It is a story of two presidential palaces, three nettlesome leaders and millions of wasted taxpayer money. And it has left many Georgians rolling their eyes at the government’s apparent preoccupation with petty politics rather than on such challenges as creating badly needed jobs and kickstarting the languishing economy.
But, beyond that, the palace-fight once again has focused a spotlight on the ever shadowy role of the billionaire believed to be the real power behind the Georgian government — ex-Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili.
A president with newly limited powers (under 2010 constitutional reforms) must be matched by a limited workspace, the thinking goes. Under Ivanishvili, Georgia purchased a 19th century downtown mansion in Tbilisi to serve as a new presidential headquarters.
But the Saakashvili palace seems to have grown on Margvelashvili and he has refused to swap offices
The government thus ended up allegedly spending 28 million lari (about $12 million) on preparing a presidential office that now has no president in it.
Azerbaijan, faced with growing tensions with Armenia over Nagorno Karabakh, has not yet indicated a willingness to buy. But Iran’s offers for military cooperation go in other directions, too.
At a press-conference on April 21, Iranian Ambassador Mohsen Pak Ayeen said the two neighbors will set up a joint mechanism to tackle defense challenges.
“There are developments in the world and in the region that have an impact on our region,” the ambassador said after Dehqan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev agreed that there is room for expanding military cooperation between their countries. “Threats coming from ISIS and al Qaeda have been discussed [by Azerbaijani and Iranian officials]. It was decided to make joint efforts to tackle religious fundamentalism,” APA reported Pak Ayeen as saying.
A new website aims to help Central Asian scholars enter the academic mainstream.
Launched in early April, the Central Asian Analytical Network, or CAAN, is the brainchild of the George Washington University’s Central Asia Program. The website’s goal is to make it easier for scholars in the region to publish and distribute their work. It will post commentaries and academic papers on a daily basis, as well as provide a digital library to facilitate research.
“Young scholars [in Central Asia] often complain that they have limited opportunities to publish their work, either due to higher academic standards set by western journals or censorship issues in their home countries,” Aitolkyn Kourmanova, CAAN’s chief editor, told EursasiaNet.org in an email interview.
“The idea is to connect local researchers, academics, policymakers, NGOs and media through one regional networking platform which provides equal opportunities for all to speak up on hot issues, initiate debates, or publish their work,” added Kourmanova. [Editor’s Note: GWU’s Central Asia Program receives funding from the Open Society Foundations. EurasiaNet.org operates under OSF’s auspices].
CAAN additionally plans to produce a regular digest in Russian of English-language academic resources that focus on Central Asia. It also hopes to conduct trainings to improve regional scholars’ writing skills to increase their chances of getting published in outside journals.
“We seek to establish partnership with most think-tanks in the region to keep everyone informed about their work, projects, publications or events,” Kourmanova said.
Jessica Gisondo is an editorial associate at EurasiaNet.
Kazakhstani and Russian pilots take part in the ceremony handing over four Su-30SM fighter jets in Taldykorgan, Kazakhstan. (photos: Ministry of Defense, Kazakhstan)
Kazakhstan has acquired four state-of-the-art fighter jets from Russia, part of a deal that could include up to 36 of the aircraft by 2020 in what Kazakhstan media called "one of the biggest deals on the defense market in the last decade."
The Su-30SM fighters were handed over at a ceremony April 17 at the Taldykorgan air force base. "This shows the increasing military power of the Kazakhstan armed forces... The Su-30SM will substantially improve the defense of the air borders of the republic of Kazakhstan," said the commander of Kazakhstan's air forces, General-Major Nurlan Ormanbetov.
The Su-30SM is a so-called Generation 4++ fighter, and thus far has only been ordered by the Russian air force. (The only 5th-generation fighter in operation is the Lockheed Martin F-22.)
Russian newspaper Vedemosti reported that the deal (which includes training on the new aircraft for pilots and mechanics) was worth 5 billion rubles (about $90 million at the current exchange rate). That was "close to the price for the Russian air force" thanks to the favorable pricing for Russia's allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization. If Kazakhstan buys all 36 aircraft, the deal would total $2 billion, Vedemosti reported.
New data show that Central Asian governments have been right to fear Russia’s economic crisis was heading their way: Remittances from migrant laborers are falling sharply, more than in any other region worldwide.
Migrant remittances are the largest single source of foreign currency in Tajikistan and an important factor in declining poverty rates throughout Central Asia in recent years. So the contracting Russian economy and stricken ruble – brought on by a sudden fall in oil prices and Western sanctions – have a direct impact on millions of the region’s laborers and their families back home.
“Overall, reduced remittances are likely to worsen standards of living in remittance-receiving countries, and the increasing number of returned migrants could put upward pressures on unemployment rates,” the World Bank said in a regular briefing on April 13.
Tajikistan – which sends approximately one-half of its working age males to labor in Russia – is the most remittance-dependent country in the world. Remittances account for the equivalent of 49 percent of GDP, according to the World Bank. In dollar terms, they fell 8 percent last year, largely in the fourth quarter, and are expected to decline another 23 percent in 2015.
Kyrgyzstan is the world’s second most remittance-dependent country, with remittances totaling the equivalent of 32 percent of GDP. Last year they fell 1 percent, but are expected to drop another 23 percent this year.
In Uzbekistan, where remittances total the equivalent of 11.9 percent of GDP, they fell 16 percent last year; they are expected to drop another 30 percent in 2015.
Giorgi Janelidze, a self-described experienced fighter, was with the Azov Battalion, a pro-Kyiv volunteer grouping, when his position near the southeastern city of Mariupol came under fire from Russian-backed separatist forces, Georgian media report.
Scores of Georgians have been fighting in Ukraine to help quell Russian-aided separatism. Many Georgians take Ukraine’s struggle as their own and view Russian President Vladimir Putin as a common enemy. There is a Georgian Legion, a volunteer platoon made up entirely of Georgian nationals, most of them veterans of Tbilisi’s 1992-1994 war with separatist Abkhazia.
Shortly before his death, the 30-something Janelidze, apparently already suffering from a head-wound, and another Georgian fighter recorded a video-greeting for a Georgian friend being treated for his wounds in Kyiv.
Girls just want to have fun, Cyndi Lauper once sang. But in totalitarian Turkmenistan, having fun can spell trouble, especially if evidence lands on the Internet.
In the days since a video clip featuring a posse of schoolgirls in national dress rocking out to California-based Far East Movement’s party song “Turn Up the Love” turned up on YouTube, authorities have launched a nationwide crackdown on mobile phones in schools, a dissident-run website claims. The video currently has over 38,000 views.
Western music is officially frowned upon in Turkmenistan, where cultural protectionism – at the cost of near total isolation from the world – is a trademark of the repressive regime.
Perhaps to challenge Turkmen society’s deeply ingrained perceptions of gender roles – or perhaps because there were no better props at hand – the sextet swung about with items associated with domestic chores. The lead singer appeared to be yelling into a mop. Two faux guitarists jammed on brooms while, provocatively, another used a mini Turkmen flag to bow a newspaper as if it were a violin.
According to the Chronicles of Turkmenistan – a news outlet run by exiles that is generally hard to fact-check – the government response has been swift:
Prosecutors in Lebap province (formerly Chardzhou region) have been touring schools in the region for the last week, checking cell phones for students that contain photos and videos.
The new United States embassy in Kyrgyzstan continues to be the object of elaborate conspiracy theories in the Kyrgyz and Russian press, which now suggest that Washington is sneaking in equipment to help carry out a color revolution.
This conspiracy theory was kicked off by Kyrgyzstan newspaper Delo No., which reported that the U.S. flew in 152 tons of "unknown cargo" on a Ukrainian airplane. The cargo flew under the "diplomatic pouch," the mail service by which diplomats around the world can send mail without it being inspected by the receiving country.
"The situation in the world, and in our region especially, has recently become so explosive that any actions of the Americans should be regarded with suspicion. All the more so with American diplomats," the paper wrote. "And the diplomatic pouch of any country could theoretically be used to transport anything, including weapons. Before, the Americans in Kyrgyzstan had the possibility to get any cargo, into which the Kyrgyzstani authorities couldn't stick their nose, through their military base. Now there's no base, and the U.S. embassy was was unable to hide itself with the diplomatic pouch in the Manas civilian airport."
The paper puts forward two possible explanations for the secret cargo: one, that it is carrying cash in small denominations in order to pay protesters to carry out a "Maidan" in Bishkek. Another is that it is "espionage equipment for the enormous basements of the new U.S. embassy building in Bishkek."
Tajikistan’s National Bank has ordered the immediate closure of private currency exchange offices, a move that suggests Dushanbe is concerned about the somoni’s sharp depreciation. The currency has fallen 14.5 percent against the dollar this year as remittances from Russia slow.
The National Bank cited the need to assure the “stability” of Tajikistan’s currency market and the somoni exchange rate and “the protection of the interests of clients of credit organizations,” in a terse statement issued on April 17 announcing the closures with immediate effect.
The blanket ban on private exchange offices means more than half of the country’s exchange offices – 818 out of a total 1,581 – are being shuttered, leaving 763 operating, according to National Bank figures cited by Dushanbe-based Asia-Plus news agency.
With plenty of currency offices still working, the closures sparked little panic in Dushanbe, an observer in the city told EurasiaNet.org on condition of anonymity.
In dollar terms, remittances sent to Tajikistan from Russia declined by 7.6 percent in 2014 year on year, according to data recently released by Russia’s Central Bank. Remittances are likely to continue to drop this year amid ongoing economic turmoil in Russia.
This is bad news for the world’s most remittance-dependent country. The World Bank estimates remittances total the equivalent of 42 percent of Tajikistan’s GDP. Over a million Tajiks, or roughly half of working-age males, labor in Russia.
Known for its penchant for curbing civil liberties, the government of Azerbaijan is now moving to limit gastronomic freedom as well. To popularize the Caspian Sea country’s national cuisine, tourism officials have decided to make a traditional breakfast mandatory for all of the country’s hotels to serve. But first, they decided to "patent" an Azerbaijani breakfast.
The prospect of thousands of hungry athletes and spectators descending on Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, this summer for the June 12-28 European Games, no doubt prompted the decision. The former Soviet republic is hosting and financing the event, a Europe-only Olympics, to promote itself, and its culture internationally.
Cuisine, of course, is part of that mission, and breakfast, after all, is the most important meal of the day.
But what exactly goes into a trademarked "Azerbaijan Breakfast"?
Despite its enthusiasm for the idea, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, as yet, has not gotten around to elaborating. Nor has the state patent office.
It might be difficult to make the claim that an Azerbaijani breakfast is so unusual as to be patent-worthy, however. Generally, the meal can include sheep-cheese, honey, yogurt, a variety of fruit, scrambled eggs with tomato, bread, and tea, tea, tea — a combination not too dissimilar from other places in the region.