With all the dramatic flair of a silent movie star, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili sent his security detail home the other day, later saying he needs no bodyguard other than his Dutch-born wife, Sandra Roelofs. He then sat down in his tiny blue electric car and drove himself and the First Lady to the Tbilisi airport for an official trip to Baku.
But after coming back from Azerbaijan, the president found a convoy of security vehicles waiting for him at the airport, as if they were never dismissed. The big black SUVs, dispatched by the government, followed home the little presidential Nissan Leaf, which resolutely ignored them.
President Saakashvili and Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili have fought over speeches, arrests, constitutional changes and more. So, it should come as no surprise that they are now fighting over whether or not the president will have bodyguards.
Since last year's parliamentary elections, most components of the presidential security service -- like most of Georgia's government agencies -- have been taken over by the prime minister’s office. In turn, the president claims that the prime minister's people have been bringing pressure to bear on his personal bodyguards, so that he was compelled to relinquish the reported 350-person team altogether.
Once-flourishing Uzbek-German trade is nosediving. German businessmen are coming forward with horror stories about doing business in Uzbekistan, a country where powerful, voracious families often seize profitable businesses or simply fail to pay for services rendered. But Berlin – eyeing a retreat from Afghanistan through Uzbekistan – is in no position to protest.
"The German private sector, statistics show, is losing faith in Uzbekistan," Germany's international broadcaster Deutsche Welle (DW) reported on February 28. “German companies have filed complaints of stolen shares, missing payments and frozen profits.”
Bilateral trade fell 30 percent between 2010 and 2011, from 759 million euros to 518 million euros, the broadcaster said. Germany's Economics Ministry predicts a further 20 percent decrease in 2012.
More than twenty German construction companies, for example, built the Palace of Forums in the capital, Tashkent, in 2009. They are still owed some 60 million euros. "In total, experts estimate that up to 500 million euros are being withheld from German companies by Uzbek partners," DW concluded.
The Swiss-registered Zeromax conglomerate, widely believed to have been linked to the president's daughter Gulnara Karimova, was behind the Palace of Forums and other major construction projects. The company went bust in 2010, leaving behind huge debts. It’s unclear if Karimova suffered, or divested just in time.
Central Asian states do not face an “imminent” threat posed by Islamic militants, but they need US assistance to help defend against potential dangers, according to top US diplomats. Such assistance, it appears, may include drone aircraft delivered to Uzbekistan, which democratization watchdogs rank as one of the most repressive states in the world.
Azerbaijan’s efforts to host the European Olympic Games and other high-profile international events show that Azerbaijani leaders yearn to be taken seriously in European Union capitals. But that doesn’t mean Baku is willing to listen to Brussels.
Raffi Hovhannisian -- the California native who finished second to incumbent President Serzh Sargsyan in Armenia’s February 18 presidential election -- has promised to fight “a battle of love” to have the official voting results scrapped, and “the rule of the people” restored. But how many people, and for how long, are willing to support Hovhannisian’s post-election campaign remains unclear.
Kazakhstan and Russia recently announced an agreement to create a joint air defense network, during a visit of Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu to Astana. From RIA Novosti:
Russia and Kazakhstan signed a deal on Wednesday to create a joint regional air defense system, Kazakhstan's Defense Ministry said on Wednesday.
“This document will create a platform to secure the defense of Kazakhstan’s airspace and Russia’s adjacent territory,” the Defense Ministry said in a statement....
Russia has previously had such an air defense agreement only with Belarus, but has planned to sign a similar one with Armenia, although the two countries do not share a border.
If that sounds familiar, the two sides announced the same thing two years ago. From RIA Novosti in December, 2010:
Russia and Kazakhstan have agreed to create a joint regional air defense network, chief of Kazakh air defenses Lt. Gen. Alexander Sorokin said on Wednesday.
"We have agreed to create a joint regional air defense network, which is similar to that of Russia and Belarus," Sorokin said, adding that the Kazakh Air Force would be responsible for defending Russian airspace along the border with Kazakhstan.
Except that, two years ago, the story continued:
"The creation of this network envisions free-of-charge deliveries of Russian S-300 air defense systems to Kazakhstan," the general said.
Since then, however, nothing more has been heard of the S-300s. I surveyed a few Russian military experts and none had heard of the systems being delivered, "which," as one said, "makes me think they were not delivered." So what happened? Given the opacity of both sides' militaries, we shouldn't hold our breaths about finding out much.
Chief Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili faces the press at the Iran P5+1 Iran talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan on February 27.
Kazakhstan seems to be the winner after the first round of renewed talks concerning Iran's nuclear ambitions.
There were fresh signs of life in the deadlocked process on February 27 as Iran and the P5+1 group – the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the United States, China, Russia, Britain and France) plus Germany – agreed to meet again in Almaty, Kazakhstan's commercial hub.
Talks on technical issues will be held in Istanbul March 17-18 and the P5+1 will reconvene in Almaty on April 5 and 6, delegates announced at a closing press conference.
Negotiations broke down last June over seemingly irreconcilable differences: Iran demanded an immediate end to sanctions, without preconditions. Before any sanctions relief, the P5+1 wanted an immediate end to medium-level enrichment and the closure of the Fordow underground enrichment facility.
At the Almaty talks, delegates were tight-lipped about details of new proposals the P5+1 put on the table. Chief Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, avoided specifics at his closing press conference. He said that the P5+1 had moved closer to Iran's position on some issues but reiterated that there was still a long way to go before reaching any consensus.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who chairs the P5+1, refused to go into detail on any new proposals relating to sanction-easing, saying only that “We are looking now for the Iranians to have the opportunity to study” the new proposals before April.
While not giving much away about proceedings, the negotiators were effusive in their praise for their Kazakh hosts. Ashton thanked Kazakhstan for creating a comfortable environment for the talks. An official Iranian statement praised Kazakhstan for its “warm hospitality.”
China may have been able to carve out quickly a large economic role for itself in Central Asia, but it will take a lot more than money for Beijing to solve some of its geopolitical dilemmas in the region, according to a report released today by the Brussels-based think tank International Crisis Group.
The Russian military has carried out its most extensive surprise inspections of units' readiness in 20 years, and the base of the 201st Motorized Rifle Division in Tajikistan was singled out as one of the poorest performers. From a report in Vedemosti (via RIA Novosti):
The first surprise inspection in 20 years took place on February 17-20 and included the Central and Southern Military Districts, the Airborne Force and the Military-Transport Aviation Command. Airborne and Army officers were deemed sluggish in transmitting combat-alert signals. Many young officers and soldiers apparently don’t drive well, and can’t shoot much better. Several malfunctioning airplanes and helicopters remained grounded.
In the exercise, units were given a surprise order to carry out tasks like deploying themselves to another base. In the case of the 201st in Tajikistan, they apparently didn't even get the message.
A duty officer at the 201st military base (located in Tajikistan, on the outskirts of Dushanbe) missed the alarm signal, which led to the delayed departure of personnel. Commander of the base, Colonel Sergey Ryumshin explained the incident by the fact that the lines of communication, which the Russian soldiers use, belong to the local authorities, and they use outdated equipment which frequently is out of service.
Anyone who's dealt with Central Asian communications technology can certainly sympathize. But is the only way for Moscow to communicate with its base in Tajikistan through local lines? Perhaps Russia will use part of its $200 million aid package to Tajikistan for some new phone equipment.