The presidents of Azerbaijan and Armenia, and senior diplomats from the U.S., Russia, and France, meet in Vienna. (photo: U.S. State Department)
Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed to strengthen the international monitoring of the front lines between their armed forces, a potentially significant step that could make it possible to identify the causes of the increasingly frequent flareups in violence between the two sides.
The agreement emerged from a meeting between the presidents of the two countries in Vienna on Monday night brokered by the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe and the United States, Russia, and France. The high-level involvement in the conflict follows what has come to be known as the "four-day war" in early April, the worst violence since the two sides signed a ceasefire agreement in 1994.
An OSCE statement after the meeting between Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan and his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev reported that the two sides "agreed to finalize in the shortest possible time an OSCE investigative mechanism. The Presidents also agreed to the expansion of the existing Office of the Personal Representative of the OSCE Chairperson in Office."
The paucity of resources of the current monitoring regime, with only six monitors covering a long, remote, line of contact, has made it nearly impossible to determine what is behind a ceasefire violation. And while the OSCE statement is vague, expanding the OSCE monitoring office and creating an "investigative mechanism" could ameliorate some of those problems.
The value of Uzbekistan’s national currency spiked sharply over the weekend in a development that some have linked to the unfolding corruption scandal involving GM Uzbekistan.
Traders on the black market in the capital, Tashkent, were buying dollars for around 5,500 sum on May 15, up from around 6,400 sum in the days before. They were selling dollars for around 6,000 sum. Rates in the capital typically set the pattern for the rest of the country.
The sudden change in fortunes of the sum has come as something of a shock to small and medium-scale businesses.
Umid, a market trader who rents a small stall from which he sells ice-cream, drinks and fast food snacks, said that he pays $400 in rent every month.
“For me it’s good when the exchange rate is low, since I have to spend much less on buying dollars. The question I have is: How long is this going to last?” Umid told EurasiaNet.org.
Firuze sells clothes imported from Turkey at her stall at the Ippodrom wares market. With the dollar rate dropping, Firuze said she had decided to close up shop for a while.
“The drop in the exchange rate is profitable to those that earn their money in sum, but those who make their money in dollars don’t see any benefit,” she said.
The speculation in Tashkent markets is that the sudden change in the fortunes of the national currency is somehow related to an ongoing corruption scandal involving senior management at carmaker GM Uzbekistan — a joint venture between Uzbekistan’s UzAvtosanoat (75 percent) and US giant General Motors (25 percent).
Prior to the scandal, GM sold some of its cars in dollars, which drove up local demand for the US currency. Now, however, payment is made in sum, which has led naturally to a fall in the desirability of the dollar.
Deputies in Kyrgyzstan’s parliament have proposed legislation that would ban foreigners from setting up media outlets and restrict the proportion of non-local funding for news organizations to 20 percent.
The backers of the bill — a group of MPs led by Kojobek Ryspayev and Iskender Matraimov, both of the ruling Social Democratic Party (SDPK) — say the legislation is aimed at bolstering what they term “information security.” In the current climate, that language is a clear allusion to what jittery authorities fear is the potential for independent media to provide the kind of aggressive reporting that could fuel protest moods.
The proposed legislation was published online on May 12 for further public scrutiny and discussion. Sponsors of the bill have preventatively sought to dispel possible criticism by pointing out that it has been drafted in accordance with international practice. Examples offered are Russia and Kazakhstan, where foreign participation in media outlets is restricted to 50 percent and 20 percent, respectively. Both countries place toward the bottom of the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Press Freedom Index, with Russia in 148th position and Kazakhstan coming in at 160th.
The MPs note also somewhat disingenuously and inaccurately draws parallels with legislation in the United States, Australia and France, although media ownership regulations there are not quite as simple as a limitation of 20 percent to 30 percent in foreign ownership, as claimed.
Police in Kyrgyzstan “arrested” a red piano found standing outside main post office in the capital on May 16, local media reported, sparking widespread ridicule in the process.
Officers of the law confirmed the detention took place, with one spokesman citing security concerns in an interview with local outlet Kloop.kg.
"We were called on the 102 [number] and told unknown persons had abandoned the piano. We had to cordon off the area to ensure public order and the safety of residents and guests in the capital. We conducted search operations and found no explosives," said spokesman Olzhobay Kazybayev of the suspicious object in the center of the city.
As underwhelming bomb scares go, this is matched only by an incident in Britain over the weekend, when police evacuated Manchester United’s Old Trafford stadium after detecting a fake explosive device that was left behind in a security exercise last week.
This jittery behavior should hardly come as a surprise. Kyrgyzstan’s government has appear more nervous than usual in recent months, and pianos do have previous.
They were seen seen surrounded by demonstrators in full voice during both the Gezi Park protests that rocked Turkey in 2013 and Ukraine’s EuroMaidan uprising the following year, for instance.
But on this occasion the offending object seems to have been a gift to the public from a nominally socialist party in the coalition government, Ata-Meken.
“We gave it as a present, so that anybody who wanted could play on the instrument. It was the idea of our youth wing,” a party representative Kairgul Urumkanova told24.kg.
Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey have reiterated their intention to expand military cooperation, including holding joint military exercises aimed at protecting oil and gas pipelines. But the promises of further cooperation belie the stalled development of this would-be military bloc on Russia's southern flank.
The defense ministers of the three countries met Sunday in Gabala, Azerbaijan, and afterwards they announced a variety of cooperation measures including joint military exercises, cooperation on cyber security, and "further improvement of trilateral exercises on the protection of oil and gas pipelines," in the words of Azerbaijan Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov. While some of this already has been going on, Hasanov added that the three sides are preparing a memorandum to "to enter a new stage" of the cooperation. Hasanov's Georgian counterpart, Tinatin Khidasheli, said Georgia would host the new joint exercises next year.
This nascent alliance was formalized in 2012, but of course much has changed in the region since then, like Russia's growing assertiveness and the collapse of Russia-Turkey relations. So it now includes one country that is a longtime Russian enemy (Georgia), another new but fervent enemy (Turkey) and one country strenuously keeping its options open (Azerbaijan).
A partly Russian-owned television station controlled by Kazakhstan’s government has waded into controversy once again with an inept and widely mocked attempt at an exposé on the recent land protests.
In a report aired over the weekend, First Channel Eurasia broadcast brief footage showing what they claimed were organizers of the demonstrations being paid sums of up to $150 by unnamed parties. No faces can be seen or voices heard in the footage, which is filmed in a way that is intended to suggest the images have been captured with a mobile phone.
Reprising a theme that his employers have been supporting since the height of the land protests, one of the First Channel Eurasia expresses indignation at the currency being used.
“And that is how they are selling us off. And please note that they are not even doing this with Kazakhstani tenge, the national currency, but in dollars. You understand who is behind this?” the anchor asks rhetorically in a less-than-subtle suggestion that the United States has for some reason fomented the recent political turbulence.
First Channel Eurasia, which has been on the air since 1997, is jointly owned by Kazakhstan state television channel and Russia’s government-run First Channel, which holds a 20 percent stake. The combination of inflammatory accusations and shoddily produced would-be evidence presented by the broadcaster indeed betrays many similar features with now-regular smear attacks by Russian state on Western governments and opposition figures.
The exposé has drawn a barrage of exasperated ridicule.
In the wake of fresh arrests in Kyrgyzstan of would-be coup plotters, President Almazbek Atambayev indulged in another surreal tirade on May 15 against opposition politicians and nongovernmental groups.
The remarks came three days after the arrest of several prominent government critics — former Agriculture Minister Bekbolot Talgarbekov, ex-Finance Minister Marat Sultanov, one-time presidential candidate Torobay Kolubayev — on charges of plotting to seize power. Evidence provided by the authorities for the supposed coup scheme dreamed up by Talgarbekov, Sultanov and Kolubayev consists so far of a recorded conversation that left many skeptical. In a separate case, inveterate troublemaker and businessman Nurlan Motuyev is in hot water over his repeated and downright bizarre praise for the Islamic State group.
But Atambayev is in no mood to wait for due process and quoted eccentrically at an event at his presidential residence from a well-known poem, Quartet by early 19th century Russian writer Ivan Krylov, to deride the jailed foursome. The brief satirical poem tells the story of a group of animals — a monkey, a donkey, a goat and a bear — who try in vain to form a musical ensemble, much to the mockery of a nightingale.
“You, my friends, no matter what your positions, will never be musicians,” Atambayev noted gleefully, quoting the nightingale.
The caustic irreverence sounds an odd note against what the government has sought to cast as the mounting specter of potentially violent sedition. Another three opposition figures from an unrelated faction were arrested in March on the basis of similar accusations of plotting the “violent overthrow of power.”
Ongoing NATO war games in Georgia have elicited not just fears of a vindictive reaction from Russia, but also a healthy dose of homegrown sexism.
“You can’t give a woman a gun or let her make decisions,” proclaimed parliamentarian Tamaz Mechiauri, chairperson of the budget and finance committee, and a member of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition.
He was referring to one particular woman, who packs more guns than anybody else in Georgia, 42-year-old Defense Minister Tina Khidasheli.
Khidasheli is the main host of the May 11-25 US-UK-Georgia drills, marked by columns of US tanks shipped by sea and paratroopers raining down from the sky. Moscow, as always, is warily watching this Western military show close to its borders; essentially a gunshot away from Russian military bases in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Mechiauri is worried that Russia is worried. Following an angry statement by the Kremlin, Mechiauri, 61, came out to say on the eve of the drills that they spell danger for Georgia and the country should keep the Alliance at arm’s length lest it incur Moscow’s wrath.
He called for firing Khidasheli because a) she will get Georgia into trouble and; b) defense ain’t a woman’s job. “This country is a not a toy. You can’t have her drag tanks in and out,” he fumed, proposing that Khidasheli play computer war games instead.
It has been an open secret for months that Tajikistan’s No. 2 bank is completely broke, but the lender has finally come out into the open with a plea for international assistance.
bne Intellinews reported on May 11 that Tojiksodirotbank this week discussed a possible cash injection with officials from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in exchange for a 50 percent equity stake.
Tojiksodirotbank chairman Pirzoda Tojidin told the financial news website that he had already met with EBRD top brass and agreed on an assistance program.
"We have another meeting with them [on May 12], but it remains to be seen if we can meet the EBRD's conditions,” Tojidin told bne Intellinews.
This marks the first time Tojiksodirotbank has admitted to its severe liquidity problems, which has been no mystery to anybody unlucky enough to have their savings in the bank.
The lender tried in vain to downplay insistent media reports about its difficulties in March, when it issued a statement attributing interruptions in its services to a switchover in its money-processing system.
“Short-term disruptions in the functioning of bank cards are possible. We apologize for the inconvenience,” the statement said.
Countless deposit-holders at Tojiksodirotbank remain unable to get their cash to this day, however.
Negotiations with EBRD to facilitate some kind of rescue package have been in the works for some months.
After two years of tortuous debates in parliament, civil society in Kyrgyzstan has cause for celebration.
A contentious bill, modeled on a similar piece of legislation in Russia, that would in an earlier form have seen internationally funded nongovernment group designated as “foreign agents” was rejected by Kyrgyz deputies on May 12.
Out of the 111 members of parliament present, 65 voted against the bill, which was undergoing its third and final reading.
The legislation was first presented in 2014 by Tursunbai Bakir Uulu and Nurkamil Madaliev, two deputies that have since left parliament, and has proceeded in fits and starts ever since.
In the days preceding parliament’s final decision on the bill, rights groups mounted a lively campaign of opposition. On May 11, around a dozen activists rallied in front of parliament, urging deputies to reject the bill.
Tolekan Ismailova, head of the Bir Duino human rights organization, which gathers information on cases of torture and corruption, said at the protest that the bill was “discriminatory and inhumane”.
“A group of MPs started promoting this bill and we could see that the hand of the Kremlin was behind this,” Ismailova told Kloop.kg. “The discrimination concerns those NGOs that monitor corruption and the activities of parliament.”
But on May 12, some deputies came out in their strongest opposition yet to the legislation. Janar Akayev, a member of the ruling Social Democratic Party (SDPK), suggested the bill would dent Kyrgyzstan’s democratic credentials.