Kazakhstan launched a rare exercise in consulting with the general public earlier this year to defuse spreading discontent, but the authorities are now bracing to pull the plug on the experiment and return to its more trusted heavy-handed measures.
This weekend, the government-initiated outreach commission on the land reforms rolled into the western city of Atyrau, which is notable for having mounted the largest protest rally against the proposed reforms in the spring.
While much of the discussion on July 23 was centered on the reforms themselves, there were also multiple impassioned demands for the release of jailed activists Max Bokayev and his friend, Talgat Ayan.
Organization of this session of the commission had not gone smoothly. One prominent member opposed to the reforms, Mukhtar Taizhan, had announced on his Facebook account that it was to be held on July 16, but the event was postponed. Commission chair and Agriculture Minister Askar Myrzakhmetov told Ak Zhaiyk newspaper that it was taking an unexpectedly long time to arrange the equipment to stream the event over the internet.
Once the date came around though, only 25 people in of 75-member body actually turned up, although the event was at least open to the public.
Amendments to the land law approved in November extended the period for which farming land could be rented to foreigners from 10 to 25 years. The law also set the terms for a series of land auctions that would have been open only to citizens of Kazakhstan. All the provisions have since been reversed amid widespread public opposition.
Georgian soldiers take part in U.S. Marine Corps training program in Georgia. (photo: U.S. Marine Corps)
The United States will devote more military aid towards arming and equipping the Georgian armed forces, direct more training towards building combat skills, and help Georgia build a local training center oriented towards helping it defend itself rather than only deploying to Afghanistan.
The broad contours of the policy shift were laid out in a new agreement between the two countries announced during a visit to Tbilisi by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry earlier this month. On Monday, a U.S. embassy official in Tbilisi provided more details to The Bug Pit.
“Much like in the U.S. Army, where we've focused on deployment requirements for several years, there's been a certain level of atrophy in the core warfighting capabilities, so much of our security assistance over the next few years will address those areas: territorial defense capabilities and readiness," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Georgia will field one of the most conservatively and warmly attired teams for the Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, and the design choice is causing furor in the appearances-conscious ex-Soviet country.
The July 23 unveiling of the Georgian athletes’ Rio Olympic looks mortified much of this South Caucasus nation. Many cringed to see their favorite athletes buttoned up to the top, carefully covered in coats, slacks and ankle-length gowns. “Did we have the Islamic State come up with the design? They are going to bikini country, not the tundra, for crying out loud,” users fumed on social media.
A high-level meeting reportedly set to take place later this year in Turkmenistan could put talk of building a natural gas pipeline across the Caspian Sea back on the agenda.
The Associated Press on July 23 cited Turkey’s ambassador to Turkmenistan, Mustafa Kapucu, as saying that the presidents of his country, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan will meet to discuss the issue. The talks pick up from the EU-brokered Ashgabat Declaration of May 2015, which was signed by the energy ministries of the three countries and set down objectives like creating a legal framework for gas sales by Turkmenistan to Europe and “[developing] constructive dialogue” on the required infrastructure.
The fact that heads of state are set to sit around the table presumably suggests all the governments involved envision a transition from preliminary paper-shuffling to some concrete breakthrough, although experience teaches that this may not be the case.
The resurgence of interest in trans-Caspian would come at a timely juncture for Turkmenistan, which is now reduced to selling almost all of its gas to China. A small if growing amount if being sent to neighboring Iran.
Diversification of export routes has long been an article of dogma for Turkmenistan, and yet it has exasperatingly seen only a reduction of its international markets in recent years. Its erstwhile main customer Russia bought 45 billion cubic meters of gas in 2008, but that has through a series of commercial and diplomatic vicissitudes dwindled to nothing.
Since gas is so important to Turkmenistan, many have surmised that the country’s economy is performing far worse than the government officially allows for.
Uzbekistan’s unfortunate pop stars have been landed in hot water once again. This time it is for what they are getting up to outside the motherland. Namely, giving concerts.
State run arts association Uzbeknavo has in recent times suspended a slew of pop artists for supposedly violating national mores. On July 20, it announced it had revoked performing licenses from another three artists.
Sitora Farmonova, Sarvara Azimova and Komila Fazylova earned the sanction for performing overseas in violation of the terms of their license, according to an Uzbeknavo statement cited by news website uz24.uz.
What is unclear is whether the pop artists are being banned from performing overseas outright or whether what is bothering the authorities is that the singers are plying their trade in a way that somehow embarrasses their home country.
And what is it that is so shaming for Uzbekistan?
Uzbeknavo license department chief Olizhon Abukhakharov claimed that punished singers had been unable to gather crowds of 200-250 people at their performances, which he said “greatly harms the reputation of Uzbek pop art.”
“As a result of repeated recurrence of such cases, it was decided to deprive them of their licenses,” Abukhakharov was cited as saying by uz24.uz.
And yet none of this likely applies to Sitora Farmonova, who recently won gold at the popular KVN comedy tournament in Russia’s Kaliningrad region as part of a team representing Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
The Tajikistan edition of Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda has been shuttered following publication of an article that officials say cast aspersions on the country.
The offending piece, written by Russian journalist Sergei Ponomaryov, was indeed an exercise in crude stereotypes and drew on characters popularized by sketch show “Nasha Russia.”
The opening paragraph sets the tone for the rest of the article: “On the plane from Moscow to the ancient city of Khujand, the capital of northern Tajikistan and the second city in the country, mine was the only Slavic countenance. The rest was straight-up Ravshan and Jamshuds.”
The premise of the sketches featuring those migrant laborer characters was to show Tajiks as primitive and dimwitted, although nonetheless sometimes besting their exasperated Russian taskmasters. The 2011 film made from the TV show was banned in Tajikistan.
Sharif Hamdampur, editor of the Tajikistan edition of the tabloid, was quick to agree about the offensiveness of the article.
“When I read the article I understood that it respected neither journalistic nor professional ethical standards. In the article there are statements that insult Tajiks and the country as a whole,” Hamdampur said on July 21.
The editor said he appealed in vain with the newspaper’s top management to have the article spiked.
“Within two days, I took the decision to halt the activities of this newspaper in Tajikistan,” he said.”This is because this newspaper, with which I cooperate, has offended my nation and my government. He [the journalist] even says: ‘I went to the country of Ravshan and Jamshud’ and not to Tajikistan.”
The Azerbaijani government was forced to deny Turkish press reports that Turkey was establishing a military base in the country.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev signed an agreement "confirming the protocols on the transfer of buildings and structures in the military cantonment Gyzyl Shryag and the terminal at the military airfield in Zainalabdin Tagiyev to the use of the armed forces of the Turkish republic," Azerbaijani media reported on Thursday.
From that legalese, some Turkish media oversimplified the news. "Turkey to establish military base in Azerbaijan," the state Anadolu Agency wrote in its headline. "Azerbaijan signs protocol allowing Turkey to establish military base," the state-run Daily Sabah wrote.
Azerbaijan's constitution, however, forbids the establishment of any foreign military base in the country, and government officials quickly clarified. "Press reports about the creation of a military base of any country do not have any basis and do not correspond to reality," Deputy Defense Minister Ramiz Tahirov told the AzerTaj news agency.
What exactly constitutes a "base" isn't always clear, but this is a largely bureaucratic move, explained Jasur Mammadov Sumerinli, director of the Caspian Defense Studies Institute, in an email interview with The Bug Pit. Around 60-70 Turkish soldiers are stationed in Azerbaijan, largely as trainers for various branches of the Azerbaijani security services, Sumerinli said.
As Turkey focused its coup-cleanup operations on its education system, its close ally Azerbaijan on July 20 announced the closure of Caucasus University, the country's first private university, founded by supporters of the influential Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, now charged by Ankara with plotting to overthrow Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
The decision brought back memories of 2014 when, as Turkey started to raise the alarm about Gülen, a former government pal, Azerbaijani authorities closed 13 education centers and 11 high schools associated with the cleric’s movement. They were transferred to the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijani Republic (SOCAR).
One Turkish company Çağ Öğrətim (Era Education), believed linked to Gülen, however, had shared control of Caucasus University with SOCAR and another firm.
No more. SOCAR Vice-President for Human Resources Khalig Mammadov posted on his Facebook page that control over Caucasus University has been given to the state-run Baku Higher Oil School .
“Students . . . will continue their education as before,” Mammadov wrote. “The teaching staff of the university will also continue their work.”
The education ministry told APA that after receiving the relevant documents, it will create a working group to allow Caucasus University students to continue their education elsewhere.
With no end in sight to Yerevan’s police-hostage crisis, the arrest of scores of people – political activists, protesters and, in some cases, non-protesters alike -- appears to be widening divisions within Armenia between the government and the governed.
Although police do not provide details, human rights organizations claim that over 200 people have been arrested from different parts of the Armenian capital since gunmen from a fringe extremist opposition group took over a police station on July 17.
On the night of July 20, that tally presumably increased after a violent clash between police and hundreds of protesters attempting to bring food to the gunmen. The health ministry reported that at least 51 people were injured, including 25 police officers. The ombudsman's office indicated that reporters were among the wounded.
Protesters built a barricade against police, but by dawn law enforcement had reportedly mopped up the resistance. The number of arrests has not yet been released, although opposition MP Nikol Pashinian stated that 15 members of his own party, Civil Contract, had been taken in, Panarmenian.net reported.
The clash, which police tried to put down by using tear gas and batons, topped off three days of building tensions over attempts to stifle any anti-government protests.
In the wake of the deadly Almaty shootings, authorities in Kazakhstan are drawing up measures to step up the fight against extremism and considering the creation of a fingerprint and DNA register.
“Penalties for crimes of an extremist or terrorist character will be intensified through an increase in the minimum and maximum prison sentences. Rules will be brought in on the confiscation of property as a mandatory form of punishment for extremism and terrorism,” National Security Committee chief Vladimir Zhumakanov said at a government meeting on July 19.
The measures proposed had been drawn up before the July 18 events in Almaty, which authorities have said were the single-handed work of 26-year old Ruslan Kulekbayev, but they are now being discussed with fresh urgency.
One plank of the suggested new measures includes tightening control over the circulation of firearms.
“It is planned that there will be a strengthening of control over the circulation of firearms, and administrative penalties for violating rules in that area will be made stricter,” Zhumakanov said.
Interior Minister Kalmukhanbet Kasymov proposed at the same meeting that citizenship be stripped from people that had left the country to join extremist organizations overseas.
Kasymov’s ministry is now developing legislation on fingerprinting and DNA registration that will be brought to parliament by the end of the year. No details are forthcoming yet, however, about who would be included in such registers, which have sparked concern about privacy rights and ethical-legal objections over citizens’ right to presumption of innocence elsewhere in the world.