Ever a strategic crossroads, ardently pro-Western Georgia on August 25 became the site where the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, billed as the Chinese counterweight to the World Bank, chose its first president.
China's former deputy finance minister, Jin Liqun, got the pick at the August 24-25 meeting in Tbilisi, but it’s the longer term implications of the bank’s role that could prove more intriguing.
Initially meant as an Asia-only lending club, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) has fast expanded to attract members across Europe and is set to help China build international clout.
The US has tried to discourage allies like the United Kingdom and South Korea from embracing the bank, a financial institution that Washington reportedly fears will lower international banking standards, but did not react publicly when Georgia, its strongest ally in the strategic South Caucasus, also decided to help midwife the AIIB into existence.
Granted, Georgia, which holds a mere .05 percent share in the bank, does not have the banking or economic muscle of the UK or South Korea, but its geo-strategic location means that those with influence here tend to keep a wary eye out for potential rivals.
A car race in Turkmenistan is hardly worth the while unless the president is competing. And winning, naturally.
The government’s Golden Age website reported that Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov turned up early in the morning on August 22 to take part in the Alfa Romeo 2015 Cup.
A little counterintuitively, the auto-rally track started from the bottom of the Path of Health, a steep, concrete stairway set into the mountains south of Ashgabat that Berdymukhamedov’s predecessor instituted to get Turkmens walking their way to a long life.
Golden Age’s blow-by-blow account of the race brimmed with excitement. Berdymukhamedov took his place in car No. 7, alongside with six other identical green Alfa Romeos.
“The route of the race, which is 57 kilometers long, was designed with a rather complex configuration, which allows competitors to show off their best qualities and to confirm their top class driving skills,” the report explained.
There was some competition, but the outcome was of course a given: “The cars fly, engines roar, the distance between them gets shorter and lengthens again on the bend, but then the Alfa Romeo No. 7 breaks away from its nearest pursuers and rushes forward, to victory!”
Berdymukhamedov clocked a finishing time of 26 minutes and 10 seconds, which equals an average speed of 130 kilometers per hour (81 miles per hour).
Not hugely impressive, some might argue, since that is equivalent to the highway speed limit in France, but perhaps only a closer study of the track would allow a fairer assessment. Foreign sports journalists have been welcomed to Turkmenistan, but then constrained from doing any actual reporting, so any such independent evaluation is unlikely to come soon.
This is not Berdymukhamedov’s first brush with motoring glory.
Troops from Central Asia, Armenia, and Belarus are conducting military exercises with Russia near the borders of Estonia and Latvia.
The exercises are being held under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Russia-led political-military bloc. It's the CSTO's annual exercise, but this year's location -- in the Pskov region, about 40 kilometers from the Estonian border, and only a little farther to Latvia -- is an intriguing one considering the ongoing tension between Russia and the Eastern European NATO members.
During the drills, the CSTO's rapid reaction forces "will conduct a joint operation to localize an armed conflict with the aim of restoring territorial integrity and defending constitutional order in a simulated CSTO member state, working out tasks for destroying irregular armed formations," the organization said in a statement.
The CSTO also seemed to try to play down the potentially provocative scenario. "The exercise plan is based on a simulated military-political situation, which is not connected to reality but was developed only for working out training issues related to deploying operational contingents of the rapid reaction force to the Eastern European region of collective security," the statement continued.
"We're conducting exercises in the Eastern European region. One of the main goals of the exercises is to get our forces, within literally hours, to arrive in any given region of collective security," added Valeriy Semerikov, the CSTO's deputy secretary general, speaking to reporters.
The highly controversial trial of Azerbaijani investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova adjourned for five days on August 21 after the prosecution demanded a nine-year jail term for the internationally acclaimed freelance reporter on various criminal charges. Media-freedom advocates around the world view the trial as an attempt by Azerbaijan's government to silence yet another prominent critical voice.
Known for her exposés of corruption and nepotism in the tightly run, hydrocarbon-rich Caucasus country, Ismayilova, 39, was initially arrested last year on suspicion of inciting an individual at RFE/RL's now shuttered Baku office to attempt suicide. The alleged victim retracted his accusations, but Ismayilova, RFE/RL's former bureau chief, was kept in pretrial detention with new charges of alleged embezzlement and tax evasion popping up.
RFE/RL's Azerbaijani service reported Ismayilova's mother, Elmira, as saying that her daughter laughed when she learned of the proposed prison term.
With access to the court tightly restricted, details of the proceedings are few. Ismayilova, though, asserted in court that the prosecution had presented inadequate proof for their allegations, and that the judge, supposedly eager to go on vacation, was rushing the case without regard for Ismayilova's rights.
International human rights watchdogs see a bitter irony in that Ismayilova, who reported extensively about abuse of power in Azerbaijan, particularly within the family and administration of President Ilham Aliyev, is now charged with abuse of power herself.
Tajikistan’s war on the wrong clothes looks set to step up a gear as the authorities resolve to crack down on anything they perceive as dangerous, radical Islam.
Asia-Plus website reported that a meeting in Dushanbe on August 19 brought together the mayor, members of parliament, city deputies, police, traders and religious leaders for discussions touching on areas of concern, including the flourishing of radical Islam.
Dushanbe mayor Mahmadsaid Ubaidulloev appealed to meeting participants to help combat “displays of religious extremism and terrorism” and for all city residents to assist in the battle.
To that end, Ubaidulloev issued instructions for government officials to put an end to the import and sale of clothes alien to Tajiks. That is typically code for conservative Islamic clothing worn by women, anything from hijabs to the niqab, which covers almost the entire face.
What those clothes might be was also spelled out by President Emomali Rahmon during a Mother’s Day speech in February.
“Since ancient times our people have had beautiful women’s dresses, our girls have never worn black clothes. Traditionally, black clothes are not welcome,” Rahmon told mothers ahead of Mother’s Day, which has replaced International Women’s Day in Tajikistan and is marked on March 8.
State television tried to spice up that message some days after the speech by airing a report telling of prostitutes who use the veil to enhance their appeal.
Nerves in Kazakhstan over the state of the national currency turned first to alarm, and now to pretty much outright panic.
Yielding to the inevitable, Prime Minister Karim Masimov announced on August in a special video message that the government would switch to a free-float currency exchange. The value of the tenge duly plummeted 26 percent against the dollar and was trading at 255 by the end of the day.
“On July 15 this year, the National Bank took a decision to widen the currency corridor in order to enable a more flexible and floating exchange rate for the tenge,” said Masimov. “But the situation on the global economy continues to worsen. The prices for the main export goods of our country — oil and metals — have continued to fall, which has had a negative effect on the economic growth.”
Masimov said a priority would be placed on shoring up social welfare, but such remarks will do little to stave off immediate reactions to the collapse of the currency.
TengriNews posted pictures online showing closed currency exchange points in Almaty, where traders are understandably concerned at making large losses in such uncertain times. Vedomosti newspaper reported that some are so desperate that they are offloading their tenge to buy Russian rubles, which is itself experiencing major tribulations, although in a more gradual manner than the tenge.
Alarm is spreading as well deepening as Kyrgyzstan’s som felt the shockwaves from its northern neighbor.
An Su-25 aircraft under repair at Tbilaviastroy. Might the company soon be producing new, completely non-Russian versions of the plane? (photo: Delta)
Georgia is developing a version of the Su-25 ground attack aircraft that replaces all the Russian-origin parts with European or Israeli substitutes.
The effort is being undertaken by the state defense company Tbilaviastroy, which under Soviet times was the center of Su-25 production and now carries out repair and renovations of the aircraft.
Hostile relations between Tbilisi and Moscow obviously hamstrung Georgia's work on the Su-25, which relied heavily on Russian-produced parts and subsystems. And the situation got especially bad after the 2008 war between the two countries: "the plant had simply no other way out after approximately 2008, when Moscow imposed a total ban on exports of any products to Georgia of a military or dual use," said Irakli Aladashvili, a reporter for Georgian newspaper Kviris Palitra.
Georgia had tried various routes out of this situation, such as proposing joint production with Azerbaijan and cooperating with Israel. But now, Aladashvili reports, citing company director Nodar Beridze, Tbilaviastroy is going all the way and creating a version of the Su-25 without any Russian parts whatsoever. The new aircraft would be called the Ge-31, or "Bora."
The Bora's fuselage and wings would be manufactured in Georgia, while engines, electronic systems, and so on will be procured in France, Italy, and the UK, according to Beridze. The Su-25 is still a popular aircraft around the world, so it could potentially have a large export market.
Step aside, CNN, and make room, Al Jazeera: an international news network is coming to break the current "monopoly" on news and promote a Turkic point of view.
Media scholars like John Merrill may welcome a diversity of perspectives in the global news flow as a counterbalance to Western news companies and their takes. The caveat is that the latest new channel is a brainchild of four autocracy-prone governments; primarily of Kazakhstan's president-for-life, Nursultan Nazarbayev.
The idea of a pan-Turkic news has been in the can for a while, but on August 18 information ministers signed a memorandum of understanding about the project in the Kazakh capital of Astana.
Kazakh communication officials said that Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkey have reached a conceptual agreement on the network, which will broadcast "Turkic cultural values" in the four countries' languages and English. It is unclear when the channel goes live.
But, already, Ali Hasanov, a senior aide of Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev and the longtime presidential point-man for media matters, has his ideas.
Looking back to this summer’s European Games, he complained that “the great strides” made by his country “are hardly highlighted by some leading global media resources.” Rather, as the country’s star has risen, the “ media attacks based on preconceived, false accusations” only have increased, he claimed, the pro-government Trend news agency reported.
Unlike Russia’s ruble, Kazakhstan’s national currency has for several months managed to hold ground against the dollar, only for it to now slump dramatically and spread alarm of more retreats.
Several commercial banks on August 19 began around mid-morning to offer exchange rates as high as 198 tenge to the dollar, against the 188.5 tenge listed on the National Bank website.
The domestic KASE stock exchange was at same time running trades of 195 tenge to the dollar.
Stubbornly low oil prices appear to have combined with the battering of the Chinese yuan to finally force Kazakhstan’s hand. The apparent decision to allow the tenge to float will gravely dent the credibility of National Bank chairman Kayrat Kelimbetov, who promised as recently as July 15 that the currency would not slip below 190 in the coming quarter. And not speak of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who promised after being re-elected in April that there would be no more sharp devaluations.
Economist Olzhas Hudaybergenov, who heads the Macroeconomic Research Center, wrote on his Facebook page that hopes the currency would resist lay in the hopes that oil prices would stick at around $55-60 mark. The global Brent benchmark slid below $50 last week and shows no immediate signs of rebounding.
“This means the need of a certain section of the business world for a sharp devaluation — it is not important whether it would happen suddenly or over a few days — will be met. I think the next few days will bring us some clarity on this,” he wrote.
Hudaybergenov said that he agreed with supporters of a correction to the tenge, who argue the move will boost competitiveness, save jobs and increase productivity.
Kazakhstan Paramount Engineering's three vehicles slated for production: the Arlan, Nomad, and Barys (from top to bottom) (photo:Kazakhstan Paramount Engineering)
Kazakhstan will start assembling armored vehicles as part of a joint venture with a South African company soon, with a factory scheduled to be constructed in Astana by the end of this year, local media have reported. The vehicles, slated both for local use and for export, are the latest products in Kazakhstan's burgeoning defense industry.
The construction facility, in Astana's Zhana Kala free trade zone, will be completed by the end of this year, according to a report on Kazakhstan's Radio Totchka, citing a Ministry of Defense official. It's not yet known when the first vehicles will be produced, but at the start they will be 30 percent locally sourced, and by 2018 that figure will rise to 50 percent, the report adds.
"The facility will crank out up to 360 vehicles a year beginning in late 2015. Kazakhstan said the plant should meet the bulk of its military-vehicle needs. Plans are for a sizable percentage of the output to be exported," the Astana Times reported earlier this summer.