Think the Georgian government is hard up for cash? If anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International is correct, you might want to think again.
In a recent statement, the group claimed that officials failed to spend a whopping 150 million lari (roughly $68 million) budgeted for 2014 expenditures. *
It alleged that the finance ministry had attempted to conceal the scale of the underspending by listing 80 million lari (about $36 million) as a sub-item in the government’s Treasury Single Account (defined by the IMF as “a unified structure of government bank accounts”) to make sure it was not reflected in the country’s annual financial statement.
As a result, the group continued, inaccurate budget-deficit calculations were shown to the public, potential investors and international organizations.
Critics claim that the underspending, the second year in a row, shows that government departments did not keep projects on schedule or even get started with them.
“This is a new paradox that the government has money, but cannot spend it,” drily remarked Roman Gotsiridze, a head of the Central Bank under former President Mikheil Saakashvili, local media reported.
Since regaining independence in 1991, Georgia generally has had the opposite problem, he added.
Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of Uzbekistan’s strongman leader Islam Karimov, has been making international headlines for years amid charges of massive bribery and corruption. But fresh evidence unearthed by an anti-corruption watchdog suggests her avarice reached mind-boggling scales as she vacuumed up cash from telecoms companies wanting a slice of Uzbekistan’s lucrative cellphone pie.
Karimova received over $1 billion in payments and shares from Scandinavian and Russian telecoms companies such as TeliaSonera, Telenor, MTS, and Alfa Telecom, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) alleged in a report published March 21.
“Her audacious schemes may have cost the people of Uzbekistan money that could have paid for pensions or healthcare but instead went into banks, an offshore hedge fund and luxurious real estate around the world, including a castle in France and a penthouse in Hong Kong,” the OCCRP stated.
The watchdog was skeptical of the defense put forward by telecoms firms that they did not knowingly commit any wrongdoing: “While the international companies involved claim to have been innocent or unwilling dupes of her maneuvers, the blatant means by which Karimova allegedly operated made it virtually impossible for those involved not to realize they were giving in to extortion and bribery.”
Emomali Rahmon meeting with PR flacks from United World in October 2014.
Any writer who deploys the word "stable" to describe Tajikistan without half a dozen caveats has either never heard of the place or is being paid to produce puff. Or both.
“Stable and Strategic at the Crossroads of Asia” declares the headline on a eight-page supplement (presumably not produced for free) distributed March 20 with USA Today, the largest paper by circulation in America.
Full of Silk Road tropes and liberally sprinkled with words of wisdom from President Emomali Rahmon, now in his 23rd year in power, the supplement may fool readers who have never heard of the corrupt and authoritarian Central Asian country, the poorest in the former Soviet Union.
It hits all the government’s key talking points: about Tajikistan’s “multi-vector” foreign policy; cooperation with the West fighting terror and drug trafficking; the visionary leadership of its president (so paranoid he has shut out political opposition despite power-sharing agreements); efforts to tap Tajikistan’s gas reserves (too deep to be economically feasible anytime soon); and the potential for tourism in its mountains (beautiful to be sure, but lacking infrastructure and requiring tiresome extra paperwork to visit the most spectacular places).
Besides the truth-bending, outright untruths abound. A piece on the finance sector highlights a local bank that is insolvent.
But the expectation seems to be that the average American reader will stay none the wiser.
Cracks in the fledging Eurasian Economic Union were on clear display in Astana on March 20 as the leaders of Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus met to discuss the regional economic slump.
Nursultan Nazarbayev, the host president, made a point of affirming Kazakhstan’s support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity – a statement guaranteed to raise the Kremlin’s hackles. Vladimir Putin responded with a call for an EEU currency union, something that is anathema to both Nazarbayev and Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus.
“It is necessary to emerge from the situation that has arisen in Ukraine via diplomatic means; no military solution to this problem exists,” Nazarbayev said of Ukraine. “In so doing, it is important that any decisions taken are based on fundamental principles of international law. We are interested in Ukraine remaining a stable, independent, and territorially intact state.”
With Russia denying it has fomented separatist strife in southeastern Ukraine, such a pointed public statement from a close partner was guaranteed to rouse Putin’s ire. In his remarks, Putin said a ceasefire deal reached in Minsk in February – which has been routinely flouted – created a “real opportunity for a gradual de-escalation of the armed conflict.”
Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev meets with CSTO Secretary General Nikolay Bordyuzha in 2014. (photo: akorda.kz)
Russia is disappointed in the unwillingness of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to cooperate with its collective security bloc, and considers Iran to be a model those countries could follow, a senior Russian security official has said.
Uzbekistan quit the bloc, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, three years ago. Turkmenistan, avowedly neutral, has never been a member. (The other three ex-Soviet Central Asian states – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan – all are, as are Armenia and Belarus.) But Russia continues to make overtures, said CSTO Secretary General Nikolay Bordyuzha.
“To my great disappointment, today we have practically no working relationship with either Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan, although from our side there have been repeated proposals to cooperate,” Bordyuzha said in an interview with Kazakhstani journalists. “We're not talking about the need to join the CSTO, about giving up their sovereignty. We're only talking about one thing: let's unite the efforts of the special services to jointly fight against common threats, which we're confronting today, let's talk about the possibility of offering aid from the CSTO collective forces in case it's needed. But there has been no response from either Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan.”
“Why not cooperate with an organization that contains respected governments: the Russian Federation, with its military potential and military-industrial complex, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan -- all countries which are always ready to provide help?” Bordyuzha continued. "To me, we simply have to cooperate, especially considering the processes going on in the world.”
Armenia considers Russia to be its strategic ally. But it appears that such feelings of loyalty are not mutual: officials in Yerevan are far from thrilled to find out that Russia is by far the largest arms supplier to Azerbaijan, Armenia’s neighbor and sworn enemy.
Russia’s double-dealing prompted Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan to grouse at a March 18 media forum in Yerevan. “Armenian soldiers at the front know that they [Azerbaijani troops] are trying to kill them using Russian weapons,” Sargsyan said, referring to the ongoing struggle between the two countries over the Nagorno-Karabakh territory. Although a ceasefire has been in effect for more than two decades, skirmishes between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces are almost a daily occurrence.
Flush with cash from energy exports, and eager to reverse territorial loses at the hands of Armenian forces during the 1988-1994 hot phase of the Karabakh conflict, Azerbaijan has been on an arms procurement binge in recent years. Russia seems only too happy to serve as Azerbaijan’s chief purveyor of the machinery of death. Azerbaijan obtains 85 percent of its weaponry from Russia, according to a recent report.
Russian arms sales to Baku have long been a source of concern for Yerevan, which, lacking the same kind of lucrative revenue streams that its foes possess, has trouble keeping pace in the arms race with Azerbaijan. At the same time, Armenia’s Russia-reliant economy means that President Sargsyan must choose his words carefully when he chides the Kremlin.
Addressing a crowd estimated in the tens of thousands near Red Square on March 18, Russian President Vladimir Putin repeated a theme that has increasingly come to define Russia’s foreign policy – that even when it acts aggressively toward neighboring states, Moscow is motivated by altruistic intentions.
“The Russian people showed amazing togetherness and patriotism in supporting the aspirations of the people of Crimea and Sevastopol to return to their native shores,” Putin said, referring to the Russian occupation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014. “What was at stake here were the millions of Russian people, millions of compatriots who needed our help and support. We understood how important this is to us, and that this was not simply about land.”
Perhaps the most prominent example of the ‘beneficent Russia’ meme is a video titled “I am a Russian Occupier,” which not too long ago went viral on the Russian-language web. In addition to expressing a full-throated rejection of Western values, the ‘occupier’ video cast Russia as a civilizing force that improved the quality of life of those peoples and territories that it conquered.
There are reams of historical documentation that challenge the notion of humanitarianism being a guiding force for Russian expansionism. But on March 16, a Russian-language website, The Fourth Estate, posted what is perhaps the most devastating take-down to date of the ‘occupier’ video. You can see the article here.
Documents have come to light proving that the beneficiary of a $748,000 renovation funded by the U.S. military was not the state or people of Kyrgyzstan, as initially claimed by Kyrgyz and U.S. officials, but a private citizen who acquired the property under dubious circumstances.
The former state hospital, in the Bishkek suburb of Shopokov, was intended to be a “development center for battered women” and “a shelter for up to 55 women and their children,” according to U.S. military press materials distributed during a ribbon-cutting ceremony in 2010. The American airbase at Manas funded the renovations. The base commander and U.S. ambassador attended the event.
For a time, the impressively refurbished two-story building stood empty. Today it accommodates a private kindergarten that earns its owners roughly $47,000 per year, based on calculations using figures provided by the school’s employees.
The $748,000 grant was unusually large for Manas, accounting for one-third of the base’s humanitarian aid spending that year. Most of Manas’s development grants that year were for less than $20,000.
American officials appeared to believe at the time that the funds were being used to refurbish a state-owned building. In 2011, when the building stood empty, a Manas spokesperson told EurasiaNet.org that after refurbishment the building was supposed to remain Kyrgyz government property and said Manas was not responsible for monitoring program activity.
The implementing partner was Zamira Akbagysheva, the head of Kyrgyzstan’s Congress of Women.
Today, a sign on the gate outside the building declares “Authorized People Only.” With its sparkling paint-job, new windows, and bright-red roofing tiles, the building stands out in the neighborhood of dilapidated gray houses.
A group of nationalist activists has announced it is forming a paramilitary militia to defend Kyrgyzstan from foreign threats – and foreign flags.
Known as “El Namysy” (The People’s Dignity), the group “will be a nationwide association, a paramilitary, whose members will be ready to mobilize and be sent to any part of the republic,” prominent anti-gay activist Jenishbek Moldokmatov said while introducing the founders at a March 18 press conference in Bishkek.
El Namysy leader Adilet Daiyrov told journalists at the press conference that members are all “sportsmen” – a loaded term in a country where groups of physically fit men in tracksuits always seem to appear at times of trouble.
El Namysy co-chair Ruslan Niyazakunov, a champion in ultimate fighting, told Kloop.kg the group would begin with community outreach, though his methods sound vaguely threatening.
“We will conduct preventive work, promote our ideology and explain what is good and what is bad. I want to stress that if there are people who do not support or understand us, we will work with them,” Niyazakunov said. He said he was particularly bothered seeing “flags of Russia, Europe, the United States or other countries.”
Niyazakunov added that he considers NGOs a “foreign threat.” He said members of his group would not carry firearms, but repeatedly used the term “paramilitary” (полувоенный in Russian) to describe how they would organize.
Moldokmatov, who heads a nationalist youth group called Kalys, added that El Namysy would react to events and rallies that he determines are being held on behalf of a foreign power.
Foreign flags are a recurring irritation, members say.
Yet the Wednesday deal does merge certain parts of key institutions (de jure in Russia's case; de facto in South Ossetia's) -- namely, in the army, intelligence, law enforcement and customs.
South Ossetians long have been going around Moscow asking to be annexed (and united with neighboring North Ossetia), but the Kremlin has been rolling its eyes at the idea as “out of the question.”
Last week, the region’s separatist leadership had an embarrassing moment, when they arrived with their agreement in Moscow, but could not even catch Putin, much less have him sign on the dotted line.
Still, happy as Russia seems with the status quo, it won’t pass up an opportunity to blur the distinction between it and South Ossetia a bit more.
Not amidst the war in Ukraine. And particularly not so close to the anniversary of Moscow's takeover of Crimea.