Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Kazakhstan: What is Behind the Peace Corps Pullout?

The U.S Peace Corps program announced on November 18 that it had “suspended its volunteer activities in Kazakhstan based on a number of operational considerations.” After 18 years in the country, the agency is pulling out 117 volunteers, pointing out that “Kazakhstan is one of the most developed countries in the world to host a Peace Corps program.” More than 1,120 Peace Corps volunteers have served in Kazakhstan since 1993, working with communities in projects focused on teaching English, education, youth development and HIV prevention.

Jon Larsen, spokesman for the U.S. embassy in Kazakhstan, confirmed the Peace Corps would be leaving the country but said he was unable to comment on the reasons for the withdrawal. Officials in Astana, as well as Peace Corps representatives, refused to recognize any tensions surrounding the volunteers’ presence in Kazakhstan, and instead are promoting the pullout announcement as the natural outgrowth of the country’s prosperity. Kazakh education ministry, though, later insisted that Peace Corps was leaving because the country had developed too rapidly to need its programs.

However, local observers in seeking an explanation for the unexpected development are looking at other potential factors, including sexual assaults, the threat of terrorism, and an uncomfortable operating environment, in which allegations of espionage have been aired in the mass media. Peace Corp volunteers also suggest that if the pullout was based on the country’s development level, then a phased exit would have been planned rather than an abrupt curtailment.

It seems that this serious decision was made largely because of growing safety issues, including terrorism and what has apparently become the highest sexual assault/rape level among PC countries worldwide. Kazakhstan has also this year for the first time faced a series of attacks by radical Islamists who accuse the government of harassing Muslims. Most of the violence had been focused in the west of the country but Saturday’s attack in the city of Taraz was only 350 miles from Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city.

Another opinion, expressed by one of the PC volunteer putted it more bluntly way: “KNB [Kazakhstan’s intelligence service] agents are sitting in classrooms. Upper-level ministers all but booting volunteers from numerous regions in the country. Questions of espionage and revolutionary tactics.”

The agency has also been smeared in the media. A report last month in a local newspaper, the Aktobe Times, questioned whether “the all-perceiving eyes and sensitive ears of foreign intelligence officers have not been sent onto our territory” under the guise of Peace Corps volunteers.

In a scenario that revived memories of classic Cold War espionage, in 2008 Peace Corps volunteer Anthony Sharp was arrested in possession of explosives at a mine in northern Kazakhstan. In a leaked 2009 diplomatic cable, then US Ambassador Richard Hoagland said the case “appeared to be a classic Soviet-style set-up, likely orchestrated by the pro-Russian old-guard at the Committee for National Security (KNB) and aimed at discrediting the Peace Corps and damaging bilateral relations.” Anthony Sharp was convicted but freed and sent home in 2009. However, after the same scenario, the Peace Corp left Russia in 2003 after being accused by Russian officials of espionage, a charge firmly denied by US officials.

However, it is not clear if the Peace Corp withdrawal from Kazakhstan should be interpreted as the result of a recent signed declaration on Eurasian economic integration targeted at the creation of the Common Economic Space of the three neighboring countries: Russia, Byelorussia and Kazakhstan.

Taking into account the geo-strategic position of country, and the long history of U.S - Kazakh cooperation on a broad range of nuclear security and nonproliferation topics, it will be interesting to monitor the U.S policies towards this Central Asian country. The recently announced bilateral plans to enhance interaction between the nations in guaranteeing international security and restoration of the Afghan economy may also be worth noting.

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