Pro-Putin Russian bikers, known for their politically incorrect expeditions, have now caused concern in Azerbaijan, after they announced plans to descend on Nagorno Karabakh on July 31, in breach of an Azerbaijan-imposed travel ban on the breakaway territory.
This is not the first time that the infamous, Kremlin-funded motorcycle club, the Night Wolves, has sparked controversy. Earlier this year, with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s blessing, this Russian nationalism-on-wheels tried to retrace the Soviet Army’s route to Berlin to commemorate the 1945 victory over Nazi Germany.
Several European countries like Poland, Lithuania and the Czech Republic refused to offer passage to this new red army, both because of their controversial trajectory and for their support for pro-Russia fighters in Ukraine. Only a small group of club members made it to Germany; most of them in a rental car.
A pack of Night Wolves then headed to Georgia, much to the outrage of many Georgians angry over the continued Russian occupation of breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia. After all, the country’s biggest bête noire, Putin, is an honorary member of the gang.
In Georgia, the group’s leader, Alexander Zaldastanov, aka Surgeon, added fuel to the fire by expressing regret that he had to use an international passport to cross from Russia to Georgia.
“What is this? I even have to fill out forms in Sevastopol, Ukraine, where I spent my childhood,” he complained to Georgian media. “It is a tragedy that we all don’t live in one country anymore.”
There was disappointment in Almaty as it lost out to Beijing in the race to host the 2022 Olympic Winter Games by a mere four votes.
A 500-strong crowd gathered in the mid-afternoon on July 31 in downtown Almaty's Abai Square greeted the news of their city’s defeat with stony silence. Almaty was the clear underdog, and despite giving a good account of itself, the city failed to tip the balance its way as International Olympic Committee delegates gathered in Kuala Lumpur gave the nod to Beijing by a narrow margin of 44 votes to 40.
The decision is a blow to long-term president Nursultan Nazarbayev's image-making project for Kazakhstan, which had hoped for the spectacle of the Winter Olympics as the crowning glory of the country's rise from impoverished post-Soviet backwater to a dynamic, emerging player on the world stage.
Both Almaty and Kazakhstan have gained a massive publicity boost in the world's media as the bid decision day loomed. Almaty received plaudits from IOC delegates for the quality of its bid. That was a remarkable turnaround as it was tagged a rank outsider only a year ago. At that time, there was another rival contender — Norway's capital Oslo — and Almaty received the lowest scores from the IOC working group in most of the evaluation categories.
For the authorities the Winter Olympics bid was all about putting Kazakhstan on the map. “Of course we're not as famous as other big cities,” the vice-chairman of Almaty's bid, Andrey Kruykov, told the Associated Press. “It's our main task to let everybody know [about Almaty].”
A series of Russian soldiers behaving badly in Tajikistan has ignited debate in that country about the presence of the Russian military base there.
The most recent incident, which appears to have been the straw that broke the camel's back, was a July 28 street fight in Kulyob, near a part of the Russian base, involving "seven drunken Russian soldiers who had stripped down to their underwear began dancing, singing, and 'yelling loudly' in a residential area of the city center," RFE/RL reported. Locals reportedly complained to the soldiers, who then were reinforced with other soldiers from the base, and it resulted in a brawl.
This follows recent cases involving two Russian soldiers allegedly murdering a Tajik taxi driver last fall, and another soldier badly beating a waiter in a Kulyob restaurant earlier this year.
Russia's 201st Motorized Rifle Division is based in three facilities around Tajikistan: near Dushanbe, Kulyob, and Qurghon-Teppa. Its roughly 7,000 troops make it Russia's foreign largest military presence. In 2012 Tajikistan agreed to extend the presence of the base until 2042 in exchange for military aid, discounts on fuel, and easier conditions for Tajikistani labor migrants to Russia.
“As long as you’re going to be thinking anyway, think big,” goes an old line from headline-grabbing US presidential candidate Donald Trump. And in Azerbaijan, Trump, the mega-real-estate mogul, has done just that, in terms of both project and partner.
But the deal also raises big questions about how well he grasps the lay of the land in Azerbaijan.
Trump lent his name and management know-how to an upcoming, sail-shaped skyscraper in Baku that is owned by billionaire Anar Mammadov, Mother Jones magazine reported on July 29. Mammadov is a son of the country’s powerful transportation minister, Ziya Mammadov, a man whose family has been long accused of battening on privileged access to government contracts for infrastructure development.
The deal and Mammadov’s role as a champion of Azerbaijani interests in the US — he heads the Azerbaijan America Alliance — exemplify the two parallel worlds of US-Azerbaijani relations. Baku now bitterly rebukes Washington’s criticism of its dismal human rights records, even as its insiders actively lobby and sweet-talk US politicians.
Always with an eye out for international investment, Georgia had a national cringe moment last week when one lawmaker confused the acronym for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) with a crude Russian word for sex, telling a startled parliament that he “could never screw around” ["could never do the EBRD"] since he is “a faithful husband.”
Fifty-eight-year-old Soso Jachvliani, a Georgian film-star-turned-legislator, decided to make a clean breast of it in response to accusations that his majoritarian Georgian Dream bloc is nostalgic for the Soviet era, when some Georgian men traveled on cheap flights to Moscow for informal sex tours. The parliamentary opposition, the United National Movement Party, routinely accuses the Georgian Dream of flirting with Russia, and Mr. Jachvliani took it quite literally.
“I have never been to prostitutes,” he declared on July 22 to the assembly. “It was demeaning for me to pay 10 rubles [apparently, the Soviet-era prostitute rate]. I have handled those matters without the 10-ruble thing.”
“For your information,” Jachvliani went on, warming to the subject, “if there was any pretty lady in the Soviet cinema, I have had a relationship with all of them without paying those 10 rubles.”
In vain did Deputy Parliamentary Speaker Manana Kobakidze, a fellow member of the Georgian Dream bloc, try to stop this stream of consciousness. “Batono [Mr.] Soso, I beg you, this is parliament,” she began.
One of the few independent outlets covering Turkmenistan from inside the country is raising the alarm about the arrest of a correspondent.
Alternative News of Turkmenistan said Saparmamed Nepeskuliev, who lives in the city of Balkanabad, was detained on July 7 in the port city of Turkmenbashi after a reporting trip to the resort of Awaza. News of his arrest only reached his colleagues on July 28.
Nepeskuliev also worked as a freelance reporter for the Turkmen service of U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
Alternative News of Turkmenistan said that Nepeskuliev phoned relatives on the day of his disappearance to inform them that he was due to return to Balkanabad at 4 p.m. that same day and that he was going to take a swim before his departure.
Subsequently, there was no further communication and his telephone was turned off.
Nepeskuliev’s relatives contacted the police after several days to issue a missing person report. Police officers suggested Nepeskuliev might have drowned and contacted the morgue in Turkmenbashi, but nobody there could confirm they had processed anybody matching the description.
After investigations by the family, it was discovered that Nepeskuliev was being held in a prison in the village of Akdash, around 20 kilometres east of Turkmenbashi.
Relatives say Nepeskuliev was accused of carrying pills allegedly containing narcotic substances (presumed to be Tramadol) and that court hearings were to take place shortly.
Family members have not been permitted to see Nepeskuliev. Alternative News of Turkmenistan said there are concerns that Nepeskuliev may have been mistreated and that he has been given no legal representation.
Uzbekistan is planning to introduce a new form of criminal penalty that appears tailor-made to wield against Gulnara Karimova, the disgraced daughter of strongman leader Islam Karimov, in due course.
Parliament is considering amendments to the criminal code that would allow the courts to sentence convicted offenders to house arrest instead of prison or other forms of punishment, MP Aliya Yunusova, told the legal news website Norma.uz on July 29.
House arrest is currently only applied as a form of pre-trial detention, but if the change is passed by Uzbekistan’s rubber stamp parliament — a foregone conclusion — it will be on the statute books as a penalty.
That could theoretically provide Karimov’s administration with a face-saving legal resolution to the saga of the disgraced Karimova, who has been held under house arrest since February 2014 but never charged with a crime (at least to public knowledge).
At first no explanation was given for her detention, but last September prosecutors said Karimova was under investigation on suspicion of involvement in organized crime and corruption.
Her associates Gayane Avakyan and Rustam Madumarov had been convicted in a related case, the prosecutors said. They are believed to be serving jail terms in Uzbekistan.
The two also feature in a Swiss money-laundering investigation in which Karimova is a suspect, which is linked to a Swedish probe into allegations of illicit payments in Uzbekistan’s telecoms sector.
The sudden move to introduce house arrest as a penalty may be a prelude to developments in Karimova’s case, such as filing formal charges against her with a view to bringing her to trial.
General Lloyd Austin and other U.S. officials in Tashkent for meetings with President Islam Karimov on military cooperation. (photo: president.uz)
A senior American military official has visited Uzbekistan to discuss unspecified military cooperation issues.
General Lloyd Austin, the commander of U.S. Central Command, visited Tashkent on July 27 and met with President Islam Karimov and other officials. Uzbekistan's press release on the event said that Afghanistan was the topic of conversation, among other issues of regional security. RIA Novosti, citing "a source close to the negotiations," said the talks focused on the delivery of over 300 armored vehicles that Washington has promised. CENTCOM does not appear to have commented on the visit at all.
All that is fairly routine, and the talks also likely dealt with the possibility of further U.S. military aid that officials in Washington have hinted at. Meanwhile, Russia also recently ratified a deal under which Moscow would write off $900 billion in Uzbekistan's debt in order to open up new lines of credit for military purchases.
When it comes to human rights and Uzbekistan, the news is usually bad.
The U.S. State Department’s 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report, published on July 27, does not buck that trend, but it is notable in recognizing what it says are efforts by Tashkent to reduce forced child labor.
That has prompted the American government to promote Uzbekistan from Tier 3 to Tier 2 on its watch list — a move that has stunned the Cotton Campaign advocacy group.
Cotton Campaign, which has as it aim the end of forced child and adult labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton industry, says the upgrade lets Tashkent off the hook.
“The Uzbek government continues to operate one of the largest state-orchestrated systems of forced labor in the world,” the group said in a statement.
Nadejda Ataeva, president at the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia, said in comments carried on the Cotton Campaign statement, that the United States “has effectively sent a message to Uzbek authorities that forced labor of millions of its citizens is cost-free.”
The U.S. State Department paints a grim picture, but offers some ostensibly consolatory remarks in passing:
“Government-compelled forced labor of adults remains endemic during the annual cotton harvest. In 2014, despite a central government-decree banning all participation of those under age 18 in the cotton harvest, local officials mobilized children in some districts. In addition, across much of the country, third-year college and lyceum students continued to be mobilized, an unknown number of whom were not yet 18 years old.”
Kyrgyzstan's president has suggested that Russia's military base in the country will have to leave at some point, perhaps in an effort to signal that even as relations with the United States suffer, he doesn't intend the country to be a Russian vassal.
"We have a long term agreement, but sooner or later in the future Kyrgyzstan will have to defend itself, without relying on the bases of brotherly friendly countries," Almazbek Atambayev said at a press conference on July 27.
He did suggest that the base's presence was still welcome today: the base's establishment "was due to threats which the republic can not withstand still today, so the decision on the opening of the base was correct and remains relevant today," he added.
But the reference to the base leaving some day recalled a somewhat stronger statement Atambayev made in 2012 when he publicly questioned whether Kyrgyzstan needed a Russian base. And it comes at a particularly geopolitically volatile time for Bishkek; last week the government canceled a key treaty with the United States in what is probably the most serious diplomatic crisis with Washington in the short history of their bilateral relations. So is Atambayev trying to show that, just because he's angry at Washington, that doesn't mean the country is automatically in Moscow's camp?
In any case, the importance of the air base, at Kant near Bishkek, has risen substantially since 2012. Russia set up the base in 2003, its first new foreign military base since the collapse of the Soviet Union. It had been more or less merely a geopolitical placeholder with no apparent function except as a response of sorts to the U.S. setting up its own air base in the country.