Eurovision may now be over, but the controversy over Azerbaijan's freedom-of-speech practices keeps grooving on.
The latest matters at hand kicked off with the burlesque. Norwegian-Iranian satirist Amir Asgharnejad, a sort of Norwegian version of Borat, claimed he was stripped and forced by Azerbaijani policemen to step on an Iranian flag in the Baku airport, Norwegian media reported. Norway reportedly nearly pulled its Eurovision contestant, Tooji, out of the contest over the incident and a diplomatic exchange is ongoing.
In the run-up to Eurovision, Asgharnejad, who has a comedy news show on Norwegian public television, pretended to be a reporter from Iran and dispatched several tongue-in-cheek video reports from Baku, one of which described Azerbaijan as a "lousy country" that "has lived in the shadow of great Iran," and is now busy "draining the earth for oil" with help from "their Satan worshiping partners from the West."
Such humor was reportedly lost on Baku, which is engaged in a longstanding face-off with Tehran over issues of Islam, pop and homosexuality. Baku denies that airport police mistreated Asgharnejad or any other member of Norway's delegation, but has stopped short of an apology.
On May 26, the Norwegian ambassador to Baku, Elring Skonsberg, went to the Azerbaijani foreign ministry to clarify matters. “I emphasized that freedom of speech is very important in every democratic society. We agree on that,” Skonsberg was quoted by The Norway Post as saying.
Two years after Turkey-Israel relations broke down because of the Mavi Marmara incident, in which Israeli commandos killed nine Turkish activists during a botched raid of an aid ship heading to Gaza, the two countries remain estranged with little indication that a breakthrough in the diplomatic impasse between them is forthcoming. The Turkish government continues to demand that an apology for the event be given and that compensation to the families of those killed be offered. Although Israel appears ready to pay compensation, it has refused to apologize, seeking instead to express its "regret" over the incident.
That said, there are still some signs of life left in the relationship. Israeli tourists, who once flocked to Turkey but then stopped coming in the wake of the Mavi Marmara incident, are slowly returning to Turkish resorts. Trade relations between Turkey and Israel, meanwhile, have continued to flourish, despite the tension, leading some to suggest that it's in the economic sphere where the two countries might be able to find a "fresh start."
In Turkmenistan, the former Soviet Union’s conflict with Nazi Germany is no longer “Great” nor is it “Patriotic.”
According to a report distributed by the opposition news website, The Chronicle of Turkmenistan, Turkmen leader Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has banned the use of the term “Great Patriotic War” in reference to the Red Army’s defeat of Nazi forces.
State-controlled Turkmen media outlets employed the term in their coverage of Victory Day commemorations this past May 9. But immediately after the holiday, news outlet received instructions from the Ministry of Culture to use the term “1941-1945 war” from now on to describe the Soviet-Nazi conflict, the Chronicle of Turkmenistan reported.
The report went on to quote some journalists who said that some television and radio broadcasts that had been prepared for broadcast before the edict was issued had to be re-edited before they could be aired.
The Great Patriotic War remains the most widely used term in the CIS to describe the conflict. The term was first used just days after Nazi forces invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941.
So goes the PR blurb for a new social networking site designed for Internet-unfriendly Uzbekistan, but, say critics, it might as well read “our clone of Facebook.”
YouFace.uz has an interface strikingly similar to its famous counterpart: from the blue background and logo touting free-of-charge access (YouFace: “It will always be free”; Facebook: “It’s free and always will be”) to the almost identical user layout.
In an ironic twist, the launch comes 18 months after the NBC show 30 Rock spoofed social networking platforms with a fictional site called – you guessed it – YouFace.
The real, Uzbek YouFace has so far attracted 332 users, and on May 31 they were avidly debating (in Russian and Uzbek) whether the Facebook clone would take off.
“A shining example of how a lemon can be turned into lemonade,” commented one.
“You shouldn’t steal from someone else,” snapped another.
Ayyub Abdulloh, 22, says the site is his brainchild, set up with four sponsors – but financial issues are “private.”
In an online YouFace chat with EurasiaNet.org, he defended it against plagiarism charges: “It is not similar [to] Facebook, but just looks like that.” He pointed out that cars have similarities which create “comfort for drivers,” and in the same vein “websites must be comfortable too.”
After securing support from an archipelago of Pacific island nations for the independence of breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia, Moscow may now have netted a bigger catch -- Serbia.
During his visit to Moscow last week, Serbia's new president, Tomislav Nikolić, promised to push for recognition of the duo's independence in the Serbian parliament; a pledge that sparked optimism in Abkhazia. And, by now comfortably settled into its role in the two breakaway regions, Russia has made plain that it's happy to sweeten the deal.
Other Russian soul mates, the South Pacific countries of Nauru, Tuvalu and Vanuatu, also received or are believed to have received gifts from Moscow, but the Kremlin maintains their recognitions of the independence of the two Russian-guarded territories came from the heart.
Georgia may not have $800 million to spare, but Tbilisi also sees Belgrade as a soul mate.
Deputy Foreign Minister Nino Kalandadze noted that Georgia and Serbia share an Orthodox Christian faith (for that matter, so do Georgia and Russia), and an aspiration to integrate with the European Union. Beyond guilt-tripping Serbia's government into respecting Georgia’s territorial integrity, Tbilisi expressed hope that Belgrade will not choose to buck the EU’s position on the Georgian breakaways.
Twelve border guards have been found dead at a frontier post in southeastern Kazakhstan, local media report.
A top Border Service official confirmed on May 31 that an investigation was under way after the “charred remains of 13 people” had been discovered in a burnt-out border post the previous day.
The bodies of 12 border guards and one national park ranger have so far been found at the Argkankergen post on the Chinese frontier and the search continues for others, Turganbek Stambekov, first deputy director of the Border Service (which comes under the jurisdiction of Kazakhstan’s domestic intelligence service, the KNB), said. He did not specify if the fire was the cause of death.
Fuelling media suspicions of foul play, Stambekov said the border post is usually staffed by 15 guards in the summer, but gave no indication of the whereabouts of the missing three.
Speculating about what might be behind this unusual incident, local reports suggested an attack on the border detachment (though the possible motive is unclear) or hazing -- it is common in post-Soviet military units for senior soldiers to ritually harass and bully their juniors.
Initial reports that the frontier guards’ weapons were missing were not true, a Border Service source told the Kazinform state news agency. The source said the weapons had been found and sent for tests to see if they had been fired.
The security forces in Uzbekistan have been carrying out regular, large-scale antiterror exercises in Tashkent, suggesting a heightened concern about terror attacks or riots, opposition media are reporting.
The webstie uznews.com has been carrying a series of reports about police and military exercises carried out in the city. A common theme of the reports is that the authorities don't provide any information about the exercises, which then sow panic among locals who wonder what is going on when soldiers storm their neighborhoods. In February, one exercise led residents to believe that there was a hostage situation at a school:
Residents in a Tashkent neighbourhood were terrified to find themselves under attack from terrorists on 25th February, only to learn that the frightening events unfolding around them were apparently being staged as an exercise.
School number 149 was at the centre of events that day; people in camouflage fatigues, helmets and carrying weapons, began to herd passers by away from the neighbourhood and the school.
People who did not come out of their flats were ordered to remain there. At one point the sound of shooting and grenade explosions were clearly audible.
Another drill, at a railway station near the Tashkent airport earlier this month, prompted rumors that prisoners had broken out of a train that was transporting them:
Tenants said that they were frightened when military personnel and a great number of armoured vehicles started shootings at the railway station on 4 May....
“I walked on the bridge and saw military personnel come towards me, some 20 of them wearing helmets and bulletproof vests. ‘Are you going to detain someone?’ I asked. ‘No, do not worry, grandma, we are conducting drills,’ they replied,” the elderly woman said.
When music talents battled for the title of Europe’s best pop act in Baku at the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest last week, little did they know that there was a parallel battle going on backstage between alleged Wahhabi terrorists and Azerbaijan's security forces.
Azerbaijani officials today claimed that they busted an Islamist terror group and took out its leader just as they plotted to bomb the music show, assassinate President Ilham Aliyev, and blow up a couple of mosques and five-star hotels into the bargain.
As with previous reported cases of planned terror attacks, Azerbaijani’s ever-alert security officials are always a step ahead of the villains, but prefer not to share many details. Forty members of the group, allegedly based in Russia's North Caucasus, were arrested, while their leader, a certain Vugar Padarov, was killed in a shootout, the government claims.
Stricken almost a year ago by a massive arms explosion that reportedly killed scores, residents of Abadan are now preparing to move, en masse, under a new government plan. But why, when Turkmenistan’s authorities still will not admit the town suffered more than a little cosmetic damage?
Little is known of the new plans, except that the location will be a few kilometers closer to Ashgabat, in the Ruhabat District. The company that eventually wins the construction tender will be responsible for everything from sewer pipes to apartment blocks, roads and electricity infrastructure. Authorities are accepting proposals until June 6.
Initially, when the explosion occurred on July 7, 2011, authorities denied both that there had been an explosion and that anyone had died. But with residents’ videos airing on Russian-language newscasts and reappearing on international news sites, after three days authorities admitted that a fireworks factory had caught fire in the summer heat and that 15 people had died. A month later, authorities declared “life was back to normal in Abadan.”
Iranian naval vessels have conducted maneuvers close to the border with Azerbaijan, and high-ranking Turkish officials are visiting Baku as a show of force against Iran, according to a report in Regnum.ru.
The Regnum report cited the Azerbaijan opposition newspaper Yeni Musavat, which in turn cited eyewitnesses in the region of Astara, bordering Iran, as saying "six vessels of the Iranian navy forces had come close to the Azerbaijani state border for the second day. According to their observations, the Iranian vessels are involved in a series of manoeuvres as if it demonstrates threat to Azerbaijan." The alleged incursion comes at a time of increased tension between Iran and Azerbaijan, including Tehran's recall of its ambassador to Baku last week.
And Regnum's correspondent, citing a source in Baku "close to Turkish military circles in Baku," said that four top Turkish military commanders are visiting Azerbaijan in early June, including the heads of the army, navy and air force. "By this step, Turkey wants to explain Iran that it will not leave Azerbaijan alone," the source told Regnum.
Azerbaijan's state border service, however, denied the original report in Yeni Musavat, saying reports that Iranian warships were maneuvering were "baseless and provocative."