With nerves on the Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan border only now dissipating, authorities in Bishkek have embarked on the potentially foolhardy move of helping themselves to four Uzbek-owned resorts at a popular tourist destination.
Local media has been full of the news about embattled Prime Minister Temir Sariyev signing a government order to appropriate the resorts on Issyk-Kul lake on April 4.
The timing is awkward, although it could stand to help Sariyev out of a tight spot.
On March 26, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan pulled back troops from a disputed section of shared border, ending an uneasy week-long standoff sparked by the sudden deployment of Uzbek soldiers and military vehicles to the area.
On balance, it feels like Uzbekistan lost the battle of wits and nerves. It withdrew its forces first from the high-altitude territory without ever properly explaining what prompted it to mobilize its men in the first place.
Still, the episode did momentarily blow some wind into the beleaguered opposition’s sails, so Sariyev may be looking to shore up his position and exploit the patriotic card to forestall an expected vote of no-confidence in parliament.
By all appearances, this looks like an ill-conceived gambit. According to a report by Tazabek.kg, only one of the four resorts seems to be long-term leased to a commercial organization, while the other three were controlled by state-owned Uzbek entities.
The agreements underpinning the ownership of the resorts date back to the Soviet era, when power-brokers in Moscow decided to boost Issyk-Kul’s profile as a place of rest and therapeutic treatments.
Azerbaijan has intermittently displayed interest in investing in Kyrgyzstan, but the latest set of revelations courtesy of the Panama Papers documents leak suggests that even the presidential family in Baku wanted a piece of the action.
In 2012, an obscure company called Redgold Estates Azerbaijan Ltd. became one of several international bidders hoping to snap up some out of a set of around a dozen gold concessions at an auction in Kyrgyzstan.
In the evening, the televised auction was called off when a group of demonstrators charged into a broadcast studio demanding a halt to proceedings.
As is the norm with offshore companies, tracing the line from a public company to the ultimate beneficiaries is a confusing business. Following the thread linking Redgold Estates Azerbaijan Ltd. to the family of Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev is tricky and requires some circumstantial sleuthing.
All the claims are based on documents leaked from Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca, which has forged a reputation for providing offshore company services to all-comers.
According to an account published on April 4 by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), Redgold Estates Azerbaijan Ltd. was incorporated 20 months before the Kyrgyzstan auction, in which it submitted five bids.
The leaked Mossack Fonseca files show that another company with the same name, Redgold Estates Ltd., was created six weeks before that in the Seychelles, one of many offshore jurisdiction favored for its privacy laws. Other than the name, the two company also shared the same Baku address.
Disturbing reports of atrocities, and official claims and counterclaims continue to stream from the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict zone as fighting enters its third day. With no international media or conflict-monitoring mission apparently yet on the ground in the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region, it is next to impossible to glean frontline facts from the ongoing information war.
That lack of objective information could become even more critical in the coming days. Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, a Karabakh native, pledged on April 4 that escalation of the fighting, the worst since the signing of a 1994 ceasefire, would prompt Yerevan to recognize Nagorno Karabakh as an independent state.
An Armenian investigative news service, Hetq.am, on April 4 published photos of two elderly residents they claim were killed and maimed by Azerbaijani troops when they overran the village of Talish in northeastern Karabakh on April 2. (Warning: graphic image) The Armenian government and the Karabakhi separatist forces it supports claimed they swiftly recaptured the village and nearby heights. Hetq.am said that their photographer, Hakob Poghosian, had then gained access to the village.
Among the huge spectrum of international figures brought low by the Panama Papers document leak is the grandson of Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
In a highly detailed account published on April 4, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project reveals that Nurali Aliyev’s offshore interests included two companies registered in the British Virgin Islands. The 31-year even had a 23-meter-long pleasure yacht registered in the BVI, although alas for the presidential grandson, he never did get to sail the seas on the ill-fated vessel.
As OCCRP remarked with relish, the revelations are particularly egregious considering how Nazarbayev has, like his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, pontificated in the past against the practice of salting away riches in offshore jurisdictions.
“You shouldn’t hide your money somewhere over the hill. Keep it here. Just look, all these offshore being opened up over the hill, they are going to shame everybody,” Nazarbayev prophesied, accurately as it turned out, in 2013. “If you make money, keep it in Kazakhstan. Live here, build a future for your children here
OCCRP’s account begins in September 2014, when BVI-registered company Alba International Holdings, whose only business was listed as “[holding] a bank account in Cyprus,” was recorded as getting a new owner, another BVI company called Invigorate Group Ltd. Although little is known about either company other than that, data in the files obtained by the OCCRP offer up one useful little nugget.
Screenshot of Turkmenistan state television showing what appears to be a Chinese HQ-9 air defense system during military exercises.
Turkmenistan showed off its newly acquired Chinese air defense systems during military exercises, confirming for the first time that the country has gotten some significant weaponry from Beijing.
Last year, sketchy media reports suggested that Turkmenistan (and Uzbekistan) had acquired Chinese HQ-9 air defense systems, potentially marking the entrance of China into the Central Asia military market hitherto dominated by Russia.
Now Turkmnenistan has aired footage of what appears to be an HQ-9 in action during its large-scale, ongoing military exercises. The HQ-9 was spotted by the Russian military blog BPMD amid the state TV coverage, visible at about 4:10 in the video below (which is also worth watching for its footage of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov at the controls of a number of military vehicles, including a helicopter).
"The Russian government may not be entirely happy, but probably cannot do anything about it," Russian military expert Vasiliy Kashin told The Bug Pit after last year's reports of China's HQ-9 exports to Central Asia. "Central Asian countries started to diversify their military-technical cooperation long ago, and China is one of natural choices."
A screenshot of a video released by the de facto "defense ministry" of Nagorno Karabakh purporting to show the wreckage of an Azerbaijani helicopter shot down by Armenian forces. (source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NqatFUgMFxM)
Azerbaijan's military claims to have "liberated" some territory in Nagorno Karabakh after the heaviest fighting in years broke out between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces over the disputed territory.
Fighting that broke out overnight April 2 has already resulted in an unprecedented death toll, with Azerbaijan confirming 12 of its soldiers killed and Armenia 18 of its soldiers, as of Saturday night local time. That makes this by far the deadliest outbreak of fighting since the two sides signed a ceasefire in 1994 (the previous worst episode was in 2014 when ten soldiers were killed over a three-day period).
Beyond that, there were claims and counterclaims from the opposing sides of many more enemy soldiers killed and various equipment destroyed. The fog of war, dense in any conflict, is particularly impenetrable in Karabakh, where there are no independent sources of information.
The most dramatic claim was the Azerbaijan Ministry of Defense's announcement that it had "liberated" some territory previously held by Armenian forces, naming the areas of Aghdere, Tartar, Aghdam, Khojavend, and Fuzuli.
"In a short period of time, as a result of a rapid counterattack by the Azerbaijani armed forces the front line of the enemy, built up for years, was penetrated in several sections, and several strategic heights and populated areas with strategic significance were cleansed of the enemy," the MoD said.
This week’s breakup of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition has turned Georgia’s political scene into a Star Wars bar, with a slew of political forces of every description set to compete in the parliamentary election this fall.
It’s been a surprise that this unlikely alliance of ideologically strange bedfellows made it this far. Billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili’s successful plan to build an opposition army to bring down ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili’s team in 2012 united groups and individuals with wildly incongruous philosophies and IQs. Western integration activists joined hands with Russia-nostalgic traditionalists, liberal erudites like philologist Levan Berdzenishvili sat next to actor Soso Jachvliani, who can’t tell the difference between a development bank's acronym and a Russian vulgarity for sex.
Occasional public bickering, grumblings over distribution of executive government seats and a persistent failure to speak in one voice on national issues long betrayed deep-seeded divisions in this coalition.
The Free Democrats were the first to split away in 2014 after Ivanishvili felt he could not keep in line their ambitious leader, ex-Defense Minister Irakli Alasania. Now, the biggest news is the Republican Party, pro-Western moderates, announcing on March 31 that it will run in the fall election independently from the Georgian Dream coalition.
Uzbekistan has made another advance in the country’s slow march toward a nominally stronger parliament with the creation of a body to monitor prosecutors.
The Senate, the upper house of parliament, voted during a two-day plenary session that wrapped up on April 1 to approve formation of an oversight commission comprising 15 senators drawn from all the regions.
The creation of the commission is in line with 2014 amendments to the constitution that ostensibly bolster the legislature’s status in its relations with the government and executive bodies.
Other than the General Prosecutor’s Office, other institutions that must now report before parliament include the the Prime Minister’s office, the central bank and the national auditing chamber.
President Islam Karimov spoke about the need for tightening prosecutorial oversight during a December 4 speech to mark to Constitution Day. On that occasion, Karimov also spoke about the need to adopt a law creating the framework for parliamentary inquiries. That legislation was accordingly adopted on March 31.
Explaining the urgency for the bill, Karimov cited the flood of complaints coming in from Uzbekistan’s population.
“Over nine months in 2015, 426 citizen complaints were made about employees in the General Prosecutor’s office. As a result of these complaints, 45 employees faced disciplinary measures, 22 were dismissed from their position, while 33 were dismissed from the prosecutor’s office altogether,” Karimov said.
Even though parliament may gain in stature on paper, the distinction remains a formality since the legislature’s democratic credentials are weak.
Kazakhstan’s high-profile world champion boxer, Gennady Golovkin, has been made an ambassador for Astana’s EXPO-2017 in a move to improve the image of the graft-plagued project.
Golovkin, boxing’s undisputed middleweight champion, was anointed as an official ambassador for the international exhibition, which will be held in Astana in 2017, by President Nursultan Nazarbayev during his visit to Washington on March 31.
Golovkin, known as GGG and rated one of the world’s best pound-for-pound boxers, is one of Kazakhstan’s best-known sports exports. He was on the party list for the ruling Nur Otan party in March’s election along with many other celebrities, but did not make the final cutinto parliament. His presence will boost the global image of EXPO-2017, which has been rocked by a huge corruption scandal.
A high-profile trial began in Astana on March 18 with Talgat Yermegiyayev, former chairman of the Astana EXPO-2017 company organizing the exhibition, accused along with 22 others of stealing in excess of 10 billion tenge (US$29 million at the current exchange rates) from the construction funds.
EXPO-2017 has also been landed with budget cuts — with Kazakhstan in the throes of economic crisis, some one-tenth of the originally expected total expenditure of $3 billion has been shaved off the budget.
In August, a new team headed by former Almaty Mayor Akhmetzhan Yesimov was parachuted in to knock the project back into shape. But his leadership has come in for criticism from insiders linked to the project.
Two political activists in Kazakhstan learnt to their cost this year that posts on Facebook can spell trouble. And they aren’t the only ones.
News website Pavlodar-Online reported on March 30 that the former head of a chemicals plant is suing a local journalist, Alexander Baranov, for 10 million tenge ($29,000) in libel damages for posts made on the social media platform.
Yerlan Kusanov, the ex-director of Pavlodar-based Neftehim Ltd, said in his complaint that Baranov used his Facebook page to alleged that the executive had left his job following an accident at his company. According to Kusanov’s retelling of the post, Baranov claimed three laborers were killed and that another two received serious burns while working at Neftehim. Baranov is also accused by Kusanov of implying the chemicals company was involved in illegal activity.
Kusanov says he is now unable to find work because of the damage to his reputation caused by Baranov’s posts.
In an initial court hearing, Baranov’s lawyer moved to have screen grabs of the offending posts dismissed as evidence, arguing that there were discrepancies between those and the original version.
Another court hearing is scheduled for April.
Kazakhstan has drawn criticism in the past for what media rights advocates have described as the excessively punitive libel damages sometimes leveled at journalists.
Proponents of stiff libel damages argue, however, that the legislation is intended to protect individuals from potentially harmful defamatory material. It is widely believed that some journalists in Kazakhstan accept illicit payments for writing what amount to hit-jobs against business rivals.