Addressing a crowd estimated in the tens of thousands near Red Square on March 18, Russian President Vladimir Putin repeated a theme that has increasingly come to define Russia’s foreign policy – that even when it acts aggressively toward neighboring states, Moscow is motivated by altruistic intentions.
“The Russian people showed amazing togetherness and patriotism in supporting the aspirations of the people of Crimea and Sevastopol to return to their native shores,” Putin said, referring to the Russian occupation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014. “What was at stake here were the millions of Russian people, millions of compatriots who needed our help and support. We understood how important this is to us, and that this was not simply about land.”
Perhaps the most prominent example of the ‘beneficent Russia’ meme is a video titled “I am a Russian Occupier,” which not too long ago went viral on the Russian-language web. In addition to expressing a full-throated rejection of Western values, the ‘occupier’ video cast Russia as a civilizing force that improved the quality of life of those peoples and territories that it conquered.
There are reams of historical documentation that challenge the notion of humanitarianism being a guiding force for Russian expansionism. But on March 16, a Russian-language website, The Fourth Estate, posted what is perhaps the most devastating take-down to date of the ‘occupier’ video. You can see the article here.
Documents have come to light proving that the beneficiary of a $748,000 renovation funded by the U.S. military was not the state or people of Kyrgyzstan, as initially claimed by Kyrgyz and U.S. officials, but a private citizen who acquired the property under dubious circumstances.
The former state hospital, in the Bishkek suburb of Shopokov, was intended to be a “development center for battered women” and “a shelter for up to 55 women and their children,” according to U.S. military press materials distributed during a ribbon-cutting ceremony in 2010. The American airbase at Manas funded the renovations. The base commander and U.S. ambassador attended the event.
For a time, the impressively refurbished two-story building stood empty. Today it accommodates a private kindergarten that earns its owners roughly $47,000 per year, based on calculations using figures provided by the school’s employees.
The $748,000 grant was unusually large for Manas, accounting for one-third of the base’s humanitarian aid spending that year. Most of Manas’s development grants that year were for less than $20,000.
American officials appeared to believe at the time that the funds were being used to refurbish a state-owned building. In 2011, when the building stood empty, a Manas spokesperson told EurasiaNet.org that after refurbishment the building was supposed to remain Kyrgyz government property and said Manas was not responsible for monitoring program activity.
The implementing partner was Zamira Akbagysheva, the head of Kyrgyzstan’s Congress of Women.
Today, a sign on the gate outside the building declares “Authorized People Only.” With its sparkling paint-job, new windows, and bright-red roofing tiles, the building stands out in the neighborhood of dilapidated gray houses.
A group of nationalist activists has announced it is forming a paramilitary militia to defend Kyrgyzstan from foreign threats – and foreign flags.
Known as “El Namysy” (The People’s Dignity), the group “will be a nationwide association, a paramilitary, whose members will be ready to mobilize and be sent to any part of the republic,” prominent anti-gay activist Jenishbek Moldokmatov said while introducing the founders at a March 18 press conference in Bishkek.
El Namysy leader Adilet Daiyrov told journalists at the press conference that members are all “sportsmen” – a loaded term in a country where groups of physically fit men in tracksuits always seem to appear at times of trouble.
El Namysy co-chair Ruslan Niyazakunov, a champion in ultimate fighting, told Kloop.kg the group would begin with community outreach, though his methods sound vaguely threatening.
“We will conduct preventive work, promote our ideology and explain what is good and what is bad. I want to stress that if there are people who do not support or understand us, we will work with them,” Niyazakunov said. He said he was particularly bothered seeing “flags of Russia, Europe, the United States or other countries.”
Niyazakunov added that he considers NGOs a “foreign threat.” He said members of his group would not carry firearms, but repeatedly used the term “paramilitary” (полувоенный in Russian) to describe how they would organize.
Moldokmatov, who heads a nationalist youth group called Kalys, added that El Namysy would react to events and rallies that he determines are being held on behalf of a foreign power.
Foreign flags are a recurring irritation, members say.
Yet the Wednesday deal does merge certain parts of key institutions (de jure in Russia's case; de facto in South Ossetia's) -- namely, in the army, intelligence, law enforcement and customs.
South Ossetians long have been going around Moscow asking to be annexed (and united with neighboring North Ossetia), but the Kremlin has been rolling its eyes at the idea as “out of the question.”
Last week, the region’s separatist leadership had an embarrassing moment, when they arrived with their agreement in Moscow, but could not even catch Putin, much less have him sign on the dotted line.
Still, happy as Russia seems with the status quo, it won’t pass up an opportunity to blur the distinction between it and South Ossetia a bit more.
Not amidst the war in Ukraine. And particularly not so close to the anniversary of Moscow's takeover of Crimea.
President Emomali Rahmon opened Tajikistan’s new parliament on March 17 with a rousing, self-congratulatory speech. International observers may have found the March 1 parliamentarian elections to be full of fraud, but Rahmon felt the vote had represented the highest form of democracy.
After some initial confusion about the results, the new parliament contains just two opposition members, both representing the Communist Party. The Islamic Renaissance Party lost its seats for the first time. All other representatives in the 63-seat legislature are loyal to Rahmon’s regime. That Tajikistan held a “well organized, transparent, free and democratic” vote, the long-serving strongman said, was a clear “victory” for his impoverished Central Asian country:
The political campaign was held in a free and democratic atmosphere; this was highly appreciated by the representatives of authoritative international organizations, national and international observers. The Tajik people took part in this event with a high sense of patriotism, firm confidence for a brighter future and with a deep awareness of civic responsibility.
Azerbaijan was the second-largest arms importer in Europe over the past five years, according to a new report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, an arms trade research group.
Azerbaijan accounted for fully 13 percent of all of Europe's arms imports over the last five years, SIPRI reported, behind only the U.K. (The report doesn't list dollar values for the imports.)
While overall arms imports have been decreasing across Europe, Azerbaijan is bucking the trend: its imports of weaponry increased 249 percent in the period 2010-2014 when compared to the previous five-year period, 2005-2009.
SIPRI also tabulated the world trade in drones ("unmanned aerial vehicles" in military-speak) and Azerbaijan also ended up near the top of that list, as the fourth-largest importer of drones in the world since 1985, trailing only the U.K., India, and Italy. It also scored impressively in another SIPRI survey from last year, tallying the second-largest increase in defense budgets in the world over the past ten years.
Armenian participants in the upcoming Eurovision song contest are denying that their entry is about genocide denial. To ease concerns that the song violates competition rules by making a political statement, they have changed the title.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the mass slaughter of Armenians at the hands of Ottoman Turks amid the tumult of the First World War. Armenia insists the killings amounted to genocide; Turkey does not accept that the tragedy constituted genocide.
The Armenian entry for the Eurovision contest was originally titled “Don’t Deny.” That title drew protests from Turkey, along with its close ally Azerbaijan. Austria is this year’s host for the Eurovision finals, which will take place in late May.
Eurovision’s rules require that contestants keep politics out of their acts. So to quash the controversy before it could gain traction, Armenia changed the title of its entry from “Don’t Deny” into “Face the Shadow.” The refrain “don’t deny” is still there.
The song’s producers insist that it is about peace, unity and tolerance, and about connecting to roots. Even so, the song is seen by many as a thinly veiled call for international recognition of 1915 mass slaughter as genocide. In the song’s recently released video, the members of the sextet called Genealogy pose for a photo in World War I period outfits and then vanish one by one.
Hours before heroically coaxing Vladimir Putin out of his mysterious 11-day hibernation on March 16, Kyrgyzstan's President Almazbek made a brief stopover in Moldova.
He was flying on a private jet, reportedly provided by one of Moldova’s richest men.
The secretive mission to Chisinau, where Atambayev reportedly met controversial oligarch-politician Vladimir Plahotniuc, has baffled many in Bishkek and angered opposition leaders.
Plahotniuc, aside from being a parliamentarian from the pro-Europe Democratic Party of Moldova, has faced legal scandals related to his business activity in both Great Britain and the Netherlands. In 2012, Business New Europe called the oligarch “a kingmaker.” Others describe him as the most powerful man in Moldova.
Prompting even more questions, Atambayev did not meet Moldovan President Nicolae Timofti during the four-hour layover. Timofti’s press secretary said to local media, as a way of explanation, that Atambayev was short on time and that he “met with someone in Chisinau.”
Atambayev’s office is mostly tight-lipped about the meeting, prompting a furious reaction from opposition leader Ravshan Jeenbekov, who said such behavior – flying on a private jet and holding secret meetings – “does not honor the head of an independent state.”
It seems that the apparatchiks who run the Kremlin-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) have not abandoned hopes of one day integrating Ukraine into the organization.
Tatiana Valovaya, one of the nine members of the EEU’s Commission, the group’s executive arm, was the featured speaker at a recent event hosted by Columbia University’s Harriman Institute in New York. She insisted that there was room for Ukraine to pursue trade partnerships with both the European Union and the EEU. Ukraine could pursue a middle path by following a hodgepodge of practices and regulations, Valovaya added.
“We do not believe there should be a single set of rules in the country, but lots of common rules,” she said.
Valovaya dismissed concerns about the compatibility of EU and EEU requirements, noting that 80 percent of the EEU’s technical regulations were based on EU documents. She did not provide any additional insight on how a mixed system could be coordinated among Ukrainian, EEU, and EU officials.
The EEU, which comprises Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Armenia, has had a tough start since its establishment in January. Sanctions and sagging oil prices have crippled the economy of Russia, its largest member.
Despite these challenges, the EEU has received more than 30 requests from countries wanting to explore free trade agreements with the organization, Valovaya said. A free trade treaty with Vietnam is expected to be signed in the spring, and joint research groups have been formed with Israel, India, and Egypt to explore possibilities. Meanwhile, negotiations with New Zealand are stalled due to “political tensions.”
Billionaire ex-Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, long annoyed by the alleged lack of “correct” current-affairs analysis in Georgia, has launched a daily TV talk-show as part of his ongoing campaign to shape public opinion about the government he brought to power.
Not surprisingly, he was the first guest.
Charging that his enemies’ propaganda dominates much of Georgian television, the 59-year-old Ivanishvili, who left power in 2013, observed that “it is difficult for people to understand what is happening in reality.”
Called 2030, in honor of the year when Ivanishvili expects European-style democracy and wealth to hit Georgia, the 90-minute talkathon is intended as a counterweight to the country’s most popular TV channel, Rustavi2, a station Ivanishvili terms a “machine of lies” run by ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili and his cohort.
“It is about doing the right analysis,” said Ivanishvili, getting on his favorite soap box. He promised to use the 2030 show and an eponymous NGO to produce a new cadre of wonks to tell Georgians what’s really going on in the country.
Of course, one can’t be too careful when choosing the means for delivering such information. The ex-PM has selected GDS, an MTV-style station owned by his rapper son, Bera — an individual he presumably believes also capable of making the “right” analyses.
Ivanishvili opted against the original idea to co-host the show, but he will make frequent appearances to deliver — if the premiere is any indication — lengthy, didactic lectures as host and co-panelists nod approvingly.