Call it Azerbaijan's interpretation of traditional Caucasian hospitality. Its citizens may be facing a bad currency-crunch, brought on by devaluation and depressed oil prices, but that’s not gonna stop this South Caucasus country from footing the bill for travel and accommodation for the “more than 6,000” athletes competing in this June’s European Olympic Games in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku.
But the European Olympic Committee, which is running the Baku games, claims that covering athletes’ costs is standard for Olympic-host countries.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s government does, however, have a thing for “spectacular shows.” In 2012, almost $80 million was spent on Eurovision, a continental pop music extravaganza. Baku plans to foot a $8 billion bill for the European Olympic Games, even though its manat can buy 33.5 percent less per dollar now and fears persist that the nation’s hydrocarbon-supported revenues may halve this year.
The party of Tajikistan’s strongman president, Emomali Rakhmon, has swept aside all opposition in a parliamentary vote that international observes say fell far short of democratic standards.
Since independnece, two mildly critical parties each held two seats in the largely rubber-stamp 63-seat Assembly of Representatives: the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT) and the Communist Party. Though both had little power, their presence gave the body a democratic veneer. On March 1, neither met the 5 percent threshold needed to claim seats in parliament.
Instead, Rakhmon's ruling People’s Democratic Party increased its majority from 55 to 57 seats, local media reported. The remaining seven seats will be split among the Agrarian Party, the Party of Economic Reforms, and the Socialist Party, all of which have close links to Rakhmon’s regime.
The Communist leader called the poll a "farce," but said there was no point in challenging the results.
The Central Electoral Commission declared the vote valid, claiming that over 87 percent of the four-million-strong electorate had turned out at 3,209 polling stations around the country.
Tajikistan has never held a vote deemed free or fair by independent observers, and this one was no different.
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Iranian envoy Ali Akbar Velayati in January. (photo: Kremlin)
Iran may be admitted into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization this summer if it makes progress in resolving disputes over its nuclear program, Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, has said.
It already seems clear that India and Pakistan, who have both long sought SCO membership, will be admitted at the organization's summit this July in Ufa, Russia. Iran -- which also has been trying for years to enter the SCO -- has been hampered by the fact that it is under international sanctions related to its nuclear program.
But when a senior Iranian official, Ali Akbar Velayati, visited Moscow in late January, he reportedly gained the Kremlin's approval for SCO membership.
"Velayati’s Moscow trip might signal that some kind of a significant change in relations is about to take place. Iran’s Mehr News reported that in Moscow, Velayati was able to secure Putin’s approval for Iran to 'upgrade its status' in the SCO," noted regional analyst Alex Vatanka. "As an observer state in SCO, Iran has since 2005 unsuccessfully sought to obtain full membership in the organization, but perhaps the Russians are about to entertain the idea of Tehran joining the alliance. Along these lines, the state-run Iranian media have been busy hyping the prospects of an SCO membership for Iran."
Three-and-a-half tons of mimosas allegedly now are crossing each day from separatist Abkhazia into Russia, Russian news outlets allege. The tiny, subtropical region is hoping to make a roaring trade out of its resplendent yellow blossoms ahead of the March 8 International Women’s Day, a combination of Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day in the post-Soviet world.
As it blossoms early, mimosa, or acacia dealbata, makes a prime gift for the big day. Mother Nature has helped out as well. A moderate winter led to early blossoms this year on Abkhazia’s Black Sea coast, Russian media claim.
Yet contraband is also on the increase. Some smugglers are trying to hide Abkhazia’s mimosas in their car trunks, Russian customs officials complained, Vesti.ru reported, citing TASS.
A standard mimosa bouquet sells for 100 rubles, or $1.60, in Sochi, the largest Russian city near Abkhazia, according to one outlet.
But, soon, those mimosas may not rank as contraband. Russian President Vladimir Putin, ever land-hungry, would like to eliminate Russia’s de-facto border with flowering Abkhazia, which Moscow recognises as an independent country from Georgia.
Atambayev grinning through his teeth in Minsk last October.
The death of a Kyrgyz mobster in the Belarusian capital appears to have ignited another round of mudslinging between two erstwhile Soviet republics. Kyrgyzstan is still furious that, for five years, Belarus has sheltered the country’s ex-dictator and his family.
The diplomatic row flared February 27, a day after Kyrgyzstan President Almazbek Atambayev released an incendiary statement accusing ex-President Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s brother Janysh of organizing the killing of 41-year-old Almanbet Anapiyaev last week in Minsk.
Atambayev, who has said he wanted to be a writer as a child, accused the Bakiyevs of being “cannibals” and poured scorn on Belarus and President Alexander Lukashenko for having “sheltered” the “beasts” since a bloody revolution in April 2010 forced the Bakiyev clan from power.
“The people remember how these beasts burned people alive, how they maimed and killed journalists, how they broke the arms and legs of businessmen, how they cut the ears and noses off their victims,” Atambayev’s statement reads.
The Belarusian Foreign Ministry’s response to Atambayev drips with contempt.
It makes no sense to comment on the parallels and offensive statements made against Belarus by the Kyrgyz leadership. Such overheated emotional statements would not be possible at the level of the leader of a civilized state.
Tajikistan’s authoritarian government has enlisted the support of the state-appointed clergy ahead of Sunday’s parliamentary vote.
“We have to vote for those whose work has achieved results,” reads a sermon the government distributed to imams ahead of Friday prayers on February 27. “May God protect our head of state, who has devoted himself to saving our nation and delivering us from our troubles.”
The sermon, seen by EurasiaNet.org, was prepared by the state-run Council of Religious Affairs, which manages all of Tajikistan’s mosques, vets and pays all imams. As instructed, imams read the sermon at a number of mosques in Dushanbe today, a source in the capital told EurasiaNet.org. In the city’s central mosque, the source said, the imam paraphrased the sermon and highlighted long-serving President Emomali Rakhmon’s outstanding leadership qualities.
The sermon goes on to criticize the opposition. Although it does not name any parties, the target is clear: Tajikistan’s beleaguered and moderate Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT), which the authorities have largely prevented from campaigning ahead of the March 1 election.
“Is it not this party that divided people? Is it not this party that brought you to Afghanistan [as refugees], bringing hunger, poverty and humiliation?” the sermon reads. It goes on to accuse the IRPT – which was born out of the 1997 peace treaty that ended Tajikistan’s civil war – of stockpiling weapons and seeking to return the country to civil war.
A sighting of Russian army trucks in Georgia, just as the country was remembering the Red Army’s 1921 invasion, has set off a fresh furore over that most contentious of topics — the country’s ties with muscular next-door neighbour, Russia.
As the video and photo proof of general-purpose, Russian-made ZIL 131 military trucks rolling down highways or parked on streets, including in the Georgian capital,Tbilisi, went viral online, TV crews went chasing the vehicles. "It has begun!" one Twitter user wrote.
Reactions ranged from indignant to baffled to plain curiosity about the reasons for the trucks’ presence in Georgia. "I am not doing anything illegal," a stressed-out Russian-speaking driver told skeptical TV crews, who chased him down late on February 25.
With Russian troops already stationed in breakaway South Ossetia, just over half-an-hour from Tbilisi, and in fellow separatist Abkhazia, the reason for the alarm was plain.
The opposition United National Movement (UNM) Party, the self-styled torchbearer of patriotism, was hot on the case, demanding an explanation from the defense ministry. "This image shows Russian military vehicles, with a Russian driver and Russian license plates headed toward the reserve military base in Senaki [town in the west]," charged parliament member Nugzar Tsiklauri, Tabula.ge reported.
The only question to ask about Tajikistan’s upcoming parliamentary elections is whether the authorities will allow any opposition parties to win seats in the rubber-stamp body. A victory for the president’s party is guaranteed. But, just in case, authorities are making it almost impossible for anyone else to run.
Eight parties are fielding 288 candidates to contest 63 seats in parliament’s lower house on March 1. Tajikistan has never held an election judged free and fair by impartial observers.
During the previous election, in 2010, President Emomali Rakhmon’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP) won 55 of the 63 seats. The only opposition party to enter parliament, the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT), won just two seats. The other seats went to members of the loyal opposition—parties that bestow on Tajikistan the trappings of democracy, but kowtow to the president.
For starters, the Central Electoral Committee disqualified over half of the IRPT’s 160 proposed candidates – including Rakhmon’s former math teacher – on the grounds they allegedly failed their mandatory Tajik language test. Meanwhile, the State Television and Radio Committee blocked the IRPT’s attempt to air their promotional videos on television. An official explained to Asia Plus that the studio that produced the clips is not registered.
Three Central Asian men have been arrested in the United States and charged with conspiring to support the Islamic State. The charges underscore the threat of lone wolf attacks by people inspired to fight for the Islamic State without ever having traveled to the Middle East, American officials say.
The three live in Brooklyn, New York, news agencies reported.
Akhror Saidakhmetov, 19, of Kazakhstan, was arrested February 25 when boarding a flight to Turkey, the Justice Department says. Abdurasul Hasanovich Juraboev, 24, of Uzbekistan, had purchased a flight to Istanbul for next month. Thirty-year-old Uzbekistani citizen Abror Habibov was arrested in Florida and accused of paying for Saidakhmetov’s efforts.
According to the New York Times, Juraboev and Saidakhmetov are permanent residents in the US; Habibov had overstayed his US visa. All three remain citizens of their countries, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, however.
It is unclear how many Central Asians are fighting for IS in Syria and Iraq, or if the suspects had any connection to compatriots there.
Investigators used a paid, confidential informant who posed as a sympathizer to record conversations between two of the men.
In those comments, Saidakhmetov allegedly said that if he were unable to travel to Syria, he would “just go a buy a machine gun, AK-47, go out and shoot all police,” Reuters reported:
Mikheil Saakashvili, now a Ukrainian government official. (photo: president.gov.ua)
Earlier this month, former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili was appointed to a post in the government of Ukraine, head of the Advisory International Council of Reforms. But while "reform" may be the international brand Saakashvili had adopted for himself, his efforts for Kiev so far have centered around more short-term goals: acquiring western arms.
"Mikheil will become a representative of Ukraine abroad and, simultaneously, a representative of the international community in Ukraine," said the president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, on the occasion of Saakashvili's official appointment. "We are confident that it is Mikheil who will establish a bilateral communication between Ukraine and the world on the issue of reforms. He will involve the best foreign experience and decently represent us abroad."
But since then, Saakashvili's focus has seemed to be elsewhere. "Helping Ukraine with weapons is the top priority right now," he told Ukrainian channel Espreso TV immediately after his appointment. "I will coordinate the issue in the coming days." He wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post this week in which he argued that (in addition to Kiev implementing unspecified "tough reforms") "the military cost for Putin must be raised by supplying Ukraine with defensive weapons, specifically antitank weapons that can halt the further advance of the Russian tanks and armored vehicles."