Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov meets his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin. (photo: Kremlin)
The presidents of Russia and Uzbekistan met in Moscow with security high on the agenda. And while the two agreed on the need to cooperate to deal with the deteriorating situation Afghanistan, they publicly disagreed on how to do it.
President Islam Karimov's visit to Moscow was closely watched, given that he rarelyleaves the country and that his increasingly isolationist foreign policy has long been a thorn in Russia's side.
But in Karimov's meeting with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, both sides agreed that they needed to work together in Afghanistan. "In our discussion we were primarily concerned about priority aspects of our bilateral relations, and first of all the situation taking shape in Central Asia," Karimov said in a joint appearance after the meeting. "Above all, this concerns, of course, the situation in neighbouring Afghanistan, [which] could create a serious threat of the instability spilling over to neighbouring countries and regions."
And Karimov argued that Russia needed to be part of the solution in Afghanistan. "Everyone knows geography, and knows that Central Asia’s ties with Russia go back centuries, if not millennia. We clearly feel Russia’s interest in Central Asia, and we agree with this," he said.
But the two differed on strategy. In particular, while Putin praised the importance of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (and has repeatedly called for it to play a bigger role in Afghanistan), Karimov, speaking after him, pointedly argued that the SCO should not be involved in Afghanistan:
Russia’s soft power influence over Uzbekistan has increased in recent years with the soaring number of students looking to enter Russian universities.
Looking to capitalize on that, a group of universities have been holding educational fairs in three cities of Uzbekistan — Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara — over the past week. The final two-day fair will conclude in Bukhara on April 27.
Russia’s ambassador to Uzbekistan, Vladimir Tyurdenev, said that more than 4,000 Uzbek students had entered institutes of higher education in Russia in the 2016 academic year, according to a report by Sputnik on April 22.
Opening the Tashkent fair, Viktor Shulika, the head of the local branch of Rossotrudnichestvo, a Russian state agency ostensibly intended as an analogue of USAID, said that interest among Uzbek youths wanting to study in Russia has been increasing fast.
There are currently 21,642 Uzbeks studying in Russian colleges. In 2015 alone, 24 colleges in Russia admitted 10,572 pupils from Uzbekistan. Almost 2,000 have received Russian state scholarships.
Russian colleges do admittance tests directly in Uzbekistan and the competition is intense.
Vladimir Vasilyev, rector of the St. Petersburg Institute of Fine Mechanics and Optics, told EurasiaNet.org that fees at his college cost 50,000 rubles ($700) per year, or 65,000 rubles for those doing their studies long-distance. But strong performers in admittance tests can qualify for financial support.
“Those that get scholarships can get stipends worth around 15-16,000 rubles per month,” said Roman Savchenko, a representative for the St. Petersburg Institute of Fine Mechanics and Optics.
Investigators of a deadly bus blast in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, claim that the April 25 attack could all come down to a family quarrel, rather than terrorism. For now, however, details about the explosion -- the first such event in recent memory in this city of roughly 1 million -- are few.
An SIM card found in the exploded bus led investigators to an apartment, where, local media reported, they found TNT, electric wires and detonators. The card is believed to belong to one of two men who died when the explosion ripped through the bus late on Monday evening, sending its roof flying for a block. The deceased men could not be identified visually; a DNA analysis is underway.
Russian press, citing the National Security Service, have claimed that the unidentified, suspected culprit, an ex-con, intended the blast to kill his parents, with whom, allegedly, he had argued. How investigators reached this information is not clear; nor are the whereabouts of the individual’s parents.
An unidentified “object,” presumably carried by this same passenger, is believed to have caused the explosion.
If the explosion had, as Regnum put it, “an everyday basis,” its consequences were anything but usual for those affected.
Eyewitnesses reportedly rushed to take passengers to the hospital. The driver survived unharmed, while seven passengers were treated for wounds. "I fainted. When I came to, a guy was lying next to me, all torn apart," 14-year-old Anahit Mikaelian told the A1plus news service.
Kazakhstan has approved chemical castration as a form of punishment for people jailed on charges of pedophilia.
The law entered into force with approval from President Nursultan Nazarbayev last week.
Under the law, chemical castration will be administered through a course of injections that will act on the body over a number of months to reduce sexual urges.
“The drugs being administered by injection to the subject of castration are anti-androgenic,” psychiatrist Ahtolkyn Meyrmanova told 365info.kz, referring to a type of medication intended to reduce male hormones in the organism. “The injections will be carried out once every three months under observation from a specialist.”
The legislation to introduce chemical castration in Kazakhstan was proposed by the office of the General Prosecutor. The deputy to the General Prosecutor, Nurmahanbet Isayev, has estimated that up to 100 rapists are released from jail ever years.
KazTAG news agency cited official data stating that more than 3,000 people have been sentenced on sex crimes over the past five years. Of the more than 200 whose offenses involving underage children, 63 had prior convictions for similar crimes.
The drastic measures against pedophiles have broad support in society, although some rights activists have spoken out against the punishment.
It has been a Caucasian weekend for the Clooney couple. The Hollywood-star husband went to Armenia for an anti-genocide forum, while the human-rights-lawyer-star wife went to Washington to rally support for her Azerbaijani client, jailed investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova.
George Clooney, who deems it “ridiculous” to deny that Ottoman Turkey committed genocide against ethnic Armenians, joined Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan in Yerevan on April 24 for a commemorative ceremony of the massacre, and then presented a peace award to Burundi humanitarian Marguerite Barankitse in commemoration of the survivors of the 1915 slaughter.
Clooney said that his wife, Amal, could not join him in Yerevan because she was making a case in Washington for her client, Khadija Ismayilova.* “She is visiting the White House today and then will meet with Senator [John] McCain and others,” the actor elaborated in an interview with Armenian TV stations, local outlets reported. “She’s there trying to find ways to gets this incredible, brilliant reporter free.”
He quipped that because of his wife taking up cases like Ismayilova’s, they are “starting to run out of places we can go.”
Azerbaijan is certainly shaping up as one such place.
Following the most potent criticism to date over the treatment of jailed activist Azimjan Askarov, Kyrgyzstan’s highest court said on April 25 that the case may be reviewed after all.
Whether that means Askarov could be released is not yet certain, but it suggests the authorities may be changing tack from their usual indignant combativeness over the issue.
The United Nations Human Rights Committee on April 21 urged Kyrgyzstan to immediately free the rights activist, who it said had been subjected to torture and denied a fair trial. In September 2010, Askarov, who is an ethnic Uzbek, was sentenced to life imprisonment for what Kyrgyz authorities say was his role in inciting the mob killing of a police officer amid ethnic unrest in southern Kyrgyzstan in June of that year. Many suspect he had been singled out for prosecution because of this prior activism highlight the routine abuses of police officers.
A day after the UN issued its statement, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) doubled down on the calls for Kyrgyzstan to overturn Askarov’s sentence.
“Kyrgyzstan now has an opportunity to correct this injustice, restoring both Mr. Askarov’s rights and its national human rights record in this regard,” ODIHR director Michael Georg Link said in a statement. “Freeing him will also send a strong signal to law enforcement and judicial actors in Kyrgyzstan that the rule of law must be upheld equally for all citizens.”
The Supreme Court said in a statement that the UN Human Rights Committee’s complaint created grounds, under Article 41 of the constitution, for Askarov to lodge a fresh appeal.
Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Russian officers take place in the opening ceremony, in Tajikistan, for the CSTO joint exercises "Poisk 2016" (photo: CSTO)
Russia and several of its allies have wrapped up their first-ever joint military reconnaissance exercises in Tajikistan where they "eliminated" a make-believe ISIS commander who was plotting to seize power in Central Asia.
The exercises took place in Tajikistan's Romit Gorge, where -- incidentally -- Tajikistan security forces last year killed a rogue general who had mutinied and whom Dushanbe (unconvincingly) claimed was part of ISIS. They involved 1,500 military intelligence officers from Russia and its allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization -- Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.
The primary purpose of the exercise seemed to be to work out joint operations of the CSTO countries' reconnaissance units and equipment (i.e. the forces that allow armed forces to locate and target enemy units). In one phase, for example, helicopter crews dropped paratroopers close to enemy formations and cut off their lines of communication. In another, they used their electronic reconnaissance equipment to target enemy communications points.
Protests are picking up steam in Kazakhstan against reforms that many fear could enable foreigners to buy up massive swaths of land and open the way to shady and corrupt transactions.
More than 1,000 people rallied in the western city of Atyrau on April 24, only the latest in a string such demonstrations. Civil activist Galymbek Akulbekov was able to hold a one-man picket in the capital, Astana, for about five minutes last week before being hauled away by police. Another larger rally in Almaty on April 22 drew some 30 people.
Although modest in size, the protests are an unusual sight and the authorities will be wary about cracking down too severely over a potentially incendiary and sensitive issue.
As the ninth largest country in the world, Kazakhstan is well-stocked on the land front. The country has 2.7 million square kilometers of farming land stock, of which around one-third is unused, according to the National Economy Ministry. Another 602,000 square kilometers is made up residential space, industrial areas and protected nature reserves.
Under government plans, the unused farming land could be sold or made available for rent, with the revenue going to the National Fund — Kazakhstan’s stabilization fund — instead of the state coffers.
A senior American NATO official has signaled support for a proposal to create a regular alliance naval presence on the Black Sea, where tension has been rising between Russia and its maritime neighbors.
"There are some very valuable discussions under way among the allies who live on the Black Sea ... of more closely integrating their naval forces and operations," said NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow, an American diplomat, referring to Bulgaria, Turkey, and Romania, Reuters reported. "We need to consider a more persistent NATO military presence in the region, with a particular focus on our maritime capabilities."
Vershbow was apparently referring to an idea, promoted by Romania, to creating a permanent NATO presence on the sea. Romanian officials also have said that their proposal envisages cooperation with non-NATO partners on the Black Sea, in particular Georgia and Ukraine, as well as the United States. The proposal looks to be considered at the alliance's June summit in Warsaw, as the alliance continues to build up its military presence along Russia's borders.
A quick tip to anybody planning a bank heist in Uzbekistan — make sure your getaway can carry heavy loads.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Uzbek service has reported on a robbery that took place at a Mikrokreditbank branch ub the western Khorezm region in early April that netted its organizers 16 million Uzbek sum. Though that sounds like a lot, it is a mere $2,560 at the black market rate.
The thieves got into the bank around midnight by disconnecting the alarm system and then cracked a safe containing 45 sacks of cash. Officials told RFE/RL that the robbers loaded the sacks onto a Damas minibus.
Two people have reportedly been arrested for the heist. One of those charged was none other than a local police officer.
“The head of the criminal gang used to guard this bank in his capacity as an officer with the patrol service. The policeman enlisted his unemployed 34-year old brother to take part in the robbery,” a law enforcement official told RFE/RL.
One businessman queried by RFE/RL expressed dismay at the small quantity of money that appeared to be in the bank, which he said confirmed the grave lack of liquidity gripping Uzbekistan. State workers regularly complain of not being able to receive their salaries because of the lack of hard cash in the banks. Others are unable to collect remittances sent from relatives abroad.
While the authorities are remaining mum about the events of the heist, one local journalist in the Khorezm region confirmed to EurasiaNet.org that he too had heard about the event.
He said that the thieves made away with 14 sacks of cash, however, and not 45, as claimed by RFE/RL.