Two parties with their roots in Kyrgyzstan's troubled south have announced a political alliance that could create a headache for Bishkek as it struggles to stamp its authority over southern regions.
The Unity of Peoples party led by Melis Myrzakmatov, the combative former mayor of Kyrgyzstan's second largest city, Osh, joined forces with the Progress party of Bakyt Torobayev, whose political stronghold is in the neighboring Jalal-Abad Region, on December 7, Kloop reported.
This political marriage of convenience unites two bastions of regional opposition to the central government and to President Almazbek Atambayev. The central government fired Myrzakmatov as mayor of Osh December 5 amid maneuvering over forthcoming mayoral elections in which Bishkek hopes to stamp its authority over Osh by wresting control of it from Myrzakmatov, who has said he will stand for mayor again. Torobayev hails from Jalal-Abad, the heartland of former president Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was violently overthrown in 2010 to the chagrin of his many supporters in Kyrgyzstan's south.
Together the two leaders wield considerable power in their respective strongholds: Myrzakmatov's party controls the Osh city council; Torobayev's controls the Jalal-Abad city council.
Georgia’s ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili is still in business doing two things he likes most – making speeches at protests and fighting his nemesis, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. This time, he got to do them both in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, where street protests continue to boil.
“Hello, Ukraine!” he said in Ukrainian on December 7, addressing thousands of demonstrators gathered in the city's Maidan Nezalezhnosty or Freedom Square to push the Ukrainian government into a rethink about giving Russia precedence over the European Union. “I’ve come here… to the beating, living and singing heart of Europe,” he went on.
Consulting a written text (Ukrainian is not known to be one of the multi-lingual Saakashvili's strongest languages), the leader of Georgia's 2003 Rose Revolution told demonstrators that "you are defending not just your future, the future of Ukraine, but also the future of all of us, all the freedom-loving nations of the region and the world."
If the European Union can prevail in Ukraine over Moscow, he argued, it can prevail also in Georgia, Moldova and elsewhere in the ex-Soviet world.
With Ukrainian opposition leaders Vitali Klychko and Arseniy Yatsenyuk by his side, he called for a united front against Putin's Russia, which, he claimed, is trying to gobble up one country at a time.
“The Ukrainian triumph will end the era of Vladimir Putin, and the end will start here, on this very square,” he said to ovations from the crowd. (Next stop for Misha: Moldova.)
Astana spends millions of dollars a year on media subsidies, with the lion’s share used to promote the administration’s messages through powerful state media outlets. Much of the subsidized coverage is aimed at generating a “feel-good factor” among Kazakhstan’s public, a new study has found.
State media subsidies have shot up in recent years, the research by the Legal Media-Center, an NGO, found, almost tripling from 8.8 billion tenge (some $57 million) in 2005 to 22.7 billion tenge ($147 million) in 2012. This year state subsidies will reach 35 billion tenge ($233 million) nationally, with a further 2 billion tenge ($13 million) allocated in the regions.
A total of 98 media outlets benefited from state subsidies in 2012, yet they were spread thin. Over half (51 percent) went to just three outlets: the two main state-owned national newspapers, the Kazakh-language Yegemen Kazakhstan (360 million tenge, or $2.3 million) and its sister publication, Russian-language Kazakhstankaya Pravda (290 million tenge, or $1.8 million). News agency Kazinform received 245 million tenge ($1.6 million).
The research, based on an analysis of official information received from ministries, found that much funding went on communicating information about the work of the state: 39 percent was spent on publishing material such as texts of laws and decrees and job vacancies, and another 37 percent on material covering domestic government policy and the work of the president, cabinet, and law-enforcement agencies.
U.S. troops patrol the Torkham Gate on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. (photo: Spc. Hillary Rustine, Combined Joint Task Force 1)
While the U.S. has suspended its military transportation across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, that does not have any effect on traffic through Central Asia, a Pentagon spokesperson has told The Bug Pit.
In a protest against U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, supporters of Pakistani politician Imran Khan have imposed a sort of vigilante blockade of U.S. and NATO cargo across the border to Afghanistan. "Protesters have taken the law into their own hands deciding who can pass and go on to Afghanistan, and who can't," the BBC reported. "They have been harassing truck drivers and turning back vehicles carrying Nato provisions."
As a result, the U.S. has "voluntarily halted US shipments of retrograde cargo" through Pakistan, the Pentagon announced. In the past, that has meant a big boost for Central Asia: when Pakistan closed the border in 2011, it took close to two years to fully restore traffic. In the meantime, the U.S. was paying an extra $100 million a month to ship its goods via the longer, more difficult Northern Distribution Network.
But that's not happening this time (at least yet), Pentagon spokesman Mark Wright told The Bug Pit. He said that the small amount of traffic via the NDN has not been affected by this latest move:
Jumping on the make-your-own-national-gadget bandwagon, Armenia has come up with a smartphone and a tablet computer of its own. Presented to the Armenian government on December 6, Armphone and Armtab are expected to hit stores after New Year's Day.
As is often the case with such devices, Armphone and Armtab are only partly sovereign Armenian. Designed in Armenia, the devices run on an Android operating system and will be assembled in the US and Hong Kong. The creators – Technology and Science Dynamics/Armtab Technologies, described as an Armenian-American joint-venture – say that they hope the low price will attract first regional (Georgia and Ukraine) and, eventually, international customers.
The price of the 16-GB tablets will range from $225 to $280, Vahan Sahakian, the director of Technology and Science Dynamics/Armtab Technologies, told Armenpress. Sahakian presented Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian with a sample Armtablet at a government meeting, which then managed to segue from smart technologies to a discussion about Armenia's textile, knitting and shoe industries.
What does kvevri, the Georgian method of making wine inside large clay vessels buried in the ground, have in common with the traditional Chinese use of the abacus and an Indian style of singing and dancing known as sankirtana? Until recently nothing. But on December 4 all three (plus several other traditions from around the world) were added to UNESCO's list of "Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding."
From UNESCO's description of the kvevri (or "qvevri," as it is sometimes spelled) tradition (which also includes a slideshow worth looking at):
Qvevri wine-making is practised throughout Georgia, particularly in village communities where unique varieties of grapes are grown. The Qvevri is an egg-shaped earthenware vessel used for making, ageing and storing the wine. Knowledge and experience of Qvevri manufacture and wine-making are passed down by families, neighbours, friends and relatives, all of whom join in communal harvesting and wine-making activities....Wine plays a vital role in everyday life and in the celebration of secular and religious events and rituals. Wine cellars are still considered the holiest place in the family home. The tradition of Qvevri wine-making defines the lifestyle of local communities and forms an inseparable part of their cultural identity and inheritance, with wine and vines frequently evoked in Georgian oral traditions and songs.
There was a Cold War-era saying – attributed to various Western leaders, including Margaret Thatcher and Helmut Schmidt – that mocked Russia as being nothing more than “Upper Volta with missiles.” These days, when it comes to corruption, Russia can only wish it compared favorably to Upper Volta.
The recently released Corruption Perception Index for 2013, compiled by the watchdog group Transparency International, ranks Russia 127th out of 177 countries surveyed. Burkina Faso, the name that Upper Volta adopted back in 1984, ranked 83rd, one of the better results among West African states.
As for other formerly Soviet countries, the latest Transparency International index presented a depressingly familiar picture: most states in the Caucasus and Central Asia are cesspools of graft, some more malodorous than others.
Central Asia in general could be described as a rabbit hole of venality. Once again, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan found themselves near the very bottom of the rankings, tied in 168th place with Syria. Tajikistan (154th) and Kyrgyzstan (150th) did not lag far behind. And Kazakhstan took a wrong turn compared with its 2012 ranking, registering 140th this year.
The Caucasus was comparatively cleaner, though still rather rank. Azerbaijan (tied with Russia in the 127th place) and Armenia (94th) both made slight progress this year over 2012’s results. Meanwhile, Georgia was the region’s shining star, making a strong year-on-year improvement to come in at 55.
Elsewhere, Ukraine ranked a disturbingly low 144th, and Moldova came in 102nd.
Georgia’s chain of public-service halls – a fast-food-style dispenser of everything from ID cards to property registrations – broke a mold in the post-Soviet world, where taking care of such tasks usually means taking a long journey though the labyrinths of government bureaucracy. The bold undertaking had been an achievement of ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili that has weathered the country's ongoing storm of revisionism. But it couldn't handle an actual storm.
The company that constructed the Tbilisi House of Justice was not chosen through an open tender, but via direct contracting; a practice that "is likely to result in wasteful spending, as there is no opportunity for another qualified bid for the same contract to bring down the price,”, the Georgia chapter of anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International argued at a December 6 presentation.
In 2012, under former President Saakashvili, the government dished out 1.17 billion lari (about $700 million) to companies under such contracts; an amount equivalent to "4.7 percent of the Georgian economy," according to TI. The deals "accounted for 18 percent of all government spending . . ."
Armenians may have been troubled by Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit to their country, as it seemed to be an exhibition of Russia's tightening grip on Yerevan's foreign policy. But in Azerbaijan, the visit occasioned a different sort of fear: that Putin was confirming Russia's military support for Armenia in a potential conflict with Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh.
One military expert in Baku, Uzeyir Cafarov, said that Putin's support for Armenia would increase the risk of conflict. "We must be extra careful regarding the situation on the front line in January and February. It is possible that local clashes will take place on the front line. Russia continues to play double games. We must not give in to this and must bring into Russia's attention that its position on the Karabakh conflict is biased," Cafarov told the newspaper Azadliq, according to a BBC Monitoring report.
And member of parliament Zahid Oruc told sia.az (also via BBC Monitoring), "With this visit and by increasing the number of Russian troops in Armenia, Russia is stimulating the regional arms race and pushes others to this. This is a threat to the lasting peace in the region."
Authorities in Tajikistan are taking a leaf out of Ebenezer Karimov’s book and forbidding Santa Claus – or Father Frost, as he’s known in the Russian-speaking tradition – from appearing on television this holiday season.
Last year arch-rival Uzbekistan, presided over by President Islam Karimov, banned the beloved Father Frost from New Year’s broadcasts in efforts to shield Uzbeks from foreign influences and invent a unique Uzbek “culture.”
New Year’s remains one of the most popular holidays throughout the former Soviet Union, celebrated with family meals and fireworks. The robed Father Frost (“Ded Moroz”) brings children gifts, much as Santa Claus does on Christmas Day in the West. But the New Year’s holiday is entirely secular.
The new ban in Tajikistan applies to Father Frost, his maiden sidekick Snegurochka, and Christmas trees, Radio Ozodi reported on December 5. (The ban applies to state television, but Tajikistan has no independent television stations. Many people watch Russian satellite TV.)
In recent years, some Islamic clergy have complained that the New Year holiday, with its Christian undertones, is not appropriate for a Muslim country like Tajikistan.
But the ban is not a nod to the clergy, Dilafruz Amirkulova, deputy head of Tajikistan’s Committee for Television and Radio Broadcasting, told Radio Ozodi: “Our main holiday, in general, is Navruz. Of course we respect holidays of other people, but our real holiday is Navruz,” the Persian New Year, which is celebrated on the vernal equinox in March.