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.
As Georgia prepares to dive into another stormy parliamentary vote, two men stand on the opposite shores of the bordering Black Sea, shaking their fists at one another and calling each other names. Yes, they’re at it again. Mikheil Saakashvili and Bidzina Ivanishvili, the perpetual Tom and Jerry of Georgian politics, are getting ready for another of their grand showdowns.
Three days ahead of the October-8 vote, Saakashvili’s smiling, plump face presented itself on a giant screen in downtown Tbilisi. “We may be separated by this sea,” said the 48-year-old ex-president, speaking from Ukraine and pointing at the Black Sea swishing behind him, “but my heart beats in unison with yours, counting . . . the days and seconds to our final victory.” he told a rally for the United National Movement (UNM), the party he founded and Georgia’s largest opposition group.
Vowing to end the dominance of the “Russian oligarch” Ivanishvili, Saakashvili, now governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region, signed off saying that “three days are left before I cross this sea . . .see you in a victorious Georgia!”
The oligarch in question said that a well-fitted prison cell will be ready for Georgia’s former leader should he come ashore in Georgia. “That wretch can go nowhere…He is even afraid to get stuck in an elevator because he has a fear of confined spaces,” alleged Ivanishvili, the 60-year-old former prime minister and billionaire founder and benefactor of the ruling Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia.
United States Secretary of State John Kerry has created a diplomatic stir in the Caucasus by arguing that the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan "aren't ready" to resolve their conflict over the contested territory of Nagorno Karabakh.
Kerry's remarks about Karabakh were made only offhandedly, in the context of a larger discussion about diplomacy and international negotiations. Discussing the recent deal over Iran's nuclear program, Kerry contrasted that situation -- where the parties were genuinely interested in a resolution because of the risks that failure would bring -- to the Caucasus.
"There are some frozen conflicts in the world today -- Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan-Armenia, where you can’t quite see that right now because the leaders aren’t ready, because the tensions aren’t there," Kerry said. (Underscoring his pessimism, he contrasted Armenia and Azerbaijan unfavorably with the Palestine-Israel peace process, which he characterized as "difficult but you can see how you could get there if people made a certain set of decisions.")
More than 20 years after Armenia and Azerbaijan signed a cease fire to end the fighting over Karabakh, which ended Armenian forces in de facto control of Karabakh, the two sides seem farther apart than ever. And so to anyone following the Caucasus, Kerry's statement on Karabakh was not especially controversial, as the "tensions" that he referred to are mostly pushing in the direction of war, rather than peace.
Azerbaijan, suffering increasing public discontent as a result of a struggling economy, was able to rally citizens around the flag by launching an offensive in Karabakh in April. And in Armenia, radical nationalists staged a rebellion over the summer in order to pressure the government from conceding any ground to Azerbaijan over Karabakh.
A court in Tajikistan has doubled down of the hunt on the country’s banned Islamic party by sentencing two of its lawyers to more 20 years in jail in a startlingly draconian and unfounded punishment.
The Dushanbe court on October 6 ruled that Buzurgmehr Yorov and Nuriddin Makhamov should serve 23 and 21 years in a penal colony, respectively, after being found guilty of flagrantly trumped-up charges of fraud, inciting hatred and extremism, among other things. Both men will be barred from working as lawyers for five years after their release.
New York-based Human Rights Watch called the trial against the two lawyers, who had attracted the authorities attention after taking up the case of jailed members of the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT), “politically motivated.”
“The Tajik government is tightening the screws on lawyers it deems trouble, locking up those who represent the opposition, and even those who represent the ones who represent them,” Marius Fossum, Regional Representative at the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, said in a statement distributed by Human Rights Watch. “Each day these lawyers spend behind bars is a disgrace and brings shame on Tajikistan’s judicial system.”
Yorov and Makhkamov took up the cause of representing 13 leading members of the IRPT, whose entire leadership has since been convicted on charges of attempting to topple the government, when no other colleagues had the temerity to take the same risk.
In the days after the arrest of the IRPT leaders, in September 2015, Yorov public complained that one of the jailed men, party deputy leader Saidumar Khusaini had been tortured while in detention.
“At first they offered him a [position in government], but after he refused, they put a bag over his head and started to beat him,” Yorov said.
That kind of vocal representation on behalf of the IRPT did Yorov no favors.
An oil strike that started in late September in the western Kazakhstan town of Zhanaozen – the scene of fatal industrial unrest in 2011 – has ended after the company caved in to strikers’ demands.
In contrast with that industrial dispute five years ago, company officials and authorities were quick to pursue mediation, in a reflection of the sensitivities that surround signs of public discontent against a background of broader economic stagnation.
The Zhanaozen standoff ended late on October 5, after private drilling company Burgylau agreed, with mediation from the authorities, to concessions, one striker told EurasiaNet.org.
“All the demands have been meet,” said Askar, a driller speaking under a pseudonym by telephone from Zhanaozen on October 6. “We’re satisfied. We’re already back at work today.”
The 2,300 or so strikers had downed their tools for six days running in pursuit of two goals: changes to the salary calculation system that would result in a pay rise and an end to what they described as intimidation of their choice of union leader.
The company agreed to review the way salaries are calculated, Alik Aydarbayev, the regional governor, said in remarks reported by Tengri News.
Strikers had been demanding that Burgylau switch to the salary calculation system used by KazMunayGaz, the main state employer in Kazakhstan’s oil industry. The company agreed instead to install a similar system that should see salaries go up by an unspecified amount.
The company had argued that it could not afford to raise salaries, which are already around double the national average, owing to the knock-on effect of low global oil prices.
It will take some time before a satisfactory line is drawn under the shock attack on the Chinese embassy in Kyrgyzstan’s capital last August in which a suspected suicide bomber died and three embassy officials were injured.
At least three people named as suspects by Kyrgyz security services are claiming they had nothing to do with the attack.
Mubarak Turganbayev, who the State Committee National Security (GKNB) believes financed the attack, returned to Kyrgyzstan from Turkey voluntarily on October 4 and was subsequently taken into custody.
Turganbayev, who works for an Istanbul-based firm that arranges the delivery of cargo and cash between Turkey and Central Asia, has protested his innocence since September 7, when he gave an explanation on Facebook as to how he may have been caught up in the web of the investigation.
“A man called Burkhan, who has a restaurant business in Turkey asked to transfer $5,000 to a certain Iskender in Bishkek. The mobile phone number 0709-66-87-40 was indicated. Our staff transferred him the money. I want to say I have not participated in a terror act. A warrant was issued for my arrest without anyone making an attempt to contact me for questioning. I did not flee anywhere, and I am in close contact with the consul of Kyrgyzstan in Istanbul. I do not have and never have had links with terrorists,” Turganbayev wrote.
Burkhaniddin Zhantoraev (presumably the Burkhan in Turganbayev’s account) subsequently declared his innocence, again via Facebook, on September 20, as did Ilyas Sabirov, another Kyrgyz citizen reportedly working at the same firm as Turganbayev.
If Georgia’s unusually low-drama parliamentary election-campaign seemed too good to be true, it was. Any appearance of normality ended abruptly last night with the explosion of a leading opposition MP’s car in downtown Tbilisi, the Georgian capital.
The apparent target, 48-year-old Givi Targamadze, a longtime comrade-in-arms of ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili, escaped unharmed from the car when its rear section exploded sometime in the mid-evening on October 4 near Freedom Square, a key traffic artery. The vehicle was parked outside an office for Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM), of which Targamadze is a senior member.
Four other people were injured; one remains in serious but stable condition. Targamadze’s driver suffered a concussion.
In connection with the October 4 incident, the Georgian interior ministry has opened an investigation into attempted murder, but not, as yet, into an act of terrorism – a decision that has heightened the political accusations still further.
Politicians on all sides see the car-explosion as a flashback to the troubled 1990s, when kidnappings and street violence ran rife, and served as a way to carry a point with a rival. The calls now are for calm, but with fingers pointed at political opponents.
The UNM, which believes it’s on the cusp of returning to power after a four-year-long break, took aim at the government and its alleged grey cardinal, Bidzina Ivanishvili, for the explosion, claiming (without elaboration) that both have undermined institutions and relied on violence to strengthen their rule.
The blast occurred on the eve of what the UNM pledged would be an “unprecedented” afternoon demonstration of its supporters through downtown Tbilisi, including near the site of the explosion.