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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.

Defence

Biden to join eastern European NATO states summit, focus seen on Ukraine

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US President Joe Biden (pictured) joined a virtual summit of eastern European NATO states held in the Romanian capital Bucharest on Monday (10 May), Romanian President Klaus Iohannis said, with a focus on security in the Black Sea region and Ukraine.

The summit of the Bucharest Nine, a group of European countries on the eastern edge of NATO, will be jointly hosted by Iohannis and Poland's President Andrzej Duda and aims at coordinating the security positions of countries in the region.

"Glad to welcome Joe Biden to the Bucharest9 Summit which I host in Bucharest today," Iohannis said on his Twitter account.

"Together with President Andrzej Duda we'll also welcome ... Jens Stoltenberg in preparation of NATO Summit, focusing on Transatlantic ties, NATO 2030, defence and deterrence on the eastern flank."

Biden, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and the presidents of Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovakia will video-conference into the gathering.

"In ... the statement that the nine will publish after the meeting there will be the issue of security in the Black Sea region and the related security issues in Ukraine," the head of Poland's National Security Bureau, Pawel Soloch, told reporters.

Earlier this month, Washington said it could increase security help for Kyiv after Russia moved troops near its border with Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region, where Ukrainian troops are in conflict with Moscow-backed separatists.

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Defence

Military leaders address collective Arctic security issues

EU Reporter Correspondent

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Military leaders from 11 European and North American nations concluded two days of strategic discussions focused on Arctic security issues during the annual Arctic Security Forces Roundtable (ASFR) last week. While the ongoing COVID-19 global pandemic delayed plans to meet in person in Rovaniemi, Finland, the Finnish military leveraged virtual technology to host the in-depth, time-sensitive discussions focused on current and emerging High North security issues.

Established in 2010 by Norway and the United States, the ASFR promotes Arctic cooperation among military forces that operate in and around the Arctic region, while also supporting nations that promote peaceful development of the Arctic region and adhere to international-rule-based order.

“The amount of focused attention and activity – commercially, militarily, environmentally – in the Arctic, along with the region’s continued strategic importance, makes this high-level military gathering an imperative for us,” said US Army Maj. Gen. Charles Miller, US European, Command’s (USEUCOM) director of plans, policy, strategy and capabilities. “From the issues we discuss to the relationships we continue to foster and forge, this roundtable is truly an invaluable forum for our nations.”

This flag-and-general-officer level, military-to-military forum, co-chaired by Norway and the U.S., to promote regional understanding and enhance multilateral security cooperation is currently the only military forum focused on the Arctic region’s unique challenging security dynamics and architecture, and full range of military capabilities and co-operation.

"The round table serves a critical role in ensuring that each participating senior military leader representing some 11 nations gains a clearer understanding of the Arctic," said Commodore Solveig Krey, Defence Staff Norway’s Assistant Chief of Staff Operations. "This roundtable, working in concert with the full range of bilateral and multilateral exercises and operations that occur throughout the year, helps support a secure, stable Arctic region where nations work cooperatively to address security challenges of collective concern."

During this year’s ASFR, participants discussed the roles of the Arctic Council, European Union and NATO, and those organizations’ aims to foster governance and cooperation in the region. Each participating nation detailed its own national Arctic strategy, senior representatives from NATO presented the alliance’s current Arctic outlook, and the participants addressed important transportation and environmental issues.

About USEUCOM

US European Command (USEUCOM) is responsible for US military operations across Europe, portions of Asia and the Middle East, the Arctic and Atlantic Ocean. USEUCOM is comprised of more than 64,000 military and civilian personnel and works closely with NATO Allies and partners. The command is one of two U.S. forward-deployed geographic combatant commands headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany. For more information about USEUCOM, click here.

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EU

EU, US and Quartet express concern over the rise in tensions and violence in the West Bank, Jerusalem and Gaza border

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Arab rioters clashed with Israeli police on Saturday outside Jerusalem’s Old City in violence that threatened to deepen the holy city’s worst religious unrest in several years. Riots also erupted in Hebron and along the Gaza security fence, writes Yossi Lempkowicz.

Early Sunday, the Israeli army said Palestinian terrorists in the Gaza Strip fired a rocket at the country’s south that fell in an open area. In response, aircraft struck a Hamas military post. There were no reports of casualties in either attack.

Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip and opposes Israel’s existence, has called for a new intifada, or uprising.

Late Saturday, several dozen protesters gathered along Gaza’s volatile frontier with Israel, burning tires and throwing small explosives at israeli soldiers. Israeli forces fired tear gas at the crowd.

According to the Palestine Red Crescent, more than 60 people were wounded in the clashes in Jerusalem on Saturday.

Israel Police chief Koby Shabtai said he had deployed more police in Jerusalem following Friday night’s clashes, which left 18 police officers wounded. After weeks of nightly violence, Israelis and east Jerusalem Arabs were bracing for more conflict in the coming days.

“The right to demonstrate will be respected but public disturbances will be met with force and zero tolerance. I call on everyone to act responsibly and with restraint,” Shabtai said.

A large crowd of protesters chanted “God is great” outside the Old City’s Damascus Gate, and some pelted police with rocks and water bottles. Police patrols fired stun grenades as they moved through the area, and a police truck periodically fired a water cannon.

In a statement, the European Union called on authorities ‘’to act urgently to de-escalate the current tensions in Jerusalem. Acts of incitement around the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif must be avoided and the status quo has to be respected.’’

‘’Political, religious and community leaders on all sides should show restraint and responsibility and make every effort to calm down this volatile situation,’’ the statement added.

‘’The situation with regard to the evictions of Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah and other areas of East Jerusalem is also of serious concern. Such actions are illegal under international humanitarian law and only serve to fuel tensions on the ground,’’ the EU said. .

The United States also said it is ‘’extremely concerned’’ about ongoing confrontations in Jerusalem, including on the Haram al-Sharif / Temple Mount and in Sheikh Jarrah.

State Departement spokesperson Ned Price issued a statement saying: ‘’There is no excuse for violence, but such bloodshed is especially disturbing now, coming as it does on the last days of Ramadan. This includes Friday’s attack on Israeli soldiers and reciprocal ‘price tag’ attacks on Palestinians in the West Bank, which we condemn in no uncertain terms.’’

He added, ‘’we call on Israeli and Palestinian officials to act decisively to deescalate tensions and bring a halt to the violence. It is absolutely critical that all sides exercise restraint, refrain from provocative actions and rhetoric, and preserve the historic status quo on the Haram al-Sharif / Temple Mount – in word and in practice. Leaders across the spectrum must denounce all violent acts. Security services must ensure the safety of all of Jerusalem’s residents and hold all perpetrators to account.’’

‘’We are also deeply concerned about the potential eviction of Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan neighborhoods of Jerusalem, many of whom have lived in their homes for generations. As we have consistently said, it is critical to avoid steps that exacerbate tensions or take us farther away from peace. This includes evictions in East Jerusalem, settlement activity, home demolitions, and acts of terrorism,’’ he added.

The spokesperson said the State Department was in touch with senior Israeli and Palestinian leaders to work to deescalate the situation. ‘’We also urge the authorities to approach the residents of Sheikh Jarrah with compassion and respect, and consider the totality of these complex historical cases and how they impact real lives today.’’

In a joint press statement, the Middle East Quartet envoys from the European Union, Russia, the United States and the United Nations, said they are ‘’closely monitoring the situation in East Jerusalem, including in the Old City and Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.’’

‘’The envoys express deep concern over the daily clashes and violence in East Jerusalem, in particular last night’s confrontations between Palestinians and Israeli security forces at Haram Al-Sharif/Temple Mount. We are alarmed by the provocative statements made by some political groups, as well as the launching of rockets and the resumption of incendiary balloons from Gaza towards Israel, and attacks on Palestinian farmland in the West Bank.’’

The statement added, ‘’The envoys noted with serious concern possible evictions of Palestinian families from homes they have lived in for generations in Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan neighborhoods in East Jerusalem and voice opposition to unilateral actions, which will only escalate the already tense environment.’’

The envoys called upon the Israeli authorities ‘’to exercise restraint and to avoid measures that would further escalate the situation during this period of Muslim Holy Days.’’

‘’We call on all sides to uphold and respect the status quo at the holy sites. All leaders have a responsibility to act against extremists and to speak out against all acts of violence and incitement. In this context, the Quartet Envoys reiterated their commitment to a negotiated two state solution,’’ the statement concluded.

The current wave of protests broke out at the beginning of Ramadan three weeks ago when Israel restricted gatherings at a popular meeting spot outside Jerusalem’s Old City. Israel removed the restrictions, briefly calming the situation, but protests have reignited in recent days over threatened evictions in east Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. The Israeli foreign ministry has accused the Palestinians of seizing on the threatened evictions, which it described as a “real-estate dispute between private parties,” in order to incite violence.

Other recent developments also contributed to the tense atmosphere, including the postponement of Palestinian elections, deadly violence in which yeshiva student Yehuda Guetta, 19, was murdered in a shooting attack at Tapuah junction last week, and three armed terrorists opened fire at a Border Police base in northern Samaria.

Fearing the situation could escalate further, the Israeli army’s chief of staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi ordered a comprehensive reinforcement of the units already operating in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank).

Speaking on the riots and clashes in his city, Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Leon insisted that “there is no connection between Sheikh Jarrah and the Temple Mount, in Sheikh Jarrah this is a property dispute. This is an unprecedented incitement by the Palestinian Authority that is trying to lead to violence and unnecessary acts.”

“The Palestinian Authority and Hamas are trying to ignite Jerusalem, this is the problem and it needs to be addressed. It happens every year. There is no doubt that we all need to act to calm down and have zero violence, and we have zero tolerance for violence. The ministers are doing everything to calm the situation down.”

Israeli diplomats have contacted officials in Jordan and Egypt in an effort to get them to pressure the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas to cease inciting violence.

In a call to Palestine TV on Friday, PA President Mahmoud Abbas praised the “courageous stand” of the protesters and said Israel bore full responsibility for the violence. Abbas last week postponed planned parliamentary elections, citing Israeli restrictions in east Jerusalem as an excuse for the delay.

At a special cabinet meeting on Sunday, at Jerusalem City Hall to mark Jerusalem Day, the reunification of the city since 54 years, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin addressed the ‘’violent disturbances in Jerusalem under the influence of agitators.’’

‘’We will not allow any extremist element to undermine the quiet in Jerusalem. We will uphold law and order – vigorously and responsibly. We will continue to guard freedom of worship for all faiths but we will not allow violent disturbances,’’ he said.

‘’Jerusalem has been the capital of the Jewish people for thousands of years. Our roots in Jerusalem go back to Biblical times. Our continuous link with Jerusalem has been maintained in all generations.’’

‘’When one looks back over thousands of years of Jewish rule and the foreign rule, and today again under the state of the Jews, only under the sovereignty of Israel has full and consistent freedom of worship been ensured for all faiths, and thus we will continue,’’ Netanyahu said.

‘’We emphatically reject the pressures not to build in Jerusalem. Unfortunately, these pressures have been increasing of late. I say to our best friends as well: Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. Just as every people builds its capital and in its capital, so too do we reserve the right to build Jerusalem and in Jerusalem.’’

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