Former Soviet dictator Josef Stalin has been experiencing some ups and downs in Kazakhstan lately. The only full-sized monument to the iron-fisted leader remaining in the Central Asian state – where a quarter of the population died during a famine under his watch – was recently restored, and then quickly taken down.
Blown off his pedestal in a storm last summer, the silvery Stalin was reinstalled by jubilant villagers in Stariy Ikan, near the border with Uzbekistan, earlier this month. It was torn down again on May 15 amid controversy over the glorification of the brutal colonialist dictator.
The villagers “gave their agreement to the removal of the monument,” mayor Abdulla Saydikarimov said in remarks quoted by Bnews.kz. The authorities had said villagers had not obtained the paperwork to erect the statue. But there was plainly far more to Comrade Stalin’s fall than planning permission.
It was no coincidence that the monument – standing five meters high with its pedestal and showing a commanding figure in military greatcoat and cap – was re-erected on May 6 by Stariy Ikan community elders.
That was during the run-up to May 9, the anniversary of the end of World War II, known as the Great Patriotic War in much of the former Soviet Union and celebrated with particular gusto this month, the 70th anniversary of victory.
At the ceremony to re-erect the contentious statue, veteran Babadzhan Nishanbayev waxed lyrical about its symbolism for those who returned from battle. “More than 300 of us went to the front from [Stariy] Ikan, almost all the men of the village. And 58 returned,” he told local news site Otyrar.kz. “Throughout the war, we went onto the attack with the cry ‘For the Motherland! For Stalin!”
A forensic investigation into the January massacre of a six-member family in the northern Armenian city of Gyumri has determined that the victims resisted their killer; allegedly a Russian soldier stationed at the town’s Russian military base. The information, released on May 14 by lawyers for relatives of the murdered Avetisians, has rekindled anger over the bloodshed, which seriously strained Armenia’s strategic partnership with Russia.
Video footage of the crime scene and a physical examination of the bodies suggest that the family’s grandfather, Seryozha Avetisian, grabbed the barrel and bayonet of the assailant’s weapon, lawyer Lusine Sahakian told a Yerevan press-conference. Bruises were found on Avetisian’s body purportedly inflicted by the rifle butt, she added.
Avetisian’s wife, Asmik, “tried to get up from the bed, perhaps she even managed to do that, as her feet were hanging down from the bed,” Sahakian claimed.
The murderer than proceeded to another room, where he shot dead the couple’s son, Armen, and his toddler-daughter, Asmik. Contrary to initial official claims, Armen was found dead on the floor next to his bed.
He then stabbed to death Armen’s wife, Araksia Pogosian, and baby-son, Seryozha, who later succumbed to his injuries in a hospital. “Araksia Pogosian tried to protect little Seryozha with her body,” claimed Sahakian. “She has a wound on her hand, which was most likely inflicted when she was trying to protect the child from a knife.”
The harrowing details have rekindled popular outrage against both Russia’s 102nd military base in Gyumri and at the Armenian authorities, who could not place the suspect in an Armenian jail. Permyakov, who has confessed to the killings, remains in Russian custody.
A Tajik conscript in GBAO guards the border with Afghanistan.
Tajikistan has banned foreigners from visiting its vast mountainous Badakhshan Province, the country’s main draw for tourists and the scene of fighting between locals and government forces in 2012 and 2014, Asia-Plus reports.
The government claims it has stopped issuing permits to foreigners to visit the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) due to fighting across the border in Afghanistan. The ban is a temporary measure done for the safety of tourists, said Rizo Nazarzoda of the Committee on Youth, Sports and Tourism.
Fighting has intensified in northern Afghanistan in recent months, but some analysts question the Tajik government’s claim that it poses an imminent threat to the Central Asian country. Indeed, some feel it offers cover for the government to crack down on Islamic worship and hype the threat of radicalism.
Dushanbe has tenuous control over GBAO, which comprises approximately 45 percent of Tajikistan’s territory but 3 percent of its population. The region is home to a disaffected ethnic and cultural minority that has been largely ignored by the government in the far-off capital. GBAO is also a hive of drug smuggling, which seems to have played a role in the recent violence.
Mikheil Saakashvili, the former Georgian president-turned Ukrainian government adviser, says that he has gotten maverick US Senator John McCain and former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt to join his A-Team of political troubleshooters.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has reportedly approved the inclusion of McCain and Bildt in the International Advisory Group, a council led by former Georgian President that is supposed to provide guidance to the Ukrainian government.
Both the Ukrainian leader and Saakashvili may have jumped the gun with the announcement: McCain has indicated he has not made a final decision on whether to join.
To hear the Arizona Republican tell it, he expressed only general interest in the offer, but Poroshenko went ahead to appoint him before McCain had a chance to clear the proposal with the Senate, the website Buzzfeed reported. “Of course I would love [to] do anything to help Ukraine, but I’ve got to make sure it’s ok under senate rules,” McCain told Buzzfeed.
The former Swedish prime minister said he was honored by the invitation to join Team Saakashvili.
McCain and Bildt are well-known Saakashvili backers, as well as prominent supporters of both Georgia and Ukraine in their conflicts with Russia. McCain famously said “today we are all Georgians” during the 2008 Georgian-Russian war.
Update, May 26: According to Kazakhstan's Agriculture Ministry, the number of confirmed saiga deaths now exceeds 85,000.
Over a thousand saiga antelopes have been found dead in northern Kazakhstan. Conservationists had been hoping that populations of this rare steppe-roaming ruminant were recovering.
The corpses have been found in Kostanay Region in northern Kazakhstan, the Ministry of Agriculture said in a May 13 statement that did not specify the precise figure.
The cause of death is unknown. Experts are running tests on the dead animals and on the surrounding soil and water, with the results expected in a week, the ministry said.
Last time there was a case of mass saiga deaths in this region, in 2012, the cause was established as pasteurellosis, a disease that attacks the lungs and which killed nearly 12,000 saigas – a species listed as Critically Endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List – in an epidemic in 2010.
The latest deaths have occurred just as conservationists have been reporting something of a success story in the saiga population's recovery. The distinctive creature has a long, humped nose that allows it to filter air during the dusty summer months and breathe warm air during the freezing winters.
Troops from Russia and other members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization are taking part in snap exercises to practice quickly deploying to the border of Tajikistan.
The exercise is taking place amid heightened tension in Tajikistan, as fighting in northern Afghanistan has -- according to some officials -- the potential to destabilize Central Asia.
The CSTO has tried to position itself as the guarantor of security in Tajikistan; in March the group's head said that CSTO rapid reaction forces could reach the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border in three days if fighting broke out there. This exercise is taking place in Tajikistan's Khatlon province, just across the border from Kunduz province in Afghanistan, where heavy fighting broke out last month.
"We are worried by incoming reports about the deterioration of the situation in the north-eastern provinces of Afghanistan on the border with Central Asian countries. We are particularly concerned by the large-scale offensive launched by terrorists in Kunduz, a province that borders on Tajikistan, during which administration buildings were attacked in a number of districts," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in an April 30 statement.
The world’s media may be packed with coverage about the 10th anniversary of fatal unrest in the city of Andijan on May 13. But Uzbekistan’s tightly censored press has built a wall of silence about the shooting of protestors by security forces a decade ago.
Headline news in state media on the day of the anniversary covered President Islam Karimov’s tour of urban projects in Tashkent. Private outlets stuck to safe topics such as traffic jams in the capital.
Only one Uzbekistan-based outlet stepped out of line: Uzmetronom.com – a Tashkent-based website which is unusually outspoken and is believed by many Central Asia watchers to be close to the security services – carried a short and loosely worded editorial to mark the anniversary of what it described as the “tragedy” in Andijan.
“Is it worth recalling events of 10 years ago today?” Uzmetronom.com asked rhetorically. “It is, even if only so that they are never repeated.”
The editorial noted the discrepancy between the official death toll of 187 and estimates put forward by human rights campaigners, which run well into the hundreds. It hinted darkly at outside forces stirring the violence and spoke of “ordinary people who naively believed in lofty moral ideals” being “manipulated by cynical and pragmatic leaders” whom it did not name.
The Tajik security services are well known for employing heavy-handed tactics as they attempt to stamp out extremism. In recent months, some have reportedly forced men with beards under the razor, tried to ban sales of hijab, and carried on with the usual mass arrests of suspected Islamists. But there is a softer side to counter-terrorism in Tajikistan.
On May 9 the Interior Ministry promised amnesty to Tajik militants in Syria and Iraq who wish to come home. The ministry “is ready to help them return,” the statement declares.
“The Ministry of Interior has received information through its law enforcement agencies that young people have been led astray and are fighting in Syria, Iraq and other countries. Some are now in Turkey and can return home voluntarily. We also inform you that these persons will be exempt from criminal liability,” the ministry’s statement said, without naming any conditions.
Last year the prosecutor’s office in Sughd Province, in the north, offered to amnesty returning fighters. This is the first time authorities have declared a nationwide amnesty.
Authorities are keen to counter messages that the Islamic State is some kind of paradise on earth. On May 7, a man claiming to be a repenting jihadist who had recently returned from Syria spoke to a large crowd in Khujand about his experiences there. Farrukh Sharifov described beheadings, sexual slavery and terrible living conditions. The event, organized by the Interior Ministry, has been widely publicized.
Top: the photo published by the Azerbaijan Ministry of Defense. Below: from the twitter account of Armenia MFA spokesman Tigran Balayan.
Azerbaijan's Ministry of Defense published a photo of its soldiers in Moscow's May 9 Victory Day parade in which an Armenian flag has been digitally edited out.
Armenia and Azerbaijan were among a number of countries whose soldiers marched in the parade, marking 70 years since the allied victory in World War II. And thanks to the fact that they are next to one another alphabetically, they marched one behind the other in the parade.
While the parade went off without a hitch, the controversy began soon afterwards. Azerbaijan's Ministry of Defense published a photo of its soldiers on its website, which web users quickly identified as an alteration of a previously published photo which was a good shot of the Azerbaijani contingent but -- unfortunately for Azerbaijan military PR -- prominently featured the flag of the Armenian soldiers right behind.
Armenia's government, naturally, leapt. "#Azerbaijan falsifying history, is going far beyond and fabricates reality," tweeted Armenia Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Tigran Balayan.
The episode caused some embarrassment within Azerbaijan, as well. "It's an obvious Photoshop," prominent military analyst Uzeir Jafarov told the BBC Russian service. "Our soldiers are in a ceremonial parade. They have Israeli weapons in their hands, conforming to NATO standards -- and all this for a photo shoot? It's unworthy of us." (The Azerbaijan MoD declined to comment.)
Georgian support for joining the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union appears to be on the increase, based on data from a survey conducted for the National Democratic Institute, a US-based NGO.
Thirty-one percent of the roughly 4,360 Georgian respondents surveyed expressed support for signing onto the trade-bloc; a twofold increase from 2014 and a threefold increase from 2013, respectively.
Yet considerably more of the respondents (41 percent) remain hostile to the idea of teaming up with Russia, according to data released on May 11. A solid majority of the interviewees – 68 percent and 65 percent, respectively – are rooting for joining the European Union and NATO.
Seventy-seven percent consider Russia a threat, though opinions vary on the immediacy of the threat. Ethnic minorities are most skeptical about Russia’s hostile intentions; half of those surveyed do not see Russia as a threat.
Pro-Russian activism remains on the fringes of the political mainstream in Georgia, but it has become more noticeable under the Georgian Dream coalition than it was during the fiercely anti-Moscow United National Movement, which lost power in 2012. The same poll said that Georgians can freely vent their views today.
Additionally, Russia’s state TV channels, formerly essentially barred from broadcast, now rate as the most-watched foreign channels in Georgia, the survey claimed.