Georgia and France have finalized a blockbuster air defense deal that was the source of a major political crisis in Tbilisi last year, though many of the details of the deal and the crisis remain shrouded in mystery.
Defense Minister Tina Khidasheli on June 15 signed an agreement with the company ThalesRaytheonSystems in Paris on the purchase of “advanced” air defense systems that will “guarantee country’s air defense,” Khidasheli said, according to Georgian news website Civil.ge.
But that's about all that is known: the exact type of system, its price, or anything else is being kept secret. “I cannot speak about the details of the agreement we signed today. Information about such type of procurements, weapon should be top state secret, otherwise we can now continue our conversation in Russian and they will not even need to spend money on translation to learn information about this agreement,” Khidasheli told the Georgian state broadcaster.
The June 14 arrest and later search of the house of Aiuf Borchashvili led to tensions in Pankisi, a predominantly Muslim area, which has recently seen dozens of its members head off to join jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria.
The arrest and a string of detentions appear to signal that Georgian officials are now trying to push back more actively against the departure of Muslim Georgians for Syria.
Family and friends of Borchashvili, who was also the imam of the village of Jokola, staged a protest against his arrest, however, and some clerics warned that the detention is spelling trouble for the Georgian authorities.
The imam's lawyer, Gela Nikolaishvili, has rejected the charges as "absurd," Civil.ge reported.
As part of a broader swoop, police also detained Merab Batirashvili, the alleged cousin of ISIS commander Omar al-Shishani (Tarkhan Batirashvili), a Pankisi native, who some suspect could coordinate recruitment in Georgia. Batirashvili was later released.
On top of moving against alleged recruitment, police took another unprecedented step and detained in the Tbilisi airport three young men suspected of planning to travel to Syria to join ISIS. They, too, were later released.
Few places are as silent as a city of 1.2 million the day unknown numbers of wolves, lions, tigers and bears are reported to be at large. But now, one day after a June 13-14 flash-flood destroyed Tbilisi’s city zoo, killing some 13 people, and wiping out houses and a highway, into that silence has come a cacophony of questions.
Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili has announced that an investigation will be held into the reasons for the massive damage caused by the flood, touched off when heavy rain prompted a stream that runs through a gorge in the city center to overflow.
Questions have been raised, he noted, about the way the highway that bordered the zoo – the so-called New Road, built at the end of President Mikheil Saakashvili’s administration – was constructed.
If the construction is found to be faulty, the question of the responsibility of “those people, who, for years, did not pay attention to the situation,” has to be asked, he stressed, Internews reported.
Finance Minister Nodar Saduri announced that the initial damage estimate of 40 million laris (about $19 million) would not “be sufficient” to repair all the damage done, news agencies reported.
In an effort to allieve the strain on roads from the loss of the highway, Gharibashvili on June 15 asked Tbilisi residents not to use their cars except in cases of emergency. Gigantic potholes have appeared in two main thoroughfares not far from the flooded area – a possible sign of underground water.
Such developments appear to have prompted President Giorgi Margvelashvili to raise the question of urban planning. “The question of the cause of the flooding shouldn’t go to politicians, but to urban-designers, architects and city-development specialists,” he claimed, news outlets reported.
June 15 was declared an official day of mourning and a non-working day.
Qatar has brokered the release of four Tajikistani border guards who had been held hostage by the Taliban in Afghanistan since December.
The news came from the Qatari foreign ministry on June 14, but thus far the border guards haven't appeared in Tajikistan, nor has the Tajikistan government commented.
“Under the directives of HH the Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, Qatari mediation succeeded in the release of four soldiers from Tajikstan who were captured by Taliban in December on the Northern borders of Afghanistan,” the Qatari statement said. “Qatar is using all its resources and diplomacy to save lives."
The four guards were kidnapped while gathering firewood on the border with Afghanistan; their commanding officer was later sentenced to eight and a half years in prison for ordering the men to gather the firewood.
Within days after the kidnapping the Tajikistan government said that they knew where the four were being held and that they would be released imminently, but since then little information has come out.
The intriguing element of the reported release is the Qatari angle. It's not known what Qatar did to secure the guards' release, but the Taliban regularly kidnap foreigners for exorbitant ransoms.
A corruption scandal has engulfed a high-profile international exhibition that Astana is organizing, just as Kazakhstan enters the final stages of its bid to stage another prominent global event – the Winter Olympics.
Talgat Yermegiyayev, the chief organizer of Kazakhstan’s EXPO-2017 exhibition (which is due to be held in Astana in two years) has been placed under house arrest on suspicion of embezzlement, reports the Today.kz website.
The court ruling was issued on June 12, the day after President Nursultan Nazarbayev had fired Yermegiyayev from his position as chief executive of the Astana EXPO-2017 company, which is organizing the international exhibition. Nazarbayev’s administration has billed the event a major PR coup for Kazakhstan.
Another top EXPO official, Kazhymurat Usenov, who was in charge of the department overseeing construction of facilities for the exhibition, has also been placed under house arrest. He is suspected of embezzling 214 million tenge ($1.2 million) from the $385 million the state has allocated for the $3 billion event.
The corruption scandal has erupted as Kazakhstan enters the final stages in the race to stage the 2022 Winter Olympics, in which commercial capital Almaty is competing with Beijing to host the prestigious sporting event. A vote is due at the end of July.
The march against corruption advances undaunted in Tajikistan. Or does it?
A senior official has been felled in the trumpeted campaign to battle the country's scourge of all-encompassing graft, Russian news agency Interfax reported on June 15. Khasan Radzhabov was serving as adviser to the president on personnel affairs at the time of his arrest by the anticorruption agency.
Interfax cites a law enforcement source as saying that Radzhabov is suspected of embezzlement and bribe taking on a massive scale. No other details are yet available.
What personnel recommendations might Radzhabov have given the president?
He may learn to regret them if they included the March appointment of President Emomali Rahmon's 27-year-old son, Rustam Emomali, as head of the Agency for State Financial Control and Combating Corruption.
That nod invited immediate suggestions of high-level nepotism, although Emomali appears to have sought to dispel those thoughts by embarking on his job with gusto.
Izzattullo Azizov, an official with the state religious affairs committee, was arrested days after Emomali took up his post on suspicion of soliciting $2,000 bribes from devout Muslim hoping to go on the hajj. That detention was eagerly advertised on the evening news.
Interfax says several other senior functionaries have been arrested since.
There can be little disagreement that Tajikistan has a major corruption problem. The country ranks 152 out of 175 in Transparency International’s most recent Corruption Perceptions Index.
Five years after an ethnic conflict left hundreds dead and Kyrgyzstan’s second city smoldering, the uneven application of racial hatred laws is still hindering open conversations about nationalism.
Last week, veteran journalist Ulugbek Babakulov, who is editor of the MK Asia newspaper and a member of an ethnic minority group, was questioned by Kyrgyzstan’s GKNB security service and informed that tens of people had signed a statement calling for him to be charged for spreading ethnic hatred.
Babakulov had not publicly defamed another ethnicity. His alleged offence appears to be criticizing an ethnic Kyrgyz public figure for doing so.
In a May issue of MK Asia (a local branch of the Russian daily Moskovsky Komsomolets), Babakulov highlighted comments made late last year by Abdyrakhman Alimbaev, a former head of the Writer’s Union of Kyrgyzstan, likening non-Kyrgyz ethnic groups to “jackals.”
During the December 7 broadcast of the Kyrgyz talk show Tooluktardyn – “Mountain People” – on state broadcaster OTRK, Alimbaev allegedly said: “Of course, if the child's mother is an Uzbek, an Uighur woman or a Jew, the child may become a trader. […] What do we see today? Kyrgyz women marry men of different nationalities, and Kyrgyz men also marry different women. It is like a lion marrying a jackal or a jackal marrying a lioness.”
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has finished a weeklong tour of the five Central Asian states by appealing for them to improve their dismal human rights records. He called on the region’s autocrats to respect civil liberties, at the very least as a means to preserve stability.
“There is no peace without development. No development without peace. And neither is possible without a respect for human rights,” Ban told a meeting of students and officials in Turkmenistan, which campaigners describe as one of the world’s worst human rights abusers.
Speaking in Ashgabat on June 13, the last day of his tour, Ban pointed to concerns about a “deterioration of some aspects of human rights – a shrinking democratic space” across Central Asia.
Restrictions on freedoms might foster “an illusion of stability in the short-run,” he added, but ultimately threatened to create “a breeding ground for extremist ideologies.”
“Around the world, the way to confront threats is not more repression, it is more openness. More human rights,” he added.
A day earlier, in Uzbekistan, Ban had heeded calls by human rights campaigners to press Tashkent over the issues of forced labor and torture.
He acknowledged progress in eliminating the use of child labor, but urged the government to address “the mobilization of teachers, doctors and others in cotton harvesting,” and also “prevent the maltreatment of prisoners.”
Ban hailed “good laws” adopted in Uzbekistan to uphold the rule of law, but added that “laws on the books should be made real in the lives of people.”
A senior State Department official has downplayed the threat of Central Asian fighters joining ISIS amid heightened concerns after a high-ranking Tajikistan police official announced that he had joined the radical Islamist group.
While some Central Asians are joining the group, the vast majority are recruited outside the region, particularly as labor migrants in Russia, said Daniel Rosenblum, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs.
"For the overwhelming majority of Central Asians, the conflict in Syria and Iraq is a distant phenomenon; it is not something they think about day-to-day. But a small minority of Central Asians have been successfully recruited by violent extremists to join the conflict," Rosenblum said .
Rosenblum was speaking at a June 11 hearing of the U.S. Congress's Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe titled"Wanted: Foreign Fighters -- The Escalating Threat of ISIL in Central Asia." In spite of that somewhat overwrought title, Rosenblum did not discuss the what threat ISIS may pose to Central Asia itself, though he did mention media reports of ISIS appearing in Afghanistan: "We have seen signs that ISIL is attempting to spread into Afghanistan, and that some Taliban groups have rebranded themselves as ISIL to attract funding and recruits. ISIL’s presence in Afghanistan is a relatively new phenomenon and it will take time to evaluate its long-term prospects."
But, as with many other things, the Azerbaijani government has its rules about what exactly constitutes the right breakfast.
During their time in Baku, the European sports community and those individuals staying at certain hotels may find it hard to avoid having a kookoo egg, a traditional omelet, every morning.
Before the Games, officials “trademarked” a so-called “Azerbaijan Breakfast” and requested all major hotels to start serving it. Earlier this week, tourism officials presented the rights-protected breakfast to managers of high-end hotels in Baku and said they’ve came up with an unspecified quality-inspection system.
The morning meal includes a cheese platter, jam, honey, tea and, of course, the kookoo eggs. And it is free for visiting athletes and sports officials.
But some foreign visitors, including a sports-reporter for the UK’s Guardian newspaper, are not going to be there to try it.* The authorities denied The Guardian accreditation for the Games after it published a critical piece on preparations for the event.