One of the more interesting story lines from the recent Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Russia was the addition of new "dialogue partners": Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, and Nepal.
The role of a dialogue partner is not clear, and seems to vary: Belarus had been a dialogue partner, and played an active role in the organization. President Alexander Lukashenko went to the summit earlier this month and Belarus was upgraded to an SCO observer. Turkey, meanwhile, became a dialogue partner in 2013 and since then both the SCO and Ankara, by all public appearances, seem to have completely ignored one another.
But that caveat aside, becoming part of the SCO is nevertheless a statement of some sort of geopolitical intention. Armenia's accession is not too surprising: it is Russia which is clearly interested in pushing SCO expansion in order to boost its own international status, and Yerevan is highly susceptible to Moscow's wishes.
Azerbaijan's entrance, however, is more interesting. What does Azerbaijan have to gain from being part of the SCO?
For one, the SCO's focus on weakening Western norms of human rights is clearly attractive given its accelerating feud with the United States and European countries over what Baku says is unfair criticism of its political and human rights practices.
The targets of a special forces raid in Bishkek were ISIS members planning attacks on the Russian air base in Kyrgyzstan and on a celebration in the center of Bishkek marking the end of Ramadan, Kyrgyzstani security officials announced.
"The underground terrorist group was planning terror acts at a mass gathering for Orozo Ait (Eid) on July 17, and also on the territory of the air base of the Russian Ministry of Defense located in the city of Kant," Kyrgyzstan's state security service GKNB said in a statement.
The raid, in which six alleged terrorists were killed and another seven arrested, occasioned a lot of skepticism among Kyrgyzstanis, both for the fact that it took place in a heavily populated neighborhood and that the government provided no evidence that the people it targeted were in fact terrorists. ISIS is a convenient bugaboo for post-Soviet governments, though there is little evidence that the group has any designs on the region, let alone any current presence.
And the supposed targeting of the Russian base hardly adds credibility to the authorities' version of events. Russia established the base in 2003, its first new foreign military base since the fall of the Soviet Union. It had been more or less merely a geopolitical placeholder with no apparent function, but in recent years Russia has renovated it, increased the number of aircraft deployed there, and announced plans to make it the Central Asian hub of the planned joint air forces of the Collective Security Treaty Organization.
A nasty row has broken out between the United States and Kyrgyzstan over Washington’s decision this month to bestow the 2014 Human Rights Defender Award on jailed activist Azimjan Askarov.
In September 2010, Askarov was sentenced to life imprisonment for what Kyrgyz authorities say was his role in inciting the mob killing of a police officer during the ethnic unrest in June that year.
Western governments and advocacy groups have regularly mounted staunch defenses of Askarov, saying that he was framed and later found guilty in a trial marred by irregularities.
The U.S. decision to grant Askarov with an award has enraged Kyrgyzstan, whose government reacted on July 17 with the announcement that it is to repeal a 1993 treaty between the two countries.
The statement said that the award “did not ahere to levels of cordial relations between Kyrgyzstan and the United States and could damage government efforts to strengthen interethnic harmony.” The government also argued that U.S. actions were threatening peace and social stability in Kyrgyzstan.
As to Askarov’s guilt, Kyrgyzstan says they can be no doubt: “The decision of the court was taken on the basis of undeniable evidence, Askarov’s guilt has been proven in all instances. The Kyrgyz Republic stands for the supremacy of the law. The justice system is an independent branch of power.”
A dispute among rival outlaw gold miners in Uzbekistan has ended with the death of around 25 people in a blast at an abandoned mine, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Uzbek service reported on July 17.
Radio Ozodlik reports that the explosion occurred on July 13 at a mine near the village of Kochbulak, around 90 kilometers southeast of the capital, Tashkent.
There has been no official disclosure on the incident, as is typical in Uzbekistan, which has in the past sought to quash all information about major accidents. An Emergency Services Ministry spokesman contacted on July 17 said he was unable to provide any information.
Ozodlik’s unnamed source said villagers from Kochbulak regularly went down a nearby mine in search of gold.
“There was a quarrel between two groups. The losing side set fire to the supporting columns that held up the mine. The masonry fell on top of those that remained inside, some were poisoned by the toxic smoke,” the source told Ozodlik.
A local activist from Kochbulak cited by the broadcaster said rescue workers have recovered at least five bodies.
Illegal mining is commonplace across much of Central Asia _ the result of poor employment prospects and ample disused Soviet-era industrial mining facilities.
Uzbekistan is particularly rich in gold reserves, which are estimated to stand at around 5,300 metric tons, and was ranked the world’s seventh largest producer of the metal in 2014.
The industry remains severely underdeveloped, however, and is dominated by two state-controlled companies _ Navoi Mining and Metallurgy Combinat and Almalyk Mining-Metallurgical Complex.
In an episode that is going to sow fears of an imminent surge of terrorist activity in Central Asia, authorities in Kyrgyzstan said July 16 that they killed four gunmen who they said were planning attacks in the capital, Bishkek.
A spokesman for the security services at the scene of the shootout said special forces were forced to open fire after the armed group resisted arrest.
“During the special operation, four security service special unit officers were wounded and later hospitalized,” the State Committee for National Security said in a statement.
Officials were unable to provide more than a few cursory details in the wake of the shootout, but the security services spokesman described the men as belonging to an international group. Local media reported that the group was comprised of citizens of Kazakhstan and that they were militants with the Islamic State group, but officials declined to confirm either of those claims.
Plumes of black smoke could be seen rising in the early evening above the central neighborhood where the shootout took place. Police cordoned off the street where the fighting occured, but crowds of local residents stood and watched from the distance for hours after the worst of the unrest had subsided.
Sustained gunfire and blasts can be heard in footage of the clash uploaded to the Internet. Onlookers at the scene shared video footage of one person with his hands behind his back being marched away from the area. It was not immediately clear if the man was involved in the unrest.
As anger builds in Georgia over Russia’s latest alleged attempt to redesign the country’s borders, Tbilisi is urging Georgians
not to let their emotions get in the way of attempts at rapprochement with Moscow.
“Let’s not be naïve and expect that some meeting will convince Russia to change its policy toward Georgia, toward neighboring countries,” commented Zurab Abashidze, Georgia’s envoy to talks with Russia, after meeting with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin in Prague on July 15.
The ever concerned Karasin had a few tips of his own.
“We have to do our utmost to make sure emotional explosions like this do not disrupt the process of normalization of Georgian-Russian relations,” RIA Novosti reported him as saying.
The calls for calm are easy for Karasin to make, many Georgians believe. His country’s borders and the de-facto frontiers of its separatist proteges are only expanding, while the space Moscow has allotted to neighbors Georgia and Ukraine is getting smaller.
In response to this latest land grab, various rallies have been staged, with a larger-scale event planned for downtown Tbilisi on July 18 in front of the government chancellory.
A court in Tajikistan has sentenced an opposition activist to 13 years in jail as the authorities continue to pursue an indiscriminate campaign to stifle all dissent.
The sentencing of Maqsood Ibragimov, 37, which has so far been reported only by France-based human rights activist Nadezhda Atayeva, brings a close to an episode that highlights the extent to which the Tajik government is going to silence its critics.
Ibragimov must have thought his Russian passport and self-imposed exile status in Moscow would keep him safe, but that was not to be.
He began attracting unwanted attention after founding the "Youth for the Revival of Tajikistan" opposition movement last year.
In October, Dushanbe demanded he be handed over to face charges of extremism, which is how it characterises the political activities of staunch government critics.
That same month, Ibragimov was stabbed by an unknown assailant near his home in Moscow. It might have been worse. The handgun that was found on the site of the attack seems to have malfunctioned.
Quite how Ibragimov actually ended up in Tajikistan is subject of confused accounts.
In the latest version outlined by Atayeva on July 15, Ibragimov was confronted in January outside a prosecutor’s office in Moscow by a group of unknown people, who proceeded to confiscate his Russian passport. He was later taken to an airport and flown to Dushanbe. Atayeva said Ibragimov was tortured and forced to confess that he had returned to Tajikistan of his own will.
A government anticorruption agency in Tajikistan headed by the president’s son has made a move to broaden its remit by pursuing alleged Islamic extremists.
The Agency for State Financial Control and Combating Corruption said in a statement on July 13 that it has detained a group of suspected members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
The charges being leveled _ creating a criminal group, incitement to extremism and failure to report a crime _ are notable for having little to do with financial misdemeanors as such.
It is typically the state security services that initiate such cases, which raises the suspicion that Rustam Emomali, who has been head of the Agency for State Financial Control and Combating Corruption since March, has ambitions beyond chasing down mere bribe-takers.
Emomali’s agency said a resident of the northern Sughd region was detained after he was found with video and audio recordings of the late IMU leader Tahir Yuldashev, who is believed to have been killed in a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan’s South Waziristan province in August 2009.
“It is believed that (Muhammadshod) Gafurjonov planned to use the the ‘sermons’ and ‘appeals’ of IMU amir Muhammad Tohir for extremists aims in Tajikistan,” the agency said in its statement.
The statement carries on to accuse Gafurjonov of communicating with a countryman currently engaged in fighting in Syria for advice on how to lure Sughd youths toward extremist activities. Another three people are suspected of failing to turn Gafurjonov in to the authorities, the agency said.
Since all criminal investigations and subsequent trials into Islamic radicalism in Tajikistan are shrouded in secrecy, there is no way to determine the credibility of the case.
To many, the nuclear deal with Iran spells security. But to Azerbaijan, Iran's northern neighbor, it also spells a business opportunity.
Already, the energy-rich South Caucasus state is positioning itself to export not only its own natural gas to Europe, but Iran’s as well. And though international sanctions still remain in place, Tehran sounds willing to consider the idea.
The Azerbaijani and Iranian governments, according to Iranian Ambassador Pakayin, are getting ready to start bargaining over joint supply options.
The prospect opens some potentially interesting scenarios in the region’s high-stakes energy-chess game; particularly for Russia, the world’s largest gas producer, on which Europe depends.
Iran boasts about 18 percent of the world’s natural gas supplies, according to Fitch Ratings.
After months of pressure on Kazakhstan’s currency, the central bank has moved to allow the tenge to slide – but avoided the large snap devaluation that doomsayers have long been predicting.
On July 15, the National Bank eased the corridor within which the tenge trades to allow it to drop by 5%, to 198 to the U.S. dollar.
Chief central banker Kayrat Kelimbetov explained, in remarks quoted by Tengri News, that the measure was adopted as the tenge was pushing the upper margin of the corridor of 170-188 tenge to the dollar that the bank had previously committed to enforcing.
There were no immediate signs of panic over the mini-devaluation in Kazakhstan, where the National Bank maintained its exchange rate at 186.8 tenge to the dollar and the currency closed at 187.05 on the Kazakhstan Stock Exchange on July 15. In exchange offices, the tenge was trading at around 187.5 to the dollar after the central bank’s announcement.
Financial analysts predict the slide will be gradual.
“The scenario of a sharp devaluation is not being considered, and in principle that’s correct,” economist Olzhas Khudaybergenov, a former adviser to Kelimbetov, wrote on his Facebook page.
Khudaybergenov predicted a slow depreciation of 0.5-1 tenge per month, with the currency reaching the upper limit of the new corridor (198 tenge) in about a year.
The calm with which the news was received contrasted with the last devaluation in 2014, when the tenge lost nearly 20% of its value in a single day, sparking public anger that escalated into small-scale unrest in Almaty.