President Islam Karimov has hit the campaign trail in Uzbekistan, after several weeks of absence from public life sparked rumors that the septuagenarian leader’s health was failing ahead of a presidential election next month.
Karimov appeared on state television late on February 19 campaigning in the southern region of Qashqadaryo, a source in Tashkent told EurasiaNet.org. TV footage showed the president addressing a meeting of several hundred voters in the city of Qarshi, after Uzbekistani media reported – citing a source in the ruling Liberal-Democratic Party of Uzbekistan – that he had left for Qashqadaryo and other regions to campaign.
Karimov had last been seen in public on January 27, when he received the credentials of incoming US Ambassador Pamela Spratlen. On February 6 he reportedly presented his election manifesto to the Liberal-Democratic Party, which he heads and which has nominated him to stand in the presidential election on March 29. But Uzbekistani TV did not broadcast footage of that appearance until February 18.
In that speech, he railed against the USSR as a “a system of totalitarianism and repression,” accorded to translated excerpts emailed by the US Embassy in Tashkent the next day.
Karimov’s unusually long absence from TV screens had fueled rumors that the health of the 77-year-old president was failing, helped along by reports on an opposition website notorious for planting canards about his imminent demise that he had fallen into a coma.
Turkey is reportedly linking its purchase a multi billion-dollar air-defense system to whether the bidder countries recognize the Armenian genocide.
That news, reported by a number of Turkish media, is the latest unexpected turn in the multi-year saga over the arms deal. The original bidders for the deal were companies representing the United States, Europe, China, and Russia, giving the program the air of a geopolitical litmus test. When Turkey announced that it planned to give the Chinese company the contract, it faced a barrage of pressure from its NATO allies who were concerned that linking that system with NATO air defense equipment already in Turkey could expose NATO secrets to China.
All along, Turkey has denied that there was any political subtext to its decision, saying that its choice of China was related solely to questions of price and the fact that China would hand over more of the technology to Turkey. Now, though, that appears to have changed. With the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide approaching in April, Ankara is reportedly waiting to see how the various bidders mark that event.
"Rumors in political circles in Ankara said that no decision will be made over the missile defense system winner before [April 24] since Turkey wants to first see France and the U.S.'s position on the 1915 incidents," reported the pro-government Daily Sabah. "An agreement may be made with China if the U.S. and French administrations take a 'pro-Armenian' stance."
Offline, the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh may be outside of Baku’s control, but, online, Azerbaijan seems to have reclaimed the disputed land. Azerbaijani officials are boasting of allegedly having convinced Facebook to strip the separatist territory’s page of its verified status, which denotes that the page is authentic.
This reported victory, preceded by an avalanche of complaints from Azerbaijani users, is nothing to sneeze at in the South Caucasus, where Facebook is by far the most popular social network. It is also often the prime online venue for social activism and political debate.
And yet, Baku’s victory was not complete. Though the "Nagorno-Karabakh Republic" page is not accessible, pages using the region’s Armenian name (Artsakh) and calling for recognition of its independence remain intact.
Facebook, which has faced flak before over its page-decisions, has not yet commented officially on the downgrading of the breakaway region's page.
But Facebook is not the only part of the virtual world in which Azerbaijan has been asserting its internationally recognized right to Karabakh. In the past, the country engaged in toponymic arguments with Google for using “pro-Armenian” place-names in its maps, and with MSN for describing Karabakh as an independent entity in its weather listings.
There is a cat story that Mikheil Saakashvili, now controversially appointed as Ukraine government’s top foreign advisor, likes to tell. Back in 2003, when the soon-to-be-Georgian-President Saakashvili first walked into the presidential office, he was greeted there by a cat, a purring testimony to the dysfunctional administration of his overthrown predecessor, the late Eduard Shevardnadze. Now, as Saakashvili is tasked to help modernize Ukraine and reach out to Washington for support, the ex-president says he is again having the Shevardnadze-cat moment.
“There was no functioning pest-control service back then, so the cat stepped in” to control the Georgian government’s rampant mice population, Saakashvili reminisced in a February 17 interview in Kyiv with Rustavi2 television. There was also a bucket to collect intermittently flowing tap water and a makeshift water-heater, he continued, in a lengthy prelude to his point about fixing Ukraine.
The previous cat-in-residence could not take the pressure and “committed suicide,” jumping to her death from the 11th floor, Saakashvili claimed. Screens were put up on the windows to make sure future presidential felines did not flip.
“It is more or less the same situation here [in Ukraine]. I have seen no cat so far, but … Ukraine is just in that shape” with its obsolete, Soviet-style state institutions, said Saakashvili, who now chairs Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s international advisory council.
The International Crisis Group’s latest report, “Syria Calling: Radicalization in Central Asia,” has generated a lot of media buzz. But two prominent experts on the region are less than convinced. In a critique published February 17, John Heathershaw and David Montgomery slam the report’s fundamental assumptions, calling the research “suggestive impressions masquerading as solid insights.”
Heathershaw, of the University of Exeter (full disclosure: he is my PhD supervisor), and Montgomery, of the University of Pittsburgh, argue that there is little evidence to support the ICG’s assumptions on post-Soviet Muslim radicalization. Drawing on a limited number of interviews with “Islamic State sympathizers,” the ICG infers a causal relationship between what sympathizers say and what militants do, where none can be proven. By concluding that Islamization drives radicalization, the ICG helps legitimate Central Asian regimes’ repression of religious practices, the two contend.
Many of the ICG’s conclusions are based on guesswork, the authors say. The exclusive use of anonymous sources makes it difficult to judge whether the interviewees are serious academics or attention-grabbing, self-styled “experts”—of which Central Asia has so many. Yet these “experts” are uncritically cited and provide the sole evidence for the report’s conclusions.
For instance, Heathershaw and Montgomery take issue with the number of Central Asians that the report states have gone to Syria and Iraq:
Proponents of a controversial plan to build a high-voltage electricity export line from Tajikistan to South Asia argue that the connection – known as CASA-1000 – will not be used in winter, when the country’s own citizens suffer debilitating electricity shortages.
But a senior Tajik official has undermined that promise, arguing that no matter how little it has for itself, Tajikistan must export electricity year-round lest any transmission equipment be looted.
Most regions of Tajikistan are currently receiving about 12 hours of electricity per day; some areas get less than 10 hours and, as anyone in remote areas can attest, the current is often so weak that it cannot charge a cell phone.
Despite these extended blackouts, Tajikistan increased its electricity exports to Afghanistan through existing lines from 30 million kWh in January 2014 to 55 million kWh last month, Asia-Plus reported on February 17, citing the State Statistics Agency.
Many ask the obvious question: Shouldn’t a country’s resources first serve its own people?
After years of speculation, now we have the answer. The head of the state electricity monopoly, Barki Tajik, says that the company must export in winter because it cannot risk allowing existing infrastructure to stand idle. “We keep the voltage in these lines because there is a high probability of equipment theft,” the Asia-Plus article quoted Rustam Rakhmatzoda as saying.
That confession should impact CASA-1000, which has been on the drawing board since 2007.
A few weeks ago, Russia’s state-run Gazprom announced it would sharply and immediately cut the amount of gas it purchases from Turkmenistan. Now Turkmenistan’s authoritarian government has responded with a rare outburst. Unfortunately for Ashgabat, these days there’s not much it can do but screech.
Russia is an “unreliable partner,” a think-tank inside Turkmenistan’s own state energy company, Turkmengaz, said in a February 16 rant published on its website.
The article – “Will Gas Exports of Turkmen Gas to Russia Recover?” – criticizes Russia and Gazprom for all of the unhappiest moments in an up-and-down relationship that has seen deliveries of Turkmen gas to Russia drop from a peak of around 45 billion cubic meters per year (bcm) in 2008 to the 4 bcm the Russian giant says it will now import in 2015.
The piece expressed outrage at Gazprom’s failure to fulfill a 2008 agreement to build a Trans-Caspian pipeline and fingered Gazprom for an unexplained pipeline explosion in April 2009 that marked the beginning of the decline in its purchases.
Gazprom and its affiliates “periodically violate agreements at interstate, intergovernmental and interdepartmental levels,” the article notes.
Talco, the company behind Tajikistan’s largest factory, is nearing a deal that would end an eight-year legal battle with the world’s largest aluminum maker, the company says.
The state-owned Talco aluminum smelter is controlled directly by Tajikistan’s strongman President Emomali Rakhmon, whose family has appeared to benefit disproportionately from the plant’s revenues.
But a history of troubled deals with Russia’s Rusal and its subsidiaries saw Talco lose in arbitration hearings in Switzerland and the British Virgin Islands in 2013 and 2014. According to Rusal, as of May 2014 the Tajik company owed $363 million, including interest. With interest accruing at nearly $45,000 per day, the total would be roughly $375 million today.
Now Talco says it has made a proposal that satisfies Rusal and that the two companies have signed off on a draft agreement, Radio Ozodi quoted Talco executive Igor Sattarov as saying on February 16. Tajikistan’s government and the Rusal board must still okay the deal, said Sattarov, who did not disclose any of the terms. Last week President Rakhmon replaced the company’s boss.
A Rusal spokesperson would not offer any details about the alleged deal, only telling EurasiaNet.org, “We can officially say that nothing has been signed yet and the agreement in question is pending approval of Rusal’s board of directors.”
Tajikistan does not mine alumina, but imports the raw materials and uses its cheap electricity to operate the smelter, which was opened in 1975 when the country was part of the Soviet Union. When the plant was functioning at capacity, it used 40 percent of Tajikistan’s electrical output, leaving much of the country in the dark.
Russia may soon be exporting its model of counterinsurgency across the globe, as Chechnya's president is building an international special operations training center with the aim of training elite troops both from Russia and abroad.
The center is already under construction in the town of Gudermes and should be finished by the end of the year, the president, Ramzan Kadyrov, told Russian newspaper Izvestia.
That seems like an ambitious timetable given what Kadyrov says he has planned (among many other things, facilities for training in "underwater combat"), but if it ends up actually being built, negotiations are underway with Belarus and Kazakhstan to train their forces at the center. Latin American, Arab, and other ex-Soviet countries are other potential customers, Izvestia reports.
"The complex isn't open yet, but work is going according to plan, and construction won't take more than a year," Kadyrov said in an interview. "As you know, we have enough experience -- our instructors, who have a lot of good work under their belts, will be teaching."
The center "could, of course, open anywhere, but we know very well that the Chechen Republic has great experience in the fight against international terror, they have figured this problem out and know all the current methods to deal with it," said Timur Akulov, a member of parliament who belongs to the ruling United Russia party and sits on the defense committee.
It was Nobel laureate John Steinbeck who once said; “Power does not corrupt. Fear corrupts ... perhaps the fear of a loss of power.” Steinbeck’s sentiments would help explain why Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia is so scared of oversight.
Reflecting the Russian government’s aversion to scrutiny, district prosecutors in Moscow recently issued a ruling designed to hamper the ability of a leading watchdog organization, Transparency International-Russia (TIR), to operate. The document calls on TIR to register as a “foreign agent,” a designation that would hinder the organization’s ability to receive funding from abroad.
TIR, as every Kremlin crony is acutely aware, does a good job at tracking corrupt practices. In Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index for 2014, Russia showed itself to be among the most venal states in the world, ranking 136th out of the 175 countries surveyed. It is no surprise, then, that Russian officials would want to be rid of TIR.
Moscow prosecutors based their ruling on an assertion that TIR’s activities were aimed “at interfering in the conduct of government policy in connection with the fight against corruption by lobbying on behalf of its own proposals for change.”
Yelena Panfilova, a Russian citizen who serves as the deputy chair of Transparency International’s global organization, called the prosecutor’s ruling “illiterate nonsense.”