As an air of economic despondency descends over Central Asia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have decided to eat their way out crisis.
A government meeting in Turkmenistan on August 28 examined areas in which the country might be able to pursue an import substitution policy, which would mean banning imported goods in favor of locally produced equivalents.
Deputy prime minister Palvan Taganov said the bulk of imported goods was accounted for by technical industrial goods, but the state news agency report on the Cabinet discussion gave no details about what those mostly comprise.
Instead, more talk was seemingly devoted to the purportedly more promising area of food imports.
Import substitution was initially touted as Turkmenistan’s ticket out of economic doldrums in a government meeting in April, when President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov instructed officials to develop a program on the policy. He also used that meeting to complain of excess spending and the bloated state of the government.
But figures produced by Taganov indicate that if the import substitution agenda is to be applied mainly to food, its benefit will be virtually negligible, if not detrimental in the long term. The policy favors local producers in the immediate term, but typically ends up yielding poor returns to the consumer.
As Taganov explained in his presentation, food accounts for 6.1 percent of imports. The state news agency cited state on four goods and the proportion that the consumption of locally produced goods takes up in the domestic market: fruit juices - 96.9 percent; non-alcoholic drinks - 91.8 percent; tinned foods goods - 87.2 percent; and sausage goods - 61.8 percent.
Authorities in Tajikistan have followed through in their mounting campaign against their strongest political opponent by banning the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan.
The statement on August 28 from the Justice Ministry was curt and categorical.
"The Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan is no longer a republican party,” the statement said, according to a report carried by state news agency Khovar.
IRPT now has 10 days to wind down operations.
Authorities argue that legislation regulating the operations of political parties mandate that there be representative offices of a party in most cities and district. The Justivce Ministry said IRPT has suspected its activities in 58 cities and districts, meaning it falls short of requirements.
“So it is that IRPT cannot present itself as an all-republican party and hold its congress,” the statement said.
The writing has for months been on the wall for IRPT, the only Islamic party in Central Asia.
On the evening of August 24, officials swooped in on the party headquarters in Dushanbe on the evening of August 24 and ordered the premises to be sealed. That has forced the party to relocate their base to the home of its leader, Muhiddin Kabiri, who is living in self-imposed exiled in Istanbul.
A branch of the party in the northern Sughd province was closed in July after what the government said were thousands of appeals to the Justice Ministry.
A series of videos posted online featured party members suddenly announcing their intent to resign their membership. IRPT representatives say the members were acting under pressure from regional officials.
IRPT deputy leader Saidumar Khusaini said at a press conference on August 27 that the party would not be deterred from continuing operations, however.
IRPT deputy leader Saidumar Khusaini speaks at a press conference in the capital of Tajikistan, Dushanbe, on August 27, 2015.
Authorities in Tajikistan stand accused of resorting to all means possible to prevent the only vaguely credible opposition force, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, from holding a general conference.
Officials swooped in on IRPT’s headquarters in Dushanbe on the evening of August 24 and ordered the premises to be sealed, leaving the party homeless. That has forced the party to relocate their base to the home of its leader, Muhiddin Kabiri, who is living in self-imposed exiled in Istanbul.
The official explanation for the closure of the offices was the the building is embroiled in an alleged long-term ownership disagreement. Authorities maintain that the premises are registered to a company called Tijorat, which it says acquired the real estate illegally.
The offices were closed so hastily that large amounts of personal property belonging to members, including a car, could not be retrieved.
“We hope that the office really is sealed and that nobody dares to go inside. But there is a fear that they will something there that didn’t actually belong to us,” said IRPT deputy leader Saidumar Khusaini.
Pressure against IRPT has been mounting and systematic. A branch of the party in the northern Sughd province was closed in July after what the government said were thousands of appeals to the Justice Ministry. A series of videos posted online featured party members suddenly announcing their intent to resign their membership. IRPT representatives say the members were acting under pressure from regional officials.
Efforts by the party to explain its plight at a press conference at the Sheraton Hotel in Dushanbe on August 27 ran into problems before the event could even begin. Twenty minute before the briefing began, management from the U.S.-owned hotel announced they had to cancel because of a power failure.
Invariably, NATO is seen as either the cause or cure of all security ills in the South Caucasus. So, it was only predictable that Russia described as provocative the August 27 opening of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization training center in Georgia. And Tbilisi, in response, emphasized it as an expansion of “the frontier of freedom.”
For his part, NATO Secretary General Jen Stoltenberg, on his first trip to Georgia, appeared to try to play things in the center.
“There is more Georgia in NATO and more NATO in Georgia,” he added, in case anyone hadn’t noticed.
Georgia, NATO’s only eager ally in the South Caucasus, has heard this line before, albeit in the future tense. In December 2014, NATO promised that “there will be a lot more Georgia in NATO and lot of NATO in Georgia.”
The catchphrase refers to the so-called Substantial Package, a military-reform collaboration program that NATO adopted at its summit in Wales last September. The program also includes sending “embedded” NATO trainers to Georgia and holding joint exercises.
As far as Moscow is concerned, though, there is too much NATO in Georgia.
“Those, who in such a situation continue to actively drag Tbilisi into NATO, must be aware of their responsibility, especially given the regrettable experience in the region in 2008,” observed Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova, Interfax reported.
On August 25, a court in Khatlon province ruled that Oigul Pardaeva and Safargul Hodjaeva conspired to murder and burn the remains of Norgul Azimova, their shared mother-in-law, in circumstances that remain a mystery.
Pardaeva was sentenced to 22 years in jail for the killing, which was committed in December. Hodjaeva got 21 years.
Azimova’s sons, residents of the village of Takhti Sangin, had phoned the police with a missing person report in January. Her charred remains were later found in a river by investigators.
News of the sentencing and the gory death, relayed by Tajikistan’s Asia Plus news agency and other independent outlets, throws up more questions than answers.
For one, what role if any did the sons play? Asia Plus’ report provides few clues, but mentions that Pardaeva’s husband, Dilovar Azimov, was sentenced to two years of correctional labor for bigamy as part of the same case.
Hodjaeva was presumably not Azimov’s second wife as the report refers to their husbands in the plural. But the report does not explain the connection, if there is one, between his bigamy and their murder.
Most importantly, the motive for this ghastly crime is unclear.
The typical kelin, or live-in daughter-in-law is expected to be the epitome of servitude in most rural Central Asian families. Her mother-in-law on the other hand, is a character of unrelenting wickedness, as evidenced by her portrayal in many Central Asian films.
Ever starting and stopping, the trial of investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova on a range of criminal charges has again come to a halt — this time, until August 31.
At a short, August 26 session, Ismayilova’s lawyer, Fariz Namazli, alleging a disregard of previous defense documents, motioned for the court to reexamine the evidence against his client. The court had rejected materials that demonstrated that all the accusations against Khadija Ismayil are absurd,” he said, using the Azeri version of Ismayilova’s last name.
Ismayilova, facing a possible nine years in prison, requested a week to prepare her own final statement. Following a brief break, the judge announced the trial would resume on Monday, August 31.
"They are doing what [Azerbaijani President] Ilham [Aliyev] told them to do,” drily commented Ismayilova’s mother, Elmira, after the session, reported a live feed from RFE/RL, for whom Ismayilova worked as a freelance reporter.
Once again, journalists from non-government-associated news organizations and civil society representatives were denied access to the court proceedings.
Ever a strategic crossroads, ardently pro-Western Georgia on August 25 became the site where the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, billed as the Chinese counterweight to the World Bank, chose its first president.
China's former deputy finance minister, Jin Liqun, got the pick at the August 24-25 meeting in Tbilisi, but it’s the longer term implications of the bank’s role that could prove more intriguing.
Initially meant as an Asia-only lending club, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) has fast expanded to attract members across Europe and is set to help China build international clout.
The US has tried to discourage allies like the United Kingdom and South Korea from embracing the bank, a financial institution that Washington reportedly fears will lower international banking standards, but did not react publicly when Georgia, its strongest ally in the strategic South Caucasus, also decided to help midwife the AIIB into existence.
Granted, Georgia, which holds a mere .05 percent share in the bank, does not have the banking or economic muscle of the UK or South Korea, but its geo-strategic location means that those with influence here tend to keep a wary eye out for potential rivals.
A car race in Turkmenistan is hardly worth the while unless the president is competing. And winning, naturally.
The government’s Golden Age website reported that Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov turned up early in the morning on August 22 to take part in the Alfa Romeo 2015 Cup.
A little counterintuitively, the auto-rally track started from the bottom of the Path of Health, a steep, concrete stairway set into the mountains south of Ashgabat that Berdymukhamedov’s predecessor instituted to get Turkmens walking their way to a long life.
Golden Age’s blow-by-blow account of the race brimmed with excitement. Berdymukhamedov took his place in car No. 7, alongside with six other identical green Alfa Romeos.
“The route of the race, which is 57 kilometers long, was designed with a rather complex configuration, which allows competitors to show off their best qualities and to confirm their top class driving skills,” the report explained.
There was some competition, but the outcome was of course a given: “The cars fly, engines roar, the distance between them gets shorter and lengthens again on the bend, but then the Alfa Romeo No. 7 breaks away from its nearest pursuers and rushes forward, to victory!”
Berdymukhamedov clocked a finishing time of 26 minutes and 10 seconds, which equals an average speed of 130 kilometers per hour (81 miles per hour).
Not hugely impressive, some might argue, since that is equivalent to the highway speed limit in France, but perhaps only a closer study of the track would allow a fairer assessment. Foreign sports journalists have been welcomed to Turkmenistan, but then constrained from doing any actual reporting, so any such independent evaluation is unlikely to come soon.
This is not Berdymukhamedov’s first brush with motoring glory.
Troops from Central Asia, Armenia, and Belarus are conducting military exercises with Russia near the borders of Estonia and Latvia.
The exercises are being held under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Russia-led political-military bloc. It's the CSTO's annual exercise, but this year's location -- in the Pskov region, about 40 kilometers from the Estonian border, and only a little farther to Latvia -- is an intriguing one considering the ongoing tension between Russia and the Eastern European NATO members.
During the drills, the CSTO's rapid reaction forces "will conduct a joint operation to localize an armed conflict with the aim of restoring territorial integrity and defending constitutional order in a simulated CSTO member state, working out tasks for destroying irregular armed formations," the organization said in a statement.
The CSTO also seemed to try to play down the potentially provocative scenario. "The exercise plan is based on a simulated military-political situation, which is not connected to reality but was developed only for working out training issues related to deploying operational contingents of the rapid reaction force to the Eastern European region of collective security," the statement continued.
"We're conducting exercises in the Eastern European region. One of the main goals of the exercises is to get our forces, within literally hours, to arrive in any given region of collective security," added Valeriy Semerikov, the CSTO's deputy secretary general, speaking to reporters.
The highly controversial trial of Azerbaijani investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova adjourned for five days on August 21 after the prosecution demanded a nine-year jail term for the internationally acclaimed freelance reporter on various criminal charges. Media-freedom advocates around the world view the trial as an attempt by Azerbaijan's government to silence yet another prominent critical voice.
Known for her exposés of corruption and nepotism in the tightly run, hydrocarbon-rich Caucasus country, Ismayilova, 39, was initially arrested last year on suspicion of inciting an individual at RFE/RL's now shuttered Baku office to attempt suicide. The alleged victim retracted his accusations, but Ismayilova, RFE/RL's former bureau chief, was kept in pretrial detention with new charges of alleged embezzlement and tax evasion popping up.
RFE/RL's Azerbaijani service reported Ismayilova's mother, Elmira, as saying that her daughter laughed when she learned of the proposed prison term.
With access to the court tightly restricted, details of the proceedings are few. Ismayilova, though, asserted in court that the prosecution had presented inadequate proof for their allegations, and that the judge, supposedly eager to go on vacation, was rushing the case without regard for Ismayilova's rights.
International human rights watchdogs see a bitter irony in that Ismayilova, who reported extensively about abuse of power in Azerbaijan, particularly within the family and administration of President Ilham Aliyev, is now charged with abuse of power herself.