Fresh from President Emomali Rahmon’s visit to Mecca, the government in Tajikistan has dreamt up a new way to further curtail the rights of devout Muslims.
Asia-Plus website reported on January 15 that citizens under the age of 40 will no longer be allowed to perform the hajj.
An official on the religious affairs committee, Husein Shokirov, told Asia-Plus that the restrictions would give older Tajiks more of a chance to undertake the pilgrimage.
One ongoing development motivating the move, Shokirov said, are the stricter quotas being put in place by the authorities of Saudi Arabia.
The number of people from Tajikistan allowed to do the hajj in 2015 was 6,300.
Critics of the new age limit of 40, which has been raised from the limit of 35 that was instituted in April, will object that the authorities are attempting crudely to stamp out religiosity among the younger generations. The intent is apparently to prevent instances of radicalization.
Shokirov has also said that imams are to receive training on how to identify extremists and terrorists among worshippers at the mosque.
The courses will be led by representatives of officials religious organizations, who will teach imams how to spot the telltale signs of a terrorist at prayer.
“All imams in the mosques of Tajikistan are well acquainted with the behavior of adherents to our school — the school of Hanafi — and can distinguish them from others,” Shokirov said.
Where that will leave non-orthodox Hanafi practitioners who happen not to be terrorists isn’t clear.
The United States Congress has held a rare closed hearing on the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, as leading members of Congress are pushing for new conflict-resolution measures favored by Armenia but opposed by Azerbaijan.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee held the hearing last week, with James Warlick, the U.S. co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group, testifying. Warlick did not comment on the content of the hearing, except to tweet: "I thank the @HouseForeign affairs committee and its chair @RepEdRoyce for hosting me to discuss #NKpeace. We agreed to work for a settlement."
It's not clear why the hearing was closed, or why it was held now. But tension has been getting worse along the so-called "line of contact" between the Armenian and Azerbaijani sides. Armenian forces won control of the territory, which is de jure part of Azerbaijan, in a war in the early 1990s, but the ceasefire that has held since then has become increasingly tenuous, with violence along the line at its highest level since the war formally ended in 1994. "This is a war, and I would ask you to use the term ‘war’ and not to use the phrase ‘ceasefire violation’ because, in effect, we don’t have a ceasefire anymore,” Defense Ministry spokesperson Artsrun Hovannesyan told reporters in December.
They blame the opposition. Or “religious radicals.” Or even poachers. But whatever they do, even as oil prices dip to record lows, officials in energy-rich Azerbaijan are not blaming a recent string of regional protests on the economy.
Azerbaijani police on January 14 reported making 55 arrests connected to protests over the last two days in towns to the north, south and east of the capital, Baku.
Protesters in Siyazan, a town 115 kilometers north of Baku, clashed with riot police equipped with tear gas and rubber bullets. The Kavkazsky Uzel news service reported that some 300-400 residents rallied in front of Siyazan’s town hall on January 12 and 13 against continued inflation and a massive recent depreciation of the manat, the national currency. The Azerbaijani service of RFE/RL carried footage of what appeared to be military trucks entering Siyazan.
In the opposite corner of the country, protesters on January 12 blocked a highway in the town of Liman, about 215 kilometers south of Baku. Regional officials met the demonstrators to hear their concerns over growing consumer prices and a ban on cash-sales of tobacco and alcohol (since “temporarily” lifted).
Official suspicion for the disruptions has fallen on alleged activists from the opposition Popular Front of Azerbaijan and Musavat Parties — one young Popular Front activist, Turan Ibrahim, has been arrested for seven days — as well as “various radical and religious extremist forces.”
Authorities in a resource-rich territory in Russia are on a witch-hunt for books deemed subversive, in particular those published with the help of an undesirable foreign entity.
The news website 7x7, a media outlet based in Russia’s Komi Republic, reported January 13 that regional officials issued an order late last year to remove books held in libraries and educational institutions that were published with funds provided by the Open Society Foundations, a network of philanthropic initiatives financed by billionaire investor George Soros.
Russian leaders have long accused Soros and his network, which strives to foster civil society in formerly communist states, of working to overthrow the established order in Russia and other formerly Soviet republics. On November 30, Russian prosecutors formally designated the Soros foundation network as an “undesirable” entity, in effect making it a crime for any Russian citizen in Russia to have contact with the organization.
According to documents posted by 7x7, days before prosecutors in Moscow made the announcement on undesirable status, Andrei Travnikov, the deputy presidential envoy in the North-West Federal District, which includes the Komi Republic, issued a directive to Komi officials to inventory Soros-funded books held by state institutions and remove them. In citing a reason for such action, Travnikov claimed in his directive that Soros-funded books “form a wrong perception of Russia’s history in young people and popularize ideas that are alien to Russian ideology.”
Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon with his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, in happier times (2013). (photo: president.tj)
Iran has shrugged off a rhetorical assault waged by Tajikistan's government and has ratified a security cooperation agreement signed by the two countries before their relations took a nosedive in recent weeks.
Iranian media and Iran's embassy in Dushanbe reported that Iran's parliament has ratified an agreement on defense and security cooperation. It's not clear from the reports exactly what the agreement entails; Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani signed a number of agreements during the latter's visit to Dushanbe in September 2014. Those agreements reportedly included provisions on information sharing in law enforcement and drug trafficking.
Whatever the content of the agreement, the ratification normally wouldn't be especially newsworthy. But it comes as Dushanbe has heaped criticism on Tehran for allowing the exiled opposition leader Muhiddin Kabiri to participate in a conference in Iran in December. Tajikistan's foreign ministry sent a diplomatic note to Iran objecting to the “head of a terrorist party suspected of mounting an attempted overthrow of the government” was invited to Tehran. In his sermon last Friday, Tajikistan's top mufti said that Iran was "abetting terrorism" by inviting Kabiri.
In a flurry of banning, Tajikistan’s lower house of parliament on January 13 voted to make it illegal to give babies non-Tajik names or to seal nuptials without a medical certificate.
Deputies appeared particular irked by names such as Sang (Stone), Safol (Ceramic), Zog (Crow) and Gurg (Wolf).
Coming to the aid of new parents, the language and terminology committee at the Academy of Sciences is drawing up a list of 4,000 suitable names. Representatives of the titular nation — AKA ethnic Tajiks — will not be permitted to stray from the list.
Ethnic minorities will get a free pass and be allowed to name their children according to their own cultural traditions. (It is not immediately obvious which culture would allow for the name Ceramic).
It remains to be seen if names chosen out of slavish devotion to the authorities will fall under the ban. Tajikistan saw a craze a few years back for naming children in relation to the Rogun hydropower project. One baby was called Rogunshoh (King Rogun), while others were called Sahmiya (Share), after the shares in Rogun that countless Tajiks were pressured into buying as the government sought to scrabble together funding for the project.
The stricter rules on marriage have been introduced partly as a way of reducing the incidence of disabilities among children, which officials argue are the result of intensive inbreeding. Consequently, marriage among cousins and cousins-once-removed will be forbidden.
According to the Health Ministry, there are 30,000 children with congenital disabilities in Tajikistan.
Even non-relatives will be required to undergo a battery of tests for HIV/AIDS, hepatitis and other sexually transmitted diseases. There had been speculation for a long time that there were plans to introduce tests for virginity, but that has not come to pass.
Armenia has come up with a formidable new defensive tactic. Plans are underway to teach Armenian military cadets traditional folk dancing as a way to raise morale and also preserve the country’s rich cultural heritage.
The idea belongs to a recently established song-and-dance organization, led by seasoned choreographer and ethnographer Gagik Ginosian. “Military men must know Armenian military dances, in practice as in theory,” commented Ginosian, a co-founder of the National Academy for Song and Dance, to Sputnik Armenia. “This is going to be a kind of test for the soldier. Dancing brings a sense of unity, a team spirit,” he said.
To start, traditional military dances will be taught in the Vazgen Sargsyan State Military Academy, based in the capital, Yerevan, but later will be included in military schools nationwide. Ginosian says Armenia has as many as 15 types of military dances.
As elsewhere in the Caucasus, folk dancing remains popular in Armenia, and, when performed by Armenian military men, looks like this.
But Armenia’s longtime enemy, Azerbaijan, was not impressed by its neighbor’s dance-plans, with some sarcastically scoffing that Azerbaijanis are now going to be shivering in their bones. “Perhaps it is going to be like Aram Khachaturian’s ‘Sabre Dance’ or a mix of dance and kung fu?” bristled one Azerbaijani news outlet.
Kazakhstan’s lower house of parliament called for a snap election on January 13, setting the stage for a vexed vote against the backdrop of chronic economic uncertainty.
The early dissolution of the Mazhilis had been widely predicted as President Nursultan Nazarbayev seeks to refresh the mandate for his ruling Nur Otan party.
“The Mazhilis has fulfilled its historic mission, creating the legislative basis for the implementation of the Plan of the Nation,” Vladislav Kosarev of the pro-government Communist People’s Party of Kazakhstan said in a statement read out in parliament and quoted by Kazinform news agency.
He was referring to a reform agenda unveiled by Nazarbayev last year that is intended to reverse an economic slowdown provoked in large part by the slump in the price for oil.
“Now that a new historic period is getting under way and the large-scale modernization of the country and practical implementation of presidential reforms in all areas are beginning, it is important that parties receive a new mandate of trust from voters,” Kosarev said.
Kosarev said that “broad social consolidation” was required to implement anti-crisis measures, since “only unity and coordinated actions will allow us to withstand fresh economic blows.”
The snap vote must be approved by Nazarbayev, which is expected to be a formality, and is expected in spring. Under the current schedule, the election had been due to take place in early 2017.
Despite talk of a fresh mandate, it is likely the authorities are also motivated by a desire to complete the electoral process ahead of time to head off any discontent provoked by the economic downturn.
In a measure of Turkmenistan’s despair, authorities on January 12 halted the sale of all foreign currencies as demand for dollars and euros continued to pile pressure on the manat.
Workers at banks in Ashgabat informed customers that the restriction would remain in place indefinitely.
And while there have been reports on black market soaring, the signs are that illegal trading in foreign currency is being much more strictly policed than in earlier years. Bans on the sale of dollars occurred in the days of the late President Saparmurat Niyazov, when the manat experienced periods of high volatility, but access to the black was in those days far easier.
The official manat rate has stubbornly stayed fast at 3.50 to the dollar since January 1, 2015, when it fell from 2.85 in a sudden one-off devaluation.
Lines have been forming outside banks for several weeks now as people holding manat desperately seek to offload them for any currency they can obtain.
Banking authorities in the nearby countries, like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, have meanwhile been compelled to relent to varying degrees and allow their national currencies to slide.
Opposition websites have reported that black markets in Mary and Balkanabat are selling dollars at 4.20 manat. That figure could not be independently confirmed.
Customers trying to exchange their manat have been told by officials at money exchange that if they plan to travel abroad, they should use Visa and Mastercard to draw foreign currencies from their Turkmen bank account. Those account-holders are eligible to convert $1,000 from manat into dollars onto their account, although they cannot not draw this in cash in-country.
It's official. Georgia and Gazprom are going out. Georgian Energy Minister Kakha Kaladze, the former soccer star/pin-up staple, keeps getting spotted meeting Gazprom officials and he is running out of excuses for an entanglement that, some claim, threatens to upset the region's energy status quo, and possibly, its geopolitical layout.
Georgians mostly learn via foreign media about Kaladze’s trysts with the Russian gas monopolist in Milan, Brussels or Geneva. Each time the news breaks, the minister steps forth with claims that it was just some routine business meeting. Nothing to worry about.
But his line of reasoning has become sharply contradictory, stoking fears that Georgia is being seduced back into a dependency on Russian energy, which, in turn, critics say, could hamstring Georgia’s Western integration plans.
In his latest clarification, Kaladze said that his talks with Gazprom are about revising the terms for the transit of Russian gas through Georgia to Armenia. Instead of taking 10 percent of the gas (some 200 million cubic meters) as a transit fee, Tbilisi wants to get paid in cash, Kaladze said on January 11. The deal, if reached, will last for a year, the minister said, which, to his mind, means that the doomsday scenarios “painted by the so-called experts are nothing but delirious and wrong."