Winds of Change.NET Regional Briefings run on Tuesdays & Wednesdays, and sometimes Fridays too. This Regional Briefing focuses on Central Asia's "-stans" courtesy of Nathan Hamm, whose creds include a stint in Uzbekistan as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer. Nathan's regular blog is The Argus. TOP TOPICS * Mikheil Saakashvili won Georgia's presidential elections on January 4th in an amazing landslide. The election was nearly free of irregularities. Saakashvili's victory was an incredible landslide. The new President won 96% of the votes and over 80% of the voters turned out at the polls. * After a variety of issues slowed down the proceedings, Afghanistan's constitutional Loya Jirga finally adopted a new constitution. The Council on Foreign Relations has a great Q&A on the constitution and Radio Free Europe takes an in-depth look at the new constitution. * Uzbekistan now has the dubious distinction of being the first former Soviet state to officially receive a failing grade in the State Department's annual review of human rights records of recipients of aid under the Nunn-Lugar disarmament program. Under this program, the President has the right to waive the human rights requirement on national security grounds, and Bush has done so. Still, failing what used to be an annual act of going through the motions sends a strong signal to Uzbekistan. * Economic freedom in Central Asia is worse than in any other region of the world. In the Heritage Foundation survey, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan all came in among the ten worst countries in the world. Other Topics Today Include: US & Russia Square off in the Caucasus; India's 20-Year Plan & Central Asia; UN Criticizes Turkmenistan's Human Rights Record; Uzbekistan Risks Sanctions & Losing US Aid Over Human Rights; The ICG Offers Solutions to Rising Extremism; Uzbekistan's "Princess" Wanted in New Jersey; and, Much More.
The New Great Game * Russia is in the midst of a policy debate over what approach to take to its former Soviet neighbors, especially towards Georgia. A focus of this debate is the question of how to react to Georgia's sudden move to the West, and the United States, seeking to protect its gains in the Caucasus, is warily keeping an eye on Russian officials and politicians. With nationalist parties having made gains in December's parliamentary elections, U.S. officials fear the "imperial nostalgia" will encourage increased Russian aggression. In regards to the specifics of Russian policy towards the Caucasus, nationalists see Saakashvili as an avowed enemy of Russia who should be undermined. Cooler heads see nothing to gain from geopolitical competition with the United States and call for cooperation with the new Georgian government. Regardless of the path chosen, few expect any significant changes until after Russia's presidential elections in May. * The new leadership in Georgia complicates US-Russian relations and there is a diversity of opinion in the US government over how best to protect gains in Georgia without damaging relations with Russia. For the time-being, Secretary Powell is being very blunt with Russia. * Under agreements made as a member of the OSCE, Russia is obligated to remove its troops from bases in Georgia. Russia says the removal will take 11 years. Georgia wants them out in 3. The United States, trying to help the Russians along, has offered to pay for the withdrawal. * The Russian military has an entirely different point of view on the base issue, informed by a belief in its total innocence. * The United States has decided that its troop presence in Georgia will be permanent, offering important security guarantees to the new Saakashvili government. Because this permanent presence is a small group of trainers, I guess it is technically accurate to say that the US has no plans for bases in Georgia. * Relations between Georgia, Russia, and the United States are certainly fraught with danger, but the realism and perspective of Georgian interim Foreign Minister Tepo Japaridze give reason for optimism. It's heartening to hear a politician say that there are bitter pills that must be swallowed by all parties, including his own. * Reasonable Georgian proposals such as joint Russian and Georgian patrols of the Chechen border give further reason for optimism that current tensions will soon pass. * Akhmad Kadyrov, Chechnya's Russian-backed President, recently visited Saudi Arabia. Despite vocal criticism of the Russian campaign in Chechnya in the past, the visit gave political and religious authority to Putin and Kadyrov and legitimized their view that Chechnya's separatists are terrorists. Judging from the response of the separatists, the visit was quite a blow. * American and Azeri forces kicked off a ten day training exercise designed to teach the Azeri Navy to protect sea-based oil and gas facilities in the Caspian Sea. * India got into the Great Game action in the past month as well. India has a 20-year plan to become a major power in Asia that involves increased military and economic cooperation with Central Asian states. One firm step came at the recent South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation Summit (SAARC) summit in Islamabad, where India proposed adding Central Asian states to a proposed free trade bloc in South Asia. Focus: Afghanistan * Carlos of Kandahar Chronicles gives his two cents on the constitution and mentions that he thinks there will be a backlash against the Afghan government. * There is some fear that the same ethnic difficulties that hampered the passage of the constitution will haunt Afghanistan for years to come and hamper stabilization efforts. A number of delegates to the Loya Jirga "generously sacrificed interests" in the name of national unity and may not continue to do so in the future. * A number of problems, including difficulties in registering voters, threaten to delay Afghanistan's elections for parliament and president, slated originally for June. * After a lull in violence due to the ambitious Operation Avalanche, which drew violence away from the constitutional Loya Jirga in Kabul, Taliban attacks renewed shortly after the new constitution was passed. * A suicide attack killed a Canadian peacekeeper, an Afghan civilian, and injured many more. The attack also signalled a possible change in Taliban tactics. Canadian troops are the largest contingent in NATO's peacekeeping force in Afghanistan. * The NATO force is slated to expand to Kunduz as well as Kabul. The alliance's top general is criticizing members for not providing enough troops to adequately expand the force. * Again from Kandahar Chronicles, Carlos details the difficulties for aid workers created by security concerns. * For the first time since the fall of communist President Najibullah in 1992, Afghan television has broadcast a female singer, prompting protests from conservative judges that led Kabul TV to again stop showing female musicians. Focus: Georgia * Secretary Powell visited Tbilisi for Saakashvili's inauguration and stopped to take questions with the new President. * Mary Neal of Living With Caucasians was also on hand for the inauguration and files her report. She mentions rose petals raining down on jubilant crowds from helicopters, an image I'd like to see. She also says that there have already been a significant crackdown on corruption in all sectors of society; business, police, military, and government. * Ajaria, which had threatened to boycott Georgia's presidential election, did, in fact, end up participating. Following Saakashvili's victory, the region's President Aslan Abashidze re-imposed a state of emergency, claiming that "certain forces" were trying to foment tension and commit terrorist acts. The state of emergency tightens controls on Ajaria's borders and increases the rights of police to interrogate citizens on the street. Georgia responded by warning Ajaria that it will not tolerate persecution of political activists * Ajaria presents one of Saakashvili's first and most pressing challenges. At the same time, Aslan Abashidze is in the difficult position of trying to adapt to the new Georgia. Saakashvili is unwilling to tolerate the continued domination of Ajaria by Abashidze, and is taking steps to try to guarantee free and fair elections in this spring's national parliamentary elections. The new government is also supporting Ajarian opposition groups, who want to remove Abashidze at the ballot box. They warn that they are ready to take to the streets though should Abashidze crack down on democratic activists. * In an interview with Radio Free Europe, overthrown President Eduard Shevardnadze comes off as a man at peace with history but also skeptical about the ability of Georgia's new leadership to turn the country around quickly. However, to the BBC, Sheverdnadze presents a different story of his fall. * President Saakashvili took questions from BBC listeners recently and talks about the wide range of issues facing Georgia. Focus: Human Rights and Responses in Turkmenistan & Uzbekistan * Turkmenistan's President Niyazov recently appeared on 60 Minutes, giving a rare glimpse of one of the world's nuttiest dictators. Among the stranger revelations to come out of the report is that Niyazov doesn't want pictures and statues of him up all over the place, but he also doesn't want to stop the people from expressing their love for their leader. Out of touch with reality is an understatement. * Turkmenistan has lifted exit visa requirements for its citizens. While Turkmen citizens will still need an "invitation" from another country, the new policy is a huge improvement over the past rules, under which Turkmen citizen denied exit permission three times essentially became prisoners in their country. * The United Nations has issued a rare condemnation of Turkmenistan over its human rights record, supported by Russia due to its concern for the treatment of dual Russian-Turkmen citizens. President Niyazov/Turkmenbashi, perhaps to soften the blow of the condemnation, lifted the requirement for exit visas for citizens to leave the country. In response to this international criticism, the breakdown in relations with Russian, and even the toppling of Saddam Hussein, Turkmenbashi has made the decision to strengthen his armed forces and present a tougher face to the world. * The Uzbek practice of talking up a commitment to human rights while backpedaling and an unresponsiveness to U.S. concerns has caused significant frustration for the State Department, leading to increasingly intense criticism of Uzbekistan and other Central Asian states that included warnings over electoral practices. The remainder of US aid to Uzbekistan will be reviewed in April. To continue receiving any aid after April, Uzbekistan must show a credible commitment to human rights. * Uzbekistan looks like it is committed to failing its aid review. Karimov's government, fearing that international human rights and democracy groups are fomenting a Georgia-style revolution, has decided to tighten controls over these groups. Some of the groups that Uzbekistan is most concerned with are The International Republican Institute, the Open Society Institute, the National Democratic Institute--all because of their operations in Georgia. Also suffering from the policy is IWPR (International War & Peace Reporters), one of the few sources of objective reporting from Uzbekistan. In response, US officials have informed Uzbekistan that it now risks sanctions should the new policy actually go into effect, partially because the policy would violate a 1994 agreement concerning US-supported groups in Uzbekistan. * Uzbekistan marked Constitution Day by releasing 3,000 prisoners, many of whom had chilling reports of torture and abuse. Etceterastan * The International Crisis Group has in important and illuminating report on rising extremism in Central Asia with an impressive list of reccomendations to roll back the tide of extremism. * The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan is one such extremist group. It is believed to have been nearly eliminated by the United States during the campaign against the Taliban, but there have been periodic rumors of its return. Eurasianet looks into the extent of the IMU's threat to regional security. It is believed that the IMU will not be able resurface as anything more than a political opposition group. * Kyrgyz activists are pressuring their government not to extradite Uighurs to China, where they face torture and execution. Uighur populations live all over Central Asia and refugees from Chinese oppression occasionally escape to Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan. Dungans, who are ethnic Chinese Muslims, apparently do not face similar scrutiny from either China or the Central Asian states. * Gulnora Karimova, daughter of Uzbek President Islam Karimov, is a fugitive from New Jersey justice related to custody of the children she had with her former husband, Mansur Maqsudi. The fallout from the divorce is strange, with Uzbekistan having filed criminal charges against Maqsudi that have landed him on the Interpol wanted list. Criminal charges filed against Karimova in New Jersey may land her on the list as well. I have a little more to say about the situation, including its impact on Coca-Cola in Uzbekistan, over at The Argus. * On January 13th, a Yak-40 crashed at Tashkent's airport, killing all 37 on board, including the highest-ranking United Nations official in Uzbekistan, Richard Conroy. Uzbekistan Airways is actually one of the best national airlines from the developing world. At least it is on its international routes, for which the airline uses Western aircraft and places a premium on providing good service. For regional flights, Uzbekistan Airways still uses aging, Soviet-manufactured aircraft such as the Yak-40 that are nearing the end of their operational lifespans. * Russia has forgiven $10 billion of Mongolia's debts built up under the Soviet Union. As Joel at Far Outliers points out that there's more than meets the eye to this story. * China is taking advantage of a variety of problems that Kazakstan is currently having with western oil companies and has become an increasing presence on Kazak oil fields. * In other petroleum news, Kazak President Nursultan Nazarbayev is mulling a Caspian oil organization to offset OPEC's power. * Far Outliers has a fascinating post on Central Asia's Korean and German populations, the two exile nationalities that adjusted well to Central Asian life. * Kyrgyzstan's largest mosque, which was allowed to fall into disrepair by the Soviets, has undergone significant renovations, and Eurasianet has photos of the completed project. * In Central Asia, the new year brings with it Presidential Speeches, a collection of absurd reflections on the (fictional) achievement of the year that was(n't) and provides a look forward at wonderful policies that will never see the light of day. * Sheila O'Malley took a sweeping look at Uzbekistan with a collection of essays. She looks at the people and the history and gives a great summary of the strange stew of identity that Uzbekistan is. * Modern Central Asia is enough of a mystery for most people, but before the Bolsheviks, official atheism, Russification, and the Virgin Lands campaign forever changed the face of Inner Asia forever, life in "Russian Turkestan" was much like it had been for hundreds of years. The Library of Congress offers an amazing look at Central Asia and the rest of the Russian Empire in the years before the the revolution with The Empire That Was Russia, photos of Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, photographer to the Tsar.