Maybe Tajikistan’s leaders have finally decided that a heavy-handed approach to smoldering discontent is futile and have taken a page from the hearts-and-minds playbook. Despite their concerted crackdown on anything related to Islam lately, the ruling party has offered locals in Isfara -- often described as an Islamic stronghold in northern Tajikistan'ssection of the Ferghana Valley -- something with popular appeal.
The People’s Democratic Party paid for eight indigent boys from the village of Charku (the scene of a shootout last fall, allegedly with Islamic militants) to be circumcised this week, Avesta.tj reports. The ceremony was complete with music and food and the press service of the regional government said the party promised more support for low-income families in the future.
But the people of Charku may be unimpressed if they learn that, as far as charitable snipping is concerned, they come up short. A year ago, businessmen provided circumcisions for 200 boys at the Dushanbe Business Center and 70 more in Dangara, the president’s home district.
The Hurriyet Daily News is carrying an interesting AFP report about an Uzbek crackdown on Turkish firms that are being accused by the government of being fronts for religious activity. From the report:
Uzbekistan has stepped up pressure against the private business interests of its one-time ally Turkey, with state media denouncing Turkish firms as acting as a front for religious extremists.
Long wary of the influence of Islamic fundamentalism in the Muslim majority Central Asian state, secular authorities appear to be linking Turkish private business to the activities of the Nurcus, an Islamic group that is banned in the country.
Uzbek state television has repeatedly aired documentaries accusing Turkish companies of creating a shadow economy, using double accounting and propagating nationalistic and extremist ideology.
"Over the past two years 54 Turkish nationals have faced criminal charges, 50 ventures working with Turkish capital were closed down for breaching country's laws and causing damage to the economy," a special report by the main Uzbekistan channel said.
Over half a billion dollars worth of cash and goods were "confiscated by one Tashkent court decision alone," according to the documentary "Kurnamaklık" (The Ungrateful Ones).
The reports came just after Uzbek law enforcement officials raided the Turkuaz supermarket, one of the biggest in the capital Tashkent, in a so-called "mask show" operation involving balaclava-clad special security forces.
At the end of last year, the first and the oldest Turkish supermarket in Tashkent was closed down for breaking local laws.
Washington hopes that WTO membership will teach Russia to play by the rules when it comes to investment and trade. WTO member Georgia, however, is looking to sell for a good price the only significant bargaining chip it has in its territorial conflict with the Kremlin.
In exchange for allowing Russia into the WTO, Tbilisi wants Moscow to let Georgians guard Russia’s borders with breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia or, at the very least, to support the deployment of international border monitors in both territories.
Russia, which is on a mission to convince the world to accept Abkhazia and South Ossetia as sovereign states, was quick to throw out the option. Instead, Moscow offered to resolve the dispute over a glass of wine.
Parallel to the WTO talks, Russia’s food security chief, Gennadiy Onishchenko, reiterated that Russia may lift its embargo on Georgian wines if Georgia, to which Onishchenko kindly referred as a “nationalist territorial formation,” submits to "control measures" on its wine products.
Commenting on Tbilisi's attempts to block Moscow's WTO bid, Onishchenko scoffed that the Georgians must think that “they hold the god by his beard and they will probably order [him] around, using Russia's national interests."
So Kyrgyzstan President Roza Otunbayeva's visit to Washington is over, and while publicly the agenda was dominated by her acceptance of the "International Women of Courage" award and talk of democracy, we can assume that behind the scenes the discussions were heavy on the issue of the Manas air base that the U.S. operates in Kyrgyzstan.
A couple of weeks ago, the Kyrgyzstan parliament proposed a law that would tax fuel going to Manas, to the tune of about $40 million a year, which the U.S. is "vehemently opposing."
Otunbayeva, in her public comments, did not mention the base at all. I did talk to someone with knowledge of her visit, who says that Otunbayeva guaranteed that the base will function normally for at least another year, when a new government will take over.
And she met with President Obama and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, and the White House's official statement afterward mentioned Manas, in very conciliatory terms:
President Obama reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to support Kyrgyzstan’s efforts to consolidate its democracy. He thanked Otunbayeva for Kyrgyzstan’s support for the Transit Center at Manas and said the U.S. has taken steps to improve transparency about the Transit Center and payments connected to it, and pledged to maximize the benefits for the Kyrgyz people.
The mention of transparency and maximizing benefits of course refers to the ongoing controversy about the mysterious fuel deals that the Pentagon has made with companies Mina Corp. and Red Star to supply fuel, which have caused a lot of indignation in Kyrgyzstan.
Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, has been taking a British tabloid beating over the controversial links he has cultivated in his role as a trade envoy. Touring the world for years drumming up business for the United Kingdom with assorted dictators and despots, the underemployed prince seems to roll with a motley crew, including some movers and shakers in Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan.
Earlier this week Andrew managed to cling on to his envoy role despite his links to convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. This furor seems not to have bothered the “Prince of Sleaze,” as he’s come to be known. Even as his position was under intense scrutiny on March 7, he was lobbying a member of Britain's parliament to promote business links with Azerbaijan, a country he has visited on numerous occasions. He is said to be a frequent dinner guest of President Ilham Aliyev.
Kyrgyzstanis looking for a quick buck could do no worse than giving birth to triplets and naming them after the country's leading politicians.
At least that's what a family in the southern Batken region has just done. The KyrTAG news agency says parliament has unanimously voted to give 1 million Kyrgyzstani soms ($20,000) to a family that decided to named their newborn sons after the leaders of the three coalition parties: Prime Minister Almazbek Atambayev, Ata-Zhurt leader and parliament speaker Akhmatbek Keldibekov, and Respublika leader Omurbek Babanov.
According to KyrTAG, a set of triplets -- one girl and two boys born last year -- were named in a similar vein after the provisional government leaders that came to power in the April 7 uprising: Atambayev, President Roza Otunbayeva and Ata-Meken leader Omurbek Tekebayev. That earned the family 50,000 soms, a cow, and a house worth 250,000 soms.
But with all the speculation currently swirling about Kyrgyzstan's shaky coalition government possibly falling apart in the near future, things don't bode well for sibling ties between little Akhmatbek, Almazbek and Omurbek.
Training and education is not the sexiest aspect of the military; it's much more fun to read (and write) about operations and weapons purchases. But as scholar Sébastien Peyrouse correctly points out, training is often overlooked and often more important than we think. He has a piece on Central Asian military training in The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies (the entire issue, in fact, is on “Security and Defense Reform in Central Asia.") The conclusions aren't too shocking and parallel the larger sociopolitical situation in the region: the situation overall is poor, Kazakhstan is in the best shape, but Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are hampered by their insularity and Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan by their poverty:
Numerous difficulties are compounded in Central Asia: a loss of the Soviet-trained and most competent personnel; administrative sluggishness and the inertia of the administrative military machine; bad will on behalf of some of the high-ranked officers to participate in reform; rampant corruption that hampers modernization; deterioration of military morality and the military’s image in society; demotivating salaries for soldiers and officers who are not involved in the shadow economy networks, and so on. The conjunction between managing the Soviet heritage, dealing with financial difficulties, and solving 21st-century security challenges is therefore complex, and it risks impeding the overall military capacities of some of the Central Asian states.
A March 11 rally against Azerbaijan's government, heavily promoted on Facebook, may or may not prove a real "day of rage," but Azerbaijani police are not taking any chances. Nor is Azerbaijan's chief psychiatrist, who would most likely advise the country's Facebook activists to visit their doctors for treatment of "mental problems."
Chief psychiatrist Garay Geraybeyli on March 7 appeared to use a Soviet-era tactic for quashing dissent by implying that individuals who frequent Facebook and other social networks are mentally unbalanced.
In an interview with the pro-government news agency Trend, Geraybeyli asserted that "People who prefer virtual relations have problems with real-life conversation. They do not have a sufficient vocabulary. They have problems with their speech . . . The result is mental problems."
That evaluation, however, has not stopped police with their cyber-crackdown.
Sakhavan Soltani, a member of the youth wing of the opposition Musavat Party, was hauled in for questioning on March 8. The day before, another anti-government activist, Rashadat Akhundov, was taken into custody. Earlier on, two other activists, involved in organizing the same Facebook "day of rage, " were handed prison sentences.
Is Turkmenistan bad for your career? If you are a member of the British Royal Family, yes, but if you are an American lobbyist, apparently not.
Take the case of David Goldwyn, the State Department’s Coordinator for International Energy Affairs. He appears to have a soft spot for dictators. Not only was he a leading light in the U.S.-Turkmen Business Council, for less than $5,000 he was prepared to represent the interests of Libya in 2008.
According to lobbying disclosure records, Goldwyn’s firm, Goldwyn International Strategies, lobbied on behalf of the U.S.-Libya Business Association on “issues related to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.” It was a six-day job with Goldwyn registering the Association as a client on May 6, 2008 and terminating on May 12, 2008.
But his ties with Libya stretch back further than that. He was also the registrant of the U.S.-Libya Business Association’s website in June 2005. According to the lobbying disclosures, the Association was based out of his office suite on K Street NW in Washington DC. Goldwyn is also listed as the registrant of the U.S.-Turkmen Business Council’s website.
Those concerned about the danger of drugs and militants in Central Asia know that all roads lead to -- or through – Tajikistan, the impoverished failing state on Afghanistan’s northern border. In recent weeks, apprehensions about the country’s sieve-like borders have been stirred up in Moscow and Washington alike. Can the two find enough mutual ground to cooperate on border security in the region, or will mistrust keep them at odds?
In Russia, the latest alarm bell sounded two days ago, when Semyon Bagdasarov, a member of the State Duma’s International Affairs Committee, said the Tajiks are not keeping Afghan drugs out of Central Asia -- and, by extension, out of Russia -- and should either hand control of the Afghan border back to Moscow, or suffer the consequences.
“Either we go back there and there is control of the situation, or it is time for us to introduce a visa regime with Tajikistan,” the Avesta.tj news service reports Bagdasarov as saying. (By some estimates, as many as a million Tajiks work, legally and illegally, in Russia. Moscow raises the specter of a visa requirement from time to time, usually when it is pressuring Dushanbe for some concession.)
Bagdasarov’s insistence that Russia take more responsibility for the porous, 1,300-kilometer border is not surprising. He’s said as much before. But chatter in favor of a return of Russian troops (who guarded the border from tsarist times until 2005) is growing louder. The fashionable position in Moscow seems to be that Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the sick men of Central Asia, cannot provide adequate security.