The Armenian government has revised its controversial pension plan umpteen times, but many Armenians just don’t like it. And the government just does not give up.
The main problem -- mandatory salary deductions for a national retirement plan -- was discarded after a wave of protests, battles in parliament and a smack-down by the Constitutional Court. In a rare policy-concession to the opposition, the ruling establishment gave workers the discretion to opt out of contributing five percent of their salaries to the pension fund, but now questions are asked about how optional is optional.
On May 13, Armenia's parliament reluctantly approved in its first reading a truncated, deductions-optional version of the original bill. Some political parties welcomed the “free will” addition to the draft, but still the ruling Republican Party of Armenia was the bill's lone supporter. Others chose to abstain or oppose.
The most ardent critic of the pension scheme, and of the government in general – the Armenian National Congress (ANC) – maintained that, despite the compromise, a compulsory savings system has been forced on Armenia. The government has the means to put pressure on public and even private companies to force employees to make the transfers to the pension fund no matter what their individual decisions, asserted the ANC, RFE/RL reported.
The claim is debatable, but some media reports already alleged that the government is putting pressure on public servants to keep pitching into the pension fund.
The municipality of Almaty is suing Viktor Khrapunov, a former mayor and a foe of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, in the United States, accusing him of having “systematically looted” millions from city coffers over a decade ago.
Raising questions about why it took the municipality so long to notice the missing millions, the case was lodged in a Los Angeles federal court on May 14, a decade after Khrapunov left the post of mayor and six years after he moved out of Kazakhstan to base himself in a luxury Swiss mansion.
Adding piquancy to the scandal, Khrapunov’s daughter Madina is related by marriage to embattled oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov, Astana’s public enemy number one.
Discredited former banker Ablyazov is in jail in France battling extradition to Russia on fraud charges, and fighting moves to strip him of political asylum in the United Kingdom.
Madina Ablyazova is named as a defendant in the Khrapunov case along with Khrapunov’s wife Leila and son Ilyas, reports The Courthouse News, a Pasadena-based legal wire service.
Khrapunov – a former Nazarbayev administration insider who held a string of top posts including mayor of Almaty from 1997 to 2004 – “abused his position of trust as a public official in order to convert and sell numerous assets belonging to the City of Almaty for his own benefit and the benefit of his co-conspirators,” the report quotes the lawsuit as saying.
Georgia will strike up an “historic” alliance with the European Union by signing an association agreement on June 27, Tbilisi announced on May 14. And the agreement is not the country's final stop on the road to Europe, one key EU official, on hand in Tbilisi for the announcement, declared. Yet for all the high hopes, the announced schedule of Europeanization could be -- with apologies to the late Gabriel Garcia Márquez -- a chronicle of trouble foretold.
Yesterday's tragic mining accident in western Turkey, which left at least 245 workers dead and more than 100 still trapped, has again put a spotlight on the country's spotty workplace safety record and the halting steps to improve it.
As the Hurriyet Daily News reports, Turkey's mining industry has one of the world's highest fatality rates:
More than 3,000 people have been killed in mining accidents across Turkey since 1941, mostly due to fires, landslide or explosions.
A report from 2010 stated that the number of deaths in mine accidents in Turkey outnumbers those in the world’s biggest coal producers, the Unites States and China, in terms of fatalities per ton.
Figures show the country is much more dangerous than any country for a miner, even than China, which has the largest number of coal-mining fatalities in any country.
Although the number of miners killed in accidents is far higher in China, the number of deaths per ton of coal production in China was seven times lower than Turkey in 2008, according to a mining sector overview report published by the Economy Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV) in 2010.
“While the number of deaths per million ton of coal production is 7.22 in Turkey, it stood at 1.27 in China and 0.02 in the United States in the same year,” the report said, citing official data obtained from the country’s related agencies.
Springtime brings with it a plethora of new fruits and vegetables that make but a brief appearance in Istanbul's markets. Writing for CulinaryBackstreets.com, writer Roxanne Darrow takes a look at the spring bounty in the city's bazaars, from the more familiar tart green plums, used in stews or eaten straight, to some less known wild greens that are foraged by market vendors this time of year.
From Darrow's piece:
Spring arrives at the markets in Istanbul with a great deal of color and fanfare. Vendors arrange peas in perfect diagonal rows, displaying their goods to lure you into a multi-kilo purchase. Men furiously carve out artichoke hearts and toss them into lemon-water filled bags, step around massive piles of trimmings and hand you what feels like a new goldfish purchase. Fava beans are ubiquitous in their fuzzy pods, although less appealing because of all the prep work that comes with them. Best to enjoy fava beans in a restaurant, in zeytinyağlı (with olive oil) and yogurt or our favorite, a garlicky mash like the chefs make at Müzedechanga in the Sabancı Museum.
Artichokes, fava beans and peas are not the only superstars of spring produce in İstanbul’s markets – the first fruits of the year are here too. While shopping at the expansive Kadiköy market on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, we saw teens staining their fingers purple with mulberries. We hope each was careful to sift through the “Armani” underwear stands with his clean hand. Kids munched on small tart-sweet green plums as their moms shopped for pajamas. Ripe, dark-orange loquats and lusty wild strawberries gleamed among the sea of tender spring greens. Sold and sold.
These are all expected spring treats, but what about the underdogs?
When a secret-recordings scandal hits Georgia, it can only mean one thing – an election. Georgia’s top national TV broadcaster, Rustavi2, dropped a bomb on Friday by airing leaked conversations involving big wigs from politics and business. With municipal elections around the corner next month, this could be just a teaser.
But those Georgian viewers used to more salacious or shocking revelations from past campaign seasons were disappointed this time. Nobody asked for two corpses, or used less-than-flattering epithets to describe their bosses, or revealed a Manchurian-Candidate-style collusion with Russia, the favorite plot line of secret recordings broadcast during ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili's rule.
This time around, the larger sensation is the perception that, despite a change in government, phone-tapping continues, including on top officials and perhaps just about everyone of interest.
Rights groups long have been struggling to end that alleged practice. When allegations surfaced late last year about a government-stash of black boxes, the interior ministry claimed it only listened into phone conversations during criminal investigations.
The recent news that a Syrian woman in Istanbul was arrested for allegedly trying to sell her three-month-old baby was perhaps shocking, but it was also a reminder that while Turkey has managed to house a large number of Syrian refugees in what are considered to be exemplary camps, the majority of these refugees are now living in Turkish urban areas, with many of them facing desperate conditions.
The numbers tell this story quite clearly. While Turkey is now home to more than 900,000 Syrian refugees, only 220,000 of them live in the camps, which are located near the border with Syria. The rest have made their way to Turkish cities, from border towns like Gaziantep and Kilis to larger urban centers such as Istanbul.
This development and the challenges it poses for Turkey and Turkish policymakers are highlighted in a new report released yesterday by The Brookings Institution. From the report, entitled, "Syrian Refugees and Turkey’s Challenges: Beyond the Limits of Hospitality:"
There is general recognition that the government has done a commendable job in providing protection and humanitarian assistance to the refugees in the camps. However, the situation for those refugees outside the camps is more complicated.
Screen shot of a Chinese state television report on the visit of Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov to Beijing.
China and Turkmenistan have agreed to establish a "strategic partnership" during a visit by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov to Beijing. With Turkmenistan, China now has strategic partnerships with all five Central Asian states; it established them last year with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
While talk of strategic partnerships may be cheap, there's no doubt that China takes its relationship with Turkmenistan seriously. Berdymukhammedov got a pretty impressive welcome in Beijing, and the People's Liberation Army even took the occasion to debut its first ever female honor guards who, as the South China Morning Post put it, "apparently left an impression" on Berdymukhammedov:
Clad in skirts, riding boots and hair pulled back into the classic chignon, 13 women soldiers from China’s military debuted as honour guards on Monday to welcome the visiting Turkmenistan president.
They are the first female People’s Liberation Army honour guards since the squad was established in 1952. Their attire of knee-high skirts and five-centimetre heels singled them out from the rows and rows of sober, hunter-green uniforms of their male comrades.
Their presence apparently left an impression on President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, who is in China at the invitation of President Xi Jinping.
“It’s very nice, very good,” Berdimuhamedov said of the female soldiers.
China-Turkmenistan ties are, of course, focused on energy. Just last week Berdymukhammedov inaugurated two new Chinese-built gas processing facilities, and gas exports are scheduled to increase from about 25 billion cubic meters this year to 65 billion in 2020.
Presidents of Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan watch a military exercise from the Kremlin. (photo: kremlin.ru)
Russian President Vladimir Putin convened an "informal" summit of his allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization last week as Moscow faced continued international isolation over its role in the Ukraine crisis. But the event only highlighted the misgivings of Russia's foreign policy direction, even among its closest allies.
For one, there was the absence of Nursultan Nazarbayev, president of CSTO member Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan is the CSTO member with the most international stature (outside of Russia); with Kazakhstan the group hardly presents an impressive front; without it, remaining CSTO allies Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are an even more motley crew.
And Nazarbayev's excuse was one unlikely to elicit understanding from the Kremlin: he had to stay in Astana to meet with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns. And Burns, after meeting with Nazarbayev, told the local press that he had brought the message from Washington that "so long as Russia continues down its current dangerous and irresponsible path, we will continue to work with our international partners to apply steadily increasing counter-pressure." The jilted CSTO allies continued on undaunted; It seems the words "Nazarbayev" or "Kazakhstan" were not uttered at the meeting, in public anyway, and the Kremlin account did not mention the fact that it was called under the auspices of the CSTO (though the CSTO itself did).
Georgia is close to releasing a long-awaited official review of the 2008 South Ossetia war. And while critics of the government have expressed concern that the report will be a politically motivated attack on the former government, led by President Mikhail Saakashvili, the current defense minister is instead emphasizing how the report will have lessons for Ukraine as it, too, struggles with Russia.
At the end of April, the defense ministry announced that it had finished the report. That it was commissioned shortly after Saakashvili's defeat made some think it was going to be an attempt to blame him, rather than Russia, for the war. Alasania denied this last April: "Russia started an aggressive war campaign against Georgia, a sovereign country, and occupied its territories. No-one questioned this and no-one will question it in the future." Instead, Alasania insisted that the report would be focused on military, rather than political, questions and would be used to plan future development of the armed forces. That criticism has not gone away, with Saakashvili's United National Movement claiming "that the research might be politically motivated, aiming at political pressure on the [UNM] prior to the local self-government elections scheduled for June 15."