Authorities around Central Asia seem to have it in for Valentine’s Day.
Uzbekistan has cancelled concerts marking the holiday and instructed young people instead to celebrate the birthday of a local hero—Moghul emperor Babur, who was born in Andijan in 1483 and conquered much of South Asia. The Associated Press recently cited an Uzbek newspaper article calling Valentine's Day the work of “forces with evil goals bent on putting an end to national values.”
Students in western Kazakhstan say their university wouldn’t let them celebrate the holiday, which has become popular in the generation since independence. And in Kyrgyzstan, a parliamentary deputy says Valentine’s promotes an “alien ideology,” which drives people to suicide (when they don’t get enough cards).
In Turkmenistan, officials are apparently too busy still celebrating President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s dazzling 97 percent victory in Sunday’s election to discuss much else. Never mind, it’s clear whom everyone loves there.
So what’s with the assault on Valentine’s Day? Yes, it’s nominally a Christian holiday in a predominantly Muslim region, but the elites who call the shots are secular. Could it be that menace of the heart, jealousy, gripping Central Asia’s leaders?
A week-old strike at Kyrgyzstan’s largest gold mine is costing Bishkek approximately $380,000 per day, according to the Vechernii Bishkek newspaper. Judging by a brief slowdown last year, the walkout could sharply affect growth forecasts.
Workers at the Kumtor Gold Mine, which accounts for nearly 12 percent of the impoverished nation’s GDP and 54 percent of industrial output, laid down their tools on February 7, demanding parent company Centerra Gold pay the state’s recently introduced social security deductions, rather than see them withheld from their salaries.
Centerra, which is one-third controlled by the government and listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange, believes the strike is illegal because it violates a collective agreement with workers, Reuters reported on February 7. Centerra’s Kumtor Operating Company said that no other company in Kyrgyzstan was paying the mandatory contribution on behalf of its employees.
Bishkek’s KyrTAG news agency reports that six-hour talks between union representatives and Centerra on February 10 failed to reach any consensus.
New copyright legislation has hobbled Kazakhstan’s Internet traffic and angered tens of thousands of recreational users of popular download sites. But the most pernicious effect could be on those who stray from the government line, as the legislation offers a new method for harassing activists and dissidents at a moment of intensifying repression.
The legislation consists of a number of changes to Kazakhstan’s laws on intellectual property, including making punishable by up to one year in prison the illegal use of copyrighted material, and by up to five years the organized distribution of such material. The legislation immediately affected popular torrent sites in the country, which distribute large files across the Internet through peer-to-peer sharing, and are commonly used to download pirated movies and TV shows.
After the law went into effect February 1, the number of torrent-trackers -- servers that coordinate communications among users downloading files -- dropped dramatically as providers withdrew service for fear of criminal liability. This in turn led to a surge in users turning to download sites outside of Kazakhstan, and the Kaznet, as the domestic Internet is called, slowed to a crawl.
As annoying as that may be for Azamat in Shymkent trying to get the latest season of House, Transitions Online points out that the legislation also threatens NGOs and other centers of independent thought in Kazakhstan:
Has the DIY food movement finally, as they say, jumped the shark? Homemade ice cream? Of course. Homemade beer? Why not? But homemade doner? That might be taking things too far. Still, for the adventurous home cook who wants to recreate the joys of late night doner feasts in their own kitchen, the Guardian has a step-by-step guide to creating your own cylinder of roasted ground lamb (assuming you have a small blow torch and an empty tin can lying around). The recipe can be found here, and a somewhat unappetizing photo gallery that takes you through the process can be found here.
The White House today released its proposed budget for the upcoming year, and the big news from The Bug Pit's area of interest is that the U.S. is now giving the same amount of military aid to Uzbekistan as it is to the rest of the Central Asian republics. Last year, Uzbekistan was budgeted a mere $100,000 in Foreign Military Financing aid, which allows countries to buy U.S. equipment. Still, that was the first FMF money Uzbekistan had been budgeted since 2005, because of Congressional concerns about human rights. But according to the budget documents (pdf) released today, in the current fiscal year Uzbekistan's aid has been bumped up to $1.5 million, and it is slated to get the same next year. That's still small potatoes compared to the big U.S. military aid recipients: Pakistan is budgeted to get $350 million, Egypt $1.3 billion and Israel $3.1 billion. And this also is dwarfed by the cash these countries get as reimbursement for being part of the Northern Distribution Network. But Uzbekistan's aid package is now the same as its neighbors': Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan also are budgeted to get $1.5 million, Kazakhstan $1.8 million and Turkmenistan $685,000.
The countries of the Caucasus get more: Armenia and Azerbaijan $2.7 million each, and Georgia $14.4 million (though we'll have to wait and see if any of that includes weaponry). Except for Uzbekistan's aid, and a doubling of Tajikistan's aid, there aren't many changes from last year. And the documents contain very little explanation of the aid packages for these countries. Georgia does get highlighted briefly:
The South Caucasus appears to be finding itself in a risky front-row seat for the ongoing international campaign against Iran's nuclear ambitions and, in turn, outrage at Israel for its role in the struggle.
On February 13, a bomb was found under the car of a Georgian employee of the Israeli embassy in Tbilisi. Ministry of Internal Affairs spokesperson Shota Utiashvili told EurasiaNet.org that he could not specify if the foiled bomb attack was targeted against the Israeli embassy premises, but noted that the car "was located near the embassy." Police defused the explosive without incident.
In a separate incident today, the wife of an Israeli diplomat was injured in a car bomb explosion in New Delhi.
Georgia has seen political battle waged before with roses and rallies, tent cities and tear gas. Will it now see battle done instead with a pen?
A new decree grants the Ministry of Justice the right to “edit” legislation after it becomes law, a development legal advocates believe could put even more power in the hands of Georgia’s already dominant executive branch.
The first casualty was a “this” that was allegedly removed from the official version of a legal amendment that restricts funding for political parties.
In the version with the “this,” the amendment forced parties to return any unspent donations from businesses within three days of the amendment’s (“this law’s”) passage. Funds not returned could be claimed by the state.
Seeing the “this” and thinking they had just days to unload millions in unspent donations, allies of billionaire opposition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili started spending “hastily” to beat the three-day deadline, said Davit Usupashvili, the co-leader of the Ivanishvili-allied Republican Party
Via his businesses and partners, Ivanishvili had donated a reported 4.1 million lari (about $2.46 million) to parties associated with his Georgian Dream organization.
But then, in the version of the amendment published in Matsne December 29, the government’s official ledger, the “this” disappeared. That meant that the spend-off had been in vain.
Usupashvili charged that “a crime has been committed,” and urged the prosecutor’s office to look into the disappearance of the wayward demonstrative pronoun.
What is a military helicopter from Tajikistan doing in southern Afghanistan?
That question has been prompted by conflicting reports about a February 11 crash that killed four Tajik air force officers, including the son of the deputy defense minister, in Zabul Province.
Tajik state media report the Soviet-era MI-8 helicopter, which belongs to the country’s Defense Ministry, had been ferrying about supplies since May 2011 on behalf of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Khovar, the state news agency, said on February 13 that the reasons for the crash are unknown, but that bad weather was likely to blame. A source in Tajikistan’s Defense Ministry told the Asia-Plus news agency that the helicopter crew was delivering “humanitarian cargo to remote mountain villages in Afghanistan.”
But the Associated Press reports that the helicopter was delivering food to US troops on behalf of Supreme Group, a private contractor. Supreme, which supplies military bases around Afghanistan and operates a duty-free food and liquor store for expatriates in Kabul, told the AP that the helicopter was operated by a company called Central Asian Aviation Services. That company’s website is under construction, but lists a phone number in the UAE.
As is customary in Turkmenistan, music poured forth from several polling stations in Ashgabat as dance troupes did their bit, perhaps even upping the tempo a little to compensate for the unusual, subfreezing temperatures.
Also outside, stalls did a brisk trade selling sugary soft drinks, buns, pies, and the traditional Turkmen deep-fried sweet "peshme" snack. Girls in national costumes also stood at the entrances to the voting halls holding trays with free flat churek bread and peshme.
First-time voters and the over-70s were, as usual, given presents: cutlery sets, stationery. Perhaps most usefully, women were given lengths of fabric to turn into clothes.
What they weren't giving away this time around were copies of the Rukhnama, the spiritual guide and historical treatise written by the country's first president (for that is how he's known locally), Saparmurat Niyazov. For the sake of balance, they weren't giving away books by the current president, either, though he's certainly written a few since coming to power upon Niyazov’s death in late 2006.
And yet something was not quite right, at least in the capital. Compared with 2007, when hordes turned up to cast their ballot at opening time, there was less activity this time around.
It is hard to say what might have kept people away: the lack of interest, the cold weather, opposition to the government?
Kazakhstan is close to opening a nuclear fuel bank that would allow countries a safe, reliable means of getting fuel for their nuclear power plants, and would theoretically make it more difficult for would-be rogue nuclear states to secretly build weapons. From the Wall Street Journal:
Kazakhstan believes the international community's first nuclear fuel bank can be up and running on Kazakh soil by late next year, potentially supporting the Obama administration's broader efforts to combat the spread of nuclear weapons...
In an interview, Kazakh Foreign Minister Yerzhan Kazykhanov said his government hopes consultations with the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, on the future fuel bank's location can be completed by this spring. He added the government then hopes to bring the facility on line by late 2013...
The IAEA and donors have already pledged $150 million for the project.
An official at the Vienna-based agency said consultations with Kazakhstan were progressing but the target date for the fuel bank's inauguration wasn't yet "set in stone."
The idea of such a fuel bank has been floating around pretty much since the beginning of the nuclear age, but now it seems like it could actually be coming to fruition. I asked Togzhan Kassenova, a nonproliferation expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, what was different now, and she said the fact that the IAEA itself acknowledged that talks were moving forward. "At this point it appears likely that the IAEA/NTI [Nuclear Threat Initiative] bank will be established," she says, adding that there also have been no offers from elsewhere to host the bank.