The Islamic State has narrowly missed a chance to enlist its most high-profile Tajik recruit to date, according to a sensational report circulating in Tajikistan.
According to TojNews, Turkish authorities have arrested the decorated commander of Tajikistan’s Interior Ministry paramilitary squad (OMON), Gulmurod Halimov, who disappeared last month. Colonel Halimov was travelling on a fake passport with the intention of crossing into Syria, an unnamed Interior Ministry source told TojNews on May 19.
Halimov disappeared on April 23, telling his family he was leaving for a short business trip. His brother told Radio Ozodi that his phone was switched off, but that his personal items, including his passport, were left as if he departed in a hurry. Citing unnamed sources, Dushanbe’s Asia-Plus news agency reported that he flew to Russia on May 1 with ten others and was seen in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport the next day.
The colonel’s disappearance set the Tajik rumor mill into overdrive. A sensational theory emerged: Halimov had joined the Islamic State. A number of Halimov’s colleagues fuelled this speculation, describing how he had developed an unhealthy interest in the terrorist group. Halimov had “become a fanatical follower of the Islamic State and began to spread its propaganda amongst his relatives,” one unnamed friend told Asia Plus.
The closer it gets to the European Union’s May 21-22 summit in Riga, the clearer it becomes that the post-Soviet countries grouped together under the EU’s Eastern Partnership Program will not be making any big steps toward the EU.
Speaking from Brussels with reporters via a video-link, one senior EU official laid out priorities for the summit that likely will prove a disappointment to Georgia. The EU’s biggest fan in the South Caucasus is not going to get the much-touted visa-free arrangement with the EU this time around. Nor is it clear when Georgia, which signed an EU Association Agreement last June, should expect to get it.
Armenia and the EU will be weighing cooperation options that are limited by Armenia’s membership in the Moscow-led EU alternative, the Eurasian Economic Union. The EU official, who declined to be named, said that much of the future economic dealings between the EU and Armenia, will actually be dealings between the EU and the Eurasian Economic Union, rather than with Armenia per se.
Freewheeling Azerbaijan is essentially going to Riga to bargain on energy supplies to Europe. At the summit, EU is like to emphasize the importance of Azerbaijan as an energy partner. Not unpredictably.
Many observers see a slow-down in the EU’s interest in the region, as Russia becomes more aggressive in Ukraine and tries harder to keep the former Soviet area in its sphere of political and economic influence.
Central Asia faces a gloomy economic outlook for the rest of this year and into next, battered by the tanking Russian economy and low commodity prices, according to a regional outlook released by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on May 19. Several countries face double-digit inflation.
“The region has been hit by two major external shocks: the oil price and the slowdown in the Russian economy,” Juha Kahkonen, deputy director of the IMF’s Middle East and Central Asia department, told a briefing in Almaty as the forecast was released.
Growth slowed last year and is set to decrease “much more significantly” this year, he said, before recovering “only slightly” next year.
All the Central Asian states are feeling the pinch of the slump in Russia, “which has close linkages with the region through remittances, trade, and foreign direct investment,” the IMF pointed out.
Energy exporters (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) and importers (Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) alike are suffering: exporters are battling falling revenues from the drop in global oil and gas prices, while importers are feeling what Kahkonen described as “only a very small beneficial impact” from lower prices because of the long-term nature of their energy import contracts in which prices are set.
Falls in prices for other commodities (gold in the case of Kyrgyzstan and aluminum for Tajikistan, for example) are also biting.
Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are also suffering from a drop in labor remittances from Russia, as migrants lose their jobs and the dollar value of remittances falls because of the depreciation of the ruble. This is causing weaker domestic demand in remittance-dependent economies.
Many in Georgia heaved a collective sigh of relief after pro-LGBT rights rallies went without clashes on May 17, the International Day against Homophobia.
Groups of activists assembled in several locations in the capital, Tbilisi, mainly to highlight the European Court of Human Rights’ recent decision to impose penalties on the Georgian state for failing to prevent attacks against participants in an anti-homophobia demonstration in 2012.
One demonstration took place in a small downtown public garden. The rally was heavily guarded by police, with circles of cordons and busloads of police officers at the ready. Another group gathered on Vachnadze Street, where in 2013 police barely managed to rescue several LGBT activists from a de-facto lynch-mob. Still another group gathered in front of the justice ministry calling on it to implement the European Court of Human Rights’ decision.
As NATO officials gathered last week in the Turkish beach city of Antalya, Turkish officials used the occasion to make unusually strong commitments affirming their support of the alliance in its growing conflict with Russia.
Turkey announced that it would head the alliance's new Spearhead Force in 2021. Plans for the Spearhead Force, a rapid reaction unit staffed from NATO member militaries, were drawn up last year explicitly to combat potential Russian attempts to destabilize NATO countries.
In remarks at the meeting, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmed Cavusoglu explicitly criticized Russian policy in the region. AFP reported that Cavusoglu said "Ankara was prepared to play a 'constructive role' in the disputes between Russia and the West over Ukraine. But he said: 'Nothing can justify what Russia has been doing in its neighbourhood.... Ukraine. Crimea. Georgia.'"
And Cavusoglu also called for the next NATO summit in Warsaw in 2016 to accept new members. "We favour NATO expansion. Currently we have four candidate countries – Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia and Georgia. And we would like to see the 2016 Summit aimed at expansion,” he said.
Former Soviet dictator Josef Stalin has been experiencing some ups and downs in Kazakhstan lately. The only full-sized monument to the iron-fisted leader remaining in the Central Asian state – where a quarter of the population died during a famine under his watch – was recently restored, and then quickly taken down.
Blown off his pedestal in a storm last summer, the silvery Stalin was reinstalled by jubilant villagers in Stariy Ikan, near the border with Uzbekistan, earlier this month. It was torn down again on May 15 amid controversy over the glorification of the brutal colonialist dictator.
The villagers “gave their agreement to the removal of the monument,” mayor Abdulla Saydikarimov said in remarks quoted by Bnews.kz. The authorities had said villagers had not obtained the paperwork to erect the statue. But there was plainly far more to Comrade Stalin’s fall than planning permission.
It was no coincidence that the monument – standing five meters high with its pedestal and showing a commanding figure in military greatcoat and cap – was re-erected on May 6 by Stariy Ikan community elders.
That was during the run-up to May 9, the anniversary of the end of World War II, known as the Great Patriotic War in much of the former Soviet Union and celebrated with particular gusto this month, the 70th anniversary of victory.
At the ceremony to re-erect the contentious statue, veteran Babadzhan Nishanbayev waxed lyrical about its symbolism for those who returned from battle. “More than 300 of us went to the front from [Stariy] Ikan, almost all the men of the village. And 58 returned,” he told local news site Otyrar.kz. “Throughout the war, we went onto the attack with the cry ‘For the Motherland! For Stalin!”
A forensic investigation into the January massacre of a six-member family in the northern Armenian city of Gyumri has determined that the victims resisted their killer; allegedly a Russian soldier stationed at the town’s Russian military base. The information, released on May 14 by lawyers for relatives of the murdered Avetisians, has rekindled anger over the bloodshed, which seriously strained Armenia’s strategic partnership with Russia.
Video footage of the crime scene and a physical examination of the bodies suggest that the family’s grandfather, Seryozha Avetisian, grabbed the barrel and bayonet of the assailant’s weapon, lawyer Lusine Sahakian told a Yerevan press-conference. Bruises were found on Avetisian’s body purportedly inflicted by the rifle butt, she added.
Avetisian’s wife, Asmik, “tried to get up from the bed, perhaps she even managed to do that, as her feet were hanging down from the bed,” Sahakian claimed.
The murderer than proceeded to another room, where he shot dead the couple’s son, Armen, and his toddler-daughter, Asmik. Contrary to initial official claims, Armen was found dead on the floor next to his bed.
He then stabbed to death Armen’s wife, Araksia Pogosian, and baby-son, Seryozha, who later succumbed to his injuries in a hospital. “Araksia Pogosian tried to protect little Seryozha with her body,” claimed Sahakian. “She has a wound on her hand, which was most likely inflicted when she was trying to protect the child from a knife.”
The harrowing details have rekindled popular outrage against both Russia’s 102nd military base in Gyumri and at the Armenian authorities, who could not place the suspect in an Armenian jail. Permyakov, who has confessed to the killings, remains in Russian custody.
A Tajik conscript in GBAO guards the border with Afghanistan.
Tajikistan has banned foreigners from visiting its vast mountainous Badakhshan Province, the country’s main draw for tourists and the scene of fighting between locals and government forces in 2012 and 2014, Asia-Plus reports.
The government claims it has stopped issuing permits to foreigners to visit the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) due to fighting across the border in Afghanistan. The ban is a temporary measure done for the safety of tourists, said Rizo Nazarzoda of the Committee on Youth, Sports and Tourism.
Fighting has intensified in northern Afghanistan in recent months, but some analysts question the Tajik government’s claim that it poses an imminent threat to the Central Asian country. Indeed, some feel it offers cover for the government to crack down on Islamic worship and hype the threat of radicalism.
Dushanbe has tenuous control over GBAO, which comprises approximately 45 percent of Tajikistan’s territory but 3 percent of its population. The region is home to a disaffected ethnic and cultural minority that has been largely ignored by the government in the far-off capital. GBAO is also a hive of drug smuggling, which seems to have played a role in the recent violence.
Mikheil Saakashvili, the former Georgian president-turned Ukrainian government adviser, says that he has gotten maverick US Senator John McCain and former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt to join his A-Team of political troubleshooters.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has reportedly approved the inclusion of McCain and Bildt in the International Advisory Group, a council led by former Georgian President that is supposed to provide guidance to the Ukrainian government.
Both the Ukrainian leader and Saakashvili may have jumped the gun with the announcement: McCain has indicated he has not made a final decision on whether to join.
To hear the Arizona Republican tell it, he expressed only general interest in the offer, but Poroshenko went ahead to appoint him before McCain had a chance to clear the proposal with the Senate, the website Buzzfeed reported. “Of course I would love [to] do anything to help Ukraine, but I’ve got to make sure it’s ok under senate rules,” McCain told Buzzfeed.
The former Swedish prime minister said he was honored by the invitation to join Team Saakashvili.
McCain and Bildt are well-known Saakashvili backers, as well as prominent supporters of both Georgia and Ukraine in their conflicts with Russia. McCain famously said “today we are all Georgians” during the 2008 Georgian-Russian war.
Update, May 26: According to Kazakhstan's Agriculture Ministry, the number of confirmed saiga deaths now exceeds 85,000.
Over a thousand saiga antelopes have been found dead in northern Kazakhstan. Conservationists had been hoping that populations of this rare steppe-roaming ruminant were recovering.
The corpses have been found in Kostanay Region in northern Kazakhstan, the Ministry of Agriculture said in a May 13 statement that did not specify the precise figure.
The cause of death is unknown. Experts are running tests on the dead animals and on the surrounding soil and water, with the results expected in a week, the ministry said.
Last time there was a case of mass saiga deaths in this region, in 2012, the cause was established as pasteurellosis, a disease that attacks the lungs and which killed nearly 12,000 saigas – a species listed as Critically Endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List – in an epidemic in 2010.
The latest deaths have occurred just as conservationists have been reporting something of a success story in the saiga population's recovery. The distinctive creature has a long, humped nose that allows it to filter air during the dusty summer months and breathe warm air during the freezing winters.