Kyrgyzstan Faces Twin External Threats
by Ramtanu Maitra on 14 Aug 2015 0 Comment

With a population of 5.7 million, a bit larger than that of Turkmenistan to its northwest, Kyrgyzstan is arguably economically the weakest of Central Asia’s “stan” nations. Its territory is mostly mountainous, skirting the fertile and politically volatile Ferghana Valley in its west while much of its eastern part borders the economic powerhouse, China.


Kyrgyzstan has no known reserves of gas or oil. It has only a gold mine that is being depleted, producing less and less each year. Lacking work at home, the Kyrgyz migrant workforce moved in large numbers to Russia. In 2013, according to a World Bank report, these workers sent back home about $2.2 billion, or almost 30 percent of the country’s GDP. During the last two years, that amount has gone down significantly as the Russian rouble weakened and the West-sanctioned Russian economy remained virtually stagnant.


Under the circumstances, one would assume that Kyrgyz authorities would be consumed in how to enhance country’s economic activities. However, while it is likely that they worry about the economy, they perhaps worry more about the twin external threats posed by the drug trafficker–terrorist network seeking control of Kyrgyzstan’s security, and the geopolitical United States seeking yet another color revolution to bring down the present regime while chanting the mantra of “democracy and human rights” in Kyrgyzstan.


Drug Trafficking through Kyrgyzstan


The drug traffickers, and their partners wearing Islamist jihadi hats, have become very potent as heroin production in Afghanistan and narcotics consumption in Russia zoomed in recent years. Sparsely-populated Kyrgyzstan’s topography is dominated by mountain ranges crisscrossing and stretching across the country’s entire east, north and west that provide many passageways for the drug traffickers to bring in loads of heroin from Afghanistan. Kyrgyzstan is still a transiting country for Afghan heroin, but the drug traffickers have built up a powerful network, involving many Kyrgyz elites, to deliver it to those who control Russia’s increasingly powerful drug trafficking network stretching into Europe.


Back in 2002, soon after the United States invaded Afghanistan to uproot the ruling Taliban government protecting Washington’s then-principal enemy, al-Qaeda, a US Library of Congress Report identified Kyrgyzstan as a hub of Afghan heroin transit and processing. The report noted: “Kyrgyzstan has become a primary center of all aspects of the narcotics industry: manufacture, sale and drug trafficking. Kyrgyzstan’s location adjacent to major routes across the Tajik mountains from Afghanistan combines with ineffectual domestic smuggling controls to attract figures from what a Kyrgyz newspaper report characterized as ‘an international organization uniting an unprecedentedly wide circle of members in the United States, Romania, Brazil, Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. … These are not half-literate Tajik-Afghan drug runners, but professionals who have passed through a probation period in the mafia clans of the world narcotics system” (“Involvement of Russian Organized Crime Syndicates, Elements in the Russian Military, and Regional Terrorist Groups in Narcotics Trafficking in Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Chechnya,” Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, October 2002).


Since that time it has been well established that the volume of Afghan heroin moving northward through Afghanistan’s uncharted and ungoverned Badakhshan province drug corridor has converted the Kyrgyz city of Osh in the Ferghana Valley into a drug hub, earning it the infamous title as the region’s “drug capital.” Osh is located on one of the major drug-trafficking routes from Afghanistan to Russia and Europe.


According to a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) article in January 2013, several factors contribute to Osh becoming the regional drug capital. One is its geographical location. Kyrgyzstan shares a long, poorly controlled border with Tajikistan, which mostly runs through mountainous terrain. In addition, the inability of Kyrgyzstan’s Drug Control Agency’s to prevent this trafficking, combined with the corruption and poverty that prevail in the country, permit the drug traffickers to operate virtually unchallenged.


According to the deputy head of mobile operational groups at the Kyrgyz Drug Control Agency, Ruslan Altybaiev, all those factors have made Kyrgyzstan a major transit route for the drug flowing from Afghanistan to Russia and beyond. “What are the reasons for large amounts of drugs getting here, into our transit country?” he asks. “First of all, it is the geographical location of our country; it is situated along the so-called northern [drug-trafficking] route, and the second reason is a bad social situation. Drug dealers and criminals involved in drug trafficking use it and get our citizens involved in drug trafficking and the drug business,” Altybaiev told the RFE/RL (“Central Asia’s ‘Drug Capital’ Fights To Stem Tide of Narcotics,” Jan. 04, 2013, RFE/RL).


Armed Islamic Jihadis Working for the Traffickers


What has made the situation ever more dangerous over the years is the explosion of opium /heroin production in Afghanistan during US/NATO’s non-ending stay in Afghanistan since 2002. Opium production in Afghanistan rose from 1,000 tons in 1989 to 8,200 tons in 2008. Following a significant fall in production in 2010, Afghanistan’s opium production has picked up again. In 2015, United Nations reports indicate Afghanistan has produced about 6,600 tons.


It is evident that neither the United States nor the NATO countries have ever made a concerted effort to curb opium production during its 13 years of large-scale military presence in Afghanistan. Afghan opium/heroin generated hundreds of billions of dollars of “real money” that provided Western banks a significant portion of liquidity during the 2007-2008 financial meltdown. It was noted at the time that the cash-starved “too big to fail” Wall Street/City of London banks had little cash to pay their debts and were loaded with bags of paper money that  no one wanted.


Indeed, these Western nations were not in the least interested in slaughtering the cash-cow that appeared in the form of pretty poppy flowers extending as far one’s eyes could see in the newly occupied plains of Afghanistan. The confluence of big money, bankers’ and authorities’ eagerness to make it even bigger, poverty, a weak and corrupt security apparatus and geopolitical compulsions played a role in helping Kyrgyzstan earn the label of a major drug-transiting nation.


Equally amazing is the brazen role of the former US ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, Tatiana Gfoeller, on behalf of the drug-traffickers. When President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who had gained control of the drug-trafficking network within the country with the help of the US-orchestrated Tulip Revolution, disbanded the Drug Control Agency (DCA) in October 2009, Amb. Gfoeller looked the other way.


One could very well say the US-backed Tulip Revolution that brought Bakiyev to power in 2005 had helped to hoist the drug-controllers to the seat of power. An Associated Press article in June 2010 cited Kyrgyz Deputy Security Service Chief Khubat Baibulov saying “the battle for power is also a battle for drug money.” Said Alexander Knyazev, a respected independent political analyst in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital: “The whole Bakiyev family is involved in drug trafficking. After Kurmanbek Bakiyev came to power, all drug lords were killed, and (his elder brother) Zhanybek Bakiyev consolidated most of the drug trafficking in his hands” (“Heroin Trade a Backdrop to Kyrgyz Violence,” June 25, 2010, Associated Press).


Hence, it was not surprising that Bakiyev disbanded the DCA. What is surprising, however, is the role of Washington in facilitating freer drug trafficking through Kyrgyzstan. The Bakiyev family’s control over the drug trade was well known before the Tulip Revolution that brought him and his family to power. Former President Askar Akayev, who was toppled in the Tulip Revolution, maintained that Bakiyev gave drug lords in the country significant leeway in exchange for their support in bringing him to power.


“The criminals stayed on to serve the Bakiyevs, to hunt down unwanted politicians and journalists,” Akayev told The Associated Press in Moscow, referring to a string of contract-style killings of opposition leaders and independent reporters. Bakiyev’s brothers Zhanybek and Akhmat “directly controlled the drug trade and all the top criminals,” Akayev said. Although criticized for his own corrupt rule, Akayev is recognized to have made some attempts at minimizing the influence of the drug trade on his country’s economy (“Heroin Trade a Backdrop to Kyrgyz Violence,” June 25, 2010, Associated Press).


What makes this brew even deadlier is the longstanding linkage between the drug traffickers and the self-proclaimed Islamic Jihadis. Those drug traffickers who operate within Kyrgyzstan receive armed protection from the Islamic terrorists - for a price, of course. On the other hand, unlike Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan is not a focal target of the Islamic terrorists to establish their version of Islamic rule. Nonetheless, the country continues to harbor a camouflaged terrorist group, Hizb ut Tahrir (HuT) - a group headquartered in Britain that has been active all over Central Asia and the North Caucasus. HuT’s members do not carry Kalashnikovs; instead, they carry the Holy Quran while preaching the Wahhabi-version of Islam. Reports point to this group as the launching pad for many of the Central Asian terrorists.


ISIS Recruiting from Kyrgyzstan


The present administration in Kyrgyzstan, under President Almazbek Atambaev, has acted tough against these Islamists and has kept them from growing stronger. However, it has been reported that the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), whose members have been helping various terrorist groups involved in Afghanistan for almost two decades, is moving back to Central Asia from Pakistan’s Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and posing a threat to some Central Asian nations, including Kyrgyzstan.


Meanwhile, the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), having established its Caliphate along the Iraq-Syria borders and now battling for its existence, has begun recruiting “fighters” from Kyrgyzstan. AFP reported on July 27 that the Kyrgyz security service was investigating a YouTube video urging citizens of Kyrgyzstan to move to the “Caliphate.” The clip featured an unnamed man speaking in Kyrgyz calling on citizens to “move from the country of infidels to the land of the ISIS,” AFP reported.


Further, according to a post on the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) website, in mid-July forces from the State Committee for National Security (GKNB) killed six individuals and captured seven others in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek. The report also said the GKNB circulated video footage taken during one of the raids in which a black and white banner similar to the ISIS flag was found along with firearms and ammunition.


Threat of another Color Revolution


While the drug-terrorism nexus is a serious threat, the other threat Kyrgyzstan faces could be even more dangerous for the regime and the country. The Tulip Revolution in 2005 during George W. Bush’s reign was a bloody affair that put the Bakiyev family’s drug mafia in power in Bishkek. That uprising was strengthened by powerful US-based NGOs, such as the International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the Soros Foundation, which already had a feather in its cap by successfully orchestrating Georgia’s Rose Revolution in 2003 to put Soros-run Mikhail Saakashvili into power. It is no secret that in organizing Georgia’s Rose Revolution, the Soros Foundation was ably helped by Washington. 


During the 2005 Tulip Revolution, those same three NGOs - IRI, NDI and Soros Foundation - had their offices in Bishkek and were openly supportive of the uprising. The NGO-backed Tulip Revolution that quickly turned into the “Heroin Peddlers’ Revolution” was not orchestrated to establish democracy or some such abstract concept, but to oust the close-to-Moscow president, Askar Akaev. Once that objective was achieved, Washington’s attitude toward Kyrgyzstan was like “let the devil take the hind part.” In a counter-coup in April 2010, President Bakiyev was toppled. After a year, in 2011 Almazbek Atambaev was elected president. 


Now Atambaev faces the wrath of the Obama administration, and it seems Washington has begun to put pieces in place to orchestrate the next round of chaos in Bishkek. What gave impetus to this possibility was the recent decision by Bishkek to formally terminate a 1993 agreement on cooperation with the United States. The Kyrgyz government’s press service said Prime Minister Temir Sariev signed a government directive terminating the agreement on Cooperation to Facilitate the Provision of Assistance on July 21. A State Department spokesperson told RFE/RL in emailed comments that the United States is “disappointed” in Bishkek’s cancellation of the bilateral agreement, adding that the move could put assistance programs that benefit the Kyrgyz people “in jeopardy” (“Kyrgyzstan Ends US Cooperation Agreement Amid Human Rights Dispute,” July 23, RFE/RL).


Bishkek took the abrupt decision in reaction to the US State Department’s July 14 decision to confer the 2014 Human Rights Defender Award on Azimjan Askarov, a journalist and rights activist who is serving a life sentence in a Bishkek prison on charges of creating a threat to civil peace and stability in society. The Human Rights Defender Award is allegedly conferred annually on individuals or NGOs that have shown exceptional valor and leadership in advocating for the protection of human rights and democracy. Prior to the State Department’s decision, powerful NGOs such as Freedom House and Amnesty International had been shouting from the rooftops, urging Kyrgyz authorities to release Askarov. Askarov may not be worthy of the punishment that has been bestowed on him by Bishkek, but it is evident that he is being used by the West as a sling to bring down the Atambaev regime.


The Askarov issue reflects Washington’s willingness to interfere officially to unhinge the Atambaev regime. Washington is upset with Bishkek over its decision to close down the US air base at Manas. On June 26, 2014, President Atambaev signed the law terminating the agreement with the United States on use of the Manas Transit Centre (formerly the Manas Air Base) as of July 11, 2014. (“Kyrgyzstan has Terminated the Agreement with the US on the Manas Air Base,” Jozef Lang, OSW, July 10, 2013). The Manas Air Base had been in use since 2001 as a refueling stop and transit hub for US/NATO operations in Afghanistan. Thousands of personnel and roughly 500 tons of cargo passed through the base each month, the New York Times reported in 2009.


In February 2009, during Bakiyev’s reign, the Kyrgyz Parliament had ordered the closing of the air base. But President Bakiyev soon reversed the decision. It was renamed the Manas Transit Center, and the security around the facility was handed over to Kyrgyz personnel. In addition, President Bakiyev jacked up the rental more than three-fold from $17.4 million to $60 million per year.


Why Does the United States Seek Control over Bishkek?


Manas was the last US military base in Central Asia, and Washington suspects Bishkek came to the decision to shut it down under pressure from Moscow. Kyrgyzstan is, after all, a member of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and a member of the Russia-China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). According to Jozef Lang, after 2014, Russia will once again be the only state from outside the region with a military presence in Central Asia, except for the German base in Termez, Uzbekistan. A small French base in Dushanbe was scheduled to be shut down by the end of July. There is little doubt that since Uzbekistan withdrew from the CSTO in 2012, Moscow has been intensifying military contacts with Bishkek.


In addition to Moscow’s growing security presence in Central Asia, what the Obama administration wants to counter through American presence are the increasing linkups between China and Central Asia. China is moving in from the west, building railroads and pipelines in quest of oil and gas and many mineral reserves that the Central Asian countries possess but have not explored adequately. While China has emerged as the region’s number one trading partner and investor in the transport, oil and gas, and mineral exploration sectors, Russia remains a dominant security force in Central Asia.


Due to its very close energy ties with Central Asian countries, China has managed to secure enough Central Asian gas to meet 40 percent of its total gas imports by expanding the Sino-Central Asian gas pipeline. Since 2009 when the pipeline came online, Central Asian gas exports to Russia dropped by nearly 60 percent. Still, however, Russia continues to play a bigger role than China in the Central Asian oil market. Kazakhstan’s two largest oil pipelines (with a combined export capacity of 1.42 million bpd) terminate on Russian territory, in Novorossiysk and in Samara. The Kazakh-China pipeline will be expanded to an export capacity of 400,000 barrels per day (“Building the Silk Road Economic Belt: Problems and Priorities in Central Asia,” Zhang Hongzhou, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, May 2015).


The Chinese incursion into Central Asia in a big way and Washington’s anti-Russia policy (exhibited in its role in Georgia earlier, and in Ukraine more recently) are the likely reasons why the Obama administration is thinking of a regime change in Kyrgyzstan. Uzbekistan has moved out of the CSTO, conveying a signal to Washington that it is open for business. Recently, the United States changed its mind and decided to maintain some military presence in Afghanistan for an indefinite period. Gaining control of Kyrgyzstan will provide the Americans more than a foothold to control the Russian security-related domination of the region and China’s economic forays into Central Asia.


Arrival of Miles Worries Bishkek


Bishkek is decidedly worried about the way things are shaping up vis-à-vis Washington. One signal recently sent by Washington to Bishkek was the Obama administration’s recall of Richard Miles from retirement in mid-February and his posting as charge d’affaires in Kyrgyzstan after US Ambassador Pamela Spratlen was transferred to Uzbekistan. Richard Miles assumed the position of interim charge d’affaires at the US embassy in Bishkek on Feb. 13, as the confirmation of ambassador-designate Sheila Gwaltney is still pending.


Miles, who was US ambassador to Georgia at the time Washington, with the help of the NGOs, engineered the Rose Revolution, is considered a “color revolution” expert. As US ambassador to Belgrade, he earlier helped the Otpor (“Resistance”) organization formed by the Serbian students in October 1998 to bring down the Slobodan Milosevic regime in 2000. According to Ian Traynor of The Guardian, Richard Miles played a key role.


And by 2003, as US ambassador in Tbilisi, he repeated the trick in Georgia, coaching Mikhail Saakashvili in how to bring down Eduard Shevardnadze (“US Campaign Behind the Turmoil in Kiev,” Ian Traynor, The Guardian, Nov. 25, 2004). Bishkek noted that Miles was given the tag of charge d’affaires because, unlike an ambassador, a charge d’affaires does not require either US Senate approval or preliminary approval from official Bishkek.


On his retirement, Miles had taken over as the executive director for the Open World Leadership Center in 2006, where he fostered the creation of thousands of pro-American “leaders” in the former Soviet Union. The center’s own mission statement concisely describes the type of work that it does: “Begun as a pilot program in 1999 and established as a permanent agency in late 2000, the Center conducts the first and only international exchange agency in the US Legislative Branch and, as such, has enabled more than 17,000 current and future leaders from Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Ukraine, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan to meaningfully engage and interact with Members of Congress, congressional staff and thousands of other Americans, many of whom are the delegates’ direct professional counterparts”(“The Male Nuland and the US’s Central Asian Strategy,” Andrew Korybko, Sputnik International, March 5).


Bishkek citizens were aware of Miles’ notoriety, and on Feb. 27, RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service reported on a protest demonstration in front of the US embassy in Bishkek organized by Kyrgyzstan’s Communist Party and the Russian World Foundation. The leader of the Kyrgyz Communist Party, Klara Ajibekova, who attended the rally, told RFE/RL that the arrival of Miles to the post was a “significant event” as “in every country where Miles worked as diplomat, armed conflicts erupted” and, therefore, “we do not want Kyrgyzstan to find itself in such a situation.”


As of now, Miles has not succeeded in stirring up any major protest demonstration against the Atambaev administration. However, some observers believe that awarding the state-imprisoned Askarov the 2014 Human Rights Defender Award is a shot from the US State Department’s bow and could be the first salvo in activating international NGOs such as the Soros Foundation, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, among others, against the Atambaev administration. The Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry complained officially about the award, pointing out that it could cause “serious damage to bilateral relations.” The ministry laid out Askarov’s crimes - “incitement of interethnic hatred, organizing mass riots, complicity in murder of a law enforcement officer” - and unambiguously accuses the United States of undermining Kyrgyzstan’s stability.


Citing the timing of the award - four years after her conviction - as surprising, the Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry stated: “Even more surprising is that such an award was never given to any human rights activist of the Kyrgyz Republic during the rule of former presidents A. Akaev and K. Bakiyev. In such context, this award will be associated with the withdrawal of the Transit Center from the international airport ‘Manas’ in Bishkek and the appointment of Richard Miles as interim head of the American mission” (“US Gives Human Rights Award to Jailed Kyrgyz Activist, Catherine Putz, The Diplomat, July 17).  



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