As the country heads toward a highly contested parliamentary election, Georgia has become caught up in yet another sex-video scandal. Amidst a public outcry against the trend of using such footage to attack political opponents, Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili came out on March 14 to express solidarity with those threatened by the “dark force” behind the videos and to underline that “sex and a sex life are not shameful.”
“I had, have and will have a rich sex life,” the 46-year-old president underlined in televised comments at an official meeting.
The two recordings, which appeared online on March 11 and March 14, purportedly come from a massive cache of compromising videos, allegedly maintained by the police under a succession of governments. Apparently to prevent the further dissemination of videos, access to YouTube from within Georgia was blocked for a short time on Monday.
Although Georgia is generally regarded a conservative country, public anger is directed not at the two female politicians depicted in the two recordings, but rather at the authorities, politicians and media outlets that failed to protect the identities of the individuals shown.
Civil-rights advocacy groups have called on the authorities to bring to justice those who filmed, stored and leaked these recordings.
Top: A chart, by Security Assistance Monitor, measuring the level of dependency on U.S. military aid of various countries. Bottom: Georgian soldiers participate in U.S. military training in Germany in 2014 before being deployed to Afghanistan. (photo U.S. Army Spc. John Cress Jr)
By Pentagon budget standards, the countries of the former Soviet Union are relatively insignificant recipients of American military aid, dwarfed by the billions given annually to Israel, Egypt, and Pakistan. But a new study has shown that some of the security forces in the region are unusually dependent on American aid.
The survey, by the Washington advocacy organization Security Assistance Monitor, compared the amount of military and police aid the U.S. gave to every country in 2014 to the countries' respective defense budgets. And it found that among the ten countries where U.S. aid made up the largest proportion of the defense budget, three were former Soviet republics: Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.
Georgia was the fourth-most dependent country, with $158 million in U.S. security assistance compared to a defense budget of $387 million. Tajikistan was seventh, its budget of $104 million supplemented by $29 million in U.S. aid. (Tajikistan will surely climb up the list soon, as it's slated to get $50 million over the next two years in additional anti-terrorism funding from the Pentagon.)
Kyrgyzstan was sixth on the list, but this is somewhat misleading: in 2014, Kyrgyzstan got $90 million in U.S. aid, but nearly all of that ($81 million) was payment for the Manas air base, which the U.S. was forced to leave that year. The $81 million is an estimate based on the best information SAM was able to get (a SAM analyst told The Bug Pit that they are working to try to get more precise information from the Pentagon). It may have simply been an accounting quirk. In any case, the Manas rent money wasn't really military aid, but a cash payment to the Kyrgyzstan government, even if for U.S. bookkeeping purposes it's classified as military aid.
A draft bill in Uzbekistan is pursuing a markedly puritanical line with its rules to ban eroticism in commercials and online advertising for gambling.
The proposed legislation was posted online this week and the government has said it will invite public consultation until March 24.
While aggressively hounding anybody vaguely suspected of holding radical Islamic views, authorities in Uzbekistan have over many years also sought to stamp out perceived immorality and promote conservative values.
President Islam Karimov gave a stark illustration of that at a public event in February, when he robustly condemned same-sex relationships.
“If a man lives with a man, or a woman with a women, I think that something there isn’t quite right, or some change has happened,” Karimov was quoted as saying by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Uzbek service, Radio Ozodlik.
Some conservative drives are promoted under the pretext of protecting national cultural values.
In December, BBC News cited local media as reporting that professional musicians were being compelled to provide regular reports on their appearances on pain of being stripped of their licenses.
“The government has ordered the Uzbeknavo performing rights authority to tighten up licensing after accusing it, the national broadcaster, internet regulators, and the culture ministry of allowing performances ‘that can have a negative impact on the moral upbringing of the younger generation,’” the BBC reported.
A Russian warship, the Alexander Otrakovsky, passes through the Bosphorus on March 9 with heavy Turkish coast guard and police security. (photo: Yoruk Isik)
Russian warships passing through the Bosphorus are getting stronger protection from the Turkish coast guard and police, in an apparent response to heightened security concerns.
Last week two ships carrying cargo for the Russian military in Syria passed through the straits, which connect the Black Sea to the Mediterrannean, accompanied by three Turkish coast guard vessels, an Istanbul police department vessel, and a police helicopter. This week at least three more Russian warships have gotten the same protection.
This level of protection is unprecedented in recent years, said Can Devrim Yaylali, a Turkish naval expert and author of the blog Bosphorus Naval News. Normally the Russian ships are accompanied by a single Turkish coast guard vessel, Yaylali told The Bug Pit in an email interview.
Russian warships, by international treaty, are allowed to pass freely through the Bosphorus. That has been the source of some tension recently, as the two countries are at odds over the war in Syria and Turkey's shooting down of a Russian air force jet last year.
Nevertheless, the Turkish coast guard gives an escort to every foreign warship that passes through, Russian or otherwise. But what explains the new level of security? Yaylali suggests that the Turkish authorities probably got intelligence about a possible attack on a Russian ship. "Otherwise the Turks would not bother so much to protect Russian ships, especially in this political climate," he said.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the protection of the right to freedom of expression has concluded a tour in Tajikistan and found the situation there to be particularly dire.
Speaking at a press conference in Dushanbe on March 9, David Kaye spoke, among other things, about his concern for the jailed members of the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan.
Tajikistan is currently experiencing one of its most intense waves of state repression since the fall of the Soviet Union, a trend that reach its apex in September with the designation of the IRPT, the country’s only serious opposition force, as a terrorist group.
Kaye’s remarks echoed those of rights activists who worry that Tajikistan’s proximity to Afghanistan has provided it with the cover to freely persecute critics of the government.
“I recognize that there is a serious security problem in this part of the world, in particular in Tajikistan and in this neighborhood. But I’m afraid that the security situation has been used as a pretext, as an excuse, to crack down on freedom of expression, whether in the media or in civil society,” he said.
Kaye said that proper media coverage of events inside the country has suffered as a result.
“It is clear to me that legal protections in the constitution are being eroded and that independent journalists are facing serious forms of harassment that is leading to self-censorship and a lack of information throughout the country,” he said.
Campaigners have handed a petition to the World Bank urging it to suspend funding for agricultural projects in Uzbekistan until Tashkent roots out forced labor in the cotton harvest.
A petition addressed to World Bank President Jim Yong Kim and signed by 140,000 people was delivered to the institution’s Washington HQ on March 9, said the Cotton Campaign, a coalition of advocacy groups.
On the same day, one human rights group released a damning report documenting allegedly systematic use of forced labor during last year’s cotton harvest.
“To harvest cotton, officials once again forced more than a million people, including students, teachers, doctors, nurses, and employees of government agencies and private businesses to the cotton fields, against their will and under threat of penalty, especially losing their jobs,” the report by the Berlin-based Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights (UGF) stated.
The World Bank press office told EurasiaNet.org by e-mail that the organization “does not condone forced labor in any form and takes seriously the reports of such practices in the cotton production system of Uzbekistan.”
“Over the past 2-3 years, the Bank has maintained an intensive dialogue with the Government of Uzbekistan on issues related to child and forced labor in the cotton sector. During this period, the authorities introduced changes to the national legal framework related to the protection of the rights of workers and the prohibitions on child and forced labor,” the World Bank said.
“Nothing. I don’t know anything,” Temur Batirashvili told a Rustavi2 correspondent who visited al-Shishani’s native village, Birkani, in the Pankisi Gorge, about a 45-minute drive outside of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. “I just came out of the house to see if perhaps someone knows something. . . This information will be a lie.”
Batirashvili added that he had not heard from his son, born Tarkhan Batirashvili, “in a long time.”
His neighbors, a primary source of information in Georgia, also know nothing, he added in a separate interview with PalitraTV on March 9. Compatriots of slain ISIS militants from the Caucasus reportedly often are the ones to relay news of their deaths to family members back home.
“God grant that he’s alive,” Batirashvili mumbled, looking down at the ground.
Omar al-Shishani's death has been reported multiple times, but never confirmed.
Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili has announced a campaign to change Georgia’s constitution to specify that weddings are strictly between men and women only.
In a parliamentary election year in a socially conservative, marriage-centric country, the idea, perhaps, comes as no surprise.
In a March 7 briefing, Kvirikashvili stated that, while “discrimination in any form is unacceptable,” the country’s ruling Georgian Dream coalition has decided that “the defense of such an important value as marriage should be guaranteed at the level of the country’s constitution.”
MP Zviad Dzidziguri, chairperson of the coalition’s Conservative Party, got down more to brass tacks. “Those people and forces, who state that we will go over in this direction [toward same-sex marriage], that someone will force us to do something, will have every single foundation stripped out from under them.”
On March 8, Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani also signed on to the initiative, telling Imedi TV news that the format for marriages in her ministry’s Houses of Justice “should be strengthened.”
A date for parliamentary hearings on the proposed constitutional change has not yet been announced. With a majority of parliament’s 150 seats, the Georgian Dream, though, in theory should be able to secure the reform without a hitch.
No widespread movement exists in Georgia in support of same-sex marriage. Popular concerns expressed in 2014 that tighter ties with the European Union would mean the country would have to allow such unions have faded into the background amidst other controversies.
The militant incursion from Afghanistan that Tajikistan regularly worries about appears to finally have happened. Or has it?
The State Committee for National Security released a statement on March 7 stating that a border post in the southern Khatlon region was attacked over the weekend by a nine-man armed group led by an Afghan citizen called Mirafal valadi (son of) Arbob Sherafzal. Officials said the clash at the Panj crossing occurred as the gunmen were seeking to covertly filter into Tajikistan.
One of the alleged militants, named as Mullo Fashiddin valadi Kurbon, and one border guard were killed in the shootout, the statement said.
The security services say they have identified all the attackers and are taking all measures possible to capture or neutralize them.
RFE/RL’s Tajik service, Radio Ozodi, cited the head of Afghanistan’s Imam Sahib district, where the militants are alleged to have come from, as saying the incursion was work of Taliban militants. Mirafal is a well-known local drug trafficker who has pledged allegiance to the Taliban, the official said.
The security situation in Imam Sahib indubitably appears critical. The Afghan official cited by Ozodi said 30 percent of the district is in Taliban hands and that the entire border is under their control.
That combination of details appears to suggest that the militants’ attempts to cross the Tajik border are primarily motivated by financial interests, however, and not aimed at sowing unrest inside Tajikistan as such.
A spokesman for the Tajik border service declined to comment on the attackers’ affiliations. He also would not confirm reports that they were drug traffickers.
The president of Turkmenistan has in candid remarks admitted to the pervasive corruption hobbling the country’s energy sector, but his solutions appear so far limited mainly to the usual threats and targeted dismissals.
Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov said during a Cabinet meeting broadcast on television on March 5 that state auditors and prosecutors have recently been running checks on energy enterprises and uncovered irregularities “causing the government serious losses.”
Corruption has become a recurring theme in Turkmenistan as authorities seek to explain away the economic malaise gripping the country.
Berdymukhamedov said that former deputy prime minister Baymyrat Hojamuhammedov, who was dismissed from his role overseeing the energy sector for health reasons in November 2015, was directly involved in the corruption.
“After the investigations, he returned $1.5 million that he received in bribes from various people,” Berdymukhamedov said.
Also on March 5, the president fired the head of the State Statistics Committee, Akmyrat Mamedov, who stands accused of fiddling the figures to enable graft.
Anybody who has ever in good conscience scrutinised the sparse statistical information made available online by Turkmenistan’s authorities will have questioned their reliability years ago. And yet those are the same figures that international financial organisation invariably rely upon when formulating their rosy economic forecasts, which should probably raise some questions about their practices.
Mamedov has been in his job since March 2010.
Dismissals among senior economic officials have been coming fast and furious of late.
In February, Berdymukhamedov removed one of his key aides, Palvan Taganov, from his post, again for suspected wrongdoings in the oil and gas sector.