Nordic telecoms giant TeliaSonera is pulling out of the Eurasian region in the wake of a three year-long scandal over its business dealings in Uzbekistan that saw it accused of funneling illicit payments to associates of Gulnara Karimova, the disgraced daughter of President Islam Karimov.
The company will gradually wind down its operations in its Eurasia section, which includes the six former Soviet states of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Tajikistan, as well as Nepal, and ultimately cease them altogether, it said in a statement on September 17.
The Swedish-Finnish company said it would focus instead on its telecoms business in Europe “within the strategy of creating the new TeliaSonera.”
“It is our belief that it is possible to do business in Eurasia which are [sic] both profitable and sustainable — but it is important to enter markets in a correct way,” it said.
When TeliaSonera entered Uzbekistan’s lucrative telecoms market, it allegedly used Karimova — at the time a major business player with telecommunications interests, but now under house arrest in Tashkent on corruption charges — as an intermediary.
TeliaSonera’s problems began three years ago, when a Swedish television station aired a report claiming the telecoms giant had made dubious payments to a shell company run by Karimova associate Gayane Avakyan in order to gain access to Uzbekistan’s market. That report sparked a major corruption investigation in Sweden that is ongoing to this day. The resignation of former chief executive Lars Nyberg and the dismissal of several senior company executives ensued the following year.
Tajikistan's authorities say they have killed the fugitive general who mutinied two weeks ago. In the fight, however, the commander of the most elite special forces unit in the country, the Alfas, was killed as well.
The former general, Abduhalim Nazarzoda, was killed on September 16 at 14:00 local time after a day-and-a-half-long battle in the Romit Gorge at an altitude of 3,700 meters above sea level, Tajikistan's Interior Ministry and State Committee on National Security said in a joint statement.
During the fighting, the chief of the Alfas, Colonel Rustam Khamakiyev, and three other officers of the Alfas and OMON (a special forces unit of the Interior Ministry) were killed, the statement added.
There were earlier reports (though never officially confirmed) that Nazarzoda had been killed last week; and officials vowed that they would get him by the end of the summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization in Dushanbe, which wrapped up September 15.
In a setup indicative of the changing economic and, possibly, geopolitical dynamics in the South Caucasus, Armenia hopes China soon will agree to pay for a planned railway to Iran. At the same time, it also is lobbying for a free-trade agreement between Iran and the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union.
Economically and otherwise dependent on the big brother to the north, Russia, and sandwiched between hostile Azerbaijan and Turkey to the east and west, Armenia hopes that things can go south, to Iran. The planned railway could give Iran access to the Black Sea for large-scale shipments of exports and landlocked Armenia a significant role as a transit country.
The state of the railway link is not clear yet. Iranian officials said they are building their portion of it, while Armenia is looking for the means to construct its own. Armenian Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian hopes to scare up investment for the railroad from China during his upcoming September 23-25 visit. Yerevan and Beijing have already been in touch about the railway, according to Abrahamian.
Georgian defense officials say they would not welcome a potential request from Russia to use Georgian airspace for military and humanitarian overflights to Syria. “If such a request is made, the position of the Georgian Ministry of Defense . . . will be negative,” the ministry emailed EurasiaNet.org on September 14.
Last week, EurasiaNet.org examined the possibility that US pressure to block Russian flights to Syria via Bulgaria and Greece could prompt Moscow to consider the Caucasus as a possible alternative route for these air shipments. Russia regularly airlifts military supplies to Armenia, where it has an army base, and the two countries, longtime strategic allies, plan to share an air defense system.
Air navigation authorities in both Armenia and neighboring Georgia underlined that Russian military planes currently do not use their countries' airspace for transit to Syria and that, in Georgia’s case, such transit would require the foreign ministry’s consent.
The Georgian foreign ministry only responded to questions on the topic after EurasiaNet.org’s report was published on September 11. “Russia has not been in touch with requests to use Georgian airspace for Syria-bound flights, neither now, nor at any stage of the conflict” in Syria, the ministry stated in a September 14 email.
The ministry noted that Georgia is engaged in a “general dialogue and coordination on security issues with the US, Georgia’s strategic partner,” but said that there has not been any discussion with Washington about Russian flights to Syria.
The US embassy in Tbilisi commented that it has "encouraged our allies and partners to ask tough questions" about Russia's deployment to Syria, but declined to go into details.
Azerbaijan has moved to end a major parliamentary dialogue with the European Union in retaliation for EU criticism of its rights record. The tit-for-tat between Brussels and Baku again pits the push for democratization against the desire for Azerbaijan’s Caspian Sea gas.
Aside from the September 14 vote to suspend the country’s participation in Euronest, a parliamentary forum of the European Union and its eastern neighbors, Azerbaijani legislators also called for a broader revision of Baku’s cooperation with Brussels through the EU’s Eastern Partnership Program.
Azerbaijan already had told a delegation from the EU’s executive body, the European Commission, not to bother to visit Baku as had been planned.
The diplomatic brownout began with the European Parliament’s September 10 resolution that admonished Azerbaijan for “unprecedented repression against civil society” and for jailing domestic critics of the ruling elite; most recently, investigative freelance journalist Khadija Ismayilova. The resolution called for the “immediate and unconditional release” of Ismayilova and scores of jailed rights activists and other critics.
Azerbaijani lawmakers were having none of that. “They malign Azerbaijan, try to harm the image of our country and isolate it,” they said in the passed resolution.
Foreign ministers, defense ministers and heads of security councils of CSTO member nations pose for a photograph ahead of a summit in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, on September 15, 2015. (Photo: EurasiaNet.org)
As expected, anxieties about the claimed threat posed to Central Asia by the Islamic State group and other extremist outfits dominated talk at the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) summit in Dushanbe on September 15.
Host president Emomali Rahmon set the tone with his remarks.
“Tajikistan has drawn the attention of colleagues to the current situation in the region as a whole and in Afghanistan in particular,” he said. “The specter of emergencies and security threats in the region is not diminishing, and could even grow.”
It was Russian leader Vladimir Putin that made the point about Islamic State most forcefully.
“The risk of terrorist and extremist organizations making incursions into countries neighboring Afghanistan has increased. Moreover, this threat is made worse by the fact that along with the organizations known to be active in Afghanistan, the so-called Islamic State too has increased its influence,” he said during a heads of states meeting at the summit.
Out of the three former Soviet Central Asian states that border Afghanistan, only Tajikistan is a CSTO member. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have spurned the Moscow-led alliance.
Ahead of the summit, Russian newspaper Kommersant cited an unnamed CSTO official as saying the fight against the Islamic State has led member states to consider proposals on alliance contingents being deployed outside the organization’s borders to take part in an international coalition operating under the auspices of the United Nations.
Putin appeared to be alluding to such a possibility in his remarks.
“Basic common sense and responsibility for global and regional security demands that the global community unites in the face of these threats,” he said.
The government in Tajikistan has banned its only viable opposition, driven its leader into exile and linked it to recent violent unrest, thereby leaving it open to grave criminal charges.
With the bulk of its work done in dismantling the Islamic Renaissance Party, the authorities are now busying themselves expropriating the party’s property and goods.
IRPT told EurasiaNet.org that police entered their offices on September 14 and demanded that the safe be opened. Police proceeded to seize 7,000 somoni ($1,100) and the party’s computer archives, an IRPT representative said.
The offices had been sealed and inaccessible to IRPT staff since August 24, when it ordered shut by a Dushanbe court ruling.
The building belonged to Nematullo Saidov, the son of Said Abdulloh Nuri, who founded the IRPT. Prosecutors have said, however, that the property, which was bought by Saidov from a company called Tijorat, was originally acquired by illegal means.
To compound matters, the prosecutor’s office is measuring the premises in what IRPT representatives believe could be the prelude to fresh accusations of the illegal snatching of a few meters of land.
Authorities are also going after property linked to exiled IRPT leader Mukhiddin Kabiri.
Prosecutors and anticorruption officials over the weekend sealed real estate belonging to Kabiri’s relatives. No explanation has been provided for that action.
Other property targeted included the offices of a construction firm belonging to Kabiri’s brother and a paper napkin and toilet paper factory.
“They confiscated a whole array of production equipment, but because these were fastened down, they were unable to carry them away,” an IRPT representative told EurasiaNet.org.
A fresh scuffle between police and demonstrators in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, suggests that widespread complaints about officials' handling of a 16.5-percent increase in electricity prices could still have legs.
The latest rally, scattered by police on September 12, did not boast the numbers comparable to the “high-voltage rallies,” a series of sit-ins in the city center in June known as Electric Yerevan. It was a much smaller crowd, made up mainly of activists from the No to Plunder group, which claims that the government, counter to its earlier promises, has not entirely covered the cost of the higher power prices.
Most businesses, the group alleges, have been left out.
At first glance, to many outsiders, paying roughly ten cents (48.78 drams) per kilowatt hour of daytime energy use may not seem high. But protesters claim the real issue relates to the practice of officials handing out special favors for the government's corporate chums -- a longtime complaint in Armenia. The government, they charge, always covers up accordingly.
No to Plunder has demanded that the new prices, seen as the result of government collusion with the Russian-owned Electricity Networks of Armenia (ENA), be scrapped entirely. “We will go to the end,” the protesters told Interfax.
Tajikistan is suffering from a case of Goldilocks syndrome when it comes to clothing.
Wear clothes that are too Muslim and you risk being dragged off the street by the police.
A group of parents in the capital, Dushanbe, is now facing the music for sending their children to school in excessively expensive garb.
Radio Free Europe’s Tajik service, Ozodi, has reported that the parents of 11 pupils from a school in Dushanbe’s Nosiri Husrav neighborhood have been brought to heel for violating the “Law on the Responsibility of Parents for Educating Children.”
The girls in question stand accused of spurning the uniforms made in a local neighborhood sewing factory, where pupils are expected to buy their school outfits, and instead buying their own in the market, Ozodi reported. Their parents now face a 120 somoni ($19) fine.
The thinking behind the action is said to be the need to protect poorer students from exposure to luxuries they could not themselves possibly afford.
“Those who have money can buy clothes for 300 somoni. Those who don’t (have the money), buy the cheap clothes. Students from poor families, when they see this, feel bad,” Bozorgul Saidova, deputy head of the Nosiri Husrav neighborhood, told Ozodi.
But the brother of one offending student, Murod Rahmonov, told Ozodi that the neighborhood sewing factory did not make a uniform for his sister’s size, which is why they had to look for alternatives at the market.
“My sister’s clothes were sewn badly and were too large for her. So she went to school in another dress. But they made trouble for us and summoned us to the prosecutors. I don’t know what is going to happen now,” Rahmonov said.
The practice of assisting the hard-up from having to indulge in unaffordable expenses has some vintage in Tajikistan.
Tajikistan's authorities said on Sunday that the renegade general who had attacked government security forces is still alive, contradicting reports from two days earlier that he had been killed.
The confusion and ongoing rebellion come at an awkward time for President Emomali Rahmon, as he gets ready to host Russian President Vladimir Putin and other post-Soviet leaders who are meeting in Dushanbe starting on Monday.
The conflict began September 4, when armed groups led by deputy defense minister and general Abduhalim Nazarzoda attacked police posts and military bases around Dushanbe, and then fled into the Ramit Gorge, about 50 kilometers outside the city.
A source in the security services told newspaper Asia Plus that Nazarzoda was killed on September 11. But on September 13, the secretary of the national security council Abdulrakhim Kahharov announced that Nazarzoda was still alive, though surrounded.
All this suggests that the upcoming summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization could be a bit more unpredictable than Rahmon would have liked. The confluence of the two events has clearly made the authorities uncomfortable.