When the American company ContourGlobal, purchased a hydropower complex in Armenia earlier this summer, it probably did not know it would end up helping avert a major crisis in that country. Or providing the money to fix a mess allegedly caused, at least in part, by a Russian-owned firm with close ties to the Kremlin.
Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian announced this weekend that the government plans to use the money from the sale to subsidize a controversial, 16-percent increase in electricity fees, which went into effect on August 1.
He did not specify exactly how much the government would use from the $180-million nest egg.
Yerevan had agreed to cover the increase (pending an audit) after massive street demonstrations erupted in June in the capital, Yerevan, over the hike. Tagged by jittery Russian media as a revolution, the protests expressed longstanding frustration with perceived government collusion with its corporate pals' financial abuses.
The opening ceremony of the Caspian Cup naval competition, in Kaspiysk, Russia. (photo: MoD Russia)
Russia has kicked off its inaugural "International Army Games," an Olympic-style competition for militaries, with 2,000 soldiers from 17 countries competing in 13 disciplines from a tank biathlon to naval games on the Caspian to a military cooking contest.
The biggest event by far will be the tank biathlon, in which 13 countries will compete. The tank biathlon was first held two years ago under the auspices of Russia's nascent military bloc the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and last year with an expanded guest list that also included China and India.
All the rest of the events are brand-new and only Belarus and China are competing in most of them (the Russian Ministry of Defense has an extensive English-language guide to the games here, with detailed explanations of the rules for each contest).
From the Bug Pit's coverage area, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Russia, and Tajikistan are all competing in the tank biathlon. Kazakhstan also is competing in the "Aviadarts" air force skills challenge, and both Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan are in the "Caspian Cup." The other participating countries are Angola, Venezuela, Egypt, India, Kuwait, Nicaragua, Pakistan, and Serbia.
When a senior Tajikistan government official declared in July that Uzbekistan had given up on objections to the Rogun hydropower project, it implausibly seemed like a monumental entente had been reached.
Those remarks, made by Tajik Energy and Water Resources Minister Usmonali Usmonzoda on July 27, have proven woefully misleading, however.
Uzbekistan’s Foreign Ministry on August 1 issued a statement reiterating its total opposition to the project. For clarity’s sake, it reproduced a speech by Deputy Prime Rustam Azimov from last year that concluded with this unambiguous sentence: “Uzbekistan will never and under no circumstances give its support to this project.”
This brewing standoff may come to a head sooner than expected if Tajikistan’s optimistic timetable comes to fruition.
In August, Usmonzoda said Tajikistan plans to commission the first two units of the Roghun plant in the next few years. Ozodagon news agency quoted Usmonzoda as putting that timeframe at three years.
The first units will have a combined generating capacity of 800 megawatts, enough to provide the entire country electricity around the clock, Usmonzoda said.
Tajikistan now has to cope with severe power shortages, particularly in the winter, when electricity is rationed to around 4-5 hours in the morning and the same amount in the evening.
Uzbekistan is taking increasingly drastic measures in the fight against college admission exam cheats by ordering cellphone companies to disable some of their services temporarily.
Local news website Gazeta.uz cited three major mobile providers — Beeline, Ucell and UMS — as saying that they temporarily suspended messaging services for five hours on August 1. The time coincided when school-leavers take their all-important tests that decide their long-term future.
The message-blocking practice is now carried out annually and is intended to thwart crafty students hoping to get assistance from accomplices outside the exam hall.
Rampant cheating has been a feature of exam-taking across the former Soviet Union for many decades. Educational authorities appear to be taking the matter more seriously, although some creative souls try to slip through.
Earlier this year, a student in Kazakhstan schemed to help his girlfriend ace her exams by dressing in her clothes and taking her place. The black wig, skirt, eye makeup and pink lipstick were not enough to fool the invigilators, however. Police were called in, leading to the young man facing charges of fraud.
Exam-takers in Uzbekistan are, like most places in the world, forbidden from bringing in their phone, but that has not deterred the ingenious in the past.
One website, Uz24, explains how some students have circumvented the ban by taking their mobile phones apart and distributing the components in various pockets for later assembly. Others simply hide their phones in toilets or tape them under conveniently located tables, if they know in advance where they are to be seated.
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited China and negotiated over a controversial deal with Beijing to buy sophisticated air defense systems.
The visit is yet another twist in the long-running drama of Turkey's multi billion-dollar air defense deal, which has become a litmus test of sorts for its geopolitical leanings. The controversy kicked off in 2013, when Turkey announced it would opt for a Chinese system over American and European bidders. That, in turn, sparked harsh reactions from NATO allies and it had increasingly seemed that Ankara was getting ready to change its mind and opt for the European system after all.
But ahead of his July 28-29 visit to Beijing Erdogan suggested that air defense was part of the agenda. "The most suitable bid came from China but certain developments led to delays. We will revisit these matters during this trip. If we receive a proposal that enriches the bid, we will view this positively," Erdoğan told a news conference in Ankara before departing for China.
"The visit's most important topic will be the negotiations between China and Turkey on defense systems," an unnamed Turkish official told Turkish newspaper Today's Zaman.
NATO's primary objection to Turkey buying the Chinese system was that it would not be able to be securely integrated into NATO's own air defense system, of which Turkey already plays a large part. Turkey, meanwhile, has argued that its highest priority is getting access to the technology used to built the system so that it can eventually build them (or something similar) itself; China was willing to that (in addition to being a cheaper offer) while the European bidder weren't.
Only days after the death of Taliban leader Mullah Omar was announced, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan terrorist group has reportedly sworn allegiance to the Islamic State. In a video posted by the IMU-controlled Furqon TV on July 31, a figure identified as the group’s spiritual leader, Sheikh Muhammad Ali, stands in front of the black flag of IS and pledges loyalty to the organization.
The rest of the 16-minute video shows IMU militants carrying out attacks on Afghan army posts in Zabul province, which borders Pakistan. Usman Ghazi, the IMU’s leader since 2012, features in the clip.
This is the first time the IMU’s central leadership has formally sworn allegiance to ISIS. But it is not the first report of IMU-linked militants allying themselves with ISIS.
In September 2014, Ghazi pledged support to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, criticising Mullah Omar, who had not been seen in public since 2001. “On behalf of members of our Islamic Movement, I herewith announce to the world that we are siding with the Islamic Caliphate,” the statement read. Ghazi stopped short of pledging bay’a [the oath of allegiance] to ISIS. A few months later, in March 2015, a group of Uzbeks in northern Afghanistan claiming to be from the IMU, went a step further, pledging fealty to the Islamic State. Ghazi did not officially endorse the move.
The move comes during a tumultuous period for the movement.
Pro-Putin Russian bikers, known for their politically incorrect expeditions, have now caused concern in Azerbaijan, after they announced plans to descend on Nagorno Karabakh on July 31, in breach of an Azerbaijan-imposed travel ban on the breakaway territory.
This is not the first time that the infamous, Kremlin-funded motorcycle club, the Night Wolves, has sparked controversy. Earlier this year, with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s blessing, this Russian nationalism-on-wheels tried to retrace the Soviet Army’s route to Berlin to commemorate the 1945 victory over Nazi Germany.
Several European countries like Poland, Lithuania and the Czech Republic refused to offer passage to this new red army, both because of their controversial trajectory and for their support for pro-Russia fighters in Ukraine. Only a small group of club members made it to Germany; most of them in a rental car.
A pack of Night Wolves then headed to Georgia, much to the outrage of many Georgians angry over the continued Russian occupation of breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia. After all, the country’s biggest bête noire, Putin, is an honorary member of the gang.
In Georgia, the group’s leader, Alexander Zaldastanov, aka Surgeon, added fuel to the fire by expressing regret that he had to use an international passport to cross from Russia to Georgia.
“What is this? I even have to fill out forms in Sevastopol, Ukraine, where I spent my childhood,” he complained to Georgian media. “It is a tragedy that we all don’t live in one country anymore.”
There was disappointment in Almaty as it lost out to Beijing in the race to host the 2022 Olympic Winter Games by a mere four votes.
A 500-strong crowd gathered in the mid-afternoon on July 31 in downtown Almaty's Abai Square greeted the news of their city’s defeat with stony silence. Almaty was the clear underdog, and despite giving a good account of itself, the city failed to tip the balance its way as International Olympic Committee delegates gathered in Kuala Lumpur gave the nod to Beijing by a narrow margin of 44 votes to 40.
The decision is a blow to long-term president Nursultan Nazarbayev's image-making project for Kazakhstan, which had hoped for the spectacle of the Winter Olympics as the crowning glory of the country's rise from impoverished post-Soviet backwater to a dynamic, emerging player on the world stage.
Both Almaty and Kazakhstan have gained a massive publicity boost in the world's media as the bid decision day loomed. Almaty received plaudits from IOC delegates for the quality of its bid. That was a remarkable turnaround as it was tagged a rank outsider only a year ago. At that time, there was another rival contender — Norway's capital Oslo — and Almaty received the lowest scores from the IOC working group in most of the evaluation categories.
For the authorities the Winter Olympics bid was all about putting Kazakhstan on the map. “Of course we're not as famous as other big cities,” the vice-chairman of Almaty's bid, Andrey Kruykov, told the Associated Press. “It's our main task to let everybody know [about Almaty].”
A series of Russian soldiers behaving badly in Tajikistan has ignited debate in that country about the presence of the Russian military base there.
The most recent incident, which appears to have been the straw that broke the camel's back, was a July 28 street fight in Kulyob, near a part of the Russian base, involving "seven drunken Russian soldiers who had stripped down to their underwear began dancing, singing, and 'yelling loudly' in a residential area of the city center," RFE/RL reported. Locals reportedly complained to the soldiers, who then were reinforced with other soldiers from the base, and it resulted in a brawl.
This follows recent cases involving two Russian soldiers allegedly murdering a Tajik taxi driver last fall, and another soldier badly beating a waiter in a Kulyob restaurant earlier this year.
Russia's 201st Motorized Rifle Division is based in three facilities around Tajikistan: near Dushanbe, Kulyob, and Qurghon-Teppa. Its roughly 7,000 troops make it Russia's foreign largest military presence. In 2012 Tajikistan agreed to extend the presence of the base until 2042 in exchange for military aid, discounts on fuel, and easier conditions for Tajikistani labor migrants to Russia.
“As long as you’re going to be thinking anyway, think big,” goes an old line from headline-grabbing US presidential candidate Donald Trump. And in Azerbaijan, Trump, the mega-real-estate mogul, has done just that, in terms of both project and partner.
But the deal also raises big questions about how well he grasps the lay of the land in Azerbaijan.
Trump lent his name and management know-how to an upcoming, sail-shaped skyscraper in Baku that is owned by billionaire Anar Mammadov, Mother Jones magazine reported on July 29. Mammadov is a son of the country’s powerful transportation minister, Ziya Mammadov, a man whose family has been long accused of battening on privileged access to government contracts for infrastructure development.
The deal and Mammadov’s role as a champion of Azerbaijani interests in the US — he heads the Azerbaijan America Alliance — exemplify the two parallel worlds of US-Azerbaijani relations. Baku now bitterly rebukes Washington’s criticism of its dismal human rights records, even as its insiders actively lobby and sweet-talk US politicians.