Newspaper editor Igor Vinyavskiy, who had been in detention facing seven years on charges of anti-constitutional activities, has been abruptly freed under amnesty. The authorities’ surprise about-face comes only days after they suddenly released a lawyer who was jailed for her role advising striking oil workers in the troubled town of Zhanaozen.
Vinyavskiy was released on March 15 and shortly afterwards posted a message on Facebook: “I’m free. At home. From the bottom of my heart I thank those who supported me, since that warmed my soul.”
Vinyavskiy was arrested on January 23 on suspicion of advocating the “violent change of constitutional order” with some leaflets authorities seized almost two years previously. He was arrested on the same day Vladimir Kozlov, leader of the unregistered Alga! party, was detained on suspicion of inciting violence in Zhanaozen, where 17 people were killed in December when security forces fired on protestors.
The timing, amid a political crackdown in Kazakhstan, sparked suspicions that Vinyavskiy’s arrest was a reprisal for his Vzglyad newspaper’s reporting on Zhanaozen.
Kozlov and other activists remain in jail facing charges over the unrest. Forty-three protestors also face trial, along with five police officers.
Russia has confirmed that it is planning to help NATO set up a transportation hub in the Volga city of Ulyanovsk, confirming its willingness to cooperate with U.S. goals in Central Asia and setting off a mild political controversy among Russians uncomfortable about working with NATO.
As first reported a month ago by the newspaper Kommersant, NATO is looking at using the Ulyanovsk facility to fly in equipment that it is moving out of Afghanistan as it withdraws. The equipment will then be sent onward to Europe via train.
The first official confirmation of the plan was made this week by Dmitry Rogozin, formerly Moscow's ambassador to NATO and now deputy prime minister dealing with defense industry. In his inimitable way, he addressed a controversy that had been brewing on Russian online fora, writing on his facebook page (and reported by RIA Novosti):
Reading about a ‘U.S. base near Ulyanovsk’ is annoying. Let me explain: we are talking about a so-called multimodal transit of non-lethal cargos to serve the needs of international security assistance forces in Afghanistan.
In Ulyanovsk, mineral water, napkins, tents and other non-military cargos will be reloaded from trains onto planes and then moved to Afghanistan.
This will be a commercial transit, which means the Russian budget will get money from it. I don’t think that the transit of NATO toilet paper through Russia can be considered the betrayal of the Fatherland.
The next day, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov mentioned the NATO-Russia deal, which he said had not yet been formally approved:
"This draft agreement… has not entered force yet, it has not yet been considered by the government,” Lavrov told State Duma members...
With one eye on the upcoming Eurovision contest and another on its reputation, Azerbaijan’s presidential administration on March 15 condemned the online appearance of a video purportedly depicting sexual activities involving investigative journalist Khadija Ismailova, a reporter for both RFE/RL and EurasiaNet.org. Officials have vowed to carry out a thorough probe, but Ismailova tells EurasiaNet.org she has yet to be contacted by investigators.
In a statement, administration spokesperson Elnur Aslanov condemned the video "as a campaign of provocative forces attempting to break the stability in Azerbaijan, harm the country’s international image and cause tension and confusion in society." He went on to claim that law enforcement agencies "will do their utmost to expose and punish those standing behind this dirty act."
Ali Hasanov, the influential head of the presidential administration's Political and Public Policy Department, sounded a similar line, asserting that those who had violated Ismailova's constitutional right to privacy "must be brought to responsibility." Hasanov added that "relevant agencies are investigating the issue," the SIA news agency reported.
Contrary to official assertions, Ismailova told EurasiaNet.org that she has not received "a single phone call from investigators" after she initially contacted them on March 9 about a blackmail attempt. "I personally was not approached by any investigator for the materials" threatening blackmail,” she added.
Polygamy, though illegal, has become a fact of life in Kazakhstan. Men with multiple wives are not uncommon.
But now some powerful women are looking for a piece of the action, turning to Almaty dating agencies to help them find just what the woman who has everything needs: a second “husband.”
“It sometimes seems to me that the world’s turned upside down and a matriarchy is setting in,” Irina Proshina, the deputy director of one unnamed Almaty dating agency, told the Megapolis newspaper.
One high-powered businesswoman decided that “since one husband wasn’t coping with his spousal obligations, she needed to acquire a second,” Proshina said, though in her view “guys aren’t pets” to be acquired like that.
Sometimes women bring along their husbands to help make the tricky selection. Proshina’s agency has had three women, husbands in tow, come by seeking a second man. Perhaps not surprisingly, the men looked “down-trodden and hen-pecked” to Proshina’s well-trained eye.
Polygamy was outlawed in Soviet times but has gained ground across Central Asia since the collapse of the USSR, growing in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan as well as Kazakhstan. It’s illegal but mullahs often bless polygamous marriages, giving them a degree of legitimacy in the eyes of society.
The two big post-Soviet military blocs, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, have announced their respective plans for large-scale exercises this year. The CSTO's will take place in September in Armenia, while the SCO's will happen in Tajikistan in June.
Last September's CSTO exercises were a pretty big deal, involving 24,000 troops and taking place amid a concerted Kremlin effort to gin up the threat from Afghanistan, prompting a lot of observers to speculate that Moscow was trying to use the CSTO as a means of exerting a heavier hand in Central Asia. This year's exercises were still months away, and there are few details available about them, so it's hard to compare yet. But the choice of location in Armenia is curious, given that last year so much of the rhetoric justifying the organization's existence related to Afghanistan. So now is the shift toward the Caucasus, or is it just Armenia's turn?
Meanwhile, the choice of Tajikistan for the SCO exercise, Peace Mission 2012, has prompted one dropout already: Uzbekistan won't be taking part in the exercise, Regnum reports (in Russian):
"During the exercises, a special anti-terror operation in a mountainous area will be worked on. New methods will be used to detect, block and destroy mock outlawed armed formations that have captured a mountain village, according to the legend," the [Tajikistan Ministry of Defense] press centre said.
One Tajikistan member of parliament interviewed by Regnum had harsh words for Uzbekistan's decision:
In a previous post, the blog reported on a court case brought on by a Turkish government agency, which charged the publisher of the Turkish translation of the classic William S. Burroughs novel, The Soft Machine, with printing obscene material. Turns out the case against Burroughs's book continues, but has almost come to a halt because the court can't find suitable "experts" who can determine if the book (as well as another one, a translation of Chuck Palahniuk's Snuff, which was also deemed obscene by the government) can be considered a work of literature. Full story, from the Bianet website, here.
The Wall Street Journal published a few days ago a lovely ode to chicken tabaka, one of Georgia's most famous dishes. From the WSJ's article:
Like my first kiss, my first taste of chicken tabaka was memorable as much for its context as for its deliciousness.
Tabaka is a classic dish from the Republic of Georgia. But that first taste occurred in Moscow, in the middle of a bleak Russian winter, in 1979. Soviet store shelves were empty; people queued in long lines for food. And yet, behind the doors of the Aragvi restaurant, an alternate reality thrived. The interior of the restaurant was faced in beautiful pale marble that shimmered in light from sconces lining the walls. A balcony above the main dining room held a small orchestra that played stirring music. In private dining rooms, Communist power brokers held clandestine meetings over endless carafes of vodka and Georgian wine. Strongmen at the doors turned most ordinary people away. Only because I was a foreigner with plenty of Marlboros for bribes was I able to gain entry.
The rest of the article, complete with recipe, can be found here.
In an email to supporters, journalists and friends, one of Uzbekistan’s few human rights activists, Elena Urlaeva, is pleading for help from Tashkent’s unrelenting attacks on herself and most recently, her family.
Urlaeva, a leader of the Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan, writes that authorities are now trying to turn her husband against her to force her to stop her human rights work. In the past, Urlaeva says authorities have attempted to place her adopted son into foster care, and have threatened to commit Urlaeva to a psychiatric hospital – a Soviet-era method of silencing critics that has continued under President Islam Karimov.
In the March 13 email, Urlaeva recounts how on March 12 she returned home from attempting to lead a small protest march to Karimov’s residence, which was blocked by police, to find her husband, Mansur Mashurov, furious.
Urlaeva writes that a police officer had repeatedly called Mashurov, telling him that his wife was breaking the law and instructing him to evict her for holding “illegal human rights activities” in his home.
In an emotional email, Urlaeva recounts how over the course of two days, March 12 and 13, her husband, under what Urlaeva believes is the authorities’ influence, threatened both herself and their seven-year-old adopted son. In detail, Urlaeva describes how she, as well as her friends and neighbors, tried to contact local police to come to her aid, and how the authorities continually ignored her calls for help. Urlaeva believes the authorities are encouraging her husband to act in such a way. She writes:
Granted, the get-together in the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan, precariously wedged between the three neighbors and the Azerbaijani-Turkish bête noire, Armenia, indeed marked a change of tone between Baku and Tehran.
Repeating an earlier line, Azerbaijan said that its territory can never be used as a launch pad for a strike against Iran. “Our brothers live there,” explained senior Azerbaijani presidential administration official Ali Hasanov, referring to the millions of ethnic Azeris in Iran. Post-meeting, Baku also made clear that if someone needs to worry about Azerbaijan’s new Israeli guns – a purchase that enraged Tehran – that should be Armenia (more details at The Bug Pit).
U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley
Leon Panetta speaks with the Manas Transit Center commander, Colonel James Jacobsen
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta visited Bishkek on Tuesday, meeting with Kyrgyzstan officials to discuss extending the lease of the Manas air base that the U.S. operates there. Kyrgyzstan's president, Almazbek Atambayev, has consistently said that he wants the U.S. out of there by 2014, and the U.S. seems to be treading carefully, giving the soft sell and not seeking to renegotiate the base's lease just yet. From the Armed Forces Press Service:
A senior defense official said that arrangement is in place through July 2014, and that the secretary will not negotiate any additional use of the facility on this trip. Rather, the official added, the visit is intended to underscore to the Kyrgyz government and to Atambyev, who was inaugurated in December, that the United States government views its relationship with Kyrgyzstan as central to Central Asian regional security.
Still, extending the base lease was still clearly on the agenda, even if implicitly. Via Reuters:
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there were no negotiations to keep Manas past 2014.
Still, the official suggested that the Pentagon wasn't taking Atambayev's position on Manas as the final word on the matter, saying there may be some "wiggle room."
Using the phrase "wiggle room" suggests that the U.S. is looking for a short-term extension -- i.e.long enough to get troops and equipment out of Afghanistan -- but not to stay in the base indefinitely. Atambayev presumably wouldn't have a problem with that -- as long as the price is right. This is probably the first step in a long process.