When it comes to a long-distance relationship, it's always good to know what attracts the other side. And, as shown at a shindig in Baku this week to mark 21 years of official ties with the US, Azerbaijan has its attractions for Washington down pat.
They number four: a supply corridor for NATO's military campaign in Afghanistan; a foothold for American interests in regional stability (Iran is just next-door) and fighting terrorism; and, finally, oil and gas for Europe.
This is no co-dependent relationship, however. Aliyev made clear that, as a return for its attractions, Azerbaijan expects Washington to support its efforts to reclaim breakaway Nagorno Karabakh from Armenian and separatist control. Armenia's American Diaspora runs a well-organized lobbying operation across the US to make sure that many US politicians view Armenia's problems as their own.
In a recent blog post, I suggested Turkey is turning into a "constructocracy," with an economy driven by the construction sector and ruled by a government that never met a large infrastructure or building project it didn't like, no matter how destructive to the environment or unnecessary it was.
The construction continues apace, with today's groundbreaking ceremony for a new $3 billion bridge across the Bosphorus, which separates Europe and Asia. Hurriyet Daily News provides some background on the bridge, which will be the third span to cross the body of water and which will be the world's widest when completed:
The construction of Istanbul’s third bridge on the Bosporus was tendered for last year as part of the north Marmara motorway project’s Odayeri-Paşaköy section. The tender was then awarded to a consortium consisting of the Turkish IC İçtaş and the Italian Astaldi that submitted the bid with the shortest term of construction and operation, 10 years two months and 20 days.
The bridge is to be constructed under a build-operate-transfer model, in which private companies build the bridge and will have the right to collect tolls from vehicles using the bridge for a period of time before handing the bridge over to the state.
The consortium is expected to complete the construction of the bridge in 36 months, at a total cost of about $4.5 billion, after the contract is signed. “The bridge should be ready for use by the end of 2015,” Turkish Transportation Minister Binali Yıldırım had said earlier.
Another foreign telecoms firm appears to have been paying millions of dollars to various charities in Uzbekistan, some of them linked to Gulnara Karimova, strongman Islam Karimov’s flamboyant daughter. The revelations come in the wake of reports that Nordic telecoms giant TeliaSonera paid Karimova’s charities to stop harassment from Uzbek officials.
To make sure that everyone takes seriously the Georgia-ends-here line it drew after the two countries’ 2008 war, Russia is doing what other countries have done to reinforce a porous border – it’s building a fence.
But this one is reportedly being built a few hundred meters within Georgian-controlled territory itself.
Like other walls before it, the fence serves a supposed security purpose – in this case, defending the breakaway region of South Ossetia, which Moscow views as an independent country, from the perilous threat of Georgian farmers and their cows.
Country folk in these parts do not let wars or separatism or Russian border guards distract them from the real job of gathering crops and firewood, and feeding the livestock, be it in breakaway South Ossetia or their own Georgian-controlled region of Shida Kartli.
But now they could be compelled to cross a border in their own backyards. One octogenarian farmer, whose house ended up falling behind the fence, told RFE/RL that his ailing wife, in need of medical assistance, had to crawl under the barbed wire to get picked up by a Georgian ambulance crew.
Moscow has offered no explanation for its fence-building activities, which have been widely interpreted in Tbilisi as the same-old, same-old – the Kremlin trying to pull a fast one.
The Russian fence, though, threatens to become a major foreign policy challenge for Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s government, which has promised voters that it will mend fences with Moscow.
It now needs to react without disrupting the fragile dialogue with the Kremlin that, so far, has led to the return of Georgian wines and mineral water to the Russian market. Yet there seems to be a lack of political consensus over the best course of action.
The Tajikistan-Afghanistan border, for much of its 800 miles as open as this. (photo: The Bug Pit)
Russia's Central Asia security bloc held a summit in Kyrgyzstan this week, and the main item on the agenda appeared to be the ostensible danger of increased tension in the region as a result of the U.S./NATO pullout from Afghanistan, which is supposed to start next year. But the outcome of the summit subtly highlighted how the alliance's members -- Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan -- have differing agendas vis-a-vis regional security.
At the summit, the organization reportedly decided to "step up control" on the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan, which would be the weak link in any security cordon between Afghanistan and the ex-Soviet world. What that means is unclear, though: Russia has been pushing Tajikistan to allow it to again police that border, as it did until 2005. But Tajikistan has been fairly adamant that it doesn't want the Russians to come back. Russia's ambassador to Tajikistan told Reuters a couple of weeks ago that Moscow wants to bring back its border troops to Tajikistan, though such a deployment would "of course" have to be agreed upon by Tajikistan, as well. Tajikistan's government has been notably silent on the issue lately, so it's not clear whether they might be mulling a change of policy and allowing Russian border troops again.
Along with this, Russia is continuing its alarmist rhetoric about the dire consequences of the U.S. pullout in 2014, reports RIA Novosti:
When Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili announced earlier this month that he intended for Georgia to get a NATO Membership Action Plan by the end of next year, it seemed like he was engaging in a bit of geopolitical wishful thinking similar to that of his political rival, President Mikheil Saakashvili. NATO MAP -- which would put Georgia solidly on the road of becoming a full member -- has been Saakashvili's holy grail, but the goal has only seemed to recede over the past few years. But Caucasus analyst Michael Cecire suggests that Ivanishvili's government is in fact making the kind of reforms that will get Georgia into NATO. In a piece in The National Interest, he notes that Georgia's high level of defense spending, substantial contribution to the war in Afghanistan and successful elections last year make Georgia seem a strong candidate. But of course, the weakest element of Georgia's case for NATO membership has always been political, related to the complications of its relations with Russia. But Ivanishvili's government has made key steps toward mitigating that problem, Cecire writes.
[T]he new government has made overtures to Russia and embarked on a military-reform program in an effort to reduce the prospect of another war and bolster its case for NATO membership. Recognizing that the often bellicose tone towards Moscow struck by the previous United National Movement (UNM) government had done little to advance Tbilisi’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations, the Georgian Dream government is pushing to normalize ties with Russia.
But Cecire notes that what is less often written about is how the defense ministry, now led by Irakli Alasania, has carried out important democratic reforms:
Kazakhstan’s Supreme Court has freed six people jailed for their roles in fatal unrest in December 2011, when police opened fire on protestors in the western oil town of Zhanaozen.
The ruling, which surprised many observers, suggests that the authorities are making further moves to put behind them a bout of turmoil that left 15 civilians dead and damaged the reputation of President Nursultan Nazarbayev and his administration. The unrest spun out of a protracted energy sector strike that the government acknowledges was mishandled.
The Supreme Court ruled on May 28 to free six of 13 Zhanaozen protestors jailed last June, Tengri News reports. The ruling left their convictions intact but suspended their sentences.
The sentences of seven others jailed after a controversial trial last year amid allegations of torture, including prominent strike leader Roza Tuletayeva, were left unchanged. Tuletayeva was originally handed a seven-year sentence; it was cut to five on appeal.
Of four protestors jailed separately over a bout of related violence in the town of Shetpe near Zhanaozen, one was freed by the Supreme Court on appeal in January.
Prince Charles, the 64-year-old heir to the British throne, arrived in Armenia on May 28 in the first instance of British royalty gracing the ancient South Caucasus country with a visit.
His younger brother, Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, tends to favor Armenia’s arch-enemy, energy-rich Azerbaijan, and enjoys hanging out with its president, Ilham Aliyev. So, now the two rivals -- the countries, not the brothers -- are evenly paired.
Granted, the Prince of Wales was traveling on private, charity business, but that didn't keep Armenian media from buzzing. Some ponder which Armenian specialties are worthy of the royal visitor; others see a connection between the visit and British interests in Armenian gold mines; while still others have made open-ended inquires about whether the visit's timing betrays a diplomatic gesture.
On May 28, Armenia marks the 95th anniversary of the First Republic, the independent Armenian state that existed briefly between the fall of Tsarist Russia and the rise of Bolshevik Russia.
Many Armenians believe that Great Britain dropped the ball in 1919 when it withdrew its troops from the region, and shares the responsibility for the 1920 Bolshevik conquest of their republic. In a country where, as elsewhere in the Caucasus, century-old events are often discussed as if they happened yesterday, that thought carries significance. Consequently, Prince Charles's arrival is partly seen as a compensatory gesture, the Lragir news service wrote.
Kazakhstan’s self-appointed morality police are taking on the gay and lesbian community: In recent weeks, lawmakers’ homophobic rants have echoed through the hallowed halls of parliament as they call for homosexuality to be criminalized.
Homosexuality is “amorality of the highest degree,” blustered deputy Aldan Smayyl in parliament on May 22, Kazakhstan Today reported.
“A law should be adopted which would allow [homosexuals] to be considered criminals against humanity,” Smayyl – who represents the ruling Nur Otan party, headed by President Nursultan Nazarbayev – continued.
He has sent a query to Prime Minister Serik Akhmetov about adopting a law and is awaiting a response.
“In Almaty there are already 20 gay clubs; in Astana four clubs! What sort of disgrace is this?” Smayyl ranted in further remarks broadcast on KTK TV.
His bid to criminalize homosexuality – which flies in the face of Kazakhstan’s constitutional guarantee of equal rights for all – comes as the rights of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community are increasingly the subject of public debate in Kazakhstan, partly sparked by a symbolic lesbian wedding held last month.
There is no legal mechanism for gay marriage in Kazakhstan, nor is any planned. But that didn’t stop parliamentary deputy Kairbek Suleymenov (another Nur Otan stalwart) from demanding action against something that doesn’t exist.
It has long been an open secret that some police officers in Kazakhstan turn a blind eye to criminal activity in exchange for a share of the proceeds. But rarely do male officers end up fleeing the scene of the crime dressed in drag.
This is what happened in the western city of Atyrau last week, according to a report carried in local newspaper Ak Zhayyk on May 26. Its correspondent on the scene described seeing two male police officers decked out in women’s clothes bolting from a brothel.
According to the newspaper, two officers arrived at an apartment block in Atyrau around 5 a.m. after a confrontation between alleged pimps and sex workers working out of an apartment and their infuriated neighbors.
The officers entered the apartment, but when they hadn’t emerged after an hour neighbors called another police squad, whose officers arrived and sat outside in their car.
A woman then emerged from the alleged brothel, got into the squad car and proceeded to hurl insults at the neighbors and throw a bottle at them while the newly arrived police looked on, Ak Zhayyk said.
A bizarre scene then ensued as, amid the disturbance, the first two police officers emerged from inside the brothel, “one in a long beige women’s jacket, under which [police] uniform pants were peeping out,” the other in “tight” women’s pants.
When the officers sitting outside failed to make a move, a pregnant woman and an elderly man resorted to giving chase themselves. But “the forces were unequal” and the two sergeants in drag escaped.