A signboard welcoming travellers into breakaway Nagorno Karabakh proclaims a “Free Artsakh” (the traditional Armenian name for the region), but on Saturday a group of Armenian activists learned the limit to that freedom.
The topic is controversial, and, apparently, not one that Karabakh’s de-facto leader, Bako Sahakian, a onetime KGB employee, is eager to debate publicly. Particularly amidst an uptick in security-concerns, as fatal clashes with Azerbaijani forces continue.
Sahakian earlier had warned that the motorcade could bring undesired consequences to Karabakh.
But participants charge it was the Karabakhi police who did that.
As the motorcade on January 31 drove toward Karabakh, video footage filmed by Founding Parliament activists showed uniformed police demanding documents (claiming they were “checking for a raid”), and then starting to attack both the cars and their occupants.
On an overhead ridge, masked men with automatic rifles closely watched the clash, while various men in civilian clothes surfaced to join in. One of the witnesses, Aram Hakobian, claimed to Aravot.am that gunshots had been fired, and that the uniformed men had thrown the Armenian flags on the ground and stomped on them.
The Turkish and Brazilian soap operas and scandal-sheet talk shows that deluge Georgian TV might need to move aside. To help guide Georgia’s national narrative in the “correct” direction, the all-powerful Georgian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili is making a new, “real-life” political drama series and also will host a political talk show.
The TV saga’s proposed title, 9 + 1 Years, has already drawn jocular comparisons to "9 & 1/2 Weeks," the erotic 1980s Hollywood drama that was a smash hit in the ex-USSR. But in fact, it refers mostly to the 2004-2013 rule of ex-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, still ex-Prime Minister Ivanishvili’s arch-nemesis . (The film may also focus on the Georgian Dream's first year in power, from 2012-2013; hence, the +1.)
The Ivanishvili-Saakashvili battle is certainly worth a dramatic interpretation, but 9 + 1 Years is expected to be a one-sided take on just how hellish Saakashvili’s nine years in power supposedly were. “Nine Years” has become a mantra that the ruling, Ivanishvili-created Georgian Dream Coalition repeats to outshout just about any kind of attack on its governance record, be it failure to fix the roads or the lethargic economy. To many observers, it also reflects the government’s failure to develop and articulate any other vision for Georgia’s future; a problem that is noted both inside and outside Georgia.
The World Bank has declined a request by human rights campaigners to investigate whether its agricultural projects contribute to the use of forced and child labor in Uzbekistan. Yet it has acknowledged that farms benefiting from its assistance might be forcing adults and children to work against their will.
There is a “residual possibility that there can be child and/or forced labor on farms receiving project support,” the World Bank’s Inspection Panel (which handles complaints about projects) said in a ruling delivered in December and approved by the board on January 23. “Hence, there was a plausibility that the project could contribute to perpetuating the harm of child and forced labor.”
The oversight body declined to launch an official probe, however, on the grounds that measures are being taken to tackle forced and child labor in Uzbekistan.
“This decision calls into question the Inspection Panel’s commitment to stand with communities to end abuse,” said Jessica Evans of Human Rights Watch.
The ruling is “shocking,” added Umida Niyazova, director of the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights, in a statement e-mailed by the Cotton Campaign.
“To millions of victims of forced labor in Uzbekistan, the bank has said that despite recognizing the relationship between their plight and its loans, it is not worth investigating,” Niyazova added. “Disturbingly, the bank’s decision is also a message to the Uzbek government that it can continue its forced labor system.”
Niyazova was one of the campaigners who asked for a probe in 2013, amid concerns that the World Bank’s $108-billion Second Rural Enterprise Support Project was effectively contributing to government-sponsored forced and child labor.
Getting reliable economic information out of Turkmenistan is difficult at the best of times, so if the gas-rich country is on the verge of a crisis, the secretive leadership is unlikely to drop any hints.
But a number of recent reports suggest that the effect of falling energy prices is being magnified by limited official information.
Opposition-minded news websites Alternative News Turkmenistan and Chronicles of Turkmenistan have reported long queues stretching out of currency exchange bureaus in recent days. The panic, note both outlets, is based on a rumor that the manat is about to be significantly devalued again.
The manat already fell 19 percent on New Year’s Day, falling from 2.85 to 3.5 manats against the greenback. The rumors point to an alarming 4.5 to the dollar. According to the Chronicles of Turkmenistan:
In recent days queues have been forming at various banks from early in the morning. In the regions, only 40-45 people are able to obtain the dollars at each bank, even though the queues extend to 200 or more people. Then the [people in the queue] are informed that there are no more dollars for the rest of the day.
Passports are required at the point of exchange. Each person can obtain no more than $1,000 in a single day.
Russia's post-Soviet security bloc will work to build up the capacity of other member states to produce substitutes for Ukrainian weaponry, the bloc's top official announced.
The Collective Security Treaty Organization will strengthen its commission on defense industry cooperation and focus its efforts on "import substitution." That term has become a buzzword over the last year in Russia as the country scrambles to replace products it can no longer buy as a result of Western sanctions. Here, though, the focus is Ukrainian weaponry, said CSTO Secretary General Nikolay Bordyuzha at a January 30 press conference in Moscow.
The commission will be led by Dmitry Rogozin of Russia, who is now the chief government defense industry official in Russia. The effort "will allow us to take into account and maximally use all the existing possibilities in CSTO countries for manufacturing military equipment which had previously been produced on the territory of Ukraine. The activities of this commission will be focused primarily on implementing this program of import substitution," he said.
"There are possibilities in Kazakhstan. And today, by the way, we are having substantive discussions regarding two factories' possibilities in this program of import substitution. There are also possibilities in Belarus, in Armenia there are very serious possibilities, in Kyrgyzstan, you know, there are several factories."
Kyrgyzstan has denied the embarrassing accusation that it is a delinquent member of the United Nations without the right to vote in the General Assembly.
On January 29, the UN’s website listed Kyrgyzstan and five other countries (Grenada, Marshall Islands, Tonga, Vanuatu, Yemen) as having failed to pay membership dues for two years. Members in arrears for two years automatically lose their right to vote, according to the UN Charter (extreme cases, failed states like Somalia, get an exception).
But on January 30 Kyrgyzstan’s Finance Ministry announced it had fully paid its dues—$40,000 in 2013 and $63,500 last year. That latter amount included some outstanding debt from previous years.
The ministry also says that on January 29 it initiated a transfer in the amount of $54,271 to meet the January 30 deadline for 2015 dues. “Thus, the Kyrgyz Republic has on time and fully complied with its obligations to the United Nations regular budget to pay membership fees for 2015,” the statement says.
What is less clear is whether the country has made contributions for peacekeeping operations and international tribunals, also required under the charter, but under different budgets. Back in 2000, Kyrgyzstan owed almost $800,000 for peacekeeping and tribunals (in that year, all the Central Asian countries save Kazakhstan were delinquent). The recent Finance Ministry statement says only that these two types of payments are not covered by a July 2014 government decree on dues to international organizations and that state agencies obligated to make any payments not listed in the decree must do so using their “budgetary assignations or … special funds.”
January has been a busy month for Kyrgyzstan’s security services as they tackle what they call a growing threat from militants loyal to the Islamic State. As usual, there is little evidence to support their claims and plenty of reasons to fear that heavy-handed tactics and docile judges could only make the problem worse.
On January 27 the State Committee for National Security (GKNB) snatched six alleged militants in Osh. A GKNB spokesman accused the group of planning attacks in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Four of the individuals, authorities suspect, had trained in Syria.
Just two days later Radio Azattyq reported that the GKNB had nabbed a 29-year-old man near Bishkek and accused him of sending five relatives to the Islamic State-controlled city of Raqqa in Syria. The week before, authorities in Osh arrested a 22-year-old, claiming he had spent four months in Syria. Also earlier in the month, six alleged jihadi recruiters were arrested in a series of raids across Kyrgyzstan’s impoverished south. Three women, alleged members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir – a London-based proselytizing group with no known ties to violence – were also seized, Interfax reported.
Georgian soldiers undergo U.S. Marine Corps training at the Vaziani training base in 2013. Vaziani is one of the possible locations for a NATO training base to be set up in Georgia this year. (photo: U.S. Marine Corps)
NATO's planned military training center in Georgia will start operations this year, a senior alliance official said on a visit to Tbilisi.
"Starting this year, we aim to hold periodic military exercises here in your country, with NATO Allies as well as with other interested NATO partners," said NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow at a January 30 speech in Tbilisi.
The exercises will be held at a "Joint Training and Evaluation Centre," the establishment of which NATO and Georgia announced last September. A location for the center still hasn't been determined, but one of the items on Vershbow's agenda in Georgia was to scout out locations; Civil.ge reported that one of the candidates sites he visited was the Vaziani training range near Tbilisi.
"This will be the most visible element of a NATO presence in Georgia. The Centre could host live and simulated training and certification for Allied and partner military units, in particular for units committed to the NATO Response Force," Vershbow said. "And it could also host exercises and training in support of our Connected Forces initiative."
But much remains uncertain about the center. According to Civil.ge, Vershbow said that NATO and Georgia "have yet to “flesh out the goals and purposes of the center," and that it's still not clear whether the center will host only command exercises (i.e. officers on computers) or field exercises with soldiers.
Tashkent's government buildings are grandiose but redundant status symbols, empty and locked to discourage prying visitors. (EurasiaNet)
Editor’s Note: EurasiaNet.org received this colorful and revealing account from a traveler who wishes to remain anonymous to have the chance to visit Uzbekistan again.
The Washington Post recently described Uzbekistan as the North Korea you’ve never heard of, conjuring images of a country sealed off from the rest of the world. Is that really what it’s like? For many journalists and others it’s difficult to visit. I recently had the chance, on a business trip for a few days. Here are a few fleeting impressions. (The Washington Post was talking about politics – I’ll stick to a traveller’s experiences.)
I’ve never been to Pyongyang or North Korea, but Tashkent is certainly an impressively big, bustling city (biggest in Central Asia, population 2.2 million) with many of the modern trappings of Western urban life: six-lane highways crisscrossing the central district and a (wonderfully old-fashioned) subway system; American-style malls for the general public and upscale fashion boutiques for the rich; and electronic advertising displays at road junctions promoting luxury watch and jewelry brands.
The city’s café and restaurant scene comes across as cosmopolitan: I sipped cappuccino in a coffee shop that could have been in New York given the number of iPhones and laptops (although it was odd that all the Western newspapers on offer were several years old) and I drank in a ‘European’ beer hall, tapping my feet to a cheesy rock band playing Pink Floyd covers, that, at a push, could have been in Prague.
In a twist on modernity, the city center is also full of shiny white marble palaces – government and parliamentary buildings, cultural centers and embassies of other Central Asian countries – that come across as grandiose but redundant status symbols, empty and locked to discourage prying visitors.
A private militia to combat ISIS and the Taliban has been formed in northern Afghanistan, as Afghan and Central Asian officials continue to debate to what extent there is an ISIS presence in the region.
It's not clear how serious the new anti-ISIS militia is: "several dozen" members announced its presence at the provincial council office in Mazar-e-Sharif this week, according to a report by Khaama Press. But they claim to have 5,000 people ready to fight ISIS and the Taliban, and if nothing else they have a keen instinct for PR: their uniforms are the tricolor of Afghanistan's flag -- red, green, and black -- and their name is "Marg," or "Death."
Also this week, a senior Russian defense ministry official visited Tajikistan where he invoked the growing terror threat. The official, Deputy Defense Minister Anatoliy Antonov, called Tajikistan "our outpost in the fight against terror." The officials discussed Russian aid to Tajikistan but no details were announced; Central Asia expert Arkady Dubnov told Nezavisimaya Gazeta (in a piece headlined "ISIS Tests Strength of Central Asia's Borders") that the purpose of the visit was to assuage concerns in Dushanbe about slow deliveries of the military aid Russia has promised Tajikistan.