The chief editor of a leading news website in Kazakhstan has announced that he has left the country out of concern that he may be targeted for prosecution.
Bekzhan Idrisov, who edits Radiotochka.kz, made the announcement on his Facebook page on December 26. The publisher of his website and editor of Central Asia Monitor newspaper, Bigeldy Gabdullin, was detained by the authorities in mid-November on suspicion of committing fraud.
Stories of reporters feeling compelled to flee Kazakhstan are a stark reminder of the problems face by independent media in the country as they negotiate financial constraints and pressure from the government to refrain from critical coverage.
“I have left Kazakhstan. Forever is my hope… I want to explain this to my colleagues at Radiotochka.kz. I know that I have vanished suddenly and at an inconvenient time for you. But you know there is no convenient time for such things. Either I end up in jail next to Gabdullin or I give evidence against him,” Idrisov wrote.
Idrisov suggested that a feature on his website — Who Owns KZ — has caused particular umbrage in Astana. The section draws on open sources to document the tax payments and property ownership of government officials, businessmen and other public figures.
Idrisov has declined to reveal his current location over security concerns and said that his sources have informed him he has been placed on a wanted list.
With the New Year holidays approaching, Russia and Tajikistan have decided to engage in a fresh round of battle of flight bans.
The dispute is sowing deep uncertainty among passengers and affecting those most vulnerable, the Tajik migrant laborers upon whom Tajikistan’s economy strongly depends.
The first to be hit by the new bans were the passengers expecting to fly on December 23 on Somoni Air from the Russian city of Orenburg after aviation authorities in Russia stopped the company from operating in its skies. Somoni Air is now barred from flying at another four Russian cities.
The history of the dispute dates back to early November. Dushanbe fired the first salvo by refusing to give clearance to flights arriving from the Moscow region airport of Zhukovo, to which Russia reacted by threatening a complete halt to all flights to Tajikistan.
A Tajik delegation travel to Moscow on November 7 and managed after some panicked negotiations to reach a workable compromise and avert the embargo.
Trouble resumed on December 21, when Russia again threatened to close its airspace to Tajik airlines if Dushanbe would not agree to admit flights from Yamal Airlines, a company based in the northern Siberian town of Salekhard. More than 100 tickets had been sold for this route.
But Tajikistan’s Transportation Ministry said that during the November negotiations, Tajikistan agreed only to flights for Ural Airlines and Tajik Air, and that there was no mention of Yamal Airlines.
The Transportation Ministry noted that Yamal had no right to sell tickets without receiving a permit from the the government.
White Noise protesters gather in Tbilisi on December 10, 2016 to call for the decriminalization of drug use. "It's time for change," a protester's poster reads.
A Georgian political party plans to ring in the New Year by planting weed as an act of civil disobedience against the Caucasus country’s stringent anti-drug policies.
Members of the party, which, incidentally, has the botanical name of Pine Cone (Girchi/გირჩი), are inviting likeminded individuals to join them in a pot-planting fest a minute before midnight on December 31. Anyone of age is welcome to come along, Pine Cone said in a press release.
The procedure, staged at the party’s main Tbilisi office, will be broadcast live in a bid to push the Georgian government toward the full decriminalization of marijuana use. The name of the broadcaster was not given.
Perhaps for good reason. Police already have said that they will respond according to the law, which mandates prison sentences of six to 12 years for an organized, group cultivation of psychoactive plants.
If they follow through, some extra prison space might be needed -- so far, up to 553 people have signed up to plant pot, according to the Pine Cone site. Another 1,673 said they support the protest.
Aimira Shaukentayeva appearing to react to a question from Russian interviewer Vladimir Posner.
A state-controlled TV channel in Kazakhstan has waded into a fresh scandal involving a famous Russian interviewer that has seemingly led to the departure of one of its best-known anchors.
Late last week, effete First Channel Eurasia newsreader Ruslan Smykov breathlessly told viewers that he had a startling announcement to make — his colleague Aimira Shaukentayeva had been interviewed on an illustrious Russian news show. As sensations go, it was a decidedly unimpressive intramural media affair, but state media in Central Asia unashamedly relishes in the attention of outsiders.
In the purported interview, Vladimir Posner, best remembered in the West for his involvement in a landmark series of televised discussions in the 1980s between audiences in the Soviet Union and the US, appears, courtesy of some editing trickery, to be flattered by the opportunity to finally meet Shaukentayeva.
This was the first clue something wasn't quite right. Shaukentayeva may be well known in Kazakhstan for her arch news-reading style, heavily accentuated pouting and near-Kabuki-level makeup, but she is a nonentity beyond the country’s borders. The brief trail of the interview set up by Smykov shows Posner and Shaukentayeva exchanging some generic niceties and little else.
The faked interview looks at worst like an oddly pointless prank perpetrated, like most of First Channel Eurasia’s news output, at the expense of the unwitting viewers and for the amusement of its creators. Sources at First Channel Eurasia confirmed to Today.kz that the interview was indeed a “joke” — not that this was made at all clear from the outset.
All the same, the forgery provoked howls of indignation.
The yawning, decades-long divide between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan will get that little bit narrower next week when a senior Uzbek delegation travels to Dushanbe for talks on trade and economic cooperation.
The delegation will travel to Tajikistan on December 26 and be led by Uzbek deputy prime minister Rustam Azimov, whose recent removal as finance minister appears for now to signal his transition to a role as the lead on development of Uzbekistan’s external economic ties.
Talks will focus on reopening railway and road links that have now been closed for several years. At the heart of the historic disaccord is Tajikistan’s plan to build a giant hydropower dam that Uzbekistan could threaten its access to vital irrigation water. Tashkent has tried by multiple means — mainly by imposing a de facto transit embargo — to hinder progress on that dam and force Dushanbe to back down.
Dushanbe-based news website Asia Plus reported that the Uzbek-Tajik intergovernmental commission convening in Dushanbe will agree on the reopening of specific railway and road links, suggesting the talks may go beyond an rhetoric exchange of goodwill messages. The website cited unnamed Tajik government sources as saying the two sides will agree on the opening on new border crossings.
This comes on the heels of an announcement in November that flights are set to resume between the two countries in January for the first time in 24 years.
The Iron Dome air defense system in action in Israel. (photo: Israeli Defense Forces)
Azerbaijan has reached a deal with Israel to buy the Iron Dome air defense system, a senior Azerbaijani government official has announced. But questions remain over how useful the celebrated system really is for Azerbaijan and whether it would be worth the cost.
Over the last couple of months, there have been a number of reports that a deal like this was in the works, and last month this blog featured a post on how those reports probably weren't true. There are technical reasons that the Iron Dome won't do what Azerbaijan wants. And the state-of-the-art system would be a budget buster for Azerbaijan, which has been forced by falling oil prices to slash expenditures, not least on the military.
But on December 17, the Minister of Defense Industry Yaver Jamalov gave a press conference and announced that the deal had been made. "The Azerbaijani Defense Industry Ministry and the relevant Israeli body have reached the agreement on procurement of the Israeli Iron Dome air defense system," Jamalov said.
But the people’s representatives have spoken. Much to the bewilderment of the rest of Georgia, the decree went on to get published in the Legislative Herald of Georgia, the official register for new laws and regulations.
Akhmeta Town Council Chairperson Gela Jugashvili told the local television station Gurjaani that the resolution was a “technical error,” but Georgia’s news and social media, much entertained, interpreted it more as a technological challenge that the tiny town had decided to take on.
“Akhmeta, you totally forgot about the spaceport. Correct that egregious oversight immediately! The world is watching,” ran the online commentary. “Which metro line do I take over to Chechnya?” others joked.
Tamada Tales could not reach the Akhmeta council to find out why the resolution was on their agenda to begin with.
With every minor hint of a concession on human rights, the government in Uzbekistan looks determined to stumble with a worrying violation.
This week, for example, saw the unusual spectacle of a tiny protest picket outside a court building in Tashkent reaching its conclusion without police unceremoniously bundling away participants.
The two-hour vigil was organized by Elena Urlaeva, the indefatigable leader of the Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan, on the morning of December 15 in protest at what she described as an unjustly imprisoned man. While police arrived at the scene during the event, they looked on impassively without taking action.
This is the second picket in Tashkent that has taken place in the past two weeks without being broken up. The first, also organized by Urlaeva and a small number of other activists, was held on December 5 outside the presidential administration.
According to the head of the Uzbek–German Forum for Human Rights, Umida Niyazova, this toleration of minuscule pickets signals only a shift in tactics. Breaking up small and largely inconspicuous rallies typically creates more noise than allowing them proceed unhindered.
But Niyazova warned against allowing such anomalous events to distract from the persistence of systematic rights abuses and lack of access to justice. She mentioned, particular, the plight of Muhammad Bekzhanov, the editor of an opposition newspaper who was jailed in 1999.
Amnesty International issued a statement on December 16 expressing concern that Bekzhanov, who is due for release next month, has been placed in a punishment cell and that this could signal a prelude to his sentence being extended.
Azerbaijan made a double PR-play on December 14 that could have proven a winning ticket with the upcoming administration of US President-Elect Donald Trump. But, ultimately, it fumbled the ball.
In Washington, the embassy of the predominantly Shi’a Muslim country co-hosted a Hanukkah party at the Trump International Hotel with a prominent American Jewish organization. In Baku, the Azerbaijani government welcomed to town Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a declared Trump fan, and talked big and beautiful.
Everything was in place for showing the world Azerbaijan’s alleged religious tolerance and multiculturalism (two recurring official PR themes), but, then, Donald Trump had to get into the act.
Or, rather, his hotel.
Ahead of Wednesday’s party, over a hundred protesters from the Jewish American activist group If Not Now marched down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Trump International Hotel to denounce the Azerbaijani embassy and its co-host, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations (COP), for celebrating Hanukkah at a venue owned by Trump.
“They are economically supporting Trump tonight and there is also a lot of symbolism around this,” one protester complained about the COP, a local ABC News affiliate reported.
A man one time considered a possible successor to Uzbekistan’s late president Islam Karimov has been squeezed out of his job as finance minister, signaling his waning influence under the new regime.
Rustam Azimov will retain his other title as deputy prime minister, but he is being replaced at the Finance Ministry by another veteran apparatchik, Batir Hodzhaev.
According to government sources, the presidential decree ordering the reshuffle was signed on December 15.
Hodzhaev previously served as deputy economy minister and chairman of privately run lender Ipoteka Bank. According to information available from online biographies, from 2000 to 2006, Hodzhaev was held of the state tax service and then served as economy minister from 2006 to 2009.
From 2009 to 2011, he was deputy prime minister with a portfolio for transportation, construction and municipal services. For the last five years he has been deputy economy minister in charge macro-economic projections, monetary policy and state investment programs.
Azimov has been at his job in the Finance Ministry since February 2005. He will still retain his post as deputy prime minister in charge of macro-economic development, structural reform, management of foreign investment, education and science.
When news of Karimov’s death began circulating in late August — before it was officially confirmed — Uzbekistan-watchers feverishly speculated about who was to succeed the long-time leader. Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who was officially inaugurated as president on December 14, a long-serving prime minister proved to have the edge over Azimov.