The U.S. intelligence community believes that the greatest threat facing Central Asia is internal, rather than emanating from Afghanistan, in contrast to recent statements by State Department, members of Congress and Pentagon officials who have lately been emphasizing Afghanistan-based Islamist threats to the region.
In an annual ritual, the U.S. director of national intelligence delivers the Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community to the Senate, and the current director, James Clapper, did so Tuesday morning. Obviously such a report can make the world sound like a very dangerous place (Micah Zenko, of the Council on Foreign Relations, calls it the "World Cup of threat inflation"). But the section of the report dealing with The Bug Pit's beat is remarkably sober. While last year's report emphasized the threat to Central Asia from Afghanistan, this year's makes no such mention, instead focusing on the region's internal dynamics:
Russia is rankling President Ilham Aliyev’s administration in Azerbaijan by backing a new lobbying group that is stacked with Diaspora power-brokers. Officials and analysts in Baku believe the Kremlin is trying to find a way to meddle in Azerbaijan’s internal affairs.
Venezuela is among six countries which have recognized the independence of one or both territories from Georgia. And in the Caucasus, the deed of "a good friend" is not easily forgotten.
At a March 8 funeral rally in the South Ossetian capital Tskinvali, officials and public figures took turns to remember the Chavez they knew, the Chavez they loved, and queued to sign a memorial book to be sent to Caracas.
The mourners said they were forever thankful to the Bolivarian revolutionary for standing up to the West and recognizing South Ossetia’s still largely unrecognized independence from Georgia. “Since then, the people and the president of Venezuela have become close friends to us,” elaborated the territory's de-facto president, Leonid Tibilov.
For a musical memorial, South Ossetia’s singing talent Alla Byazrova, of course, performed her serenade to the late Venezuelan leader. “Hugo Chavez, Hugo Chavez, my best friend, my faraway friend!” she sang to a catchy, syncopated beat.
Turkmenistan has begun an epic project to turn itself from one of the driest nations on earth into a land of sweeping forests.
The Karakum Desert covers 80 percent of the country’s territory and temperatures often reach 50 degrees Celsius in the summer, lending a decidedly quixotic flavor to the enterprise.
State television showed President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov leading the way March 9 in a mass tree-planting exercise designed to create green belts around cities and villages. "In the current era of power and happiness, Turkmenistan will become a land of lush gardens and fields, green oases, fabulous parks and dense forests, heralding growth and renewal," Neutral Turkmenistan newspaper reported on March 11.
In the first step of his desert-greening plan, Berdymukhamedov signed a decree on February 22 ordering the planting of 3 million deciduous, coniferous, fruit tree and grapevine seedlings.
The “grand greening action” involving 465,000 people – more than one-tenth of the country’s population – went ahead as planned despite the cold weather and a recent snowfall. "Nearly 755,000 seedlings of coniferous trees and other species were planted,” the state-run newspaper reported on March 11. “Steps were also taken to care for the more than 1.6 million saplings planted earlier.”
Footage on state television showed the usual voluble festivities, taking place against the backdrop of the snow-fringed Kopet Dag Mountains on the southern limits of the capital, Ashgabat.
In an awkward contrivance, the official narrative seeks to depict the president as both exceptional and ordinary, so Berdymukhamedov was shown arriving at the wheel of a white foreign-made car, wearing jeans and a casual sports jacket. Girls in national dress greeted him with bunches of flowers.
Forget gas and coal and cotton. Labor migrants are Uzbekistan's number-one export. And new data show their earnings jumped in 2012.
Russia’s Central Bank says migrant labor remittances sent from Russia to Uzbekistan totaled $5.7 billion in 2012, up 32.6 percent over 2011, when the figure was $4.3 billion. With Uzbekistan's 2012 GDP worth $35 billion (that's the official sum figure converted on the black market), remittances from Russia alone account for the equivalent of 16.3 percent of the economy (if you’re using Tashkent’s official exchange rate, they’re equivalent to 12 percent of GDP).
The Russian Central Bank figures only include official transfers (wired to Uzbekistan via Western Union-type money transfer systems), not cash carried home by migrants. And the figures are only for Russia. So, overall, remittances probably play an even greater role in the Uzbek economy.
Gas and other energy exports earned Tashkent $5.03 billion in 2012, according to government statistics. (Cotton earned $1.25 billion.)
The lumbering and stubborn Bactrian camel might not be an obvious contender in a polo match, but a Mongolian initiative to save the two-humped beasts is taking a traditional sport of the steppes and giving it a new twist.
The question of whether, or how, to give military aid to Uzbekistan is probably the hottest question among Central Asia policymakers in Washington these days. The U.S. has agreed to leave some equipment behind for its partners in Central Asia after its forces withdraw from Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan has made clear that it has high expectations for the sort of equipment that it will get. But some in Washington are concerned that giving military equipment to Uzbekistan would only abet the misrule of President Islam Karimov, who heads one of the most repressive governments on the planet. This question will undoubtedly be at the top of the agenda this week when a large delegation from Uzbekistan, headed by Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Komilov, visits Washington.
Publicly, the U.S. says it can provide military aid to Uzbekistan while still respecting human rights. At a recent congressional hearing, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Robert Blake said that "the approach we have taken with Central Asia helps proactively strengthen the region’s capacity to combat terrorism and counter extremism, while encouraging democratic reform and respect for human rights.” But Blake didn't provide specifics. And It's easy to say you can give military aid while respecting human rights, but the devil is in the details. Meanwhile, behind closed doors there are discussions about expanding donations or sales of U.S. military equipment to Uzbekistan.
Seeing as its International Women's Day today, Hurriyet Daily News economics columnist Emre Deliveli uses the occasion to remind readers that the labor force participation (LFP) rate for women in Turkey is a woeful 29.5 percent (the average among countries that are part of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, which Turkey is a member of, is 61 percent).
Improving the visibility and participation of women in the workplace has certainly been one of the areas where the current Turkish government has failed to take any strong action. The most recent World Economic Forum Gender Gap Index, for example, finds Turkey ranked 124 out of 135 countries. Beyond the low LFP rate for women, Turkey also has extremely low numbers of women in senior and managerial positions in government and academia.
Still, despite the discouraging numbers, things may be changing. From a recent article by Guven Sak, executive director of the Ankara-based Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey:
A top Iranian official has made waves in the Caucasus by claiming that Iran secretly helped Azerbaijan during the latter's war with Armenia over Nagorno Karabakh in the 1990s. The official, Mohsen Rezaee, is in a position to know: he was the commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guards at the time. He told Sahar TV (translation by Oye Times):
“I personally issued an order … for the Republic of Azerbaijan army to be equipped appropriately and for it to receive the necessary training,” he said. “Many Iranians died in the Karabakh War. In addition to the wounded, who were transported to [Iran], many of the Iranian martyrs of the Karabakh War are buried in Baku.”
“Karabakh is a part of Islamic lands and the Republic of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity must be guaranteed through peaceful means.”
Georgia’s commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s operations in Afghanistan is helping a new generation of female soldiers break with age-old stereotypes about the role of women in this macho society.