On November 19, a 28-year-old man was sentenced to six years in prison for membership of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a London-based Sunni political organisation that wants to unite all Muslim countries into an Islamic caliphate. The Kyrgyz government and a number of other CIS countries have banned Hizb ut-Tahrir, branding its supporters as “extremists.”
Since last August, several alleged members of the banned organisation have been arrested in Kyrgyzstan. However, the authorities there are also cracking down on respected Muslim clerics who play an important role in society. Last October, Chubak Hajji Jalilov and Ralkhmatulla Egemberdiev were charged with tax evasion. Jalilov was Kyrgyzstan’s grand mufti until he stepped down last summer amid allegations of fraud and corruption, and Egemberdiev is now the acting grand mufti.
Since the mid-1990s, neighbouring Uzbekistan has targeted Islamic leaders seen as a threat to President Islam Karimov’s power, accusing them of fraud or of being members of banned terrorist organisations. It’s possible that the Kyrgyz authorities are doing the same. Five muftis have been replaced in the past three years. One of them, Murataly Hajji Jumanov, was killed in what appeared to be an overtly politically motivated attack when unidentified men kidnapped him and beat him to death after the antigovernment protests that toppled former President Kurmanbek Bakiev in April 2010.
The potential political motivation behind any announcements of alleged crimes against Islamic figures (either belonging to banned groups or legitimate ones) makes it difficult to know to what extent Kyrgyzstan is a breeding ground for extremists. However, Kyrgyzstan is a major transit hub for narcotics bound for Russia and beyond, making the country a key player in the fight against large-scale organised crime. The city of Osh, in the Ferghana Valley, is located on one of the major drug-trafficking routes from Afghanistan to Russia and Europe. Narcotics, mostly heroin, are brought from Afghanistan to Tajikistan and then on to Osh. From there they are shipped north, to the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, across the border to Kazakhstan, and on to Russia.
Kyrgyzstan shares a long, poorly controlled border with Tajikistan, which mostly runs through mountainous terrain. The geography makes it easy for smugglers to get heroin across the border, and corruption and poverty compound the problem. Kyrgyzstan is one of the poorest of the former Soviet republics and its economy relies heavily on production from a few gold mines and cash sent home by migrant workers, making it easy for drug dealers to recruit couriers. Toktomamat Mamashev, department head at the Kyrgyz Drug Control Agency, says that last year his department seized over 76 kilograms of heroin, 51 kilograms of hashish and over one ton of cannabis.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has granted Kyrgyzstan $3.5m to fight drug trafficking, but with NATO troops withdrawing from Afghanistan in 2014, the situation is likely to get worse. Russia, the biggest power with the most to gain from helping Kyrgyzstan, has not put in place an effective strategy for stemming the tide of drugs and is more focussed on strengthening its general military presence in Central Asia. On December 13, Kyrgyzstan’s parliament ratified an agreement for a Russian military base to remain on Kyrgyz territory for 15 years, with an option for a five-year extension. Under the terms of the agreement, which will come into effect in January 2017, Russia will pay around $4.5 million a year for the use of several strategic facilities in Kyrgyzstan, including a torpedo-testing facility on the shore of Issyk-Kul Lake and a radio-seismic laboratory at Mailii-Suu, both of which are located in the north of the country.
Russia’s main base at Kant, which is 40 kilometres from the capital Bishkek, does not come under the rental agreement as it is considered part of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (a bloc largely comprised of former Soviet states), of which Kyrgyzstan is a member. As a “communal facility” it is exempt from taxes.
Russia has also been keen to bring Kyrgyzstan and its neighbours further into its financial orbit through a Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) customs union that was launched by Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan in July 2011. On December 3, Economy Minister Temir Sariev said that Kyrgyzstan will join the financial bloc in 2014. The aim of the union is to allow the free movement of services, capital, workers, and goods among the members. Russian officials say the eventual goal is to set up what they describe as a Eurasian economic union by 2015, which would be modelled on the European Union. Kyrgyzstan’s possible entry could encourage others to join, thereby giving Russia a greater economic foothold in Central Asia and greater dominance over trade in the region’s rich energy and mineral wealth. However, cooperation is likely to end there and there has been no talk of collaboration on regional policies outside of the financial sphere or on rights issues, and interest in cross-border crime is sporadic.
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