Nearly a week after a border shootout between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, Dushanbe admitted firing mortars, raising the specter of further militarization along the disputed frontier. And conflicting stories about exactly what happened have developed into a heated diplomatic row with the potential to do long-lasting damage to once-decent ties.
On January 17, six days after the violence, a Tajik official finally commented on allegations that his troops had fired mortar rounds at Kyrgyz border guards. Yes, Tajikistan did, said Major-General Sharaf Faizullayev, first deputy commander of Tajikistan’s border troops. But the outnumbered Tajiks used mortars only to protect themselves after first being fired upon by Kyrgyz sharpshooters and without the intention to hurt anyone, he said.
"Given the numerical superiority of the Kyrgyz border guards and the intensity of their fire, a decision was made to use a small-caliber mortar to curb [the Kyrgyz’s] fire with the aim of evacuating the wounded," Faizullayev said in comments carried by Dushanbe’s Asia-Plus news agency. He added that the fighting occurred on Tajik territory.
Since becoming foreign minister in 2009, Ahmet Davutoglu has used the annual gathering of his diplomatic corps as a way of pushing his new vision of Turkey's role in the world and for encouraging his ambassadors -- a notoriously stuffy bunch -- to think outside the box a bit.
A good example of that was the ambassadors' 2010 meeting, which Davutoglu held not in Ankara, but in Mardin, a historic hilltop city not far from the Syrian border in Turkey’s southeast region, which, along with Kurdish and Arabic speakers, is also home to an ancient though dwindling Christian community. Once there, the FM admonished his ambassadors to go out to the city’s teahouses and bazaars and mingle with the (mostly bemused) locals.
Davutoglu, at the time drawing early plaudits for his now failed "zero problems with neighbors" policy, drew on the town’s historical setting to deliver a philosophical – even mystical – look forward to his diplomatic corps. “By 2023, when the country will commemorate the 100th anniversary of its founding, I envision a Turkey that is a full member of the EU after having completed all the necessary accession requirements, living in full peace with its neighbors, integrated with neighboring regions in economic terms and with a common security vision, an effective player in regions where our national interests lie, and active in all global affairs and among the top 10 economies in the world,” he told them. In order for that new vision to happen, Davutoglu said, his ambassadors first "need to understand Mardin’s soul."
The Turkish diplomatic corps has been holding its annual meeting over the last few days, but they seem far removed from those heady days in Mardin. Rather than looking hopefully outward, this year's gathering seems to be gazing defensively (even paranoically) inward, offering a very good opportunity to understand the current state of Turkey's tortured political soul.
In a peace offering to its erstwhile countrymen, Georgia has renamed its ministry in charge of relations with its breakaway republics to emphasize "reconciliation" rather than "reintegration." While the move has gained praise from Georgia's Western partners, the de facto authorities of the breakaway territories, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, have been less impressed.
In renaming the ministry from "Office of State Minister for Reintegration of Georgia" to "State Minister for Reconciliation and Civil Equality of Georgia." "The term "reintegration" within the title held back communication with Abkhazian and Ossetian communities. The new title is both neutral and inclusive of those two directions and we hope that through introducing a new title, one of the arguments of our opponents will lose relevance," said Minister Paata Zakareishvili in announcing the move. Zakareishvili said that he had been trying to change the name for some time, but that former President Mikheil Saakashvili blocked the change.
The move was intended to help encourage the de facto authorities of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to communicate directly to Georgian authorities. But the response from Tskhinvali and Sukhumi, unsurprisingly, was that the move was merely cosmetic, and that a change of tone was not what they were looking for. Boris Chochiev, a senior South Ossetian government official, told the BBC:
The sun sets behind a mosque at the foot of Suleiman Too mountain after the first day of the new year in Osh, Kyrgyzstan. The rocky outcrop, which rises in the middle of the southwestern Kyrgyz city in the Fergana Valley, was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its history as an Islamic sacred mountain.
Zach Krahmer is a visual storyteller and photographer based in Osh, Kyrgyzstan. More of his work can be seen on his portfolio Web site.
With all the attention focused on the negotiations over Iran's controversial nuclear program, it's easy to miss some of the other important developments in that country, and by that I mean the burger boom that's taking place in Tehran.
Someone who's been on top of that meaty story is the Washington Post's Jason Rezaian, who recently filed a superb report from Tehran about the city's profusion of burger joints. Here's a taste of his article:
Greasy burger joints have been part of Tehran’s fast-food landscape for decades, even in the years just after the 1979 Islamic revolution, when any symbol of U.S. culture was denounced as an example of “Westoxification.” Those eateries were mostly in downtown working-class neighborhoods, serving laborers in need of a blast of calories or students watching their budgets.
Now, though, high-end burger restaurants are suddenly popping up across the city, making the gut-busting American institution — and the quest for the best burger — the latest trend in Tehran dining.
Facebook pages dedicated to local hamburger outlets debate their relative merits, comparing them to McDonald’s, In-N-Out, Burger King and other U.S. chains. That fascination with brands has resulted in such blatant rip-offs as McAli’s, Superstar — conspicuously similar in appearance to Carl’s Jr. — and even a place calling itself Five Guys.
I recently sent Rezaian, who's been based in Tehran since 2009, a few questions to get a bit more of the backstory of this Iranian culinary awakening. Our exchange is below:
They are eye-catching, stylish and rich. They are the first daughters of the oil-soaked Caspian Sea autocracy, Azerbaijan, and when they decided to model for a local fashion magazine, the adoration from some Azerbaijani media outlets made the Bible's Song of Songs sound reserved.
But it's what's left unsaid that truly puts the fashion-show in focus. Decked out in the snazzy outfits that they allegedly picked out of their wardrobes for the shoot, the august Aliyev sisters -- 28-year-old Leyla and 24-year-old Arzu -- prompted praise so ebullient that the authors must have been taking breaks to tear up while writing it.
The two provide "clear proof," Azerbaijani public television and Büro 24/7 simultaneously gushed, that “not only physical appearance, but also wisdom, the inner world, charm and individuality are inherited genetically."
Taking a breath, the public television writer goes on to advise readers that “Every public appearance of the eastern beauties offers a chance to feast your eyes on their beautiful manners, their skill at socializing with friends, family and the people around them."
Georgia claims it has averted an accidental encroachment on its sovereignty by one of the world's most powerful forces. No, not by Russia. By McDonald's.
The Illinois-based hamburger giant recently advertised on its website for a franchisee in Abkhazia, a breakaway region that Tbilisi and most of the international community (unlike Russia and a handful of pals) see as part of Georgia, and not, as the McDonald's ad suggested, an independent country.
Given Abkhazia's proximity to the 2014 Winter Olympics host city of Sochi, opening up a restaurant in the region may well have struck some at the Games' "Official Restaurant" as a swell idea. But in Tbilisi, the ad was construed as a plan to recognize Abkhazia’s de-facto independence from Georgia.
The question was how to respond. Severing ties with McDonald's was not in the cards. McDonald's has pretty much got Georgia hooked on its menu, free wifi and kids' parties.
Some people mooted the idea of boycotting the company's four Georgia-based restaurants. Or of protests, that ancient Georgian tradition.
But before matters reached such a head, the company deleted the statement, now found only in a Google cache or referenced in news stories.
McDonald’s franchisee for Georgia, businessman Temur Chkonia, took credit for the move. Calling the Abkhazia ad "a very primitive mistake," Chkonia told Netgazeti.ge that he had talked with a lawyer for McDonald's about the solicitation, and is awaiting a written explanation.
As tensions continue to simmer between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan after a border clash over the weekend, it's looking like the two countries are being left to resolve their differences by themselves. A particularly noteworthy absence: Russia's nascent political-military bloc, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which has declared for itself the lead role in providing security in Central Asia but which has so far taken a low-profile approach so far to the conflict between two of its member states.
The CSTO has yet to make any public statement on the event, during which several troops on each side of the border and which (according to Kyrgyzstan) involved some heavy weaponry. All that we know is that the "leadership structures of the CSTO" have been in contact with the security services in each country. This, while the CSTO has been taking on such ambitious missions for itself as creating a joint air force, joint rapid-reaction forces, capabilities to defeat cyberterrorism and even "color revolutions."
Thousands of supporters of southern strongman Melisbek Myrzakmatov rallied in Kyrgyzstan’s second-largest city, Osh, on January 15 to protest his defeat in mayoral elections.
A controversial figure who has long opposed central authorities in far-off Bishkek, Myrzakmatov was fired last month after appearing to support an anti-government protest.
Over the following weeks, Myrzakmatov somehow lost his support in the Osh city legislature, which voted 25-19 against the former mayor. He alleges the vote was rigged and says his backers were intimidated. Supporters and opponents alike believe the central government engineered his removal.
The Buyan-class Grad Sviazhsk warship, in trials on the Caspian Sea. (photo: Russian MoD)
Russia plans to add an additional five warships to its Caspian Flotilla in 2014, as well as a number of support ships, setting the stage for this year to be the largest yet for Russian naval expansion in the sea.
The flotilla will gain two Buyan-class ships (classified either as corvettes or small missile boats), the Grad Sviazhsk and Uglich, and one anti-terror ship, the Grachonok, which successfully completed naval trials in December. In addition, a third Buyan-clas ship, the Velikiy Ustyug, as well as another anti-terror ship will be completed in 2014. In addition, the Caspian Flotilla is expected to gain seven auxiliary ships, like fire and rescue ships. "Currently, the command of the flotilla has begun work on formation of the crew for the [new] ships. Sailors are being sent to Zelenodolsk for training on the new weaponry and technology," according to a release from the Russian Ministry of Defense.
This may actually be a step back in the pace of expansion: according to one recent schedule, the flotilla should be gaining a fourth Buyan-class ship in 2014, but the MoD release doesn't mention that. In any case, the three Buyan-class ships would double the presence of those ships on the sea, part of a steady naval buildup by all five Caspian littoral states.