The South-Caucasus representative for Human Rights Watch, Giorgi Gogia, was en route to Tbilisi on March 31 after being kept at the Baku airport for over 30 hours for unclear reasons.
Border officials on March 30 had barred Gogia from entering Azerbaijan and took away his passport, the New-York-City-based international rights group said.
In a brief phone-conversation on the evening of March 31, Gogia, a Georgian national, told EurasiaNet.org that he was now boarding a flight back to Tbilisi, his residence. Azerbaijani officials had given him no clear reason for the confiscation of his passport or holding him in the airport, he said.
Gogia left for Baku on March 30 to attend the controversial March-31 trials of imprisoned human-rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev and rights-activist Rasul Jafarov, said HRW Deputy Director for Europe and Central Asia Rachel Denber.
“Authorities in Azerbaijan have not provided any explanation to us,” Denber commented to EurasiaNet.org
Human Rights Watch and Gogia personally have been frequent critics of what democracy watchdogs calls Azerbaijan’s authoritarian slide. Increasingly, journalists and rights activists are being jailed in Azerbaijan on what many observers deem spurious charges designed to squash criticism of President Ilham Aliyev's government.
In a tweet, Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe’s former human-rights commissioner, on March 31 termed the actions toward Gogia a “sad sign of worsening clamp down.”
EurasiaNet.org could not reach the Azerbaijani foreign ministry for comment.
In a state-of-the-nation address snubbed by Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili and his cabinet, Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili on March 31 called for a more participatory democracy, and cautioned against any one group trying to lay exclusive claim to the country’s political processes.
“Improving democracy is a constant process. There never will be a time when we can say ‘Stop working on it,’” Margvelashvili said.
But the cabinet and the prime minister weren’t there to hear it. Gharibashvili, the president’s regular sparring partner, earlier had explained their absence by an alleged desire to avoid “pomp.”
Georgia’s constitution does not require the prime minister and cabinet to attend the speech, but the empty seats once again underscored a sharp, ongoing rivalry between the head of state and the head of government.
Constitutional reform in 2010 largely reduced the Georgian president’s role to a guardian of the constitution, but still left him with some key functions, such as that of commander-in-chief and the power to strike down parliamentary bills and cabinet nominations. The president is a directly elected official, unlike the parliament-appointed prime minister.
Yet critics, including opposition groups, charge that the Georgian Dream coalition and its chairperson, Gharibashvili, construe separating powers between the prime minister and president as trying to prevent the president, who no longer bears the blessing of Georgian-Dream founder Bidzina Ivanishvili, from taking part in government.
There’s apparently no end to Kazakhstan's sporting ambitions. While it waits for the International Olympic Committee to decide if it can host the 2022 Winter Games, the oil-rich Central Asian country – not exactly a soccer star – has declared its desire to host the Football World Cup finals in 2026.
“We want to hold the Winter Olympics in 2022, and then it's in the plan to compete for the World Cup in 2026,” Yerlan Kozhagapanov, president of the Kazakhstan Football Federation, told Russia's Sport Express newspaper this week. Our economy is growing rapidly, the country is developing, so why not?”
Kazakhstan – which ranks 138 in the FIFA World Ranking – is far from a soccer superpower. The country has has never qualified for the final stages of a major international tournament and is currently languishing last place in its qualification group for the Euro 2016 championships; it has earned just one point in five matches.
But Kozhagapanov hopes that with a bit of investment, this is all about to change: “We are now starting a program to develop football in Kazakhstan from 2015 to 2022, and establishing a coaching school is one of five priorities.”
In Kazakhstan there is one coach for every 347 children. This compares with one to eight in Germany and one to three in England. Other priorities include developing training infrastructure and combating match-fixing.
Incumbent strongman Islam Karimov has won a universally predicted landslide with over 90 percent of the vote in Uzbekistan’s competition-free presidential election, according to preliminary results released by the Central Electoral Commission the day after the vote.
The 77-year-old incumbent swept to victory with 90.39 percent of votes cast, electoral commission chairman Mirzo-Ulugbek Abdusalomov told a briefing on March 30. Turnout, he said, was 91.08 percent.
No one had doubted Karimov would win a fourth term in an election in which he faced only three stalking horses. Akmal Saidov came a distant second with 3.08 percent of the vote followed by Khatamzhon Ketmonov with 2.92 percent, while Narimon Umarov trailed last with 2.05 percent. Karimov’s margin of victory was slightly smaller than the 90.76 percent he won last time, in 2007.
Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) issued some damning preliminary findings on March 30, singling out issues ranging from Karimov’s flouting of the constitution, a lack of real competition and widespread proxy voting.
“The figure of the incumbent dominated the political landscape without genuine opposition,” the OSCE said, adding that Karimov did not enjoy the legal right to stand in the election he has now won: “Despite a clear constitutional limit of two consecutive presidential terms, the Central Election Commission registered the incumbent as a candidate in contravention of the rule of law, raising doubts about its independence.”
An unseasonal blizzard in Tashkent did not affect turnout during Uzbekistan’s presidential election on March 29, with incumbent strongman Islam Karimov galloping to victory in a one-horse race.
“I voted for Islam Karimov. He’s a good man,” said railway worker Rustam after casting his ballot (like other interviewees, he declined to supply his last name). “We know him and we don’t know who the others are.”
Rustam was summing up the mood prevailing among voters, who overwhelmingly say they back Karimov and know little about the other three candidates: Khatamzhon Ketmonov, Narimon Umarov, and Akmal Saidov.
These stalking horses, widely believed to be standing in the election to create a semblance of competition, have effectively been campaigning for Karimov, election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said in findings released ahead of the vote.
The iron rule of the 77-year-old president – who has ruled Uzbekistan since 1989 – may come under fire in the West. But it wins praise at home among voters subjected to a constant barrage of propaganda praising their leader. “I voted for Karimov. He keeps a tight grip on things,” said pensioner Hassan approvingly.
Human rights campaigners have criticized the election for offering voters in Uzbekistan (where no genuine opposition parties exist and dissenters are routinely jailed) no real competition. They also charge that Karimov is flouting the constitution – which limits presidents to two terms of office – by standing for his fourth term.
Screenshot of a Georgia Ministry of Defense video report on the sendoff of Georgian peacekeepers serving in the EU mission in the Central African Republic.
Georgian troops have returned home from the completed European Union peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic, the country's first substantial troop deployment to Africa and to an EU military mission.
The EU mission formally ended on March 15, and the Georgian soldiers were sent home with a ceremony at the airport at Bangui, where they had been based. "During the mission, the Georgian contingent was tasked with providing security in the operational area," the Georgian Ministry of Defense said in a press release. "They carried out infantry and motorized patrolling within their area of responsibility. The Georgian peacekeeping unit accomplished the mission successfully and came back home without casualties."
Georgia was the second-largest troop contributor (behind France) to the 750-soldier EU force, and regional analyst Thierry Tardy said that the mission was, at least by the standards of its limited mandate, a success. "When measured against its restricted mandate, EUFOR RCA has been a successful mission" and "has contributed to the stabilisation of the situation in its area of deployment," Tardy wrote, while noting that "even if the general security situation has improved in the area of deployment, large-scale human rights violations have taken place in Bangui, violent groups have not been disarmed, and many trouble spots remain."
For Georgia, as with its deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq, the goal was to show Europe that it was a reliable partner.
Turkmenistan has approached the United States asking for military aid to help the country address instability on its border with Afghanistan, and Washington is trying to support the requests, a senior American military official has said.
The head of U.S. Central Command, General Lloyd Austin, testified before Congress this week and gave CENTCOM's annual "posture statement," which includes rare public pronouncements of the U.S.'s official military policy toward Central Asia. This year probably the most newsworthy statement was about Turkmenistan.
While noting that "Turkmenistan’s declared policy of positive neutrality limits our opportunities for substantive military-to-military collaboration," Austin also reported that "[t]he Turkmens recently expressed a desire to acquire U.S. military equipment and technology to address threats to their security along their southern border with Afghanistan. We will do what we can to support those requests." Austin did not provide details about what sort of equipment was being considered. There have been several recent reports of increased Islamist militant activity in the northern regions of Afghanistan bordering Turkmenistan, and Russia has been pressing Turkmenistan to allow it to provide military assistance.
Austin also pointed to the growing military relationship with Uzbekistan, highlighted by the decision to give more than 300 armored vehicles to the country's armed forces. "The U.S. military relationship with Uzbekistan has strengthened considerably over the past year," Austin testified. "And, expanded U.S. Special Forces training will further improve the Uzbek military’s capacity to meet security challenges."
UPDATE, March 28: American journalist Umar Farooq says he has been freed and is leaving Kyrgyzstan. Meanwhile, lawyers for human rights watchdog Bir Duino have filed a complaint with the prosecutor's office for the raids on their office and several top employees’ homes.
The arrest of an American journalist on extremism charges and the subsequent raid of a prominent human rights organization, both in southern Kyrgyzstan’s largest city, Osh, suggest that Kyrgyz authorities are still cagey about independent inquiry in a region associated with growing adherence to Islam and festering inter-ethnic tensions.
Kyrgyzstan has styled itself as a bastion of democracy in an authoritarian region, but rights activists see looming Russian-style legislation that would brand NGOs “foreign agents” as impending death for the country’s once-vibrant civil society.
Umar Farooq was researching the recent arrest of a popular cleric accused of supporting Syrian radicals, said a local journalist who had met with him shortly after he arrived in Kyrgyzstan a few weeks ago. On his webpage, Farooq identifies himself as a journalist who has written for the Los Angeles Times, the Christian Science Monitor and others.
The State Committee for National Security (GKNB) released a statement late March 27 confirming Farooq’s March 25 arrest, and claiming he had been found with documents and video materials of a "religious extremist and terrorist character."
A US Embassy spokeswoman told EurasiaNet.org that American officials had been in touch with Farooq and were providing consular support.
Forget the stereotypes about sun, wine and song. The Caucasus is a sad place and, in this region, Georgia is the saddest of all, according to a recent Gallup poll.
Georgia may persistently rank as the most democratic and liberal country within the South Caucasus, but it also ranks among the world's top ten countries with "the lowest positive emotions," the poll found.
In fact, the thousand Georgians surveyed in June-July 2014 came across as just a little happier than residents of the world’s most melancholy place, Sudan -- a score of 55 versus 47 on Gallup's "Positive Experience Index." And no happier than those of Afghanistan (also 55).
The survey, though, turned another local stereotype on its head, too. With a score of 59, the region’s smallest country, Armenia, was rated as the happiest — or, rather, the least unhappy -- after answering questions like “Did you feel well-rested yesterday? Were you treated with respect all day yesterday? Did you smile or laugh a lot yesterday?”
Azerbaijan, the largest and richest of the Caucasus three, finished only a notch higher than Georgia, with a score of 56.
Information on how the country-scores were computed, and on the geographic, gender and age-breakdown of the respondents was not immediately available. The Georgia survey had a margin of error of 3.6 percent.
Some Georgians have ascribed the results to a post-traumatic-stress-disorder-like malaise caused by the wars and economic misery they've suffered after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
Rahmon, seen here placing the first brick for his new city, likes to build.
Faced with a bulging population, Tajikistan’s government plans to build an entire new city in a stretch of northern desert. State television showed President Emomali Rahmon breaking ground this week, inspecting plans, receiving applause and placing the first brick.
Tajikistan’s population has more than doubled since 1979. With an annual growth rate of 2.3 percent, Tajikistan has the fastest growing population in Central Asia (the global average is around 1.2 percent), according to UN data.
The new city project – located 10 kilometers from Tajikistan’s second-largest city, Khujand – will house 250,000 people, the president’s website reports. Rahmon suggested the new city be named Saihun, after a nearby river. He ordered the building of over 50 new schools and 40 sports facilities. Over 7,000 hectares of orchard will rise from the desert, he promised.
The strongman likes to build. Last week, Rahmon laid the first stone for the region’s largest theatre. In 2011, he unveiled the world’s tallest flagpole (which was recently surpassed by another vainglorious dictatorship, Saudi Arabia). Tajikistan already boasts the world’s biggest teahouse, the region’s largest library (with few books) and has, for years, been building its largest mosque.