In Astana-speak, the upcoming parliamentary election in Kazakhstan is meant to usher in a new era of multi-party democracy. Other parties will be allowed to join Nur Otan in the Majlis, or lower house of parliament. But looking around the streets of Almaty, the country’s commercial capital, you wouldn't know that any other parties were running at all.
Casual observers could be forgiven for thinking that it's another presidential vote that's approaching on January 15. President Nursultan Nazarbayev (who won a snap poll earlier this year with 95.5 percent of the vote) seems to be his Nur Otan party’s only face.
All over the city Nazarbayev beams down, right arm raised aloft. The posters carry the simple message “Alga, Kazakhstan!” (“Forward, Kazakhstan!”) and urge the voters to support Nur Otan.
The choice of "Alga" as a slogan is ironic, as it also happens to be the name of a political party that is forbidden from contesting these elections. The unregistered party was formed out of the ashes of Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan and has been fighting to get on the voting slip for years.
Alga! is rumored to be bankrolled by Mukhtar Ablyazov, a fugitive banker holed up in London. Ablyazov is none too popular in Kazakhstan at the moment: Presidential advisor Yermukhamet Yertysbayev pointed the finger at the exiled banker for being behind this week’s unrest in the oil-rich west.
Yes, in Kazakh politics, everything revolves around the man at the top.
With the French parliament set to vote tomorrow on a bill that would allow for the punishment of anyone who denies that the 1915 mass killings of Armenians by the Ottomans was a genocide, relations between Turkey and France continue to worsen. Ankara is warning of political, economic and cultural consequences if the legislation is passed and is suggesting it contravenes European values.
Some prominent Turkish Armenians have now also entered the fray, voicing their opposition to the French move. Most prominent among them is Orhan Dink, brother of slain journalist Hrant Dink, who told a Turkish television channel he believed the French move was violated freedom of expression. Meanwhile, perhaps trying to appeal to French culinary tastes, Turkey's Armenian Patriarchate issued a statement asking France's lawmakers not to "spoil the taste of our soup of brotherhood."
As Today's Zaman columnist Orhan Kemal Cengiz reminds readers, Hrant Dink -- who had been tried in Turkey because of his insistence that the country confront its past -- opposed similar legislation when it was previously proposed in France in 2006.
Kyrgyzstan’s Supreme Court has “utterly failed” and given into unfettered ethnic hatred in a case that was “blatantly fabricated,” say international observers, after it upheld a life sentence on bogus charges against an ethnic Uzbek human rights defender.
Azimjan Askarov was found guilty in September 2010 of inciting ethnic violence and complicity in murdering a police officer in his native town of Bazar-Kurgan during the ethnic clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks that June. Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists and Western governments called the charges against Askarov—a prominent human rights defender and journalist in southern Kyrgyzstan—politically motivated and decried the trial as staged, biased and unfair. During the December 20 appeal hearing, the Supreme Court also upheld sentences against seven other Uzbeks (including five life sentences). Uzbeks, Kyrgyzstan’s largest ethnic minority, have faced widely documented intimidation and abuse by authorities since the ethnic bloodletting.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, in a December 16 statement urging the Supreme Court to overturn the Askarov conviction, said that maintaining the verdict would be a “major miscarriage of justice.”
Kazakhstan is boosting its naval presence in the Caspian to compete with the other littoral states, the country's naval commander, Captain Zhandarbek Zhanzakov, has said. In an interview with the newspaper Express-K (in Russian). This contradicts somewhat his assertion to EurasiaNet last year that Kazakhstan was building a navy to deal with "terrorists," but seems more in line with reality. Translation via BBC Monitoring:
We badly need the navy. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the establishment of the five Caspian littoral states, the issue of adopting a new convention on the legal status of the Caspian Sea has become acute. The convention has not been agreed upon yet. The demand for energy resources in the world increases the strategic importance of the Caspian region, where geopolitical interests of both regional and leading world powers are focused. Against the background of this, preserving the balance of forces in! the Caspian Sea zone remains to be the key issue.
An analysis of the naval forces of our neighbours shows their rapid development in order to change the current state of affairs in their favour. For example, two frigates - "Tatarstan" and "Dagestan" - equipped with modern missile systems and the new generation gunnery ship "Astrakhan", built using stealth technology, joined the effective combat strength of Russia's Caspian fleet. A coastal infrastructure, including observation posts are being developed in the water area of the Caspian Sea.
Development of integration processes with NATO and the United States enabled Azerbaijan to secure assistance in developing its national naval forces. Iran is also increasing its forces in the Caspian Sea.
Respected historian Samvel Karapetian was grocery shopping in a Yerevan supermarket, Hayastan, when he chanced upon packets of the bulbous, pungent emissaries from Azerbaijan, the very country that fought a long and bloody war with Armenia over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region. Since the 1988-1994 war, anything Azerbaijani has been mostly seen in Armenia as unspeakably heinous, and vice versa.
A concerned citizen, Karapetian sounded the alarm, and reporters hurried to the scene. “Garlic of the company based on [President Heydar] Aliyev Street in Baku is gleefully sold in… an Armenian supermarket,” the puzzled historian said.
In the supermarket, reporters found a confused shop assistant and manager, who pled not guilty. “I am beginning to think that somebody wants to frame me,” the director of the Hayastan Supermarket told Emedia.am news service.
The director said he cannot trace every food product all the way to its source, unless it is a sausage. He claimed that the garlic penetration must have been an unfortunate mistake, but local journalists are not buying this.
Family in Samarkand cooks outside in 2009, as gas pressure always drops at the first cold weather.
Residents of Uzbekistan's Andijan region have been freezing as the temperature drops and authorities have cut off gas service, the independent news site uznews.net reports.
Gas pressure has plummeted so drastically that even special pumps designed to extract better flows in the winter aren't working.
Residents have told uznews.net that since Monday, not only has gas service for consumers been cut off, factories are also experiencing a shortfall. Electricity to residences has also been turned off periodically for increasingly longer times.
Local authorities are blaming the energy shut-down on "technical problems due to the fall of air temperature," says uznews.net
The thermometer is not expected to rise above freezing until this weekend, local forecasters say.
Officials in the Ferghana region warned consumers three months ago to expect problems with gas supplies, suggesting they stock up on firewood. Some loads of coal were also delivered as an alternative.
Earlier this fall, some homes and factories found their gas was shut off in Tashkent and other regions for alleged non-payment.
Sweeps and large-scale arrests of people accused of being members of the Union of Kurdistan Communities (KCK), a pro-Kurdish group that Turkish authorities accuse of being a front for the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), have become a commonplace event in Turkey over the last few years. But while the original targets of KCK-related arrests were mostly pro-Kurdish politicians, recent sweeps in the case have netted a wider assortment of suspects, including academics and writers (see this previous post).
In yet another round of mass arrests, Turkish authorities today detained what appear to be about 25 journalists, many of them working for pro-Kurdish media outlets, but apparantly also a well-known photographer who works for AFP. As the official Anadolu Agency put it, the raids were directed against the "press and propaganda" wing of the KCK. (More details via CNN, here.)
The arrests again raise the question of how Turkey's expansive terrorism laws are being used and if they're allowing the authorities to detain suspects for reasons that have very little to do with terrorism. Human Rights Watch's Turkey researcher, Emma Sinclair-Webb, raised this issue in an op-ed that ran in the Los Angeles Times yesterday. From her piece:
Each Collective Security Treaty Organization member country will get a veto over any new foreign military bases in member states, the group agreed at a summit today in Moscow. From RIA Novosti:
"Now, in order to accommodate extra-regional military structures on the territory of the CSTO, it will be necessary to obtain official approval of all [CSTO] members,” [Kazakhstan President Nursultan] Nazarbayev said.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev added that “all parties reached a mutual agreement” on the decision.
The CSTO includes Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The most obvious effect of this is that Russia now can veto any future U.S. bases in Central Asia. As the saga between India and Tajikistan has recently shown, and the last Manas-is-closing scare did earlier, Moscow already has quite a bit of say over this issue. But would Uzbekistan listen if Moscow told them they couldn't host some foreign base? Might Uzbekistan try to veto a new Russian facility in Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan? It seems very doubtful Russia would listen then.
An analysis in Kommersant (in Russian) says that while, publicly, the organization is most focused on the threat to the region from instability in Afghanistan, behind the scenes the real fear is "the West's rising influence on post-Soviet territories." And it includes an interesting tidbit about U.S. regional anti-drug initiatives. Translation via Johnson's Russia List:
Selective birth control, a practice sometimes termed gendricide, is widespread in the South Caucasus for a mix of economic and cultural reasons. Armenia is believed to have the region’s highest rate of female foeticide. The gender ratio at birth is as high as 120 boys to 110 girls, 20 percent above the accepted norm, according to UNFPA's Armenia office. The ratio is lower, but also skewed in neighboring Azerbaijan and Georgia.
“Every year, Armenia is losing about 1,400 potential mothers [because of prenatal sex selection],” said the country’s gynecologist-in-chief Razmik Abramian. “In 10 to 20 years from now, we will face a deficit of women,” UNFPA Armenia official Gagik Hairapetian told a Yerevan press-conference, AFP reported.
The Global Gender Gap report put Armenia in second place after China in terms of the most distorted gender ratios. Azerbaijan and Georgia came only three countries away from Armenia on that list.
OzenMunayGaz: Things will never be quite the same again.
Riot police maintain a presence in Kazakhstan’s energy-rich west as authorities seek to restore normality to the troubled town of Zhanaozen, the epicenter of December 16-17 clashes between security forces and protestors that left at least 15 dead. In nearby Aktau, demonstrators continue to demand accountability for the bloodshed.
A state of emergency is in place in Zhanaozen, where the prosecutor’s office said the situation “is gradually normalizing." But, as EurasiaNet.org witnessed during a December 20 visit organized by local authorities, the hospital is still busy treating the wounded and the streets are dotted with burned-out buildings, including the town hall and the office of OzenMunayGaz. The firm has been at the center of a labor dispute with energy-sector workers that began in May and is believed to have sparked the violence.
Most of the injured suffered gunshot wounds: Raushan Zhaparova, the hospital’s deputy director, said that of 99 people the hospital received, 75 were wounded by firearms. The official injury toll stands at 110.
Bekmurat Turashev, an oil sector worker who said he was not involved in the industrial dispute, was groaning in a hospital bed on an intravenous drip after being shot in the stomach, hand and back. What happened? “I didn’t have a clue,” he responded.