The rail line at Hairatan, Afghanistan, on the border with Uzbekistan, through which U.S. and NATO military cargo to and from Afghanistan flows. (photo: Sgt. 1st Class Peter Mayes, 101st Sustainment Brigade, 101st Airborne Division Public Affairs)
Policymakers from the U.S., Europe, and Central Asia gathered last week in Riga to discuss the "commercialization" of the Northern Distribution Network, the military transport routes that ship military goods from the West into Afghanistan via the ex-Soviet states. The idea that the NDN can be converted into a "New Silk Road" of commercial Eurasian trade has been around for some time. And it's been debunked for about as long. But it's still kicking, and in fact now has become part of the State Department's talking points.
What became clear at the conference, though, is that while the NDN may have been a military logistics success, and while there is in fact a great deal of momentum towards transcontinental Europe-Asia land transportation, those two things have little to do with one another. There was occasional political rhetoric connecting the two: Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics said that he was "confident that the Northern Distribution Network has the good potential of becoming a commercially viable, long-term transit corridor also after 2014." And Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Lynne Tracy spoke of "the transition of these transport corridors from the success of carrying cargo supporting operations in Afghanistan to realizing their full potential as commercially competitive and efficient routes." But for the most part, the two conversations -- about the NDN and about commercial transcontinental transit -- were entirely separate.
Energy-rich Baku could end up lending a helping hand to next-door enemy, Armenia, via a World Bank program which gives loans to the world’s neediest nations, including Armenia.
Last week, Azerbaijan's Central Bank Governor Elman Rustamov told World Bank Vice President Joachim von Amsberg that the South Caucasus state is interested in contributing as a donor, Azerbaijani news outlets reported.
Azerbaijan this year shed all of its $300 million debt to the International Development Association (IDA), a World Bank mechanism offering the poor a chance to borrow their way to prosperity via low or no-interest loans. Armenia along with fellow Soviet alumni Georgia, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are on the list of IDA aid recipients.
Just yesterday, Azerbaijan, too, was one of that crowd, but it has now gone middle-class with a per-capita GDP of $10,700, an indicator far above it ex-Soviet comrades in the neighborhood, bar Russia.
Among the various signs of its newfound wealth, Azerbaijan has contributed $5 million to a fund-raising project for the Palestinian territories, purchases weapons from Israel, and is witnessing the make-over of Baku into a glittering, skyscraper-studded metropolis.
Russia has completed a big arms delivery worth about $1 billion to Azerbaijan, following reports that Baku was in fact suffering under a quiet de facto arms embargo from Moscow. The deals were in fact signed over the last two years, and most of them seem to have been previously reported. But they were apparently recently delivered to Baku and included, according to Reuters, "nearly 100 T-90C tanks, Smerch and TOS-1A multiple rocket launchers and Msta-A and Vena artillery cannons."
But wait, Bug Pit readers are saying. Didn't we just hear in April that Russia had cut off arms sales to Azerbaijan, in particular of several military aircraft deals that were in the works? That doesn't necessarily contradict today's news, given that the latter refers to various deals already signed. An interesting paragraph in the Reuters piece:
A source at the Russian Defence Ministry said the order had been on hold for some time to avoid upsetting the military balance in the South Caucasus, where Russia has a military base in Armenia and an agreement to defend the country if it comes under attack. But the deal had been pushed through at the behest of Russia's powerful arms industry, he said.
A Bishkek court has acquitted and released three opposition leaders previously convicted for attempting to seize power violently. In March, Kamchybek Tashiev and two other lawmakers from the nationalist Ata-Jurt party received sentences of between six months and one year for leading unrest outside parliament last autumn.
But the end to this saga did not come without more violence. Tashiev, Sadyr Japarov and Talant Mamytov were released on June 17 after their supporters threw shoes and bottles at the judge and a prosecutor who was demanding an even longer sentence, AKIpress reports.
The Prosecutor General’s office told 24.kg that the court caved to public pressure and said it intends to pursue charges at the Supreme Court.
The case of Tashiev et al. is linked to regular protests over the fate of the lucrative Kumtor gold mine in Issyk-Kul Province. At the October rally, where Tashiev led protestors over the fence surrounding parliament and vowed to “replace this government,” the three Ata-Jurt deputies demanded the nationalization of Kumtor, the largest foreign-run gold mine in Central Asia, which accounts for over 50 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s exports.
Only 14 hours after Gezi Park's occupy movement was evicted from the grounds, municipality officials had arranged for the painting over of anti-government, political, and defamatory graffiti on an inner-wall of the disputed park.
Jonathan Lewis is a freelance photojournalist based in Istanbul.
Sexual abuse and secretly recorded sex videos have been a disturbing component of Georgian politics recently. Last October's flip-flop of power from President Saakashvili to Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili was preceded by the leak of footage of the physical and sexual abuse of prison inmates. Now, a fresh scandal centers around sex videos of various government critics allegedly recorded under the auspices of former officials loyal to President Mikheil Saakashvili.
Law enforcement agencies claim that they have inherited a supply of compromising videos supposedly meant to blackmail political dissidents and potential defectors under previous ministers loyal to Saakashvili. Georgian police on June 17 announced that they had found an addition to this supposed collection -- an underground cache of sexual violence and torture videos, along with explosives and ammunition, in the western part of the country.
Some videos allegedly depict sexual violence in places of detention; others are secret recordings of citizens’ private lives, which includes a subcategory of the homosexual affairs of socially prominent men. In socially conservative Georgia, the public tends to condemn displays of sexual behavior, while homosexuals and supporters of LGBT rights can face violence.
The Georgian-Dream-led government, eager to investigate alleged wrongdoing linked to the pro-Saakashvili camp, has vowed to stomp out this videotaping practice, a holdover from the Soviet past, but the release of teasers from the archive has not quelled misgivings about officials' real intentions.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan capped off a very eventful weekend with a visit to the Sunday closing ceremonies of the Turkish Olympiad, an annual event that brings together students from the Gulen movement’s global network of schools to show off their language skills through song and dance (if you’ve ever wanted to see African children belt it out in Turkish while dressed up like Turkic nomads, this is the event for you).
But the day’s real show of linguistic prowess was on display earlier, when Erdogan gave a two-hour speech – most of it without even looking at any notes – in front of a crowd of hundreds of thousands of flag-waving supporters at an Istanbul rally. It was a bravura performance, one that, incredibly, saw Erdogan’s voice actually lose the hoarseness that he started off with and get stronger as he went along. By the end, Erdogan had once again shown that there is really no one in the Turkish political landscape that can touch him in terms of working up a crowd and projecting his personality so forcefully and effectively.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization held its annual military exercises last week in Kazakhstan, and from what we can tell from the official statements about the exercise, it represented a continuation of the trend toward a lessening of the organization's military importance.
The scenario of the exercise, which was held in Shymkent, was a pretty typical one, reports China Radio International:
The drill stimulates a situation where terrorists enter Kazakhstan by helicopters and automobiles, hijack hostages in a bordering village and attempt to conduct terrorist activities.
The mission is for counter forces from SCO member countries to crack down on the terrorist group and rescue hostages through both ground and aerial operations.
MiG-29 fighters forced a plane which had illegally infiltrated Kazakhstan's air space to land. Then, they showed witnesses at attempt to seize a reinforced checkpoint. And then, airborne forces neutralized a group of terrorists. In addition, the special forces demonstrated the storming of a house in which criminals held hostages. On the order to release the hostages, the terrorists responded with fire.
Armed forces and armored personnel carriers went to the site of battle. Aviation supported the ground attack. At the same time wounded security forces were evacuated. The special forces used flash-bang grenades. They freed the hostages and captured the hostages as they tried to escape.
Nurtay Abykayev, the chairman of Kazakhstan's security council, said "Of course the scenario is possible. A terrorist is a terrorist. He can be armed with any weapon, so we need to work comprehensively."
Turkmenistan says it has dropped one of the most contentious issues in its relationship with Russia, promising, after leaving them in limbo for 10 years, to grant passports to Turkmen citizens who also hold Russian citizenship.
On June 14, Ashgabat said it will begin issuing passports this week to the 110,000 dual citizens Russia says live in Turkmenistan. Moscow hailed the decision.
The announcement comes seven years after Turkmen authorities started refusing to issue new biometric passports to Turkmen citizens with dual Russian citizenship, saying they had to renounce their Russian citizenship first.
Tens of thousands of Turkmen citizens have dual Russian nationality, in accordance with a December 1993 Turkmen-Russian agreement.
In 2003, Turkmenistan's parliament ratified the document on annulling the dual-citizenship agreement with Russia, which the Russian Duma refused to ratify.
Ashgabat had ratcheted up tentions in late 2012, signaling it would strip Russian citizens of their Turkmen citizenship, thus forcing those who wished to remain Russian citizens to leave Turkmenistan or become stuck without valid travel documents.
It is unclear what prompted the sudden about-face. Several days before the announcement, the Kremlin reiterated that President Vladimir Putin had accepted Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s invitation to visit soon.
Just over 12 hours after Istanbul riot police cleared Taksim Square of protestors, municipal authorities plant geraniums on June 16 in the central flower beds around the Atatürk Monument in the center of the square.
Jonathan Lewis is a freelance photojournalist based in Istanbul.