The USS Porter transits the Bosphorus out of the Black Sea on February 13 after conducting exercises and, its commander said, being buzzed by Russian planes. (photo: U.S. Navy Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Ford Williams)
Russian planes buzzed a United States warship in the Black Sea as it was conducting NATO exercises, American officials said. Russian officials denied that they had done anything aggressive but still criticized the presence of U.S. ships in the sea, indicating that U.S.-Russia military tension is continuing even under the U.S.'s new, ostensibly Russia-friendly, leadership.
The incident took place on February 10, the last day of Romania-led naval exercises in the Black Sea. Four separate Russian planes made low passes over the USS Porter, which was participating in the exercise. The ship's commander described the actions as "unsafe and unprofessional," a U.S. military spokesman said.
Russia denied the charges. "All of our flights were conducted and are being conducted over the neutral waters of the Black Sea in accordance with international rules and safety requirements,” Major General Igor Konashenkov said in a statement.
But Konashenkov dropped a little shade on the U.S., as well. “If the U.S. destroyer, as the Pentagon official claims, conducted a 'regular' patrol mission in the vicinity of Russia, tens of thousands miles away from their own shores, it is strange to be surprised about the no less regular flights of our aircraft over the Black Sea,” he said.
In the wake of the mayor of Tajikistan’s capital getting sidelined, his allies are now systematically being cleared out of jobs in and near the government.
On February 13, the executive committee of President Emomali Rahmon’s People’s Democratic Party assembled and decided to remove six leading party apparatchiks.
The changes were effected at Rahmon’s behest.
Tajikistan-focused news website Akhbor cited an unnamed source in the party as saying the process is intended to rid the city hall of ex-mayor Mahmadsaid Ubaidulloev’s cronies. New appointees will reportedly instead be the cronies of the new mayor, who also happens to be son of President Rahmon — Rustam Emomali. (Tajik sons take the first name of their father as a second name).
The authorities are trying to cast Emomali’s ascendancy to the mayor’s job as a much-needed injection of energy. Rahmon in December declared 2017 the year of youth and in that spirit gave his 29-year old scion a job for which he has little obvious background.
Acting quickly, Emomali dumped the sitting mayoral press secretary and the head of the city television station, Poytakht. Then on January 16, he fired the head of Dushanbe’s public records department, Saidhomid Mahmudov, who is Ubaidulloev’s cousin.
On February 7, less than a month after losing his mayoral post, Ubaidulloev resigned his seat on the Dushanbe city council, as did his ex-city hall chief of staff, Firuz Ulmasov.
A third heavyweight has entered the running in Kyrgyzstan’s presidential election, setting the stage for what could become Central Asia’s most eagerly ever contested democratic battle.
The parliamentary faction of the Respublika-Ata Jurt party tandem on February 14 unanimously nominated wealthy businessman and former prime minister Omurbek Babanov to stand in October’s vote.
Babanov has been active in politics since 2005 and proven a canny and cynical operator ever since. Early on, he was a member of the now-ruling Social Democratic Party (SDPK) and accordingly a leading figure among the opposition to former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s rule before he was successfully co-opted and named deputy prime minister in January 2009.
That stint under Bakiyev did not last very long, however, and Babanov was duly released from his duties in October 2009. Babanov was adamant at the time that “there is no talk of my return to the opposition.” The timing of the departure from government was fortuitous since Bakiyev was overthrown in a bloody revolt in April 2010.
Despite his sniffy stance toward his erstwhile SDPK allies in the latter days of the Bakiyev regime, Babanov was named prime minister in 2011 only to be forced out of the job in 2012 by a scandal involving the suspicious gift of an English-bred horse.
Babanov has remained an ever-present if relatively low-key presence on the political scene, occasionally criticizing the government but largely refraining from the type of flamboyant antics favored by the nationalist Ata-Jurt component of his political current.
The former NATO Central Asia liaison office in Tashkent. (photo: NATO)
Central Asians are more likely to see NATO as a threat rather than as a source of protection, according to a new survey.
The survey, by the American firm Gallup, polled residents of all the ex-Soviet republics except for Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. All of the Central Asian states saw NATO as more of a threat than as protection. Tajikistan was the most anti-NATO state, with 34 percent seeing it as a threat and eight percent as protection. Next is Kyrgyzstan, at 19 percent protection and 30 percent threat; then Kazakhstan, 25 percent protection and 31 percent threat.
It's hard to imagine what NATO would possibly threaten in Central Asia. And while it's tempting to attribute this to exposure to Russian narratives about NATO, Tajikistan is the least Russian-speaking of all these countries, and Kazakhstan the most Russian-speaking, so that explanation isn't satisfying. (The Bug Pit is unable to come up with a better one, though.)
Note that NATO closed down its Central Asia liaison office in Tashkent last year, deciding that it would henceforth operate all of its modest cooperation programs in the region from Brussels.
Armenia also had a mostly negative response, with 20 percent saying NATO is a threat and only eight percent as a protection. Armenia's government makes not-insignificant efforts to maintain real cooperation with NATO, in spite of being a member of the NATO rival Collective Security Treaty Organization. But the fact that the only NATO country on Armenia's border is Turkey no doubt colors public opinion on the alliance.
Uzbek entrepreneur Olim Sulaimanov speaking in a Facebook video address posted on February 11 in which he speaks about his latest run-ins with prosecutors. (Source: Facebook screenshot)
An entrepreneur in Uzbekistan who made a splash last year after appearing on national television to complain about the excesses of corrupt officials has himself now been targeted with fresh criminal investigations.
Back in November, Olim Sulaimanov provoked a sensation with his appearance on the TV show Business Club, where he explained how employees with a branch of the anti-finance crime department of the Prosecutor General’s Office in Tashkent had tried to extort money from him. The businessman named names and figures in his description of how tax officials were targeting his company.
Now, investigators are getting their own back. Earlier this month, Sulaimanov was summoned to appear in Mirzo Ulugbek district court in Tashkent to hear a case filed against him by Tashkent prosecutors on charges of fraud and slander.
As before, Sulaimanov has made full use of social media to document his situation.
“I was stunned when on February 1 I got a phone call from a judge called Kamolov and he summoned me to court the next day as an accused party. Actually, the Tashkent city court is currently considering my appeal [in an unrelated case] and the return of 203 million sum ($57,000) confiscated from my accounts. It turns out that I am involved in two cases at the same time,” he told EurasiaNet.org.
The entrepreneur suggested that some strange developments indicate the authorities are trying to apply pressure, as is customary. Sulaimanov said he did not attend a hearing eventually set for February 8 as his lawyer, Amriddin Abdullayev, informed him he was outside the city and therefore unable to come to court. Sulaimanov hinted that the lawyer had come under pressure.
Ilia II, patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church, in an undated photo. (photo: Patriarchate of the Georgian Orthodox Church)
The arrest of a senior Georgian Orthodox priest accused of plotting to poison an unnamed high level church official has roiled the country, where the church plays an outsized role in politics and society.
The priest in question, Giorgi Mamaladze, was arrested on February 10 moments before boarding a flight to Germany, where the ailing, 84-year-old Georgian Orthodox Patriarch Ilia II is recovering from a bladder procedure -- leading to rampant speculation that the patriarch was the would-be assassin's intended target. According to a statement from Georgia’s Office of the State Prosecutor, Mamaladze was caught with cyanide in his baggage:
The investigation began on February 2, based on information from a citizen who informed the prosecutor's office that his acquaintance Giorgi Mamaladze had asked for the lethal poison cyanide because he wanted to murder a cleric at the highest level of the hierarchy.
As had been widely anticipated, Turkmenistan’s president has not only won the presidential election, but has done so with a stratospheric majority, despite his nation’s sinking economy.
In light of the intensely authoritarian nature of the country, it is no surprise that Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov should have got 97.69 percent of the vote. And the turnout was high too.
“The 97.27 percent turnout indicates a high degree of civic involvement by the population and demonstrates its conscious desire to participate directly in democratic reforms in Turkmenistan,” an election official was quoted as saying by the state news agency.
The figures are grimly comical and news websites run by exiled Turkmens have argued convincingly that they are deeply fraudulent. It is perhaps worth dwelling upon them in passing for the intended symbolism, however.
Berdymukhamedov has, going by the official election figures, become only more popular with every passing election.
In February 2007, in the wake of the sudden death of President Sapamurat Niyazov, a still-diffident Berdymukhamedov was declared the election winner with a relatively modest 89.2 percent of the vote, and a 95 percent turnout. He bettered that performance by getting 97.14 percent of the vote, with a 96.7 percent turnout, in February 2012.
And since the size of the electorate has, according to official figures, risen from around 2.6 million in 2007 to 3.22 million people registered for this weekend’s vote, so that represents not just a proportional increase in would-be favorability, but also a hefty jump in outright support.
A plane carrying paying customers, officials and reporters completed the first commercial flight between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan for the first time in 25 years, signaling a hopeful new chapter in the two countries’ often-strained relations.
The plane departed the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, at 10 a.m. on February 10 and arrived less than an hour later in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent.
“The Tashkent-Dushanbe-Tashkent flight, which the peoples of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have awaited for 25 years, was made possible by the willingness of the two nations’ leader to meet halfway,” Tom Hallam, chief executive at Tajikistan’s privately owned Somon Air, was quoted as saying by RIA Novosti news agency.
Regular flights along the same route are scheduled to start from February 20.
Dushanbe-based news website Asia-Plus reported that only 14 tickets were sold for the maiden flight. Aside from paying customers, other fliers included aviation officials and journalists.
Asia-Plus quoted one passenger, Jamila Yusupova, as describing the flight as a momentous personal occasion.
“I am originally from Tashkent and back in the Soviet days I moved to Tajikistan together with my husband. And it has been 25 years since I have not been able to see my family. Now my brother and sister, who I haven’t seen for a quarter of a century, are waiting for me there,” she said.
Narmurad Rajabov, an ethnic Tajik living in the city of Bukhara, said his brother lived in neighboring Tajikistan. He said they had not seen one another for many years because of the difficulties entailed in securing a visa.
Georgian Foreign Minister Mikheil Janalidze meets with U.S. National Security Adviser Michael Flynn in Washington on February 10. (photo: MFA Georgia)
Eager to keep relations with the United States on the front foot, Georgian Foreign Minister Mikheil Janelidze has traveled to Washington to meet with senior American officials as Tbilisi seeks to shore up ties with a new administration that has at times demonstrated an affinity with Georgia's nemesis, Russia.
Relations between the U.S. and Georgia have steadily grown closer since the early 2000s, when the distant Caucasian state found itself in a privileged position in the George W. Bush White House’s foreign policy agenda.
But Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency has raised doubts about the future of cooperation between Washington and Tbilisi, given his new administration’s reputedly Russia-leaning inclinations.
No doubt hoping to keep ties on an even keel, Janelidze met on February 10 with U.S. National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and recently confirmed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, along with an assortment of members of Congress. Janelidze’s visit was likely meant to both confirm U.S. support and use the opportunity to assert Georgia’s carefully cultivated image as a regional stalwart for the new administration.
The diplomatic brouhaha over a travel blogger has led to senior officials in Armenia calling for Belarus to be kicked out of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the security alliance to which they both belong.
Alexander Lapshin, the now-notorious Russian-Israeli travel blogger, was extradited from Belarus to Azerbaijan on February 8. He is facing charges in Baku related to his visit to Nagorno Karabakh, a de jure part of Azerbaijan that is de facto controlled by Armenian forces. Azerbaijan considers a visit to Karabakh to be an illegal border crossing.
Demanding Lapshin's extradition was a dramatic step for the relatively minor crime of an illegal border crossing, especially given that both Russia and Israel are two of Azerbaijan's most important partners, and both have strongly objected to the extradition.
Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev called his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko to personally thank him for the extradition, calling it a "manifestation of the Azerbaijan-Belarus friendship and strategic partnership."
The episode, correspondingly, resulted in outrage in Armenia, including protests at the Belarusian embassy in Yerevan, and there were calls to retaliate against Minsk in various ways, including withdrawing its ambassador and suspending relations. But the most commonly proposed retaliation was to try to kick Belarus out of the CSTO.