It's official. Georgia and Gazprom are going out. Georgian Energy Minister Kakha Kaladze, the former soccer star/pin-up staple, keeps getting spotted meeting Gazprom officials and he is running out of excuses for an entanglement that, some claim, threatens to upset the region's energy status quo, and possibly, its geopolitical layout.
Georgians mostly learn via foreign media about Kaladze’s trysts with the Russian gas monopolist in Milan, Brussels or Geneva. Each time the news breaks, the minister steps forth with claims that it was just some routine business meeting. Nothing to worry about.
But his line of reasoning has become sharply contradictory, stoking fears that Georgia is being seduced back into a dependency on Russian energy, which, in turn, critics say, could hamstring Georgia’s Western integration plans.
In his latest clarification, Kaladze said that his talks with Gazprom are about revising the terms for the transit of Russian gas through Georgia to Armenia. Instead of taking 10 percent of the gas (some 200 million cubic meters) as a transit fee, Tbilisi wants to get paid in cash, Kaladze said on January 11. The deal, if reached, will last for a year, the minister said, which, to his mind, means that the doomsday scenarios “painted by the so-called experts are nothing but delirious and wrong."
Tajikistan’s slide toward a one-party, family-run order is picking up momentum, even as analysts warn of possible imminent instability.
Asia-Plus news website reported on January 11 that a secret draft bill is in the works to make significant changes to the constitution. The amendments could be put up for a referendum, the website said.
Sources have told EurasiaNet.org that the modifications under review envision banning political parties espousing either religious or atheist views.
The only party embracing a religious identity, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, was already banned in September and has since been designated a terrorist organization.
But the the atheist component of the proposed constitutional reform appears possibly designed to sideline the Communist Party of Tajikistan, which holds two deputies in parliament. The Communist Party has rarely constituted an actual opposition force in Tajikistan, but it is regarded with suspicion all the same.
The current constitution also does not allow for the Leader of the Nation title bestowed last month upon President Emomali Rahmon. Accordingly, that will be amended, and details about Rahmon’s immunity from prosecution and post-rule benefits will be outlined, EurasiaNet.org’s source said.
One more crucial area possibly to undergo review involves the lower age limit for pretenders to the presidency, which currently bars anybody under the age of 35 from running. As things stand, the most likely successor to Emomali Rakhmon would be legally prevented from taking up the post at the next presidential election, in 2020.
Citing police sources, the pro-government news site APA claimed that “more than 60” people had been detained, and 50 subsequently released. An exact tally was not immediately available. The government itself has not released an official statement.
Scores of arrests appear to have been made in Nardaran, located about 30 kilometers northeast of the capital, Baku, since a raid last November that left at least six dead. Among others, the head of the town’s council of elders, Natig Karimov, was detained last week on charges of treason and espionage. Local spiritual leader Taleh Bagirzade was arrested in November.
Authorities claim that the town’s residents harbored plans for an armed coup and colluded with an unnamed foreign power — believed to mean Azerbaijan’s southern neighbor, Iran -- against Azerbaijani security interests. Claims long have run rampant in Azerbaijan, a predominantly Shi'a country, that Iran’s Shi’ite government tries to influence or stir up trouble in Nardaran.
As Iran expressed an interest in monitoring the actions taken in Nardaran, Baku started to pull back from recent expressions of chumminess over potential joint energy-export projects.
Russia says it has completed the handover of air defense systems to Kazakhstan, part of the project of creating a joint air defense system across the former Soviet Union. But Kazakhstan's Ministry of Defense is complaining that the systems aren't actually yet delivered and are not in working condition.
The gift of five Russian S-300 air defense systems to Kazakhstan was announced two years ago (and then was said to be on slate for completion by the end of 2014). This was to be the first step of the Central Asian portion of a joint air defense system Russia is trying to create with its allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization. (Armenia and Belarus are in their own discussions with Russia to build up the system in their regions.)
At December's meeting of the CSTO in Moscow, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu announced that the S-300 transfer to Kazakhstan was complete.
"We have completed the project to transfer without charge the S-300 air defense systems to Kazakhstan, taking into consideration the fact that this is a weighty, if not main, contribution to the integrated air defense system, which, one may say, has become a reality, and now its hardware component has been built up to the expected strength," Shoigu said.
But that's not quite the situation, senior Kazakhstani defense officials say. "The S-300 complexes won't enter service tomorrow. Two complexes are underdoing technical service in Kazakhstan, and three will undergo technical service in Russia," the head of Kazakhstan's air defense forces, General-Major Nurlan Ormanbetov, told the Kazakh service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
Internet users in Uzbekistan look set to suffer an indefinite continuation to the poor service they have been enduring for the past half year or so.
The lingering suspicion is that security services are trying, but struggling, to install cast-iron monitoring mechanisms to keep tabs on users of popular communication software like Skype, WhatsApp and Viber.
State-run Uzbektelecom’s Internet provider division said that the latest decline in the quality of connections would last through to early next month because of maintenance work on the network, Regnum news agency reported on January 6.
The agency said some areas of the capital, Tashkent, might cease to get the Internet altogether.
This has become a routine warning since July, however, and other online providers — Sarkor Telecom, Sharq Telecom, Turon Telecom, ComNet and others — have issued similar statements.
Telecommunications officials have tried to reassure customers that the ultimate aim to all the interruptions in service are to improve quality, but experts are skeptical.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Uzbek service, Ozodlik, has speculated that the ultimate cause may be the National Security Services’ desperate efforts to monitor online traffic.
"It looks like they [the security services] have jumbled up all the Internet traffic settings as they try to set up a monitoring system in the main server, where all international traffic goes through,” an Internet security specialist told Ozodlik on condition on anonymity.
Such claims have no longer been subject of speculation since hackers last year leaked reams of correspondence from an Italian company, Hacking Team, which provides Internet monitoring technology to numerous governments, including Uzbekistan’s.
Some people start off the new year with a new plan for diet or exercise, but the South Caucasus country of Georgia took a different tact. With a parliamentary election ahead, it kicked off 2016 with a new prime minister — the 48-year-old, US-educated Giorgi Kvirikashvili, a former foreign and economic development minister.
So far, however, no sign has emerged that Prime Minister Kvirikashvili intends to make sizable policy shifts. Apart from a new foreign minister (former Deputy Foreign Minister Mikheil Janelidze), the cabinet remains unchanged.
Other details also remain constant.
A longtime banking professional with a master’s degree in finance from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Kvirikashvili may want to promote start-ups, “economic development,” and political cooperation, but, like his 33-year-old predecessor, Irakli Gharibashvili, he is a company man. A Bidzina-company man, that is.
From 2006 until 2011, Kvirikashvili worked as general director of Cartu Bank, an investment bank set up by the billionaire former prime minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili, who founded Georgia's ruling Georgian Dream coalition.
Though Kvirikashvili, a former MP, is no stranger to Georgian politics, it was Ivanishvili who brought him into the cabinet — in 2012 as economic development minister; a position he held until last September, when he became foreign minister.
For many Georgians, his pick as PM is another sign of a blessing from Bidzina, the man still seen, more than two years after his resignation as prime minister, as the country's real leader.
An interview broadcast shortly after Gharibashvili’s surprise December 23 resignation doubtless did little to dispel that popular notion.
The controversial trial in Kazakhstan of two prominent civil society campaigners accused of inciting ethnic discord has descended into chaos with proceedings derailed amid angry courtroom scenes and claims the authorities are trying to force a sick man into the dock.
Yermek Narymbayev was rushed to hospital in an ambulance from the courtroom in Almaty on
January 6 complaining of heart problems and high blood pressure, the Respublika-kz.info website reported.
Pictures circulated on Facebook showed a prone and anguished-looking Narymbayev huddled under a sweater on a stretcher being transferred into an ambulance.
Despite claims from supporters that Narymbayev, who has a history of heart problems, may have suffered a cardiac arrest, the activist was later returned to court after doctors declared him fit to stand trial – prompting co-defendant Serikhzhan Mambetalin to threaten a hunger strike in protest, RFE/RL reported.
Furious scenes broke out in the courtroom after the judge ordered Narymbayev back into the dock, video posted on Facebook by journalist Ayan Sharipbayev shows.
“Shame, shame!” Narymbayev’s supporters chanted, rising to their feet and haranguing the judge and prosecutors as the trial descended into chaos.
Earlier in the day, Narymbayev had asked the judge to curtail the schedule of hearings because of his ill health, complaining that it was too intense. “I ask you to slow the pace, I want to live to the sentencing,” Respublika-kz.info quoted him as saying.
Despite all the desperate and draconian measures being adopted by authorities in Tajikistan, the national currency has continued its downward trajectory.
The somoni officially closed 2015 at 6.99 against the dollar, but that slipped to 7.19 on January 6 — a more than 2.5 percent slide in under a week. (It has been a steady drop — although vastly less steep than Kazakhstan — since the start of 2015, when the official rate was 5.3 somoni to the dollar.)
And if at the end of the year, the dollar was selling in the banks at 7.45 somoni, banks’ websites are now showing 7.7 somoni. Meanwhile, banks are buying dollars at 7.4 somoni.
A $400 daily limit has also been placed on how many dollars account-holders can draw on their cards.
In December, the central bank suspected operations at all money exchanges points, citing speculation, leaving only banks the right to perform the transaction. Anybody carrying out unauthorized currency exchanges could face stiff penalties, the central bank said.
All the while, authorities assured people that there were enough foreign currency to go go around. Indeed, the central bank warned authorized credit organizations that failure to provide exchange service on more than two reported occasions could lead to penalties up to and including license revocation.
The warnings have had little effect. EurasiaNet.org visited several banks around the capital, Dushanbe on January 6 and found that banks authorized (obliged even) to sell dollars were unable (or unwilling) to do so. Banks will buy dollars, but refuse to sell it.
“If you want yuan, if you want Russian (rubles), you can have it, but we cannot sell you dollars. We are forbidden from selling it,” said a teller at one bank in Dushanbe.
Russia and other allies will hold a military intelligence exercise, the first of its kind, in Tajikistan in April.
A source in Tajikistan's security services told the newspaper Asia Plus that the Collective Security Treaty Organization will hold the exercise in a military training area in the Khatlon province, which borders Afghanistan. About 800 soldiers from CSTO member states Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan will take part. The source told Asia Plus that it's the first time the CSTO has held an exercise specifically devoted to intelligence.
Tajikistan's border with Afghanistan has become Russia's prime security concern in Central Asia as the Taliban has become more and more active in neighboring northern Afghanistan.
Russia is also looking at bilateral Russia-Tajikistan military action in case of a deteriorating security situation in Tajikistan, a senior Russian diplomat has said. "We may use coalition groups of the armed forces of Russia and Tajikistan, if circumstances demand," said Aleksandr Sternik, the head of the Russian foreign ministry's department in charge of ex-Soviet states, in an interview Sunday with the news agency Interfax. He said the issue was discussed at a recent meeting of the CSTO in Moscow.
"Toward this end we're optimizing the structures and deployment schemes of the 201st Russian military base in Tajikistan. Its capabilities are increasing. Under the current circumstances taking into account the state of affairs in the border region this is the most effective model of cooperation," Sternik added.