Here's looking at the world's worst economy cabin.
When the countries of Central Asia end up on a list, they’re usually at the bottom (or the top, depending on how you look at it, as in “most-corrupt”). A new ranking is no different: Three of the region’s national air carriers, surprise, have placed among the world's worst.
Business Insider, an online magazine, has ranked economy-class cabins and found the flag carriers of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan offer passengers a “most unpleasant in-flight experience,” measured by "seat comfort, in-flight entertainment, cabin cleanliness and condition, quality of meals served, and service efficiency."
The magazine compiled its list from ratings made available by airline reviewer Skytrax. It then "adjusted each measure to be out of 100, and averaged them to produce a final score that reflects the overall in-flight experience."
The magazine and Skytrax offer little quantitative data to back the rankings, which may lead regular Central Asia travellers to quibble or ask why some of the region’s fly-by-night airlines did not make the list.
Perhaps the judges have never been stranded on the runway in Osh waiting for East OK Avia to fetch them. Maybe the judges who sampled UTair simply met violent deaths. One EurasiaNet correspondent likes to tell a story from Ariana Afghan Airlines: As the plane tilted forward for landing, passengers in the front of the cabin got acquainted with the contents of an overflowing toilet in the rear.
Father Iotam rose to fame as a Georgian Internet meme after being filmed chasing gay-rights activists in Tbilisi with a three-legged stool.
Georgian police on May 23 pressed charges against two priests for participating in a mass disturbance of an anti-homophobia rally in Tbilisi that injured dozens and sparked international censure.
The two priests detained were caught on camera as they participated in the mayhem that erupted on May 17 when a crowd of protesters, including Georgian Orthodox Church priests, broke through a police cordon to disperse a small number of people meeting in a downtown square to mark the International Day against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia .
The clash has sparked a sharp debate over the power of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Georgia's most popular institution, and the degree to which the government is prepared to hold priests to account for violating the law. Arresting priests is not a move easily digested within Georgia's highly religious society.
Iotam Basilaia, the father superior at the Iione-Tornike Eristavi Monastery, and Antimoz Bichanashvili, an arch-priest at Tbilisi's Holy Trinity Cathedral, are charged with defying police orders and preventing citizens’ rights to free assembly. The two men may face a fine or even a prison term. Police did not specify if the clerics were being held in jail.
The "black box" flight recorder from the U.S. Air Force jet that crashed in Kyrgyzstan has been found, and the U.S. and Kyrgyzstan have reached an agreement on the sensitive issue of sharing access to the information contained therein.
The black box was discovered May 16, but was only reported by the Manas air base authorities this week. The press release from Manas alluded to the potentially controversial issue of who gets access to the data and discusses the compromise reached:
Officials from the Government of the Kyrgyz Republic have verified the item, taken photographic evidence, and sealed the component for delivery to a decoding facility. The Government Commission of the Kyrgyz Republic responsible to investigate this accident consented to send the component to the Air Force Safety Center in the United States for decoding to ensure both complete data extraction and the continued flight safety for the Boeing 707 fleet, which is of mutual concern to both the Kyrgyz Republic and the United States. The Government of the Kyrgyz Republic will receive a copy of the analysis for their investigation.
The United States Air Force Safety Investigation Board thanks the Government of the Kyrgyz Republic Special Commission for their continued cooperation as it proceeds with its investigations.
Recall that earlier, Kyrgyz authorities said that they may hand over the recorder to Moscow, because they don't have the technology to decode it. That obviously was going to be unacceptable to the Americans.
There are many serious issues facing Turkey, from the crisis in Syria to worsening relations with the central government in Iraq, but lately the country has been caught up in a debate over which beverage can be called the national drink: the anise-flavored spirit raki or the decidedly non-alcoholic yogurt-based ayran?
The debate was first launched by none other than the Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who made waves when he declared in a recent speech that Turkey's true national drink is ayran and not raki -- a favorite of Turkish imbibers and of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, modern Turkey's secularizing founder. The debate started heating up when, soon after Erdogan's speech, his Islamic-rooted governing party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), announced it would be introducing in parliament new legislation that would limit where alcohol can be sold and consumed and how it could be advertised.
A parliamentary sub-commission today approved a slightly watered-down version of the legislation, but not before the debate over it went from joking to hostile. Reports the Hurriyet Daily News:
As the debates on a draft bill restricting the sale and consumption of alcohol kicked off at a parliamentary commission, opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) members offered to serve ayran to their counterparts, mocking the prime minister's promotion of the salty yogurt-based refreshment as Turkey's original "national drink."
President Mikheil Saakashvili's opposition United National Movement was quick to describe their secretary-general's detention as a further step in the party's alleged ongoing harassment by Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili's government. Merabishvili, who served as interior minister from 2004 to 2012, is on a short-list of contenders that the party was considering for a primary for nomination as its candidate for this October's presidential election.
Ex-Health Minister Zurab Chiaberashvili, a former ambassador who was detained on May 21 together with Merabishvili on corruption and abuse of power charges, was offered bail of 20,000 lari (about $12,300), payable within 30 days.
Both men have denied the charges against them. Chiaberashvili is one of the few remaining governors loyal to Saakashvili.
The European Union pledged to cast a cautious eye on the proceedings against them. In a joint statement on May 22, the EU's chiefs for foreign affairs and neighborhood relations – Catherine Ashton and Stefan Fule, respectively – said that they “take a careful note” of the double detention.
Following the launch of a corruption probe in the UK involving a natural resources giant with strong links to Kazakhstan, the company, ENRC, has become the subject of a hostile takeover bid by powerful interests with connections to the Central Asian state.
The three oligarchs who founded the London-listed Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation – Alexander Machkevitch, Patokh Chodiev and Alijan Ibragimov (who are all believed to have powerful connections in Kazakhstan) – have teamed up with the Kazakh government to mount the takeover. Together the four parties hold a combined 55.33 percent of ENRC, with the three founders owning equal shares of 14.56 percent each and Astana owning 11.65 percent.
ENRC’s committee of independent directors has rejected the bid on the grounds that it “materially undervalues ENRC,” according to a May 17 statement.
The committee said that the City of London’s Panel on Takeovers and Mergers, which regulates takeover bids for London Stock Exchange-listed firms, had granted its request for an extension until June 3 for a decision on the bid, to allow the consortium time to make a better offer – something there is no guarantee it will do.
The takeover panel issued a statement on May 20 saying that another London-listed company linked to Kazakhstan, the Kazakhmys copper miner, is officially to be treated as part of the takeover bid, because Astana plans to use its stake in Kazakhmys to finance the ENRC buyout.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to Washington last week hoping to get Washington to commit to taking a more assertive stance on Syria, but in the end left with very little of what he wanted.
In fact, if anyone changed their positions during the visit, it was the normally strong-headed Erdogan, who came away from his meeting with President Barack Obama in support of Washington's efforts to put together an international conference on solving the crisis in Syria, dubbed Geneva II. Erdogan had previously been dismissive of such a diplomatic effort, calling it a stall tactic by the Assad regime and its supporters, but in Washington he sang a different tune, saying he was now in favor of Geneva II, particularly since Russia -- Assad's main supporter -- and China are now expected to participate.
Veteran Turkish analyst Cengiz Candar, writing for the Al Monitor website, explains how the White House got Erdogan to change positions:
The Americans pampered Erdogan enough to twist his arm without hurting and enabled him to showcase his Washington visit to the Turkish public as a victorious diplomatic fanfare. The meeting of delegations at the White House was unprecedentedly crowded with 1+13, that is in addition to Erdogan and Obama, there were 13 others on both sides. Americans accommodated the Turkish whim for this ludicrous number clearly with prospects of possible profits.
President Mikheil Saakashvili’s political camp suffered a major blow on May 21 when two prominent presidential allies, former Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili, once one of Georgia’s most influential politicians, and Kakheti Governor Zurab Tchiaberashvili, were detained on criminal charges of misusing 5.2 million lari ($3.19 million) in public funds.
Lawyers for the two men interviewed by Maestro television reported that they had not yet received the official charges. Merabishvili and Tchiaberashvili are currently meeting with their attorneys in a jail in the parliamentary seat of Kutaisi. A court has 48 hours to decide whether to release them on bail.
Merabishvili, who, as interior minister from 2004 to 2012, led the charge under Saakashvili to revamp Georgia’s notoriously corrupt interior ministry, also faces separate charges for allegedly confiscating private property.
Prosecutors have indicated that Merabishvili, now head of the president’s United National Movement (UNM), will likely be charged for additional crimes stemming from the 2006 murder of banker Sandro Girgvliani and excessive use of police force during May 26, 2011 protests in Tbilisi as well, Interpressnews.ge reported.
Saakashvili blasted the arrests, accusing the Georgian Dream majority of turning Georgia into a pariah in the international community. The UNM has charged repeatedly that a desire for political retribution drives the government’s prosecution of former senior officials.
Authorities in Kazakhstan are again undermining religious freedom with the detention of a Protestant pastor and a Baptist leader on unrelated charges, a watchdog says.
Pastor Bakhytzhan Kashkumbayev of Astana's Grace Church was detained May 19 on vague charges related to how he said his prayers. Forum 18, the Oslo-based religious freedom watchdog, reports that Kashkumbayev was questioned on May 17 and two days later remanded for two months' pre-trial detention on “unclear charges, apparently including praying and singing.”
In an unrelated case, in early May Baptist leader Aleksey Asetov from Ekibastuz in northeastern Kazakhstan spent three days in jail for failing to pay a fine imposed for holding a worship meeting without state permission. In 2011, Astana introduced legislation vastly curbing the activities of unregistered religious groups in the country.
The Astana police told local media on May 18 that Pastor Kashkumbayev was detained on suspicion of committing an offence under Article 103 of Kazakhstan's criminal code, which can carry a sentence of between three and seven years’ imprisonment.
The Grace Church had a run-in with the authorities last October when it was bizarrely accused of spiking its communion wine with unidentified hallucinogens.
The exact nature of the charges against Kashkumbayev are unclear, but members of the church who attended his arraignment told Forum 18 he was detained, not for the wine, “but for praying in tongues and singing.”
Kyrgyzstan MP Akram Amirjanov looks out a window of a KC-135 Stratotanker during an air refueling demonstration over Kyrgyzstan in 2012. (photo: U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Brett Clashman)
Kyrgyzstan's government has declared that it is canceling the current agreement that it has with the U.S. on the Manas air base the Americans operate in that country. But it's not clear, given that the agreement is scheduled to expire next year anyway, what import the announcement has, and it is probably of greater political than legal significance. And the U.S. State Department reiterates that it isn't giving up yet.
On its website, the Kyrgyzstan government announced that as of July 11, 2014, the agreement it has with the U.S. will be "repudiated." But that's when the agreement, reached in 2009 for a five-year period, expires.
Kyrgyzstan's president, Almazbek Atambayev, consistently says that he wants the U.S. to leave Manas in 2014. He said that again today, explaining that "the government has already made its decision and confirmed legislation about the end of the term of the agreement...All that's left is for the parliament to accept this law... I am deeply convinced a civilian airport should not have a military base."
Whether this is his final decision or a bargaining point is anyone's guess. The U.S. clearly hopes to extend its presence beyond July of 2014, and in a statement to The Bug Pit, a State Department spokesperson downplayed Bishkek's announcement. "Our understanding is this text is a draft of a possible law. Therefore, I’m not going to speculate on hypothetical next steps," the official said. "This does not change our existing agreements or timeline with the Kyrgyz Government." The U.S. "remains in close contact" with Kyrgyzstan, the official added.