In a move that emphasizes the South Caucasus country's emerging ties with the Middle East, Georgia’s largest carrier, Airzena Georgian Airways, has launched direct flights to Erbil, capital of the autonomous northern region of Kurdistan in Iraq.
Georgia and Iraq have visa-free travel and a growing number of Iraqis of late have been trekking out to Georgia by land or by connecting flights. After the number hit 7,000 last year, Airzena started negotiations with the government of Kurdistan over a direct air link.
The region's relative safety and the new money produced by the development of its energy resources seem to have motivated the pick of Erbil, but the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, and the Kurdish cultural hub of Sulaymaniah are next on the list.
“To our surprise the plane was almost 90 percent full, which does not usually happen on the first flights to new destinations,” Airzena spokesperson Keti Mgeladze said of the debut, March 24 Erbil-Tbilisi flight. “Some passengers knew very little about Georgia and we were giving them details on board about the hotels and places to go.”
The Kurdistan region and Erbil may be, as TIME Magazine reported, Iraq’s best bet for tourism, but it looks unlikely to get flooded anytime soon with camera-snapping Georgians. While 70 passengers from Erbil ventured to Tbilisi, no Georgian passengers opted for Airzena's first flight to the Kurdish city.
A state commission in Kyrgyzstan has used claims of environmental damage at the country’s largest, most lucrative gold mine, Kumtor, to argue for a new agreement with the company operating the mine, Toronto-based Centerra Gold, and to fine Centerra almost half a billion dollars.
Economics Minister Temir Sariev, who headed the commission, says he has evidence, including two reports by European scientists, that the mine is inflicting “colossal damage” on the environment.
But, until now, hardly anyone in Kyrgyzstan has seen those scientists’ supposedly damning reports.
In December and February the commission, acting, respectively, through two state agencies – the State Inspectorate for Environmental and Technical Safety (SIETS) and the State Agency for Environmental Protection and Forestry (SAEPF) – fined Centerra approximately $467 million for alleged environmental damages, waste disposal and water treatment violations dating back to 1996. Centerra calls the claims “exaggerated or without merit.”
In its report for the state commission, SIETS said discharge from Kumtor is a "serious contamination threat" leading to "irreversible environmental impact on water resources."
Yet the two independent environmental audits Sariev commissioned, carried out by Slovene and German researchers last fall, found nothing unusual in Kumtor’s discharge. The Slovenes said water samples do not “indicate an environmental pollution or contamination situation.” The Germans said cyanide (used in the gold milling process) and heavy metals in Kumtor effluent “are significantly below the limit values of the German Ordinance on Waste Water.”
Basically, the reports – which EurasiaNet.org has seen – do not support the state commission’s environmental claims.
The roles played by regional powers Russia and Turkey in Syria's civil war are well documented, the former on the side of the government of Bashar al-Assad, and the latter on the side of the opposition. But according to a new report by a human rights group, Georgia and Azerbaijan also play bit parts in helping the Syrian government.
The report by the Human Rights First, Enablers of the Syrian Conflict (pdf), attempts to shine light on the international actors fueling the bloodshed in that country. It focuses solely on aid given to the government of Syria, not to the rebels. "Although both sides of the conflict are responsible for atrocities, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad is responsible for the vast majority," the report says.
Private companies in Georgia and Lebanon have supplied Syria with diesel fuel, the report notes:
[S]mall vessels carrying diesel from Georgia have also sailed into Syria.The United States provides foreign assistance to both Lebanon and Georgia. This assistance, and close bilateral relations, affords the United States an opportunity to exercise diplomatic and political action to have the Lebanese and Georgian governments investigate these reports and stop actors within those countries from fueling the crisis in Syria.
For its part, Azerbaijan allows Russia to use its airspace for shipments of weapons and cash:
Some lethal provisions to Syria by air initially involved transit through Turkey; however, after Turkey took steps to inspect suspected arms flights to Syria, Russia, Iran, and North Korea have all attempted to instead use Iraq as an arms corridor, with Russian transfers also traveling through Azerbaijan and Iran....
One of Uzbekistan’s opposition groups-in-exile has reported that President Islam Karimov has had a heart attack, prompting a denial from officials, while reigniting speculation about the aging leader’s health.
The People’s Movement of Uzbekistan (PMU), headed by Muhammad Solih from his base in Norway, reported on March 22 that the 75-year-old president suffered a heart attack on March 19. The report cited the PMU’s “own correspondent” in Tashkent, who was not named.
On March 24 the PMU reported confirmation of the news from a second source, a journalist “working for one of the state media outlets, performing his activities directly under the oversight of the National Security Committee and the press service of the president of Uzbekistan.”
The report quoted the unnamed journalist as saying that Karimov had a heart attack on the evening of March 19 and is “now seriously ill.”
No other sources apart from the PMU have independently confirmed the report of Karimov’s alleged heart attack.
A source in the presidential administration denied the news. “The president of Uzbekistan is in excellent form as always and does not have any signs of any indisposition,” the unnamed source told Russian news agency RIA Novosti on March 22.
In a separate report the same day, RIA Novosti quoted a source in the presidential administration (it was not clear if it was the same person) as saying the report was “most likely a canard” and pointing out that Karimov had been seen in public on March 19 at celebrations of the Navruz spring equinox holiday.
Despite the recent bleak assessments made by certain analysts, Turkey and Israel -- with intense American help -- have managed to pull off an early spring surprise and set in motion a process to restore their currently frayed relations and end a three-year drama that ultimately served nobody's interests.
Earlier today, towards the end of American President Barack Obama's three-day visit to Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu telephoned his Turkish counterpart and issued an apology for the deaths that took place due to "operational mistakes" when Israeli forces raid the Turkish Mavi Marmara Gaza aid ship some three years ago. In joint statements released by the two prime ministers' offices, the two countries said they are working out on an agreement for compensation/non-liability and will work together on improving the humanitarian situation in the "Palestinian territories." With this formula, it would appear that Israel has satisfied Turkey's demands for normalizing their relations.
The history of the Caucasus has long been dominated by three surrounding powers: Turkey,Russia, and Iran. And while Europe and the U.S. have become part of the equation in recent years, the region is still likely to be subject to the influences of its big neighbors to the west, north, and south. And so a big project by the Washington think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies on "The Turkey, Russia, Iran Nexus" is particularly interesting for observers of the Caucasus. CSIS has just released a report (pdf) examining how the various bilateral relationships (i.e. Turkey-Russia, Russia-Iran, Turkey-Iran) interact in political, economic and other ways. The report notes that Russia is not as worried about Iranian influence in the Caucasus as it is about Turkey:
Moscow is not enthusiastic about any state increasing its influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus, be it Turkey, Iran, China, the United States, or whomever. As then-President Dmitri Medvedev stated in September 2008 just after the five-day Georgia War, Russia regards the post-Soviet states as its “zone of privileged interests.” Having noted that, Iran’s presence and activities in Central Asia have been viewed as very much aligned with those of Moscow while Turkey’s as neither significant nor malign enough to draw too much attention.
He may be the sole inmate of an island prison in the Sea of Marmara, but Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), still knows how to command the headlines. Thursday, as Kurds celebrated the spring holiday of nevruz -- in years past an occasion for often violent protests -- Ocalan made what could turn out to be a game-changing call for the fighters of the PKK to cease fire and withdraw from Turkish soil.
Hundreds of thousands of Kurds, gathered in the regional center of Diyarbakir, cheered and waved banners bearing Ocalan's mustachioed image when a letter from the rebel leader, held since 1999 on a prison island in the Marmara Sea, was read out by a pro-Kurdish politician.
"Let guns be silenced and politics dominate," he said to a sea of red-yellow-green Kurdish flags. "The stage has been reached where our armed forces should withdraw beyond the borders ... It's not the end. It's the start of a new era."
Ocalan's call for a ceasefire, which had been expected for some weeks now, gives a major boost to the ongoing "peace talks" between Turkey and the Kurds and represents a major turnaround in how both sides had been dealing with each other. Up until a few years ago, it was common for Turkish courts to charge Kurdish politicians with the crime of referring to the jailed PKK leader as "the honorable Mr Ocalan." On the other hand, until fairly recently, many Kurdish leaders in Turkey had written off the government led by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), considering it and its leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as having been cut from the same Kurdish-identity denying nationalist cloth as previous Turkish governments.
Uzbekistan has begun drilling for shale oil at the Sangruntau deposit in northern Navoi Region, an unnamed government official told the Novyy Vek newspaper on March 20.
Business New Europe reported in February that the $600-million project, the first attempt to develop shale oil in Central Asia, would compensate for falling oil production in Uzbekistan and reduce its reliance on imports from Kazakhstan. Officials are tightlipped about who’s paying for all this, but Novyy Vek said financing came partially from “foreign loans.”
The project will provide up to 8 million metric tons of shale oil and up to 1 million metric tons of oil products a year, Novyy Vek reported, adding that Uzbekistan's shale oil reserves are estimated at 47 billion metric tons.
According to the 2012 BP Statistical Review of World Energy, Uzbekistan's oil production fell from 7.2 million metric tons in 2001 to 3.2 million in 2011, while consumption decreased from 6.7 million metric tons to 4.4 million over the same period.
Georgia's political culture may have just hit puberty. After ferocious debating over constitutional amendment meant to cut presidential powers, the measure passed on March 21 in a unanimous first-run vote.
The final vote is scheduled for Monday, but the drama-filled initial hearing promises to be the true grand finale of the constitutional epic. The second-stage vote occurred on Friday without incident.
The amendment will divest President Mikheil Saakashvili of the right to dismiss Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s cabinet and appoint a new government without parliamentary approval.
Saakashvili has maintained repeatedly that he has no interest in using the amendment, but the fact that the power will not vanish at the whim of a single political party or person, but by the will of two opposing political forces, is almost as momentous to many Georgians as the planned constitutional change itself.
Still a novel concept in Georgia's polarized politics, the compromise came after hours of debate in parliament and many calls to the president’s and the prime minister’s houses. The voting was preceded by a long and trying ping-pong of petty exchanges between the president and prime minister.
President Saakashvili insisted that he had no intention to sabotage the prime minister, to whom he conceded the choice of cabinet members after last year’s parliamentary vote, but Ivanishvili needed more than just the president's word for peace of mind. The variety of requests Saakashvili put forth in exchange for his United National Movement Party’s consent to the amendment included immunity from prosecution for former mid-level government officials.
Nothing irritates Tashkent more than neighboring countries' plans to build hydropower dams upstream. But rather than making the usual effort to thwart those plans with blockades and talk of “war,” a senior Uzbek official has offered some constructive advice.
Uzbekistan’s Deputy Water and Agriculture Minister Shavkat Khamraev told UN Radio this week that the only way to solve arguments about Central Asia’s unevenly distributed water resources is to construct small hydropower stations instead of giant dams, like the ones upstream Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan hope to build on the tributaries of the region's main rivers – the Amu Darya and Syr Darya.
Speaking of Tajikistan and the Amu Darya in particular, he said in a March 19 interview, "Let them build. We are also building small hydropower stations that do not alter the water and environmental pattern of this river and its basin.”
Khamraev is in New York to attend a March 22 meeting on water cooperation at UN headquarters. A Tajik delegation is also expected to attend.
The two countries are at loggerheads over Dushanbe’s plans to build what would be the world's tallest dam, Rogun. Dushanbe pins great hopes on the 335-meter dam, believing it will ensure energy security for the country, which now depends heavily on its neighbors.
Tashkent, however, says Rogun will hurt its agricultural sector and poses unnecessary risks in a seismically active region. Last fall, President Islam Karimov said projects like Rogun could “spark not simply serious confrontation but even wars.”