Despite the recent bleak assessments made by certain analysts, Turkey and Israel -- with intense American help -- have managed to pull off an early spring surprise and set in motion a process to restore their currently frayed relations and end a three-year drama that ultimately served nobody's interests.
Earlier today, towards the end of American President Barack Obama's three-day visit to Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu telephoned his Turkish counterpart and issued an apology for the deaths that took place due to "operational mistakes" when Israeli forces raid the Turkish Mavi Marmara Gaza aid ship some three years ago. In joint statements released by the two prime ministers' offices, the two countries said they are working out on an agreement for compensation/non-liability and will work together on improving the humanitarian situation in the "Palestinian territories." With this formula, it would appear that Israel has satisfied Turkey's demands for normalizing their relations.
The history of the Caucasus has long been dominated by three surrounding powers: Turkey,Russia, and Iran. And while Europe and the U.S. have become part of the equation in recent years, the region is still likely to be subject to the influences of its big neighbors to the west, north, and south. And so a big project by the Washington think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies on "The Turkey, Russia, Iran Nexus" is particularly interesting for observers of the Caucasus. CSIS has just released a report (pdf) examining how the various bilateral relationships (i.e. Turkey-Russia, Russia-Iran, Turkey-Iran) interact in political, economic and other ways. The report notes that Russia is not as worried about Iranian influence in the Caucasus as it is about Turkey:
Moscow is not enthusiastic about any state increasing its influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus, be it Turkey, Iran, China, the United States, or whomever. As then-President Dmitri Medvedev stated in September 2008 just after the five-day Georgia War, Russia regards the post-Soviet states as its “zone of privileged interests.” Having noted that, Iran’s presence and activities in Central Asia have been viewed as very much aligned with those of Moscow while Turkey’s as neither significant nor malign enough to draw too much attention.
He may be the sole inmate of an island prison in the Sea of Marmara, but Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), still knows how to command the headlines. Thursday, as Kurds celebrated the spring holiday of nevruz -- in years past an occasion for often violent protests -- Ocalan made what could turn out to be a game-changing call for the fighters of the PKK to cease fire and withdraw from Turkish soil.
Hundreds of thousands of Kurds, gathered in the regional center of Diyarbakir, cheered and waved banners bearing Ocalan's mustachioed image when a letter from the rebel leader, held since 1999 on a prison island in the Marmara Sea, was read out by a pro-Kurdish politician.
"Let guns be silenced and politics dominate," he said to a sea of red-yellow-green Kurdish flags. "The stage has been reached where our armed forces should withdraw beyond the borders ... It's not the end. It's the start of a new era."
Ocalan's call for a ceasefire, which had been expected for some weeks now, gives a major boost to the ongoing "peace talks" between Turkey and the Kurds and represents a major turnaround in how both sides had been dealing with each other. Up until a few years ago, it was common for Turkish courts to charge Kurdish politicians with the crime of referring to the jailed PKK leader as "the honorable Mr Ocalan." On the other hand, until fairly recently, many Kurdish leaders in Turkey had written off the government led by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), considering it and its leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as having been cut from the same Kurdish-identity denying nationalist cloth as previous Turkish governments.
Uzbekistan has begun drilling for shale oil at the Sangruntau deposit in northern Navoi Region, an unnamed government official told the Novyy Vek newspaper on March 20.
Business New Europe reported in February that the $600-million project, the first attempt to develop shale oil in Central Asia, would compensate for falling oil production in Uzbekistan and reduce its reliance on imports from Kazakhstan. Officials are tightlipped about who’s paying for all this, but Novyy Vek said financing came partially from “foreign loans.”
The project will provide up to 8 million metric tons of shale oil and up to 1 million metric tons of oil products a year, Novyy Vek reported, adding that Uzbekistan's shale oil reserves are estimated at 47 billion metric tons.
According to the 2012 BP Statistical Review of World Energy, Uzbekistan's oil production fell from 7.2 million metric tons in 2001 to 3.2 million in 2011, while consumption decreased from 6.7 million metric tons to 4.4 million over the same period.
Georgia's political culture may have just hit puberty. After ferocious debating over constitutional amendment meant to cut presidential powers, the measure passed on March 21 in a unanimous first-run vote.
The final vote is scheduled for Monday, but the drama-filled initial hearing promises to be the true grand finale of the constitutional epic. The second-stage vote occurred on Friday without incident.
The amendment will divest President Mikheil Saakashvili of the right to dismiss Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s cabinet and appoint a new government without parliamentary approval.
Saakashvili has maintained repeatedly that he has no interest in using the amendment, but the fact that the power will not vanish at the whim of a single political party or person, but by the will of two opposing political forces, is almost as momentous to many Georgians as the planned constitutional change itself.
Still a novel concept in Georgia's polarized politics, the compromise came after hours of debate in parliament and many calls to the president’s and the prime minister’s houses. The voting was preceded by a long and trying ping-pong of petty exchanges between the president and prime minister.
President Saakashvili insisted that he had no intention to sabotage the prime minister, to whom he conceded the choice of cabinet members after last year’s parliamentary vote, but Ivanishvili needed more than just the president's word for peace of mind. The variety of requests Saakashvili put forth in exchange for his United National Movement Party’s consent to the amendment included immunity from prosecution for former mid-level government officials.
Nothing irritates Tashkent more than neighboring countries' plans to build hydropower dams upstream. But rather than making the usual effort to thwart those plans with blockades and talk of “war,” a senior Uzbek official has offered some constructive advice.
Uzbekistan’s Deputy Water and Agriculture Minister Shavkat Khamraev told UN Radio this week that the only way to solve arguments about Central Asia’s unevenly distributed water resources is to construct small hydropower stations instead of giant dams, like the ones upstream Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan hope to build on the tributaries of the region's main rivers – the Amu Darya and Syr Darya.
Speaking of Tajikistan and the Amu Darya in particular, he said in a March 19 interview, "Let them build. We are also building small hydropower stations that do not alter the water and environmental pattern of this river and its basin.”
Khamraev is in New York to attend a March 22 meeting on water cooperation at UN headquarters. A Tajik delegation is also expected to attend.
The two countries are at loggerheads over Dushanbe’s plans to build what would be the world's tallest dam, Rogun. Dushanbe pins great hopes on the 335-meter dam, believing it will ensure energy security for the country, which now depends heavily on its neighbors.
Tashkent, however, says Rogun will hurt its agricultural sector and poses unnecessary risks in a seismically active region. Last fall, President Islam Karimov said projects like Rogun could “spark not simply serious confrontation but even wars.”
For those out there who think that Mongolian barbecue equals collecting ingredients from a buffet and then handing them over to a spatula-wielding chef standing at an oversized circular griddle, the wonderful Roads & Kingdoms has some news. The real Mongolian barbecue is actually bodog, a dish that involves slow-cooking mutton inside its own carcass. From the R&K report, written by Brett Forrest:
Upon landing in Ulaanbaatar, I wasn’t surprised to learn that Mongolian barbecue is not Mongolian at all. Genghis Khan didn’t feed his army on stir fry. Research tells me that a Taiwanese man formulated Mongolian barbecue some years ago, and I think I know why he chose the name that he did. When you use Mongolia as an adjective, it intensifies any noun beside which you place it. Warrior: Mongolian warrior. Vodka: Mongolian vodka. Girlfriend: Mongolian girlfriend. Taiwanese barbecue? Hardly worth a taste.
In the way of intensity, Mongolia doesn’t disappoint. The country is double the size of Turkey, yet there are only two highways, making transport a frontiersman’s undertaking. Temperatures bottomed out at minus -42 degrees when I was there, yet many Mongolians are content to live in circular enclosures made of fabric. These people ambulate nomadically around the country along some of the remotest land in the world, their camps set against lonely winter tableaux, not a soul in sight. It raises some questions: how do they survive? What do they eat? If Mongolian barbecue wasn’t Mongolian, then what dish was Mongolian? I made some effort to answer these questions, and what I discovered is not for the weakly constituted. It is Mongolian, and it is intense.
Eurocopter-Kazakhstan Engineering's factory in Astana
Just a week after proudly announcing the expansion of the Kazakh-European joint venture producing military helicopters, it seems that relations between Kazakhstan's government and its European partner, defense giant Eurocopter, may be getting rocky. The company, Eurocopter-Kazakhstan Engineering, has been accused of violating labor laws and discriminating against citizens of Kazakhstan, reports Tengrinews.kz. From a press release of the Aviation Prosecution Office of Astana:
The Astana Aviation Transport Prosecutor's Office together with the government labor inspector for Astana conducted an inspection of the Eurocopter-Kazakhstan Engineering's compliance with the labor legislation of Kazakhstan. Many violations of Kazakhstan's legislative requirements on labor and insurance in the activity of the partnership were uncovered.
Among the violations: the company allegedly failed to provide proper safety instructions to its employees and engaged in "discrimination against the rights of citizens of Kazakhstan with regard to pay in comparison with foreign citizens for equivalent work." As a result, the company was fined 934,740 tenge, or just a little over $6,000. So, chances are this won't break Eurocopter's bank.
An industry survey has called Kyrgyzstan one of the world's “least attractive” places for mining companies to invest. In one category, Kyrgyzstan, which is embroiled in a contract dispute with its largest foreign investor, ranked last for "uncertainty concerning the administration, interpretation and enforcement of existing regulations.”
The survey, released February 28 by the Fraser Institute, a non-profit Canadian research outfit, is based on interviews with representatives of 742 mining companies working in 96 jurisdictions (countries, states, provinces) who spent a total of $6.2 billion in exploration worldwide last year.
Fraser uses something called the Policy Potential Index (PPI), “a comprehensive assessment of the attractiveness of mining policies in a jurisdiction, [which] can serve as a report card to governments on how attractive their policies are from the point of view of an exploration manager.”
Overall, Kyrgyzstan ranked 92nd of 96.
Miners answered questions about topics like environmental and tax regulations, land disputes, “socioeconomic agreements, political stability, labor issues” and security. Corruption (where Kyrgyzstan also plumbed the bottom of the rankings) was surveyed but not factored into the PPI.
Kyrgyzstan fared slightly better in “potential” and quite high in “room for improvement.”
Azerbaijan may now be busy celebrating the arrival of spring with the traditional holiday of Novruz, but local police tempers do not appear to be growing any sunnier.
On March 19, an outspoken former Azerbaijani defense minister, Rahim Gaziyev, claims he was on his way to the Azeri-language service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Baku to broadcast his criticism of President Ilham Aliyev’s government, when unknown men allegedly hooded him with a bag and hustled him into a car. Gaziyev, who served as defense minister from 1992 to 1993, soon found himself in the captivating company of anti-organized crime police officials.
The policemen did not charge Gaziyev; just reportedly gave him a piece of avuncular advice -- to bag it. “’You’ve been writing quite a bit of letters here and there, we notice. You should try lying low,’ they told me,” Gaziyev recounted to the Kavkazsky Uzel news site. He was released the next morning, on March 20.
One letter which apparently particularly disappointed the police recently appeared in the pro-opposition Azadliq (Freedom) newspaper. In his letter, the ex-minister slammed President Aliyev for having corrupt officials under his wing, cracking down on political dissent, turning a blind eye to abuse and violence in the army, and what have you.