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Democracy is dying in Central Asia - Here’s what Biden should do

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On 11 April, Kyrgyzstan will go to the polls to vote on a new constitution that gives the president extensive new powers and threatens the most vibrant civil society in Central Asia.   The vote is a potential milestone for Kyrgyzstan's dissent into autocracy. Long the freest country in the region, Kyrgyzstan is starting down a slippery slope of democratic decline. It is a path that neighboring China and former colonial power Russia will be happy to help Kyrgyzstan down since corruption and a lack of transparency make it easier for them to flex their influence in the small Central Asian country, writes Dr. Erica Marat.

So far US President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have been silent on the new constitution. That needs to change. Democracy and civil society in Kyrgyzstan matter not just because of Kyrgyzstan itself, but because for years as democracy has declined in neighboring countries Kyrgyzstan has stood out as a model for what democracy and civil society can achieve. It showed that if Kyrgyzstan could do it, larger wealthier countries could too despite the assertions of their authoritarian leaders. It is an endeavor the US already has skin in, having invested $150 million [results.usaid.gov] on supporting democracy and civil society in Kyrgyzstan in the past five years alone, and shouldn’t just walk away from.   

At the heart of the decline is nativist Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov. Japarov was serving a 10-year sentence[rferl.org] for taking hostages during a protest when he was freed by protestors last October. Since then he has forced out the previous president, declared himself president before parliament could vote on the issue and supported the freeing of an influential organized-crime boss the US has said is guilty of running drug, arms and human trafficking networks [rferl.org]. The new constitution would significantly weaken parliament while strengthening the presidency as Japarov tries to institute a political system more like Kyrgyzstan’s more authoritarian neighbors.   Ahead of the referendum the political climate has continued to decline. Blogger Tilekmat Kurenov was arrested [kloop.kg] on 15 March and has been held since then. He opposes the referendum and had criticized Japarov’s decision to award control of the Jetim-Too ore field to China as a way of trying to hold off Kyrgyzstan’s mounting debts [rferl.org].

Police claimed he was arrested because of a Facebook post that incited violence, but the post has never been shown. After being arrested he was then charged with vote buying in the last parliamentary election. The move seems intended to silence critics ahead of the referendum.    In addition to directly strengthening the presidency the new constitution envisions expansive financial reporting conditions on non-governmental organizations to limit and control them and allows the government to enforce vaguely defined “morale and ethical values.” These measures seem intended to muzzle organization that have previously monitored elections and reported on government abuses and are modeled on measures adopted by Russian President Vladimir Putin [freedomhouse.org] in order to monopolize political power.   When it comes to Kyrgyzstan, the US faces a dilemma. The Biden Administration want to repair relationships with countries the Trump administration alienated, including China. But it also wants to re-establish US presence on the global stage and push for democracy and human rights. Those positions often clash, especially in countries where China would rather see pliable undemocratic regimes.    Kyrgyzstan is one of those.

It is a key part of China’s flagship Belt and Road [rferl.org] initiative, which seeks to build an expansive “land bridge” to ensure future Chinese exports in a modern rebranding of the Silk Road. In Kyrgyzstan, China is looking for a leader it can do business with, not to promote the kind of civil society and democracy it is repressing over the border.    In contrast the U.S. has supported civil society, human rights and independent media in Kyrgyzstan since 1991, investing hundreds of millions of dollars in supporting democracy and civil society. That commitment can’t be forgotten as Kyrgyzstan prepares to go down an authoritarian path. The Biden administration needs to condemn the referendum as the first step in showing a new uncompromising commitment to the programs that aided the development of civil society and democracy in Kyrgyzstan over the past three decades.     

Dr. Erica Marat is associate professor and chairman of the Regional and Analytical Studies Department at National Defense University in Washington D.C. The opinions implied here are the author's own and do not reflect the views of National Defense University, the Defense Department, or any other agency of the US government, nor of EU Reporter.

Iraq

Biden and Kadhimi seal agreement to end US combat mission in Iraq

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US President Joe Biden and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi sealed an agreement on Monday (26 July) formally ending the US combat mission in Iraq by the end of 2021, but US forces will still operate there in an advisory role, write Steve Holland and Trevor Hunnicutt.

The agreement comes at a politically delicate time for the Iraqi government and could be a boost for Baghdad. Kadhimi has faced increasing pressure from Iran-aligned parties and paramilitary groups who oppose the US military role in the country.

Biden and Kadhimi met in the Oval Office for their first face-to-face talks as part of a strategic dialogue between the United States and Iraq.

"Our role in Iraq will be ... to be available, to continue to train, to assist, to help and to deal with ISIS as it arises, but we’re not going to be, by the end of the year, in a combat mission," Biden told reporters as he and Kadhimi met.

There are currently 2,500 US troops in Iraq focusing on countering the remnants of Islamic State. The US role in Iraq will shift entirely to training and advising the Iraqi military to defend itself.

The shift is not expected to have a major operational impact since the United States has already moved toward focusing on training Iraqi forces.

Still, for Biden, the deal to end the combat mission in Iraq follows decisions to carry out an unconditional withdrawal from Afghanistan and wrap up the U.S. military mission there by the end of August.

Together with his agreement on Iraq, the Democratic president is moving to formally complete US combat missions in the two wars that then-President George W. Bush began under his watch nearly two decades ago.

A US-led coalition invaded Iraq in March 2003 based on charges that then-Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's government possessed weapons of mass destruction. Saddam was ousted from power, but such weapons were never found.

In recent years, the US mission was focused on helping defeat Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.

"Nobody is going to declare mission accomplished. The goal is the enduring defeat of ISIS," a senior administration official told reporters ahead of Kadhimi's visit.

The reference was reminiscent of the large "Mission Accomplished" banner on the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier above where Bush gave a speech declaring major combat operations over in Iraq on May 1, 2003.

"If you look to where we were, where we had Apache helicopters in combat, when we had U.S. special forces doing regular operations, it's a significant evolution. So by the end of the year we think we'll be in a good place to really formally move into an advisory and capacity-building role," the official said.

U.S. diplomats and troops in Iraq and Syria were targeted in three rocket and drone attacks earlier this month. Analysts believed the attacks were part of a campaign by Iranian-backed militias. Read more.

The senior administration official would not say how many U.S. troops would remain on the ground in Iraq for advising and training. Kadhimi also declined to speculate about a future US drawdown, saying troop levels would be determined by technical reviews.

Kadhimi, who is seen as friendly to the United States, has tried to check the power of Iran-aligned militias. But his government condemned US air strikes against Iran-aligned fighters along its border with Syria in late June, calling it a violation of Iraqi sovereignty. Read more.

In remarks to a small group of reporters after the talks, Kadhimi stressed that his government was responsible for responding to such attacks. He acknowledged that he had reached out to Tehran to address them.

"We speak to Iranians and others in an attempt to put a limit to these attacks, which are undermining Iraq and its role," he said.

The United States plans to provide Iraq with 500,000 doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech (PFE.N), COVID-19 vaccine under the global COVAX vaccine-sharing program. Biden said the doses should arrive in a couple of weeks.

The United States will also provide $5.2 million to help fund a U.N. mission to monitor October elections in Iraq.

"We're looking forward to seeing an election in October," said Biden.

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China

US and China positions at a standstill in entrenched Tianjin talks

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With no indication of a US-China leaders' summit in the works, nor any outcomes announced from high-level diplomatic talks on Monday (26 July), relations between Beijing and Washington appear to be at a standstill as both sides insist the other must make concessions for ties to improve, write Michael Martina and David Brunnstrom.

US officials had stressed that Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman's trip to the northern Chinese port city of Tianjin to meet Foreign Minister Wang Yi and other officials was a chance to ensure that stiffening competition between the two geopolitical rivals does not veer into conflict.

But the combative statements that emerged from the meeting – albeit coupled with suggestions from officials that closed-door sessions were marginally more cordial – mirrored the tone set in Alaska in March, when the first senior-level diplomatic talks under President Joe Biden were overshadowed by rare public vitriol from both sides.

While Tianjin did not expose the same degree of outward hostility that was on display in Alaska, the two sides appeared to stop short of actually negotiating anything, sticking instead to lists of established demands.

Sherman pressed China on actions Washington says run counter to the rules-based international order, including Beijing's crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong, what the U.S. government has deemed is an ongoing genocide in Xinjiang, abuses in Tibet and the curtailing of press freedoms.

"I think it'd be wrong to characterize the United States as somehow seeking or soliciting China's cooperation," a senior U.S. administration official told reporters after the talks, referring to global concerns such as climate change, Iran, Afghanistan and North Korea.

"It is going to be up to the Chinese side to determine how ready they are as well to… take the next step," a second U.S. administration official said of bridging disagreements.

But Wang insisted in a statement that the ball was in the United States' court.

"When it comes to respecting international rules, it is the United States that must think again," he said, demanding that Washington remove all unilateral sanctions and tariffs on China.

China's Foreign Ministry has recently signaled there could be preconditions for the United States on which any kind of co-operation would be contingent, a stance some analysts say is a recipe for diplomatic ossification and that leaves dim prospects for improved ties.

Bonnie Glaser, an Asia expert at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said it was important for the two sides to maintain some form of engagement. At the same time, there appeared to be no agreement in Tianjin for follow-up meetings or mechanisms for ongoing dialogue.

"That will probably leave US allies and partners uneasy. They are hoping for greater stability and predictability in the US-China relationship," Glaser said.

Both sides are likely to be disappointed if they expect the other to give in first, she added.

There has been some expectation in foreign policy circles that Biden could meet Chinese leader Xi Jinping for the first time since becoming president on the sidelines of a G20 summit in Italy in October.

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the prospect of a Biden-Xi meeting did not come up in Tianjin, though she added that she expects there will be some opportunity to engage at some point.

Indications are, meanwhile, that the Biden administration may scale up both enforcement actions impacting Beijing – such as cracking down on Iranian oil sales to China – and coordination with allies in the context of countering China, including another summit later this year that Biden is keen to host with the leaders of Japan, Australia, and India.

Biden's White House also has given few signals that it intends to roll back tariffs on Chinese goods established under the Trump administration.

At the same time, cooperation on the COVID-19 pandemic seems almost entirely out of reach, with the United States calling Beijing's rejection of a World Health Organization plan for further study of the virus' origin "irresponsible" and "dangerous".

There has been little sign either of a willingness by China to cooperate with Washington on the climate issue, a priority for Biden, despite energetic entreaties by U.S. climate envoy John Kerry.

"What was on display in Tianjin is that both sides are still very far apart on how they view the value and role of diplomatic engagement," said Eric Sayers, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Scott Kennedy, a China specialist at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies,, said neither side saw much upside for now in being more cooperative.

"And there's no low-hanging fruit for cooperation for either side and any gesture toward co-operation actually comes with significant costs, both domestic and strategic," he said.

"I think we ought to have very low expectations about the two sides finding common ground and stabilizing the relationship in the near future."

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Energy

US and Germany strike Nord Stream 2 pipeline deal to push back on Russian 'aggression'

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Workers are seen at the construction site of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, near the town of Kingisepp, Leningrad region, Russia, June 5, 2019. REUTERS/Anton Vaganov/File Photo

The United States and Germany have unveiled an agreement on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline under which Berlin pledged to respond to any attempt by Russia to use energy as a weapon against Ukraine and other Central and Eastern European countries, write Simon Lewis, Andrea Shalal, Andreas Rinke, Thomas Escritt, Pavel Polityuk, Arshad Mohammed, David Brunnstrom and Doyinsola Oladipo.

The pact aims to mitigate what critics see as the strategic dangers of the $11 billion pipeline, now 98% complete, being built under the Baltic Sea to carry gas from Russia's Arctic region to Germany.

U.S. officials have opposed the pipeline, which would allow Russia to export gas directly to Germany and potentially cut off other nations, but President Joe Biden's administration has chosen not to try to kill it with US sanctions.

Instead, it has negotiated the pact with Germany that threatens to impose costs on Russia if it seeks to use the pipeline to harm Ukraine or other countries in the region.

But those measures appeared to have done little to calm fears in Ukraine, which said it was asking for talks with both the European Union and Germany over the pipeline. The agreement also faces political opposition in the United States and Germany.

A joint statement setting out the details of the deal said Washington and Berlin were "united in their determination to hold Russia to account for its aggression and malign activities by imposing costs via sanctions and other tools."

If Russia attempts to "use energy as a weapon or commit further aggressive acts against Ukraine," Germany will take steps on its own and push for actions at the EU, including sanctions, "to limit Russian export capabilities to Europe in the energy sector," the statement said.

It did not detail specific Russian actions that would trigger such a move. "We elected not to provide Russia with a road map in terms of how they can evade that commitment to push back," a senior State Department official told reporters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"We also will certainly look to hold any future German governments accountable for the commitments that they have made in this," the official said.

Under the agreement, Germany will "utilize all available leverage" to extend by 10 years the Russia-Ukraine gas transit agreement, a source of major revenues to Ukraine that expires in 2024.

Germany will also contribute at least $175 million to a new $1 billion "Green Fund for Ukraine" aimed at improving the country's energy independence.

Ukraine sent notes to Brussels and Berlin calling for consultations, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said in a tweet, adding the pipeline "threatens Ukraine's security." Read more.

Kuleba also issued a statement with Poland's foreign minister, Zbigniew Rau, pledging to work together to oppose Nord Stream 2.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said he was looking forward to a "frank and vibrant"discussion with Biden over the pipeline when the two meet in Washington next month. The visit was announced by the White House on Wednesday, but press secretary Jen Psaki said the timing of the announcement was not related to the pipeline agreement.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke by phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin hours before the release of the agreement, the German government said, saying Nord Stream 2 and gas transit via Ukraine were among the topics.

The pipeline had been hanging over US-German relations since former President Donald Trump said it could turn Germany into a "hostage of Russia" and approved some sanctions.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said on Twitter he was "relieved that we have found a constructive solution".

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, asked about the reported details of the agreement earlier on Wednesday, said any threat of sanctions against Russia was not "acceptable," according to the Interfax news agency.

Even before it was made public, leaked details of the agreement were drawing criticism from ome lawmakers in both Germany and the United States.

Republican Senator Ted Cruz, who has been holding up Biden's ambassadorial nominations over his concerns about Nord Stream 2, said the reported agreement would be "a generational geopolitical win for Putin and a catastrophe for the United States and our allies."

Cruz and some other lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are furious with the Democratic president for waiving congressionally mandated sanctions against the pipeline and are working on ways to force the administration's hand on sanctions, according to congressional aides.

Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said she was not convinced the agreement would mitigate the impact of the pipeline, which she said "empowers the Kremlin to spread its malign influence throughout Eastern Europe."

"I’m skeptical that it will be sufficient when the key player at the table – Russia – refuses to play by the rules," Shaheen said.

In Germany, top members of the environmentalist Greens party called the reported agreement "a bitter setback for climate protection" that would benefit Putin and weaken Ukraine.

Biden administration officials insist the pipeline was so close to being finished when they took office in January that there was no way for them to prevent its completion.

"Certainly we think that there is more that the previous administration could have done," the US official said. "But, you know, we were making the best of a bad hand."

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