When Uzbekistan’s acting president Shavkat Mirziyoyev addressed a joint session of parliament earlier this month, he made a point of saying that his foreign policy priority was to boost relations with regional neighbors.
"We always remain committed to adopting an open, friendly and pragmatic position toward our immediate neighbors — Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan," Mirziyoyev said.
Since even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, leaders in Central Asia have been paying lip service to the notion of fostering fraternal ties in the region, but Mirziyoyev has tentatively lived up to his word in small if meaningful ways so far.
In an apparent start at trying to mend fences, Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Komilov on September 29 visited Tajikistan, where he met with President Emomali Rahmon.
Discussions were confined to what might sound like meaningless generalities anywhere else. For these two countries, however, talk of positive trends in relations, increased trade, revitalized dialogue on trade and economic cooperation and “the importance of maintaining regular political consultations and dialogue at the highest levels” are more than noteworthy.
Rahmon and Karimov’s relationship was fraught by personal enmity, making reaching state-level agreement on a number of thorny sticking points — of which there are many — all the more difficult.
The biggest source of bilateral unease lies in Dushanbe’s determination to build the giant Roghun hydropower plant, which Tashkent has loudly complained will pose a potentially existential risk to its agricultural sector by stemming the flow of a major river.
A middling functionary at the state insurance company in Tajikistan has got the ball rolling on an initiative that may end up with President Emomali Rahmon’s face on what would become the highest-denomination banknotes in circulation.
Writing in national newspaper Tajikistan, Sharif Karim, head of local branch of Tajiksugurt in the town of Shahrinav, suggested that Rahmon have his image included on the heretofore inexistent 1,000 somoni note. (If that bill existed it would be worth $127).
The proposal is fully in keeping with the creeping cult of personality devoted to a president whose priorities have latterly focused on obliterating all opposition to this rule.
In typically effusive and inaccurate fashion, Karimov hailed Rahmon for making Tajikistan and Tajiks famous all around the world, as well as saving the country from certain famine and war. On state media, Rahmon is now referred to on every mention as “the leader of the nation and the founder of peace and unity.”
"On the threshold of Tajikistan’s 25th anniversary of independence it would be a good thing for the country, since a just and wise leader is a gift from God to the nation,” Karimov said.
While Karimov is low in the pecking order, it is in the normal course of things for such proposals to first be aired by relative nonentities so as to create the impression that the impetus for this idea is coming from the grassroots.
Then again, such is the sycophancy of Tajik functionaries that this may just as well be an exercise in self-abasement and greasy pole-climbing.
This is far from the first such exotic suggestion to be aired out loud in Tajikistan, and not all hare-brained proposals get to leave the drafting table.
A state auction of personalized car license plates in Kyrgyzstan caused astonishment this week after one item sold for almost $25,000— a fortune in a country where the official average monthly salaries is $200.
Even the opening bidding prices at September 28 online auction were high. For example, the plate 01 001 ААА began from a price of 70,000 som ($1,000 USD), but eventually sold for 600,000 som ($8,800), newspaper Vecherny Bishkek reported. The most highly sought-after plate though was 01 777 ААА, which started from 60,000 som and was nabbed with the winning bid of more than 1.7 million som ($25,000).
A series on online sales have been taking place since September 21 with items of varying prestige value going to the highest bidder. Simple straightforward symmetrical numbers, like ones with the figure 121 in them, were sold at fixed prices. But the truly exclusive plates — triplicate figures like 555 are the most popular — drew the high rollers.
These auctions tend to draw high bids, but the record set this time around has shocked many, going by the evidence of the indignation being registered online.
Public relations specialist Yelena Voronina wrote on her Facebook page: “1.716 million som just for a car plate. In a country where there is no money for medicine or equipment for those sick with cancer…”
Others took a more mordantly bitter line.
“It’s a shame they couldn’t have sold 01 777 ААА for $4 billion. That way we could have paid off the national debt,” quipped Ernis Temirkan, an employee for the Sputnik Kyrgyzstan news agency.
In Azerbaijan, apparent national enthusiasm for prolonging the rule of the ex-Soviet republic’s longtime leader, Ilham Aliyev, has resulted in a vote-count total for a referendum on the proposed change that exceeds 100 percent.
The energy-blessed Caucasus country’s September 26 referendum on 29 constitutional amendments included a proposal to extend the presidential term in office from five to seven years. The Central Election Commission announced that day that a whopping 91.2 percent of 2,669,430 voters approved the extension (among other amendments) and 4.7 percent voted against, while 4.5 percent of the votes were invalidated. It all adds up to an odd total of 100.4 percent.
The official results report that 110,095 of the votes were invalidated, which usually would amount to 4.1 percent of the total, but Azerbaijan’s election commission seems to disagree.
Critics, however, hold that mathematical wonders can indeed happen under Aliyev’s dynastic and clannish rule. Democracy watchdogs long have maintained that Ilham Aliyev, who took over the presidency in 2003 from his late father, Heydar Aliyev, has all of Azerbaijan’s government offices, including the election commission, under his thumb.
The vote-tally results, therefore, did not come as a surprise to Emin Milli, director of Meydan TV, an independent Azerbaijani news outlet based in Berlin. Milli, a former political prisoner, pointed out the count snafu on his widely followed Facebook page.
It has been 25 years since the Soviet Union collapsed, but some habits die hard.
Before September 27, the day on which President Nursultan Nazarbayev was due to visit, the city of Kyzylorda, in southern Kazakhstan, went into overdrive to prepare for the leader’s arrival.
As a rule, that kind of visit means city workers hastily tidying up the streets, effecting express repairs on the roads, demolishing dilapidated facilities and smartening up facades.
Kyzylorda, however, has more than the average amount of eyesores to hide, particularly on the road along which Nazarbayev was set to drive into town, so authorities adopted some creative solutions, as local media reported. One particular headache in Kyzylorda are the amount of dilapidated homes and potholed roads.
Rather than repair the problem homes, city authorities simply erected a long fence to hide the offending buildings from Nazarbayev’s view, news website Nur.kz reported.
This drastic measure might have gone unremarked upon but for the fact that the fence has caused a sudden surge in car accidents. As motorists pull into the road from behind the barricade, they are unable to see oncoming traffic, often leading to collisions. Local residents have told media they are afraid for their children’s lives and are making sure they don’t get too close to the fence.
Kyzylorda resident Ainur Aldabergenova complained to Nur.kz that real problems, meanwhile, are not being dealt with.
There is no area of public life in Uzbekistan that can remain untouched by cotton.
With the end of September approaching, the harvesting season is in full swing and all available hands are being enlisted to the cause: teachers, students, doctors, scientists and conscripts.
And on Friday, imams all across the country used prayer day sermons to urge parishioners to go out into the fields as well. The imam at a mosque in the Kashakadarya region, Bobohon Abdurahimov, said the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan distributed specific instructions on appeals to get the faithful to participate in the gathering of raw cotton.
“We explain to the faithful … that the gathering of cotton is a major state-level concern. Cotton is our national pride, that is why need an all-nation khashar (voluntary collective works drive) — a joint effort for the good of society. Muslims will please God if they help the state and farmers,” Abdurahimov told EurasiaNet.org.
At the largest mosques in Tashkent, worshippers can contribute to the harvest by providing donations, which are then used to provide for some of the cotton-pickers’ needs.
Asked if the sermons have any impact, Abdurahimov said that different people respond in different ways. Some limit themselves to making financial donations to help the cause, while others send one of their relatives to the fields. And then there are some very passive Muslims who take no heed whatsoever, he said.
According to Uzbekistan’s constitution, religious institutions are separate from the state, but in reality, the activities of faith organizations are strictly monitored and directed by security organs.
In a departure from the distant leadership style of the late Islam Karimov, the interim president of Uzbekistan has instituted an online suggestions and complaint box.
For now the website, pm.gov.uz, is still in test regime and under the PM domain, not least since Shavkat Mirziyoyev still occupies the post of head of government ahead of the December 4 presidential elections.
The website is available in Uzbek and Russian.
“Do you have unsolved problems, applications, complaints or suggestions? Send them to the prime minister of the Republic of Uzbekistan,” the website burbles enthusiastically.
Private citizens or legally registered companies can address Mirziyoyev through the provided online form, which requires a raft of identifying data, or they can call directly at the toll-free number 1000.
The direct line connects callers to regional advisers for Mirziyoyev’s Liberal-Democratic Party of Uzbekistan (UzLiDeP), which advanced his nomination for the presidency.
The appearance of the website and hotline were advertised on the evening news on state television on September 24.
News website Gazeta.uz notes that responsibility for considering all public appeals through these forms of communications are being placed on the heads of ministries, government departments and local authorities.
The initiative seems to have been greeted with guarded optimism.
A shocking outbreak of violence in the western Kazakhstan city of Aktobe in June was quickly linked by authorities to radical Islam and prompted calls for greater emphasis on sidelining extremist currents of the faith.
Those ambitions, however, have not translated into any material improvements for the city’s main mosque — theoretically a bastion for state-approved Islam.
Employees at Aktobe’s Nur-Gasyr mosque have filed suit in a municipal court after exhausting all other efforts to be paid their wage arrears.
Sputnik news website on September 26 ran a report citing the plaintiffs as saying they had initially appealed to head of mosque’s management, Bakhytkerei Balkenov, to address the problem, but received only obscenities and threats in reply. They also tried to get help from the imam, Ospan Tole bi Dadiluliy, and again were unsuccessful.
Faith-focused online portal E-Islam.kz describes Nur-Gasyr as one of the two largest mosques in Aktobe along with the Central Mosque. It can accommodate up to 3,500 worshippers and houses a madrassa, or Islamic school, with 25 students.
In its time, Nur-Gasyr mosque was seen as an important project for advancing the influence of the government-affiliated Spiritual Association of Muslims of Kazakhstan (DUMK). Around $16.6 million were spent building the mosque from 2005 to 2009. Money was sourced from donations from Aktobe residents and businesspeople. Funding was also provided by major national companies.
Construction of the building was completed in September 2008. The opening was attended by Kazakhstan’s topmost elite, from President Nursultan Nazarbayev downward, as well as senior guests from Russia like then-President Dmitry Medvedev and the presidents of Dagestan, Ingushetia and Kalmykia.
Uzbekistan has introduced a law protecting personal data that will make it illegal to disseminate information about people’s private life without prior express permission.
The legislation, approved by acting President Shavkat Mirziyoyev on September 23, will make disclosing personal information punishable by severe fines or prison terms.
Offenders may be cleared if they admit their guilt and reach a settlement with the injured party, news website gazeta.rureported.
On the face of it, the development appears to be a positive one and has been welcomed by members of the public.
“These badly needed legal changes will protect citizens from law enforcement organs that gather personal data about people and use it against them,” Irina Tomshevich, an accountant in a private company, told EurasiaNet.org.
But according to Alexei Volosevich, the legal amendments are in violation of laws regulating the functions of the media.
“According to Article 29 of the constitution of Uzbekistan ‘every person has the right to seek, receive and distribute any information, so long as it does not serve to undermine the constitutional order,’” Volosevich said. “That is to say, even though the constitution declares the right of citizens to the free access to information, there are loopholes in the form of ‘other restrictions provided for by law.’”
A commentary published on Central Asia-focused website AsiaTerra pursued the line even more aggressively.
Betting on tourism as an important lifeline, Georgia has become a place where Turks, Arabs and Israelis can convene around a poker table. But, to hear ex-Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili tell it, one of the country’s neighbors, Turkey, wants the casinos to close.
In a meeting last week with regional reporters, Ivanishvili, founder of Georgia’s ruling Georgian Dream Party, claimed that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had personally asked him to do away with Georgia’s gambling business a few years back, when both men served as prime ministers of their respective countries.
Watching fellow Turks return with empty wallets from neighboring Georgia apparently had taken its toll on Erdoğan, a practicing Muslim. Islam forbids gambling, and so does Turkey.
The Turkish embassy in Georgia told Tamada Tales, however, that the 2013 meeting with Ivanishvili happened too long ago for it to be able to comment about the two men’s conversation.
Nonetheless, the attractions of Georgia’s casinos for Turkish gamblers are clear.
With gambling banned in all of its Muslim neighbors – Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan – Georgia has essentially become the region’s Vegas (Armenia ranks a distant second) – an unimaginable status 21 years ago, when the James Bond movie “Golden Eye” depicted a Georgian-born honey trap playing a game of baccarat with OO7.
Georgia’s casino capital, the Black Sea city of Batumi, is only a short drive from the Turkish border. Many of Batumi’s casinos have Turkish investment, and are run by and cater to Turks, local media report.
But the proliferation of gambling has caused grumbling on Georgia’s side of the border as well.