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Qishloq Ovozi

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
The U.S. Embassy in Tashkent says it is taking allegations of a green card scam in Uzbekistan "extremely seriously."
If you are a resident of Samarkand Province and you are contacted by a representative of a company, which lately has been calling itself Global Intel, it is your lucky day. You might soon not be a resident of Samarkand, or Uzbekistan.

The Samarkand-based company has hit on an unethical and ingenious scheme.

Global Intel (the name has changed several times over the years), a computer technology company, offers clients the company's services in the U.S. Diversity Visa Program -- the chance to obtain a U.S. permanent residency or "green card." Company representatives contact people and tell them there is a fee for its assistance in obtaining a green card for them, but it is payable only if an application is approved.

The best part, for Global Intel, is that these people have already been accepted to receive green cards, but they don't know it.

RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, Ozodlik, has been contacted by people wanting to tell the story of this operation and Ozodlik has done some investigating to put this tale together.

Here is how it works.

America Bound

(NOTE: Given the nature of Uzbekistan's regime and of the topic, which could be seen to reflect badly on Uzbek government policy, none of the people who spoke with Ozodlik wished to be identified.)

One young man did some work for Global Intel. We'll call him "Ishchi" (the worker).

Ishchi said he, and others, have gone to places where the records and documents of Samarkand Province's residents are kept. Armed with memory (USB) sticks these people copy all the information they can about Samarkand residents onto the portable USB drives and head for Global Intel.

Ishchi said those bringing in memory sticks are paid 400 Uzbek som (about $0.18) per name on the stick. According to Ishchi, word has gotten out and now scores of people are trying to copy this personnel information and deliver it to Global Intel.

"Ikkinchi Ishchi" (second worker) told Ozodlik what happens next. Ikkinchi Ishchi worked at the company, one of a team of low-paid workers (about 1,000 som or $0.4 per hour) whose job it was to sift through the names on the USB sticks.

They look primarily for recent college applicants, concluding such people have money saved for school. Once strong candidates are identified their personal details are taken – date of birth, residence, education record, signatures, photographs -- and an application is filled out for a green card, in English and sent to the Diversity Visa Lottery site.

The company receives notification of acceptance, including the all-important winners' code number, and then sends its representative, contract in hand, to the unknowing winner with the offer to help them obtain a U.S. green card. The company's fee "if" they are accepted is said to be about $5,000. About a week or so later the representative contacts the client to inform him or her of the happy, albeit intentionally belated, news of an impending green card.
A copy of the green card agreement (click to enlarge)
A copy of the green card agreement (click to enlarge)

And the deal is: first the money, then the code, and no refunds if the interview at the U.S. Embassy doesn't go well. And also, don't mention Global Intel at the interview, which hardly anyone would do anyway, since they probably already suspect their sudden good fortune is probably the result of something not quite legal.

An official at the consular department at the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent confirmed in 2012 that 63 percent of the green card winners came from Samarkand Province (and there are 12 provinces in Uzbekistan). Ozodlik's information indicates that ratio remains the same today.

Another young man, whom we will call him "Yangi Yankee" (New Yankee), is now in the United States. Ozodlik found him and he said he was surprised when he arrived in America and contacted the Uzbek Diaspora in his area, many of the other recently arrived Uzbeks were also from Samarkand Province.

Not surprisingly, the Samarkand-based company has extended its business into other provinces in Uzbekistan recently.

Diabolical, eh?

There's more.

Advanced Romance

Having learned the names of the successful applicants, the company's 1,000-som-per-hour employees, such as Ikkinchi Ishchi, refine their search and identify the unmarried young women who have been accepted for U.S. green cards.

Global Intel already has information on young unmarried men in the province. The company makes contact with an offer that, for a fee – this time $15,000 to $20,000 – they can get the names and addresses of America-bound, would-be brides so these bachelors can initiate a courting process that could see them married and living in the United States.

One of these suitors, we'll call him "Omadsiz" (the luckless) told this story to Ozodlik after he was spurned by his potential ticket-to-the-States, and lost his money. Over in the United States, Yangi Yankee said he knew of such deals.

According to accounts from these people and others, including an amazing friend of independent media who lives in Uzbekistan, the name of Global Intel's owner is Shakirjon Mukhtarov.

Ozodlik got in touch with Mukhtarov via Skype. Unaware the call was coming from RFE/RL headquarters in Prague, he started speaking to a person he believed to be an interested client. Mukhtarov did not want to go into details on Skype and invited the "client" to come to his office for a talk.

At this point the Ozodlik correspondent revealed themselves and the purpose of the call. Mukhtarov's memory and knowledge of his company suddenly failed. His office machinery similarly seemed to fail since it was impossible for any of Ozodlik's employees to make contact with him again.

Ozodlik contacted the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs, which oversees the Diversity Visa about the scheme.

An official there said that the United States takes such allegations "extremely seriously." The Consular Department is aware of green card scams worldwide. The official noted that information posted on U.S. Embassy websites around the world warns against offers or claims of winning a green card in some sort of lottery, or of using "any third-party facilitator" to get a green card.

The official also said the accusations Samarkand residents made to Ozodlik would be checked and measures taken to tighten the screening process.

The Samarkand scam is brilliant in some ways. Everyone gets what they want seemingly. Soon-to-be former residents of Uzbekistan, overjoyed with their good news, happily hand over money to the company, which happily takes it.

The only crime apparently being committed is the amazingly large-scale identity theft that fuels the company's business. Those rejected for a green card never know about it.

But there are losers -- the many people who do apply for U.S. green cards legitimately and without help from a company that presumably has learned a few things after filling out thousands of application forms.

-- Bruce Pannier

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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 the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Content draws 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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