Friday, May 27, 2016

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Budget bonhomie: Is there fund for uprooted multitudes?

Shahid Islam

 
The budget time is here to make the lobbyists chuckle and the downtrodden to look above the sky for divine intervention. After all, when did our national budget cater for the uprooted millions who now number nearly forty millions and languish in the fringe after having lost their homes and hearths to recurrent natural disasters?
Reports suggest another about one million people of various coastal areas now find themselves marooned and are crying for food and other relief following the massive devastation wrecked by cyclone Roanu that had wiped out wobbly barrages of coastal areas and surged more salty ocean waters into the mainland to awash habitats and destroy crops and fisheries.
Full Story

Shahid Islam

 
The budget time is here to make the lobbyists chuckle and the downtrodden to look above the sky for divine intervention. After all, when did our national budget cater for the uprooted millions who now number nearly forty millions and languish in the fringe after having lost their homes and hearths to recurrent natural disasters?
Reports suggest another about one million people of various coastal areas now find themselves marooned and are crying for food and other relief following the massive devastation wrecked by cyclone Roanu that had wiped out wobbly barrages of coastal areas and surged more salty ocean waters into the mainland to awash habitats and destroy crops and fisheries.
Recurring misery
The budgetary priorities in preceding years in public investment and expenditure never bothered to fully address this recurring misery of the battered multitudes that are most vulnerable to natural calamities. In this one of the largest deltas of the world—which is highly vulnerable to natural disasters like cyclone, flooding, impact of climate change, drought, storm surge and salinity intrusion—budgets have always tried to make happy those who could sit with the budget makers to highlight and hammer home their needs.
In the process, overlooked were the overall impacts of the recurring disasters on agriculture and fisheries, water resources and hydrology, and forestry and biodiversity; the damages to which were never measured in terms of total national losses. Even the massive human cost—especially the 1991 cyclone alone killing over 150,000 lives, of which two thirds were women and children – never softened the stony souls of those ruling this benighted nation.
It’s time that the budgetary allocations cater for the needs of the most vulnerable ones and abandon the stereotypes of the past.  Budgets should be geared to address and ameliorate the most potent threat to our national existence by investing handsomely on coastal embankment and river bank constructions. The nation must put the money where the yields will be more rewarding.
A number of researches had concluded that, each $one billion public investment in vulnerable infrastructure building can increase the GDP by one per cent and save millions of lives.
As of now, most of the infrastructure building budget stemmed from an archaically-designed ADP allocation which thrives on corruption and moves in snail pace.
 
Anemic ADP performance
Unnayan Onnesha, a local think tank, stated in its January 2016 report that the implementation status of public investment in five major sectors ­ roads and highways, bridges, heath, education, social security and welfare ­ was lower during the July-December period of FY 2015-16 than the same period of the previous year. If the ADP shows a regressive trend, development cannot be claimed to have progressed.
According to Unnayan Onnesha, only 29 per cent of the total ADP allocation for Roads and Highways got implemented during this period while the implementation staggered at 16 per cent in health, 26 per cent in education and 28 per cent in social security and welfare. It’s time unused money is utilized in removing the hunger of the uprooted ones and stopping river erosions and coastal surges from making their numbers multiply each year.
Juxtapose this anemic ADP performance with the overall investment scenario to gauge what exactly is the health status of the national economy. The picture looks and feels like a jaundiced one.
According to available data, investment constitutes only 29.18 per cent of the GDP, of which Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) had decelerated since 2010-11 to 0.70 per cent of the total GDP while local investors had consistently stalked away from making substantial investment following the stock market and public bank scams, and a slew of other financial scandals that had eaten up over $4 billion depositors’ money under fake names and enterprises. The scammers are mostly of ruling party hues.
That aside, another major drawback of local investment is the fixation of major local enterprises to investing in joint ventures with foreign investors; mostly in transport, storage and telecommunication sectors only, due to high profitability. This had impacted negatively the overall economic dividends due to large share of profits in joint ventures having been repatriated abroad.
 
Factoring in realities
The trend of lingering deceleration in domestic and international investments further necessitates massive public intervention and investment. Look at the 2014 FDI scenario, for instance.
Although gross FDI inflow in 2014 registered $2.58 billion in total, disinvestment had undercut 25.85 per cent of that amount through capital repatriation, reverse investment, loans to parent companies, repayments of intra-company loans, etc. Hence, net FDI inflow in 2014 stood at US$ 1.52 billion only.
Further analysis of the 2014 FDI inflow indicates the source nation as the UK ($180.98 million), South Korea ($134.70 million), Pakistan ($130.74 million), Singapore ($117.13 million), Hong Kong ($111.41 million), Norway ($103.58 million), Japan ($95.71 million), Netherlands ($78.70 million), India ($67.82 million) and Sri Lanka ($61.35 million), to name the major ones. Why the USA, China and India are not as forthcoming as are their level of influence-peddling in our internal politics?
Now look at some unavoidable correlations that are conclusive enough to impact policy making, including the budgetary allocations. Economic growth in Bangladesh began to decline since FY06, coinciding with declined public investment. The decline in growth rate, ever since, also coincided with slowdown in capital investment in infrastructure development.
What indeed acted as the deterring factors in such stymied local and foreign investment? The answer lies mostly in the realm of politics.
As the ambiance of authoritarianism replaced hopes of reverting to a truly pluralistic political system, an embedded crony culture—in which ruling elites needed to be managed and bribed – and the fear of unforeseen political hazards scared away domestic and foreign investors.
The void this had created in building necessary economic and social infrastructures made many private investors leery of investing money due to higher production cost, procedural delays and unexpected delay in producing goods and services.
We urge the finance minister to factor in such realities in his upcoming ADP allocations and apportion bigger chunks of money to enable the vulnerable multitudes in coastal embankment and river bank construction activities in order to increase their employability and hope of survival from recurring natural disasters. Today, their fates are inextricably linked with the existence of our nation.

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Chinese defence minister to visit Dhaka tomorrow

Shakhawat Hossain

 
China’s Defence Minister Chang Wanquan is due to arrive in Dhaka on Saturday on a three-day official visit to Bangladesh. It is the first visit by a Chinese defence minister to Bangladesh in 8 years. Wanquan would be accompanied by a 15-member strong delegation consisting of senior Chinese defence officials.
Beijing is expected to sign a raft of agreements with Dhaka regarding military cooperation, training and capacity building of the Bangladesh armed forces. Defence Minister Chang Wanquan is expected to meet Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and all three armed forces chiefs during his visit to Bangladesh.
Full Story

Shakhawat Hossain

 
China’s Defence Minister Chang Wanquan is due to arrive in Dhaka on Saturday on a three-day official visit to Bangladesh. It is the first visit by a Chinese defence minister to Bangladesh in 8 years. Wanquan would be accompanied by a 15-member strong delegation consisting of senior Chinese defence officials.
Beijing is expected to sign a raft of agreements with Dhaka regarding military cooperation, training and capacity building of the Bangladesh armed forces. Defence Minister Chang Wanquan is expected to meet Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and all three armed forces chiefs during his visit to Bangladesh.
Largest defence equipment supplier
China is Bangladesh’s largest defence hardware supplier and has provided everything from aircrafts, navy vessels to weapons. The impending visit is likely to boost defence cooperation between Dhaka and Beijing further, particularly in terms of Chinese arms exports and transfer of military technology.
The Chinese minister’s visit follows the visit to China by Bangladesh’s Chief of Army Staff, General Abu Belal Muhammad Shafiul Huq, in December last year. During Gen Huq’s visit, both sides took note of developments in Sino-Bangladesh military relations since the two countries established diplomatic ties 40 years ago, and pledged deeper cooperation in the future.
Since 2010, Beijing has supplied Dhaka with five maritime patrol vessels, two corvettes, 44 tanks, and 16 fighter jets, as well as surface-to-air and anti-ship missiles, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. These are in addition to new Ming-class submarines that Bangladesh ordered from China in 2013. The submarines will perhaps join the Bangladeshi fleet by end of 2016, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has said.
China and Bangladesh have moved beyond hardware supply to developing a robust training and military exchange program. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) sends nearly as many delegations to Bangladesh each year as does India.
Last year, new agreements signed during the Dhaka visit of a high-ranking Chinese military official ensured that China would provide training for Bangladeshi military personnel.
During the Bangladesh army chief’s visit to China, top Chinese leaders expressed hope that “the two militaries can keep enhancing high-level exchange of visits, communication between military academies and cooperation in technologies and personnel training.”
In the wake of such an evolving strategic diplomatic and military cooperation between Bangladesh and China, worried next-door neighbor India says it will closely watch the Dhaka visit of Chinese defence minister Chang Wanquan to Dhaka.
 
Delhi worries
What appears to worry Delhi is Dhaka’s enthusiasm about being an important part of Beijing’s “Belt and Road” vision of an interconnected trading web stretching from China all the way to Western Europe.
Bangladesh features in the Belt and Road vision both in its overland plan—via the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) corridor – and in its maritime version as a port hub for the Maritime Silk Road.
Delhi’s strong opposition to China’s plans to develop the Sonadia port had been pronounced. Plans for the port now seem to have fallen through. Indian military officials are particularly circumspect over Bangladesh’s close military relations with China, particularly the maritime component.
Of particular concern is the plan for Bangladesh to buy two diesel-electric submarines from China, which, military experts say, will necessitate the construction of a submarine base in Bangladesh, a base that might play host to Chinese submarines in the future (as Sri Lanka’s Colombo port did last year).
“In fact, Dhaka may have won tangible benefits from courting both China and India. In the past two years, Bangladesh has seen long-standing maritime and land border issues with India resolved in Dhaka’s favour, perhaps because New Delhi is eager to make sure its neighbour doesn’t tilt too far in China’s direction,”  says ‘Diplomat’ magazine.

 


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Good example for BD that Indian states elections offer

Faruque Ahmed

 
Election results to four Indian states election as announced by the Indian Election Commission on May 19 showed the diversity of choice of the Indian voters from state to state in view of the different political landscape.
What is noticeable is that big stakeholders lost in one state but won in another. Ruling Bhatatiya Janata Party (BJP) which won only five seats in Assam state election five years ago, this time won 86 seats majority in 126-seat state assembly. BJP won the Assam state election following the party’s major defeats in Dehli and Bihar last year.
Full Story

Faruque Ahmed

 
Election results to four Indian states election as announced by the Indian Election Commission on May 19 showed the diversity of choice of the Indian voters from state to state in view of the different political landscape.
What is noticeable is that big stakeholders lost in one state but won in another. Ruling Bhatatiya Janata Party (BJP) which won only five seats in Assam state election five years ago, this time won 86 seats majority in 126-seat state assembly. BJP won the Assam state election following the party’s major defeats in Dehli and Bihar last year.
Trinomul Congress (TMC) supremo and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Benarjee retained her hold and expanded it winning 212 seats in 294 seat assembly as the left-Congress alliance faced terrible defeat. Similarly in Tamil Nadu incumbent Chief Minister Jayalalitha retained the party’s hold to become chief minister again.
 
Mixed results in Indian polls
Election results showed in Kerala the left won the state defeating Congress-Muslim League coalition though it was defeated in West Bengal. But the Congress won the centre administered Punducherey showing that big stakeholders lost in one place but gained in another. It essentially shows the beauty of the functioning Indian democracy. Polls results showed BJP which came to power in the centre two years ago had won only one seat in Kerala, three in West Bengal and five in Tamil Nadu to suggest that it was unable to unduly influence the voters directly because of a strict election commission.
The Indian Election Commission ensured peaceful election campaign and subsequent holding of a free and fair election in the states in phases. In West Bengal it took place in six phases beginning from April 4 and ending on May 5.
What is noticeable is that the Indian Election Commission keeps the results in the hold until all elections were over at all places and during this period results of exit polls were not allowed to be published to influence voters or the voting pattern either way.
Except in Assam where all pre-election estimates suggested BJP is going to win, results in other states landed as a surprise to earlier speculations. Particularly the TMC’s overwhelming victory in West Bengal came as a total surprise to observers watching the election campaign.     
The Indian states election shows a free and fair election is also possible in Bangladesh if the government so desires and the Election Commission is ready to assert its authority to hold election independently and participated by all parties. The chairman and the members of the Bangladesh Election Commission belied peoples’ expectations.
The West Bengal election was highly contested by the left-Congress alliance with TMC and the Indian Election Commission made several transfer of senior police officers during the election period on complaint that they were working for Mamata Benarjee. But her victory confirmed her claim to power and the results were acceptable.
 
Our EC can learn a lot
The Indian Election Commission ensured the neutrality of the state elections from undue intervention of the ruling party in central or the state governments contesting the polls while in power. It is unlike Bangladesh.
Why it is not working in Bangladesh is a question. Unlike India, during the last parliament election in Bangladesh in January 2014, 153 MPs were declared elected unopposed by the EC – more than half of the total number of MPs. Even in the ongoing Union Parishad elections a total of 210 chairmen candidates were elected unopposed so far which is unthinkable under any foolproof electoral system.  
The BJP’s accession to power in Assam may have far reaching consequences for bordering Bangladesh as observers’ fear from the elections rhetoric of the ultra-nationalist fundamentalist party now consolidating itself in the Indian Northeast.
According to political analyst Ashok Malik of New Delhi-based Observers Research Foundation, the BJP did not over-invest the Prime Minister’s political capital. Modi travelled to Assam only three times to address public meetings. He said Modi wave could not prevent the BJP’s debacle in Delhi and Bihar elections last year. The humiliating defeat generated scepticism that the charisma of Modi was waning.  The BJP had changed its strategy to win Assam.
“It was a tightly-controlled campaign that did not allow the Congress to divert attention from the debate on local governance and bring in extraneous concerns, as anti-Modi quarters managed to do so successfully in Bihar.”
“The Congress suffered huge setbacks in the five states where results of the assembly elections are being announced on Thursday,” The Hindu reported. Mamata Benarjee will be sworn in Kolkata on May 29 while a BJP government led by Sarbananda Sonowal was sworn in Guwahati, Assam on Tuesday as the chief minister.
 
Ramifications for Bangladesh
Meanwhile, the new Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal after taking over the reign has set a priority to seal the border with Bangladesh and made a list of illegal immigrants meaning Bengali Muslim settlers to expel them from the state. It has taken it as the biggest challenge for him, he said.
The BJP leaders while campaigning had claimed millions of Muslim immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh will be stripped of their right to vote. By raising the issue, they tried to exploit Assam’s Hindu sentiments alleging that they had lost jobs and government benefits and welfare schemes because of the Bengali migrants.
The BJP win in Assam has serious implications for Bangladesh and the announcement of the chief minister made it clear that those slogans were not mere election rhetoric and now the winner is going to implement it soon. This is a different situation than that existed in the past when the Congress was in power in the last 15 years.
Observers recalled that it was not a new slogan or rhetoric for the BJP as during parliamentary election in 2014, its leader Naraendra Modi had used similar rhetoric promising to expel Muslims from India to Bangladesh. It may be pointed out that 35 percent of Assam population is Muslim and they are partly locals and partly settlers before India gained independence in 1947. There is a debate in Assam about the cutting date for listing illegal immigrants. Should it be 1971 or 1947 is the question that make socio-political leaders to wonder. What is to be noted that after 1971 and even since 1947, Muslims from the then Bengal or East Pakistan did not migrate to Assam for political and safety reasons.

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Newsmen killing: Demand special protection law in India

Nava Thakuria in Guwahati

 
As India witnessed the murder of three journalists this year, the demand for a special protection law for journalists on duty is also mounting. Protesting rigorously against the killing of two scribes in Bihar and Jharkhand this month, the media fraternity across the country rose to the occasion for a national action plan for safeguarding the media persons.
Full Story

Nava Thakuria in Guwahati

 
As India witnessed the murder of three journalists this year, the demand for a special protection law for journalists on duty is also mounting. Protesting rigorously against the killing of two scribes in Bihar and Jharkhand this month, the media fraternity across the country rose to the occasion for a national action plan for safeguarding the media persons.
The first incident of journalist murder this year reported from Uttar Pradesh, where a young scribe named Tarun Mishra was shot dead on 13 February 2016 at Gosaiganj locality in Sultanpur district. Mishra (32) used to work for a Hindi daily named Jan Sandesh Times and he was targeted for highlighting the illegal soil mining activities in his district.
 
Killings condemned
Three motorcycle riding miscreants shot at him near his residential locality. Severely injured Mishra was taken to an Ambedkarnagar based hospital, where he succumbed to injuries. 
The second casualty was reported from Jharkhand, where a television reporter was killed by goons. The unidentified people targeted Akhilesh Pratap Singh (also known as Indradev Yadav) at Dewaria locality of Chatra district on the night of 12 May. Singh (35), who used to work for a local television news channel, faced the bullets in front of the village Panchayat office and died on his way to the hospital.  He left behind his wife with three children. 
Within 24 hours, the third case of journalist murder was reported from its neighboring State of Bihar. Unidentified gunmen shot at Rajdeo Ranjan on 13 May night at Siwan railway station locality.  Engaged with national Hindi newspaper Hindustan, Ranjan  (45) died on his way to the hospital. A brave senior journalist, Ranjan is survived by his father, wife and two children.      
Both the incidents created wave of protests in Ranchi as well as in Patna and then it spread to other parts of the country. Various local, national and international media (rights) bodies including the members of press clubs based in New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata etc demonstrated their angers against the vicious attacks on scribes and demanded distinctive punishment to each & every single perpetrator of the crimes.
Shashi Shekhar, the chief editor of Hindustan narrated in his column that journalism today is amongst the most dangerous professions in the world, but even though people get attracted to it, because the society needs truth and journalism is the most powerful medium to bring out that truth.  We have made sacrifices and we will continue to do so, till it is necessary.     
 
Govt. action demanded
Information and Broadcasting minister Arun Jaitley condemned  the killings. Both New York based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Paris based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) strongly condemned the killings and called for an ‘authentic’ investigation into the incidents. They also expressed concerns that India is slipping down in World Press Freedom Index for 2016 turning India as one of the worst places for working journalists.
The strong media fraternity of the populous country lost five journalists namely Jagendra Singh (UP), Sandeep Kothari (Madhya Pradesh), Raghavendra Dube (Maharashtra), Hemant Yadav (UP) and Mithilesh Pandey (Bihar) to assailants last year.  Press Council of India chairman justice (retired) Chandramouli Kumar Prasad also strongly condemn the killing of scribes and urged the Centre to enact a special law for protection of journalists and speedy trial of cases of assaults on the media persons.        
Nearly 96 per cent of the cases of killing of journalists have not been taken to logical conclusion and are pending in the courts and in some cases, investigation reached dead-end in the last two decades, as reported by a Committee of the PCI, its chairman said.
Earlier the Guwahati based scribes also joined in the protest against the killing of journalists in the central Indian provinces. They assembled in front of Guwahati Press Club on 16 May and demonstrated their angers.  The Guwahati demonstrators also supported the move for a special protection law for the working journalists across the country and called upon the Delhi-based government to formulate a national action plan to safeguard the media persons. 

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USA lifts arms embargo on Vietnam!

Dr. Abdul Ruff in New Delhi

 
President Obama announced that the United States will lift arms embargo and begin selling arms to Vietnam, making China cheer up, instead of worrying as expected in Washington. Beijing welcomed the US decision to lift a weapons embargo and outwardly praised the end of the embargo, even though it is seen by other regional powers as a counter to the Chinese pro-active policy in the South China Sea.
Full Story

Dr. Abdul Ruff in New Delhi

 
President Obama announced that the United States will lift arms embargo and begin selling arms to Vietnam, making China cheer up, instead of worrying as expected in Washington. Beijing welcomed the US decision to lift a weapons embargo and outwardly praised the end of the embargo, even though it is seen by other regional powers as a counter to the Chinese pro-active policy in the South China Sea.
The end of the weapons embargo is seen by some as an American response to the Chinese active foreign policy in the region. Now Vietnam will have access to US military weapons and technology that China has long coveted but can’t access because of a weapons embargo imposed on it by the US and European Union in 1989. China does not view Vietnam as its regional enemy, unlike some other nations.
 
China welcomes move
Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said “We certainly hope that the development of this friendly relationship can be conducive to this region’s stability and development”, apparently confusing the US strategic planners.  
Tensions have increasingly grown in the South China Sea since 2014 when China began building islands on top of reefs there. “In addition to surface-to-air missiles and radar facilities, the islands are also expected to station Chinese warplanes. The scale of the multibillion-dollar effort by China has challenged the military status quo that has defined the Western Pacific since the end of World War II. 
China’s reaction is surprising considering its relationship with Vietnam and its other neighbours in the South China Sea, as well as its feelings about US role of interference in the territorial disputes there. More than one analyst said it exemplifies how complicated relations between the two world powers are.  The regional powers have openly objected to the Chinese operations on the South China Sea and sought US interference in the region to pressure China to stop all military related operations there.
However, Chinese strategic experts view the development as being ‘logical” and “reasonable” and don’t want to look overly sensitive or irritated, because USA-China relations are very complicated and “very important”.  Both are veto powers with certain special rights and privileges and cannot take the tensions to a war level.  
Washington as the only super power can monitor and control the global scene and as such the lifting of the arms embargo may have sent a sobering signal to leaders in Beijing about a potential power shift in the region, but it was difficult to judge the real impact without seeing what other moves the US has planned in this very sensitive region.
 
US allies chipping in
President Obama, focusing on his Asia Pivot strategy to contain Beijing globally, however said the lifting of the arms embargo had nothing to do with China, but said the US and Vietnam had mutual concerns about maritime issues and the importance of maintaining freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. While Washington doesn’t take sides, Obama said, it does support a diplomatic resolution based on ‘international norms’ and ‘not based on who’s the bigger party and can throw around their weight a little bit more,’ a clear inference to China.
Meanwhile, Beijing’s neighbours in the South China Sea, feeling the pinch of US-China tensions, aren’t taking any chances. These countries are essentially friendly to the US and are getting together directly, in all sorts of ways and at all sorts of levels. But they also know that they literally cannot do a thing against China’s wishes as the US is playing mischief too.
Many other countries are closely watching the ‘show’ evolving in the region and also taking active part in the tension’s development, if not resolution of it.  There are mechanisms, such as the high level talks that began last year among Japan, Australia, and India on topics including maritime security in the far away SCS.  
Taking the advantage of the situation, allies of the US, India and Japan have applied their own bilateral diplomacy to be in the game. India has offered $100 million loan to Vietnam to buy patrol boats, and Japan is leasing five surveillance aircrafts to the Philippines, bolstering those Southeast Asian nations’ ability to keep an eye on waters where China challenges their territorial claims. 
As visible tensions between China and regional powers on the one hand, and the US and China, on the other, South China Sea is bound to continue to boil.
 
Dubious policy
There is no region globally where the US seeks peace or strives as the super power to work for peaceful situations. However, there is one country that Washington wants to protect and disallows any tensions is fascist Israel, seeking to expand its illegal boundaries by intermittent wars with the besieged Palestinians. The US, however, does not want to apply similar approach to rest of the world.
Possibly, US strategic community and Pentagon experts prefer Israeli ‘tasty’ food to their own and they like the Islamic blood stained Jewish hands to strengthen further to advance their own Middle East strategy.  They are the strategic partners with secret terror operations being conducted globally and killing Muslims.   
 
The writer is an author, educationist; investigative journalist, columnist, an  expert on Mideast affairs, Chancellor-founder of Center for International Affairs (CIA); editor, foreign policy issues, Palestine Times; 
website: http://abdulruff.wordpress.com/ email abdulruff_jnu@yahoo.com; phone*: 91-8129081217*

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Lasting implications of Iran-Turkmenistan security ties

Samuel Ramani in Oxford

 
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani welcomed Turkmenistan’s foreign minister, Rashid Meredov, to Tehran on 7 May. After their meeting, Rouhani declared that Iran and Turkmenistan needed to expand their security partnership, because both countries have common interests in counter-terrorism, containing Islamic extremism, and curbing drug trafficking.
Full Story

Samuel Ramani in Oxford

 
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani welcomed Turkmenistan’s foreign minister, Rashid Meredov, to Tehran on 7 May. After their meeting, Rouhani declared that Iran and Turkmenistan needed to expand their security partnership, because both countries have common interests in counter-terrorism, containing Islamic extremism, and curbing drug trafficking.
Rouhani’s call for an Iran-Turkmenistan security partnership is not new. Iran was the first country to recognize Turkmenistan as an independent state in 1991. Ashgabat has also long been described as Iran’s “gateway to Central Asia.” Yet this close partnership is paradoxical. The five small Shiite communities residing in Turkmenistan have been subjected to extensive repression and forced to take their religious practice underground.
 
Alleviates drug & extremism
While Turkmenistan’s authoritarian policies towards Shiites show no signs of easing, Rouhani has strengthened Iran’s security partnership with Ashgabat for two reasons. First, due to a large common border, Iran views Turkmenistan as a crucial partner in preempting a spillover of destabilizing Islamic extremism from Afghanistan. Second, Turkmenistan has taken a hard line stance against Sunni Islamists and ISIS, a position that aligns closely with Iranian foreign policy objectives.
Iran and Afghanistan have had periods of strained relation, due to the Taliban’s presence in Afghanistan and Iran’s mass executions of Afghan prisoners. Therefore, Iran has sought out a reliable security partner in Central Asia to mediate its relationship with Kabul. Turkmenistan has emerged as the natural choice for this role due to its geographic proximity to both countries, and Ashgabat’s benign relations with both Iran and Afghanistan.
While Saparmurat Niyazov’s idiosyncratic policies occasionally caused tensions, Turkmenistan has pursued a delicate balancing act towards Afghanistan for most of the post-1991 period. This allowed it to maintain a strategic partnership with both the Taliban regime and Hamid Karzai’s government. The Asian Development Bank’s TAPI pipeline project linking Turkmen natural gas to South Asia via Afghanistan has increased the importance of cooperation between Ashgabat and Kabul. As Turkmenistan has repeatedly negotiated with Iran on joint large-scale oil and gas projects, it can use its energy security leverage to be a powerful advocate for peace between Tehran and Kabul, at both the national government and transnational levels.
In addition to its energy leverage, Turkmenistan has considerable influence over the flow of Afghan illegal drugs to Iran. There is compelling evidence that Niyazov’s coterie of allies profited extensively from the corruption associated with the Afghan opium trade. This caused tensions with the United States and other Central Asian countries.
 
Economic multilateralism
Even though Turkmenistan has still not secured its borders fully or eradicated elite-level drug trade corruption, it has taken tangible steps to curb the flow of illegal drugs to Iran. In 2013, Turkmen police oversaw the largest ever seizure of Afghan opium from the Iran-Turkmenistan border. This was part of a larger anti-drug campaign which cracked down on domestic drug abuse and suspended pardons for criminals convicted of drug-related offenses. These improvements combined with Turkmenistan’s close economic relationship with Afghanistan have made the expansion of security ties with Ashgabat vital for the success of Iran’s war on drugs.
Iran and Turkmenistan have also been united around the cause of stabilizing Afghanistan after NATO troops are withdrawn. Rouhani regards economic multilateralism as an effective agent of regional stability. After his meeting with Meredov, he called for water and energy sector cooperation between the three countries.
Yet Iran is also interested in military containment strategies towards Afghanistan, as Tehran is concerned about US hegemony being projected so close to its borders.  Turkmenistan’s increasingly aggressive border security measures against the Afghan threat benefit Iran. Turkmenistan’s security crackdowns have become more pronounced despite official statements insisting that the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan border region is stable, and denunciations of Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s accusations to the contrary.
Turkmen border guards have also become increasingly willing to arrest Afghans suspected of Islamic extremism. Turkmenistan’s October 2015 discovery of 80 Taliban fighters camping out on what was thought to be a “heavily armed” territory escalated this trend considerably. Ashgabat’s softening of its permanent neutrality stance has not gone unnoticed in Tehran and has strengthened the budding bilateral security partnership.
 
Unity against Islamic extremism
In addition to joint interests in securing Afghanistan, there is a great deal of synergy between both countries’ desires to combat Sunni Islamic extremism. After his recent meeting with Meredov, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif warned against the spread of Islamic extremism that would fuel sectarianism in Central Asia and the Middle East.
Turkmenistan’s openness to cooperating with Iran on the Islamic extremist threat is a major rhetorical shift. While Ashgabat has been actively working to curb Islamic radicalization amongst its population for at least two decades, regime officials have consistently denied that Islamist movements pose any threat to the country’s security.
Turkmenistan’s increasingly aggressive counter-terrorism efforts have been motivated by two factors. First, Turkmenistan is concerned by the prospect of underground Islamist movements posing a threat to Berdimuhamedov’s regime security. Independent estimates reveal that organizations like Hizb ut-Tahrir have significantly more resources and followers, than the Turkmen regime admits publicly. If their progress is left unchecked, they could become politically powerful opposition movements. They could also gain popular support by appealing to rural Turkmens disaffected with economic inequality.
Iran shares Turkmenistan’s fears of radical Sunni movements and views a stable Central Asia as vital to its security interests. Iranian authorities view Hizb ut-Tahrir with consternation, as the organization’s funding comes from a wide range of countries, and is therefore, difficult to trace. Also, according to Omar Bakhach, a senior Hizb ut Tahrir operative in Beirut, the organization has established a faction of Shiite supporters in Lebanon and Iraq. This faction clashes openly with Hezbollah and other Iranian proxy terror groups in those countries. Therefore, Turkmenistan’s Islamic extremist containment efforts are useful in ameliorating Iran’s security concerns and partially explain the tightening Tehran-Ashgabat partnership.
Second, Iran approves of Turkmenistan’s increasingly aggressive crackdown on the Islamic State (ISIS).
 
An effective alliance
The massacres of Turkmen civilians in Iraq by ISIS forces in summer 2014, combined with Turkmenistan’s fear of ISIS spillover from Afghanistan, have caused Berdimuhamedov to expand internal repression to military mobilization against the terrorist group. In March 2015, a leaked statement from Turkmen defence ministry official Agamyrat Garakhanov, revealed that Turkmenistan was planning to embark on a large-scale reserve military buildup against ISIS. This would be the first deployment of its kind in the post-1991 period.
Despite these actions, there is little evidence that ISIS poses an imminent security threat to Turkmenistan. This suggests that Turkmenistan’s anti-ISIS crackdown is largely instrumental in nature. Aggressively combating ISIS rallies pro-regime nationalism around the terror group’s repression of ethnic Turkmens and creates an external enemy to justify stable authoritarian rule.
In addition to these domestic considerations, Turkmenistan’s increasingly hawkish anti-ISIS assault has strategic benefits. One key benefit is the creation of a normative solidarity bond with Iran. This will result in expanded capital infusions into its economy, especially as Iran reaps the windfall from the removal of sanctions. It also increases Turkmenistan’s stature in Eurasia’s energy markets.
The recent Rouhani-Meredov meeting occurred largely under the radar of the Western media. But it could be a critical step in Iran’s ambitions to find a reliable Central Asian security partner. As Turkmenistan shares a host of common security concerns with Tehran and views an alignment with Iran as valuable for its own regime security, the prospect of a durable alliance against drug trafficking, Sunni Islamic extremism and ISIS appears brighter than ever. It is an alliance that could have profound effects for the security of both Central Asia and the Middle East in the years to come.
The Diplomat. Samuel Ramani is an MPhil student in Russian and East European Studies at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford, specializing in post-1991 Russian foreign policy. He is also a journalist who writes regularly for the Washington Post, Huffington Post and Kyiv Post amongst other publications. He can be followed on Facebook at Samuel Ramani and on Twitter at samramani2.

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Religious zealots ready to takeover Israeli army

Jonathan Cook in Nazareth

 
In a surprise move, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week forced out his long-serving defence minister, Moshe Yaalon. As he stepped down, Yaalon warned: “Extremist and dangerous elements have taken over Israel.”
He was referring partly to his expected successor: Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party, whose trademark outbursts have included demands to bomb Egypt and behead disloyal Palestinian citizens.
Full Story

Jonathan Cook in Nazareth

 
In a surprise move, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week forced out his long-serving defence minister, Moshe Yaalon. As he stepped down, Yaalon warned: “Extremist and dangerous elements have taken over Israel.”
He was referring partly to his expected successor: Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party, whose trademark outbursts have included demands to bomb Egypt and behead disloyal Palestinian citizens.
But Yaalon was also condemning extremism closer to home, in Netanyahu’s Likud party. Yaalon is to take a break from politics. With fitting irony, his slot is to be filled on Likud’s backbenches by Yehuda Glick, a settler whose struggle to destroy Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque and replace it with a Jewish temple has the potential to set the Middle East on fire.
 
History’s most extremist
Israeli commentators pointed out that, with Lieberman’s inclusion, the government will be the most extreme in Israel’s history – again. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who began a visit to the region on Saturday, is likely to face an impregnable wall of government hostility as he tries to drum up interest in a French peace plan.
Less noticed has been the gradual and parallel takeover of Israel’s security institutions by those espousing the ideology of the settlers – known in Israel as the national-religious camp.
None of this is accidental. For two decades the settlers have been targeting Israel’s key institutions. Under Netanyahu’s seven-year watch as prime minister, the process has accelerated.
Naftali Bennett, leader of the settler party Jewish Home and education minister, recently boasted that the national-religious camp, though only a tenth of the population, held “leadership positions in all realms in Israel”.
One such success for Bennett is Roni Alsheikh who was appointed police chief late last year. He was a long-time resident of Kiryat Arba, one of the most violent settlements in the occupied territories.
The force’s most recent campaign, “Believing in the police”, is designed to recruit more religious hardliners. Behind the program are settler-politicians who have called Palestinians “sub-human” and expressed sympathy for those who burnt to death a Palestinian family, including a baby, last summer.
The other security agencies are being transformed too. Religious nationalists now hold many of the top posts in the Shin Bet intelligence service and the Mossad, Israel’s spy agency.
In the army too, the settlers are today heavily over-represented in the officers’ corps and combat units. For more than a decade their rabbis have dominated the army’s education corps, invoking God’s will on the battlefield.
 
Danger in the offing
But, despite these rising tidewaters, Israel’s traditional secular elite – mostly of European extraction – have desperately clung on to the top rungs of the army command.
Netanyahu bitterly resents their continuing control. They stood in his way at two momentous occasions, as he tried to overturn the Oslo accords in the late 1990s and to bomb Iran five years ago.
In a bid to curb their influence, Netanyahu tried to promote the religious Yair Naveh as military chief last year, but was blocked by the top brass. Lieberman’s arrival as defence minister, however, may mark a turning point.
In some ways, less is at stake than Yaalon’s hyperbolic warning suggests. For decades the secular generals have been in charge of an occupation that has crushed the rights of Palestinians and caged them into ever-smaller holding pens. These generals have been just as cruel as the religious officers replacing them. Nonetheless, the reverberations of this quiet revolution should not be ignored.
The old elites have lived off the fat of the land in the kibbutz, Israel’s spacious farming communities built on the ruins of hundreds of Palestinian villages ethnically cleansed in 1948.
After the 1967 war, the kibbutz-generals happily exported the same model of industrial-scale theft of Palestinian land to the occupied territories.
But their security obsessions were ultimately rooted in Israel, where they fear having to account for the crimes of 1948 from which they profited. Their abiding nightmare is a right of return to Israel of the lands’ original owners – Palestinian refugees today numbering in the millions.
The religious camp’s priorities are different. The lands they defend most passionately are not in Israel but in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. That is where many live and where the holy places that sanctify their territorial greed are located.
 
Peaceful solution withers
The spread of this zealotry into the army has deeply discomfited its more liberal elements. In recent years, small numbers of whistleblowers have emerged, from military intelligence unit 8200 through to a group called Breaking the Silence.
The recent video of an execution of a badly wounded Palestinian by army medic Elor Azaria – and the outpouring of public support in Israel for him – has only intensified these tensions. This month the army’s deputy head, Yair Golan, compared Israel to Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Lieberman, meanwhile, is Azaria’s most vocal supporter.
The goal of the religious nationalists is undisguised: to remove the last restraints on the occupation, and build a glorious, divinely ordained Greater Israel over an obliterated Palestinian society.
That means no hope of a peaceful resolution of Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians – unless it is preceded by a tumultuous civil war between Israel’s secular and its religious Jews.
A version of this article first appeared in the National, Abu Dhabi.  Countercurrents.org. Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His website is www.jonathan-cook.net

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