Up until only the last two years, the question of whether Turkey was "drifting east" seemed to dominate any discussion regarding the country and its future trajectory. But an improved Turkish relationship with the United States, a deteriorating one with Iran and a deepening involvement with NATO have all contributed towards pushing that question into the background.
Now, though, it's none other than Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan who has helped revived the "drifting east" debate. Speaking on Turkish television the other night, the PM was asked about his country's stalled and troubled European Union membership drive. Erdogan's blunt bombshell of an answer suggested Turkey is considering dropping its EU bid in favor of joining the China- and Russia-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). “When things go so poorly, you inevitably, as the prime minister of 75 million people, seek other paths. That's why I recently said to Mr. [Vladimir] Putin: ‘Take us into the Shanghai Five; do it, and we will say farewell to the EU, leave it altogether. Why all this stalling?'” Asked to elaborate, Erdogan said, “The Shanghai Five is better and more powerful and we have common values with them.” (The SCO last year upgraded its relations with Turkey, naming the country a "dialogue partner.")
“Arrested. In a bus with great people,” tweeted dissident Azerbaijani blogger Emin Milli, after riot police chased, beat and hustled protesters away from downtown Baku on January 26.
The Baku authorities have spared no effort to pound, quite literally, into residents’ heads that the center of the Azerbaijani capital is not the place to protest; rather, it is a stage for the government's various promotional campaigns, be it mega-pop concerts or international thought-exchanges. . . past, present or future. Leave the protests, please, to the outskirts.
With such high aims as Davos (and the European Olympics) in mind, the Azerbaijani government has very little patience these days for protesters. Police troops crushed the Ismayili uprising, which had been touched off by the reportedly thuggish behavior of the regional governor's son; in Baku, police chased and herded supporters of the Ismayili rioters away from the downtown area, and showered media with similar attention. Among the arrestees were the usual suspects: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reporter Khadija Ismayilova (who also has written for EurasiaNet.org) and activist Emin Milli.
It is no secret that elements of Kyrgyzstan’s underworld enjoyed many freedoms during the reign of the country’s second president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev. Indeed, members of the current political elite are keen to remind us of anything that blackens the former first family’s name and deflects attention from their own shortcomings. But recent comments by Interior Minister Shamil Atakhanov go beyond the usual Bakiyev-bashing and provide some interesting insights into the way the state and mafia became enmeshed during his rule, as well as what Kyrgyz mob-watchers should look out for in the future.
In a January 23 interview with K-News, Atakhanov spoke of the “criminalization of the entire political structure,” and labeled “criminal elements” as the main drivers of the ethnic violence in Osh shortly after Bakiyev’s overthrow in 2010. But he also made some more specific remarks about the fight against drugs and organized crime under Bakiyev.
During the presidency of Kurmanbek Bakiyev, criminals managed to incorporate themselves in the system of state governance. Staffing and government activities were decided thanks to the help of criminal leaders, including in the law enforcement agencies. [...] Not without the participation of criminal elements were the Agency for Drug Control and the Main Department in the Fight Against Organized Crime reduced in size. Practically, the police and the criminal world became one and the same.
Kazakhstan and Russia have moved to defuse a spat over Moscow’s use of the world’s largest spaceport, which is vital for Russia to maintain its standing as a space power.
Kazakh Foreign Minister Erlan Idrisov and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov smoothed over accounts of a rift between the two close allies during talks in Moscow on January 25, with Idrisov describing reports that Kazakhstan was planning to tear up Russia’s lease of the strategic Baikonur cosmodrome as “absurd.”
The row erupted on December 10, when Kazakhstan’s National Space Agency director, Talgat Musabayev, said Astana was looking to renegotiate the deal. Moscow leases the site from Kazakhstan for $115 million per year. The current agreement runs until 2050.
Musabayev said President Nursultan Nazarbayev had ordered work on “drawing up a new, all-encompassing agreement on the Baikonur site, which could envisage a withdrawal from leasing relations.” “We are not saying that we will immediately halt the lease,” he added, but abandoning it “in stages” was possible.
His remarks provoked an outcry in Russia, which is dependent on Baikonur to launch all its manned space missions and most commercial satellites. Moscow is building its own spaceport in its Far East, but the first launch there is not due until 2015.
The row escalated after Kazakhstan revealed that it was allotting Russia only 12 Proton rocket launches from Baikonur in 2013, against the 17 Moscow desires. Russia’s Federal Space Agency says this will prevent it from fulfilling contractual obligations and cost it $500 million.
International pressure can affect the abysmal human rights situation in Uzbekistan, it turns out: After years of withering criticism, Tashkent is deploying fewer children into its cotton fields and relying increasingly on teenagers and adults – including public service workers threatened with loss of employment and loss of benefits such as pensions – Human Rights Watch says.
The “abuses persist,” however, in all of Uzbekistan’s provinces, says the New York-based watchdog in a report released late Friday night.
For the 2012 harvest, the Uzbek government forced over a million of its own citizens, children and adults – including its teachers, doctors, and nurses – to harvest cotton in abusive conditions on threat of punishment, Human Rights Watch found. The authorities harassed local activists and journalists who tried to report on the issue. In 2011, Uzbekistan was the world’s fifth largest exporter of cotton.
“The issue here is forced labor, plain and simple” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Forcing more older children and adults to work in the cotton fields to replace some younger children, does not change the fact that Uzbekistan is forcing a million of its people to labor in these fields involuntarily every year at harvest season.”
It is widely acknowledged that the Uzbek government has long relied on forced labor, including of children as young as nine, to pick cotton produced for export. In 2012, the burden was shifted somewhat to older children and adults, according to cotton workers, independent activists, and local rights groups across Uzbekistan who spoke with Human Rights Watch.
Although it's still quite early to know which way Turkey's new peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) will go, this week saw some very encouraging signs coming out of Ankara.
Late Thursday, the Turkish parliament passed legislation that will allow defendants to use Kurdish in court, a long-standing demand put forward by Kurdish activists and politicians. Up until now, Turkish courts have regularly refused to allow Kurdish defendants to use the language during proceedings.
Also yesterday, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan reshuffled his cabinet, most significantly replacing the hawkish Interior Minister Naim Sahin with Muammer Guler, a former governor of Istanbul who originally hails from southeast Turkey. Sahin, an old school nationalist, had managed to enrage Kurds on numerous occasions, especially in the wake of the 2011 Uludere incident, in which 34 Kurdish villagers were killed in an errant military operation. At the time, Sahin dismissed the killed villagers as "extras" in a PKK operation and said there was no need for Turkey to apologize for the incident.
Russia and Tajikistan have come to an agreement on one of the sticking points in their deal to extend the lease of Russia's largest military base in Central Asia, reports Tajikistan's minister of energy and industry Gul Sherali. As part of that deal, Russia agreed to duty-free fuel shipments to Tajikistan, but wanted a guarantee that the discounted fuel wouldn't be reexported. Tajikistan had objected, but now has agreed to Moscow's terms:
Tajikistan's Minister of Energy and Industries Gul Sherali told journalists that the two countries expect to sign an agreement on duty free oil product imports during Russian First Vice-Premier Igor Shuvalov's planned visit to Dushanbe in February, according to Asia Plus.
When the deal is signed, Russia will export 1m tonnes of oil products to Tajikistan. This is around three times the 370,000 tonnes of Tajikistan - which has experienced severe fuel shortages - imported in 2012....
[A] provision banning the re-export of oil products from Russia to third countries has been a sticking point in negotiations.
Moscow insists on the clause because of the high level of fuel smuggling in south Central Asia and the risk of fuel delivered to Tajikistan being sold on to third countries such as Afghanistan. Dushanbe had previously objected to the clause, with Tajik officials saying they would be unable to guarantee that gasoline from Russia will not be re-exported.
In addition, the agreement will take effect immediately after signing, which Tajikistan wanted, rather than 60 days after, which Russia wanted.
There was no word on the other main stumbling block, how to implement the new, looser regulations on labor migrants from Tajikistan to Russia.
A caricature poking fun at Orthodox Christian priests and the powers that be has sparked an outcry in Kazakhstan, a country that markets itself as a bastion of religious tolerance.
The offending cartoon appeared in the Russian-language Megapolis broadsheet on January 14, illustrating an article called “Christmas Surprise” that recounted how Astana city officials hijacked the Russian Orthodox Christmas service at the Church of the Holy Assumption in the capital. (Orthodox Christmas is marked on January 7.)
“Bewildered” worshippers were forced to line up along a red carpet to welcome officials from the office of Astana Mayor Imangali Tasmagambetov, while “church officials scurried about here and there and fussed around, waiting for the arrival of the important guests,” the article recounted.
After being given the red carpet treatment, the two bureaucrats were taken to the ambo, a special part of the church from which sermons are read (out of bounds to ordinary worshippers). From there, they read out a message from Tasmagambetov, a high-profile politician sometimes tipped as a future president.
“What was this? Some sort of political event, or still a church holiday?” one annoyed worshipper asked.
To illustrate such sentiments, Megapolis published the cartoon showing a porky priest telling a meek-looking Jesus wearing a crown of thorns: “Citizen, free up the ambo or I’ll call the riot police!”
Church officials were quick to take offense. “The article and the caricature have had negative repercussions in the Orthodox community,” Bishop Gennadiy of Kaskelen (near Almaty) told a news conference on January 23.
An Afghan airline is using passenger flights to deliver “bulk quantities of opium” to Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe, according to U.S. officials cited in a January 24 Wall Street Journal report.
The Pentagon, which has blacklisted Kam Air from receiving military contracts, opened an investigation when the airline bid on a contract to service the U.S.-led coalition. "An organization such as Kam Air exposes itself when it bids on a U.S. contract," U.S. Army Maj.-Gen. Richard Longo, the commander of Task Force 2010, a coalition anticorruption unit, told the Wall Street Journal. "They are subject to scrutiny."
Kam Air, which is in talks to merge with state-run Ariana Afghan Airlines, denies the charges. The private airline operates four weekly flights between Kabul and Dushanbe.
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime says approximately 30 percent of Afghan narcotics, including 90 tons of heroin, exit Afghanistan through Central Asia each year, mostly through Tajikistan. Tajik officials either lack the capacity to interdict the narcotics, or are complicit in the trade, according to Western officials in Dushanbe.
Those Western officials suspect the bulk of the onward trafficking begins at Tajikistan’s airports, usually on flights to Russia. The inbound smuggling, according to the Wall Street Journal report, is apparently happening right under the nose of airport officials, too.
Kam Air operates a fleet of some 16 planes, including Boeing 767 and 747 aircraft and Antonov cargo planes. The task force believes that domestic passenger routes have been used to ferry opium around the country, according to a U.S. official in Kabul. But the investigation is focused on Central Asia, the official said. "Kam Air is flying out bulk quantities of opium," the official said.
Marking a year this week since the start of a political crackdown, Kazakhstan has entered 2013 with a transformed political landscape, the opposition effectively decimated and independent media muzzled.
Under the strongman reign of 72-year-old President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has been in power for over two decades, Kazakhstan has never willingly opened its arms to criticism. But critics say last year witnessed an unprecedented attack on dissenting voices, leaving the political scene bereft of any meaningful platform from which to hold the administration accountable.
The crackdown began on January 23, 2012, with the rounding up of opposition figures and journalists a month after fatal unrest in Zhanaozen, a western oil town.
The anti-dissent campaign culminated in December court rulings that shut down approximately 40 independent media outlets (including outspoken newspapers Respublika and Vzglyad) and Kazakhstan’s most vocal opposition party, Alga! (whose leader Vladimir Kozlov is serving a jail term on charges of fomenting the Zhanaozen violence and plotting to overthrow the state).
Alga! and the media outlets were declared extremist and accused of inciting the Zhanaozen violence, which spiraled out of a protracted oil strike that the government acknowledges was mismanaged.