Girls just want to have fun, Cyndi Lauper once sang. But in totalitarian Turkmenistan, having fun can spell trouble, especially if evidence lands on the Internet.
In the days since a video clip featuring a posse of schoolgirls in national dress rocking out to California-based Far East Movement’s party song “Turn Up the Love” turned up on YouTube, authorities have launched a nationwide crackdown on mobile phones in schools, a dissident-run website claims. The video currently has over 38,000 views.
Western music is officially frowned upon in Turkmenistan, where cultural protectionism – at the cost of near total isolation from the world – is a trademark of the repressive regime.
Perhaps to challenge Turkmen society’s deeply ingrained perceptions of gender roles – or perhaps because there were no better props at hand – the sextet swung about with items associated with domestic chores. The lead singer appeared to be yelling into a mop. Two faux guitarists jammed on brooms while, provocatively, another used a mini Turkmen flag to bow a newspaper as if it were a violin.
According to the Chronicles of Turkmenistan – a news outlet run by exiles that is generally hard to fact-check – the government response has been swift:
Prosecutors in Lebap province (formerly Chardzhou region) have been touring schools in the region for the last week, checking cell phones for students that contain photos and videos.
The new United States embassy in Kyrgyzstan continues to be the object of elaborate conspiracy theories in the Kyrgyz and Russian press, which now suggest that Washington is sneaking in equipment to help carry out a color revolution.
This conspiracy theory was kicked off by Kyrgyzstan newspaper Delo No., which reported that the U.S. flew in 152 tons of "unknown cargo" on a Ukrainian airplane. The cargo flew under the "diplomatic pouch," the mail service by which diplomats around the world can send mail without it being inspected by the receiving country.
"The situation in the world, and in our region especially, has recently become so explosive that any actions of the Americans should be regarded with suspicion. All the more so with American diplomats," the paper wrote. "And the diplomatic pouch of any country could theoretically be used to transport anything, including weapons. Before, the Americans in Kyrgyzstan had the possibility to get any cargo, into which the Kyrgyzstani authorities couldn't stick their nose, through their military base. Now there's no base, and the U.S. embassy was was unable to hide itself with the diplomatic pouch in the Manas civilian airport."
The paper puts forward two possible explanations for the secret cargo: one, that it is carrying cash in small denominations in order to pay protesters to carry out a "Maidan" in Bishkek. Another is that it is "espionage equipment for the enormous basements of the new U.S. embassy building in Bishkek."
Tajikistan’s National Bank has ordered the immediate closure of private currency exchange offices, a move that suggests Dushanbe is concerned about the somoni’s sharp depreciation. The currency has fallen 14.5 percent against the dollar this year as remittances from Russia slow.
The National Bank cited the need to assure the “stability” of Tajikistan’s currency market and the somoni exchange rate and “the protection of the interests of clients of credit organizations,” in a terse statement issued on April 17 announcing the closures with immediate effect.
The blanket ban on private exchange offices means more than half of the country’s exchange offices – 818 out of a total 1,581 – are being shuttered, leaving 763 operating, according to National Bank figures cited by Dushanbe-based Asia-Plus news agency.
With plenty of currency offices still working, the closures sparked little panic in Dushanbe, an observer in the city told EurasiaNet.org on condition of anonymity.
In dollar terms, remittances sent to Tajikistan from Russia declined by 7.6 percent in 2014 year on year, according to data recently released by Russia’s Central Bank. Remittances are likely to continue to drop this year amid ongoing economic turmoil in Russia.
This is bad news for the world’s most remittance-dependent country. The World Bank estimates remittances total the equivalent of 42 percent of Tajikistan’s GDP. Over a million Tajiks, or roughly half of working-age males, labor in Russia.
Known for its penchant for curbing civil liberties, the government of Azerbaijan is now moving to limit gastronomic freedom as well. To popularize the Caspian Sea country’s national cuisine, tourism officials have decided to make a traditional breakfast mandatory for all of the country’s hotels to serve. But first, they decided to "patent" an Azerbaijani breakfast.
The prospect of thousands of hungry athletes and spectators descending on Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, this summer for the June 12-28 European Games, no doubt prompted the decision. The former Soviet republic is hosting and financing the event, a Europe-only Olympics, to promote itself, and its culture internationally.
Cuisine, of course, is part of that mission, and breakfast, after all, is the most important meal of the day.
But what exactly goes into a trademarked "Azerbaijan Breakfast"?
Despite its enthusiasm for the idea, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, as yet, has not gotten around to elaborating. Nor has the state patent office.
It might be difficult to make the claim that an Azerbaijani breakfast is so unusual as to be patent-worthy, however. Generally, the meal can include sheep-cheese, honey, yogurt, a variety of fruit, scrambled eggs with tomato, bread, and tea, tea, tea — a combination not too dissimilar from other places in the region.
The Russian military is handing Astana more than a million hectares of land it has been renting in Kazakhstan, which hopes to use the territory to boost its extractive industries.
During talks in Moscow on April 16, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and his Kazakhstani counterpart Imangali Tasmagambetov finalized the deal that will see 1.6 million hectares of land that is part of two military testing grounds ceded to Kazakhstan, Russian news agency TASS reported.
“Unused territories and sectors where communications routes and mineral wealth are located will be removed from the lease and handed over to Kazakhstan,” Shoigu said.
The land is part of two military facilities operated by Russia in Kazakhstan: the Saryshagan anti-ballistic missile testing ground at Lake Balkhash in the southeast and a flight testing center in Aktobe in the energy-rich west.
“We have taken into account all the desires of the Kazakhstani side in removing the land from the lease,” Shoigu added.
For Kazakhstan, the deal reasserts its sovereignty over the territory and opens up the opportunity to build infrastructure and prospect for energy and mineral resources, just as Astana launches a program to increase Kazakhstan’s proven reserves.
“This agreement is linked to the economic interests of the Republic of Kazakhstan,” the country’s Ministry of Defense said in a tight-lipped statement. The land “will be used in the interests of the oil-and-gas sector, the construction of housing, railroads, and highways, and for other needs.”
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s office is taking action to tamp down a political brushfire. A statement issued on April 16 insisted that an Armenian-Turkish aide to the prime minister was not fired for making public comments calling for Ankara’s recognition of the 1915 mass deaths of Armenians as genocide. Instead, the aide had already retired, and thus made the comments as a private citizen, the prime minister’s office announced.
Etyen Mahcupyan, who became a top advisor to Davutoglu in October 2014, stirred controversy when he lauded comments made by Pope Francis I, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, who on April 12 described the 1915 tragedy as the “first genocide of the 20th century.” Armenians around the world will mark the centennial of the tragedy on April 24.
Following the pope’s remarks, Mahcupyan was quoted as saying by the Karar.com news website, “If one accepts that what happened [in recent decades] in Bosnia and Africa were genocides, it is impossible not to call what happened to Armenians in 1915 genocide, too.”
Mahcupyan’s comments created a PR challenge for the Turkish government, which maintains the 1915 tragedy does not meet the legal criteria for classification as genocide. The official Turkish stance insists the mass deaths were a tragedy of war. With the approach of the centennial of the 1915 events, Turkey has faced mounting pressure to change its position and recognize the mass deaths as genocide.
“The 1915 events took place during World War I when a portion of the Armenian population living in the Ottoman Empire sided with the invading Russians and revolted against the empire,” said the April 16 statement issued by the Prime Minister’s office and distributed by the official Anadolu news agency. “The Ottoman Empire relocated Armenians in eastern Anatolia following the revolts and there were Armenian casualties during the process.”
Torture is “a defining feature” of Uzbekistan’s criminal justice system, routinely employed by the security forces not only to extract confessions but also to extort bribes, a new report by an international human rights watchdog finds.
Torture “is central to how the Uzbekistani authorities deal with dissent, combat security threats and maintain their grip on power,” says the study by Amnesty International, published on April 15.
The watchdog accuses the international community of turning a “blind eye” to “endemic” torture in order to protect its strategic interests with a “perceived geo-strategic ally.” (Tashkent has supported the “war on terror” and the US-led coalition in neighboring Afghanistan.)
“The attitude of Uzbekistan’s international partners to the routine use of torture appears at best ambivalent, and at worst silent to the point of complicity,” John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Europe and Central Asia director, said in a statement. “As long as Uzbekistan uses torture-tainted evidence in court, it will remain a torture-tainted ally.”
The report, based on over 60 interviews with victims and relatives, details a range of gruesome torture methods, from beatings; asphyxiation; rape; and sexual assault to psychological torment; food, water, and sleep deprivation; exposure to extreme temperatures; and electric shocks.
“They beat me everywhere, on my head, kidneys…When I lost consciousness they would throw water on me to wake me up and beat me again,” one victim recalled. “They beat me bloody. The first time I came to they must have suspended me from above because I couldn’t bend. The second time I came to they put me on a chair and put a cellophane bag on my head, suffocated me and beat me and I lost consciousness.”
Tajikistan is purportedly the linchpin of Moscow's security strategy in Central Asia, but local employees of the Russian military base there have protested that they haven't been paid their wages for six months.
According to RFE/RL's Tajik service, "dozens" of locals who work at the base in Kulyab, in southern Tajikistan near the border with Afghanistan, protested on April 15 to call attention to the slow payment. Russian base officials told the service that a third party company is responsible for the support staff, but that company has said that the base hasn't paid them.
If Russia isn't in fact making its payments on the base, that bodes ill for the ambitious plans that the Kremlin has announced for the base. Earlier this month, Russia announced that by 2020 it will increase the number of soldiers stationed there from 6,000 to 9,000. (It's already Russia's largest military base abroad.)
Russia is ostensibly concerned about Tajikistan's long border with Afghanistan, and has lately been ratcheting up the rhetoric about the possibility of Islamist radical spillover from Afghanistan into Central Asia. The new Russian-led security bloc, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, last week held a meeting in the northern Tajikistan city of Khujand, where "particular attention was given to the current situation in Afghanistan with regard to the activities of the IS international terrorist organization."
Azerbaijan’s status in a prominent international transparency organization has been downgraded. Representatives of the group cited Baku’s ongoing crackdown on individual liberties as the reason for the demotion.
Azerbaijan had been a member of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, or EITI, since 2003. The organization comprises companies, governments and civil-society groups and is dedicated to promoting greater transparency about state revenues earned from energy extraction and mining operations. Also inherent in membership is a commitment by member states to uphold basic liberties, in particular freedom of the press and broad access to information.
On April 14, EITI’s board deemed Azerbaijan was falling short in fulfilling the group’s obligations and downgraded the country from full member to candidate. To have its membership restored, Baku needs to “ensure that civil society in Azerbaijan can participate in the EITI in a meaningful way,” the Norway-based group’s chairperson, Clare Short, said.
Azerbaijan’s troubles with the EITI date back to 2013, when some organization representatives expressed concern about a crackdown on government critics, and launched a probe into the country’s commitment to the transparency standard.
The continued departure of young men for jihad in Syria is raising alarm in Georgia’s Pankisi Valley, a Sunni Muslim area that allegedly has seen scores of men leave for the war over the past few years.
Parents from Pankisi have asked for the government’s help to stop the trend. A photo that shows two Pankisi high-schoolers armed and posing before the Islamic State flag in a jihadist training camp has added to the sense of urgency. Police had been searching for the duo since April 2, when they vanished after being seen entering the public school they attended.
Now, attention has begun to focus on Georgian border officers as well. One of the two, 16-year-old Muslim Kushtanashvili, allegedly used his father’s passport to slip through the Georgian-Turkish border. (Georgian citizens can enter Turkey visa-free.)
Angry members of Pankisi’s council of elders have demanded that the government take greater responsibility for blocking such departures at the border. The interior ministry has started an investigation.
“It is a tragedy for an entire nation, when kids are taken to war straight from their school desks,” said Meka Khangoshvili, a Pankisi activist and adviser for the Georgian Ministry for Reconciliation and Civic Equality, in an interview with the Kakheti Information Center. She called on the government to step up efforts to integrate the secluded area into Georgian society.
At the same time, according to local media, parents blame individuals they term Wahhabis, who reportedly deny involvement, for the boys’ departure to Syria, and also Abu Omar al-Shishani (born Tarkhan Batirashvili), a Pankisi-born commander with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Exasperation also appears targeted at the young jihadists themselves.