Kazakhstan's flagship Astana cycling team claimed victory in this year's Tour de France as the team’s Italian leader Vincenzo Nibali lead the turquoise and yellow charge into Paris on July 27.
Nibali bested his nearest rival by over seven minutes to record a third Tour de France success for the Astana team. He won his kisses, too: Earlier, after Nibali had won the second stage of the race, he was awkwardly rebuffed. This time there were no uncomfortable scenes on the winner's rostrum.
The Astana Pro Team for this year's Tour included three Italians, two riders from Kazakhstan and one rider each from Denmark, Ukraine, The Netherlands and Estonia. Spaniard Alberto Contador previously led Astana to wins in 2009 and again in 2010. But the 2010 victory was soured as Contador was stripped of the title over doping allegations.
Following the retirement of Kazakhstan's most famous rider Alexander Vinokourov in 2012, the Astana team was overhauled for the 2013 season with the arrival of an Italian contingent headed by Nibali and two of his teammates from the Liquigas-Cannondale team. Astana scored an immediate success with Nibali, nicknamed “the Shark,” winning the 2013 Giro d'Italia.
The Astana Pro Team was formed in 2006 and has garnered heaps of international PR for Kazakhstan's glitzy new capital, Astana. Its main sponsor is the state asset holding company Samruk-Kazyna, which pumps in more than $20 million a year to keep the wheels turning and buff up Kazakhstan’s international image.
Georgian soldiers take part in American training in Germany to prepare them for deployment to Afghanistan, 2012. (photo: Spc. Robert Sheets, U.S. Army Europe)
The United States is preparing a military aid package of about $35 million to help Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine defend themselves against Russia.
The money would be part of a much larger, $1 billion European Reassurance Initiative that the White House announced about two months ago. Part of the plan, as announced originally, would be to: "Build the partner capacity of close friends such as Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine so they can better work alongside the United States and NATO, as well as provide for their own defense."
At a recent Congressional hearing on the Initiative and other Pentagon funding programs, U.S. officials gave a little more detail about how that $1 billion would be apportioned. And they revealed that the largest amount of money would go to bolstering the presence of U.S. troops in Eastern Europe. From the testimony (pdf) of Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work:
Approximately $440 million will go to increase the U.S. military presence in Europe by:
• Enabling rotation of elements of an Army armored brigade combat team into Europe;
• Providing additional funds for expanded naval deployments in the Black and Baltic Seas;
• Augmenting NATO’s Air Policing mission; and
• Either temporarily delaying withdrawal of Air Force F-15C aircraft from Europe or increasing aircraft rotations to Europe.
And most of the rest would go to NATO allies in Eastern Europe:
Armenia’s planned participation in this second Union has experienced repeated delays; according to some observers, because of the lack of consensus among the bloc’s members (Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia) about Yerevan’s political and economic requests.
The official line is that this merger still will happen. Nonetheless, Armenia clearly doesn’t want to miss out on all the easier access to Paris, Rome and beyond that three more EU-enthusiastic members of the Eastern Partnership Program are having (Moldova) or soon could be having (Georgia, Ukraine) .
The EU’s thoughts about Nalbandian’s petition do not appear to have been released yet. To enhance Yerevan’s chances on this front, the foreign minister also spoke about the possibility for stronger ties with Brussels and stressed the EU’s role in Armenia’s democratization reforms.
Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses his security council, July 22. (photo: kremlin.ru)
When Russian President Vladimir Putin addressed his security council on July 22, one statement in particular piqued the interest of Russia's allies -- er, friends: "Russia is fortunately not a member of any alliance. This is also a guarantee of our sovereignty," Putin said. "Any nation that is part of an alliance gives up part of its sovereignty."
That line was greeted with confusion and curiosity by many in the member countries of the Collective Security Treaty Organization: Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. This is the political-military bloc that Russia created to, as the name implies, provide collective security in the post-Soviet space. But doesn't collective security require giving up some sovereignty? Several experts quoted in a piece on the Kazakhstani website kursiv.kz suggested that Putin's statement suggest that it sees its fellow-members of the CSTO (and, for that matter, the Eurasian Union) as unequal partners to whom Russia has no obligations.
"Moscow's interests, expressed in the efforts to define the borders to which it can expand its territory, striving to defend the 'Russian world,' by definition can not coincide with the interests of its CSTO partners," said Russian expert on Central Asia Arkady Dubnov. "So, acting exclusively in its own interests, Russia demonstrates that the CSTO isn't an alliance but a mesalliance -- that is, an unequal marriage."
A group of scientists and academics from Kazakhstan have set off in the footsteps of a renowned 19th-century Kazakhstani explorer to highlight the tourism potential of the ancient trade routes linking Central Asia and western China.
The expedition follows the path Shokan Valikhanov took in the 1850s in what was then a part of the world relatively unknown to Europeans. Led by Professor Ordenbek Mazbaev of Astana's L. N. Gulimyov Eurasian National University, the team includes scientists from Astana's Nazarbayev University, along with tourism officials and journalists from Kazakhstan, Tengri News reports.
The 12-day jaunt, which began July 24, aims to open up a route for travelers to explore some of the major sights of the Silk Road. It started in Urumchi, capital of China’s restive Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and is scheduled to arrive in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan on August 4. Along the way the expedition will pass through the fabled oasis towns of Kashgar, Khotan and Yarkand on the fringes of the Taklamakan Desert before entering Kyrgyzstan through the Torugart Pass.
Valikhanov is a legendary figure in the world of Central Asian anthropology. He was born in 1835 near Kostanay, in northern Kazakhstan, and at age 11 enrolled in the Omsk Cadet Corps. After graduating from the academy, the Russian military sent him to the recently established Fort Verny – now Almaty, Kazakhstan – from where he undertook his expeditions to the neighboring regions.
The modern Kazakh explorers will retrace Valikhanov's journeys of 1855-56 and 1858-59, when he travelled through what is now Kyrgyzstan and into China in a camel convoy.
Sign reading "Don't Say Everything You Know, But Know Everything You Say," at a submarine base in Balaclava, just outside Sevastopol. (photo: The Bug Pit)
The city government of Sevastopol has proposed that Russia make it a Soviet-style "closed" city, which foreigners and even Russians living even in other parts of the country would not be able to visit.
On July 22, members of the Sevastopol legislative assembly formally appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials asking them to impose "restrictions on the stay of people not permanently residing in and not registered in Sevastopol." The annexation of Crimea to Russia earlier this year was accompanied by a remarkable degree of Soviet nostalgia, but the return of closed cities takes that nostalgia to an unexpected extreme.
According to the website sevastopol.su (yes, ".su" as in "Soviet Union"): "The initiators of the appeal are motivated by the fact that Sevastopol is the main base of the Black Sea Fleet of Russia and a factor of stability in the entire region, and so requires a special regime of secrecy and ensuring its security. The deputies believe that the unstable circumstances in the world and the fundamentally aggressive attitude of the Western community towards Russia can attract a host of provocative acts in Crimea and Sevastopol."
The idea of linking Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan by rail appears to have wheels once more, following reports earlier this year that the project was running short of steam.
Back in January, Turkmenistan went cold on the estimated $2 billion link, slated to be part financed by the Asian Development Bank. Ashgabat faulted Afghanistan and Tajikistan for not keeping the Turkmen leadership in the loop with regard to the route the railroad would follow. As EurasiaNet.org reported:
On January 29, the head of state-owned Tajik Railways, Amonullo Khukumatullo, announced that Dushanbe and Kabul had themselves decided on the route for the Afghan section of the rail. The announcement apparently caught Ashgabat by surprise because on January 31, the Turkmen Foreign Ministry protested that Khukumatullo’s declaration was "tendentious and absolutely unacceptable" and "counterproductive."
As news trickled out of Taijkistan on July 22 that the government was releasing, albeit with some restrictions, international scholar Alexander Sodiqov after five weeks in jail, a group of scholars and activists gathered at New York University to discuss the long-term effects of his detention. The case, panelists cautioned, could signal on-going trouble for academic freedom for scholars focusing on Tajikistan.
Sodiqov, a political science doctoral student at the University of Toronto and a Tajik national, first traveled to his home country in June as part of a University of Exeter (UK) research project on conflict management strategies. He was detained in Khorog on June 16, before being brought to the intelligence agency headquarters in Dushanbe, where he remained until July 22, accused of espionage.
“Tajikistan was never a no-go area for academic research,” commented John Heathershaw, a lecturer at the University of Exeter who was working with Sodiqov at the time of his arrest. “Alex’s detention is unprecedented… and it sent a message that research is under threat in Tajikistan.”
Sodiqov and others have vehemently denied any connection to espionage, which Heathershaw called “simply untrue.” Disseminating his story and his denials, however, has proved a challenge in Tajikistan, where pro-government media dominate.
“The region thrives on conspiracy theories. Having knowledge – having data – is extremely threatening to these governments,” Alexander Cooley, a political science professor focusing on Central Asia at New York’s Barnard College, affirmed. “Alexander’s detention has had an effect: it’s going to deter research. It’s making this muddled environment even worse.”
Islamic militancy is high on the agenda in Central Asia. This week, authorities have handed lengthy prison terms at two unrelated trials in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
Six people were jailed for between nine and 15 years on terrorism charges at a mass trial involving 66 suspects in southwestern Uzbekistan. A court in central Kazakhstan jailed four citizens for between six and 12 years for recruiting militants to wage holy war in Syria.
At the mass trial in the city of Qashqadaryo in Uzbekistan, three men and three women were jailed on July 22 for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government of the strongman president, Islam Karimov, and propagating terrorism, RFE/RL reported, citing the Tashkent-based Ezgulik (Compassion) human rights center.
In Kazakhstan, the conviction of the four over the Syria recruitment campaign in and around the city of Zhezkazgan, reported by Tengri News on July 22, came as media reports emerged of a new propaganda video showing 16 people believed to be from Kazakhstan (since some are speaking Kazakh) who have headed off to fight in the Middle East.
Authorities in Central Asia have frequently cited Syria-linked threats this year amid a growing number of reports that militants from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are waging holy war in Syria.
Naval vessels participate in the 2011 BlackSeaFor exercises. (photo: Russian MoD)
A Black Sea-wide naval cooperation program in operation since 2001 is "frozen" due to the war in Ukraine, Russian media has reported. Given that the participants in the program, BlackSeaFor, include Russia, its post-Soviet foes Ukraine and Georgia, and NATO members Turkey, Bulgaria, and Romania, it's probably more noteworthy that the program hasn't been canceled altogether. But anyway, Russian military sources have told ITAR-TASS that they managed to thwart Ukraine's efforts to kick Russia out of the organization:
"The Kiev authorities' attempts to garner the BlackSeaFor member-countries' support for its anti-Russian initiative failed. No BlackSeaFor state has upheld this initiative," the source told ITAR-TASS on Friday.
“From May to June the Ukrainian authorities were sending their envoys to Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey and Georgia for holding talks with their military and political leaders. Ukraine’s staff in Sofia, Bucharest, Ankara and Tbilisi were running around government offices. However, the attempts were vain,” it said. “The BlackSeaFor countries’ position was to preserve status quo, i.e. the existing format with Russia’s participation.
Ukraine was informed about the BlackSeaFor member-states’ view to freeze the organisation’s activity until the situation in Ukraine normalises,” the source said.