“War is over, beware of peace” goes a phrase from the Caucasian Chalk Circle, a play by Bertolt Brecht. It rings true today when peace in the Caucasus is brought by Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who is initiating a new phase of the roughly 24-year-long talks between Azerbaijan and Armenia to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
After brokering a shaky April 5 ceasefire between the two, Moscow now has hit on “intensive negotiations,” a familiar prescription, as the way forward. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov traveled to Yerevan on April 21 to talk about the Karabakh negotiations.
As yet, however, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Minsk Group, the tripartite body headed by Russia, the US and France, which has overseen the Karabakh talks since 1992, is not in the picture.
“It was the initiative of Russian President Vladimir Putin,” said Ali Hasanov, a senior aide to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. “He addressed the presidents of both countries [Armenia and Azerbaijan] and preparations are underway now for the negotiations process.”
“We have activated all necessary diplomatic mechanisms to place the sides at the negotiations table,” Russia’s Kommersant newspaper quoted an unnamed Kremlin official as saying.
The official said that Moscow attaches top importance to finding peace in Karabakh, but, then, whether in South Ossetia, Ukraine or Syria, it always does, supposedly.
A mural created by street artist Pavel Kas in the industrial city of Temirtau.
A graffiti artist in the industrial Kazakhstan town of Temirtau has ended up in the authorities’ crosshairs for creating a giant mural in protest at the environmental damage caused by a local smelter.
The mural was painted on the side of an apartment block by Pavel Kas in the style of Henri Matisse’s The Dance and shows a circle of human figures around a chimney stack chugging out thick black smoke. The vividness of the painting is in ironic contrast to the bleak backdrop of the real factories.
But one city’s vandalism is another city’s art, and so the town hall in Shymkent, in southern Kazakhstan, has now invited Kas to take part in an art festival being held there on May 13-15.
Shymkent Art Days 2016 will host street artists, sculptors, architects, designers and graffiti artists for an event to celebrate contemporary style. While Temirtau has reacted poorly to the notion of people painting on its walls, Shymkent is actively inviting festival participants to break out the paints.
“Pavel Kas is a lively representative of informal art dealing with current issues. Shymkent will be happy to welcome Pavel to its festival and organizers will provide all materials needed to create works that will decorate our city,” Shymkent deputy mayor Kairat Nurtai said in remarks reproduced on the city’s official website.
Temirtau is the heart of Kazakhstan’s steel industry, which environmentalists say has had a heavy toll on the quality of the air. One the earliest workers at the city’s first blast furnace in the 1960s was none other than President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Tajikistan industry’s visiting card: That was how President Emomali Rahmon once described aluminum producer TALCO.
But things are looking a bit grim for the company at the moment with the news that it has had to lay off 607 employees, equivalent to 7 percent of the entire workforce, because of low global prices for its product.
Reuters news agency on April 19 cited TALCO press secretary Igor Sattarov as saying that 8,200 workers would be left at the company after the cutback.
Although the loss of employment will come as a massive blow to the laborers affected, the cutback is still quite a bit short of the 2,000 job cuts called for international consultants. Sattarov said TALCO instead opted for a “mitigated plans for the staffing optimization” and has put a number of people on unpaid leave.
International aluminum prices are currently hovering around $1,600 per ton, which marks something of a recovery from the lows seen last year, but still falls short of a figure that would make TALCO seriously profitable.
Wanting to help TALCO out of a tight spot, the government in November granted the company licenses to develop two gold deposits in the northern Sughd province, Konchoch and Chulobi. Usage rights over the deposits will extend to 25 years.
Tajikistan has slipped 34 places in the media rights group Reporters Without Borders annual index in a stark reflection of the country’s intensifying assault on political freedoms this past year.
Tajikistan now stands 150th out of 180 positions.
“On the pretext of combatting terrorism, the government has eliminated the political opposition and is stepping up pressure on the remaining independent media. Interrogation by intelligence officers, intimidation and blackmail have become part of the daily fare of independent journalists. Surveillance of communications is now routine, while the blocking of the main news websites and social networks is virtually permanent.” RSF said in a commentary on Tajikistan to go with the index.
By virtue of the state pressure against reporters, few instances of intimidation gain public attention as even the few remaining independent-minded outlets increasingly exercise robust self-censorship.
Little appears to have improved since the visit in March of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the protection of the right to freedom of expression, David Kaye, who spoke of his concern that instability in Afghanistan was serving as a smokescreen for repression.
“I recognize that there is a serious security problem in this part of the world, in particular in Tajikistan and in this neighborhood. But I’m afraid that the security situation has been used as a pretext, as an excuse, to crack down on freedom of expression, whether in the media or in civil society,” Kaye told a press conference at the conclusion of his visit in Dushanbe.
Proponents of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline say the much-discussed, long-delayed project will be completed by the end of the decade. But some regional experts are contending that TAPI’s time may have already passed.
The pipeline, which would convey Turkmen natural gas via Afghanistan to Pakistani and Indian markets via a 1,800km-long route, has been beset by myriad issues for the better part of two decades. But the plan seemed to move off the back burner last December, when, out of the blue, officials in Turkmenistan announced that construction had gotten underway.
The problem, according to Luca Anceschi, a lecturer in Central Asian Studies with the University of Glasgow who has extensively studied TAPI, is that Ashgabat provided no tangible evidence, such as video of backhoes doing some digging, to support the claim that work had started. And since Turkmenistan is home to one of the most ruthless dictatorships on the planet, where words and images are twisted to meet the needs of the country’s leader, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, it is hard to take officials at their word.
“We only know what the Turkmen government wants us to know,” said Anceschi, speaking at a forum hosted by Columbia University’s Harriman Institute on April 11. “There is not a picture, there is not a TV frame, of the works being done. It’s like the Middle Ages.”
As Kazakhstan’s economic muddle continues apace, the production and sale of new automobiles has collapsed, while more drivers are choosing to buy or keep old clangers.
Figures released last week by the National Economy Ministry show that in the first quarter of 2016, the production of cars fell by 92.2 percent compared with the same period last year, Trend news agency reported. During the same period, factories in Kazakhstan produced 14.2 percent fewer trucks.
Kazakhstan’s main auto assembly companies — Azia Avto, Saryarka AvtoProm and Agromash Holding — turn out some of the world’s largest brands, including Chevrolet, Kia, Skoda, Lada, Toyota, Hyundai, SsangYong and Peugeot.
Most cars sold in Kazakhstan are imported, and demand has been steadily falling.
In 2015, official dealerships reported the sale of 97,446 automobiles, a 40 percent drop on the year before.
The rate of the drop-off in sales is intensifying. Figures from the Kazakhstan Automobile Business Association (KABA) show that 6,991 cars were bought from official dealerships in the first two months of this year, a 59 percent decrease on the same period in 2015.
A glance around the roads in Kazakhstan’s wealthiest cities, Astana and Almaty, is an easy reminder that many Kazakhs prefer when they can to buy larger cars able to handle some of the country’s worst roads.
But as KABA president Andrey Lavrentyev has noted, the greatest demand registered last year was for compact models costing under 4.5 million tenge ($13,300).
The biggest seller among smaller models last year was the Hyundai Elantra (2,203 units), followed by the Skoda Rapid with 1,351 sales. In a far third place was the KIA Cerato with 883 units sold.
Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev, never shy about thrusting his once-obscure country on to the global stage, has unveiled perhaps his most ambitious initiative ever: to rid the world of war.
The new program, announced during Nazarbayev's recent trip to Washington, is called "21st Century: A World Without Wars" and is laid out in a document, "Manifesto: The World. The 21st century."
Nazarbayev's rule has featured several globally ambitious initiatives, like integrating all of Eurasia, bringing the world's religions together and eliminating nuclear weapons. The new anti-war manifesto is an outgrowth of the last, and Nazarvbayev unveiled it at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington.
And as with Kazakhstan's other global projects, it's difficult to separate Nazarbayev's desire to do good from his desire for glory. “The government is not insincere about this issue, but it is certainly also used for public diplomacy issues,” said Togzhan Kassenova, an associate in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment, in an interview with Foreign Policy magazine.
A member of parliament in Kazakhstan has struck a populist note by thundering about the reportedly massive wages being paid to a Russian soccer star recently signed by Almaty’s FC Kairat.
In an intemperate address before parliament on April 18, Muhtar Tinkeyev spoke of the need to develop a sporting culture in Kazakhstan and not to waste money bringing foreign stars to the country. By way of an example, he pointed to FC Kairat’s recent, high-profile signing of Andrei Arshavin.
“Look at Arshavin, they have given him a $1 million contract. Just think, more than $1 million a year. There are foreign players making $30,000 a month. Is this the kind of football we need?” Tinkeyev said in remarks carried in detail by Tengri News. “Why isn’t this money spent on children’s sport? On building courtyard playgrounds?”
Tinkeyev was no more sparing of what he described as the wasteful expense on basketball and hockey.
“Look at the situation with the Barys Atsana hockey team. You have this one Kazakh there, Damir Ryspayev, who only goes onto the ice to get into fights,” he said.
Tinkeyev instead lavished praise on recent sporting events like the Nomad Mixed Martial Arts competition, which wrapped up last week in the city of Karaganda at what Tinkeyev said was of no cost to the state budget.
And the deputy was no less critical of the slovenly behavior he claimed to have seen among overpaid sports stars.
In March, officials from Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan were at one another’s throats over a border dispute. But a month is a long time in frontier politics.
With moods now significantly calmed, representatives from both countries’ border services met on April 18 to discuss the recent discovery of an illegal cross-frontier smugglers’ tunnel.
Russian state-run news service Sputnik reported that the meeting took place at the “Uzbekistan” border crossing and organized at Tashkent’s instigation.
The underground passage discovered in March led from the village of Burbolik in Uzbekistan’s Altyaryk District to the village of Kyrgyz-Kyshtak in the Kadamzhai district in the Batken region. Sputnik cited Uzbek officials as saying they are still trying to establish who was running the smuggling operation.
Uzbek news website Podrobno.uz reported in March, that the 120-meter long tunnel was built six meters below ground and was around 70 centimeters wide and more than a meter high.
For all those relatively modest dimensions, Kyrgyz and Uzbek officials believe there is almost no limit to the evil that might have been coursing through the tunnel.
“Both sides are studying the possibility that this structure was being used to transport weapons, ammunition, explosives, unconstitutional literature, narcotics and militants,” Podrobno.uz reported.
The likelihood of “unconstitutional literature” — typically a codeword for religious pamphlets — is perhaps the most risible item on the list, since the Internet would be a far more secure way of conveying such material.
With Tajikistan now in the midst of its spring conscription drive, the country’s top defense official has given to worrying out loud about the state of discipline and morale among the armed forces.
Asia-Plus last week reported that Defense Minister Sherali Mirzo addressed senior defense personnel to discuss a series of problem areas, including the rampant and often deadly scourge of hazing. There is no reason to believe this problem will be tackled with any vigor, however.
Authorities say they have already enlisted 50 percent of the required number of conscripts this season. The techniques used to hit targets strike terror into the hearts of young Tajik men and for many they amount to little more than legalized mass kidnapping.
Pictures have appeared on social media showing young men being rounded up directly from the streets of the capital, Dushanbe. Social media has also served as a platform in the past for anonymously spreading alleged photographic evidence of hazing among conscripts. Media reported last year on four deaths in Tajikistan as a result of hazing: Firdavs Rahmatov, Abduvahhob Kayumov, Parviz Dustmatov and Azam Ubaidulloev.
In an unhappy piece of timing, a court in Dushanbe has just heard the trial of 22-year old man Umedjon Amrohon, who is accused of involvement in the fatal attack in November on a group of military mobilization personnel. Two of the officers were killed in the assault.
Prosecutors have asked that Amrohon be thrown behind bars for life.