Prison is increasingly the place to find the most prominent of Azerbaijan’s journalists, activists and freethinkers. The last public glimpse of investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova came on December 5, when a police-car carried her off to prison as she waved to friends and supporters, who ran alongside chanting “Khadija!”
Her apartment has since been searched, her Facebook page already deactivated (not long before her sentence became public) and she remains in pre-trial detention in Kyurdakhany prison, outside the capital, Baku, for the next two months.
Ismayilova, an RFE/RL reporter who also has worked for EurasiaNet.org, stands accused of allegedly pushing a former colleague to attempt to commit suicide. The charge follows a series of exposes by Ismayilova into corruption among members of the presidential family and other senior officials.
The arrest has sparked a fusillade of international accusations against Azerbaijan again trying to silence critical media voices. Rallies to protest Ismayilova's detention already have been planned for this week outside of Azerbaijan's embassies in Washington and Tbilisi.
Baku, as usual, has brushed off the criticism as “baseless and biased,” and insists that vague certain circles seek to sully Azerbaijan’s good name. “Azerbaijan has never prosecuted any of its citizens as well as any mass media representative over freedom of speech, and they never suffered from pressure by any official authority,” claimed President Ilham Aliyev’s spokesperson, Azer Gasimov, the pro-government APA reported on Monday.
The collapse of the ruble is causing economic doom and gloom in Russia. But in border regions of neighboring Kazakhstan demand for the ailing currency is rocketing as people rush across the frontier to snap up bargains.
“In northern Kazakhstan, people are buying up rubles en masse and going shopping across the border,” reports KTK TV.
Bringing goods across the long border is relatively straightforward as Russia and Kazakhstan are fellow members of the Customs Union. So people are hurrying across from cities in northern Kazakhstan to buy anything from property and cars to clothes and food in Siberia.
The price of an apartment in some Siberian cities, once far higher than in the depressed towns of northern Kazakhstan, is now on a par, KTK said.
“I’ll sell my apartment, and for the same price I’ll buy in Omsk, because of the fall of the ruble,” an inhabitant of the city of Petropavl, which lies just 70 kilometers from the Russian frontier, said. “It’s an investment.”
In Kazakhstan’s capital, status-conscious bargain hunters are using the cheap ruble to buy expensive cars, an Astana-based dealer told Kazinform news agency. “We brought five cars over from Yekaterinburg [in Russia] yesterday, now we’re going to sell them on. Our rivals are doing the same, as are ordinary people wanting to acquire an expensive vehicle. You can find good options almost half as cheap as in Kazakhstan. Some people are going over and driving new cars right out of the showroom.”
The ruble has fallen almost 40 percent against the dollar and 60 percent against the euro since the beginning of this year. That may be good news for Kazakhstanis near the Russian border, but more generally it is bad news for Kazakhstan, economists say.
Senior United States diplomats have visited Tashkent for their regular consultations with the government of Uzbekistan, and in spite of continuing tension over Afghanistan and human rights, the Americans were unusually positive in their assessment of ties with Uzbekistan.
"Had a very productive meeting with President Karimov on the growing bilateral relationship and cooperation on regional and global challenges," tweeted Nisha Biswal, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia. "Very impressed by the candid conversations with govt of Uzbekistan and civil society on subject of prison management and prison conditions," she added later. The delegation included 22 American officials from seven different government agencies.
Interestingly, in her public remarks Biswal appeared to have not uttered the words "human rights." The U.S. government has come under frequent criticism from human rights groups for overlooking the country's appalling record on human rights for the sake of strategic considerations. But U.S. officials nearly always meet with human rights activists when they visit the country, and at least mention the issue of human rights in their public statements. (Also unusually, while Biswal held a press conference in Tashkent the transcript wasn't released. The State Department didn't respond to a request for comment.)
Kazakhstan does not persecute political opponents or attack freedom of expression, President Nursultan Nazarbayev has avowed, fending off awkward questions from journalists during a December 5 visit to Astana by his French counterpart, François Hollande.
“There are no censorship questions here, no political persecutions,” Nazarbayev said in remarks quoted by Vlast.kz, calling on critics to “abandon stereotypes here and look with new, open eyes.”
Nazarbayev was speaking the same day that two high-profile cases which raise questions about political liberties and freedom of speech reached the courts.
In one, the Adam Bol magazine – which was one of the last remaining independent media outlets in Kazakhstan – is fighting closure on the grounds that it allegedly called for war in its coverage of the Ukraine conflict. The case was adjourned until December 22.
The magazine was closed down on November 20 over an interview in which opposition activist Aydos Sadykov pledged to urge citizens of Kazakhstan to take up arms to fight pro-Russian separatist forces in eastern Ukraine. The closure was condemned by OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatovic as “drastic and disproportionate,” and by Reporters Without Borders, a media watchdog, as the “orchestrated throttling” of an opposition-minded outlet.
“It is better to be under the Russian yoke,” reasoned MP Mher Sadrakian of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia, echoing other lawmakers’ views that alliance with Russia is a necessary evil. “Our people always have been under a foreign yoke,” Sadrakian went on saying, RFE/RL reported. “We are used to someone standing above us… the Persians, the Turks, the Russians… “
Without Russia, Armenia would not have “conquered” predominantly ethnic-Armenian Nagorno Karabakh, claimed by Azerbaijan, he continued. “Without them [the Russians], they will devour us,” Sadrakian said in reference to Azerbaijan and its longtime ally, Turkey.
Another Republican, Seryan Saroian, offered more transcendental reasoning, though getting somewhat confused in the process.
“Why are you lamenting us joining the European Union… the Euronews… I don’t know, Eurasia…Let’s say you eat two more kilos of sausage, will it change anything?” Saroian was quoted by RFE/RL's Armenian service as saying.
Prosecutors in Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s southern capital, have dropped a criminal case against a local non-governmental organization accused of inciting inter-ethnic conflict. The decision is being cheered by civil society activists, who had earlier expressed concern that the case was a possible harbinger of a crackdown on the non-governmental sector.
In a resolution dated November 28, the Osh prosecutor’s office halted the investigation of the Advocacy Center for Human Rights for lack of evidence of criminal wrongdoing. The criminal case was opened in late September at the instigation of the local branch of the GKNB, or Kyrgyz state security service, which alleged that a research project conducted by the NGO posed a threat to national security. The Advocacy Center, in conjunction with the US-based watchdog organization Freedom House, had been carrying out a pilot research project on the civil rights of ethnic minorities in two regions of southern Kyrgyzstan – Batken and Jalal-Abad.
“We are pleased that the prosecutor rejected the charges of inciting inter-ethnic hatred against the staff of the Human Rights Advocacy Center,” Robert Herman, Freedom House’s vice president for regional programs, said in a written statement distributed by the watchdog organization. “The allegations were baseless and the prosecutor’s decision represents a triumph of the rule of law.”
While the decision may mark a limited victory for due process in Kyrgyzstan, a convoluted provision in the prosecutor’s November 28 resolution indicates that the rule of law was probably not the sole factor in the decision to drop the case. Instead, it hints that behind-the-scenes maneuvering among various state agencies played a significant role in the outcome.
Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili and NATO Special Representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia James Appathurai meet in Tbilisi. (photo: Georgian Ministry of Defense)
NATO officials are in Georgia doing the preliminary work to set up a training facility, an official from the alliance said on a visit to Tbilisi.
The establishment of the joint training facility, announced in September, was the main component of the "substantial package" that NATO had long promised Georgia for continuing to be a good ally. James Appathurai, NATO's special representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia, was in Tbilisi this week meeting with officials including Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili to discuss the implementation of the package.
“We welcome very much the speed with which Georgia has been working to define this new joint training center,” Appathurai said, according to Civil.ge, and he added that NATO defense planning experts are already in Georgia, working closely with the Georgian colleagues on this issue.
"NATO is already participating very actively and we are already identifying the people who will be coming in here, defining where the joint training center will be – that’s a Georgian decision of course, hopefully we can define it together," Appathurai said. "There will be further high-level visits to focus on implementation.”
Appathurai's visit followed a visit two weeks ago by Garibashvili to NATO headquarters in Brussels, where NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that the package will "move Georgia closer to NATO":
Lado Gurgenidze, a prominent banker who served as prime minister of Georgia during the 2008 war with Russia, will serve as a Ukrainian government economic advisor, according to newly appointed Ukrainian Health Minister Aleksandre Kvitashvili, a friend of Gurgenidze. (Kvitashvili was a member of Gurgenidze's cabinet.)
“They have already spoken to Lado,” Kvitashvili said in remarks reported by Georgian media. “Probably it is going to be a coordinating council or some committee.”
He also claimed that former Georgian Deputy Interior Minister Ekaterine Zghuladze was to be confirmed as Ukraine’s first deputy interior minister. Ukrainian officials, so far, have confirmed holding a job interview with Zghuladze.
Ex-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said earlier this week that he had turned down a job offer as Ukraine’s deputy prime minister.
Ukraine already has confirmed a former American diplomat, Natalie Jaresko, as its finance minister and a Lithuanian investment banker, Aivaras Abramovicius, as its economy minister. Like Kvitashvili, the two reportedly have given up their respective citizenships to become Ukrainians.
Authorities in Kazakhstan suspect toxic emissions of “dangerous substances” from Karachaganak – one of the world’s largest gas and condensate fields – is to blame for the mass poisoning of children in the country’s northwest last week.
There were atmospheric emissions of highly toxic hydrogen sulfide beyond permissible levels from Karachaganak on November 27, the day before 20 children and three teachers were rushed to hospital in the village of Berezovka, Serik Karamanov, the prosecutor of West Kazakhstan Region, said on December 3.
The emissions were the result of a gas leak during flaring eight and a half kilometers away by Karachaganak Petroleum Operating (KPO), Karamanov said in remarks quoted by the Uralskaya Nedelya local newspaper. KPO is an international consortium that includes Britain’s BG Group, Italy’s ENI, US-based Chevron, Russia’s LUKOIL, and Kazakhstan’s KazMunayGaz.
The children and teachers were rushed to hospital after they started fainting en masse at a village school, while other villagers complained of dizziness and nose bleeds. “Weird things are happening here,” as one put it to Tengri News.
Nettlesome neighbors Armenia and Azerbaijan are in a tug-of-war over pretty much everything, from disputed lands to, most recently, a loaf of bread. Armenia says it has succeeded in claiming something of a cultural copyright to lavash, a regionally popular thin bread, while Azerbaijan’s fierce attempts to thwart Armenian claims to the flatbread have fallen, well, flat.
Over Azerbaijani objections, UNESCO late last week did grant the bread a spot on its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage as an expression of Armenian culture. But the UN agency did so with a disclaimer that lavash is shared by communities in the region and beyond” and that “the inscription does not imply exclusivity.”
One Armenian media outlet claims that UNESCO committee purportedly chose the careful wording after Azerbaijan raised objections during UNESCO’s November 24-28 meeting in Paris. But the wording was enough for both countries to celebrate victory.
Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism announced that it has prevented Armenia from claiming the bread as its own. “Justice has prevailed in this matter,” said Culture and Tourism Minister Abulfas Garayev. “ UNESCO’s decision says that lavash is made all across the region and is not an exclusively Armenian bread.”