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.
The waters of the Syr-Darya river are highly polluted and should not be used for irrigating crops, let alone for drinking, scientists from Kazakhstan have concluded.
Tests of the waters of Central Asia’s longest river – which flows for 2,200 kilometers through Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan – found dangerous concentrations of metals including chromium, copper, nickel, mercury, molybdenum, and zinc, the Nur.kz site quoted scientists from South Kazakhstan State University as saying.
“The water of the Syr-Darya is not recommended for use either for agricultural needs or for the fishing industry,” concluded Uylesbek Besterekov, one of the professors who took part in the three-year study funded by a €600,000 NATO grant.
The scientists (who tested waters flowing for around 1,000 kilometers through Kazakhstan, from the border with Uzbekistan up to the Aral Sea) could not pinpoint which industrial enterprise was the greatest polluter – or even which of the four countries through which the river flows is causing the most contamination. Even if the main polluters could be identified and stopped, it would take at least a decade for the waters to become clean, Besterekov said.
The findings – which back up 2009 data suggesting that the Syr-Darya’s waters were too dirty to drink or use in agriculture safely – are worrying for the Central Asian governments, since the river is used to irrigate crops that are then transported all over the region for public consumption. (It was the use of this river’s waters for agricultural irrigation – particularly for cotton – that led to the shrinking of the Aral Sea into which it empties.)
Russia's post-Soviet security bloc is facing a wave of recent criticism that the organization is more talk than action. That accusation has long dogged the organization, but the recent burst of criticism comes at an awkward time as the crisis over Ukraine means that Russia is relying more and more on its non-Western allies.
The Collective Security Treaty Organization includes Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, and the criticism has been coming from several of those member-states. Last month, it was reported that Tajikistan is complaining that military aid promised to its border guards has been slow to arrive.
At a press conference last week in Bishkek, CSTO Secretary General Nikolay Bordyuzha had to defend the organization against accusations that it was ineffective.
"Everyone who talks about the ineffectiveness of the CSTO are talking complete nonsense," Bordyuzha said. "Only analysts who don't know the real picture and don't have full information can say that."
And on Monday, Bordyuzha met with Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, who also expressed his skepticism. "The Belarusian President noted that he would like to discuss a number of issues which have an impact on the performance of the organization in order 'to prevent it from turning into another fictitious organization,'" the state news agency Belta reported. (The report concluded laconically: "Nikolai Bordyuzha also put forward a number of proposals regarding military cooperation. Alexander Lukashenko approved some of them.")
Every year the cotton harvest in Uzbekistan creates a storm of controversy over the use of forced and child labor. But a damning new report by a German-based watchdog sheds fresh light on the scale of human rights abuses.
Forced labor during the fall harvest “decimated” public services as teachers and doctors were driven into the cotton fields, while the cotton-production system itself rests on “rampant, widespread and systematic corruption,” said the report by the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights (UGF) published on April 13.
The forced-labor system “took an even greater toll” in 2014, it said, “as the government mobilized more public sector workers than in previous years, decimating the provision of essential public services such as health care and education.”
The UGF, which gathered data from human rights monitors and interviews with people who participated in the harvest, found that – as in previous years – Tashkent’s efforts to stamp out child labor had shifted the burden to adults, including students.
Some 4 million adults were pressed into the harvest last fall, the Cotton Campaign (a coalition pushing to end forced labor in the sector, of which the UGF is a member) has estimated.
Schoolchildren and younger students were not mobilized en masse in 2014, the UGF report found. However, “many” 17-year-olds were, “and in some regions local authorities forcibly mobilized younger children […] to meet quotas assigned by the same central government authorities that simultaneously decreed children should not pick cotton.”
Georgia's defense minister has said that negotiations to acquire air defense systems remain underway, contrary to claims from his predecessor that Russia scuttled attempts to buy such weaponry from the West.
Last week, ex-defense minister Irakli Alasania held a press conference to air allegations that, in deference to Russia, the government sabotaged his efforts to acquire air defense systems from France. The political fallout continued this week, doing nothing to clear up the political controversy but shedding some more light on what is by all accounts one of Georgia's most critical military priorities.
"Over the past 22 years, air defence has been our 'Achilles' heel,'" Alasania said in a TV interview, reported BBC Monitoring. "Therefore, when I came to the [Defence] Ministry, the first thing I did together with our military men was to determine air defence as our top priority. This was a system of exclusively defensive character, and I openly spoke about it in my plans."
Irakli Aladashvili, Georgia's leading defense journalist, noted that Alasania said that the air defense system he had negotatied with France would be able to shoot down any kind of Russian aircraft, as well as Iskander ballistic missiles (which were reportedly used for the first time against Georgia in 2008). Aladashvili concludes: