Kazakhstan soldiers goose-stepping in a 2015 military parade. (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev has ordered a change in the way his country's soldiers march in a symbolic separation from Russia and the country's Soviet legacy.
In an order issued on Wednesday, Nazarbayev decreed that from now one, Kazakhstan's soldiers will march at a tempo of 95-105 steps per minute, with each step measuring from 60-70 centimeters. Furthermore, "the forward leg should be raised 10-15 centimeters from the ground and placed firmly on the entire sole, the toe held more freely, not extended."
This may seem to be a pretty arcane issue, but there are political implications. Russia and most post-Soviet militaries use the so-called "goose step," which uses a tempo of 120 steps per minute, at a maximum of 80 centimeters, and a straight leg.
Ever since Russia’s Defense Ministry announced it is to convert its military presence in Tajikistan from a division into a brigade, watchers of the region have been scratching their heads trying to work out the significance of the development.
Authorities in Tajikistan appear no more certain than anybody else what to make of it.
Russian news agency TASS on January 30 cited the commander of the Central Military District, Colonel General Vladimir Zarudnitsky, as saying that the reformatting of the base would make Russian forces more mobile, while reducing the volume of enlisted personnel.
“All the same, the role [of the base] as a Russian outpost in Central Asia and guarantor for peace and stability in the region will remain unchanged,” Zarudnitsky was quoted as saying.
A drastic reorganization of Russian forces in Tajikistan has been in progress since late last year, when news emerged that troops were redeploying away from a base near the southern city of Kulyab. The explanation for the move offered at the time was that it was part of plans to enhance combat readiness.
The motivations for the conversion to brigade status appear even more nebulous, and even Tajik Foreign Minister Sirojiddin Aslov confessed to being in the dark.
“Questions about changes to the organizational and staff structure of the 201st Russian military base in Tajikistan, as far as increasing or decreasing its size goes, have not been discussed at the official level,” Aslov told Deutsche Welle.
It seems remarkable that Russia’s armed forces are adopting strategic military decisions without bothering to consult their hosts, but the episode is characteristic of Moscow’s high-handed attitude toward Dushanbe in its dealings over the base.
Dwindling remittances from Russia to Tajikistan are being squeezed yet again by government measures preventing migrant laborers from wiring Russian rubles.
New rules that came into effect on February 2 obliged people in Tajikistan receiving transfers made in rubles to collect the funds exclusively in the domestic currency, the somoni.
That appears on first analysis to have been motivated by a desperate urgency at the national bank to build up its foreign cash reserves and keep the somoni on an even keel.
At least two major wire companies popular with migrant laborers in Russia have in turn reacted by stopping the transfer of rubles to Tajikistan, and accepting only other currencies, such as dollar or euros. An employee at one of the wire companies, Zolotaya Korona, said the ruble ban had come into effect on February 4.
In effect, this arrangement will require Tajik workers in Russia to first convert their increasingly devalued ruble salaries into a foreign currency, thereby incurring a commission, and then sending that cash home, also against payment. Although people collecting the cash in Tajikistan can still draw the funds in whatever currency they were wired (as long as it is not rubles), there are concerns the government could soon extend the restrictions to dollars and euros.
The fall in the value of the ruble against the dollar has been slower than that of the somoni since the start of the year, so the value of the remittances is being pinched. The ruble has lost 5 percent against the dollar over that period, while the somoni has fallen by around 13 percent.
The picture is grim as it is.
Remittances for the January-September period in 2015 dropped about 65 percent to $1.054 billion, compared to $3.016 billion over the same period the previous year.
A purported U.S. schoolboy has got himself into the Kyrgyz media by appealing to Prime Minister Temir Sariyev’s greatest weakness: a spot of free PR.
According to a letter reportedly posted on Facebook by Bakyt Asanov, the press officer for the government, 14-year-old Tim Li of Minneola High School in New York State wrote to Sariyev calling him “one of my inspirations.”
Li added that “during my free time I read about you and learn how to be successful.”
Li dutifully recited Sariyev’s biography, offered New Year pleasantries and asked for a signed photo of the Prime Minister, according to a piece published on news website zanoza.kg February 4.
It apparently didn’t occur to Sariyev or his press team to question why a schoolboy living thousands of miles away would find an obscure Central Asian politician inspirational.
That might be because Sariyev, strongly rumored to be preparing for a presidential run in 2017, doesn’t consider himself obscure, and according to his harshest critics, would lick himself if he was made of chocolate. (Or even chuchuk)
But Sariyev will feel slightly less special now it is common knowledge that President Jammeh of the Gambia, a country as far off the radar of the average American schoolboy as Kyrgyzstan, also received a letter from Li.
The letter, reported by pro-government media read:
Azerbaijan is being forced to cut its defense budget, once the pride of the nation, as a result of the collapse in oil prices.
Other oil-dependent states in the region like Kazakhstan and Russia also will likely have to make across-the-board budget cuts because of the drop in oil prices. But the situation appears most dire in Azerbaijan, not least because it is locked in a conflict with Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh.
Azerbaijan's government has consistently bragged about its defense budget, which, starting in 2011, it claimed exceeded Armenia's entire state budget. Azerbaijan's Foreign Ministry spokesman Hikmat Hajiyev told the American newspaper Defense News in a story published this week that that "defense spending had enabled the Azerbaijani armed forces to be supplied with requisite advanced weaponry needed to re-take 'its Armenian-held territories.'"
“It is our priority and we will continue to increase military spending," said Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev in 2014. "Over the past 10 years, our military spending has increased more than 20-fold, and our spending allocated to the armed forces is approximately twice as large as Armenia’s overall state budget."
Georgia has moved ahead with plans to make religious irreverence punishable by law, prompting freedom-of-expression concerns in this observant Orthodox Christian society. The so-called blasphemy bill, now approved at committee-level and headed for the parliamentary floor, bodes ill for groups at odds with the mainstream, critics claim.
In a country where cars, apartments and offices sport cross-emblazoned stickers as a sign of a priest’s blessing, the concern is not idle. According to a 2015 poll conducted by WIN/Gallup International, Georgia ranks among the world’s most religious nations. Many Georgians are hypersensitive to any criticism of the Church, seen as the historical defender of Georgia’s national identity. In 2013, Patriarch Ilia II ranked as the country's most trusted public figure.
Against that backdrop, individuals ranging from writers and artists to minority religions and the LGBT community have encountered a fight at one time or another with those who believe veneration for the Church should take precedence over civil rights.
Some observers charge that the draft law will make the Church all but impervious to critical scrutiny.
With the crisis biting hard in Kazakhstan, the nation’s most famous cyclist, Alexandre Vinokourov, has bucked the austerity trend by unveiling his latest two-wheeler — a glitzy gold-painted racing bike.
Vinokourov’s bling bike, unveiled ahead of this week’s 2016 Dubai Tour, features a gilded frame and is equipped with top-of-the range fittings. It’s emblazoned with his Vino logo and the Olympic emblem, in honor of his gold-medal winning performance in the London Games in 2012, Cycling News reported
Vinokourov, who retired from competitive racing in 2012 after winning his Olympic gold, now manages Pro Team Astana, which competes on the world tour. The team is part of Kazakhstan's flagship sports project, Astana Presidential Sports Club, which oversees various sports and is bankrolled by Samruk-Kazyna, Kazakhstan's sovereign wealth fund.
The appearance of the bling bike comes at a time when Kazakhstan is facing swingeing, across-the-board cuts as the tenge topples alongside the oil price.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev has urged the nation to tighten its collective belt and eschew foie gras and luxury cars while the crisis rages on. He recently visited a bazaar in the capital, Astana, where he was shocked to see lemons selling for 150 tenge ($0.40). “We can survive without lemons,” he reassured the public.
The US Treasury Department has added five Russian officials to its “Magnitsky List,” which is designed to punish rights abusers in Russia.
The list is an outgrowth of the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Act, adopted by the United States in 2012. The law itself traces its roots to the 2009 murder of a whistle-blowing Russian lawyer and accountant, Sergei Magnitsky, who was beaten and died in a Moscow prison after spending almost a year behind bars.
The five additions, which were publically announced in Washington on February 1, raise the total number of Russian officials on the list to 39. Those designated under the Magnitsky Act are barred from traveling to the Unites States, and are prohibited from utilizing the US financial system.
“Four of the five [officials] are directly implicated in the persecution and death of Sergei Magnitsky,” a US State Department official said in a February 1 teleconference. “The fifth was implicated in the mistreatment – torture, really – of a Chechen human rights activist.”
The most noteworthy addition to the Magnitsky List is Aleksey Anichin, a former deputy interior minister who originally authorized the case against Magnitsky. Three others joining Anichin on the list are Pavel Lapshov, whose investigative unit claimed that Magnitsky’s employer was responsible for the corruption conspiracy Magnitsky himself unearthed; Boris Kibis, an investigator who claimed Magnitsky had never been tortured; and Oleg Urzhumtsev, who was involved in Magnitsky’s posthumous prosecution.
Ministry of Culture of Georgia/ Gela Bedianashvili
This past weekend’s reopening of Tbilisi’s neo-Moorish opera house after a six-year intermission ranks as Georgia’s cultural event of the year, but it also has provided a stage for a dispute over whether the country is reviving the elitism of the Soviet past.
Grand opera events may be a preserve for the rich and powerful elsewhere in the world, but in Georgia, where fascination with the opera long has cut across class lines, many were expecting a national celebration open to anyone who bought a ticket. It was not to be.
Though a state-run facility, the theater’s January 30 red-carpet opening was invitation-only.
Decked out in their finest threads — most notably, fur coats — the carefully selected invitees featured “le tout Tbilisi" -- senior government officials, Georgian Orthodox Church dignitaries and business leaders.
How the invitation list was compiled was not clear, but the identity of the main sponsor of the estimated $40-million restoration certainly was — Kartu Group, a business and charitable concern founded by Bidzina Ivanishvili, onetime prime minister and longtime billionaire, seen as the country’s shadow leader.
Critics charge that that connection turned the season-opener performance of Georgian composer Zakaria Paliashvili’s “Abesalom and Eteri” into a partisan event that put the claustrophobically close-knit world of Georgian politics and far-reaching influence of Ivanishvili on display.
The Kartu Group even purchased made-to-order crystals from Austria’s Swarovski to restore the 120-year-old theater building’s prized, 600-bulb chandelier.
The billionaire in question, however, did not attend the opening. Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili, though, earlier had thanked Ivanishvili on national TV for underwriting the return of Georgian opera. As well he might.
The people of Uzbekistan are apparently satisfied corruption is on the wane, while the president of Turkmenistan is indignant it is still rampant.
The “good news” first.
Podrobno.uz website reported on February 1 that a survey in Uzbekistan carried out by polling company Izhtimoy Fikr (Public Opinion) has found that experiences of corruption declined markedly from 2013 to 2014.
Izhtimoy Fikr is notorious for its almost comically unrealistic surveys, so the vat of salt should probably be taken with only a pinch of seriousness and perhaps only to understand the extent to which the government intends to embark on a serious fight against corruption.
Perceptions of corruption in the health care sector dropped from 37.7 percent to 25.5 percent, in education it went from 37.8 percent to 24.2 percent, and in the justice system from 24.3 percent to 14.6 percent, according to the poll.
The question “Is there corruption in Uzbekistan” yielded a 34 percent positive response in the latest query, compared to 36 percent in 2012 and 53 percent in 2011.
As many 74.5 percent of respondents believe the fight against corruption is being waged effectively. Leaving the best for last, Podrobno.uz reveals that Izhtimoiy Fikr’s survey found that 80 percent claimed that they have never been exposed to extortion or bribery.
Strong anecdotal evidence suggests the real number may well literally be zero.
Transparency International’s recently issued Corruption Perceptions Index 2015 shows Uzbekistan in 153rd place out of 165 countries listed, coming in just behind Zimbabwe.