Russian President Vladimir Putin watches the final stage of the Center-2015 military exercise in Orenburg. (photo: Mod Russia)
Nearly 100,000 Russian soldiers have wrapped up the country's biggest military exercise of the year, practicing to "contain" a conflict in Central Asia.
The scenario of the exercise, said Colonel-General Vladimir Rudnitskiy, the commander of Russia's Central Military District, was the "containment of an international armed conflict in the Central Asian strategic direction."
But for an exercise supposedly oriented toward Central Asia, it included very little participation by Russia's Central Asian allies. The Russian Ministry of Defense, in its account of the exercise, repeatedly referred to the participants as "the armed forces of the member states of the Collective Security Treaty Organization," but the vast majority of the 95,000 soldiers who took part were Russian; the only other participant was Kazakhstan, which sent a handful of units. (The CSTO is a Russia-led military alliance also including Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.)
The exercise was called Center-2015, and the Center name has been in the past used for joint CSTO exercises; it's not clear why no other Central Asian states were involved this time.
In one evocative touch, Russian President Vladimir Putin watched the final stage of the exercise from Orenburg. Orenburg is best known as the garrison town from which the Russian empire conquered Central Asia in the 19th century.
After putting yet another journalist in jail, a top official in Azerbaijan advised foreign news companies to comply with the country’s tight media regulations or face the consequences. The warning was addressed, among others, to Voice of America, the foreign broadcasting outlet of the US government.
News operations like Voice of America and the Berlin-based Meydan TV “do not comply with the rules and operate in the country illegally,” mainstream Azerbaijani news outlets cited Ali Hasanov, President Ilham Aliyev’s senior aide for political issues, as saying. Failure to get accreditation from Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry, as required by government regulations, led to the recent detentions of journalists from MeydanTV, he claimed.
Such measures may not be the usual response for bureaucratic lapses, but that didn’t give Hasanov pause. As international criticism of Azerbaijan’s rights-record increases, particularly in the wake of investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova's imprisonment*, Hasanov and other officials show no sign of loosening things up.
Most recently, a 19-year-old reporter with Meydan TV was detained and sentenced to 30 days in jail for allegedly resisting police. Several other journalists from the Internet broadcaster, an outlet critical of President Aliyev’s rule, were summoned to police stations. Meydan TV and international media-rights observers said the company and its director, Emin Milli, have become the target for a government harassment campaign.
On September 16, Lord Desai stood up in the British House of Lords and proposed what he acknowledged to be a “utopian” solution to a burgeoning crisis that has challenged EU cohesion: Brussels should work via the United Nations to develop and fund a plan to resettle refugees from Syria and other Middle Eastern states in Central Asia.
“There are sparsely populated countries in Central Asia – Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Mongolia and so on. There, [in Central Asia] population density is one-hundredth of the population density in Europe,” Lord Desai said. “I would like the United Nations to arrange a transfer of as many migrants and refugees as possible, with the cooperation of those countries, to settle in those countries.”
Lord Desai cited supposed cultural similarities as a reason why Central Asian states might be receptive to accepting refugees from the Middle East. “These are Muslim countries,” he said, referring to Central Asian states. “They are co-religionists.”
Lord Desai’s proposal betrays a bewildering lack of knowledge about the countries to which he would dispatch those hoping to escape either the tyranny of Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime or radical Islamic terror. Some Central Asian states, particularly Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, are every bit as repressive as Syria. Turkmen leader Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, for example, is focused on locking his country down, not opening it up to newcomers.
As the Shanghai Cooperation Organization wraps up anti-terror exercises in Kyrgyzstan, a senior Russian official has said the group should play a role in fighting ISIS.
The SCO held command-staff exercises in Kyrgyzstan from September 15-17, attended by officials from the anti-terror organizations of member states China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. (In most cases that meant the post-KGB structures like Russia's Federal Security Service and Kyrgyzstan's State Committee for National Security.) "The purpose of these exercises is organizing and carrying out search operations to avoid terrorist attacks in SCO territory,” Kyrgyzstan's SCNS reported.
On Friday, senior SCO officials reviewed the results of the exercise in Tashkent (home to the SCO's Regional Anti-Terror Structure headquarters), and Sergei Smirnov, the deputy head of Russia's Federal Security Service, highlighted the role the organization could play in fighting ISIS.
"Representatives of all the relevant organs of the SCO member states understand the danger to the international community represented by the activities of this state and the damage which it could cause to us," Smirnov said.
A high-court decision in Georgia this week ended more than a year’s worth of pre-trial detention for a major opposition figure, former Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava, but a subsequent trial judgement has sent him back to prison for a four-and-a-half-year-long stretch.
The string of events already has revived a longstanding debate about whether the rule of law does indeed outweigh politics in Georgia.
Ugulava, 40, was released late on September 17 to a hero’s welcome from fellow members of the United National Movement (UNM), former President Mikheil Saakashvili’s party and the largest opposition to the ruling Georgian Dream coalition. The day before, the Constitutional Court, the country's highest judicial body, ruled that the constitution does not allow a defendant to be kept in detention for over nine months.
Many lawyers hailed the decision as “historic” for declaring unconstitutional a criminal law provision that allowed pre-trial detention to be extended beyond nine months if new charges are brought.
Ironically, that “unconstitutional” measure was voted into law by Ugulava’s own UNM party back in 2010.
But Ugalava’s time out of jail proved brief. Late on September 18, the Tbilisi City Court sentenced the ex-mayor, once one of the country’s most powerful political figures, to 4.5 years in prison for the alleged misspending of public funds. He was acquitted on money-laundering charges.
When an irate mother posted shocking pictures of a dilapidated children’s hospital in Almaty on her Facebook page, she no doubt hoped the authorities would act — but she probably did not expect such a fast result.
The pictures posted by Ainura Seitakyn showing grimy toilet facilities and a dismal-looking ward with peeling paintwork and cracked tiles caused a social media outcry. The furore got Almaty’s new mayor, Baurzhan Baybek, out from behind his desk to take a non-virtual look at conditions at the Almaty Children’s City Clinical Infection Hospital.
Hospital staff spruced the place up with a lick of paint before he arrived — but Baybek was not fooled. After the grim-faced mayor visited the hospital on September 17, the head of the chief doctor and two senior healthcare staff rolled, Almatynews.kz website reported.
“You’re sitting in here, it’s alright for you. So you don’t care what it’s like over there for others,” said an angry Baybek, presumably referring to the somewhat more luxurious office of the chief doctor, which was also pictured in Seitakyn’s photos. “Would you place your children here in these conditions?”
Baybek’s hands-on approach won plaudits from a public unaccustomed to top officials delving into the nitty-gritty of their problems and reacting so fast to solve them.
His actions suggest that the 42-year-old mayor, an up-and-coming politician who only came to office a month ago, has a keener sense of the public mood than his older-generation predecessor, Akhmetzhan Yesimov.
If there was a “little Armenia” in Syria, to borrow Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian’s words, there is also a little Syria in Armenia. The South Caucasus country has taken in 2,500 refugees from Syria just over the summer and continues to hand out visas and Armenian passports to Armenian-Syrians.
Before flooding into the European Union, Syrians, at least those of Armenian heritage, were streaming into Armenia. At 15,500 refugees since the start of the conflict, according to UNHCR and government figures, Armenia ranks as one of the most frequent destinations outside of the European Union for migrant Syrians relative to population, an Economist chart shows.
The mass arrival has been emphatically described as a “homecoming” in Armenia, where national identity is seen as something shared between the country’s residents and its far-flung Diasporas. “There are a 100 small and big Armenias around the world,” Foreign Minister Nalbandian told the BBC’s Russian service in a September 14 interview.
A tweet from Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on September 2,
The Russian government has published a draft of its agreement with Belarus on establishment of a new air base, to be Russia's first in that country, and some in Belarus are complaining that it sells out their national interest.
The Russian air base is slated to open some time in 2016 near the eastern city of Babruisk. Negotiations over the terms of the base agreement have been going on for the last couple of years, and on September 7 the Russian government published a draft agreement that it said had been "preliminarily worked out" with Belarus.
But when some defense experts in Belarus combed through the 25-page agreement, many of the provisions didn't sit well. Belarus will get no money, and Russia is not limited with respect to the types of weaponry and equipment it can deploy there. Belarusian law enforcement are prohibited from entering the base without permission of the Russian commander.
"Even not taking into account the unfavorable political consequences of the deployment of a Russian air base, this proposed agreement is discriminatory towards Belarus and sets up a neocolonial character of relations between the two countries," the Belarus Security Blog wrote in an analysis.
Interestingly, this agreement is only valid for 15 years. While many of the Belarusian critics said that was an excessively long term, it's actually substantially shorter than recent Russian base agreements with Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, which all will last into the 2040s.
President Alexander Lukashenko may have a hard time accepting the terms of the Russian agreement, said Arseniy Svitskiy, the director of the Minsk Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Research.
Prosecutors in Tajikistan have accused the leader of the Islamic Renaissance Party of instigating the recent unrest that culminated in dozens of deaths between government troops and loyalists of a former deputy defense minister accused of mounting a rebellion.
It is a dismal epilogue to the political career of Mukhiddin Kabiri, who pursued a liberal and accommodating line in relations with the government, drawing the criticism of those who believed he should have taken more hardline positions.
The Prosecutor General’s office said on September 17 that Kabiri headed 20 small-scale criminal groups and directly supervised their activities. Former defense minister and major-general Abduhalim Nazarzoda, a former member of the armed United Tajik Opposition, was taking his instructions directly from Kabiri, prosecutors said.
“The decision about the armed attack was taken in August 2015 and so for this purpose a large amount of money was funneled through so-called charitable organizations based in a number of countries,” prosecutors said in a statement.
The criminal gang being described by the government faces criminal charges including theft of weapons, ammunition and explosives, murder, hostage-taking, terrorism, threatening law enforcement officers and military personnel, and abuse of official positions.
No Western governments have to date issued any comment on the events unfolding in Tajikistan.
The U.S. State Department released only messages for American citizens warning them to take precautionary measures in the days following September 4. That appeared to serve as tacit confirmation of the official narrative, which has been supported by little actual evidence.
A freeze has been placed on all property belonging to Kabiri and the alleged leaders of the September 4 unrest.
Nordic telecoms giant TeliaSonera is pulling out of the Eurasian region in the wake of a three year-long scandal over its business dealings in Uzbekistan that saw it accused of funneling illicit payments to associates of Gulnara Karimova, the disgraced daughter of President Islam Karimov.
The company will gradually wind down its operations in its Eurasia section, which includes the six former Soviet states of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Tajikistan, as well as Nepal, and ultimately cease them altogether, it said in a statement on September 17.
The Swedish-Finnish company said it would focus instead on its telecoms business in Europe “within the strategy of creating the new TeliaSonera.”
“It is our belief that it is possible to do business in Eurasia which are [sic] both profitable and sustainable — but it is important to enter markets in a correct way,” it said.
When TeliaSonera entered Uzbekistan’s lucrative telecoms market, it allegedly used Karimova — at the time a major business player with telecommunications interests, but now under house arrest in Tashkent on corruption charges — as an intermediary.
TeliaSonera’s problems began three years ago, when a Swedish television station aired a report claiming the telecoms giant had made dubious payments to a shell company run by Karimova associate Gayane Avakyan in order to gain access to Uzbekistan’s market. That report sparked a major corruption investigation in Sweden that is ongoing to this day. The resignation of former chief executive Lars Nyberg and the dismissal of several senior company executives ensued the following year.