The diplomatic brouhaha over a travel blogger has led to senior officials in Armenia calling for Belarus to be kicked out of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the security alliance to which they both belong.
Alexander Lapshin, the now-notorious Russian-Israeli travel blogger, was extradited from Belarus to Azerbaijan on February 8. He is facing charges in Baku related to his visit to Nagorno Karabakh, a de jure part of Azerbaijan that is de facto controlled by Armenian forces. Azerbaijan considers a visit to Karabakh to be an illegal border crossing.
Demanding Lapshin's extradition was a dramatic step for the relatively minor crime of an illegal border crossing, especially given that both Russia and Israel are two of Azerbaijan's most important partners, and both have strongly objected to the extradition.
Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev called his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko to personally thank him for the extradition, calling it a "manifestation of the Azerbaijan-Belarus friendship and strategic partnership."
The episode, correspondingly, resulted in outrage in Armenia, including protests at the Belarusian embassy in Yerevan, and there were calls to retaliate against Minsk in various ways, including withdrawing its ambassador and suspending relations. But the most commonly proposed retaliation was to try to kick Belarus out of the CSTO.
Anti-corruption officials on February 10 detained the editor of one of Kazakhstan’s few surviving independent news publications on charges of corruption, once more arousing anxieties about the fast-vanishing space for free media in the country.
Authorities are accusing Zhanbolat Mamay, editor of Tribuna newspaper, of involvement in fraudulent schemes with fugitive banker and government foe Mukhtar Ablyazov.
The Anti-Corruption Service said in a statement that they suspect Mamay of using his publication to launder money allegedly embezzled from BTA Bank by Ablyazov and his associate Zhaksylyk Zharimbetov.
Ablyazov is accused of defrauding BTA Bank, which he used to run, of billions of dollars between 2005 and 2009. Kazakhstan has sought but failed on repeated counts to secure Ablyazov’s deportation from either the United Kingdom or France.
Anti-corruption officials have said they are running searches for documentation possibly confirming allegations of money-laundering.
A journalist for Tribuna, Inga Imanbai, published video footage on her Facebook account of the moment when the anti-corruption officers arrived to search the newspaper’s offices. Imanbai said that the same officers had previously also visited Mamay’s apartment.
Unlike most media in Kazakhstan, Tribuna is not a beneficiary of the “state order” system, whereby the government either finances outlets outright or pays for the publication of material publicizing state policies and initiatives. It focuses primarily on social issues and has a line that tends toward robust criticism of the government and provides a platform for the few opposition politicians remaining on the scene.
The picture for Kyrgyzstan’s presidential election is becoming ever clearer with new candidates either throwing their hat into the ring or being linked with plans to do so imminently.
The second addition to the roster, following former prime minister Temir Sariyev, is the leader of the Onuguu-Progress party, 43-year old Bakyt Torobayev, who told his supporters on February 10 that he wants to see Kyrgyzstan install a “dictatorship of law,” borrowing an old line from Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
Torobayev struck a populist and workmanlike tone in his declaration of intent to run in October’s vote.
“People ask me what form of system I favor — presidential or parliamentary. If I am honest, we have really tired people with this business. I am for that form of government that will create jobs, where young people won’t need to go abroad for work, where every citizen will feel protected, both legally and socially. I would call this form of government a dictatorship of law,” Torobayev was cited as saying by 24.kg news agency.
Onuguu-Progress is a recent fixture on the Kyrgyz political scene, having been formed in May 2013 as a Torobayev-led, four-deputy splinter group of the business-focused Respublika party faction in parliament. Torobayev was deputy speaker of parliament at the time.
Onuguu-Progress, and Torobayev accordingly, have cast themselves as “centrist” and “neo-conservative,” agitating for the protection of property rights, advancing the values of a market economy and promoting political competition. The party has explicitly renounced any appeals to the street-based politics that has prevailed in Kyrgyzstan for much of the past two decades.
The recently released trailer for a film telling the story of militant Uzbek Islamist leaders Tahir Yuldashev and Juma Namangani has come in from criticism for its depiction of devout Muslims.
The promotional preview for Sacred Desire, a production by state film company Uzbekfilm, promises an action-packed melodrama spilling over with scenes of Islamic plotting, domestic violence, gun-battles and even some sly seduction.
“Most social media website users were extremely irritated by director Hilol Nasimov’s film, where by showing terrorists, they smear the Muslim faith,” BBC’s Uzbek service reported on February 7.
The trailer is also tainted by a decidedly racist depiction of an Arabic character, according to critics of the movie. An older female character in the movie is seen shouting that she refuses to see her daughter married off to “some black Arab.”
“I was quite amazed when I heard the expression ‘black Arab’ in the trailer. Why this is blatant racism!” blogger Arbor Masharipov was quoted as saying by the BBC.
The BBC quoted another blogger, Sardor Salim, as comparing Uzbekfilm’s current output with the kinds of films made in the Soviet era about the basmachis, a Central Asian insurgency that sought and failed to counter Moscow’s rule.
One unnamed woman, a self-described devout Muslim, told the British broadcaster that if she had lived in a rules-based country, she might have considered filing suit against Nasimov for slandering Muslims, and women in particular.
Kazakhstan is patting itself on the back after a successful conclusion to the Universiade 2017 winter student games in Almaty.
“Universiade 2017 has proved to be a true festival of sport for all Kazakhstanis,” President Nursultan Nazarbayev said in a statement posted on his official website.
The games culminated with a boisterous closing ceremony which saw athletes parading through the 12,000-capacity Almaty Arena to a soundtrack of pulsating Kazakh music provided by the group Ulytau, 150 drummers and other stars from Kazakhstan.
“The 28th Winter Universiade has taken place at a high level, despite the modest budget input,” Prime Minister Bakhytzhan Sagintayev told the crowd at the closing ceremony.
“Over a billion viewers followed the Universiade. We have seen how sports, health and culture facilities, that are going to function for the good of our country's inhabitants, were erected in a short time. We are proud of our victories and we thank you all,” he said.
Nazarbayev offered further congratulations to Kazakhstan’s athletes on finishing second on the medal table with 11 golds, 8 silvers and 17 bronzes, behind only Russia who scooped up more than one-third of the gold medals on offer.
Authorities in Kazakhstan have responded to the moral panic about the widely reported online suicide games by proposing fresh restrictions on access to social media websites.
The scare originally had its roots in Russia, where media outlets — primarily the liberal-leaning Novaya Gazeta — last year whipped up a hysteria over claims that shadowy individuals on the internet were egging on youngsters into taking their own lives. Novaya Gazeta came in for strong criticism for creating a hype on the basis of scant evidence of a real major threat.
Out of the blue, however, at the end of January, several Russian-language outlets in Central Asia almost simultaneously took up the mantle of reviving the scare.
In Kazakhstan, the charge was led by privately owned television channel KTK, which ran a lurid and skimpily sourced report claiming the grisly fad had spread from Russia.
The hype was given a fresh kickstart this week following reports that a 19-year old girl in the city of Karaganda had committed suicide. Media reports claimed to cite her parents as saying they found strange hashtags in messages on their daughter’s phone that indicated she may have been lured into one of the much talked-about suicide games.
Suggestions of a link between online games and this suicide were swiftly scotched by police, however. Interior Ministry representative Almas Sadubayev said on February 7 that investigations into the death were still ongoing, but that “information about the suicide being committed under the influence of social media websites is incorrect.”
Sadubayev said there had been no confirmed cases of any teenage suicide as a result of online games.
Weeks after the government in Tajikistan announced an ambitious bond issue to help finance a bailout for several struggling banks, prosecutors have decided to start investigating the lenders.
The four banks being audited by the General Prosecutor’s Office are Tojiksodirotbank, Agroinvestbank, Tojprombank and state-owned Amonatbank.
Another troubled lender, Fononbank, is being spared the treatment because it was already audited last year over suspicions that it was somehow collaborating with the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT).
RFE/RL’s Tajikistan service, Radio Ozodi, reported that checks on the four banks are set to last six months. A representative for the General Prosecutor’s Office, Hotam Nazarzoda, said that the operation was being carried out at the request of the government to establish that the lenders were not being “mismanaged.”
If this explanation sounds unilluminating, it may be by design. Prosecutors have refrained from explaining quite what they mean by “mismanagement” or why this should be a matter for them to investigate.
But one unidentified source told Radio Ozodi this was primarily a reference to the way in which the banks issue loans. The source explained that some banks have been known to accept doors, windows, cows and other livestock as collateral for credit, immaterial of whether the customer was ever likely to be able to repay their debt. This sort of liberal credit-giving has, in the opinion of the authorities, led to lenders being driven to the verge of collapse.
“Animals have the habit of dying, and sometimes they do it early. And there have been cases when an apartment worth $50,000 could be displayed as being worth $100,000. These is called unguaranteed collateral,” the source told Radio Ozodi.
Photo: Mariusz Kluzniak via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/dbutrT
The protests that spread across Kazakhstan last spring forced authorities to backtrack on a land privatization agenda that had been quietly approved without consulting the public.
Concerns are now mounting among opponents of the idea of allowing the sale of land to foreign nationals that the government is seeking to achieve that aim by stealth through changes to the constitution.
Those suspicions center around the language in Article 26 of Kazakhstan’s founding law, which currently states that “Citizens of the Republic of Kazakhstan may privately own any legally acquired property.” Under the revised version of the constitution, this passage could be ambiguously amended to read “Anybody may privately own any legally acquired property.”
Zhanbolat Mamay, editor of Tribuna newspaper, conveyed the anxieties being expressed by many people online.
“This proposed change to Article 26 of Kazakhstan’s constitution has created strong discontent. Thousands of people are on social media expressing their deep unhappiness at these changes,” he wrote on his Facebook account. “What is most worrying is that any foreign citizen could buy our land. There is no guarantee that on this land they might build a village or even a city.”
This latter point sounds like a mischievous attempt to tap into popular fears about the specter of eventual mass Chinese resettlement in Kazakhstan. In fact, although it is true that the land privatization law passed in 2015 was adopted with little public consultation, it is not correct to say that the law would have legalized the sale of land to foreigners, as claimed by many objectors.
An embattled Israeli-Russian travel blogger was trotted in front of news crews in Baku on February 8 following his extradition from Belarus to Azerbaijan, where he is facing charges of illegal border-crossing and hostile activity.
News reports showed handcuffed blogger Alexander Lapshin emerging from a government jet in the Baku airport and escorted with gun-wielding guards in balaclavas. “The extradition of Alexander Lapshin is another testimony that Azerbaijan is capable of defending its national interests,” said Deputy Prime Minister Ali Akhmedov.
He remains in pre-trial detention, his next destination not disclosed.
The Russian-language blogger stands accused of unauthorized entry into Nagorno Karabakh, a breakaway territory from Azerbaijan controlled by ethnic Armenian rebels and Armenian military forces. Baku also accuses Lapshin of posting entries supportive of Karabakh’s independence on his Livejournal blog, Puerrtto.
Azerbaijan long has tried to coerce Karabakh back under Baku’s fold through international isolation; mainly by blacklisting foreign travelers to the territory. But this is the first time Azerbaijan had a foreign national arrested in a foreign country and then handed over to its control for such an offense.
One week after the European Parliament granted Georgia visa-free access to the European Union, the South Caucasus country has entered into a rivalry with Russia over laying a road to the EU for breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Parliament’s February 2 approval of the visa-free plan marks a big leap forward for Georgia in its long journey from the Soviet Union into Europe, and it wants its Russian-backed separatists to get Georgian passports and come along for the ride.
The separatists have dismissed Tbilisi’s advances as wishful thinking, but it appears that Moscow, which recognizes Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, and provides them with military and economic support, was put on guard.
It claims it can trump Tbilisi’s offer by convincing the EU to start accepting the breakaway regions’ own passports for travel.
In a February 7 remark, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin half-heartedly welcomed the EU’s decision to exempt Georgia from short-stay visas as a “positive act,” but advised that the EU should next start accepting visa applications from Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and “abandon its restrictions” for their “citizens.” Moscow, he said, will raise the matter with Brussels soon.
This might be the emptiest promise Moscow could make to its protectorates, as the EU is fairly strict about its policy of not recognizing the statehood of the Russian-backed breakaway regions.
It also is hardly in Moscow’s interest to let go of the two territories’ tight ties with Russia, which has backed separatism – in Ukraine, as well – as a way to curb the EU’s influence in the post-Soviet space.