Since the Soviet Union’s implosion in 1991, foreign states and international non-governmental organizations have tended to view the South Caucasus states of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia as nations in transition. But now, a leading expert on the Caucasus says the time has come to put this notion to rest.
“They’ve arrived at a state model,” Tom de Waal, a senior associate in the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said during a recent discussion forum in New York, sponsored by the Open Society Foundations.. [Editor’s Note: EurasiaNet operates under the Open Society Foundation’s auspices].
To varying degrees all three states feature elements of a “one-party” system, de Waal said. Georgia’s system is the most open in the Caucasus; although President Mikheil Saakashvili’s administration maintains a commanding political position, there is room for government critics to operate. At the other end of the spectrum stands Azerbaijan, where the authoritarian tendencies exhibited by President Ilham Aliyev’s administration are starting to approach the level of nastiness seen in Central Asia. Armenia falls somewhere in between Georgia and Azerbaijan on the domineering-government scale, de Waal said.
Since a transition paradigm no longer applies to the Caucasus, foreign donors should tweak the way they approach assistance projects, de Waal suggested. For one, donors and NGOs should recalibrate expectations and perhaps concentrate resources. It might be better to fund one university, for example, that to promote a broad educational reform project. De Wall also urged foreign governments to mount more vigorous election monitoring efforts, and offer more forceful criticism of shortcomings.
Kazakhstan's work to get rid of the nuclear weapons that it inherited after the fall of the Soviet Union is a well told story -- primarily by Kazakhs themselves, who rarely miss an opportunity to tout their nonproliferation record. But a new, apparently previously untold episode in that story has now come to light, via one of its protagonists, former Bush administration nonproliferation official William Tobey, writing in Foreign Policy magazine. In the early 1990s, the U.S. helped Kazakhstan seal off a series of underground tunnels at Semipalatinsk that had been used for Soviet nuclear testing. But a decade later, it required some touchup work, Tobey writes:
The extreme weather conditions and the passage of time eventually cracked and eroded the material sealing the testing tunnels. By 2004, scavengers looking for scrap metal to sell had broken into some of them. Reports of the looting alarmed U.S. officials, who feared that fissile material could be at risk. The U.S. government encouraged and aided the Kazakh government to improve security at the site until more permanent measures could be implemented. Astana declared an exclusion zone, where a ban on trespassing was strictly enforced, and mounted patrols to guard the tunnels and the surrounding area.
Then, in a mission Tobey calls "formerly secret" and which just finished this year, the U.S., Russia and Kazakhstan cooperated to fill in the tunnels more thoroughly:
They decided to fill the test chambers with a specialized grout, which bonds chemically with fissile material to render it useless for weaponization. In some tunnels, it would be necessary to mine horizontally to reach the test chamber where the nuclear experiments took place.
Tobey details some of the U.S. assistance given to the project:
Looks like Azerbaijan has moved from censoring news to censoring fiction. A May 1 prohibition on broadcasts of foreign TV series and films has put the kibosh on everything from Latin American tearjerker epics to HBO dramas.
Non-complying stations may face sanctions from the broadcasting regulator. Most of the television channels immediately yanked foreign series from their programming, however. That meant that many soap opera fans were forced to go cold turkey in the middle of the television season.
“I’ve been going through all the twists and turns together with the [series] characters. I feel that the characters are like members of my family,” sighed one Azerbaijani homemaker in her comments to Mir24 TV. “I think that without the television series, my life will become empty and boring.”
Like thousands of other viewers, she might have to opt for a satellite dish or cable. Or just head to Baku.
A strike at a mine in central Kazakhstan, where workers had been staging a sit-in since May 4, has ended with copper giant Kazakhmys offering workers a pay increase.
“The labor dispute at the Annenskiy mine is settled,” Kazakhmys spokesman Maksut Zhapabayev told EurasiaNet.org by telephone on May 7. He said normal operations had resumed at the mine.
Approximately 80 copper miners at Annenskiy, near Zhezkazgan, refused to surface from the mine after their shift finished on May 4, Reuters reported. Later, over 200 staff from the nearby Yuzhniy and Vostochniy mines descended into Annenskiy to join them. The strikers remained underground until the dispute was resolved on May 6.
No doubt conscious of how a protracted labor dispute in the western town of Zhanaozen spiraled out of control late last year, Kazakhmys moved to defuse the strike. It pledged that “no sanctions would be taken against workers in the event that they adopt a constructive approach to the labor dispute," Reuters quoted a company statement as saying.
Average salaries at London-listed Kazakhmys are 240,000 tenge (approximately $1,600), a company source told Reuters. That figure is far above the national average of 92,000 tenge (around $600).
TeliaSonera's is a familiar logo in Central Asia and the Caucasus
Traveling to the Eurovision Song Contest in Baku this month? You might think twice before picking up an Azercell SIM card for your mobile phone, even though the company is one of the event's main sponsors.
An investigation by the Swedish public broadcaster, Sveriges Television (SVT), last month alleges that TeliaSonera, the Swedish-Finnish telecommunications giant, is helping authoritarian regimes in the former Soviet Union spy on their own citizens, making the company complicit in human rights abuses.
TeliaSonera has given dictatorships like Azerbaijan, Belarus and Uzbekistan – which rank among the world's worst human rights abusers – access to its systems in exchange for lucrative contracts, says the hour-long report, which aired on April 17 and is available online with English-language subtitles.
A former executive from the company said on condition of anonymity that TeliaSonera – which is 37 percent owned by the Swedish government – has granted security services in these countries real-time access to all telephone calls, data and text messages, which has facilitated the arrest of opposition members in Belarus and a savage attack on an Azerbaijani journalist.
In Azerbaijan, the security agency even has an office of its own in the Azercell building, said the report. TeliaSonera operates Azercell in Azerbaijan, Geocell in Georgia, Kcell in Kazakhstan, Tcell in Tajikistan and Ucell in Uzbekistan, among others. It also holds a major stake in Turkey's Turkcell.
“If there was a glitch [with monitoring calls], the security agency called. They’d want us to shut down the network until the problem was solved,” the former TeliaSonera executive said of his experience dealing with the Belarusian KGB.
The Interstate Corporation of Development's booth at KADEX 2012
Perhaps the most intriguing exhibit at Kazakhstan's KADEX defense expo was a sleek, modern booth showing off several mockup drones in front of a backdrop advertising the "Business Council of the International Commission for Military-Economic Cooperation of the Collective Security Treaty Organization."
The CSTO, the political-military alliance? Was selling drones? Well, sort of. I inquired further and discovered that the booth actually belonged to a new company (established at the end of last year), the Interstate Corporation for Development. The company's aim is “Development of Scientific-Industrial and High-Tech Cooperation in the CSTO Countries,” according to its website, and its CEO is Ivan Polyakov, also a senior official in the CSTO. The company was formed from two Russian defense firms as well as one in Tokmok, Kyrgyzstan, Ak-Maral, and the company is also looking to expand into Armenia and even non-CSTO member Ukraine, company spokesman Sergey Demensky told me.
He didn't mince words: "Our aim is to recreate the traditional links and cooperation that existed in the Soviet era," he said. To this end, the company is now marketing military communications equipment, as well as the drones they were showcasing. As is often the case with the CSTO, the details behind this ambitious goal were hard to come by. Why did the CSTO need its own defense manufacturing? Kazakhstan is setting up its own drone manufacturing with Israeli companies, and is building its own communications equipment with French firm Thales. (Demensky suggested that his company was competing with Thales, and complained that the "French lobby" was exerting undue influence in Astana.)
Kazakhstan's defense industry will soon be manufacturing helicopters, night vision equipment, 1,000-ton warships, armored personnel carriers and drones – all with the help of foreign companies.
Kazakhstan's market for military equipment is still small, but it's growing, and foreign defense contractors want a share of the business. But the government of Kazakhstan is imposing the same condition on nearly every deal it makes with a foreign defense company: they have to set up manufacturing in Kazakhstan, hand over the technical details of the equipment, and train locals to build and repair it themselves.
At the KADEX defense expo in Astana two years ago, several of the foreign defense contractors who exhibited said they weren't enthusiastic about the requirements to cooperate with local partners.
“The Ministry of Defense is providing the same message to all companies: 'You must be here, you must be a local company. We want your technology to create new opportunities for this country.' And I think this makes sense,” one foreign exhibitor at the show said then. “But the question is going from the theory to the practice, because these guys are very far right now from being able to absorb these kinds of technologies – right now. But this is the direction.” A South Korean defense contractor who was setting up a joint venture ammunition factory in Almaty added: “There is some different thinking – we want to sell, they want us to invest.”
Police in Vakhdat, Tajikistan, detained Tagoibek Sharifbekov last month, suspecting he’d stolen a cell phone. They were eager for a confession, Amnesty International reports: “Allegedly, electric shocks were applied to his fingers, and his head was submerged into a sink filled with water for two hours, with breaks so he did not suffocate, and he was kicked in the chest.”
Reportedly, in the evening that day Tagoibek Sharifbekov was released, but his two passports were confiscated, and he was told to bring 1,700 somoni (350 USD) to the police station the following day. The victim of the theft allegedly told police that Tagoibek Sharifbekov was not guilty. A medical examination carried out on Tagoibek Sharifbekov on 10 April concluded that his injuries could have been caused by a hard, blunt object and that bruises and abrasions may have been caused by electric shocks.
Sharifbekov’s case is not unique; Tajik police are well known for employing torture to extract confessions. (Last year they claimed one detainee died from beating his own head against his cell wall; another, police claim, jumped to his death from his second-floor holding cell.)
Sharifbekov is unique because he’s spoken out, though authorities appear to have no intention of examining his allegations, instead pressuring him to drop calls for an investigation and telling him he could have hit his head climbing into a minibus. He’s also brave.
Estonia formally opened an Embassy on May 4 in Kazakhstan. The move could have interesting diplomatic implications for Central Asia.
Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet was in Astana to attend the opening. The Embassy will offer EU consular services, including issuing Schengen visas, to citizens of all five Central Asian states.
Having itself spent roughly a half century under the Soviet yoke, Estonia can serve as an example for the Central Asian states, which also endured Communist subjugation. Estonian diplomats are perhaps better positioned than those from any other foreign mission in the region to try and goad Central Asian leaders into taking a step back from authoritarianism.
Global watchdogs give Estonia high marks for creating a corruption-free, business-friendly society. Central Asia, on the other hand, has devolved into a cesspool of graft and cronyism. Estonian diplomats can now make a credible argument directly to their Central Asian counterparts: ‘if we can overcome the debilitating Soviet legacies of corruption and one-party political patronage, so can you.’
At the opening, Paet seemed to hint that Estonian diplomats in Astana will strive to be forceful advocates of liberalism. "The opening of the embassy in the center of Astana is symbolic, since all the important facilities are located exactly in the center of all capitals. Our embassy is located on the left bank, being built opposite the new Opera House in Astana,” the Trend news agency quoted the Estonian Foreign Minister as saying.
Farmers in Azerbaijan’s western Dashkesan region apparently must make space when the president’s daughters come digging for gold. Area residents, many of them displaced by the Nagorno-Karabakh war, are finding their livelihoods threatened by an expanding gold-mining operation linked to President Ilham Aliyev's family, reports an investigative piece co-authored by RFE/RL and EurasiaNet.org reporter Khadija Ismayilova.
The residents blamed a British company for taking over their lands at bargain-basement prices and choking off access to irrigation water, but the report, produced by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project and RFE/RL, found that the farmers actually have Azerbaijan’s own “first daughters,” Leyla and Arzu Aliyeva (also known for their telecom ties), to blame, via their executive positions at three of the companies working on the mine.
The presidential family’s gold business was cloaked in a web of shell companies and front operations, which took some painstaking reporting to unravel. President Aliyev's office declined to elaborate about the connection, while presidential spokesperson Azer Gasimov pretty much vanished.
Few Azerbaijani journalists would dare to peek into Aliyev family matters. Ismayilova recently has become the target of a smear campaign that used the online publication of a video of her intimate life in an attempt to shame her into stopping her reporting.