As of December 4, there is one less Georgian and one more full-on Ukrainian out there. The indefatigable former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has been stripped of his Georgian citizenship, but effectively keeps his job as Georgia’s long-distance opposition leader.
“They may take away my passport, but they can’t take away my being a Georgian,” Saakashvili said in a video posted on his Facebook page. Apparently speaking from Ukraine, where he serves as Odessa's regional governor, he claimed it was “Russian oligarch” Bidzina Ivanishvili, the former prime minister and founder of Georgia's ruling Georgian Dream coalition, who ordered his “incompetent, straw-grasping government” to cancel his passport, to prevent him from seeking elected office in Georgia.
Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili has indicated that he signed the decree scrapping his predecessor's Georgian citizenship in response to Saakashvili's May decision to become a Ukrainian citizen. Dual citizenship is not allowed under Georgian law, but the rule is not uniformly applied.
As if Kazakhstan’s beleaguered saiga antelope population doesn’t have enough to cope with already, hunters are still trying to kill them for their horns.
A moratorium on hunting the animal is in place until 2021, but that has not deterred the most determined poachers.
Officials say that they have registered 21 saiga poaching cases this year in the southern Kyzylorda region alone, according to the state-run 24.kz television station.
Overall, 309 cases of illegal hunting were recorded in the region this year.
In the most recent case, police stopped a Toyota Land Cruiser in an area 20 kilometers from the Kumkol oil field and found the bodies of several saiga antelope in the trunk.
“During the search of the car, five bodies of saiga were found — horns, heads. Also unregistered 12-gauge shotguns, about 100 rounds of ammunition, a saw and a knife, which were seized as evidence,” Kyzylorda province police press officers Guljahan Kairbergenova told 24.kz. Two residents of the village of Karaozen are facing criminal charges.
Cases of saiga poaching have also been reported recently in the Akmola region, further north.
24.kz reported on December 3 that the bodies of six saiga with their horns sawn off were found on the grounds of an agricultural company called TOO Baumanskoe. Spent cartridges were found nearby.
The number of dead animals are highly conservative given the cataclysmic scale of die-offs registered among saiga earlier this year.
Prospects for the saiga look profoundly grim.
The U.S. Navy destroyer USS Ross passes through the Bosphorus straits on December 3. (photos: U.S. Navy)
An American warship has entered the Black Sea and three more NATO ships have docked in Istanbul as tension rises on the Bosphorus straits, a source of contention between Russia and Turkey for centuries.
The U.S. Navy destroyer the USS Ross entered the Black Sea on December 3. These visits to the sea are relatively routine, but this is the first such American visit to the Black Sea since Turkey shot down a Russian bomber jet on the Turkey-Syria border. In addition, warships from three other NATO members -- Canada, Portugal, and Spain -- have moored at Istanbul in an apparent show of support. Turks interviewed by Euronews were reportedly "reassured" by the NATO ships' visit.
The visits come as there has been a flurry of discussion in the Russian and Turkish press about the role the Bosphorus straits might play in the conflict between the two countries. The Bosphorus is the only outlet of the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, and so Russia depends on it as its only warm water access to the rest of the world.
According to the 1936 Montreux Convention, Turkey is obliged to allow free traffic through the straits, except in the case of war or the imminent threat thereof. While this is, in theory, a huge strategic advantage that Turkey holds over Russia, to actually close off the straits would no doubt be seen by Russia as an act of war and it's very unlikely Ankara would take such a step unless the situation between the two countries dramatically worsened.
A court in Tajikistan has sentenced a group of men to jail terms of up to 27 years for hoisting a flag in the latest draconian attempt by the government to crush Islamic radicalism.
Khovar state news agency reported on December 4 that a judge presiding over the court in the southern Khatlon province said the eight men had sought to incite people to violence and the overthrow of the government.
The purported offense dates back to the night of August 10, when the group is said to have hoisted a flag “similar” to the one adopted by the Islamic State group on a monument to Ismoil Somoni, the 9th century king viewed as the founder of the Tajik state.
Interfax reported at the time of the incident that investigators were not initially certain if the gesture was politically motivated or simply a prank.
The sentences ranged from seven to 27 years in jail.
Radio Ozodi cited the judge presiding over the case, Zubaidullo Mahmudzoda, as saying three of the defendants were 17 years old and were accordingly granted a more lenient punishment.
“Four of the accused, who were older than 20 years, were recognized to be main instigators for hoisting the [Islamic State] flag,” Mahmudzoda said.
It is not clear from official statements how authorities accounted for the fact it took eight people to hoist one flag.
Khovar cites an unnamed official source as saying the accused had been in touch with militants in Syria over the Internet. The agency also claims the group had been planning a series of terrorist attacks across Tajikistan, but that their plans were thwarted.
The men were all from the Shahrtuz district in the Khatlon province, around 40 kilometers north of the border with Afghanistan.
Pounded with threats and sanctions from Russia, Turkey on December 4 went to its Turkic cousin Azerbaijan to get some much-needed love and economic reassurance. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu received not only an ardent, mi-casa-es-su-casa welcome in Baku, but also promises of more business and energy supplies just as Russia is trying to starve Turkey of both of those things.
Sitting next to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, the Turkish prime minister melted into a lengthy toast to kinship between Azerbaijan and Turkey; one country that fate divided in two, he said. Azerbaijan is Turkey’s “soul,” “spiritual homeland,” and Turkey’s ministers are Azerbaijan’s ministers, in Davutoğlu's telling.
For Azerbaijan, which relies on heavily on Turkey for energy transit projects and efforts to reclaimed breakaway Nagorno Karabakh, this means, in theory, that Turkey’s problems are Azerbaijan’s problems. “Turkish-Azerbaijani unity and politics have a stabilizing effect on the region,” said Azerbaijan’s Aliyev.
Yet, mindful of Moscow, Azerbaijan's Soviet-era overlord and still the region's traditional mover-and-shaker, Aliyev avoided calling Russia by name. After all, of late, Baku and the Kremlin have been making nice. Instead, Aliyev noted, diplomatically broadly, that “stability in the region has been regrettably disturbed, with new risks and threats taking shape.”
“We should be ready and we are ready for these challenges," he added, without elaboration.
Kyrgyzstan has barred entry to a researcher with advocacy group Human Rights Watch in a signal of intensifying wariness about criticism of the country’s rights record.
HRW said in a statement that Mihra Rittmann, a U.S. national and director of the group’s Bishkek office, was informed that she had been banned from entering the country by immigration officials on December 2.
The group said the refusal-of-entry order provided no specific motivation for the decision to bar Rittman from the country, which it termed “a direct interference in the organization’s ability to carry out normal human rights monitoring in Kyrgyzstan.”
“Banning a Human Rights Watch researcher from Kyrgyzstan is unprecedented, unexpected, and a deeply disturbing sign,” Kenneth Roth, executive director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
The move against HRW comes against the backdrop of an increasingly ominous operating environment for nongovernmental organizations. Raids on rights organizations — a hallmark of the rule of former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev — have become routine and deputies have thrown their support behind proposed legislation to designate NGOs as “foreign agents.”
The flames of suspicion toward NGOs have also been fanned by incumbent President Almazbek Atambayev.”
“There are NGOs that are just carrying out somebody’s political orders. Anything could happen. We have already been through two revolutions. Every large country, especially the geopolitical heavyweights, have interests in Kyrgyzstan. And we need to monitor those interests for the sake of national security,” Atambayev said in a televised interview last December.
Russian authorities have agreed to allow the father of a baby who died after he was taken into care when his mother was detained for violating migration laws to be classified as a complainant in the ongoing investigation into the death.
The legal distinction will allow Rustam Nazarov to press for further probe into the ultimate cause of 5-month old Umarali’s death in St. Petersburg in October. Under his previous status as witness, Nazarov was not authorized to make those demands.
Independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported on December 3 that lawyers for Nazarov has been fighting for the decision over a two-month period.
The case has sparked a wave of anger among people in Tajikistan, where grievances have long simmered over the ill-treatment often doled out to their countrymen in Russia.
Umarali’s mother, Zarina Yunusova, says her child was taken away from her by force, a claim that police in St. Petersburg have staunchly denied. Police have said that the baby was taken into care with Yunusova’s consent.
Russian government medical experts concluded in November that Umarali had died from acute cardiopulmonary failure resulting from a cytomegalovirus infection. No independent examination has been carried out and the child’s parents have been denied access to the final medical report.
Lawyers for the family, as well as some officials in Tajikistan, have expressed skepticism about the accuracy of the verdict.
Only Yunusova had previously been registered as a complainant in the case, but she was unable to pursue demands for fresh investigations after being deported to Tajikistan on November 16.
Tajikistan has declared an oddly premature victory over HIV/AIDS even as the spread of the disease continues in alarming fashion.
State news agency Khovar elected to mark World AIDS Day on December 1 with an editorial piece entitled “AIDS Sleeping Already: Number of HIV Infections on the Decline.”
Government representatives queried by Khovar praised what they say are the state’s efforts to do everything possible for the ill by providing them with free treatment.
“According to statistics, the number of people infected with HIV in these years have become substantially lower and the measures adopted by the government have returned substantial results,” Kobiljon Mahmudov, the director of the Health Ministry’s Republican Center for Prophylaxis and Combat Against HIV, told Khovar.
While it is impossible to know if Mahmudov is being misquoted, the assertion that HIV infections are declining is disconcertingly inaccurate.
According to the most recent figures provided by UNAIDS, the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS, 5,242 people were living with HIV on December 31, 2014. That figure has grown steadily with every passing year. If there were 29 people with HIV for 100,000 living in Tajikistan in 2010, that number had risen to 64.9 by the end of last year.
In 2012, UNAIDS was compelled to describe the increase of HIV cases as alarming and noted that Tajikistan was among the countries where HIV prevalence had increased by more than 25 percent in the preceding decade.
In fairness to Tajikistan, if the number of infections detected is growing, it is in part because testing has expanded tenfold in the last 10 years.
NATO has struck a blow to Georgia's membership aspirations, announcing that the country is still expected to pass through a stage of accession, the so-called MAP, that officials in Tbilisi have lobbied to skip.
"At the 2008 Bucharest Summit we agreed that Georgia will become a member of NATO with MAP as an integral part of the process; today we reaffirm all elements of that decision," NATO foreign ministers announced after a meeting Wednesday.
Georgia has sought MAP, without success, for many years, and of late Tbilisi has taken a new tack: Defense Minister Tina Khidasheli has been trying to convince NATO members that the MAP, or Membership Action Plan, is an unnecessary "intermediate step" for Georgia. "There should be no intermediary steps between Georgia and NATO," she tweeted in October.
So Wednesday's move, reaffirming the necessity of MAP, was yet another setback in Georgia's quest for NATO accession. "That Khidasheli has been unable to secure even that is unsurprising, but it does represent a symbolic blow considering that Georgia is already in many ways 'beyond' the MAP stage -- not to mention the amount of diplomatic energy Tbilisi spent on this initiative," said Michael Hikari Cecire, a Caucasus expert and associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, in an email interview with The Bug Pit.
Discussion of the draft comes right after a fatal police raid last week, when special troops were sent to “quell rebels” in the Baku suburb of Nardaran, home to a conservative Shi’a community. Two law-enforcement officers and four men tagged as alleged militants were killed. Police arrested a local spiritual leader, Taleh Bagirzade, and members of his Movement for Muslim Unity. They accused the group of plans to overthrow the government and establish a sharia state.
Given the government’s practice of running roughshod over critics, some question its motivations in the Nardaran raid. The town, EurasiaNet.org has reported, has generally been seen as “a different world” from the rest of Azerbaijan, with no national police allowed on its territory.