The gate at Tajikistan's Ayni air base. (photo: The Bug Pit)
Russia is seeking to expand its military presence in Tajikistan by renting the Ayni airbase, Moscow's ambassador to Dushanbe has said.
Tajikistan already hosts the 201st military base, Russia's largest base outside its borders, but the base "needs an air component," said Igor Lyakin-Frolov at a December 27 news conference in Dushanbe. Russia is currently in talks with Tajikistan about the base, which lies on the outskirts of Dushanbe, Lyakin-Frolov added.
Russian media reported in 2013 that Moscow had started negotiations with Dushanbe over the base. "Signing of an additional agreement on the Ayni air force base, which Moscow also intends to rent and to consider part of the 201st military base, is expected," Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported at the time, citing unnamed officials, though that apparently went nowhere. That Lyakin-Frolov said this on the record gives it a bit more credibility, but the recent history of Ayni has featured a lot of disappointed expectations.
In the 2000s India renovated the base at a cost of $70 million, obviously intending to use it themselves, but that never came to pass, as by 2010 Russia had apparently thwarted India's designs. The Indian press still consistently promotes Ayni as India's military foothold in Central Asia, though Delhi officially seems to have given up.
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev delivering New Year address on December 31, 2016.
In the run-up to the New Year, many in Uzbekistan were wondering whether their new president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, would appear on television to deliver seasonal greetings.
Over the 25 years of independence for which he was in charge, the late Islam Karimov eschewed the custom, adopted by most leaders of post-Soviet states. Instead, Uzbek television viewers received their official declarations of seasonal cheer from newsreaders. Indeed, it has been customary for many to turn instead for words ushering in the New Year from Russian television and President Vladimir Putin.
Defying the predictions of naysayers, Mirziyoyev duly appeared on television at 23:45 on New Year’s Eve against a backdrop showing the Uzbek Senate building. First he spoke in Russian and then in Uzbek to congratulate his countrymen on the arrival of 2017.
In his brief speech, Mirziyoyev recalled what he described as a time of hardship — a reference to Karimov’s death — and called on Uzbeks to pool their efforts in future in the interests of achieving prosperity.
“We have declared 2017 the year of dialog with the people and people’s interests. Upon this we are basing a hugely important principle: The interests of the people prevail over everything else. I am sure that all of us, our leadership first and foremost, will unite our efforts and pool our potential to carry out the tasks lying before us in the coming year,” he said.
Judging by the reaction online, the address seems to have gone down well.
“This address is a show of respect to the people. It was unexpected and pleasant,” well-known TV journalist Elmira Tukhvatullina wrote on her Facebook account.
Part of an apartment building collapsed in a central Kazakhstan town overnight on January 1, killing at least nine people, including three children.
Authorities have said preliminary investigations suggest the accident may have been caused by the explosion of a heating boiler. These kind of heating units are crucial to survival in towns like Shakhan, in the Karaganda region, where temperatures in winter can drop to minus 40 degrees Celsius.
Officials say that part of the apartment blocked destroyed in the collapse was home to 25 people.
Homes in Shakhan, a town of around 8,000 people, were at some stage provided with heating from a central boiler, but that has broken down and not been replaced by the government. Committees managing apartment buildings are in such situations compelled to install basements with autonomous heating systems, which are fueled with coal, wood or paper and can pose significant risks to residents, as in this case.
The deputy Karaganda regional governor Andrei Lyapunov told media that he had appealed to the National Economy Ministry for funds to resolve the heating problem in Shakhan, but that progress was hindered by money shortages.
“A project blueprint was developed. It was examined by state experts. The budget was about 2.8 billion tenge in 2014 [NB. $15 million at mid-2014 rates and $8.3 million now],” Lyapunov said.
But that money was not enough to finance a project to provide heating to around 100 apartment blocks, he said.
“This cannot be done quickly. Especially as the the town has a very distended heating grid and homes are very distant from one another. This is why building a [central] boiler takes a certain amount of time,” Lyapunov said.
A number of websites long blocked in Uzbekistan have been made available for internet users in the past few days, just the latest development in an apparent wave of liberalization sweeping the country.
Among the outlets whose websites can now be viewed without use of proxy servers are the BBC, RFE/RL’s Uzbek service (Ozodlik), Moscow-based Ferghana.ru and EurasiaNet.org. Perhaps even more strikingly, blocks on the websites of organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International and the People’s Movement of Uzbekistan opposition group have also been lifted.
Quite what prompted the authorities to adopt this measure is not yet known. And the permissiveness has not been universal.
The editor of opposition news website eltuz.com, Germany-based Umida Niyazova, said most of the formerly banned sites became available for viewing on December 29.
“But our site is still blocked. It will take a week or so before we can draw any conclusions [about what is happening],” Niyazova told EurasiaNet.org.
eltuz.com is a particularly popular resource for its regular output of topical and controversial news stories, much of which focus on the everyday problems of people in Uzbekistan. The website is also well-known for its coruscating caricatures of political figures.
Uzbek political analyst Rafael Sattarov was doubtful that the websites of independent media or opposition movement would remain unblocked for long in Uzbekistan.
“The websites for Ozodlik or the BBC have not always been blocked in Uzbekistan, and as far as the international organizations are concerned, what is most likely is that the special services have simply changed the jamming system,” Sattarov said.
Turkmenistan has managed to avert the loss of one of its only two buyers of natural gas with some desperate, last-gasp negotiations.
Iran’s Mehr news agency reported on December 30 that Turkmenistan has signed a new gas deal despite demands from Ashgabat for Tehran to pay $1.8 billion in alleged unpaid arrears for historic gas deliveries.
Negotiations went right down to the wire, as Mehr news agency revealed.
“Due to Turkmens’ persistence on [threatening] to cut gas exports to Iran over claims of a $2 billion debt, the Iranian delegation left the negotiating table to return home. At the airport, Turkmenistan’s officials persuaded the Iranian delegation to come back to the negotiating table in hopes for reaching an agreement on gas delivery to Iran,” the news agency reported.
In the run-up to the agreement, a senior official with the National Iranian Gas Company (NIGC) signaled that Tehran was willing to adopt an intransigent position over the matter, leaving Turkmenistan with few options ahead of a Saturday deadline.
ILNA news agency cited senior NIGC representative Saeed Momeni as saying that Turkmenistan only provides three percent of Iran’s gas needs and that the shortfall could be addressed by drawing in internal resources if necessary. Iran has substantial gas reserves of its own, but has relied on Turkmenistan to supply areas in the north not connected to the national pipeline grid.
The former head of Kazakhstan’s security services, a long-time associate of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, has been detained on suspicion of leaking state secrets and abuse of office.
Nartay Dutbayev presided over the National Security Committee, or KNB, from December 2001 to February 2006 — a period that saw the murder of two prominent opposition figures that government critics have routinely lain at the feet of the security services.
Dutbayev is a hardy survivor on Kazakhstan’s political scene, so his arrest is nothing short of startling. He and at least two other individuals, named as a Nurlan Hasen and Yerlan Nurtayev, were detained and placed in a KNB holding cells on December 26. News of the detentions was announced two days later.
Nothing is known about the details of the offenses that Dutbayev is suspected of having committed, so journalists and commentators have indulged in a frenzy of speculation.
Political analyst Daniyar Ashimbayev told Sputnik Kazakhstan that the clearance for going after Dutbayev could only have been granted at the highest levels.
“The issue was most likely agreed upon in the higher echelons — at the very least, in the presidential administration,” Ashimbayev said.
Kazakhstan’s security services say they have rounded up 33 members of a religious extremist organization called Takfir Wa Al-Hijra following a sweep started earlier this month.
Operations were reportedly carried out in the Almaty, Aktobe and Atyrau regions and in the city of Almaty.
The National Security Committee, or KNB in its Russian initials, have said all the detainees are citizens of Kazakhstan — from southern and western regions of the country specifically. Religious literature and CDs, as well as large but unspecified sums of money, were found during searches.
The group is suspected of propagating extremist ideology and inciting the creation of a theocratic government in Kazakhstan. The activities of this cell was reputedly coordinated from abroad, although it is not stated from which country in particular.
While there is no evidence any of those detained were intent of traveling to the Middle East to link up with Islamist militants there, security services say they were sympathetic to the cause of groups fighting in Syria and Iraq. The KNB said most of the suspect are cooperating with investigators.
Seven leading figures in the group identified as Takfir Wa Al-Hijra are being held in custody and another has been granted release on their own recognizance. Seventeen people described as rank-and-file members of the group have been qualified as just witnesses.
Heads of state of CSTO member countries meet at a summit in St. Petersburg. There was a bit more room at the table than planned as Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko skipped the event. (photo: kremlin.ru)
Dissension among the nominal allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Russia-led post-Soviet security bloc, continued to deepen at this week's summit, where Belarus was conspicuously absent and accusations were raised of a conspiracy against Armenia.
The CSTO summit was held in St. Petersburg on December 26, and the big news was that Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko was absent. Lukashenko gave no public explanation for his absence though Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitriy Peskov, played it down saying that "our Belarussian colleagues warned us that Lukashenko may not be able to take part in the summit."
There were two potential explanations for Lukashenko's move, not necessarily mutually exclusive. One was that it had to do with Russia-Belarus bilateral relations, and that this was just the latest expression of Lukashenko's discomfort with Russia's tight embrace. "This move seems to be yet another caprice by the Belarusian leader, demonstrating his attitude toward the integration projects that Russia is trying to create in the post-Soviet space," said Bogdan Bezpalko, the deputy head of the Center for Ukrainian and Belarusian studies at Moscow State University. (The CSTO summit was held concurrently with one of the Eurasian Economic Union, the Russia-led economic bloc; the rosters of the two organizations substantially overlap.)
The chief editor of a leading news website in Kazakhstan has announced that he has left the country out of concern that he may be targeted for prosecution.
Bekzhan Idrisov, who edits Radiotochka.kz, made the announcement on his Facebook page on December 26. The publisher of his website and editor of Central Asia Monitor newspaper, Bigeldy Gabdullin, was detained by the authorities in mid-November on suspicion of committing fraud.
Stories of reporters feeling compelled to flee Kazakhstan are a stark reminder of the problems face by independent media in the country as they negotiate financial constraints and pressure from the government to refrain from critical coverage.
“I have left Kazakhstan. Forever is my hope… I want to explain this to my colleagues at Radiotochka.kz. I know that I have vanished suddenly and at an inconvenient time for you. But you know there is no convenient time for such things. Either I end up in jail next to Gabdullin or I give evidence against him,” Idrisov wrote.
Idrisov suggested that a feature on his website — Who Owns KZ — has caused particular umbrage in Astana. The section draws on open sources to document the tax payments and property ownership of government officials, businessmen and other public figures.
Idrisov has declined to reveal his current location over security concerns and said that his sources have informed him he has been placed on a wanted list.
With the New Year holidays approaching, Russia and Tajikistan have decided to engage in a fresh round of battle of flight bans.
The dispute is sowing deep uncertainty among passengers and affecting those most vulnerable, the Tajik migrant laborers upon whom Tajikistan’s economy strongly depends.
The first to be hit by the new bans were the passengers expecting to fly on December 23 on Somoni Air from the Russian city of Orenburg after aviation authorities in Russia stopped the company from operating in its skies. Somoni Air is now barred from flying at another four Russian cities.
The history of the dispute dates back to early November. Dushanbe fired the first salvo by refusing to give clearance to flights arriving from the Moscow region airport of Zhukovo, to which Russia reacted by threatening a complete halt to all flights to Tajikistan.
A Tajik delegation travel to Moscow on November 7 and managed after some panicked negotiations to reach a workable compromise and avert the embargo.
Trouble resumed on December 21, when Russia again threatened to close its airspace to Tajik airlines if Dushanbe would not agree to admit flights from Yamal Airlines, a company based in the northern Siberian town of Salekhard. More than 100 tickets had been sold for this route.
But Tajikistan’s Transportation Ministry said that during the November negotiations, Tajikistan agreed only to flights for Ural Airlines and Tajik Air, and that there was no mention of Yamal Airlines.
The Transportation Ministry noted that Yamal had no right to sell tickets without receiving a permit from the the government.