After being grounded for several months following an unspecified digestive tract illness and subsequent surgery, the normally on-the-go Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was back in action this week, with a trip that took him first to South Korea and then Iran. In both cases, the question of nuclear power -- that of Turkey and of others -- was high on the agenda.
While other issues, namely Syria, are on Erdogan's plate during his visit today to Tehran, the question of Iran's controversial nuclear program will clearly dominate his talks with the Iranians (among others, the Turkish PM is meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani). In the past, Erdogan had been accused of being too quick to defend the Iranians and the intentions of their nuclear activity, but there was some indication that time around he was coming to Tehran with a sterner message. Initial reports out of Iran, though, found Erdogan voicing support for a "peaceful" Iranian nuclear program. “No one has the right to impose anything on anyone with regards to nuclear energy, provided that it is for peaceful purposes,” Erdogan said during a press conference with Iranian First Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi.
Culinary connoisseurs around the world, have we got news for you. A brandy-like drink will soon cascade from a fountain in the city of Batumi, Georgia's up-and-coming party town on the Black Sea coast.
And we are not talking about just any kind of booze here. No less than Georgia's national hard liquor chacha -- sometimes defined as grape brandy or grappa, sometimes as grape vodka, but always no less than chacha -- will gush once a week from a tower in the central part of town. "Once a week, for 10 to 15 minutes, chacha will flow from this fountain instead of water. Tourists will have an opportunity to taste the traditional drink," Mayor of Batumi Robert Chkhaidze told Georgian television.
Georgia has been going out of its way to attract tourists and Batumi, its star tourist project, now offers wonderfully tacky attractions ranging from wedding-cake buildings to Dubai-style glass towers and an upcoming aerial tramway.
The price tag for this latest addition -- described, with a straight face, as "Georgia's first chacha tower" -- has not been released, but the city government hopes that the fountain will attract an ever larger crowd of visitors.
Independent mathematicians and political scientists agree: Three times zero equals, well, zero.
Several months ago, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov suggested he is tired of running the only political party in Turkmenistan. After winning reelection to a second five-year term in February, he instructed his government to see about the development of parties in addition to his Democratic Party.
"The creation of a multi-party system in Turkmenistan corresponds with our aims to democratize society and undertake major social reforms," state television quoted Berdymukhamedov as saying.
Token alternative parties are employed in neighboring countries such as Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to present a (generally unconvincing) democratic façade. But, as in those cases, few believe Berdymukhamedov, who has bestowed upon himself the title Arkadag – “The Patron,” or “The Protector” – has any intention of ceding an ounce of his absolute power.
"This could signal the beginning of managed democracy, but the rigid nature of the current system and lack of political opposition makes it unlikely these parties could pursue independent agendas," Eurasia Group analyst Gemma Ferst told Reuters.
Ohanian, Panetta and other U.S. and Armenian officials meet in Washington
Armenia's defense minister Seyran Ohanian has wrapped up a three-day visit to the U.S., as military relations between the U.S. and Armenia quietly strengthen. Ohanian's visit was his first to the U.S. since he became defense minister in 2008, according to Armenian Reporter, which reported that he met with his counterpart Leon Panetta and CIA director David Petraeus, among other officials.
Last month, the two countries agreed to carry out their first-ever joint military exercises in April. And Wikileaked U.S. diplomatic cables show that Ohanian is someone the U.S. likes working with, Armenian Reporter notes:
Although this was Ohanyan's first visit to U.S. since his appointment as defense minister in 2008, Ohanyan is known to have a good rapport with Americans, meeting Petraeus and other senior U.S. officials during visits with Armenian peacekeeping units in Iraq and Afghanistan and to NATO headquarters in Brussels.
"The better we get to know Minister Ohanian, the more we like him as a partner in political-military efforts," U.S. Charge in Armenia Joseph Pennington wrote in a 2009 cable made available by Wikileaks. "He seems a straightforward interlocutor, who is respected in the Armenian government and within the Defense Ministry. His credibility as a soldier is very high, given his long experience commanding NKSDF [Nagorno Karabakh Self Defense Forces] troops."
"We are pleased to find General Ohanian interested and committed on Armenia's NATO-related defense reform efforts and Euro-Atlantic ties," Pennington wrote.
To paraphrase Jean-Paul Sartre, politicians, like all dreamers, sometimes seem to confuse disenchantment and truth. This time round, it's the turn of billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, dreamer-in-chief of the opposition Georgian Dream movement, who refuses to accept a reported truth -- at least, in the form of an opinion poll -- which portrays him as number two on Georgians’ list of favorite politicians.
The oligarch-turned-politician says that there must be something wrong with a recent opinion poll by the National Democratic Institute, the American non-governmental organization, which apparently does not put him in first place in terms of popular support, but rather behind President Mikheil Saakashvili and his ruling United National Movement Party (UNM).
Leaked ratings of political parties, part of a broader public opinion survey, reportedly show that if Georgians were to vote for a president tomorrow, 28 percent would support a UNM candidate and 12 percent would cast their votes for Ivanishvili, Interpressnews reported on March 27. Similarly, 47 percent said they would support the UNM over the Georgian Dream in this October's parliamentary election, Civil.ge reported. NDI has not responded to the reports.
Another Uzbek refugee has been deported from South Korea, according to a Korean human rights lawyer.
Jong Chul Kim of Advocates for Public Interest Law writes that an Uzbek man who was living as a refugee in South Korea claiming “he would be persecuted and tortured by [the] UZB [Uzbek] government for his Muslim activities on return to his country of origin,” has been handed over to Uzbek authorities in Seoul. The man’s application for refugee status was rejected on March 21, and he was ordered to return to Uzbekistan the same day.
“According to relevant law, he was supposed to enjoy right to appeal to the Minister of Justice for 14 day after his first instance application is rejected,” Kim writes.
Kim says that in the six years he has dealt with such cases, this is the first time a refugee with the right to appeal his case has been immediately deported. According to Kim, two Uzbek officials met the man at Incheon Airport to escort him back to Uzbekistan. The man’s wife and two daughters live in Seoul on valid visas.
This is not the first time an Uzbek refugee has been deported from South Korea. In 2011, Uzbek businessman Abdullah Rabiev, who similarly fled to South Korea fearing that he would be persecuted for his involvement with an Islamic group, also faced deportation after his numerous appeals for refugee status were rejected.
Voting in de-facto presidential elections is becoming a regular pastime in the breakaway region of South Ossetia. After three attempts since November 2011 -- the latest, on March 25 -- to choose a successor to longtime strongman Eduard Kokoity, residents are now being asked to vote, yes, a fourth time on April 8.
"The people are tired of the election process . . . " candidate Leonid Tibilov, a former South Ossetian KGB boss who scooped up 42.48 percent of the latest de-facto vote, according to preliminary results, commented wryly to the Russian daily Kommersant. Without a clear majority, Tibilov will now face off against David Sanakoyev, the region's de-facto human rights ombudsman, with 24.58 percent of the vote.
Haunting the polls also, though, are the ghosts of (de-facto) elections past: Kokoity and opposition leader Alla Jioyeva, who claimed election in December 2011 and now is under house arrest in Tskhinvali after having attempted to proceed with her inauguration.
In interviews with Kommersant, both Tibilov and Sanakoyev took efforts to emphasize their distaste for or distance from Kokoity, and their fondness for the people's will; a sentiment no doubt enhanced after the large-scale public demonstrations that broke out in December in favor of Jioyeva.
Georgian opposition politician Bidzina Ivanishvili is paying tens of thousands of dollars a month to Washington lobbyists, and it looks like it's already paying off. On Monday, Jim McDermott, a Democratic congressman from Washington state, introduced the "Republic of Georgia Democracy Act of 2012," which would require the U.S. to cut off all aid (military and otherwise) to Georgia unless the Secretary of State can certify that parliamentary elections scheduled in October are carried out in a free, fair and competitive manner. That fits with a recent rhetorical push by U.S. officials to impress upon Georgia's government the extent to which Washington is watching the conduct of its elections. The penalty may seem a bit harsh, though: when was the last time Bahrain -- to pick another prominent U.S. military aid recipient -- had a free election?
But what's most striking about the bill is its emphasis on Ivanishvili. The bill mentions the billionaire businessman no fewer than 13 times in its nine pages, without mentioning any other politician (other than President MIkheil Saakashvili, referring to his "increasingly dictatorial control over Georgia's government" and several times to the "Saakashvili regime"). It details the revocation of Ivanishvili's citizenship, the financial harassment of Ivanishvili and the suspicious death of an Ivanishvili supporter while in jail. Unsurprisingly, the bill's text was sent to The Bug Pit by a PR firm working for Ivanishvili. (The bill, introduced only Monday, does not appear to be online yet, I'll update with a link when it is.)
Relations between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are about to grow a little colder.
Tashkent has said that from April 1 it will cut all natural gas supply to Tajikistan, again. This time, the story is that Uzbekistan needs to reroute the gas to fulfill its obligations to China.
But under an agreement signed in January, Tashkent would send Dushanbe 200 million cubic meters of natural gas annually. To put this in perspective, Uzbekistan produces 200 million cubic meters of natural gas a day. So, Tajik authorities are suspicious that the threat is not so much about gas shortages as politics.
Tashkent has a record of withholding gas from Dushanbe. For example, on January 4, Uzbekistan cut all gas to Tajikistan. After a brief visit from the Tajik vice prime minister, the gas was turned back on.
Local news agencies in Dushanbe have speculated that Tashkent is attempting to punish its upstream neighbor. The two countries have long been at odds over hydropower projects in Tajikistan.
In November, an explosion at a bridge on the Galaba-Amuzang railroad, which routes supplies into southern Tajikistan, left the line inoperable. A few days later, the Uzbek government claimed the explosion was an act of terrorism and vowed it would repair the bridge. But the railroad remains closed. As of February, an official with Tajikistan’s state railroad company said that 298 wagons of material bound for southern Tajikistan have been marooned in Uzbekistan and that three and a half million residents of southern Tajikistan are living under an economic blockade.
Few people may think that Eurovision, an unbridled celebration of European pop music, is all about family values. But when the glitzy annual music contest due arrives in Baku this May, the Caucasus tradition of looking out for one's relatives quite literally will take center stage. Emin Agalarov, the 32-year-old son-in-law of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, has been recruited to entertain the Eurovision audience before or between the contestants' acts.
Not to belittle the talent of a First Son-in-Law (married to Aliyev's older daughter, Leyla), but, to many, this looks almost like a classic move for a country renowned for liking to keep things in the family; the Aliyev family, that is.
The Eurovision organizing committee is headed by Agalarov's mother-in-law, First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva.
Agalarov, who sings in English and was raised partly in New Jersey, said he is humbled by the honor bestowed on him and hopes that Eurovision will be “an incredible showcase” for Azerbaijan that will prompt outsiders to Google the country's name and drop by for a visit.