An S-400 missile defense system in use by Russian armed forces. (photo: mil.ru)
Senior Turkish officials say that Russia is now the leading contender in its seemingly never-ending competition to pick a multi-billion-dollar air defense system. The news will surely come as an annoyance to Turkey's NATO partners, which may be precisely the point, some analysts say.
To review: in 2013, Turkey surprised everyone by choosing a Chinese system for its multibillion dollar T-LORAMIDS air defense program, but after its NATO partners strongly objected, Ankara eventually abandoned the procurement and in 2015 announced that it would instead work on building the system in Turkey.
The crux of the NATO objection to the Chinese pick was that it would expose sensitive alliance data to Beijing. Turkey countered that only China was willing to give Turkey the production information with which it would eventually be able to manufacture the system on its own -- a key demand in Ankara's tender -- and at a much lower cost than western offers, to boot. Analysts generally saw Turkey's gambit as a means of bargaining with its American and European partners so that the latter might sweeten their deals.
Now that story seems set to repeat all over again, this time with Russia instead of China.
"It seems as though Russia is the most suitable candidate for fulfilling the country's need at the moment,'' Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Işık said on February 22.
The issue will likely be discussed, if not finally decided, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visits his counterpart Vladimir Putin in Russia next month.
"The talks are continuing on the S-400," Erdogan's spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin,
A February 21 meeting of Azerbaijan's Security Council at which Azerbaijan's first vice president, first lady Mehriban Aliyeva, was introduced. (photo: president.az)
President Ilham Aliyev’s February 21 announcement that from now on his wife Mehriban Aliyeva will be the country’s first vice-president elicited a good deal of mockery, including the inevitable comparisons to the plotline of the TV series House of Cards.
But beyond the jokes, the move appears to be the result of a deadly serious tussle for power and influence within the ruling regime. While intra-government cleavages have existed since Aliyev succeeded his father in 2003, these tensions have intensified in recent years amid an economic crisis and a substantial drop in Azerbaijan’s energy revenues.
Aliyev first announced the plans to introduce the posts of multiple vice presidents last summer and they were duly approved in a referendum in September. The provision is an unusual one. Worldwide only half a dozen states have multiple vice presidents, Azerbaijan’s southern neighbor Iran among them, and the structure typically represents an effort to balance out various regime influences.
While it's not clear what inspired Aliyev to adopt the reform, the constitutional change was proposed in the aftermath of two dramatic events in the Azerbaijani regime’s internal affairs.
In the teeth of opposition from the public, the government in Kazakhstan has revived costly plans to build what it is billing as a “national pantheon” — a mausoleum to house the remains of the country’s great and good and dead.
Finance Minister Bakhyt Sultanov announced on February 21 that just one phase of the project alone will set the state coffers back $5.3 million. The final cost will likely be much greater, possibly running into the hundreds of millions, if the earlier blueprint was anything to go by.
A spot has been allocated for the mausoleum in a location around 20 kilometers outside the capital, Astana, next to an existing building housing the tomb of 18th-century Kazakh warrior prince Kabanbai Batyr. Sultanov was unable to offer more specifics, inviting reporters instead to put their questions to the mayor’s office.
Decisions of who is to be buried at the national pantheon are to be taken by President Nursultan Nazarbayev himself. The intended site for the mausoleum is already the resting place to numerous departed public figures whose importance was acknowledged by the president.
In 2013, Nazarbayev decreed that the first person to be buried there should be the late member of parliament Oral Muhamedjanov — “for his massive contribution to the development of the state.” Kazakhstani poetess Fariza Ongarsynova; Sayahat Konakai, the younger brother of Nazarbayev’s wife; former Supreme Court chairman Maksut Narikbayev; and writer and scholar Abish Kekilbayev are among others buried there. The site also allows for Christian burials, like that of Sergei Dyachenko, a former deputy speaker of the lower house, who died last year.
A political journalist in Uzbekistan who has languished behind bars for 18 years has been released in a development that has elicited elated responses from rights activists.
Muhammad Bekjanov, the 63-year old brother of prominent exiled opposition leader Muhammad Solih, was abducted from his home in Ukraine in 1999 and jailed for 15 years on what his supporters say were trumped-up charges of threatening the constitutional order. His sentence was extended by five years in 2012 on the grounds that he had violated unspecified prison rules.
News of Bekjanov’s release was broken by his relatives and Umida Niyazova, head of the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights.
“I am sure that this decision was made at the very top of the Uzbek leadership, and it was the right one,” Niyazova wrote on her Facebook account.
New York-based Human Rights Watch researcher Steve Swerdlow welcomed Bekjanov’s release, while noting that much more remained to be done by Uzbek authorities to address the country’s blemished rights record.
“This is a husband and a father who was literally ripped out of the arms of his family, kidnapped from another country, tortured in the most horrific ways, including psychological, and kept locked away for 18 years simply for doing his job as a journalist,” Swerdlow said in a statement.
Bekjanov was not released by virtue of any reprieve but rather because he had served his original sentence in full, and then some.
“We welcome his release, although it is important to note that he was only released following the arbitrary extension of his prison term in 2012 on wholly absurd grounds and fully served out his extended term. In this case Bekjanov left prison at the end of his term,” Swerdlow said.
The USS Porter transits the Bosphorus out of the Black Sea on February 13 after conducting NATO exercises. (photo: U.S. Navy Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Ford Williams)
NATO countries have agreed to increase the alliance's activities around the Black Sea, including more air and naval patrols of the sea, further increasing pressure in an area Russia considers to be of vital strategic importance.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced the decision at last week's defense ministerial in Brussels. "Today, we agreed on two additional maritime measures: an increased NATO naval presence in the Black Sea for enhanced training, exercises and situational awareness, and a maritime coordination function for our Standing Naval Forces when operating with other Allied forces in the Black Sea region," he said.
Stoltenberg didn't provide any more specific information, but that seems to fall short of what was originally being proposed by Romania: some sort of permanent NATO structure dealing with the Black Sea. Asked for more details, a NATO official told The Bug Pit that the specifics were still being worked out, but thus far the plan involved a greater tempo of air and sea patrols, and expanding the already existing land forces brigade based in Romania:
The Black Sea is key to NATO’s security and in response to Russia’s build-up there, the Alliance is increasing its presence in the region. On land, this presence will be built around a Romanian-led multinational brigade. It will focus on the training and interoperability of allied forces. This year we also plan more air patrols over the Black Sea and NATO’s Standing Naval Forces will be in the Black Sea more frequently for training and port visits. This will increase our situational awareness and contribute to NATO’s overall deterrence posture.
When Uzbekistan suddenly decided this week to deny permission for an airline from Tajikistan to land in its capital, it might have been safe to expect an outcry.
Privately owned Somoni Air was due to carry a couple dozen paying passengers for the February 20 flight to Tashkent — the first along this route in 25 years — when it learned permission had been revoked.
Tajikstan’s Asia-Plus reported on January 21 that Uzbek authorities fired off an incensed letter laying all the blame at the feet of the Tajiks.
The letter argued that Somoni Air had filed a request to effect charter flights and not regular scheduled flights. It also claimed it only received the official paperwork authorizing the route on February 19, one day before the flight. That gave the insufficient time to adopt a decision, as the matter had to be considered by security services and air defense officials, the Uzbek letter stated.
And finally, the Uzbek authorities said Somoni Air still had no branch office in Tashkent and that the sale of tickets was accordingly not possible.
This is high bunkum even by the normally lofty standards of Central Asian officialdom.
A date for the Somoni Air maiden flight had been set weeks ago and widely advertised by media in both countries, which makes nonsense of the implication that Uzbek oversight bodies were somehow caught by surprise. As to the sale of tickets, Somoni Air has a website through which that can be done, so even this is unconvincing grounds for rescinding permission to operate. In any event, it is unclear how Somoni Air’s commercial strategy is supposed to be of any interest to Uzbek authorities.
Supporters of a jailed journalist in Kazakhstan have said he has been targeted for physical mistreatment since being detained last week.
Authorities accuse Zhanbolat Mamay, editor of Tribuna newspaper, of involvement in fraudulent schemes with fugitive banker and government foe Mukhtar Ablyazov.
Mamay’s lawyer, Zhanara Balgabayeva, said on February 21 that she filed a request to meet see her client in person and for him to be moved to a more secure pretrial detention facility but was rebuffed on both counts.
Tribuna is one of very few independent media outlets in Kazakhstan that have either not been shut down or coopted by the authorities, leading rights activists to speculate Mamay is facing politically motivated charges. Unlike most media in Kazakhstan, Tribuna is not a beneficiary of the “state order” system, whereby the government either finances outlets outright or pays for the publication of material publicizing state policies and initiatives. It focuses primarily on social issues and has a line that tends toward robust criticism of the government and provides a platform for the few opposition politicians remaining on the scene.
Balgabayeva cited a note conveyed to her by Mamay stating that he had been “subjected to beatings in his prison cell,” but added that the claim might have been “sharply worded” and that there was no way to independently verify his wellbeing for now.
Mamay’s spouse, Inga Imanbay, said in a Facebook video message that she had met with the head of pretrial detention facility No. 18, where her husband is being held, in a failed bid to see him.
First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva at a meeting of Azerbaijan's Security Council at which she was named vice president of the country. (photo: president.az)
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has appointed his wife, Mehriban Aliyeva, as the country’s first vice president, a move that had been anticipated since the VP post was created as the result of a constitutional referendum last year.
The move places the first lady first in line of succession, a responsibility that formerly fell to the prime minister. It was condemned and mocked in roughly equal measure; opposition politician Ali Kerimli called it “an official step towards the establishment of a monarchy.” Pro-government voices were relatively muted on the news. “Without doubt, everyone had been expecting Mehriban Aliyeva in particular to be appointed to the position of First Vice-President of Azerbaijan,” Novruz Mammadov, deputy head of the presidential administration, wrote on Facebook.
Aliyeva professed to be humbled by the appointment. “Mr. President, I express my deep gratitude to you for this high confidence in me,” she said at a meeting of the Security Council. “Over the past years, your ideas of statehood, patriotism, your courageous protection of Azerbaijan’s national interests, and your unity with the people of Azerbaijan were an example for me.”
Unguarded comments made by Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev in remarks to Euronews while on a visit to Brussels have been greeted with dismay in neighboring Kazakhstan.
The flare-up has once again illustrated the persisting underlying tensions within the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union trade bloc, which has to date fallen far short of the hopes of its backers.
A recurrent criticism made by EEU objectors stems from the perception that the trading bloc has been designed to serve primarily Russian interests. Asked about this point by a Euronews interviewer, Atambayev deflected the blame elsewhere.
“We have to trade with somebody, we have to work with our neighbors somehow. If we had not entered the Eurasian Economic Union we would have been at risk of a blockade. In 2010, when Kazakhstan blockaded us for one and a half months, we even had casualties,” he said. “We have six million people. What are supposed to do — shut ourselves off and survive like we’re in the jungle or something? We have to develop, we need a market.”
It is not entirely clear what casualties Atambayev was alluding to, and requests for clarification filed by reporters with the presidential administration have shed no light on the matter.
But media in Kazakhstan appear to have gone out of their way to whip up some ill-will by, for example, writing headlines about the interview such as “The president of Kyrgyzstan accuses Kazakhstan of claiming human casualties.”
The first regular scheduled flight between Uzbekistan and Dushanbe in 25 years was unexpectedly nixed on February 20 in an embarrassing anticlimax after weeks of anticipation.
Privately owned Tajik carrier Somoni Air said in a statement of apology to its customers that the flight was cancelled on the instructions of the airport in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent.
It is not clear what lies behind the cancellation of the flight and this threatens to descend into an all-too familiar round of mutual accusations.
State-run carrier Uzbekistan Airlines has blamed Somoni Air for the impasse.
“Somoni Air did not submit form “R,” which lists all the requisite conditions for completing an international flight. That is the main reason for this flight being cancelled,” a spokesperson for the airline told EurasiaNet.org.
The company promised a full explanation would be posted on its website by the end of the day, but that statement failed to materialize by the promised time.
An estimated 26 passengers had been due to travel on the flight.
Tajik news website Asia-Plus reported that disappointed customers were reimbursed or given tickets for the flight from the Tajikistan capital, Dushanbe, to Khujand. In the absence of a direct link to Tashkent, many people in Tajikistan traveling to Uzbekistan typically make their way to the northern city of Khujand and then cross the border overland.
It had all started so promisingly.
A trial flight between Dushanbe, and Tashkent was carried out on January 10. A total of 56 people, including Somoni Air representatives, journalists and regular passengers, flew on that occasion. The travelers were met with a great fanfare at Tashkent airport.