Georgia's former defense minister has claimed that his firing last year was the result of dispute with other officials, led by former prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, over signing an agreement to acquire air defense systems from France. But the prime minister, and France's ambassador to Tbilisi, have denied the claims.
The dispute has reignited the political crisis that blew up last year, when Defense Minister Irakli Alasania -- one of the country's most popular political figures and probably the most pro-Western official then in the government -- was unexpectedly fired. And it again raises allegations that Russia might be exerting pressure on Tbilisi behind the scenes, especially in the sensitive sphere of arms procurements from the West.
Alasania made the claim last week, and Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili responded by calling the allegations "immoral" and said that such speculation is "not the business of a real man." The defense ministry also denied that any such agreement with France had been made.
Alasania then said that, since the agreement he signed was valid until the end of March, he would wait until April, when the alleged agreement expired, to provide all the details. And he made good on his promise at a press conference on April 3.
What a difference a month can make. In the final days of February, Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev was engaged in an emotional and unseemly spat with Belarus over the death of a Kyrgyz gangster.
By the end of his 10-day European tour this week, Atambayev was positioning himself as a peacemaker between Brussels and Moscow – one eager to continue receiving Western aid. Kyrgyzstan is due to join the Russia-led Eurasia Economic Union next month.
Atambayev made some revealing comments during an April 1 interview with Euronews – an outlet notorious for softball questions and sympathetic interviews with regional leaders. He used the opportunity to praise Russia’s leadership, present himself as a wise leader dabbling in international diplomacy, and remind Western donors that their assistance hasn’t been enough.
Euronews: “Mr. President, welcome to Euronews. Can we regard your visit to Brussels as something of a farewell before Kyrgyzstan joins the Eurasian Economic Union in May and when you will stop getting closer to the European Union?”
Atambayev: “On the contrary. I think, as a part of the Eurasian Union, Kyrgyzstan will be pushing it towards tight engagement with the European Union. Europe should extend from Lisbon and Brussels – to Vladivostok, and of course, I think, to Bishkek.”
The Russian-led political-military bloc, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, gathered this week in Dushanbe to discuss Afghanistan and the potential threat posed by instability there spilling over into Central Asia. And behind the scenes, Tajikistan is reportedly complaining about the failure of some group members -- notably Russia -- to deliver on the promises of military aid that they've made.
The April 2 meeting in Dushnbe gathered the foreign ministers of the CSTO states -- Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan. The group discussed "the necessity of strengthening cooperation of international and regional organizations and increasing their efforts toward providing security in Central Asia in light of the trends developing in Afghanistan," the CSTO said in a statement. The group also discussed implementation of the September 2013 agreemen "On providing aid to the Republic of Tajikistan to strengthen the Tajik-Afghan border," the statement said.
The key to massaging your own Wikipedia profile is not getting caught. But Kazakhstan’s efforts to turn the freely editable online encyclopedia into free advertising are yet again in the spotlight.
On March 20, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales hosted an Ask Me Anything conversation (AMA) on Reddit, a social-networking platform. Before long the audience was questioning Wales’s and Wikipedia’s roles in helping to improve Kazakhstan’s image. Back in 2011, Wales awarded a once-and-future Kazakh government employee, Rauan Kenzhekhanuly, the inaugural “Wikipedian of the Year” for his work with WikiBilim, a Kazakh-language platform criticized both for receiving state funds and for publishing multiple articles toeing the authoritarian government’s line. At the time, Wales told EurasiaNet.org, “As far as I know, the WikiBilim organization is not politicized.”
But during the AMA, Wales backpedaled on his decision to name Kenzhekhanuly the first Wikipedian of the Year.
Wales was on the receiving end of a fresh round of criticism last year when Kenzhekhanuly was named deputy governor of Kazakhstan’s Kyzylorda region. During the AMA, a commenter asked Wales if he would have bestowed the award had he known Kenzhekhanuly would go on to serve as deputy governor. “If I had known in 2011 that someone would get a job that I disapprove of in 2014, would I refuse to give them an award in 2011?” Wales responded. “Yes, I would have refused to give that award.”
The United States State Department has laid out a new policy vision for Central Asia, with a greater focus on "countering violent extremism," harsh words for Russia, and a newly conciliatory line towards Iran.
The new vision was explained by two senior diplomats in speeches in Washington this week: one by Richard Hoagland, a longtime diplomat in Central Asia and now Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs; and another by Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken.
In terms of details or specific new policies, the speeches contained little new: there was still an emphasis on the New Silk Road vision of promoting regional trade and transportation, still an focus on promoting security while also pushing for greater respect for human rights.
Perhaps the most newsworthy part of the new policy is that such a high-ranking official as Blinken laid it out; Central Asia's profile has markedly decreased in Washington over the last few years as the U.S. has begun to wrap up the war in Afghanistan.
And while there weren't new policies laid out, the speech did signal some new emphases for the U.S. in Central Asia, which may be reflected in new initiatives in the future. The essence of Blinken's speech was probably these two paragraphs:
The South-Caucasus representative for Human Rights Watch, Giorgi Gogia, was en route to Tbilisi on March 31 after being kept at the Baku airport for over 30 hours for unclear reasons.
Border officials on March 30 had barred Gogia from entering Azerbaijan and took away his passport, the New-York-City-based international rights group said.
In a brief phone-conversation on the evening of March 31, Gogia, a Georgian national, told EurasiaNet.org that he was now boarding a flight back to Tbilisi, his residence. Azerbaijani officials had given him no clear reason for the confiscation of his passport or holding him in the airport, he said.
Gogia left for Baku on March 30 to attend the controversial March-31 trials of imprisoned human-rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev and rights-activist Rasul Jafarov, said HRW Deputy Director for Europe and Central Asia Rachel Denber.
“Authorities in Azerbaijan have not provided any explanation to us,” Denber commented to EurasiaNet.org
Human Rights Watch and Gogia personally have been frequent critics of what democracy watchdogs calls Azerbaijan’s authoritarian slide. Increasingly, journalists and rights activists are being jailed in Azerbaijan on what many observers deem spurious charges designed to squash criticism of President Ilham Aliyev's government.
In a tweet, Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe’s former human-rights commissioner, on March 31 termed the actions toward Gogia a “sad sign of worsening clamp down.”
EurasiaNet.org could not reach the Azerbaijani foreign ministry for comment.
In a state-of-the-nation address snubbed by Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili and his cabinet, Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili on March 31 called for a more participatory democracy, and cautioned against any one group trying to lay exclusive claim to the country’s political processes.
“Improving democracy is a constant process. There never will be a time when we can say ‘Stop working on it,’” Margvelashvili said.
But the cabinet and the prime minister weren’t there to hear it. Gharibashvili, the president’s regular sparring partner, earlier had explained their absence by an alleged desire to avoid “pomp.”
Georgia’s constitution does not require the prime minister and cabinet to attend the speech, but the empty seats once again underscored a sharp, ongoing rivalry between the head of state and the head of government.
Constitutional reform in 2010 largely reduced the Georgian president’s role to a guardian of the constitution, but still left him with some key functions, such as that of commander-in-chief and the power to strike down parliamentary bills and cabinet nominations. The president is a directly elected official, unlike the parliament-appointed prime minister.
Yet critics, including opposition groups, charge that the Georgian Dream coalition and its chairperson, Gharibashvili, construe separating powers between the prime minister and president as trying to prevent the president, who no longer bears the blessing of Georgian-Dream founder Bidzina Ivanishvili, from taking part in government.
There’s apparently no end to Kazakhstan's sporting ambitions. While it waits for the International Olympic Committee to decide if it can host the 2022 Winter Games, the oil-rich Central Asian country – not exactly a soccer star – has declared its desire to host the Football World Cup finals in 2026.
“We want to hold the Winter Olympics in 2022, and then it's in the plan to compete for the World Cup in 2026,” Yerlan Kozhagapanov, president of the Kazakhstan Football Federation, told Russia's Sport Express newspaper this week. Our economy is growing rapidly, the country is developing, so why not?”
Kazakhstan – which ranks 138 in the FIFA World Ranking – is far from a soccer superpower. The country has has never qualified for the final stages of a major international tournament and is currently languishing last place in its qualification group for the Euro 2016 championships; it has earned just one point in five matches.
But Kozhagapanov hopes that with a bit of investment, this is all about to change: “We are now starting a program to develop football in Kazakhstan from 2015 to 2022, and establishing a coaching school is one of five priorities.”
In Kazakhstan there is one coach for every 347 children. This compares with one to eight in Germany and one to three in England. Other priorities include developing training infrastructure and combating match-fixing.
Incumbent strongman Islam Karimov has won a universally predicted landslide with over 90 percent of the vote in Uzbekistan’s competition-free presidential election, according to preliminary results released by the Central Electoral Commission the day after the vote.
The 77-year-old incumbent swept to victory with 90.39 percent of votes cast, electoral commission chairman Mirzo-Ulugbek Abdusalomov told a briefing on March 30. Turnout, he said, was 91.08 percent.
No one had doubted Karimov would win a fourth term in an election in which he faced only three stalking horses. Akmal Saidov came a distant second with 3.08 percent of the vote followed by Khatamzhon Ketmonov with 2.92 percent, while Narimon Umarov trailed last with 2.05 percent. Karimov’s margin of victory was slightly smaller than the 90.76 percent he won last time, in 2007.
Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) issued some damning preliminary findings on March 30, singling out issues ranging from Karimov’s flouting of the constitution, a lack of real competition and widespread proxy voting.
“The figure of the incumbent dominated the political landscape without genuine opposition,” the OSCE said, adding that Karimov did not enjoy the legal right to stand in the election he has now won: “Despite a clear constitutional limit of two consecutive presidential terms, the Central Election Commission registered the incumbent as a candidate in contravention of the rule of law, raising doubts about its independence.”
An unseasonal blizzard in Tashkent did not affect turnout during Uzbekistan’s presidential election on March 29, with incumbent strongman Islam Karimov galloping to victory in a one-horse race.
“I voted for Islam Karimov. He’s a good man,” said railway worker Rustam after casting his ballot (like other interviewees, he declined to supply his last name). “We know him and we don’t know who the others are.”
Rustam was summing up the mood prevailing among voters, who overwhelmingly say they back Karimov and know little about the other three candidates: Khatamzhon Ketmonov, Narimon Umarov, and Akmal Saidov.
These stalking horses, widely believed to be standing in the election to create a semblance of competition, have effectively been campaigning for Karimov, election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said in findings released ahead of the vote.
The iron rule of the 77-year-old president – who has ruled Uzbekistan since 1989 – may come under fire in the West. But it wins praise at home among voters subjected to a constant barrage of propaganda praising their leader. “I voted for Karimov. He keeps a tight grip on things,” said pensioner Hassan approvingly.
Human rights campaigners have criticized the election for offering voters in Uzbekistan (where no genuine opposition parties exist and dissenters are routinely jailed) no real competition. They also charge that Karimov is flouting the constitution – which limits presidents to two terms of office – by standing for his fourth term.