Russian gunboats during a 2011 exercise on the Caspian Sea. (photo: mil.ru)
The foreign ministers of the countries surrounding the Caspian Sea met in Moscow on Tuesday, in preparation for a summit this fall. Diplomatic activity around the sea is not new, and the major dispute -- how to divide up the sea between the five countries -- remains unresolved. But as with everything else in the post-Soviet space, the crisis in Ukraine has changed the calculations in the Caspian, making for an unusual amount of turbulence in the normally stagnant diplomatic waters.
The most interesting potential storyline of the meeting was that Russia had convinced the other four countries -- Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan -- to agree to forbid the military presence of any other country on the sea. This was based on a report in Russian newspaper Kommersant, which quoted a "diplomatic source from one of the Caspian countries" saying that "Moscow managed to convince its partners that no outside power should influence decisions about the Caspian. In particular, the issue is about limiting the deployment of military forces of third countries, especially the U.S., to the Caspian."
It's not clear to what extent the issue came up at the meeting. At a press conference afterwards, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was asked about "the intention of some non-Caspian countries to gain a presence, including military, without taking into account the interests of the countries in the region?" Lavrov answered: "Responsibility for the state of affairs in the Caspian region rests with the Caspian countries... We are open to cooperation with outside countries, if they are ready to do so on the basis of the rules and principles that the five Caspian countries agree on among themselves."
The April 19 arrest of prominent Azerbaijani newspaper correspondent and political analyst Rauf Mirkadirov could put an end to efforts by Azerbaijani and Armenian civil society activists and journalists to maintain some form of contact, and bury their so-called “citizen diplomacy.”
The Azerbaijani government has never welcomed such exchanges, but previously never seriously harassed those few Azerbaijanis who took part in them, either. But the espionage charge against Mirkadirov, who had traveled occasionally to Yerevan for conferences, could strongly discourage their continuing. The charge carries a potential life prison sentence.
Rauf Mirkadirov, 53, had worked as the Ankara correspondent of the Baku-based Russian-language Zerkalo (Mirror) daily for the last three years. His articles and op-eds were often critical of both the Azerbaijani authorities and the Turkish government. He was detained on April 19 and deported to Azerbaijan after his press accreditation was suddenly canceled. In Baku, he was arrested upon arrival.
The fact that Mirkadirov was deported just a few days after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to Baku made many in Azerbaijan, including Mirkadirov’s lawyer, Fuad Agayev, believe that the journalist’s arrest is the result of an agreement between Ankara and Baku.
Mirkadirov’s family – his wife and daughter – has also left Turkey and is now in another country.
Azerbaijani prosecutors state that Mirkadirov is suspected of having transferred to Armenian intelligence between 2008 and 2009 classified information about Azerbaijan’s political and military sectors, “including photos and schemes to be used against Azerbaijan.” They claim that these supposed meetings occurred in Armenia, Georgia and Turkey.
Mirkadirov’s attorney, Agayev, stresses that his client did not have access to classified information and that, therefore, these charges are groundless.
Mustafa Jemilev, the elder statesman of the Crimean Tatar community, the largest minority group on the now-Russian peninsula, started out in life by being deported from his homeland. It now seems that he could possibly end his days in exile too.
On April 22, ironically the 144th anniversary of Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin’s birth, the Crimean Tatar Assembly, or Mejlis, issued a statement confirming that Jemilev, 70, had yet again become a target of Soviet-style repression. Jemilev was departing Crimea for the Ukrainian capital Kyiv early on April 22 when he was handed a document by border officials notifying him that he would not be allowed to reenter Russia until April 2019. The document alleged that he had violated Russian laws covering exit and entry from the Russian Federation, the Mejlis statement said.
Jemilev described the document as “an indicator of what kind of ‘civilized’ government we are dealing with,” the Mejlis statement said. Jemilev also vowed to return to Crimea, regardless of what the document stated.
Jemilev, who is a member of the Ukrainian parliament, has been an outspoken critic of Russia’s land-grab in Crimea. He played a prominent role in organizing a Tatar boycott of a March referendum, which the Kremlin used as justification for the annexation of the peninsula. Although he still wields enormous influence within the Tartar community, his exile is unlikely to squelch widespread discontent within the minority group.
Amid mounting accusations of gluttony, the Georgian Finance Ministry has decided to run official dinner menus by taxpayers, who are increasingly averse to groaning under the weight of the government’s dinner table.
A Georgian dinner party, or supra, is known for its gastronomic excesses. No square centimeter is usually left vacant on the table, when Georgians start piling up the dishes. Yet they don't want to let their government do the same at official receptions.
The dining habits of Finance Minister Nodar Khaduri have become the talk of the town, with copies of the ministry’s restaurant invoices bandied about online and broadcast on national TV. When he takes an official delegation out for dinner, Minister Khaduri tends to go the whole hog . . .or rather the whole lamb.
Many Georgians found the 4,000-lari ($2,282) dinner, complete with an entire roast lamb, that Khaduri shared with an official delegation from France a bit hard to digest. That bill is roughly five times the size of a Georgian household's average monthly income, according to Geostat.
The 43-year-old minister’s rotund physique only encouraged the criticism.
Angry veterans in Almaty have burned a Kazakhstani magazine featuring a profile of Adolf Hitler, accusing the editor of glorifying the Nazi leader. The controversy has sparked a diplomatic row between Kazakhstan and Russia, with tensions heightened by the magazine’s overt comparison of Hitler to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
War veterans gathered beside the imposing memorial to World War II in Almaty’s Panfilov Park on April 21 and burned issues of the Kazakh-language Anyz Adam (Legendary Person) magazine, which displays a large photo of Hitler on the cover.
“We are deeply concerned by a publication which glorifies Hitler,” said Aygul Baykamadamova, the granddaughter of Soviet war hero General Ivan Panfilov, calling for the magazine to be closed down and editor Zharylkap Kalybay to be prosecuted.
Kalybay, who is under investigation on charges of inciting ethnic, social, or religious enmity (a crime carrying a maximum 12-year sentence in Kazakhstan), defended the magazine at a stormy press conference in Almaty later that day.
“Publishing an article about him, we wanted to demonstrate his evilness,” Kalybay said, pointing out that few of those who had criticized the magazine had actually read it.
Each issue of Anyz Adam profiles a famous person who has changed the course of history, and previous issues have featured an eclectic mix of personalities including Joseph Stalin (the architect of the Soviet’s Union’s murderous political terror in the 1930s and 1940s); Mongolian warlord Genghis Khan; and Kazakhstan’s own president, Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Recent polling data indicates that “group-think” is taking hold of Russian society, causing in a big boost for President Vladimir Putin’s popularity and stoking dangerous nationalist passions.
According to several nationwide polls conducted in March and April by the Levada Center, one of Russia’s leading national pollsters, the annexation of Crimea is fueling a frenzy of national pride. The polling results showed 79 percent of Russians believe that “Russia is returning its traditional role of a superpower and asserts its interests in the post-Soviet space.” Meanwhile, 80 percent of respondents said they approved of Putin’s handling of Crimea crisis -- a rating that is among the highest he has ever enjoyed. It’s also worth noting that in late 2013, his approval rating stood at 62 percent. Overall, 71 percent of Russians said they now fully or mostly trust Putin, according to the Levada polls.
The data additionally shows that Russians are viewing the outside world though an increasingly dark lens. An all-time high of 78 percent of Russians now believe that their nation faces grave threat from enemies, both external and internal; and an all-time high of 77 percent of Russians said that Russia needs “a strong hand,” in other words an authoritarian leader, to guide the country “in certain situations, such as now.”
Sixty-one percent of respondents expressed negative views of the United States, which is one of the worst showings since the end of the Cold War. The number was only a little higher after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the Russian-Georgian war in 2008. Also, 53 percent of respondents held a negative view of the European Union, by far the worst showing ever. The previous spike in anti-EU sentiments was during the Russian-Georgian war, but even then the number peaked at 39 percent.
Azerbaijan has arrested and charged prominent newspaper correspondent Rauf Mirkadirov, a political analyst critical of its policies, with alleged espionage for Armenia.
On April 19, Turkish police yanked Mirkadirov, an Ankara-based journalist for Azerbaijan's Russian-language Zerkalo (Mirror) daily, off a bus as he was preparing to return to Azerbaijan via neighbouring Georgia. Mirkadirov's press accreditation earlier had been canceled.*
Zerkalo wrote that it had initially assumed that a "misunderstanding" or "technical" reasons had caused the accreditation-snag; issues which, "with fraternal Turkey," would soon be sorted out, it said.
That notion soon went out the window.
Word of Mirkadirov's deportation from Turkey became public this weekend, but Azerbaijan's interior ministry and border-control officials initially denied any knowledge about his deportation, Zerkalo reported.
On April 21, the prosecutor's office stated briefly that he had been charged with treason; specifically, with espionage, under аrticle 274 of Azerbaijan's criminal code.
Elaborating at a briefing later that day, Mirkadirov's lawyer, Fuad Agayev, told reporters that prosecutors claim Mirkadirov, who has visited Yerevan in the past for various conferences, allegedly passed on information describing Azerbaijan's military situation and "strategic objects" to Armenian agents.
Armenian journalist Laura Bagdasarian, who ran a joint online publication with Azerbaijani human rights activist Leyla Yunus, also was mentioned in the charges, Agayev said.
Russia is gearing up for an ideological battle with the West, using its post-Soviet security apparatus to counter the threat of "color revolutions" around its borders.
The Russia-led political-military bloc the Collective Security Treaty Organization recently held a roundtable in Minsk on countering "color revolutions," the motley collection of recent popular uprisings that, in the Kremlin's mind (or perhaps only its propaganda), are orchestrated by the U.S. and include such disparate revolutions as Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Tunisia, and Syria. "All so-called 'color revolutions' are carefully prepared in advance by the creation and training of 'leaders' and special groups capable of organizing protest actions of the population aimed at creating informational-psychological pressure on the government," said CSTO Secretary General Nikolay Bordyuzha at the event. And he called for the "collective response using the CSTO" to combat those threats in CSTO countries (which, in addition to Russia, include Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan).
The CSTO has been making those sorts of statements for a while, but the events in Ukraine seem to have sharpened its focus on color revolutions. Bordyuzha, however, has been fairly vague about what, exactly, the CSTO could do about the issue. Аn analysis was published in Nezavisimaya Gazeta making some more concrete suggestions about what the CSTO and Russia could do. One of its suggestions was to work with the press, and the fact that it came out the same day as the Minsk roundtable suggested that the article may itself be part of the strategy.
The author, Aleksandr Bartosh, is more explicit than Bordyuzha can be about who, exactly, are organizing these color revolutions:
In what will be a first for New England and perhaps even the rest of the United States, Boston is about to get its very own Uyghur food truck. Although the truck won't have an onboard noodle maker turning out plates of lagman, the truck -- which is scheduled to hit the streets in the coming days -- will be serving Uyghur style kebabs, sold on skewers or inside wraps.
The truck, Uyghur Kitchen, is the brainchild of Payzulla Polat, a professional musician currently studying music production and engineering at Boston's Berklee School of Music and who originally hails from the Uyghur city of Urumqi. I recently reached out to Polat, who is busy with the various last-minute details that need attention before his truck is ready to roll, to find out more about his groundbreaking project. Our conversation is below:
How did you get the idea for a Uyghur food truck?
When I was a student in Los Angeles back in 2008, most days I got lunch from the food truck next to my school. They served really delicious doner kebabs and they were really cheap compared to regular restaurants. After eating there several times, I became a big food truck fan, and always pictured myself opening a Uyghur food truck in the future. It's the perfect idea for Uyghur kebabs as they're easy to make and easy to eat on the go. Other big reasons for starting a food truck are the relatively low investment costs for a new business and the movable location, which will make it accessible to more people.
Besides your truck, are there any other places in Boston to get Uyghur food?
Right now there are no restaurants in the New England area where you can find Uyghur food. I constantly hear about people looking for Uyghur food in the area, especially in Boston, but they haven't found any yet.
Do you feel like Boston’s food scene is ready to support the arrival of Uyghur food?
Armenia may now sign on to the Moscow-led Eurasian Union by the end of April, roughly a month before neighboring Georgia is slated to enter a free-trade and political pact with the European Union. The signings of both agreements have been expedited as the competition for the South Caucasus picks up speed between Russia and Europe.
Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan is scheduled to travel to Belarus on April 29 for a meeting of the council of the Eurasian Union, an economic bloc roughly modeled by Moscow after (and against) the European Union. Armenian officials say that Sargsyan will sign an agreement in Minsk on Armenia’s joining the Customs Union, the flagship project of the Eurasian Union meant to create a shared economic space for Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and, Moscow hopes, more ex-Soviet states.
The new sign-on date is not a huge difference from the earlier deadline of May, but, apparently, as East-West ties deteriorate over Ukraine, someone feels the need to pick up the pace.
Wary of Ukraine-style pressure from Russia, the EU chiefs have been trying to fast-forward their plans with Georgia and Moldova. José Manuel Borroso, the president of the European Commission, the executive body of the EU, is expected in Tbilisi in June to sign an association agreement, which includes a free trade deal, with Georgia.