan Province, which borders Turkmenistan, contacted Azatlyk to say he had been in touch with officials from Turkmenistan.
 
Speaking to Azatlyk by telephone on April 3, Governor Baymyrat Goyunly said Turkmenistan’s consul-general contacted him a few days earlier. The official told the governor that a team from Turkmenistan would be sent to assess how best to solve one of Qarqeen’s biggest problems -- the migrating river.
 
The flow of that river, the Amu-Darya, has been eating away the bank on the Afghan side of the border for decades, extending Turkmenistan’s territory at the expense of the people in the Qarqeen district.
 
Qarqeen’s Turkmen told Azatlyk in February and March that they hoped Turkmenistan would renew help to reinforce the Afghan bank of the Amu-Darya and stop the loss of precious Afghan agricultural land.
 
Turkmenistan suspended such help several years ago and the results have been disastrous for Qarqeen’s residents, many of whom have fled farther south into the inhospitable desert.
 
Goyunly said he requested the consul-general to send the team from Turkmenistan to Qarqeen and the Khamyab district to the west, where the situation is the same, after the April 5 presidential election.
 
Azatlyk’s correspondent in Jowzjan reported another positive development.
 
The "mistreated" Afghan Turkmen also complained just last month to Azatlyk that they were in danger of being beaten, detained, or imprisoned by Turkmenistan’s border guards and security forces if they went to the islands that have emerged in the Amu-Darya as the river has shifted. The Afghan Turkmen wish to graze their cattle on these islands, which they say was once part of Afghanistan and where their villages were located.
 
Azatlyk’s Jowzjan correspondent reported that Turkmenistan’s border guards have recently given Afghan Turkmen permission to graze their cattle on the islands with the understanding they cannot set foot on Turkmenistan’s bank of the Amu-Darya.
 
This sudden change in the situation along the Turkmen-Afghan border came after Afghan President Hamid Karzai hosted a Norouz celebration in Kabul on March 26.
 
Several regional leaders attended. Turkmenistan was represented by longtime Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov. The Afghan Turkmen sent a delegation of 50 elders, including some elders from Qarqeen, to meet with Meredov in Kabul.
 
Sources who attended the talks told Azatlyk that Meredov promised those Turkmen elders that Turkmenistan would help them construct barriers along the river bank.
 
Obviously a huge amount of credit for the change in fortune of Qarqeen’s Turkmen goes to these elders who made the long trip to the capital.
 
But Governor Goyunly said the first phone call he made after speaking with Turkmenistan’s general consul was a latenight conversation with the Azatlyk correspondent who has been instrumental in getting the region’s story out to the world.
 
And the governor was happy to speak by phone with Azatlyk in Prague a couple of days later to answer some follow-up questions.
 
And of course, we here at RFE/RL in Prague know some of Turkmenistan’s government officials have been listening to us, and keeping track of what we say, for many years now.* So someone in Ashgabat has undoubtedly heard what Azatlyk has been reporting recently about the ethnic Turkmen in Jowzjan, Faryab, and Baghdis provinces.
 
Now the wait begins to see if promises become reality. But at least the people in Qarqeen district have hope that their most basic wishes might soon come true.

-- Bruce Pannier with contributions from Muhammad Tahir of RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service

Good-Bye, Manas

U.S. servicemen carry bags as they dismantle a tent camp at the U.S. transit center at Manas on March 6.

It is now less than 100 days until the United States' presence at the Manas Airport in Bishkek comes to an end. After more than 12 years, the departure of U.S. troops is a symbolic moment in the larger drawdown of foreign forces from Afghanistan and, according to some, a reduced U.S. interest in Central Asia.
 
In recognition, I want to take a look at what has changed in Kyrgyzstan in the time that U.S. troops have been stationed at Manas and what the people of Kyrgyzstan have learned -- or at least believe -- about the United States, having hosted those foreign servicemen and -women.
 
The first U.S. troops arrived at Manas International Airport in December 2001 and the American flag has been flying discreetly there ever since. Tens of thousands of service personnel from more than a dozen countries have since gone through Manas on their way to and from Afghanistan.
 
Some warplanes have landed there, such as the French Mirage 2000D fighters in February 2002. But the planes coming and going from Manas have primarily been military cargo and transport planes, as a result of the agreement with the Kyrgyz government that only nonlethal cargo would transit the base.
 
ALSO READ: Kyrgyz President Says 'No New Base' At Manas (in Russian)
 
When the first troops arrived, Askar Akaev was Kyrgyzstan’s president. He was ousted during widespread protests in March 2005 and his successor, Kurmanbek Bakiev, was chased from power during unrest in April 2010. Roza Otunbaeva became interim president and just weeks later there were interethnic clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan that left hundreds dead, thousands injured, and briefly displaced many thousands of people.
 
These turbulent events received added attention in the United States in no small part due to the presence of a U.S. base there. And while those events might have cast Kyrgyzstan in an unflattering light, a little more than a year after the ethnic violence Kyrgyzstan became the first Central Asian country to see a peaceful transfer of power when Almazbek Atambaev was elected president.
 
U.S. troops at the Manas base continued to perform their duties through all of these changes.
 
There were several reported plots to sabotage the Manas base, but Kyrgyz authorities claimed they foiled all these in the planning stages.
 
There were some unfortunate incidents also. Plane fuel was dumped over civilian areas on at least two occasions drawing the ire of locals. A U.S. KC-135 tanker plane crashed in northern Kyrgyzstan in May 2013.
 
A U.S. soldier killed a civilian employee at Manas in December 2006. Prior to that a U.S. servicewoman briefly went missing, and some U.S. servicemen had run-ins with locals in Bishkek.
 
Protests followed many of these incidents. There were also times when various political groups rallied against the U.S. presence at Manas.
 
Surprisingly, the presence of U.S. troops in Kyrgyzstan has left a very light footprint in the country. Operations have been confined to Manas. U.S. troops have not used any other bases in Kyrgyzstan despite rumors from time to time of a “southern” base being planned.
 
Certainly, many citizens of Kyrgyzstan can now claim to have seen Americans, either service personnel or those U.S. citizens who have followed the troops there for various reasons. The mountains of Kyrgyzstan beckon to all and my countrymen and countrywomen have followed the call into the Tien-Shan and Pamir.
 
Since I traveled all over Kyrgyzstan during the 1990s, I can appreciate this difference. Twenty years ago, I was almost always the first American anyone in Kyrgyzstan had seen. It is nothing like that today.
 
However, preconceived notions live on, and my travels in Kyrgyzstan between 2006 and 2010 showed me that some ideas have not changed, especially in southern Kyrgyzstan.
 
I was in southern Kyrgyzstan in April 2010, looking for ousted President Bakiev, who had fled to his native area of Teyit just outside Jalal-Abad.
 
He was due to speak on the central square in Jalal-Abad, right by the administration building. I was there waiting and people came up to me and asked, was I American? Several times the next question was "Is it true U.S. Special Forces are coming to capture Bakiev and take him to Bishkek?"
 
Even when I told them that was not going to happen, no one believed me entirely. I could tell by the way they looked at me, they simply believed I was protecting my own people.
 
Better was the young Uzbek man who approached me at dinner, the night before Bakiev left Kyrgyzstan for good.
 
“How long will U.S. troops stay in Kyrgyzstan?” he asked me.
 
“When we’re done in Afghanistan, we’ll leave Kyrgyzstan,” I said.
 
“No,” the Uzbek man replied. “U.S. soldiers never leave any place once they set up a base, not unless they are kicked out,” he clarified.
 
I mentioned the Philippines, Panama, told him about scaling back troop levels in Europe and South Korea -- but he wasn’t buying any of it.
 
I’d had similar conversations before. The most memorable was with a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, also in southern Kyrgyzstan, in 2006.
 
I had arranged an interview. I wanted to know about the Hizb ut-Tahrir plan for Central Asia. He was very polite, though many of his answers seemed like verses he had memorized (I had no idea they identified so closely with the story of Moses and the Pharaoh).
 
I finished my questions. Is that it? he asked. I said "yes," and he immediately said he had questions for me.
 
And he did.
 
Wasn’t it true that Kyrgyzstan is just a stepping-stone for U.S. conquest in Central Asia? How many more U.S. troops would be coming to Kyrgyzstan? Wasn’t it true that the United States wished to subjugate Muslims? And on, and on.
 
So once the U.S. troops pack up the last of their prefabricated buildings and the last military cargo planes take off from Manas, the majority of people in Kyrgyzstan will remain with essentially the same ideas about who Americans are and what they want.

A scrap from my memory book.

The first time I landed at Manas was early August 1992, when it was still the Bishkek International Airport. I arrived from Tashkent. What I remember most was the line of biplanes along the airport fence to the left of the terminal as you disembarked from the plane. All through the 1990s, they were there when I arrived at the airport.

Those vintage aircraft were the source of more than one joke about Kyrgyzstan’s air force.

But I always thought about the people who were lucky enough to fly them. It must have been magnificent to fly slowly into the mountains in one of those on a summer day, a temporary escape from the Soviet Union for those few moments when all one could see was the mountains all around.

The first time I flew into Manas after U.S. troops arrived, all the biplanes were gone.

-- Bruce Pannier

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change. Content will draw on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad. The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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