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.
Russia's top military officer has said that the country's Black Sea fleet is now stronger than Turkey's navy, and emphasized that Russia is now capable of easily striking the Bosphorus straits, statements that highlight the tenuous nature of the rapprochement between the two states.
"Several years ago the capability of the fleet was sharply contrasted, in particular, with the Turkish navy, when it was said that Turkey is virtually the master of the Black Sea. Now everything is different," said General Valeriy Gerasimov, chief of general staff of the Russian armed forces, at the conclusion of military exercises conducted in southern Russia earlier this month.
Gerasimov highlighted several of the fleet's new acquisitions, including submarines capable of firing Kalibr cruise missiles, new aircraft, and the Bastion coastal defense missiles that Russia deployed to Crimea shortly after annexing the territory.
"For [destroying a potential enemy] the Black Sea Fleet today has everything: reconnaissance assets, which locate targets at a distance of 500 kilometers, strike assets. One Bastion complex has a range of 350 kilometers, including to the Bosphorus," he said.
The appearance of a figure convicted in Kyrgyzstan on charges of separatism and inciting ethnic hatred at an international rights forum has enraged politicians in Bishkek.
Ethnic Uzbek entrepreneur Kadyrzhan Batyrov, a native of the southern Kyrgyz city of Jalal-Abad, spoke on September 20 in condemnation of Kyrgyzstan’s president at an event held by the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR).
Batyrov, who has lived in Sweden for the past five years evading imprisonment over charges he incited ethnic unrest in his home country in 2010, said current plans to tinker with the constitution were part of President Almazbek Atambayev’s plot to permanently usurp power.
He also used the platform to condemn the plight of fellow ethnic Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan, who he argued are marginalized and underrepresented, and focused in particular on the situation of rights advocate Azimjan Askarov, who is serving a life sentence for his purported involvement in the violence of 2010.
The remarks were like a red rag to a bull to officials in Kyrgyzstan and about as badly timed as could be. Authorities loyal to Atambayev are mounting an intensifying onslaught against opponents to the constitutional reforms, which will likely be put to a referendum on December 4, and Batyrov is being used as the stick with which to beat them.
Even if he had tried, Batyrov could hardly have done more to compromise fellow critics of Atambayev. The Jalal-Abad businessman is referred to regularly in Kyrgyz media with the separatist epithet and the undocumented claim that he sparked the unrest of six years ago by calling for territorial autonomy for Uzbek-populated areas is widely accepted as gospel truth. Being put in the same basket as Batyrov then is political poison for public figures in Kyrgyzstan.
Kyrgyzstan’s parliament has passed a second reading of draft bill on holding a referendum in December on making changes to the constitution.
With the MPs vote on September 22, the likelihood of a plebiscite going ahead on December 4, as planned, has become a virtual certainty. Third readings are typically a formality and President Almazbek Atambayev has already thrown his weight behind amendments that have sown political turmoil in the country.
Of the 104 deputies that voted, 98 were in support of the referendum initiative, while six opposed.
Proposals to tinker with the constitution have come in for strong criticism from civil society as well as from international bodies like the Venice Commission, an advisory body to the European Council that rules on matters of constitutional law.
One key provision of the reform would see the role of prime minister being bolstered at the expense of the parliament. This has raised suspicions that Atambayev, who is limited constitutionally to one presidential term ending in 2017, may be laying the grounds for his immediate entourage to retain a dominant grip over power.
Another fix seen as insidious is one envisioning the introduction of loosely conceived “supreme state values” that would encompass individual human rights but also tag on concepts like “love of the Motherland,” “respect for the elderly” and “the accommodation of tradition and progress.” The ultimate goal of this aspect of the reform appears intended at chipping away at the individual human rights agenda that many governments in the post-Soviet space see as inimical to their model of authoritarian political development.
Authorities in Kazakhstan have declared that Almaty, which was the capital until 1998, is one millennium old.
To celebrate this purported landmark, the city held celebrations capped off with a firework display on September 18.
Kazakhstan, like other Central Asian nations, has something of a dubious fondness for round dates. The people of Almaty were certainly quite surprised. Schoolchildren have long been told that Almaty first appeared on the map in 1854, when Fort Verniy was erected along the Malaya Almatinka river. That outpost grew in the following decade into a town known as Almatinsk, and then subsequently Verniy.
So how did Almaty suddenly grow more than 800 years older all of a sudden is a mystery to many residents. The date has been greeted with a fair dose of scorn online.
News website Kazday put together some of the most acid responses.
Sergei Kovalenko, writing under the handle Fizik, remarked: “In 2000, the people of Almaty marked the 150th anniversary of their city. Today, Almaty is already knocking on 1,000 years.”
And @altrbgdt was even more sarcastic: “This business about Almaty’s 1,000th anniversary reminds me of the novel 1984, in which people were told that two times two is five and everybody worshipped lies.”
Popular blogger Alisher Yelikbayev (@yelikbayev) quipped: “Because of a trip to Astana I missed the 1,000th anniversary of Almaty. Hopefully I won’t miss the 1,200th anniversary. According to our historians, that will pass in seven years time.”
And then @normkorm: “Next year our officials will show us some stone age tools they found and we will celebrate Almaty’s one millionth anniversary!”
An Iskander missile on parade in Moscow in 2010. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Armenia has shown off advanced missile systems it acquired from Russia, giving it both a potentially substantial military boost as well as a source for controversy in Armenia's state of heightened political tension.
The Iskander missiles were spotted on Friday, in a rehearsal for tomorrow's military parade to mark 25 years of Armenian independence. The acquisition hasn't been announced officially, but the Russian newspaper Vedemosti cited two "managers of the military-industrial complex" confirming that Russia supplied four launchers (with two missiles each) to Armenia, and that they were provided under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which gives Russia's allies discounts on military hardware.
There were reports last year that negotiations on a more advanced version of the system, the Iskander-M, were underway between Russia and Armenia, but those were never publicly confirmed.
If this acquisition did in fact take place, it's a significant move: Armenia would be the first country other than Russia to get the weapons, among Russia's most advanced ballistic missiles. And it provides Yerevan a substantial capability boost in its arms race with Azerbaijan. Armenia-backed forces currently occupy Nagorno Karabakh, which is still de jure part of Azerbaijan, and Azerbaijan has heavily rearmed with the aim of taking Karabakh back.
Mortgage holders picket a bank in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in a demand for their loans to be refinanced following the dramatic fall in value of the national currency, the tenge.
In a reprisal of impromptu rallies seen earlier this year, around 30 mortgage holders in Kazakhstan’s business capital picketed banks on September 19 demanding their loans be refinanced.
Frustration is mounting among many debtors that a program ordered by President Nursultan Nazarbayev for the central bank to provide commercial lenders with 130 billion tenge ($380 million) to refinance loans is failing to take full effect.
The rallying mortgage holders, who complained that their debts had not been refinanced, called during their picket for them to be granted 1 percent interest rates and five-year repayment periods.
But Zhanna Sadykova, a member of the Let's Leave Housing for the People, claimed in remarks to EurasiaNet.org that banks are refusing to grant those terms.
Those suffering the most are people like 64-year old pensioner Tatyana Alenkina, who obtained a dollar mortgage worth $35,000 in 2008 to buy an apartment. She repaid $27,000, but a paltry monthly pension worth 35,000 tenge (devalued to $89 by the collapse of the national currency) means she can no longer keep up with payments.
“They kicked me out of my apartment in the evening, they won’t let me into my apartment any longer. I cannot find my things. I am going hungry. Now I’m living in a basement,” Alenkina told EurasiaNet.org.
The National Bank has said that as of September 1, almost 18,000 refinancing requests out of a total of more than 24,200 have been fulfilled. Protesters blamed banks for disruptions to the refinancing program.
In the wake of a fresh boundary dispute, Uzbekistan has re-opened a border crossing with Kyrgyzstan and started allowing the passage of private citizens.
Uzbek news site Anhor.uz reported that the crossing began to operate normally on September 19 following telephone negotiations between the presidents of the two countries.
On the face of it, the move marks another surprising thaw over border issues, which had been strained intensely after a helicopter of Uzbek policeman last month occupied a Kyrgyz telecommunications tower on a disputed mountain and detained four technicians working there. The men have since been released and the telecommunications tower was abandoned by the Uzbek police officers over the weekend.
But Kyrgyz residents living near the crossing in question have told EurasiaNet.org that private citizens have not been able to get into Uzbekistan through that point for many years now, so claims the situation will revert to that before an earlier border dispute in March are highly confusing. The only relatively operational land crossing between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan is in the latter’s Kadamjay district — a fact that all but cripples trade and communication between the two countries.
Despite the uncertainty, even the news of potential new border crossings is heartening Uzbek exporters, like Tahir in Tashkent.
Tahir exports cherries to China’s Xinjiang province and is eager to see the border working efficiently.
Kazakhstan troops march in the opening ceremony of the SCO Peace Mission 2016 military exercises in Kyrgyzstan. (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization is conducting its first joint military exercises in Kyrgyzstan, just weeks after a suicide bomber attacked the Chinese embassy in Bishkek.
The 2016 version of the SCO's Peace Mission exercise kicked off on Thursday at the Edelweiss training center near Lake Issyk-Kul. As is often the case, the scenario of the exercise involves an "anti-terror" operation with considerably heavier firepower than is usually employed against terrorists. Chinese helicopters, for example, practiced using air-to-air missiles.
"The need to conduct such exercises is dictated by modern realities," said Colonel Ruslan Mukambetov, the Kyrgyzstan officer commanding the exercises. "They have repeatedly proven their relevance and significance amid the current international situation, both in the SCO area of responsibility and in the world at large... In addition to its direct purpose - the fight against terrorism, extremism and separatism - they also promote closer military cooperation between our countries’ armed forces."
There seems to be some discrepancies in the reporting of how many troops are involved: The official Chinese People's Liberation Army news site said that it was 1,100, while Mukambetov said it was 2,000. The Russian contingent is reportedly 500 strong, and the Chinese, about 300.