U.S. officials have long expressed the hope that its web of military transport lines through Central Asia to Afghanistan, the Northern Distribution Network, would eventually spur non-military trade as well. But what they probably didn't have in mind was that it would help in the transit of Afghanistan's most profitable export: opium. Nevertheless, that's what's happening on the newly built, CENTCOM-brokered railroad between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, according to the United Nations. In a report (pdf), "Misuse of Licit Trade for Opiate Trafficking in Western and Central Asia: A Threat Assessment" by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, one of the key findings is that:
The rail network links a number of dry ports in Central Asia and plays a vital role in the region. In recent years, the Central Asian rail network has been extended to Afghanistan. Since this extension, several important heroin seizures have reportedly taken place along the network, suggesting that traffickers are abusing the lack of efficient law enforcement control along it.
(Yes, the report is from October 2012, but I only just came across it.)
That rail extension to Afghanistan, recall, has been a key project of U.S. military logisticians seeking to make the cargo route through Central Asia in and out of Afghanistan much smoother. As the report notes, "The road and railway link from Termez to Hairatan runs along the northern trade route and is part of the Northern Distribution Network." However, most of the recent drug seizures made on Uzbekistan's rail network have been on trains that originated in Tajikistan, rather than in Afghanistan, the report says:
Brandy means big business in Armenia -- it was the country's second-largest export last year, after the less drinkable copper concentrate -- so recent negotiations with the European Union over what to call the libation could have profound implications.
Yerevan and Brussels are currently negotiating the terms of a Free and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA), part of a larger agreement that would help bring Armenia and the EU closer together. As part of the negotiations, Yerevan is asking that the EU allow it to continue marketing its brandy as "cognac," which is the name used to sell the stuff in many parts of the former Soviet Union, which remains the largest market for Armenian brandy. According to European law, the name "cognac" can only be used for brandies that come from the French region of, well, Cognac. Reports the Armenpress website:
“There have certainly been discussions and they still continue. If there is an agreement, we will let you know”, - said the Deputy Minister of Economy [Garegin Melkonya]. Melkonyan stated that all the parts of the negotiations on the Armenia-European Union Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area, which had not been finally agreed, would be passed to the next stage.
The Deputy Minister of Economy of the Republic of Armenia Garegin Melkonyan earlier informed that the word “Cognac” was protected by the European Legislation and was registered as a geographical indication. The Armenian side presented the European partners that cognac in Armenia was perceived as a kind of a product.
Police in authoritarian Uzbekistan’s capital are often accused of taking a hard line on fun. This week they’re living up to the reputation.
Citing the hazard bicycles pose to traffic, Tashkent police have launched a campaign to seize bicycles from residents and fine cyclists, according to the private Novyy Vek newspaper.
Novyy Vek reported on April 23 that cyclists were facing fines while bicycle shops have been advised to close down.
The campaign, which began April 21, is linked to the growing number of traffic accidents involving cyclists, the newspaper quotes a police officer as saying. Uzbekistan registered about 3.3 million traffic violations between January and November 2012, according to Interior Ministry figures, but numbers involving bicycles are not available.
One businessman who rents out bicycles told the newspaper that police had seized bikes from clients who were having a chat on the pavement outside his shop. "Each of them was fined 26,500 sums [about $9 at the black-market rate] for unknown reasons,” he said.
Tashkent authorities banned motorcycles and scooters in 2005 because they were "much more appropriate for [carrying out] an assassination than cars," an Interior Ministry official was quoted as saying at the time.
Once again, Azerbaijan, the region's energy giant, led the pack with diagnoses of chronic cases of intolerance for freedom of expression, corruption in the judiciary system and abuse of detainees by police.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s senior political advisor, Ali Hasanov, did temper his response with elaborations about the importance of Baku's strategic partnership with the US, but he could not help noticing an alleged double-standard in the American criticism.
A country that, as he sees it, had no qualms about folding the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York City is in no position to lecture a country that does not want to allow similarly impromptu demonstrations in the heart of its capital, he implied.
The organizers of a charity marathon in Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent, have cancelled the event, citing unspecified security threats.
On April 22, several organizations that have been linked in the past to the president’s flamboyant daughter, Gulnara Karimova, said in a joint statement, posted on her organization’s website, that the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure would be postponed and replaced with a charity concert on April 27 in support of "those who have suffered” from recent violence in Boston.
The decision was prompted by security concerns in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings last week, the statement explains.
It is common for authorities in Uzbekistan to cite terrorist attacks abroad as a reason for beefing up security at home. That may make sense. But Uzbek authorities often are also accused of exaggerating threats to justify rounding up suspected dissidents and critics, especially practicing Muslims (which, analysts fear, simply drives believers underground and possibly into the arms of radicals).
"The events in Boston have changed the consciousness of many people," the statement from Karimova’s Fund Forum said, adding that over 222,000 people have taken part in her organization’s charity runs and football matches across Uzbekistan this year. The events were expected to culminate in the charity marathon on April 28.
It's unclear if Karimova, who records under the stagename Googoosha, will perform at the charity concert.
Everyone can sigh with relief. Georgia’s justice officials say they are not in league with the devil and have no plans to assist the Antichrist to take over the world.
In a bizarre public-service announcement, Georgia’s Justice Ministry on April 20 announced that new, biometric ID cards for Georgian citizens are not a satanic creation. “The assumption that the new ID card is the seal of the Antichrist and that it contains the sign of the beast is not correct,” explained an earnest young man in a video produced by the ministry.
“Georgia’s Public Registry took upon itself a commitment not to place the number six three times in a row on any of the IDs,” the man elaborated, in reference to the mark, which, according to the Bible's Book of Revelation, will be the mark of a beast which will force worship of another beast. "Nor will it be in the future."
But the assurances have not assuaged widespread suspicions. This January, Georgian Orthodox Church faithful gathered in front of the justice ministry to protest against the cards, which, they claim, will help the devil control Georgia and bring on the Antichrist.
Baialy Turashev remembers vividly how the Chechens got to Kyrgyzstan.
On a spring weekend, like so many of his neighbors, the 75-year-old is weeding his fields outside Tokmok, in northern Kyrgyzstan’s fertile Chui Valley. But he is eager to drive his pitchfork into the ground and talk.
With all the attention this week about how the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings are ethnic Chechens from Kyrgyzstan, I wanted to find out more about their community’s history.
“I was six years old, but I remember everything. It’s impossible to forget. These memories are meant to be taken to the grave.” Despite his horrific tale, Turashev has a warm smile. There is not even a shadow of severity on his face; only broad wrinkles like a map of the old man’s life.
Turashev’s family lived in a village called Uluskert, 50 kilometers from Grozny, the Chechen capital, in southern Russia. High up in the Caucasus mountains, it was cut off from the general population. In the summer of 1943 Soviet troops arrived and started building a road.
“My father said that this was not a good sign,” Turashev recalls. Indeed, it later turned out, the road was being prepared to transport the people out of Uluskert. On February 23, 1944, soldiers armed with machine guns surrounded the village. The commander read a government decree that called for resettlement. The Chechens had run into Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s paranoia. He feared they could collaborate with invading Nazi soldiers.
A Russian unmanned aerial vehicle crashed in western Kazakhstan. The drone measured 12 meters long and appeared to have been launched from the Ashuluk military facility near Astrakhan before crashing in the village of Balkuduk, reports Kazinform:
Representatives of Kazakhstan's Prosecutor's Office, Border Guard and Emergency Situations Ministry attended the crash scene. According to the information provided by them, the drone fell in a deserted place, exploding and breaking into three pieces as a result of falling.
Radiation background in the crash area is normal.
There does not appear to be any word yet from Russia on what the drone was doing over the border in Kazakhstan. But Kazakhstan's authorities have handed over the wreckage to Russia. Kazakhstan seems to not be too alarmed about the incident, unlike the last time a foreign drone allegedly violated its airspace.
Armenian forces take part in CSTO exercises in Armenia in September 2012.
Most of the focus on the Collective Security Treaty Organization has been its Central Asian activities, as Russia has positioned the new political-military bloc as its primary tool for preventing the spread of instability from Afghanistan toward its borders. But as Sergei Minasyan points out in a good piece for Russia in Global Affairs, it is in fact Armenia for whom the CSTO really holds strategic value. As he points out, among CSTO members (which include Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) only Armenia faces a threat of interstate conflict. (One might quibble with that, looking at increasing tensions between Uzbekistan and its neighbors Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, but certainly the threat of serious military conflict is much smaller there than between Azerbaijan and Armenia.) And the collective security requirements of the CSTO effectively make it impossible for Azerbaijan, in the event that it decides to try to take back its breakaway territory of Nagorno Karabakh, to widen the conflict into Armenia. And that would allow Armenia, if Azerbaijan attacks Karabakh, to use the latter's territory for missile strikes against oil and infrastructure facilities while remaining "unpunishable":
As a result, Azerbaijan is in a military and political zugzwang, which effectively prevents a resumption of war. A direct involvement of the CSTO (or even Russia alone) would make the likely outcome of combat operations in Nagorno-Karabakh more than predictable. Starting a war in Karabakh without spreading it to the territory of the Republic of Armenia (so as to provide no reasons for the CSTO mechanisms and bilateral Armenian-Russian obligations taking effect) would contradict military logic and put Baku in disadvantageous military strategic conditions.
Another Russian mobile giant came under attack in Uzbekistan this week.
Uzmetronom, a website that frequently features leaks and opinions from well-placed sources, reports that Beeline subscribers in Uzbekistan have been experiencing "serious difficulties" with the company’s connection over the past couple of days.
That wouldn’t normally be strange, except that last summer another Russian telecoms firm was forcibly shutdown in what looked like a state-orchestrated corporate raid. At the time, authorities accused MTS’s local subsidiary, O’zdunrobita, of violating equipment-usage terms and of tax evasion. When the plug was pulled on July 17, some 9.5 million customers were forced to flee to other carriers.
Now this, from a website believed to have close ties to the Uzbek security services: "[Beeline] telephones are either showing the complete absence of a signal, even in areas where it has always been stable, or the connection is such that it is impossible to comprehend the words of the interlocutor," Uzmetronom reported on April 18.
Uzmetronom says Beeline’s "vaunted" 3G services have stopped working outside Tashkent altogether, while the company is keeping "total silence" about the problems and whatever actions it has taken to solve them. "Beeline seems to understand perfectly that after the liquidation of MTS the people of Uzbekistan practically have no choice.”