It was Nobel laureate John Steinbeck who once said; “Power does not corrupt. Fear corrupts ... perhaps the fear of a loss of power.” Steinbeck’s sentiments would help explain why Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia is so scared of oversight.
Reflecting the Russian government’s aversion to scrutiny, district prosecutors in Moscow recently issued a ruling designed to hamper the ability of a leading watchdog organization, Transparency International-Russia (TIR), to operate. The document calls on TIR to register as a “foreign agent,” a designation that would hinder the organization’s ability to receive funding from abroad.
TIR, as every Kremlin crony is acutely aware, does a good job at tracking corrupt practices. In Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index for 2014, Russia showed itself to be among the most venal states in the world, ranking 136th out of the 175 countries surveyed. It is no surprise, then, that Russian officials would want to be rid of TIR.
Moscow prosecutors based their ruling on an assertion that TIR’s activities were aimed “at interfering in the conduct of government policy in connection with the fight against corruption by lobbying on behalf of its own proposals for change.”
Yelena Panfilova, a Russian citizen who serves as the deputy chair of Transparency International’s global organization, called the prosecutor’s ruling “illiterate nonsense.”
Russia is behind schedule implementing billions of dollars of critical hydropower projects on the Naryn River.
A top official in Kyrgyzstan has grumbled that Russia is far behind schedule implementing billions of dollars of critical hydropower projects in the energy-starved country.
The giant Kambar-Ata 1 hydropower dam and the Upper-Naryn Cascade of four smaller hydropower dams were supposed to be well on their way to completion by now. Moscow and Bishkek signed deals for their construction in August 2012. As part of the package of related agreements, Moscow secured a 15-year extension on its military facilities in the Central Asian country after the current lease expires in 2017.
But according to Kyrgyz Energy Minister Kubanychbek Turdubayev, nothing much is happening. Speaking at a ministry meeting on February 12, in comments carried by Vechernii Bishkek, Turdubayev said:
We have been barraged with criticism over [energy] projects. People can see no real progress in such projects as [the construction of] two Kambar-Ata hydroelectric power plants and the Upper-Naryn Cascade of hydroelectric power plants. It should be admitted that there are serious omissions. Kyrgyzstan's rights have been violated and there is no progress. […]
After a U.S. Congressional committee held a hearing critically examining U.S.-Azerbaijan relations, Azerbaijan's parliament responded with a retaliatory event of its own, accusing the U.S. of ignoring Baku's strategic cooperation with Washington.
On February 12, the House's Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats held a hearing, "Azerbaijan: U.S. Energy, Security, and Human Rights Interests." As expected, members of Congress and American experts on Azerbaijan criticized Baku for its accelerating crackdown on any opposing voices in the country, including the raid on and closure of the U.S. government-funded RFE/RL office.
Baku has been increasingly vocal in its criticism of the U.S., and this time took the step of organizing its own counter-hearing just two days later, "Energy and Security Cooperation: Partnership Based on Mutual Interests." Azerbaijani opposition website contact.az noted that government officials in Baku resent what they see as ingratitude for the contributions that they make to U.S. security interests:
The head of the Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Relations Samad Seyidov described relations between the two countries 'strategic partnership'. He further spoke about the support that Azerbaijan provides to Washington and how the US does not appreciate this.
Moves are afoot in Kazakhstan to hold a snap presidential election. Proponents say an early election would give incumbent strongman Nursultan Nazarbayev a fresh mandate as the country faces a slumping economy and regional geopolitical tensions over the Ukraine conflict.
Nazarbayev, who has ruled Kazakhstan since before the collapse of the Soviet Union, won a snap election with little opposition in 2011.
The council of Assembly of People of Kazakhstan (APK), an umbrella organization representing the interests of Kazakhstan’s ethnic groups, called for the early election over the weekend. Nazarbayev chairs the organization and appoints its members.
“The country’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, must be given a new mandate of national confidence in order for the country to successfully navigate a period of global travails,” the APK’s council said in a statement issued on February 14, hinting at Kazakhstan’s economic difficulties and at regional tensions stemming from the escalating conflict in Ukraine.
“A mandate of confidence in the Leader of the Nation [one of Nazarbayev’s official titles] will unite and rally the people at this new stage of world development, allowing all efforts to be concentrated on the most important questions of state development,” the council said.
This public appeal from a quasi-official body for a snap election (which has been rumored for several months) means an early vote is practically a fait accompli. And it is no secret who is the favorite to win.
With Kazakhstan in the economic doldrums, the government is asking the “independent” media to don their rose-colored specs.
“At a time when measures to improve the economic situation are being carried out, the media is recommended to adhere to the following structure for publishing material,” says a statement sent to Kazakhstan’s private media outlets by the authoritarian government's Committee for Communications, IT, and Information and re-published by the Adil Soz media freedom watchdog on February 12.
A list of detailed “recommendations” follows, containing information on what the non-state media should publish, right down to the content, the frequency, and the thrust of the reporting.
The recommendations include publishing “material on every briefing as they are held (1-2 reports in the ‘Main News’ section)”; expert comments on the “correct measures [being taken by the government] and Kazakhstan’s margin of safety that will allow it to withstand a crisis”; and “infographics about Kazakhstan’s margin of safety and achievements in the years of independence (no less than once a month).”
Private media are also recommended to base their reporting on “official statements by competent state bodies,” and they should publish material “on negative social phenomena in foreign countries owing to the global economic situation (daily).”
The buildings in the shot are the Trump Tower and the Time Warner Center. Moguls from the former Soviet Union own or have owned at least 20 apartments in the Time Warner Center collectively worth in excess of $200 million, according to the New York Times.
Remember when Russian anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny dubbed Russian leader Vladimir Putin and his cronies as “The Party of Liars and Thieves?” Well, a New York Times investigation suggests that a sizable chunk of Russia’s dark money has ended up in New York City’s real estate market.
The Times’report highlights how oligarchs have used byzantine networks of shell companies to purchase luxury properties in New York. Despite extensive attempts to hide ownership, the Times determined that in one luxury building alone, the Time Warner Center situated at the southwest corner of Central Park, moguls from the former Soviet Union own or have owned at least 20 apartments collectively worth in excess of $200 million.
A central figure in the investigative report – part of a lengthy series on shady practices in New York’s high-end real estate market – is Andrey Vavilov, a former Russian deputy finance minister who became “extraordinarily wealthy” after going into banking following his departure from government in 1997. A trained economist, Vavilov, according to Swedish economist Anders Aslund, “was one of the [Russian] reformers who switched to the oligarchic side.”
Vavilov used shell corporations in 2007, when he attempted to purchase a pair of penthouses at the Plaza – one for $39.5 million, the other for $14 million. The deal ultimately fell through after Vavilov’s wife complained the apartments were not large enough for her liking, according to the Times report. However, Vavilov has successfully used shell corporations to purchase a pair of other apartments, paying $13 million and $37.5 million for two apartments in the Time Warner Center.
If you haven't yet made your plans for Valentine’s Day, but have 100 grand to spare and no qualms about decadent luxury, you may have missed an opportunity. The Four Seasons Hotel in Baku, capital of the hydrocarbon-rich, freedom-poor country of Azerbaijan, is laying a claim to the world's priciest and swankiest Valentine’s Day offer.
The roughly $128,000 (100,000 manats) deal includes a limousine pickup anywhere in the world, first-class flight to Baku, the regional center for affluence and corruption, and two nights of pampering in a presidential suite. It comes with a personal butler and roses and candles galore. Topping it off is a milk bath and a pair of Cartier watches with "his and her" names engraved.
Rumors that Uzbekistan’s strongman leader, Islam Karimov, has fallen ill are swirling around Tashkent, yet again, as the country heads for a presidential election in March.
The gossip stems from reports on an opposition website based abroad which is notorious for planting canards about Karimov’s alleged ill health and impending demise. Nevertheless, the fact that the ageing president – who turned 77 last month – has not been seen in public for over two weeks has set tongues wagging in the Uzbek capital.
The rumors surfaced late last month, when the People’s Movement of Uzbekistan (PMU), a Norway-based opposition group headed by long-exiled leader Muhammad Solih, reported – citing unidentified “sources” – that Karimov had fallen into a coma on January 28.
Many observers treated the report with skepticism, since the PMU is known for reporting ill-sourced information about Karimov’s health. In spring 2013, the PMU’s report that Uzbekistan’s president had had a heart attack and was at death’s door did the rounds of the world’s media. But Karimov soon turned up safe and sound.
He may well do again – but it now transpires that Karimov has not been seen in public for over two weeks, as the Fergana News website reports – despite the fact that a presidential election campaign in which he is the only realistic candidate is supposedly in full swing.
Tajikistan's parliament has made it easier for its citizens to join the Russian armed forces in response to Russia's welcoming of foreigners into its ranks.
Last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law allowing citizens of other countries to join the Russian military. While in theory the move would seem to pave the way for a Russian version of the French foreign legion, military analysts said that the real purpose was to make it easier to take on locals at Russia's military bases abroad, in particular in Armenia and Tajikistan. From the Moscow Times:
Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Center for the Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a Moscow-based defense think tank, explained to The Moscow Times that the change was finally implemented to provide legal status to locals already serving on Russian bases in Armenia and Tajikistan.
Furthermore, as salaries for Russian civilians continue to outpace those offered by military service contracts, the new law is seen as a way to fill the military with migrant workers, Pukhov said. The reported salary for a contract soldier in the Russian army is 30,000 rubles ($500) a month.
It seems the Azerbaijani capital of Baku is hoping to cash in on the Brooklyn brand.
Brooklyn, New York City’s most populous borough, has established a global reputation for hipness. Thus, imagine the delight of Azerbaijani officials when Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams signed a sister-city agreement back in November with Baku’s Sabail District, a central area of the city once known as the Stalin District.
The sister-city pact is perhaps the highest-profile initiative in a broad campaign by Azerbaijani officials to foster a positive image of Azerbaijan among the American public. The Brooklyn-Sabail District agreement calls for the development of cultural, educational and economic exchanges.
On January 29, Adams in Brooklyn met with a high-level Azerbaijani governmental delegation led by Minister of Culture and Tourism Abulfas Garayev, according to a report distributed by the News.az website. Garayev expressed a desire to use the sister-city agreement as a means to promote Azerbaijan as a tourist destination for New Yorkers. “The minister highlighted Azerbaijan’s tourism potential,” the report said.
Adams’ office declined to answer multiple queries from EurasiaNet.org seeking details about the partnership arrangement.
According to a November 19 press release issued by the borough president’s office, Adams said the sister-city pact would highlight the contributions of Brooklyn's roughly 5,000-strong Azeri community to the borough.