Moscow’s allegation that Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge is a playground for Islamic State fighters is spreading worry in Tbilisi, which recently has gone to great lengths to improve ties with its big, northern neighbor after severing diplomatic relations in 2008.
“Reports are coming in that the Islamic State of Levant and Syria fighters are using this remote territory to train, rest and restock their supplies,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed during a January 27 press-conference. He did not substantiate or elaborate about the allegation, which came amidst a discussion of the obstacles for restoring diplomatic ties with Georgia and removing visa requirements for Georgian citizens.
In Lavrov’s telling, Islamic terrorist activity in the Pankisi Gorge, a reclusive valley inhabited by Kists, a Muslim people related to Chechens, prompted Russia to impose visas on Georgia in 2000. The problem is still there, said Lavrov. His boss, Russian President Vladimir Putin, stated earlier that Russia was ready to scrap visa requirements for Georgians.
The Russian minister’s comment alarmed many in Tbilisi, which long has maintained that Moscow uses Pankisi as an excuse for hostile actions against Georgia. In 2002, the Georgian government and its allies charged that Russia conducted repeated bombing raids in the Gorge against supposed Chechen rebels.The Kremlin denied it.
The Caucasus’ most legendary love-hate relationship careened heavily toward hate recently amid claims of alleged Armenian encroachments on what Georgians hold most sacred. This time it is not about land disputes, as the Caucasus’s worst disputes tend to be. At stake are song and dance.
Within a span of just a couple of weeks, two YouTube videos left Georgia gasping with anger at its southern neighbor. First came a song video. It was a melody called “Hayastan” (Armenia) by a little-known, young Armenian composer that bore similarities to a Georgian hit song from the ‘50s, “The Country of Flowers.”
Then came a dance video. It featured an Armenian dance company performing kartuli, an iconic Georgian dance number one choreographer deems Georgia’s “calling card.” Performed to the music of Georgian composer Zakaria Paliashvili’s 1921 opera Daisi, the video described the routine as an Armenian wedding dance.
Elsewhere, these videos could have been a regular copyright dispute, but in Georgia they revived a deep-seated stereotype about Armenians allegedly calling dibs on any regional achievement in history or culture. The anger that resulted has prompted some Georgians to argue that this is a stereotype that needs to end.
The Delta Armored Medical Evacuation Vehicle to be sold to Saudi Arabia (photo: Delta)
Georgia and Kazakhstan have both announced the first major arms sales of their nascent defense industries, both for armored vehicles: Georgia's to Saudi Arabia, and Kazakhstan's to Jordan.
Under one deal, Georgia's state arms manufacturer Delta will sell "more than 100" armored medical evacuation vehicles to Saudi Arabia, with the first 12 being shipped before the end of the month, the company announced on Tuesday. The deal will be worth "up to" $40 million.
The vehicle underwent trials in Saudi Arabia in 2014 and was a finalist in a competition with the American company Lenco.
Meanwhile, Jordan's defense ministry also announced on Tuesday that it was buying an undisclosed number of armored vehicles from the joint venture of Kazakhstan Engineering and Paramount of South Africa. That joint venture formed last year to produce Paramount's vehicles at a factory in Astana. The dollar value of the deal with Jordan wasn't announced.
The governments of both Georgia and Kazakhstan have attempted to jumpstart their countries' respective defense industries over the past few years. Both have worked to bring in foreign expertise and technology to revitalize the legacy Soviet arms industry facilities in their countries.
While the focus in both Georgia and Kazakhstan has been first on building weaponry for domestic consumption, both have also sought export potential, as well. It's a remarkable coincidence that both have announced their first big export deals on the same day.
Tajikistan’s security services have broken their usual silence to deny rumors that several members of the Alfa antiterrorist crack force have fled their post in the remote Gorno-Badakhshan province.
The speculation is an unwelcome reminder of a particularly shattering defection last year, when high-ranking OMON paramilitary police commander Gulmurod Halimov left for Syria and pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group.
The State Committee for National Security, or GKNB as the body is known by its Russian initials, said in a statement on January 26 that the rumors were being spread by people inside and outside the country that are seeking to sow instability
“At the current time, all GKNB units are continuing their professional activity as normal and strictly abiding by their service duties,” the statement said.
The incendiary claims of a fresh defection appear to have initially surfaced on the Payhom website, which is linked to the now-banned opposition Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan.
According to the report on Payhom, a group of around 11-12 Alfa troops dispatched to the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO) on the night of January 21 disobeyed their orders and absconded with all their weapons in tow. The report claimed, although without providing sources for its information, that relatives of the Alfa troops in question have been detained in Dushanbe to compel the men to hand themselves in.
Payhom also said GKNB chief Saimumin Yatimov had personally traveled to GBAO to oversee the situation.
Hot on the heels of a graft scandal that has blighted a flagship exhibition to be staged in Kazakhstan’s capital comes news that its budget is being slashed – again.
With Kazakhstan in the throes of economic crisis, President Nursultan Nazarbayev has approved cuts of 53 billion tenge ($140 million) to the budget for hosting EXPO-2017 in Astana next year.
“We have to look at budget spending, taking account of hard times,” Akhmetzhan Yesimov, the official in charge of organizing the project, said in remarks quoted by Tengri News on January 26.
The latest cuts bring the total reduction in public spending on the exhibition to 131 billion tenge ($345 million), a dramatic slump forced by the fall in global oil prices.
That is around one-tenth of the originally expected total expenditure of $3 billion, most of which was to come from private investors but with a significant chunk provided by the state.
The project’s financial well-being was not helped by officials previously in charge of organizing it pilfering some $27 million dollars from the construction funds.
Kazakhstan is scrambling for ideas on where to cut as it enters its worst economic crisis since the 1990s. Some economists are forecasting negative growth this year for the first time in nearly two decades.
Critics of the EXPO see it as a vanity project that is wasting money at a time of crisis, though when Kazakhstan won the hosting rights in 2012 oil prices were riding high and growth was buoyant.
As bad as things may have got for Kazakhstan, authorities have tended to grasp the tender slip of consolation that the economy was expected to grow in 2016, if only slightly.
Analysts at the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit now beg to differ and are predicting that Kazakhstan is set for its first year of negative growth in nearly two decades.
“We have revised our forecast for Kazakhstan and now expect GDP to contract for the first time since 1998,” the think tank tweeted on January 22.
An accompanying table showed that the EIU believes the economy will shrink by 2 percent this year, posting negative growth for the first time since 1998.
Years of near double-digit growth were fueled by surging oil prices, and the slump has accordingly been caused by the collapse in the cost of the commodity, which accounts for about one-quarter of Kazakhstan’s economy.
EIU’s prediction, the gloomiest one out there for Kazakhstan, piles on the misery as the country comes to terms with the economy slowing to just 1.5 percent last year, down from 4.3 percent in 2014.
The government is now recalculating its budget, with the most pessimistic scenario based on oil costing just $16 per barrel on average over the year, Prime Minister Karim Masimov said last week. The government’s core scenario is based on $40 oil, well above the sub-$30 per barrel mark registered most of last week.
Kazakhstan is also bearing the brunt of a slowdown in its major trading partners Russia, which is in full-blown recession, and China, which posted its lowest growth in a quarter of a century
Russia has reached out to the Taliban in Afghanistan in what senior officials say is an effort to cooperate with them in the fight against ISIS in that country. The strategy would be shift for the Kremlin, which has largely portrayed the Taliban as just as much of a threat as ISIS.
The Kremlin's special envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, said in an interview with Interfax last month that Russian interests "objectively coincide" with those of the Taliban in the fight against ISIS, and that Moscow has channels for information sharing with the Taliban. "The Taliban now for the most part act like a national liberation movement. For them the Americans are occupiers, who illegally occupy their homeland and threaten their cultural and religious traditions," Kabulov said.
The Taliban, for its part, denied that any contacts with Russia had taken place:
On Wednesday 23rd December 2015 some media outlets published a report quoting the Special Representative of the President of the Russian Federation to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov as saying that they have talked to or established lines of communication with the Islamic Emirate regarding the threat of so called Daesh in Afghanistan.
The Islamic Emirate has made and will continue to make contacts with many regional countries to bring an end to the American invasion of our country and we consider this our legitimate right.
But we do not see a need for receiving aid from anyone concerning so called Daesh and neither have we contacted nor talked with anyone about this issue.
Tajikistan is planning to create "special reconnaissance units" to guard the border with Afghanistan, a senior security official has said.
The units will be part of Tajikistan's State Committee for National Security (known by its Russian acronym, GKNB), which oversees the border, according to the commander of the border forces, Radzhabali Rakhmonali.
"The situation on the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border is complex. In Kunduz, Takhar, and Badakhshan provinces the 'Taliban' movement is working actively. So it's been proposed that we restructure the border forces and form special reconnaissance units," Rakhmonali said in parliament on Friday. Last week, Tajikistan suspended operations at its consulates in Kunduz and Badakhshan because of security concerns.
More than 1,000 troops will serve in the new units to start, a military source told AFP. Radzhabali also said that "there are financial means" for attracting more contract troops to the border force.
The proposed restructuring also would make the commander of the border forces responsible directly to the president rather than to the government as is the case now. The restructuring has been approved by the lower house of the parliament, and must be approved by the upper house and then the president. Given the top-down nature of politics in Tajikistan, there's no reason to believe the proposal won't be eventually approved.
Just 14,000 votes. That was the refrain in Georgia as it learned that the hashtag craze to push native son Zaza Pachulia into the upcoming NBA All-Stars Game had fallen short.
Spurred on by Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili and various celebrities, the campaign had unified the big Georgian’s small homeland in the Caucasus like no other event in recent years. For weeks past, logging onto Facebook or Twitter in Georgia meant getting bombarded by the text #NBAVOTE Zaza Pachulia; including from users who before had taken no interest in basketball.
In a January 22 Facebook post, Pachulia profusely thanked his Georgian supporters. “These will be the most memorable days of my life,” he said in Georgian. “Your love and support means more to me than getting in the All-Stars Game.”
Some still cling to a hope that the 31-year-old Pachulia, an accomplished player, will be put on the reserves for the February 14 All-Stars game in Toronto. “[I]f Kobe [Bryant] got injured and won’t be able to play, won’t Zaza be put in in his place?” another Georgian fan hopefully asked.
Serikhzhan Mambetalin's mother, Anastasia, sobbing after the Almaty court verdict on Friday, January 22, 2016.
Two political activists have been jailed in Kazakhstan on charges of inciting racial hatred at the close of a trial that their supporters believe was politically motivated.
The trial in Almaty ended two days after President Nursultan Nazarbayev called a snap parliamentary election for March 20, a move he said was aimed at consolidating the nation as the country battles an economic crisis.
Yermek Narymbayev – who has been in ill health throughout the trial – received a three-year prison term and Serikzhan Mambetalin was jailed for two years at the end of a six-week trial, to cries of “shame!” from supporters as Mambetalin’s elderly mother was led away from the courtroom in tears.
During the summing up of legal arguments on January 22, Mambetalin denounced the proceedings as “a political order” and Narymbayev dismissed them as “illegal.”
The two were tried on the charge of incitement to ethnic, religious, tribal or social strife, which civil society campaigners recently urged the authorities to abolish, claiming it is used to muzzle critics. The government denies that any politically motivated trials take place in Kazakhstan.
The charges against Narymbayev and Mambetalin stem from their Facebook postings about an unpublished book written some two decades ago by another anti-government activist, Murat Telibekov, who is under investigation on the same charge.
In their postings, the two “incited ethnic strife and insulted the honor and dignity of the Kazakh nation,” a prosecutor claimed – arguments the defendants, known for their mildly nationalist stances promoting ethnic Kazakh interests, dismissed as nonsense.