Distractions like a full-on rebellion and raging jihad somehow did not prevent Syria from holding an international cartoon festival this month. And from prizes going to artists from Azerbaijan, better known for supplying recruits for Syria’s Islamic insurgency than for providing the war-torn country with pictorial talent.
The contest’s website does not shed great light on its origins; at least, not for the non-Arabic-speaker. According to Azerbaijan's government-friendly website Azernews, it attracted entrants ranging from France and Morocco to Peru and Thailand.
But the background on Azerbaijan’s two medalists is clear.
Kazakhstan has again publicly criticized Russia's operation of the Baikonur space launch facility, suggesting that Astana continues to keep up the pressure on Moscow to take more control over the facility.
One of the most contentious issues has been Russia's use of the Proton launcher, which uses an especially toxic fuel. A crash of a Russian Proton rocket last year over Kazakhstan caused an estimated $90 million in damages and spurred a growing environmental protest movement in the country. But the alternative, the Zenit launcher, needs more technical work to achieve the same power as Proton.
Last week, the head of Kazakhstan's space agency KazCosmos, Talgat Musabayev , told the country's parliament that Kazakhstan would foot the bill for that modernization itself. From TengriNews:
“We would like to replace it [Proton] with Zenit rocket launcher. Of course, Proton is one of a kind technological achievement; there are practically no rockets of such good quality in the world. But you are right: this rocket uses terribly toxic fuel components. This is why I supported and support its replacement,” Musabayev said during the meeting in the lower chamber of the Parliament....
“Russia does not want to do it, I am telling you openly. That is why, it appears, that our country will bear all the costs. If there is a political will, then we are ready to act on it,” Musabayev added.
A court in Uzbekistan's capital, Tashkent, has slapped an enormous fine on a journalist for “threating public security” after he criticized local authorities. The case was prosecuted so quickly, in only three days, that the journalist was unable to secure a lawyer.
On June 28, the Shayhantahur District criminal court fined Said Abdurakhimov, who writes under the penname Sid Yanyshev, 9.6 million sums ($3,200 at the black market exchange rate), or 100 minimum monthly wages. The court found Abdurakhimov guilty of working without accreditation and for "producing or storing materials threatening public security and public order for distribution," the Moscow-based Fergana News website reported. The court also ordered the seizure of Abdurakhimov’s video camera.
The offending article, published by Fergana News on June 25, discussed authorities' failure to compensate residents whose homes were destroyed to build a highway.
The independent Uznews.net website said that following the publication, police in Tashkent had forced two women who had spoken to Abdurakhimov to file a complaint against him.
In the short period between the publication, the charges, and the court hearing, Abdurakhimov was not able to hire a lawyer and learn the case material, Uznews.net said. Fergana News said he would appeal.
Russian forces transported during recent snap military exercises in the Central Military District (photo: Russian MoD)
Snap Russian military exercises involving 65,000 troops also included Russian forces based in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. And the exercises demonstrated that "the main tasks of the Russian army in the near future will be focused not only on the Western, but also on the Central Asian military theater," wrote Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta.
The exercises took place June 21-28 in Russia's Central Military District, and is part of a broader push by Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu to institute these sorts of large-scale, unannounced exercises as a way of testing the armed forces' readiness. "The war games will give the picture of combat readiness of the troops stationed on a swathe of huge territory from the Volga River through the Urals Mountains to Siberia, and from the Kara Sea in the Arctic to the steppe on Russia’s southern border with Kazakhstan," reported state television network RT.
Some units from the Western and Southern military districts also took part in the drills, and NATO accused Moscow of using them to threaten Ukraine. "A NATO spokeswoman, Oana Lungescu, lamented Moscow’s military exercises, saying that 'it can be seen as a further escalation of the crisis with Ukraine,'" the AP reported.
Russia is giving Armenia a break designed to boost the Caucasus country’s diamond-cutting sector.
The Federation Council, the upper house of Russian Parliament, has ratified an agreement that scraps export duties on sales of Russian hydrocarbons and raw diamonds to Armenia. “We will be one step ahead of other countries that purchase raw Russian diamonds,” Artur Ashugian, an aide to the Armenian economics minister, told the Regnum news agency back in 2013, when the agreement was signed.
Armenia was a hub for diamond cutting and processing during the Soviet era, but the sector has struggled in recent years. Armenian officials expect a 15 percent hike in cut-diamond production as a result of the Russian concession. Last year, Armenia produced 94,498 carats of cut diamonds, the ARKA news agency reported. Russia is a major supplier of raw diamonds, oil and gas to Armenia.
The agreement contains a provision that bars Armenia from re-exporting Russian oil, gas and raw diamonds. Oil and gas sales cannot exceed the domestic needs of Armenia, which virtually has no other source of oil and gas, other than Russian Armenia also cannot re-sell customs-free raw Russian diamonds, but can sell the cut Russian diamonds to its heart’s content.
Armenia received the concession even before agreeing to join the Moscow-led ex-Soviet trade club, the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). The diamond-and-energy agreement may help Armenia compensate for some of drawbacks of EEU membership. Russian officials have said EEU may create problems vis-à-vis Armenian’s commitments to the World Trade Organization and that Yerevan may have to re-negotiate terms of its membership in WTO.
Georgian Defense Minister Iraklia Alasania with his Latvian counterpart, Raimonds Vējonis, at a press conference June 25 in Tbilisi. (photo: Georgian MoD)
NATO officials are raising expectations for Georgia ahead of the alliance's summit this fall, saying that while the country won't get the coveted Membership Action Plan that would be a direct path to full membership, it will nevertheless get a "substantial," "unprecedented" boost that will help Georgia get closer to NATO.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said definitively that Georgia will not get a MAP at the upcoming summit, which was news only to the most starry-eyed Georgians. "The summit in Wales will not be about a Membership Action Plan; but about more support to bring Georgia closer to NATO. And it will be a substantive package," Rasmussen said at a press conference in Brussels.
As to what that "package" will include, it is apparently not yet known, Rasmussen continued: "We will work on that package in close collaboration with Georgia from now until the summit. So I regret to say that I'm not able to outline the specific elements of that package at this stage. It will be elaborated on...from now until the summit."
Georgia's drawn-out courtship of NATO thus appears to be destined for years more of slow-motion drama. Some NATO members, notably the United States and many of the newer, post-communist members have pushed for faster NATO integration for Georgia (Latvia's defense minister, speaking Wednesday with his Georgian counterpart, endorsed MAP for Georgia). But several Western European members have been more reticent, for a variety of reasons: concern over the promise to defend a country which doesn't even control all of its de jure territory (i.e., the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia), reticence to provoke Russia for the sake of unclear strategic gain, and Georgia's uncertain record on democracy and human rights.
Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon has staked his legacy on the Rogun dam. From the National Museum of Tajikistan.
Two new reports should interest anyone following progress building the world’s tallest dam—Tajikistan’s 3,600-MW dream, Rogun.
The World Bank has released drafts of its long-awaited Rogun feasibility studies. They appear to give Tajikistan the green light to build Rogun, saying the dam is the best way to end the country’s crippling energy shortages. However, the economic model used to make the recommendation seems to assume a set of unlikely conditions, from financial reforms and improvements in Tajikistan’s insolvent electricity industry to a major breakthrough in relations with a prickly neighbor.
Meanwhile, in a second report, Human Rights Watch says the resettlement of 42,000 people whose homes will be destroyed or flooded by Rogun is not going as smoothly as the government has promised.
The World Bank studies look at technical, economic, environmental and social considerations for three potential heights. Overall, the Bank found the tallest Rogun option – 335 meters, the only one Tajik officials talk about – the most economical: “building a dam at the Rogun site is a lower cost solution to meeting Tajikistan’s energy needs than any of the alternatives.”
The Eurasian Economic Union complements the role of the Collective Security Treaty Organization but the two organizations shouldn't be merged -- at least in the short term -- the CSTO's Secretary General Nikolay Bordyuzha said in an interview. He added that the organization was creating "special operations" forces that would be involved in thwarting "cyberattacks." Bordyuzha compared Russia's post-Soviet integration schemes to those of Europe, with the Eurasian Economic Union the analog of the European Union, and the Collective Security Treaty Organization similar to NATO. He told Belarussian news agency BelTA;
For example in Europe you have NATO and the European Union. Not one government is accepted into the European Union without joining NATO. NATO deals with security, the EU with politics, economics and so on. The same scheme is proposed for relations between the CSTO and the EEU. That is, the EEU will resolve economic issues, and the CSTO -- politics and security. I think that we will work precisely in this vein.
That's an interesting division of labor, with the "politics" being the responsibility of the EU in Europe, but of the CSTO in the post-Soviet world. The EEU members have been stressing that the union is purely economic, not political, in order to assuage Russia's wary allies that they won't be giving up any of their sovereignty by joining. But do those allies want a "political" alliance if it's in the form of the CSTO, rather than the EEU? Anyway, Bordyuzha continues:
An Austrian citizen on June 24 won a Constitutional-Court case against Georgia’s parliament for a 2013 ban on the sale of agricultural land to foreigners. The reversal could have broad implications for the tiny South Caucasus country as it prepares to take on closer economic ties with the European Union.
Mathias Huter , a rule-of-law activist formerly employed by the anti- corruption watchdog Transparency International Georgia*, said that he sued because the ban discriminated against foreign nationals and could harm Georgia’s struggling agricultural sector, which he argued, “needs . . . foreign expertise and capital.”
“I felt the ban was… rushed and not thought through, [and came] just a few weeks before the  presidential election,” said Huter, who does not own farmland. TI Georgia filed the suit on Huter’s behalf.
In its ruling, the Court stated that, while the reasons cited for the ban — “national security, environmental protection and development of the agricultural sector” — were “correct,” and represent “important and valuable public interests,” they could have been realized “without violating foreigners’ property rights.”
Introduced by the ruling Georgian Dream coalition, the ban reversed an earlier government policy of encouraging foreign farmers, such as Punjabi from India and Boers from South Africa, to move to Georgia, a heavily agricultural country with relatively cheap land prices.
A German Patriot missile system. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
NATO is reportedly looking at ending its deployment of air defense units on the Syrian border, prompting objections from Ankara.
The German newspaper Der Spiegel reported that the U.S., Germany, and the Netherlands are considering ending their deployment of Patriot missile batteries by the end of the year. The systems were deployed in January 2013 in response to the intensified fighting there. The fighting, of course, has not died down, but the threat of a chemical attack has diminished. That, in combination with the fact that the soldiers from Germany and the Netherlands who operate the systems have been overstretched by the long deployment, have led to the reconsideration of the mission, Der Spiegel's sources said.
But Turkey isn't ready for them to go. “Turkey thinks that such a move doesn't serve relations between allies,” one Turkish foreign ministry official told Today's Zaman. Another diplomatic source told Hurriyet Daily News, "At a moment when there are serious security problems [in the region], a decision to withdraw these systems from Turkey would be inappropriate and unsuitable to the [values of our] alliance."