When a Russian TV reporter went live from the Yerevan protests last night, a poster behind her read “Russia 24: Go to hell,” to use a mellow translation of the original choice of words.
The crowd gathered around the journalist was angry that Russian media draws parallels between their protest against higher electricity fees from a Russian-owned power company and Ukraine’s pro-Western uprising in 2013.
“People here do not want the word Yerevan to be used in the same sentence with Kyiv,” the LifeNews journalist explained.
Igor Morozov, a member of Russia’s legislative upper house, the Federation Council, opined on June 24 that Yerevan’s protests carbon-copy the build-up to EuroMaidan, and will end in a coup if “the nation’s President Serzh Sargsyan does not learn lessons from Ukraine’s Maidan and does not draw the right conclusions," RIA Novosti reported.
And, in the time-honored fashion of Russian politicians, Morozov is eager to make sure he does. Morozov and his colleague in the lower house, the State Duma, Valery Rishkin, advised Sargsyan to boot US Ambassador Richard Mills out of Armenia.
In Russian political folklore, US embassies in Ukraine, Armenia and elsewhere in the post-Soviet world work as regional headquarters of an anti-Kremlin conspiracy thought up in Washington, DC.
As the tense standoff between protesters and police in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, continues, Moscow is keeping a cautious eye on events. Armenia is Russia’s only sure ally in the South Caucasus, and, the Kremlin, no doubt with Ukraine on its mind, wants to be sure of its friend.
“Armenia is our closest partner… Of course, we closely follow the developments and hope the situation will be settled in the near future in strict accordance with the law,” Public Radio of Armenia quoted Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov as saying.
Russian media continues to look at the “Maidan-ability” of the demonstrations; in other words, if the protests against a 16-percent hike in electricity prices can become a real threat to Armenia’s government and its close alliance with Moscow.
Although some anti-Moscow (and anti-Putin) notes were sounded at the Electric Yerevan protest, protesters do not appear to be calling for grand shifts in Armenia’s geo-strategy.
Kyrgyzstan’s parliament on June 24 voted almost unanimously to approve a sweeping anti-gay bill that rights activists call an open invitation to attack gays and lesbians.
The bill is a tougher version of the so-called “gay propaganda” law Russian President Vladimir Putin signed in 2013. It mandates up to a year in prison for vaguely defined offences, such as forming a “positive attitude toward nontraditional sexual relations.”
Parliament must vote one more time, but the overwhelming support today – legislators voted 90-2 in favor, Kloop.kg reports – suggests ratification is mere formality.
The Central Asian country decriminalized homosexuality in 1998, but violence against the community, including from the police, has “visibly increased” since the draft law was introduced last year, the Bishkek-based advocacy group Labrys has said.
“The law will effectively make it illegal to advocate for, provide information about, or organize a peaceful assembly” in support of gay, lesbian and transgender peoples’ rights, Labrys said in a February statement. “Even a public act of ‘coming out’ could be considered ‘propaganda’ and result in a prison term for up to a year.”
The bill passed its first reading in October by a vote of 79 to 7 and then stalled over the winter as activists blasted its vague wording. But little had changed in the draft voted on today. After a third vote, it will go to President Almazbek Atambayev for his signature. He has said nothing to suggest he will use his veto.
A senior judge in Kyrgyzstan has been sacked after challenging the government’s plan to collect fingerprints and other biometric data from citizens.
Klara Sooronkulova had become a hero for civic activists who believe the top-down effort to force citizens to share their fingerprints in exchange for the right to vote is unconstitutional and at odds with their civil liberties.
Sooronkulova, a judge at the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, was drafting a document declaring the 2014 Law on Biometric Registration unconstitutional. She had attracted legal expertise from abroad to reinforce her position.
She now seems certain to lose her position after the Council of Judges (kind of a judges’ board of directors) voted unanimously on June 18 to dismiss her, citing a breach of judicial discipline.
As support builds for Sooronkulova – about 100 supporters protested outside parliament on June 24 – the president and parliament must now confirm her dismissal.
Well-known rights activist Cholpon Djakupova, director of the Adilet legal clinic, told Vechernii Bishkek that Sooronkulova had been punished “for going against the system.”
Biometric passports, otherwise known as e-passports, are identity documents containing the holder’s biometric information – usually a fingerprint. As of 2014, over a 100 countries issue them. Supporters argue that the built-in electronic identification mechanisms make travel documents less prone to identity theft.
Facing rows of police, the demonstrators whistled, clapped and chanted on the city’s central Liberty Square to condemn the government’s strong-arm response to their overnight sit-in against a 16-percent increase in electricity prices.
The renewed protests challenge the administration of President Serzh Sargsyan, long familiar with large-scale protests, to come up with a ready solution to the price problem. The website for the Armenian police was disabled earlier in the day in what some viewed as a hacker attack.
An Airbus C295W military transport aircraft with Uzbekistan markings, captured by a Spanish aviation photographer. (photo: @ja_almarza)
Uzbekistan appears to have bought four military transport aircraft from Airbus, as it continues to try to get new military equipment from Western partners.
Neither Uzbekistan nor Airbus have confirmed the sale, but the news appears to have been broken by a Spanish aviation photographer, J.A. Almarza, who captured images of the aircraft in Spain with the Uzbekistan flag painted on the tail.
Earlier, Airbus announced that it had sold eight C295W aircraft to customers who did not want to be identified. Last week, Saudi Arabia announced that it was buying four of those. The publication of the Spanish photographs seems to solve the rest of the puzzle. "Photographs recently published on the internet by aviation enthusiasts show a C295W at Seville in the markings of the Uzbekistan Air Force, indicating this will be the recipient of the other four," reported IHS Jane's Defence Weekly.
The leading Russian defense blog, BMPD, came to the same conclusion: "The June 17 appaearance of the first photographs of the C295W in the colors of the Uzbekistan Air Force leads to the conclusion that the purchaser of the other four aircraft is Uzbekistan."
A spokesman for Airbus, asked by The Bug Pit to confirm or deny the purchase, declined to comment.
Armenian police made 237 arrests on June 23 after roughly breaking up a Yerevan sit-in against a planned fee hike by the country’s Russian-owned power distribution network. The protest appears to be serving as a multiplier for longstanding economic grievances against the government of President Serzh Sargsyan.
Despite the police pushback, protesters have announced on Facebook that they will attempt another demonstration this evening, ArmeniaNow.com reported.
Led by a group called No to Plunder, the initial demonstration, a three-day sit-in, targeted a 16-percent increase in power prices by Electricity Networks of Armenia, a company owned by Russia’s Kremlin-friendly Inter RAO UES. That price increase, introduced on June 17 amidst protests, replaced plans for a 40-percent hike.
But the move did nothing to assuage many Armenians frustrated by scanty incomes, insufficient employment and perceived rampant corruption.
Protesters, en route to the presidential office, declined an offer on June 22 to meet with Sargsyan to discuss their grievances. Faced by police, last night they headed for a central thoroughfare, Baghramian Avenue. Riot police and water canons that remained at the ready moved in on the group at dawn.
The State Department has released its annual "Country Reports on Terrorism" reviewing terrorism activity from the past year and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the ISIS is the overwhelming focus throughout the report, but also in the former Soviet Union.
"The ongoing civil war in Syria was a significant factor in driving worldwide terrorism events in 2014," State wrote in the report's introduction. "The rate of foreign terrorist fighter travel to Syria – totaling more than 16,000 foreign terrorist fighters from more than 90 countries as of late December – exceeded the rate of foreign terrorist fighters who traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, or Somalia at any point in the last 20 years."
The report continues State's practice of describing governments' perceptions of the threat of terrorism, rather than Washington's own perception. The introduction of the section on South and Central Asia reads: "Central Asian leaders have expressed concern about the potential terrorist threat posed by the return of foreign terrorist fighters to the region in the wake of ISIL’s growth in the Middle East and the drawdown of U.S. and Coalition Forces in Afghanistan."
Last year's report expressed substantial skepticism about Central Asian government's claims about terror threats; that skepticism is less apparent in this report's newly written sections on ISIS. However, a senior State Department official testified before Congress earlier this month on ISIS in Central Asia and downplayed the threat, noting that the vast majority are not recruited in Central Asia but abroad, particularly in Russia.
After a deadly attack last week by an escaped zoo tiger, residents of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, are starting to see or hear predator zoo animals everywhere. And coming up with some increasingly fantastic tips for how to survive an encounter.
In one Tbilisi suburb, police and a group of concerned citizens caught what they thought was one of the wolves that had escaped from the city zoo after the June 13-14 flood that literally turned Tbilisi’s center into an urban jungle.
“Trust me, I know a wolf when I see one,” one man assured skeptics in a video of the supposed capture.
“Shouldn’t some zoo representative come?” another asked.
Against a backdrop of police-car lights, a crowd took photos for posterity with the suspected runaway; some even hesitantly stroking its head.
But the detainee proved to be a dog.
It was released and cleared of all lupine charges.
The confusion, however, was not a one-off. In the central district of Vake, several young pranksters downloaded a lion’s roar and broadcast the sound via speakers to horrified neighbors. Before long, both the national guard and police came running as emergency calls flooded in.
With the World Bank and Asian Development Bank soon to decide on Tajikistan’s request for $40 million more in budget support, they may wish to consider how past donations have benefited people close to the autocratic president while doing little to solve the long-term problems they were aiming to fix.
The two banks have spent over $140 million since 2009 topping up Tajikistan’s budget. But where does the money go? In 2012 alone the government spent $145 million recapitalizing a private bank that had handed out dozens of astronomically risky loans, many of them benefitting companies owned by relatives of the then-deputy prime minister, Muradali Alimardon (a man who had been promoted after admitting he’d lied to the IMF about the country’s reserves).
As I wrote for The Economist last week, the loans then disappeared but the directed lending continued. The bank is now deep in the red and Tajikistan’s whole banking sector looks on the edge of collapse.
Donors concede they struggle to piece together what is really going on. Their documents repeatedly describe Tajik bank statements as if they are purposely misleading. Internal memos say the banking sector’s structural problems stem from government resistance to reform, the lack of an independent central bank, ineffective internal controls, and ongoing fraud.
As Tajikistan’s banking crisis has snowballed over the last two or three years, donors have repeatedly seen their calls for reform ignored. So will they reward President Emomali Rahmon and his cronies for their persistent unwillingness to change the system?