A search-and-destroy operation is underway in Armenia. The targets are enemy Azerbaijani apples, which had the audacity to cross over into Armenian territory and place themselves covertly on Armenian store shelves. But, rest assured, the Armenian authorities say they have mounted a “massive” security action in response.
Ordinary citizens first detected these desperado apples’ infiltration of Armenia. Concerned grocery shoppers posted on social media photos of apple cartons, brashly emblazoned with the word “Azerbaijan,” the country against which Armenia has been at war over breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh for decades.
Against that backdrop, debates online and in the press asked whether Azerbaijan intended the apples to poison Armenians.
Wising up to the homeland security breach, Armenia’s Food Safety Service began inspecting stores nationwide on April 23. After three days of search, the problem appeared larger than originally thought. The enemy apples were found in the capital, Yerevan, and throughout its vicinity.
The Food Safety Service called on citizens to stay clear of the forbidden fruit and set up a hotline for shoppers to alert the authorities about any encounter with the Azerbaijani applies.
Yuri Khachaturov, the new secretary general of the CSTO. (photo: CSTO)
After a delay of more than a year, the Russia-led post-Soviet security bloc has appointed a new secretary general, a former senior Armenian military official. But whether this will tilt the organization towards Yerevan's interests remains to be seen.
The Collective Security Treaty Organization has announced that its new head will be Yuri Khachaturov, who served as chief of general staff of Armenia's armed forces from 2008-2016. The appointment ends a long saga that began in 2015 when the CSTO announced that the only secretary general it's ever had, Russian KGB officer Nikolay Bordyuzha, would step down and be replaced by an Armenian, following (they said) alphabetical order. (Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan are the other member states.)
But that was followed by a long series of delays, including the withdrawal of the apparent first choice to replace Bordyuzha, former defense minister Seyran Ohanian, as well as apparent passive-aggressive efforts by Kazakhstan and Belarus -- possibly under the influence of Azerbaijan -- to block the appointment of an Armenian.
In advance of the May 9 holidays to mark victory in World War II, the Russian Embassy in Uzbekistan is getting busy distributing St. George remembrance ribbons to the public.
In the first few days of May, anybody wishing to do so can drop in on the mission in Tashkent can pick up their distinctively orange-and-black striped ribbons free of charge.
The ribbons have become a frequent sight of late; either pinned to people’s clothes or tied onto car fixtures.
But not all Uzbeks support the initiative.
Last year, for instance, Uzbek journalist and founder of a literary online portal Davronbek Tozhialiyev and political commentator Anvar Nazirov were outspoken in their opposition on social media.
“The St. George’s ribbon is a symbol of colonialism. This order was bestowed on Russian soldiers and officers for their victory over Muslim Turks in the 18th century. In the 19th century, the award was given to those who conquered Central Asia,” Nazirov told EurasiaNet.org.
Tozhialiyev and Nazirov last year applied to the Interior Ministry and the Tashkent city administration to ask for a ban on wearing the ribbon and associated public events, but to no avail.
But on May 9, even though Tashkent authorities had given the event no formal approval, a local chapter of the Immortal Regiment, which brings together people all over the world wishing to mark the Soviet victory over the Nazis in the war, marched through the city. Around 200 people took part in the event.
The Immortal Regiment movement was created in 2012 in the Russian city of Tomsk and has organized May 9 marches in 15 countries since that time.
Tajikistan has reportedly embarked on a major would-be battle against graft, detaining at least 17 officials with the government’s top anti-corruption body, including the deputy head of the agency.
The sweep was organized by the anti-corruption agency itself in conjunction with the State Committee for National Security. The detentions began on April 20.
Davlatbek Hairzoda, the No. 2 in the graft-fighting body, was detained on the border with Kyrgyzstan as he sought to flee the country. Among the detained, there is also Jamoliddin Muhamadzoda, the head of inspections department in the anti-corruption agency, and the head of the investigative department, Firuz Holmrodzoda.
One eye-catching target of investigations is Firdavs Niyozbadalov, an investigator and son-in-law of former MP and secretary general of the National Security Council, Amirkul Azimov. Niyozbadalov was deeply involved in the investigation into Zaid Saidov, a loyalist-turned-government opponent jailed in 2013. Saidov is serving a 29-year jail sentence on charges of fraud, corruption, statutory rape and polygamy. Saidov’s lawyers and human rights activists had complained that Niyozbadalov used unlawful methods and resorted to physical intimidation during that investigation.
Azimov denied in remarks to EurasiaNet.org that his son-in-law had been arrested, but he turned down requests to be put in touch with Niyozbadalov directly.
Another anti-corruption agency official, Umed Kamolov, who is also the son of a former general in the security services, Saidanvar Kamolov, is wanted but does not yet appear to have been detained.
All the people detained are facing charges of bribe-taking, forging document and abuse of office.
In the wake of US forces dropping a giant bomb on a Islamic State group camp in Afghanistan, unnamed officials in Tajikistan intimated to the media that there were numerous Tajik militants among the dead.
RFE/RL’s Tajik service, Radio Ozodi, cited security sources as saying that among that the main figures to perish was Shermahmad Safarov, who they described as the head of the Tajik contingent of Islamic State in Afghanistan.
The claim was politically explosive.
Safarov is also said to be the brother of Nazarmuhammad Safarov, a former top Tajik Defense Ministry official accused by the government of involvement in what the government says was an attempted coup in September 2015.
Since the authorities justified their crackdown on the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, or IRPT, by linking them — in the absence of any evidence — to the purported coup, the implication was clear: the IRPT is linked to the Islamic State.
Radio Ozodi’s report cited the unnamed officials as claiming that Safarov fled from Tajikistan to Afghanistan in October 2015 in a bid to join the Taliban. According to this version, in 2016, Safarov fell out with the Taliban and instead decided to join the Islamic State group.
Others are offering alternate accounts, however.
Alim Sherzamonov, a leading figure with the Social-Democratic Party of Tajikistan in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region, or GBAO, told EurasiaNet.org he has long known Safarov, back from the days of the civil war of the 1990s.
Safarov was an active fighter within the ranks of the armed opposition, and it was back then that he earned the Lion of Yazgulam monicker, inspired by the name of his home district in the Pamirs.
State media in Tajikistan are under strict instructions to start always referring to President Emomali Rahmon by his full title: The Founder of Peace and National Unity — Leader of the Nation.
A worker for a state media told RFE/RL’s Tajik service, Radio Ozodi, that the new rule has been in force as of last week.
“Previously, we were permitted to use the abbreviated form — Leader of the Nation — instead of the long form: The Founder of Peace and National Unity — Leader of the Nation,” the source told Radio Ozodi.
Farrukh Ziyoyev, director of the Tajikistan state radio broadcaster, said that this requirement was in line with the December 2015 law titled, fittingly enough, “The Founder of Peace and National Unity — Leader of the Nation.” The legislation also envisions criminal sanctions for any deemed to be insulting the president.
Earlier this month, independent news website Akhbor reported that a man in northern Tajikistan was arrested and potentially faces several years in jail for being slightly disrespectful to the Rahmon, the Founder of Peace and National Unity — Leader of the Nation.
“In public view, he took a picture of Rahmon down from the wall, he threw it to the ground and said: ‘You have everything, you have a good life, and me, I have nothing with which to continue my life,’” an unnamed source familiar with the case was quoted as telling Akhbor.
The long-lasting battle between Turkey and Armenia over the acceptance or denial of the Armenian genocide has gone to Hollywood, which has wheeled out two historic epics to offer competing perspectives on the World-War-I-era massacre.
The Promise and The Ottoman Lieutenant are both panoramic love stories set in the chaotic twilight of the Ottoman Empire, but worlds apart. The first, which opened in the US on April 22, shows Turks deliberately exterminating ethnic Armenians; the second, released about a month earlier, downplays the killings as collateral war damage.
Even before The Promise opened, two days ahead of annual genocide commemorations in Armenia and by ethnic Armenian communities worldwide, thousands of Turkey-based commentators took to the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) to berate the PG-13 film. Armenian Diaspora groups in North America described the criticism as a politically motivated campaign of sabotage.
The lavishly mounted, $100-million picture, the last big project of the late Armenian-American real-estate mogul Kirk Kerkorian, is meant to help advance the international campaign to secure recognition of the massacre as genocide -- something that a string of US administrations have declined to do, lest they antagonize Turkey, a key American ally.
Areas of northern and central Kazakhstan has been hit by intense floods caused by heavy rainfall and overflowing rivers, forcing thousands to flee their homes.
The crisis began unfolding on April 11 with the outbreak of intense downfalls. Rivers bursting their banks have barred roads in several northern regions of the country, including around the capital, Astana.
A detailed account of the crisis has been provided by Sputnik news agency.
Rescue workers have evacuated around 5,000 people to safer locations. Many thousands of heads of livestock have been similarly driven to more secure ground.
The worst situation has been recorded in the town of Atbasar, in the northern Akmola region, around 260 kilometers west of Astana. Over the past weekend, levels of a river coursing past the town rose around six meters because of a combination of rainfall and snowmelt, causing it to spill over into the town. Water rushed into the first floor of numerous apartment blocks.
Those remaining in the town told stories of wailing sirens, helicopters whirring overhead and rescuers going around town in boats. More than 500 people were mobilized into the mammoth task of mitigating the fallout of the flood.
The Interior Ministry said that this year 10 billion tenge ($32 million) were allocated to local governments to help prevent and mitigate similar calamities. Questions are being raised about whether the resources are either enough or have been spent efficiently.
Security services in Uzbekistan have for the last few days been ordering the closure of internet and computer gaming cafes across the country in what appears to be an attempt to clamp down on suspected extremist religious activity.
One such internet cafe visited by EurasiaNet.org on Navoi street, a main thoroughfare in the capital, Tashkent, was found under lock and key. An employee at the establishment said that officers with the National Security Service, or SNB, arrived on April 19, disconnected the internet connection and ordered immediate closure of the building.
The same scene has been playing out across Tashkent and beyond.
The manager of one internet cafe, Rasul, said that SNB officers at his place spent a long time inspecting his servers and printers.
“My colleagues have said that in some internet points there were some people printing out leaflets belonging to the the banned religious group [Hizb ut-Tahrir] and that this was happening after the terrorist attack in Sweden, which was done by a citizen of Uzbekistan,” said Rasul, who declined to give his surname.
The deadly truck attack in Sweden earlier this month that left four people dead has refreshed concerns about Uzbekistan’s perceieved susceptibility to radical Islamist-inspired violence. Uzbekistan has claimed it passed on information about the man accused the attack to Western security agencies in 2014 and is seemingly intent on being seen to take active measures to further stamp out any manifestations of radical Islamic beliefs.
Most internet cafe workers questioned by journalists in Tashkent have declined to offer any details about their situation out of concern for the safety.
Internet cafes have been in the crosshairs before.
A U.S. warship launches Tomahawk missiles against targets in Syria on April 7. The strikes have been seen in the Caucasus as a sign of the Trump administration's resolve to stand up to Russia. (photo: U.S. Department of Defense)
The United States missile strikes on Syria have gladdened pro-Western hearts among in the Caucasus, where they have been seen as a sign that the new Trump administration is willing to act tough against Russia.
“I think what happened April 7 in Syria, the launching of the Tomahawk missiles, changed the situation very dramatically," said David Shahnazaryan, a senior analyst at the Yerevan-based Regional Studies Center and a former senior Armenian security official. "The Kremlin now must be much more careful. Maybe this will slow down, a little bit, the possibility of another war" in the Caucasus, he said.
Shahnazaryan was speaking at the South Caucasus Security Forum, held April 20-21 in Tbilisi, a gathering of Atlanticist foreign policy wonks from around the region. The uncertain foreign policy of the Trump administration was, naturally, a running theme throughout the event. And if there had been any worries that Trump might be soft on Russia, the Syrian missile strikes appear to have dispelled them.
“We saw how lost and how frightened Russians were" after the strikes, said Nodar Kharshiladze, the founder of the Georgian Strategic Analysis Centre and a former deputy minister of both defense and internal affairs. "Yes, they [the Russians] will come up with something nasty, but the initial reaction, they were very confused, they simply didn't know what to do. That shows that, when it's done properly, deterrence works very well. They recognize force when they see it, and they recognize weakness when they see it.”
Another speaker, former Georgian ambassador to Washington Batu Kutelia, even saw traces of legendary cold warrior Ronald Reagan in Trump's emerging foreign policy. (This is high praise in Tbilisi, which features the only statue to Reagan in the former Soviet Union.)