President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov of Turkmenistan likes to call his second term the “Era of Supreme Happiness of the Stable State” and refer to himself as “The Protector.” Some of his citizens might call themselves his “inmates.”
The Chronicles of Turkmenistan reports that secret blacklists barring certain individuals from leaving the country continue to exist, much as they did during the “Golden Age” of Saparmurat Niyazov, who died in office in late 2006.
The Chronicles website, run by Turkmen exiles in Vienna, says 48 Turkmen citizens were prevented from boarding Istanbul-, Dubai- and Moscow-bound flights on just one recent day. Despite having tickets and brand-new biometric passports, border guards told the grounded travelers on January 24 that they were banned from leaving the country. "However, no documents were produced to the frustrated passengers, nor reasons given for the ban on leaving," the website said.
When these would-be travellers sought explanations from the Border and Migration Service, they were sent to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Ministry of National Security. Both maintained they had nothing to do with the decision, said the report.
Unsuspecting Turkmen citizens often do not know that their names are on the secret blacklists until they attempt to pass through immigration. Others reportedly have been pulled off airplanes on the tarmac.
Being a fly on the wall of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's office might not be a particularly prestigious calling, but, increasingly, as the dichotomy between events in Azerbaijan and the government's PR line grows ever broader, it might not even prove a particularly insightful one.
That notion came into play on February 7, after Western watchdogs and the international community took aim at Azerbaijan's recent arrests of two outspoken opposition members for allegedly inciting last month's disturbances in the town of Ismayilli, and pro-government news agencies featured the president talking about . . . Baku Magazine.
A feel-good glossy run by Aliyev's elder daughter, Leyla, the Russian-language edition is celebrating its fifth anniversary, and, this month, mom and dad made the cover.
In an interview duly distributed in English by sympathetic news agencies on February 7, the president (and First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva) touted Baku's beauty, the country's economic growth and stability, and, in case anyone missed them, the "political reforms," which "have contributed to create a free society."
"In our country, all citizens are guaranteed freedom of speech, conscience, the press and others," Aliyev elaborated.
Kazakhstan is experiencing a betting boom. Bookmaker's offices are mushrooming across the country, allowing just about anyone to gamble on international sports matches. And, as if to tempt every last ludomaniac, thousands of electronic kiosks – in shopping arcades, pedestrian underpasses, and gas stations – are standing by to take your bets.
The situation looked dire for Kazakhstan's gamblers six years ago when authorities forced casinos to relocate to two purpose-built betting zones – Shchuchinsk in the north and Kapshagay in the south. The move was designed to help regulate and tax this somewhat shady business and confront gambling addiction.
While the exclusive casinos are keeping the high-rollers happy, in recent months a number of nationwide bookmaker chains have sprung up to cater to small-time punters who wish to gamble on international soccer and hockey matches and the like. While casinos require visitors to purchase between $300-500 in chips, in these state-licensed bookmakers, which are often attached to bars and restaurants, the minimum stake is 500 tenge ($3.30). At parlors like Bet City, Fair Play and Profit, it's never been easier to place a bet.
Today there are hundreds of such licensed bookmakers operating in Kazakhstan. Olimp, the biggest network, has 267 branches, with 86 in Almaty and 61 in the capital, Astana.
For those who like a little after-hours gambling, online betting is also gaining ground. Bets can even be made at ubiquitous QIWI payment terminals (usually used for topping-up mobile phones and paying utility bills). Across Kazakhstan there are 10,000 such reverse-ATM machines just waiting to inhale your cash.
What is the U.S.'s interest in Central Asia? For the past decade, the answer has been simple: Afghanistan. The U.S. needs the cooperation of the Central Asian states to carry out its war in Afghanistan. But what happens when the U.S. leaves (or at least significantly draws down) in Afghanistan, which is supposed to start happening next year? What will be the U.S. interest then?
The simplest answer is, none. Geographically, Central Asia about as far away as you can get from the U.S. Its natural resources, while substantial, are hardly gamechanging. The security threat represented in 2001 by a group of transnational terrorists who happened to temporarily use Afghanistan as a base seems a fluke unlikely to be repeated. For those trying to promote democracy and respect for human rights, it is becoming evident that Central Asia is a barren desert in which their seeds can find no purchase.
This being the U.S., though, people in the policy community have to come up with some sort of justification to stay involved in the region. And so it was that a large crowd gathered Tuesday at the Washington think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies to hear a discussion of a new report, The United States and Central Asia After 2014. But the impression left after the thought-provoking discussion was that there is nowhere close to a clear picture, even among Central Asia experts, on what the U.S.'s interests in the region really are.
If vodka is your poison of choice and you live in Turkmenistan, you should now expect to start shelling out more money.
Since local media doesn’t report on such affairs, hopeful boozers only made the discovery upon visiting shops in recent days.
One shopkeeper in central Ashgabat, Toyly, said the prices went up on February 2. “Half-liter vodka bottles have gone up by $0.35, and 0.7-liter bottles are $0.50 more expensive,” he said.
As Toyly explained, the alcohol used to mix the vodka mainly comes from Ukraine, which has raised its prices. There has been no apparent impact on wine and cognac, however.
Vodka at Toyly’s shop ranges in price from the cheapo 0.45-liter “Arassa” at $2.50 through to the luxury “President” brand, which costs $34 for a 0.75-liter bottle.
Another shop in central Ashgabat with a broader selection stocked more than 10 different brands. There, a slightly larger bottle of “Arassa” costs $2.07, while the priciest brand is that including the portrait of the late President Saparmurat Niyazov available for up to $53.40.
Also available is 0.7-liter “Galkynysh” – Turkmen for Revival, the title used to describe the current era of rule under President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. Galkynysh initially went up to $10.52 and then mysteriously dropped by $0.07 the following day.
“All bottles contain the same alcohol, from Ukraine. It is the filtering that varies. ‘Galkynysh’ goes through double filtering, which is why it costs more than ‘Arassa,’” explained shopkeeper Bayram.
The rising prices have done little to contain enthusiasm for vodka.
Azerbaijan was an important stopover point for secret detainees of the Central Intelligence Agency in the US war on terror, claims a new report that offers the first comprehensive look into human rights abuses under the US practice of secret detentions and extraordinary renditions of terror suspects.
Reminiscent of a global spy conspiracy novel, the report, "Globalizing Torture," details how, post-9/11, the US relied on countries around the world to "kick the [expletive] out of" various terror suspects wanted by the CIA.
Azerbaijan and Georgia were among 54 countries that cooperated with these operations, according to the report, which was compiled by the New-York-City-based Open Society Foundation's Open Justice Initiative. [EurasiaNet.org is financed under the separate auspices of the Foundation's Central Eurasia Project.]
“Aircraft linked to the CIA landed in Azerbaijan 76 times between the end of 2001 and the end of 2005,” the report reads. “The Azerbaijani capital, Baku, is reported to have been used as a common ‘staging point’ for extraordinary rendition operations, meaning that planes and crews would often meet and prepare there.”
Azerbaijani officials allegedly did some detaining of their own; namely, a Saudi man, Ahmed Muhammad Haza al-Darbi, who allegedly was arrested in Azerbaijan in 2002 and handed over to the CIA, which then transferred him to the formerly US-run Bagram prison in Afghanistan, where he was kept for two weeks, and subjected to various forms of abuse.
Before Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili took office in 2004, Georgia, the most eager US partner in the Caucasus, also allegedly captured and handed over to the CIA several terror suspects, apparently linked to Chechen rebel training in the Pankisi Gorge.
Thousands of migrant workers, many from Central Asia and the Caucasus, are toiling in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi to help stage the most expensive Olympic Games in history. Many are abused and exploited, working in miserable conditions for little or no pay, Human Rights Watch said today.
Released a year before the games kick off, the 67-page report, entitled “Race to the Bottom: Exploitation of Migrant Workers Ahead of Russia’s 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi,” documents gross violations of Russian and international law, as well as the Olympic spirit.
Tens of thousands of workers, including an estimated 16,000 workers from outside Russia, are helping prepare Sochi for the showcase games, which open next February 7. Human Rights Watch (HRW) focused on these migrant laborers because, compared with Russian workers, they are particularly vulnerable to abuse. Researchers interviewed 66 construction workers from Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Serbia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Ukraine.
Migrant workers said employers subjected them to a range of abuses and exploitation, including: failing to pay full wages, excessively delaying payment of wages, and in some cases failing to pay any wages at all; withholding identity documents, such as passports and work permits; failing to provide employment contracts, or failure to respect terms of a contract; and requiring excessive working hours and providing little time off. […] In several cases documented by Human Rights Watch, employers retaliated against foreign migrant workers who protested against abuses by denouncing them to the authorities, resulting in the workers’ expulsion from Russia.
Authorities and construction companies interviewed by HRW deny the allegations.
Elite police units in Tashkent have started rounding up and arresting black market currency dealers days after new restrictions on the circulation of foreign currency came into force, according to witnesses and media reports.
Russia's RIA Novosti news agency quotes a law-enforcement official as saying that authorities are trying to prevent the exchange rate of Uzbekistan’s national currency, the sum, from plummeting against hard currencies.
"Since it is now impossible to purchase foreign currency in cash and there is a shortage, foreign currency has sharply gone up [in value] against the local sum, and authorities have decided to eliminate everywhere the so-called 'black [market]' dealers from whom in most cases the population and business buy foreign currency," RIA Novosti cites its source as saying. "The idea is that if there are no dealers, there won't be the possibility of selling and buying foreign currency; therefore, there won't be demand and foreign currency won't grow [in value]."
Sources in Tashkent have confirmed to EurasiaNet.org that elite Interior Ministry OMON troops have indeed raided major markets in the capital, sweeping areas where black market currency dealers operate, including the Sergeli car market. For practical reasons, major items such as apartments and cars are often traded for dollars: The Uzbek sum equivalent of a few thousand dollars is so bulky that it must be transported in garbage bags or suitcases.
OMON units wearing black balaclavas detained about 20 people, including women, in a raid on the Chorsu Market in Tashkent's old town on February 1, an eyewitness told EurasiaNet.org. The suspects were put onto a bus and driven away.
In 1998, Armenian presidential candidate Paruyr Hayrikian ran for office with the slogan "Let’s not lose an historic moment." Fifteen years later, he has a similar one: "The historic moment has come." But many Armenian observers believe that, by not requesting an election delay after suffering from gunshot wounds, 63-year-old Hayrikian has lost his chance for "an historic moment."
"[N]o act of terrorism should hold the power of disrupting the natural flow of political realities,” he commented, in a surprise appearance at a February 5 press-conference in Yerevan. "I have come simply to show my presence," he said to explain his hospital exit.
The candidate's statement was echoed by Karo Yeghnukyan, a representative of his campaign team, who told reporters that if Hayrikian had “exercised his right,"it might mean that he was “taking advantage of the situation."
Now, some Armenians claim that it is the government itself which is doing that.
Incumbent President Serzh Sargsyan, Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian and other high-profile officials visited Hayrikian in the hospital and condemned the assault, investigated as an assassination attempt, as intended to «disrupt the elections» and aimed against Armenia itself.
But the memory of Hayrikian's earlier comments lingers on.
A $2-billion investment fund, the limits to bipartisanship, and the hazards of adultery, both political and personal, were, on February 5, among the many talking points of Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, who spent hours filling in Georgia about his cabinet's first months in office.
The televised parley between Ivanishvili and a roomful of journalists offered a peek into his plans, but, more significantly, into possible tensions within his ruling Georgian-Dream coalition.
Looking ahead to Georgia's presidential vote in October, Ivanishvili tossed out the observation that the respected, circumspect constitutional lawyer Vakhtang Khmaladze, a Georgian Dream parliamentarian, is a better fit for the head of state, than, say, the handsome and ambitious defense minister, Irakli Alasania.
And here is where the discussion took a bizarre turn. Ivanishvili alleged that President Mikheil Saakashvili's team is trying to seduce Defense Minister Alasania into switching sides. Quite literally, too.
In response to a reporter's question, Ivanishvili acknowledged that he had requested an explanation from Alasania about an alleged trip he made to Dubai, and then to France with the wife of a key Saakashvili loyalist, Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava, and another companion.
There had been, he told reporters, "a little misunderstanding in Dubai" and "we should forget this."
“Everyone can make a mistake, and Alasania is still a young man," he elaborated. "As for the France trip and the wife, all of that is very personal and I don’t pry into personal matters."
Rather, he discusses them in a televised press conference.