With Nagorno Karabakh's worst violence in two decades having abated, Armenia and Azerbaijan are taking stock of how loyally their allies and partners responded to the crisis. And in most cases, both sides have found the responses wanting.
The major outside player in the conflict remains Russia, but its actions and the subsequent reactions followed a well-worn path: Armenia complained that its ostensible ally was providing weapons to its enemy, Russia justified that policy in terms of a balance of power, and nothing concrete changed.
While Armenia is a treaty ally of Russia, hosts a Russian military base, and gets discounted Russian weaponry in return, oil-rich Azerbaijan has rearmed itself, with the aim of retaking its lost territory, buying most of its arms from the very same Russia.
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin visited the region at the end of last week, part of a Russian diplomatic blitz that seems to have succeeded in tamping down the violence for the time being. And both officials made it clear that Russia did not intend to change its policy of supplying both sides.
“If we consider for a moment that Russia gave up that role, we all will see clearly that such place won’t remain vacant. Weapons will be bought from other countries, and that won’t make weapons less deadly. However, it could ruin the current balance to some extent,” Medvedev said. "Everything is done in compliance with the contracts. Both these countries are our strategic partners," Rogozin said.
In an apparent climbdown, a parliamentary committee in Kyrgyzstan has hastily rushed through a watered-down version of Russian-inspired legislation that would have seen many nongovernmental groups billed as “foreign agents.”
The Human Rights and Constitutional Legislation Committee spent less than a minute discussing the revised bill at its usual weekly hearing on April 12.
The draft law was first proposed in 2014 by former deputies Tursunbai Bakir Uulu and Nurkamil Madaliev, only to then make its way through parliament at snail’s pace. The overhauled version is hard to recognize from the original and will be considered at a plenary hearing of parliament on April 14.
While the previous draft bill proposed to label both Kyrgyz and foreign-based non-profit organizations that engage in any deemed to be “political activity” and receive outside funding as “foreign agents,” this term has now been quietly dropped.
The new document instead proposes the term “foreign non-commercial organization” to describe entities founded outside Kyrgyzstan that do not pursue profit-making purposes. Foreign government will not be allowed to found such groups.
And rather than requiring the submission of onerous and time-consuming paperwork to the Justice Ministry, as required in the original draft bill, the non-commercial organizations will now just have to publish an annual report online containing a breakdown of expenditure and display who is providing funding.
Gold mines for Azerbaijan’s presidential offspring, an ex-Georgian leader’s offshore company, a key Armenian official’s questionable income, the grounds for a clamoring public outcry in the South Caucasus over the Panama Papers were all there. But, so far, it hasn’t come.
Details about the Azerbaijani presidential family’s alleged control over Azerbaijan’s goldmines and its supposed business alliance with Tax Minister Fazil Mammadov hit on April 4, a day before a ceasefire which more or less ended three days of fighting with Armenian and separatist Karabakhi forces.
A 2012 report by RFE/RL, an OCCRP partner, had found that Aliyev’s daughters had stake in the goldmines; a revelation that OCCRP believes cost RFE/RL investigative journalist Khadija Ismyailova her freedom.*
Kyrgyzstan has lost another prime minister — its 27th since independence.
Temir Sariyev, who spent less than a year in office, resigned on April 11 following a public and unsightly spat involving allegations of corruption.
Sariyev’s downfall was precipitated by his battle with Transportation Minister Argynbek Malabayev over a tender to build a strategic 104-kilometer road worth $100 million that was won by a Chinese company. The road would link the towns of Balykchy and Korumdu in the tourism magnet of Issyk-Kul region.
The scandal, which saw Malabayev accuse Sariyev of looking to profit from the deal and Sariyev attempt to engineer Malabayev’s dismissal, had Kyrgyzstan written all over it.
Chinese companies are responsible for building the vast majority of Kyrgyzstan’s road infrastructure and frequently face accusations of enabling government corruption.
Malabayev claimed Sariyev had a personal interest in Long Hai’s victory and blamed his own deputy, Ulan Uyezbayev, for helping to push the deal through behind his back. (Malabayev has said he was on a business trip outside the country when the results of the tender were announced).
In support of his claims, Malabayev said that the manager of Long Hai’s Kyrgyzstan office is a member of Ak-Shumkar party, which was founded and led by Sariev.
A parliamentary committee looking into the tender recommended parliament consider booting out Sariyev, who decided instead to fall on his sword.
An ugly dust-up in Moscow, seemingly provoked by racial hatred, has landed a migrant laborer from Tajikistan in the hospital and threatens to leave him blind in one eye.
On the evening of April 8, Tajik citizen Sulaiman Saidov was targeted in an apparently unprovoked assault that culminated in him being shot four times with an Osa traumatic handgun.
Saidov’s cousin, Dilshod Abdurahmonov, told EurasiaNet.org that the incident started when the attacker approached Saidov on a metro train and made a threatening remark: “Either you disappear or it will be the end of you.” Judging the man to be drunk, Saidov, who was in a metro carriage with another one of his cousins, 19-year old Muhammadjon Hakimov, ignored the warning.
“But then suddenly the man pulled out a pistol and fired one shot. This all happened inside the carriage. And then he wanted to shoot another guy — Muhammadjon Hakimov, who ran away in fear. When Sulaiman stood his ground, he was shot again twice in the head. When he left the carriage, the [attacker] followed him and in the fight that ensued he shot [Saidov] one more time in the stomach,” Abdurahmonov told EurasiaNet.org.
Abdurahmonov said his cousin’s is serious but stable, but doctors have confirmed that Saidov will likely be blind in one eye.
“We have to have an operation that will cost 120,000 rubles ($1,800). But there are no guarantees they can save his eye. His parents don’t know what has happened. They are elderly and constantly unwell,” Abdurahmonov said.
Saidov has received some support from the embassy of Tajikistan and a pledge of further help from Civic Assistance Committee, a Russian nongovernment organization that assists migrants.
Demand for old-fashioned mobile phones has surged in Kazakhstan following a recent ban on government employees bringing smartphones into the workplace.
As of April 1, civil servants have been forbidden from taking any phones able to capture photos, record audio or send and receive Bluetooth messages to work. The ban was primarily motivated over concerns about the growing amount of classified information allegedly being leaked out and posted on social media websites.
“This rule is being applied completely in the Interior Ministry,” said Saltanat Azirbek, a spokesperson for the ministry in Almaty. “Official documents should in no instance be publicly circulated since they could fall into the hands of criminals, and people of ill-intent could use them to their own ends.”
Some Kazakhstani government workers have long been setting the example. While roaming the halls of parliament, Interior Minister Kalmukhanbet Kasymov recently showed off his own phone, a vintage Nokia model that he said he has been using for the past 10 years.
Others are less impressed and have taken to social media to debate the merits of the new prohibition. The consensus is that the rules are unfair since most use their smartphones mainly to communicate with colleagues, relatives and friends, not to pass on secret state information.
The general public is even more caustic in its assessment. Shavkat Sabirov, head of Internet Association of Kazakhstan, noted that refraining from the use of modern telephones in an age of rapid technological development is decidedly regressive.
The president of Turkmenistan has effected a major revamp among officials running the country’s economy in a desperate bid to emerge from a crisis provoked by low global energy commodity prices.
State media reported on April 10 that Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov fired the Economy and Development Minister Eldash Sheripov, who had been in his post since July 2015.
Neutral Turkmenistan newspaper reported that other officials dismissed included Trade and Foreign Economic Relations Minister Bayar Abayev and the head of the tax service, Shatlyk Hummedov. They had been in their jobs for five years and two years, respectively.
Berdymukhamedov offered typically vague and ominous motivations for the dismissals.
“There are violations related to unauthorized and non-earmarked spending of budget funds, as well as an unjustifiable expansion in the ranks of management that is slowly evolving in the financial and economic system,” he said.
Without any firm details, it can only be assumed that this is an oblique reference to a problematic cocktail of corruption, nepotism and mismanagement in the departments in question.
In another sign of the grievous state of government’s finances, the long-promised scrapping of generous social benefits is also looming ever closer.
Berdymukhamedov said that the provision of free gas, water and electricity approved in the early post-independence period as a measure to “improve the social condition of the population” had lost its relevance.
“From an economic point of view this is no longer justifiable and it is preventing the transition to a market economy and imposing an additional burden on the budget,” the president said.
Turkish and Ukrainian warships carry out joint exercises near Odessa. (photo: MoD Ukraine)
Turkey's naval ships have made simultaneous port calls to all the Black Sea countries except Russia, in an apparent military-diplomatic show of force as tensions on the sea continue to simmer.
As part of this year's iteration of the annual Deniz Yildizi (Sea Star) exercises, Turkish ships made port calls over last weekend to Batumi (Georgia), Varna (Bugaria), Constanta (Romania), and Odessa (Ukraine). These countries, all engaged in conflicts with Russia of varying severity, are increasingly finding common cause on the Black Sea. Turkey, though, is the only naval power with anything close to Russia's strength.
"The scope of the exercise shows that Turkish Navy intends to show a strong presence in the Black Sea," wrote Turkish naval blogger Can Devrim Yaylali. "This is an impressive way of showing the flag, an important message."
There is mixed news from Kazakhstan’s economy as consumers contend with a continued leap in prices for basic goods, while the national currency has returned to a stability of old, albeit with some help.
News agency Kazakh-Zerno reported earlier this month on some Economy Ministry comparisons of prices between March 2015 and the month before.
Sugar went up by 41 percent, butter by 24 percent, coffee and tea by 23 percent, seafood by 21 percent and bread by 20 percent. Meat has remained fairly stable, rising by a modest 4 percent.
In January, the government decided to stop subsidizing the production of bread as budget-cutting measure. Officials said that would save the treasury around 7-8 billion tenge ($21 million) annually.
The government did decide, however, to continue spending around 1.5 billion tenge per year on containing the cost of the cheapest types of bread as a way to prevent hardship for the most economically vulnerable sections of the population.
The devaluation of the national currency has also made it punitively pricey for Kazakhstanis to travel abroad.
KTK TV channel reported that in March airline tickets went up by 11 percent and train tickets increased 6 percent.
Even getting sick is becoming unaffordable. The average cost of medicine has increased by 9.5 percent over the past month, KTK reported, citing official data.
Months after breaking off a long-standing deal with Russian companies to build two major hydropower projects, Kyrgyzstan has found a potential white knight in the form of a major Chinese investor.
Kyrgyzstan deputy Prime Minister Oleg Pankratov met with representatives of China’s State Power Investment Corporation on April 6 to discuss plan to build a cascade of four hydropower stations on the Naryn River. Collectively, the cascade is expected to generate around 4.6 billion kilowatt hours annually — more than either of the now-scotched Russian projects.
“We are carrying out work on a few projects to develop new generating capacities that will allow us, in the near future, to considerably increase the amount of power produced. This is of special importance, because energy consumption is growing every year that passes”, Pankratov was quoted as saying by KyrTag news agency.
An official for the state-owned electricity provider State Power Investment Corporation told Kyrgyz media that they have assessed the potential of the Central Asian nation’s hydropower potential and feel ready to begin work on building the 1,150 megawatt Kazarman hydropower cascade.
The terms of the deal are not yet known, however.
According to the company website, Beijing-based State Power Investment Corporation holds assets in hydropower, thermal and nuclear power and has registered capital of $7 billion and total assets worth $120 billion.
In January, Kyrgyzstan’s parliament voted overwhelmingly to cancel earlier hydropower construction deals with the Russian companies leading the projects, citing lack of progress in work.