Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has given a high five to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili for their support for Minsk amid growing European Union pressure for Belarus to clean up its human rights act. Both countries opposed a scathing declaration from the EU about harassment of political opposition and independent media in Belarus.
“They [the Europeans] thought that we would bang our heads against the door, that we would cry and beg… but no!,” Lukashenko said, after Belarus withdrew from a September 29-30 summit in Warsaw, where ties between the EU and its ex-Soviet neighbors were discussed,
Ukraine, Moldova and Armenia also stopped short of supporting the EU statement, but Georgia and Azerbaijan received special thanks as the most avid Belarus supporters.
But this support is caused by very pragmatic considerations. Georgia views Belarus as the weak link in ex-Soviet countries’ support for Georgia’s territorial integrity in the face of Russian pressure to recognize breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states.
Azerbaijan, a potential energy partner which also knows what it's like to be summoned to the international woodshed on human rights issues, obviously chose to avoid what could arguably be called a case of the pot calling the kettle black.
In a conclusive message to the world, Lukashenko said his enemies will not take Belarus away from him and that he will live a long life to spite all ill-wishers.
Dushanbe will no longer send its citizens on the annual hajj pilgrimage to Mecca wearing the humble white robes of pilgrims from all corners of the Islamic world. Instead, according to RFE/RL, starting next month pilgrims from Tajikistan will look more like Olympic athletes representing their homeland.
It seems Tajik pilgrims will stand out from the crowd when the annual hajj pilgrimage begins in Mecca next month.
A new hajj uniform has been designed by Tajikistan's Committee for Religious Affairs and will soon be distributed to the country's 5,500 prospective pilgrims.
Men will don two-piece suits, while women wear long-sleeved dresses complete with head scarves, committee officials told local media.
The Tajik hajj uniform is embroidered with the country's symbols, possibly the nation's flag or coat of arms, religious officials said.
The inscription of the country's name, in Latin letters, will be prominently seen on women's head scarves and men's shirt pockets.
The garments come with matching suitcases.
The uniforms cost $50 per person (teachers in Tajikistan only make about $70 per month). The underlying question, however profane, is: Who is profiting off this scheme?
Kyrgyzstan has joined the 153 countries that have signed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. During the signing ceremony in New York on September 21, President Roza Otunbayeva emphasized her country’s commitment to building a tolerant society that respects the rights of all citizens. While parliament must still ratify the motion, which would give the Convention the strength of law, Otunbayeva’s move is important for acknowledging the right of disabled people to full participation in society.
Disability in Kyrgyzstan, like the rest of Central Asia, is stigmatizing. Children with disabilities like cerebral palsy or Down’s syndrome are often sent to institutions to be ‘rehabilitated,’ as though a disability were a crime or a contagion. Others are kept at home in isolation. Having a disabled child in the family can negatively affect other siblings’ marriage prospects, as the family is considered tainted by misfortune.
Thanks to the public advocacy efforts of local non-governmental organizations as well as disabled people themselves, these attitudes are beginning to shift. The right of access to public services -- like education, health, and transportation -- for people with disabilities is increasingly included in policy discussions in Kyrgyzstan. However, the danger is ever-present that disability rights will be seen as a niche issue, the subject of charity, or the last luxury to consider when all other problems have been solved.
But retrofitting is always messy. If we do not build rights for all into the policy process from the beginning, there will always be an excuse for exclusion.
Azerbaijan over the past few days has been enjoying a steady stream of solicitations from gas pipeline companies. Backers of the Nabucco project -- often styled as gas-thirsty Europe's energy Excalibur -- moved to make a formal bid to export gas from Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan news reported that at least one of Nabucco's rivals, Interconnector Turkey-Greece-Italy, has also placed a competing bid on exporting gas from Azerbaijan’s vast Shah Deniz field.
But, as always, Azerbaijan is also looking at other rival gas pipeline proposals such as the Trans-Adriatic-Pipeline and, most recently, an alternative offer from British Petroleum. The move by BP, the biggest private player in the Azerbaijani gas exports game, threw a curve ball at Nabucco, but project executives maintained a brave face when commenting on the prospects for their recent bid.
Said Nabucco’s Managing Director Reinhard Mitschek, “We are confident that Nabucco offers the best export route for gas from Azerbaijan and other sources.”
“Other sources” is the key word here, as skeptics charge that Azerbaijan alone cannot provide enough gas to make Nabucco commercially viable. Identifying the “other sources” is complicated by a quagmire of political and economic considerations.
British Petroleum’s offer is less grandiose, but shorter and cheaper than Nabucco's. However, Nabucco is the European-Union favorite.
A response from Azerbaijan would be critical for identifying the ultimate winner, but some local commentators think that Baku may do its best to drag its feet before it makes its word final.
Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov is betting on NATO rather than the CSTO to help secure his country as the U.S. forces begin to leave Afghanistan in 2014, according to a report on the website uzmetronom (in Russian). The report doesn't cite any hard data, but uzmetronom is pretty well connected with government officials in Tashkent and their analysis certainly makes sense, given the trends of the last few years, in which Karimov has pulled away from Russia and its favored security bloc, the CSTO, while increasing its cooperation with NATO.
"The fact is that Islam Karimov has never considered the CSTO as a real force that could counter the military threat from the outside," the report says, adding that Karimov's top concern as the U.S. starts to withdraw from Afghanistan will be border security. "One solution: to develop contacts with U.S. and NATO as much as possible."
A rallying cry for Kazakh. Protestors on October 2 carried a banner reading, in Kazakh and French, "We are only for the Kazakh language as the state and official language in Kazakhstan!"
One of the most emotive issues on Kazakhstan’s political agenda – language rights – brought Kazakh speakers out to rally in Almaty on October 2.
Around 1,500 protestors gathered with official permission in the country’s financial capital demanding legal changes to the status of Russian – which detractors say undermines the position of Kazakh.
Kazakh enjoys the constitutional status of “state language.” But rally organizers told EurasiaNet.org they believe that privilege remains largely on paper.
“Over these 20 years of independence it hasn’t become like the state language in status,” Dos Kushim, head of the Ult Tagdyry (Fate of the Nation) nationalist movement, said, adding that the protest reflected “bewilderment … at why it hasn’t become the state language after all, why it doesn’t work in all spheres of the state’s life.”
Mukhtar Shakhanov, poet and head of the Memlekettik Til (State Language) movement, is spearheading calls to change the constitution, in which Russian is protected by a clause allowing its use “equally with Kazakh in state bodies.”
Critics say this provision disadvantages native Kazakh speakers and serves as a disincentive for others to learn Kazakh. Supporters say non-Kazakh speakers – a third of the population – would be lost without it.
But would changing the constitution really be sufficient motivation for non-Kazakh speakers to put their minds to learning Kazakh?
“It would be more than enough,” Serik Mambetalin, leader of the Rukhaniyat (Spirituality) Party, told EurasiaNet.org. “Because the government itself will devote more efforts – and give more money – to develop the Kazakh language.”
Numerous diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks have exposed the secret collaboration the US has struggled to maintain with the authoritarian government of Turkmenistan for the sake of cooperation on the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) supplying NATO troops in Afghanistan – even as it has tried to raise human rights concerns, never a favorite topic for Ashgabat. A newly-released cable shows how manipulative the Turkmen government has been on repeatedly inviting -- and then canceling -- a visit to Turkmenistan by a US government commission that monitors religious freedom.
As reporting from EurasiaNet's Deirdre Tynan has shown, the US has even made large payments to "neutral Turkmenistan," as the Central Asian regime has long styled itself, to keep in place thousands of US military overflights to Afghanistan every year. Yet, despite such fees, Ashgabat has not grown more cooperative, and has been no more willing to make concessions on human rights, either.
An alleged cable from Ashgabat released by WikiLeaks on September 1 of this year and dated December 28, 2008 shows how the Turkmens played hard ball. From the looks of it, while renewing the overflights agreement, they simply stopped allowing the planes to land and began to bargain. They requested a meeting with then chargé Sylvia Reed Curran on December 25, 2009 – the Christmas holiday for the US – to discuss a forthcoming bilateral forum and Turkmenistan’s denial of blanket approval of the landings:
The State Department released its annual International Religious Freedom Report on September 13, writing of "troubling government practices" that persist in Turkmenistan regarding the treatment of religious groups, yet failed to designate Turkmenistan as a "country of particular concern" (CPC).
By contrast, neighboring Uzbekistan did get the CPC designation for its arrest of thousands of pious Muslims and other religious believers operating outside of the confines of state-authorized religious groups. Turkmenistan follows the same practices as Uzbekistan in ruthlessly suppressing any form of religious devotion or activism outside of strict state control, and has also failed to reform its religious law or register religious groups that comply with existing law. Yet the CPC designation, recommended by the bi-partisan US Commission on International Religious Freedom (CIRF), is not something the US government wants to confer on Turkmenistan, believing it to be counterproductive even in human rights terms, and of course eager to gain further cooperation on the Northern Distribution Network
The US has placed great weight on its policy of engagement and cooperation and private diplomatic intervention to gain concessions, and last year cited the registration of a small Catholic parish made up of expatriates as “progress." But the report admits that religious freedom "diminished slightly" in the 2010 with the registration of only one Muslim group, Ibrahim Edhem, located in Dashoguz province, yet others still unable to legalize.
Red and blue are primary colors. So it could just be a coincidence. But in the heated battle for Kyrgyzstan’s presidency, one website is pointing out that Prime Minister Almazbek Atambayev’s new logo bears a striking resemblance to … Valvoline motor oil!
Bloggers in Kyrgyzstan have been sniggering at the comparison since the campaign began last week. In Atambayev’s logo, the letter ‘A’ in his name looks very much like the Valvoline ‘V’ flipped upside down.
This was not lost on the “information-analytical portal” Sayasat.kg (politics.kg, in Kyrgyz), which describes itself as independent, but is actually backed by one of Atambayev’s competitors. Sayasat.kg calls Atambayev disingenuous and two-faced, using perevyortysh, a Russian word with the root “to turn upside down.”
This is not the first time that Atambayev’s campaign team has been accused of zealously trawling the Internet for inspiration. In 2009, when he ran against then-President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, Atambayev was teased for using a logo that looked suspiciously like that of a very popular American candidate – namely, Barack Obama.
Since the U.S. has moved to remove human rights-related restrictions from military aid to Uzbekistan, the Obama administration has been criticized for abandoning its scruples for the sake of Tashkent's cooperation on hosting supply lines to Afghanistan. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was asked about that yesterday, and she said there has been progress on human rights and political freedoms:
With respect to Uzbekistan, we value our relationship with Uzbekistan. They have been very helpful to us with respect to the Northern Distribution Network. They have also been helpful with Afghanistan in terms of reconstruction. They are deeply involved in assisting Afghans and the Afghan Government to try to rebuild and make Afghanistan a more prosperous, peaceful country. We believe that our continuing dialogue with officials of the government is essential. It always raises, as I have and as others from our government continue to do so, our concerns about human rights and political freedoms. But at the same time we are working with the Uzbeks to make progress, and we are seeing some signs of that, and we would clearly like to deepen our relationship on all issues.
Now, that contention is going to get a lot of scrutiny. She didn't give any examples of how the situation in Uzbekistan has improved. The most recent State Department human rights report does highlight a few areas in which Uzbekistan has improved. For example: