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Qishloq Ovozi

Soldiers secure an area during an antiterrorist operation aimed at eliminating armed militants in a Bishkek neighborhood on July 16.

Kyrgyzstan's State Committee for National Security (UKMK) is crediting itself with having headed off two terrorist attacks in and near the capital, Bishkek, that could have resulted in mass casualties.

One day after the UKMK launched its security operations, Kyrgyz officials and media are providing some details about the plot.

But the pieces of the story so far compose a bizarre scenario.

First, what is known for sure.

On July 16, Kyrgyz security forces launched raids in a Bishkek neighborhood and near the town of Lebedinovka on the outskirts of the capital. Several videos of the fighting in Bishkek were posted online, showing smoke rising from buildings accompanied by the sounds of gunfire and explosions.

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.

The first reports of the battle on July 16 suggested that Kyrgyz security forces were fighting militants from an "international terrorist" group. Some Kyrgyz media quoted "sources" within the Interior Ministry as saying it was the Islamic State (IS) militant group, although it was unclear what the basis for such a conclusion was.

On July 17, UKMK spokesman Rakhat Sulaimanov said, "The terrorists who were eliminated were connected to the Islamic State [militant group]," which, Kyrgyz officials said, was led by a Kazakh citizen.

But there are some matters that are unclear.

Prior to Sulaimanov's statement, Kyrgyz news agency AKIpress reported that the militants were "Takfiris," which does not rule out them also being from IS, but AKIpress did not make that connection in its report.

Kyrgyz officials and media agree the leader of the group was a Kazakh national named Zhanbolat Amirov. Amirov was the only person who had been identified by early evening on July 17, though some reports added there were Kyrgyz among the militants.

Kazakhstan's Internet news agency went so far as to say in its July 17 report that "all the members of the terrorist organization who were killed were citizens of Kazakhstan."

Kazakh officials, as of the posting of this report, had not confirmed that any of those killed in Kyrgyzstan were Kazakh nationals.

As for Amirov, he recently escaped from a Kyrgyz prison. He and another Kazakh citizen, Albert Abkhin, were sentenced in 2014 to four years in prison after being convicted of illegally crossing into Kyrgyzstan. Both reportedly escaped on June 25. On July 2, Kyrgyz security forces located Abkhin in Bishkek and tried to apprehend him, but the suspect reportedly blew himself up.

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.

The UKMK released photographs of weapons seized from the militants that showed an assortment of AK-47s, grenades, and material to make explosives.

So far, Kyrgyz officials have provided no details of the exact location of the planned attack in Bishkek or the plot to attack the Kant base.

Sulaimanov said the militants "were planning to stage a blast at the Kant air base in order to take control of weapons and ammunition of the strategic Russian facility."

The Kant military base hosts at least 2,000 troops, including special forces, helicopter gunships, and advanced fighter aircraft. It would be difficult for a handful of militants to shoot their way into such a facility, seize weapons, and escape.

In fairness, investigators are still working and the story as it currently stands is bound to change soon.

But if Kyrgyz officials and media are accurately describing events, it raises a serious question.

Kyrgyzstan, like its Central Asian neighbors, has been on the lookout for any of its nationals returning from Syria, Iraq, or possibly Afghanistan or Pakistan. Kyrgyz and Kazakh officials have acknowledged that at least several hundred of their citizens have gone to the Middle East to join IS.

But the group that fought with Kyrgyz security forces on July 16 seems, according to available information, to have originated in Kazakhstan.

With contributions by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (left) shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin during their meeting at the SCO summit in Ufa on July 10.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) added its first two new members at a summit on July 10 -- India and Pakistan. Some of the leaders at the summit were pleased to point out that the member states of their organization now accounted for nearly half the world's population.

Since 2001, the SCO's members have been China, Russia, and Central Asian states Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. In theory, the six states were all equal within the framework of the SCO.

The inclusion of India and Pakistan into the SCO does boost the group's international profile, but it could come at expense of the Central Asian members.

To discuss this possibility, RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, organized a panel discussion.

Azatlyk Director Muhammad Tahir moderated the discussion. Participating were noted Central Asian authorities Alex Cooley, author of several books, including Base Politics -- Democratic Change And The U.S. Military Overseas and Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest For Central Asia. (I'll mention here that Dr. Cooley was recently appointed director of Columbia University's Harriman Institute -- Hooray! I remember the place well.) Also participating was Joshua Kucera, who has written about the security situation in Central Asia, and other areas, for EurasiaNet for many years now. I was happy to join those two peers in the discussion.

When he arrived in Ufa, Russia, for the SCO summit, Uzbek President Islam Karimov immediately met with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Karimov told the press he wanted to know more about why India and Pakistan were being admitted to the SCO. The other Central Asian presidents avoided making such comments, but that must have been on their minds also.

Cooley started by saying Central Asian members of the SCO have "had a great say" in the affairs of the organization but "now with the addition of India and Pakistan I think there's a fear among some of the Central Asian countries that some of their voice and some of their decision-making will also be lost."
Kucera agreed, pointing out: "With India and Pakistan, now there's four huge countries, nuclear powers, and four relatively poor and small and not-so-powerful Central Asian countries, so I think that there's legitimate concern that [Central Asian members] would be outweighed in SCO decision-making."

The combined population of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan is approximately 62 million. China and India, of course, have more than 1 billion people each; Pakistan almost 200 million; and Russia some 140 million. It is easy to see why the Central Asians could be worried about their role in the SCO.

Part of the problem for the Central Asians is that the two first-among-equals in the organization are often acting in their own interests inside the SCO.

It was noted that China used the SCO as a vehicle to gain economic influence in Central Asia. China was practically nonexistent as a trade partner for the Central Asian states prior to 2001, but now it is a leading -- if not the leading -- trade partner for all the Central Asian states, in large part due to SCO agreements.

"For Russia, this [SCO] has been a vehicle to try and push back against Western influence," Cooley said, arguing that it suits the Kremlin to have India and Pakistan as fellow members in the SCO.

Kucera noted that the timing was good for Russia.

"Russia really has been talking up the SCO a lot since the crisis with Ukraine and the fallout with the West, and it was interesting that in the last Peace Mission exercises last year the Russian contingent was much larger than it had been."

The SCO held five Peace Mission joint military exercises in the first 10 years of the organization's existence, but Russia sensed the SCO with China was taking on a greater security role in Central Asia, a role that the Kremlin preferred to reserve for itself via the Collective Security Treaty Organization. And although there was a Peace Mission exercise last year, Russia has been showing less enthusiasm for these drills since 2010.

The panelists discussed the divergence of interests between Russia and China within the SCO, saying that had worked against genuine unity in the organization and noting the differences in opinion between Russia and China often ignored the interests of the Central Asian members.

Cooley said that even the addition of the new members, who won't officially be admitted until 2016, demonstrated Russia and China were working together with different goals in mind.

"The Russians have wanted India in for a while as a kind of internal balancer to China, to sort of try and dilute Chinese influence. So they get that. Of course, they come in with Pakistan. That's a package deal and Pakistan is more and more an economic client of China's, as well as a security partner."

Kucera suggested that while the Kremlin often used the SCO as a way of showing the West that Russia cannot be isolated, "China is much less interested in that kind of showy gesture and is actually trying to accomplish things in Central Asia." But many of China's ideas of deeper regional cooperation, particularly economic cooperation, had been blocked by Russia, Kucera noted.

The panel discussed China's moves outside the SCO, for example Beijing's recent One Belt, One Road strategy that would connect Eurasian countries through land and sea trade routes. The idea came after Russia had rejected China's attempts to use the SCO as a basis for opening up trade routes between Europe and Asia.

And there was also the matter of the SCO's incredibly vague agenda. The organization was founded as the Shanghai Five in 1996 (Uzbekistan was not a member) as a way to build confidence along the Sino-CIS border by withdrawing assets away from the border area.

Even then, China was working with an ulterior motive since Beijing was anxious to reposition its military in the east, opposite Japan, South Korea, and their ally the United States, and especially with an eye toward Taiwan. The Shanghai Five freed up forces previously kept along what had been the Sino-Soviet border.

But the Shanghai Five moved from being about confidence-building to being about economic cooperation and by 2000 had already refocused on security as the primary binding force of the group. That changed and currently the SCO's agenda is not entirely clear.

As the SCO moves forward, there is even less chance the now eight members will be able to agree on a common direction or purpose and the Central Asians are likely just going along for the ride.

The discussion covered many other aspects of the recent SCO expansion and the SCO's role both regionally and internationally. Listen here to an audio recording of the roundtable:

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

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

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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