Prison may be just a click away for many Internet users in Azerbaijan now that the energy-rich, but rights-poor country has made online defamation and offensive languagea criminal offense. The move is seen by critics as an attempt to censor the Web ahead of this October's presidential election.
Human rights watchdogs have long maintained that Facebook-organized anti-government rallies, YouTube videos satirizing officials and other online activity have resulted in imprisonment of government opponents on various trumped-up charges. Now, they imply, prosecutors may not need to bother with tales of drugs or brawls to jail or fine critics.
What constitutes defamation or offensive language will be left to Azerbaijan’s government-loyal courts to decide. Judges can pick the preferred punitive measure from a list of punishment options for offline defamations and verbal abuse – a fine, corrective labor, or prison.
Rights groups have called on Azerbaijan to scrap the new law as a bad for democracy, something international watchdogs believe already is in short supply in the ex-Soviet republic.
"The authorities must not use the upcoming presidential election as a pretext to silence critical voices and a meaningful debate,” Amnesty International said.
Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the flamboyant Russian nationalist, is no longer welcome in Kyrgyzstan.
Parliament voted May 15 to ask the Foreign Ministry to declare the Russian State Duma vice speaker persona non grata. Though some deputies warned the measure could damage relations with Moscow, 67 of 120 voted for the ban.
Zhirinovsky, who heads Russia’s Liberal Democratic Party, angered many in Bishkek last month by suggesting Kyrgyzstan give up one of its most prized assets – picturesque Lake Issyk-Kul – in exchange for a debt write-off.
He often makes disparaging remarks about Central Asian migrants in Russia and has pushed to tighten visa requirements. But his venom is not just directed at Kyrgyzstan.
A few weeks back, Zhirinovsky suggested that Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon – who is engaged in a protracted dispute over the lease for a Russian division based in Tajikistan – could end up facing a brutal and public death at the hands of the Taliban were it not for Russian aid.
Armenians may want to sit down before they take a look at their next utilities bill. Russia's Gazprom hopes to increase the price it charges for gas to Armenia, a country that relies almost exclusively on Russian gas.
To reflect the hike in the cost of Russian gas supplies, the local distributor, ArmRosGazprom, majority-owned by Gazprom, and associated transporter TransGaz want to increase the fee for domestic consumers from the current 132,000 ($318) to 221,000 drams (over $530) per 1,000 cubic meters.
The proposed hike, which regulators have yet to approve, is hard to digest for Armenians, already struggling with rampant unemployment and flat incomes. The news also sent coughing fits across the business community. ArmRosGazprom said that corporate users will also get a higher charge, but did not specify the desired new fee.
Utility fees have long been a worry for Armenians and the emotions are already heating up at the planned increased. Some believe that President Serzh Sargsyan is lucky he just got reelected, before the gas news hit. Speculation has circulated that his ruling party requested the distributor to keep gas prices low until after the February 18 vote.
The outpouring of anger is likely to force the government to petition for Moscow’s understanding. Yerevan does not have too many options to find a gas supply elsewhere. Its next-door enemy, Azerbaijan, most likely would rather supply gas to the moon. Iran, meanwhile, has yet to lay a pipeline to supply gas to Armenia in significant volumes.
As if the wrangling between Moscow and Dushanbe over the Russian military base in Tajikistan weren't complicated enough, Russia is now planning to take control of the disputed Ayni airfield, as well, according to a report in Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta.
Recall that last year, the presidents of Russia and Tajikistan signed an agreement extending the lease of Russia's military base in Tajikistan. Russia recently ratified its agreement, but Dushanbe has been dragging its feet and appearing to demand new conditions. Now, though, it may be Russia throwing a wrench into the works. According to NG, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Defense's Department for International Military Cooperation have worked out a plan to "include" Ayni in its 201st military base. The newspaper doesn't provide any rationale for doing that, nor does it report on or even speculate on Tajikistan's thoughts on this.
A major terror trial has opened in Astana, hearing allegations that a group of radicals intended to blow the city’s landmark pyramid sky high and plotted to assassinate senior officials, Tengri News reports.
The iconic pyramid, called the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation and designed by British architect Norman Foster, has become a symbol of President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s glitzy capital. It is also a symbol of religious tolerance, every few years hosting a Congress of World and Traditional Religions to promote inter-faith dialogue.
Prosecutor Malika Shashdauletova alleged that the group also planned to attack the HQ of the National Security Committee’s domestic intelligence service (KNB) and murder agents; plotted the assassinations of unidentified “senior figures of the Republic of Kazakhstan”; and planned an act of terrorism at the opening of Astana Opera, the city’s new opera house.
Shashdauletova said that alleged ringleader Serik Koshalakov opened a kebab shop near an Astana mosque to recruit followers to pursue the ultimate goal of setting up an Islamic caliphate in Kazakhstan.
Spoilt for choice with shopping malls mushrooming all around them, Almaty's shopaholics now have an option that harks back to earlier times, when shopping was a more refined experience, with the opening of a GUM department store in Kazakhstan’s commercial capital.
GUM (pronounced goom) is short for Glavnyi Universalnyi Magazin, or main department store. The original in Moscow is an iconic landmark for Russian shoppers. Almaty's four-story shopping and dining complex is modeled on the ornate original in Moscow, which was built in the nineteenth century and survived through the Soviet era as the State Department Store.
Almaty's GUM has no connections with the Moscow original, but is trading on the famous brand. The Kazakhstani version is calling itself GUM Talipoff, with GUM here standing for Guldala Univermag, a partner company whose name translates as "flower of the steppe." The general director of the Almaty store is prominent Kazakh businessman Yerlan Talipov.
This new development is bucking the trend of ever-bigger mega malls that – like they have in Moscow – have proliferated around Almaty in recent years.
Almaty's GUM does not have such a prime location as the one in Moscow, which faces the Kremlin and stretches along one side of Red Square, but the development is expected to catalyze regeneration in a formerly rundown area of Almaty close to the Green Bazaar and the city's main mosque.
The complex opened its doors to the public in April but is very much a work in progress with construction workers still putting the final touches to its elegant brick façade.
A conference focusing on Kyrgyzstan’s present problems and future choices threatens to become sidetracked by a conflict-of-interest controversy. One of the financial backers of the event is involved in a legal tussle with the Kyrgyz government over allegations of financial impropriety.
The all-day workshop, titled Kyrgyzstan since 2010: Progress, Problems and Opportunities, is scheduled to take place May 15 in Brussels. It is being organized by the Washington, DC,-based Atlantic Council. Ambassador Ross Wilson, the director of the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council, confirmed that Latvian financier Valeri Belokon was one of several event sponsors, his support coming via his involvement in the council’s Connecting Central Asia and the Caucasus Initiative.
Belokon remains a highly controversial figure in Kyrgyzstan. The Latvian banker is widely believed in Bishkek to have been a reputed business associate of Maxim Bakiyev, the son of former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev. The Kyrgyz government is investigating whether Belokon helped Maxim illicitly transfer state assets out of the country amid the collapse of the Bakiyev administration in April of 2010. Belokon adamantly denies any wrongdoing.
Shokir Fayzullayev, chairman of state-run Uzbekneftegaz, says Uzbekistan exports only 20 percent of the natural gas it produces, blaming faulty and aging infrastructure, much of it dating from Soviet times, for increasing domestic shortages. Fayzullayev was speaking at a May 13 press conference ahead of the 17th Oil and Gas Uzbekistan International Exhibition and Conference in Tashkent on May 14-16.
"Despite [gas] resources and quite extensive networks, we have had problems with supplying gas to end consumers, especially in winter," Uzdaily.uz quoted Fayzullayev as saying.
Fayzullayev says gas shortages could end this year with planned work to upgrade networks and better coordination between gas distributors. "The majority of the existing problems will be solved this year,” he said.
But he also blamed customers for the shortages: "We all know there are different consumers: There are honest consumers who make timely payments and dishonest consumers who do not pay on time.”
Uzbekistan produces over 60 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas annually, according to official (and thus not always reliable) data cited by Uzdaily.uz. Most news reports and analysts agree on one thing: Gas output stood virtually unchanged last year, while exports – to Russia and China, especially – increased and are scheduled to keep increasing.
Without ramping up production, how is that possible? Despite Fayzullayev's explanation, many customers – the good ones and the bad ones – are blaming these rising exports for their shortages.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan today heads off to Washington for a two-day visit that will find him and President Barack Obama covering several contentious issues, many of them ones where Turkey and the United States currently don't see eye-to-eye. Turkish-American relations have clearly rebounded from their low point of a few years ago, when the two countries were at odds on a number of fronts, particularly regarding Iran's controversial nuclear program and how to deal with it, but Erdogan's visit will also serve as a test for the two countries' ability to bridge their current disagreements.
Writing in Today's Zaman, columnist Abdullah Bozkurt has a good rundown of what is a fairly extensive list of thorny topics that the two leaders will need to address in their meeting. At the top of the list, of course, is the question of Syria and how to hasten the departure of the Assad regime. As Bozkurt puts it, one thing Obama and Erdogan will have to work through is the Turkish PM's "disappointment" over Washington's reluctance to get more deeply involved -- that is, militarily involved -- in removing Assad.
The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), the group responsible for the recent, enormous data dump exposing offshore banking practices, is making its articles available in one online location.
The articles, many of which first appeared in news sources throughout the world, pay special attention to intermediary companies located in tax havens such as Singapore and the Virgin Islands, that set up accounts using fake - sometimes dead - straw man directors and shareholders. Companies, documents show, fail to do due diligence to find out the source of the money, and, often, encourage account holders to withhold real identities.