Russian telecoms giant MTS has filed for bankruptcy in Tashkent amid its long-running dispute with the Uzbek government, which is currently embroiled in telecoms scandals on several fronts.
MTS’s Uzbekistan subsidiary O’zdunrobita has petitioned for bankruptcy due to its “inability” to carry out a November court ruling ordering it to pay fines and penalties of $600 million, MTS said in a January 16 statement.
The company’s troubles began last July, when Tashkent accused it of using equipment illegally, then brought tax evasion charges, and finally shut it down.
In September, a court ordered MTS’s assets in Uzbekistan seized. To the surprise of many, that ruling was overturned on appeal in November. But with the good news came a catch: The court that overturned the assets seizure ordered MTS to pay penalties of $600 million – the approximate value of the assets the court had just returned. Some $150 million has already been seized from its bank accounts in Uzbekistan, MTS says.
MTS has protested its innocence, condemning the affair as the kind of assets grab not uncommon in Uzbekistan’s murky business climate – a charge Tashkent denies.
Tashkent has long worked hard to erase Uzbekistan’s Soviet legacy. But the process, it seems, is far from complete. Authorities have ordered another 240 street and place names in the Uzbek capital renamed, the olam.uz website reports.
Having run out of Bolshevik leaders to purge, municipal authorities have turned to the artists and international heroes that once made Tashkent’s cosmopolitan residents proud. For example, a street named after Soviet Uzbek theater director Mannon Uygur became Gulobod (Flower Garden), while Anna Akhmatova Street, named after the Russian poetess, became Nemat (Blessing) Street, according to the recent order.
For some, the campaign to rename squares, streets, parks and subway stations looks like a politically motivated effort to erect a new political culture. That was understandable when the process started, soon after Uzbekistan obtained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. But many now wonder when it will end.
Among the first victims of the campaign 20 years ago were the capital's landmark Lenin Square (now Independence Square), which was home to a giant Lenin statue, and Revolution Square (now Amir Temur Square), a leafy park that marked the geographical center of the city with a bust of communist demigod Karl Marx. Lenin was replaced with a globe showing Uzbekistan at the center of the world, and Marx relinquished his seat to a monument of Amir Temur, better known in the West as tyrant conqueror Tamerlane whom President Islam Karimov has reinvented as an Uzbek hero.
Uzbekistan's president Islam Karimov delivered his annual Army Day message on January 11, and along with the predictable encomia to the country's armed forces, Karimov made a few interesting statements vis-a-vis how he sees Uzbekistan's geopolitics. (Speech translated from Russian by BBC Monitoring)
As he has frequently, Karimov says that the Western withdrawal from Afghanistan will pose a threat to Uzbekistan:
In the current difficult circumstances, the international community is particularly concerned about the danger of the spread of nuclear technology and weapons of mass destruction as well as about growing confrontation, political and religious radicalism and extremism, and the ongoing conflicts in the immediate vicinity of our borders; in the first place, tension is growing in connection with the forthcoming withdrawal of ISAF from Afghanistan before and after 2014.
But this is an interesting addition:
The situation is seriously being exacerbated by rivalry of external forces in the region. Serious challenges and threats are emerging due to the intensification of activities by armed gangs and subversive and terrorist groups in border areas, as well as because of social and economic problems, political and interethnic conflicts that could lead to destabilization of the military-political situation.
It's not clear what he means here by "rivalry of external forces," but my best guess is that it has to do with Russia's plans to give a huge military aid package to Kyrgyzstan, and a somewhat more modest one to Tajikistan, with the intention of countering what it sees as U.S. influence in Uzbekistan.
President Mikheil Saakashvili and Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili vie in pleasing the patriarch.
Georgia’s two squabbling rulers, the prime minister and the president, both need love . . . the love of the country’s spiritual leader, the guardian of national unity, the primus inter pares, Georgian Orthodox Church Patriarch Ilia II.
“You love him more,” Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, apparently in a sudden grip of jealousy, told the patriarch at a January 14 gathering, pointing at President Mikheil Saakashvili, who stood towering over both men with a happy smile.
“Now, why would you say he loves me more?” responded the president, tapping his diminutive rival on the shoulder.
The aging prelate, caught in the middle of the awkward exchange, maintained a diplomatic silence.
The footage of the meeting cuts there, so we don’t know the outcome of this telling conversation, but the party at the patriarch’s showed rather clearly that Georgia’s political system is not a diarchy, but a triumvirate, and that secular leaders need to vie for the holy graces of the chief of the Georgian Orthodox Church.
Georgians’ infatuation with their political leaders is pretty much a one-night stand and they tend to lose interest the moment leaders take office. But the patriarch always tops the national love charts.
And, so, well aware of the patriarch’s star power, Saakashvili and Ivanishvili turned up at the celebrations that marked Orthodox New Year, plus Ilia II's 80th birthday and the anniversary of his 1977 enthronement ; “a celebration of love,” as the church leader himself put it.
Georgia’s new political era may have begun, according to some, with political arrests, but it's now switching to political releases.
Some 190 prisoners marched out of Georgia’s notoriously overcrowded prisons on January 13 after the parliament signed an amnesty bill into law over objections from President Mikheil Saakashvili and his legislative minority. Among those amnestied under the bill were prisoners convicted of spying for Russia, participating in illegal anti-government demonstrations and army mutinies.
With reporters and relatives massed at prison gates yesterday, some prisoners started celebrating their freedom right away, setting up food and drinks on car hoods.
The joyous mood was not shared by the president, whose amnesty veto was overturned by parliament, dominated by Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s supporters. “Today the new government freed Russian spies,” the president charged. “This is a problem for the state, for the security.” He claimed that the mass release of convicts may bring to naught his administration’s attempts to build a safe, crime-free state.
But the constant Russian spy conspiracies of the past, sometimes dramatized on Saakashvili-friendly TV channels, complete with secret messages encoded in a song or sent via flashlights, have come to be taken with a large grain of salt by Georgian society.
Officials in northern Kazakhstan have taken President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s zero-tolerance policy toward anti-social behavior to heart, jailing a man for making a rude gesture at an official motorcade.
The unidentified 22-year-old resident of Pavlodar was thrown behind bars for giving the middle finger to the cortege of Kayrat Mami, speaker of the Senate (the upper house of parliament), Tengri News reported on January 14.
The man pleaded guilty on hooliganism charges and was given a five-day jail sentence for “insulting the human dignity of a public figure, thus allowing disrespect for those around and violating public order and the peace of individuals,” court spokeswoman Umut Zhumatayeva said.
The jailing is in line with a policy Nazarbayev announced last fall, when he used a parliamentary address to rail against graffiti, garbage and public drunkenness, surprising observers who thought Kazakhstan had more pressing problems to tackle. Nazarbayev also has a Singapore-style fixation with chewing gum and dirty cars in his model capital city, Astana.
The news of the harsh treatment meted out to the Pavlodar man sparked vituperative reactions on the Tengri News site, suggesting that many of Nazarbayev’s fellow citizens do not share his concerns. “Where the hell is democracy?” asked user West. “He was only expressing his opinion.”
Investors operating in three post-Soviet Central Asian republics face an “extreme risk” of having their businesses expropriated, according to a survey released last week in the UK.
Maplecroft, a Bath-based political risk consultancy, said on January 9 that it had found plenty of reasons to be wary of the business climate in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan after “evaluating the risk to business from discriminatory acts by the government that reduces ownership, control or rights of private investments either gradually or as a result of a single action.” Recent fits of resource nationalism in Kyrgyzstan -- where the Kumtor gold mine, operated by Toronto-based Centerra Gold, accounted for 12 percent of GDP in 2011 and more than half the country’s industrial output – and rampant authoritarianism in places like Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have led Maplecroft to rank these countries among the most risky in the world. Not far behind, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan both fall in the “high risk” category.
Polish BRDM-2s, a Kazakhstani version of which could be yours for $14,000.
A curious classified ad appeared recently in the Kazakhstan car website Koleso ("Wheels"): "GAZ-66, KamAZA3-4310, ZIL-131, Ural-4320, Ural-375, more than 200 vehicles, fully renovated. Most with zero mileage."
An enterprising reporter from Kazakh news service KazTAG, noting that those are all military trucks and transports of various kinds, called the number in the listing, and found that there were even unspecified types of armored reconnaissance and patrol vehicles (BRDM in Russian) for sale: "We're selling renovated military equipment," the seller told the reporter. "We also have BRDMs for sale. On average, a GAZ-66 military truck will cost 12-14 thousand dollars. The price for an BRDM will depend on configuration, but no more than 14 thousand dollars."
A military expert told the agency that "a BRDM can be useful not just to hunters, but also to extremists, for use in hard-to-reach regions and clashes with security structures. The armor on the machine is weak, but it can handle any small arms used in our special forces units. By virtue of its speed and maneuverability it's not easy to hit with a grenade launcher. Likewise, a BRDM travels well off-road, which is important for criminals in setting up arms caches in hard-to-reach places, as with the extremists in Aktobe."
The capital of Kazakhstan is well known for its outlandish and whimsical buildings, which include a pyramid and a shopping mall shaped like a khan’s tent. Now architects are planning a new surprise: an ice hotel of yurts, the traditional circular dwelling of Kazakh nomads (more often made of felt, which is much warmer than ice).
One unnamed Astana hotel is planning to erect the frozen yurt village as a novel take on the ice hotels that have become popular in Scandinavia, reports the Ekspress K tabloid, citing Vitaliy Enke, spokesman for an architectural firm (also unidentified) working on the project.
An ice hotel of yurts is certainly weird, but – with Kazakhstan keen to attract more tourists – it looks like a sure bet for those in search of that once-in-a-lifetime experience. Astana, often described as the world’s second-coldest capital, definitely has the climate for it: last month temperatures plunged to -40C (-40F).
Land for the ice yurts has already been allocated on the city’s prestigious Left Bank, the seat of government and home to most of the city’s landmark buildings. As well as the Norman Foster-designed Pyramid of Peace and the tent-shaped Khan Shatyr mall, which boasts a beach inside, they include a velodrome in the shape of a cyclist’s hat, an egg-shaped national archive, and a building nicknamed the Cigarette Lighter for its shape, which once made headlines by catching fire.