The Barakholka market in Almaty has been hit by four fires in the last three months, kindling suspicion that one of Central Asia’s largest bazaars is falling victim to turf wars.
A sprawling market in Kazakhstan’s commercial capital, Almaty, has caught fire for the fourth time in just three months. The blazes are kindling suspicion that the lucrative trade at one of Central Asia’s largest bazaars is falling victim to turf wars.
The fire at Barakholka – where an estimated 180,000 people work in 74 adjacent markets – started early on December 12, Tengri News quoted the Emergencies Ministry as saying.
This blaze follows a fire in September and two in November. They were preceded by another fire at a nearby market, Ushkonyr-7, in August. No one has died in the conflagrations, though several people have been injured.
A delegation from Uzbekistan visited Washington this week as the two countries try to figure out how the impending withdrawal from Afghanistan is going to affect their relationship. The content of the discussions, part of the annual high-level talks that the U.S. has with every Central Asian country, were kept very quiet, but no doubt focused heavily on security issues.
"No new deals, agreements, just heart-to-heart discussions between U.S. and Uzbekistan -- I hear Russia's pressure on Central Asia was a big topic," said Washington-based Voice of America Uzbek service reporter Navbahor Imamova on twitter (edited slightly to detwitterize).
The talks included Uzbekistan Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, as well as officials from the Pentagon, White House, and Congress. The State Department statement on the talks, naturally, didn't mention Russia. "The participants discussed all aspects of the U.S.-Uzbekistan relationship, including political developments, regional stability and security, human rights and labor, education and cultural exchanges, and economic development and trade. The United States looks forward to broadening and deepening its relationship with Uzbekistan on the basis of these candid and constructive conversations."
The customs-free wonderland that Russia is busy building around itself to counterbalance the European Union will come with still more unrecognized or half-recognized lands. On December 10, the Russian Duma approved a 2012 agreement to drop customs duties between Russia and the twin breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
“Ratification of the agreements will become an important step toward intensifying trade turnover between Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and Russia and members of the Customs Union,” pledged Eurasian Integration Parliamentary Committee Chairman Leonid Slutskiy, ITAR-TASS reported.
The two tiny enclaves -- in Moscow’s view, perfectly sovereign lands -- are tied to Russia’s apron both by their economies and their claims to independent statehood. Now, they can export customs-free to Russia anything but sugar, tobacco and alcohol. Russia also cancelled export duties on set volumes of petroleum exported to Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Of course, there is more in this for the territories than for Russia, which periodically injects aid into both breakaway territories. The Kremlin is pouring so much money into Abkhazia and South Ossetia that it will not even notice a revenue-drop from the removal of duties on imports from and petroleum exports into the regions, said Slutskiy.
In 2014-2015, Moscow plans to invest over 3 billion rubles (about $92 million) in Abkhazia alone, according to the region's de-facto official news agency, Apsnypress.
A Gazprom filling station in northern Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan's parliament has approved the sale of the nation's debt-ridden gas monopoly to the Russian state-run energy giant for $1.
Kyrgyzstan’s parliament voted to pass a controversial deal to sell the national gas company to Russian giant Gazprom for the knockdown price of $1 on December 11, local media reported.
Under the deal Gazprom snaps up the company and its property and gains rent-free use of land any facilities stand on. In exchange it takes on Kyrgyzgaz’s estimated $38 million debt and pledges some $600 million to improve Kyrgyzstan’s crumbling gas grid. That could in the long-term help streamline energy supplies and ease the dire power shortages the country experiences every winter.
Some parliamentarians had opposed the deal, agreed in July, seeing it as tantamount to handing a strategic national asset over to former colonial master Russia for a song, but Kyrgyzgaz CEO Turgunbek Kulmurzayev said there was “no other choice” than to sell to Gazprom, since the company is effectively “bankrupt.”
Kyrgyzstan is in any case doomed to gas dependence: It meets just 2 percent of its gas needs from domestic output and relies on imports from neighbors Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, leverage that Tashkent sometimes uses to bully Bishkek by cutting off supplies.
Earlier this week, two 30-something performance artists from Turkey and Armenia did what their countries have failed to do for decades -- put the violent past behind them and shake on it. For 43 hours straight.
But other Turkish-Armenian handshakes could prove more difficult. Tomorrow, another, more prominent one will occur, yet most likely will rank among the shortest ever.
Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu is coming to Yerevan on December 12 as part of an Organization for Black-Sea Economic Cooperation summit, and is expected to try to breath new life into the two countries' 2009 reconciliation plan. The bid failed amidst rancor over Ottoman Turkey's mass-slayings of ethnic Armenians and Ankara’s support for Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia.
A new report focusing on Azerbaijan’s energy sector is exposing flaws in an initiative designed to promote transparency in extractive industries.
The report, distributed December 10 by the watchdog group Global Witness, is titled Azerbaijan Anonymous. It shows that while Azerbaijan technically adheres to transparency standards established by the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) lots of money may still be disappearing into a black hole of corruption.
“Privately owned companies are making millions handling oil that belongs to the Azerbaijani people, yet the identity of their owners is hidden, and it is not clear why they are involved,” the report states.
“The lack of transparency highlights gaps in the EITI, as it shows that countries can comply with its rules, while large deals are being struck with very little transparency,” the report continued. “It is important for Europe that Azerbaijan keeps the oil and gas flowing and maintains transparent and well-run energy industry. Yet this briefing shows that much of the oil business in Azerbaijan remains opaque.”
An entire chapter of Azerbaijan Anonymous is devoted to the dealings of a mysterious entrepreneur, Anar Aliyev. Global Witness investigators determined that Aliyev has made at least 48 deals over the past eight years with the state oil company Socar, covering “all facets of the supply chain of the oil industry.” Even though there is a lengthy record, little is known about Aliyev’s background. “Despite Anar Aliyev’s apparent significance in Azerbaijani oil, publically available information on him is thin,” the Global Witness report stated.
With a population just more than five million people, Turkmenistan is an oil and natural-gas rich Central Asian country wedged against the Caspian Sea between Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Iran. On the surface, the country appears wealthy with Turkmenistanis provided free gas, water, and electricity. The subsidized price of oil is around $0.20 per liter.
Former President Saparmurat Niyazov, who branded himself the father of all Turkmen, described the 21st century as the Golden Age (Altyn Asyr) for Turkmen people. After its independence from the Soviet Union, the country’s capital Ashgabat was considered a showcase of the amazing progress and richness of Turkmenistan.
Yet behind this apparent abundance another face shows very different conditions for a bulk of the Turkmen population, who live in poverty and poor conditions. This other side of the country – almost 190,000 square miles with 80 percent covered by the Karakum Desert – lives submerged in emptiness, a feeling that fills the landscape of rural Turkmenistan.
Ricard Altés Molina is a freelance photojournalist based in Barcelona.
Just as Tajikistan’s annual winter energy crisis begins, the country’s second-largest hydropower dam may be forced to shut operations due to what the Russian-controlled company that owns the dam calls unfair treatment by authorities.
Tajikistan’s state electricity-distributing monopoly, Barqi Tojik, has been refusing to pay the company, Sangtuda-1, for its power. This seems to have left Sangtuda-1 short on cash to pay its taxes, so the state tax committee has frozen the company’s accounts in Tajikistan, the company says.
Russia's assessment of the prospects for a smooth transition in Afghanistan are dim -- and getting worse, the country's ambassador to Tajikistan said. Russian ambassadors from the Central Asian states and Afghanistan met in Tashkent and Igor Lyakin-Frolov, Moscow's envoy to Dushanbe, took the occasion to give an interview to Russian newspaper Kommersant.
Lyakin-Frolov's view was grim: "If a few months ago the prevailing view was that the situation in Afghanistan was more or less normal and a direct threat to Tajikistan wasn't seen, now the prognosis is becoming more and more pessimistic," he said.
The "threat" from Afghanistan has been the driver (or, perhaps, the pretext) for Russia's recent push to build up its security presence in Central Asia. It's been boosting the presence and capability of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, including building up a joint CSTO air force and using the CSTO to provide technical assistance to Tajikistan's border forces. And Lyakin-Frolov's comments are some of Russia's most explicitly pessimistic.
His "most favorable" scenario of how things may turn out is not actually very favorable: "The most favorable scenario supposes that the current government will barely hold on in Kabul and in the majority of provincial centers with the support of the U.S. and NATO contingents. There are also less favorable scenarios which suppose that a full-scale civil war can start, which would threaten the integrity of the Afghan government and likewise, the security of the countries of Central Asia... and, correspondingly, the security of Russia. So we need to prepare."
Armenia has made its choice between the two EUs -- the European Union and the Eurasian Union-- but will it bring its de-facto addendum, the breakaway territory of Nagorno Karabakh along with it into the Russia-plus trade space? Some analysts believe that Karabakh will indirectly end up enjoying the benefits of the Kremlin’s economic promised land.
Bent on taking the territory back, Azerbaijan poses a stumbling block for the predominantly ethnic Armenian territory to reach out to the outside world; meaning that Armenia is essentially the only friend and trade partner Karabakh has.
In turn, since Russia is the main economic partner for semi-boycotted Armenia, Karabakh by default is expected to gain access to the economic zone coalesced around Moscow, some Armenians believe.
“Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh form one economic space,” Alexander Iskanderian, director of the Yerevan-based Caucasus Institute, told Russia’s Gazeta.ru. “Armenian money works in Stepanakert, the banking system and laws are closely integrated."
Officially, of course, it will not be a union of Russia, Belarus Kazakhstan, Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh. Not even Armenia has recognized Karabakh as an independent state.
Nor, with all members of the union, Russia included, wary of angering Azerbaijan, the formation of the Eurasian Union is not going to change the diplomatic status quo for Karabakh.
But, as often happens in the Caucasus, it's what happens apart from what's written that counts. Some observers expect that Karabakh's produce, be it mulberry brandy or construction materials, could be sold customs-free within the union as products of Armenia.