You know it’s time for change when you’ve had an armed standoff in the capital city with hundreds calling for your resignation. And so, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, two months after a showdown in Yerevan between police and anti-government gunmen, has replaced his prime minister and several key ministers, ordaining the new cabinet to carry out a “great change.”
But how great that change will actually be is open to debate. Dubbed a government of millionaires by some, the updated cabinet features a few ministers known for their business successes, but others object that it’s still the same old crowd.
The change, noted one analyst, is that this cabinet’s alleged “millionaire ministers” – Prime Minister Karen Karapetian, Health Minister Levon Altunian and Agriculture Minister Ignati Arakelian – come from outside the government and, therefore, are not seen as having recently used an official post to feather their nests.
“The difference is that at least some of the members of [the] new government, including the new prime minister, have not been part of the government institutions, so their assets are not seen as illegitimate by the public,” commented Mikayel Zolyan, a policy analyst with the Regional Studies Center, a Yerevan-based think-tank.
The provenance of a few of the new ministers’ wealth is linked to Russia. Most notably, 53-year-old Prime Minister Karapetian, a former deputy energy minister, held executive positions with Russia’s gas giant Gazprom structures: first, in Yerevan, and then in Moscow.
Not surprisingly, earlier this month he announced that Armenia’s ties with Russia would grow still stronger.
A 26-year old man in Tajikistan has been sentenced to 13 years in jail on charges of plotting to kill a poet now best-known for his paeans to President Emomali Rahmon.
As media in Tajikistan reported on October 24, a court in Dushanbe determined that Behruz Yagdarov was planning the murder to impress his cohorts in the Islamic State group, whom he subsequently intended to join in Syria.
Meanwhile, reports about the case have been pulled from news websites at the insistence of the security services after the presumed intended victim, Bozor Sobir, revealed that he was not aware of the plot against him — even after the verdict was passed.
According to media reports, Yagdarov was given instructions by unnamed parties to kill former Muslims, as well as Jews and Christians. But Sobir, a sometime-ardent-communist currently in the United States, was an odd would-be target, given that he lives on the other side of the planet from Dushanbe, where Yagdarov was arrested.
When contacted by media about the murder, Sobir expressed ignorance of the entire affair.
“Nobody told me about any of this, and they didn’t invite me to attend the trial. I was in the United States at the time,” Sobir said.
A report on the website of RFE/RL’s Tajik service, Radio Ozodi, about the trial was taken down following complaints from the State Committee for National Security, according to EurasiaNet.org sources.
In what has been billed as a historic development, Tajikistan will later this month start stemming the flow of the Vakhsh River as part of construction work on the Rogun mega-dam.
Moscow-based ferghana.ru has reported, citing a source in Tajikistan’s energy sector, that a ceremony to begin diverting the river will be attended by President Emomali Rahmon on October 29.
Construction duties on Rogun were earlier this year assigned to Italian company Salini Impregilo. It is estimated that the project will cost $3.9 billion to complete, although it is far from clear where Dushanbe is to source such a vast quantity of funds.
The website cites energy industry insiders as saying that work on the Vakhsh River will not affect existing hydroelectric facilities downstream.
Salini Impregilo explained the purpose of diverting the Vakhsh — as well as how it will be done — in its project page on Rogun.
“The diversion of the Vakhsh River … will be done with confluence of two diversion tunnels in a mountainside in order to keep the foundations of the dam dry. It is a very complex task that, because of the strength of the river, will only be able to be done during the winter months when the mountains are covered in snow and the water level is lower,” the company said on its website.
The project is broken down into four components, with the most expensive one involving the building of a 335-meter-high rockfill dam — the tallest in the world — which will entail costs of around $1.95 billion.
Uzbekistan’s national energy company has announced a sharp increase in prices for car gasoline while offering assurances it will camp down on the speculation that has made the real cost of buying fuel even greater.
In what it cast as a response to public dissatisfaction over the situation with gasoline, Uzbekneftegaz on October 22 announced that as of this week the cost of most basic and popular type of gas — AI-80 — has been set at 2,800 sum ($0.90) per liter, up from 2,075 sum.
The price for higher grade AI-91/92/93 fuels has been set at around 3,000 sum and the highest available grade, AI-95, will sell at 3,300 sum per liter.
Those prices are only a fantasy for many Uzbek motorists gouged by middlemen, many of whom obtain fuel from the capital, Tashkent, and sell it in the provinces at between 3,000 and 5,000 sum per liter. Uzbekneftegaz said it is ensuring all gas stations stick to the officially decreed prices.
Even before the price rise was announced, Tashkent had already recorded notable shortages in fuel at gas stations. The sight of large numbers of motorists lining up a fuel retailers in the hope of getting some gas is recurrent feature of this time of year. Gas stations sell fuel until around 11 o’clock in the morning and then close their doors until the next day.
Fuel shortages typically occur in Uzbekistan around the start of December, but the deficits are being seen earlier this year. Uzbekneftegaz is allocated money annually by the government to import fuel, but the amount purchased is never enough to get through to the end of the year.
China has conducted its first-ever joint bilateral military exercises in Tajikistan, a sign of Beijing's increasing concern about instability in Afghanistan and the capacity of other regional countries to contain it.
The exercise took place in Gorno Badakhshan, the remote eastern end of Tajikistan that borders both Afghanistan and China. Tajikistan's Ministry of Defense reported that the exercise involved 10,000 troops, but that the Chinese contingent was only a "mobile company." A company usually contains 100-200 soldiers, so the Chinese presence was not overwhelming. The exercise reportedly involved armored vehicles, aircraft, and artillery, though it wasn't specified if any of those were Chinese.
Still, the exercise represented yet another step in China's growing military presence in Central Asia. This is the first time that China and Tajikistan have held drills bilaterally in Tajikistan. (Chinese troops did conduct exercises in Tajikistan in 2012, but those were under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and also included other troops from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia.)
“The exercise has shown that servicemen of the two countries are ready to provide support to each other in the fight against international terrorism in case of necessity,” Tajikistan Defense Minister Sherali Mirzo said at the October 24 closing ceremony of the exercise.
Last month, Tajikistan announced that China would build 11 border guard posts along the border with Afghanistan, as well as a border guard training center.
The government in Kyrgyzstan has collapsed after weeks of sniping between coalition members over contentious constitutional reform plans.
The Social Democratic Party (SDPK) declared in a statement on October 24 that it is leaving the four-party coalition.
Objections to amending the 2010 constitution had been voiced most strongly by the left-leaning Ata-Meken party, which all the while resisted pressure for it to initiate the breakup of the ruling coalition.
In an illustration of the seriousness of its disagreement with Ata-Meken, SPDK accused the party of being in cahoots with the deposed leaders of Kyrgyzstan, Askar Akayev and Kurmanbek Bakiyev.
“We cannot be in one coalition with those that, as it turns out, share common interests with the Akayevs and Bakiyevs, and who follow their instructions. With those who oppose the interests of the country. It became especially obvious during the constitutional reform,” the party claimed in official statement.
There is no immediate evidence that Ata-Meken have engaged in any dialogue with either of the country’s former leaders.
The outgoing coalition was formed by four political parties soon after the parliamentary elections in October. It constituent parties included the SPDK party of President Almazbek Atambayev, the mostly pro-government Kyrgyzstan Party, the agrarian issues-dominated Onuguu-Progress and Ata Meken. Two other parties, Bir Bol and Respublika-Ata Zhurt, remain in the opposition’s ranks.
The initiative to tinker with the current constitution has been steadily gathering pace since July. Backers of the fix have proposed around 30 amendments, which are due to be put to the population in a referendum in December.
Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev and Russian TV journalist Dmitriy Kiselev. (photo: president.az)
During a largely friendly interview with Russian state media, Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev nevertheless pushed back against a number of Moscow's talking points, offering a high-level view on to the two countries' disagreements on issues including the war in Syria and Azerbaijan's arms procurements.
The interview was conducted October 18 in Baku by Dmitriy Kiselyev, one of Russia's most prominent and patriotic television journalists. Kiselyev was fulsome in his praise of Aliyev, Baku, and Azerbaijan, and the interview appeared to be partly a Russian charm offensive toward Azerbaijan, and partly an attempt to portray Aliyev to the Russian public as, if not exactly an ally, then at least someone with whom Russia could do business.
There were a number of softballs, like when Kiselyev asked Aliyev to take credit for the recent rapprochement between Turkey and Russia. Aliyev modestly demurred, but – without Kiselyev's prompting – floated a conspiracy theory about Turkey's shootdown of the Russian jet that resulted in the crisis last year. Aliyev suggested that “certain forces, worried about strengthening ties between Russia and Turkey” were behind it, and agreed with Kiselyev that it could be an “outside” force, without offering any specifics. But it dovetails well with a theory current in Turkey following the rapprochement with Russia that blames Gulenist saboteurs for the shootdown.
And Kiselyev's line of questioning about the West's “double standards,” one of the favorite topics of both Moscow and Baku, led to a long discussion. (One interesting novelty: Aliyev suggested that one of the reasons for the West's criticism of his government was that Baku declined to go along with “campaigns and adventure” that don't benefit it, which in the context appears to refer to Western sanctions against Russia.)
Turkmenistan is looking down the barrel of its worst economic crisis in years and the effects are being felt starkly on the street.
In the most radical development to date, shoppers in the capital, Ashgabat, have started reporting a lack in availability of staple groceries like sugar and cooking oil.
In some stores, sugar is missing altogether, while others are selling the commodity only in rationed amounts of 1 kilogram per buyer. Shoppers arrive at stores early in the morning and get in lines in the hope that they can get their hands on a bag. Only once they ascertain there is no sugar to be bought do they disperse.
The cheapest cottonseed oil on the market, produced by the Ahal factory, is being rationed to one or two bottles per buyer.
Smokers have it the worst. Back in January, multiple media outlets reported that Turkmenistan had slapped a ban on the sale of cigarettes. That was a slight misrepresentation of the facts, but it is most certainly true the cost of the smoking has soared and the availability of cigarettes shrunken drastically. And things continue to get worse for the cigarette-dependent. Residents of Ashgabat have reported seeing lines of many dozens of people outside stores selling tobacco.
Prices for almost all groceries are rising, and rising daily.
The unofficial exchange rate is also seeing some radical movement and reached a historic high in recent days. The official manat rate is 3.5 against the US dollar, but the currency is trading on the street for anywhere as much as 7 manat to the dollar. RFE/RL’s Turkmen service, Azatlyk, has cited people inside the country as saying they have seen rates of up to 7.4 manat to the dollar.
Kazakhstan’s Culture Minister caused a diplomatic row with Kyrgyzstan earlier this year after unwittingly insulting Kyrgyz citizens working in Russia.
Now, Arystanbek Mukhamediyuly is facing accusations of sexual harassment and corruption.
The charge was advanced by a former student of the Kazakhstan National Academy of Arts (KazNAI), Enlik Sydykova, in a YouTube video posted on October 9. The young woman said that in 2011 she had been hoping to sit an entrance exam for the college but did not make it in time. Mukhamediyuly, who was rector of the institute at the time, offered to assist in resolving the problem against a $3,000 bribe, Sydykova claimed. But when she said she did not have that kind of cash at her disposal, Mukhamediyuly proposed an alternative arrangement, Sydykova accused.
“Mukhamediyuly said to me: ‘You can come over to my place, we can drink wine, dance, chat and have fun.’ I was shocked. I did not expect to hear such things from such an upstanding figure,” Sydykova said in her video account.
Despite refusing the then-rector’s alleged advances, Sydykova made it into KazNAI all the same. At a later juncture, according to Sydykova, Mukhamediyuly entered a lecture hall in an inebriated stated and forced female students to sing before him. Sydykova said she was not the only student to face harassment from Mukhamediyuly.
After a week of hearings, the trial in Kazakhstan of two antigovernment activists charged with organizing unsanctioned protests has revealed numerous cracks in the state’s case, although it is unlikely this will make a guilty verdict any less probable.
Hearings in the case of Max Bokayev and Talgat Ayan began on October 12 and stem from a wave of unprecedented land reform protests in the spring that saw several thousand people hitting the streets of Atyrau in April.
One of the prosecutors’ most explosive charges is that Bokayev and Ayan were acting on the pay of a power-hungry tycoon from the southern city of Shykment, Tohtar Tuleshov, who authorities claim was looking to sow instability as a prelude to seizing power. Tuleshov is also in jail and facing trial separately in behind-closed doors proceedings in the capital, Astana.
Tuleshov gave testimony by video conference to the Atyrau court as witness for the prosecution on October 18. It is alleged Tuleshov gave Ayan $100,000 to finance the protests.
The state’s version of events is that Tuleshov hoped to sow the conditions for the creation of a vice presidential post, which does not now exist, presumably to set the stage for him to eventually take over the reins from 76-year old Nursultan Nazarbayev. This initiative would have come about by an engineered grass roots movement, prosecutors suggest.
In his testimony, Tuleshov admitted as much, although his account does not bear too much scrutiny.