Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev and Russian TV journalist Dmitriy Kiselev. (photo: president.az)
During a largely friendly interview with Russian state media, Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev nevertheless pushed back against a number of Moscow's talking points, offering a high-level view on to the two countries' disagreements on issues including the war in Syria and Azerbaijan's arms procurements.
The interview was conducted October 18 in Baku by Dmitriy Kiselyev, one of Russia's most prominent and patriotic television journalists. Kiselyev was fulsome in his praise of Aliyev, Baku, and Azerbaijan, and the interview appeared to be partly a Russian charm offensive toward Azerbaijan, and partly an attempt to portray Aliyev to the Russian public as, if not exactly an ally, then at least someone with whom Russia could do business.
There were a number of softballs, like when Kiselyev asked Aliyev to take credit for the recent rapprochement between Turkey and Russia. Aliyev modestly demurred, but – without Kiselyev's prompting – floated a conspiracy theory about Turkey's shootdown of the Russian jet that resulted in the crisis last year. Aliyev suggested that “certain forces, worried about strengthening ties between Russia and Turkey” were behind it, and agreed with Kiselyev that it could be an “outside” force, without offering any specifics. But it dovetails well with a theory current in Turkey following the rapprochement with Russia that blames Gulenist saboteurs for the shootdown.
And Kiselyev's line of questioning about the West's “double standards,” one of the favorite topics of both Moscow and Baku, led to a long discussion. (One interesting novelty: Aliyev suggested that one of the reasons for the West's criticism of his government was that Baku declined to go along with “campaigns and adventure” that don't benefit it, which in the context appears to refer to Western sanctions against Russia.)
Turkmenistan is looking down the barrel of its worst economic crisis in years and the effects are being felt starkly on the street.
In the most radical development to date, shoppers in the capital, Ashgabat, have started reporting a lack in availability of staple groceries like sugar and cooking oil.
In some stores, sugar is missing altogether, while others are selling the commodity only in rationed amounts of 1 kilogram per buyer. Shoppers arrive at stores early in the morning and get in lines in the hope that they can get their hands on a bag. Only once they ascertain there is no sugar to be bought do they disperse.
The cheapest cottonseed oil on the market, produced by the Ahal factory, is being rationed to one or two bottles per buyer.
Smokers have it the worst. Back in January, multiple media outlets reported that Turkmenistan had slapped a ban on the sale of cigarettes. That was a slight misrepresentation of the facts, but it is most certainly true the cost of the smoking has soared and the availability of cigarettes shrunken drastically. And things continue to get worse for the cigarette-dependent. Residents of Ashgabat have reported seeing lines of many dozens of people outside stores selling tobacco.
Prices for almost all groceries are rising, and rising daily.
The unofficial exchange rate is also seeing some radical movement and reached a historic high in recent days. The official manat rate is 3.5 against the US dollar, but the currency is trading on the street for anywhere as much as 7 manat to the dollar. RFE/RL’s Turkmen service, Azatlyk, has cited people inside the country as saying they have seen rates of up to 7.4 manat to the dollar.
Kazakhstan’s Culture Minister caused a diplomatic row with Kyrgyzstan earlier this year after unwittingly insulting Kyrgyz citizens working in Russia.
Now, Arystanbek Mukhamediyuly is facing accusations of sexual harassment and corruption.
The charge was advanced by a former student of the Kazakhstan National Academy of Arts (KazNAI), Enlik Sydykova, in a YouTube video posted on October 9. The young woman said that in 2011 she had been hoping to sit an entrance exam for the college but did not make it in time. Mukhamediyuly, who was rector of the institute at the time, offered to assist in resolving the problem against a $3,000 bribe, Sydykova claimed. But when she said she did not have that kind of cash at her disposal, Mukhamediyuly proposed an alternative arrangement, Sydykova accused.
“Mukhamediyuly said to me: ‘You can come over to my place, we can drink wine, dance, chat and have fun.’ I was shocked. I did not expect to hear such things from such an upstanding figure,” Sydykova said in her video account.
Despite refusing the then-rector’s alleged advances, Sydykova made it into KazNAI all the same. At a later juncture, according to Sydykova, Mukhamediyuly entered a lecture hall in an inebriated stated and forced female students to sing before him. Sydykova said she was not the only student to face harassment from Mukhamediyuly.
After a week of hearings, the trial in Kazakhstan of two antigovernment activists charged with organizing unsanctioned protests has revealed numerous cracks in the state’s case, although it is unlikely this will make a guilty verdict any less probable.
Hearings in the case of Max Bokayev and Talgat Ayan began on October 12 and stem from a wave of unprecedented land reform protests in the spring that saw several thousand people hitting the streets of Atyrau in April.
One of the prosecutors’ most explosive charges is that Bokayev and Ayan were acting on the pay of a power-hungry tycoon from the southern city of Shykment, Tohtar Tuleshov, who authorities claim was looking to sow instability as a prelude to seizing power. Tuleshov is also in jail and facing trial separately in behind-closed doors proceedings in the capital, Astana.
Tuleshov gave testimony by video conference to the Atyrau court as witness for the prosecution on October 18. It is alleged Tuleshov gave Ayan $100,000 to finance the protests.
The state’s version of events is that Tuleshov hoped to sow the conditions for the creation of a vice presidential post, which does not now exist, presumably to set the stage for him to eventually take over the reins from 76-year old Nursultan Nazarbayev. This initiative would have come about by an engineered grass roots movement, prosecutors suggest.
In his testimony, Tuleshov admitted as much, although his account does not bear too much scrutiny.
How important can a constitution be when you cannot even find the original document?
That is the question that authorities in Kyrgyzstan appear to be asking as a ruse to downplay concerns over planned changes to the basic law.
The constitution in its current form was approved by referendum in June 2010 and ushered in a form of government intended to dilute the power of the presidency and hand more authority to parliament.
But a query by members of parliament about the location of the original copy of the document on October 19 has thrown up a bizarre mystery.
Justice Minister Jyldyz Mambetalieva responded that her office has a copy of 2010 constitution, but that the original is held by the presidential administration.
That was contradicted by Moldakun Abdyldayev, the presidential administration’s liaison to parliament.
“We assumed that it was with the Justice Ministry. Now the minister is confirming that there is no original. That raises the question: where is the original?” Abdyldayev told parliament.
Abdyldasev said he has seen an archived decree on the constitution — signed by Roza Otunbayeva, who served briefly as an interim president following the April 2010 revolution — and a draft of the document that was later adopted by referendum. But not an actual signed version of the constitution itself.
As confounding as it might seem, this means that none of the arguing parties in the constitutional debate can quite agree on what it is that is being subjected to amendment.
The trial began in the western Kazakhstan city of Aktobe on October 18 in the case of a mass shooting by a group of local men suspected of links to Islamic extremism.
The 29 men on trial face numerous charges, including terrorism, for the unrest that unfolded on June 5, when eight people, including three soldiers, were shot dead by a group of attackers that had seized weapons from shops stocking hunting supplies.
Proceedings at Aktobe’s specialized inter-district criminal court are taking place under an intense cover of security. News websites have shown images of snipers posted on roofs of building surrounding the court.
The case of the prosecution is vast and comprises 201 volumes of evidence. Almost 50 witnesses are expected to take the stand.
Of the 29 men on trial, nine are accused of direct involvement in the attacks, another 18 are said to have failed to report information about preparations for the violence, while another two are accused of harboring suspected criminals. Eighteen of the attackers were killed in the clashes.
It seems all but certain that the trial will culminate in guilty verdicts — state media has taken to referring to the defendants as “probable terrorists” — but authorities are taking additional measures to convey the impression of transparency, at least at the outset.
While reporters have not been allowed into the courtroom itself for the preliminary hearings, they were able to follow proceedings from a nearby room through a video feed. Almost two dozen cameras were installed inside the courtroom, including some trained on the defendants, to ensure everything is done above board.
Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko speaks at the Yerevan summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization on October 14. (photo: president.gov.by)
The Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Russia-led political-military bloc, has again failed to find a new leader during a summit that did nothing to combat the growing suspicion that the organization is dysfunctional.
The CSTO held its annual summit on October 14 in Yerevan, and the current secretary general, Nikolay Bordyuzha, had said that the group would pick his replacement at the summit. But the summiteers, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, left the get-together without settling on a new leader and without explaining that failure. "We'll get back to the matter in late 2016," Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan said after the summit.
It's not clear how significant a role the secretary general of the CSTO plays and what might change with a new person in the role. Some Armenian officials tried to play down the succession issue. "It's not important which nationality or government the next secretary general represents," said Bagram Bagdasaryan, the ruling Republican Party of Armenia's parliamentary leader
But the fact that the new leader is slated to be an Armenian has added some intrigue to the leadership question. Armenia is probably the most loyal CSTO member, with the most to gain -- if a wider war were to break out with Azerbaijan, Armenia could in theory gain the support of its allies.
Georgia’s opposition parties are scrambling to piece together their future after the October 8 parliamentary election left the governing Georgian Dream ruling the roost.
Some are turning to emotional eating. Outgoing Georgian Parliamentary Speaker Davit Usupashvili, whose Republican Party failed to make it back into parliament, has said that, in all likelihood, he would dunk his head into a bowl of food.
“When Irakli Gharibashvili stepped down [as prime minister in December 2015], I advised him to … shove his head into satsivi and ponder the future. Now, I have pretty much the same advice for myself,” commented the already relatively rotund Usupashvili. (Satsivi is a spicy walnut purée traditionally served with turkey on New Year’s.)
He might be joined by other opposition politicians, both old-timers and newbies.
United National Movement (UNM) candidate Sevdia Ugrekhelidze, for one, could bring to the table her self-described outstanding khachapuri-baking skills. In a televised pre-election debate, she invited her Georgian Dream rival in a Tbilisi district to have a piece of her rendition of Georgia’s trademark cheese pastry to help digest his loss. But the reverse happened.
Overall, with a total of 67 seats in the 150-seat parliament, the Georgian Dream left the UNM (including Ugrekhelidze) in the dust (with 27 seats) and will get a supermajority if it prevails in pending runoffs for another 51 seats.
The only other opposition presence, the nationalist Patriots' Alliance of Georgia, has a mere six seats and is unlikely to join forces with the UNM on any issue.
Turkey has reportedly invited Russia to bid on an air defense system that has become a sort of geopolitical bellwether, suggesting that Ankara may be using its rapprochement with Moscow to send a message to its Western partners.
On October 10, Russian President Vladimir Putin made his first visit to Turkey since the two countries fell out over Turkey's shooting down of a Russian jet on the Syrian border last year. And after Putin met with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Russia was "invited" to take part in the air defense tender, Defense News reported, citing Turkish diplomatic and procurement sources.
This would appear to revive the epic saga of Ankara's multibillion dollar T-LORAMIDS air defense program. In 2013, Turkey surprised everyone by choosing a Chinese system for the program, but after its NATO partners strongly objected, eventually abandoned the procurement and last year announced that it would instead work on building the system in Turkey.
Since then, though, Ankara has been quietly negotiating with the original American and European bidders, Defense News reported. And now Russia makes it a three-way competition.
Russia was one of the bidders in the original competition, with an export version of the S-300VM, but it was the least attractive of the four options: it shared the high price of the Western systems (reportedly double the price the Chinese offered) with the security risk of the Chinese. The crux of NATO's objection to the Chinese system was that it couldn't be securely intregrated with NATO's system; a Russian system would surely be just as dangerous from that perspective.