Not that it was ever in doubt, but now it is official: Turkmenistan’s president plans to grow old in power.
As speaker of parliament Akja Nurberdieva explained in remarks televised May 29, the constitutional commission is studying two proposals that will likely end with Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov serving indefinitely.
One provision would scrap the 70-year age limit at which a president can be elected. The other would extend the presidential term from five to seven years.
Under the current constitution, Berdymukhamedov, 57, would have been allowed to run for only three more five-year terms. The next presidential election had been slated for 2017, but that date could be pushed back to 2019.
Who chairs the constitutional commission that will decide on the changes? Why, the president of course.
Turkmenistan’s first president, Saparmurat Niyazov, dispensed with such fiddly legalities in December 1999, when parliament declared him president for life. As it turned out, that was only seven years anyway, as Niyazov dropped dead in 2006.
As has become usual, the impetus for the proposed constitutional reforms is being attributed to public demand.
Another constitutional fix for which people are clamoring, according to Berdymukhamedov, involves provisions for who will take over as caretaker should the serving president be unable to fulfill his duties.
That task should fall to the speaker of parliament, said Berdymukhamedov in the same state television report.
The irony here is that this was already the law before Niyazov’s death. Rules were quickly changed at the behest of the State Security Council to ensure that then-deputy Prime Minister Berdymukhamedov be quickly jostled into power.
An investigative report provides details on alleged dirty dealings in Azerbaijan involving Stockholm-based telecom giant TeliaSonera and a company purportedly controlled by President Ilham Aliyev’s family.
The report, published May 27, was the result of a months-long investigation conducted by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, Swedish public television SVT and the Swedish news agency TT. It alleges that TeliaSonera, a former majority shareholder in Azerbaijan’s largest telecommunications company, Azercell, facilitated the takeover of a large Azercell stake by an entity believed to be associated with President Aliyev’s family via offshore companies. The transaction cost Azerbaijani taxpayers an estimated $600 million, according to the report.
The cost to TeliaSonera investors, who are now demanding the details, is reckoned at roughly $709 million.
The report was based on work initially undertaken by now-jailed Azerbaijani investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova. In December 2014, Ismayilova, whose work has appeared on EurasiaNet.org, was arrested on criminal charges several months after releasing a story that examined the connection between Azercell and Aliyev’s two daughters, Leyla and Arzu. Ismayilova remains in official custody pending trial.
Screenshots of a man who appears to be Tajikistan's OMON Commander, Colonel Gulmurod Halimov, propagandizing for the Islamic State.
After weeks of speculation about his whereabouts, missing paramilitary police commander Gulmurod Halimov has shown up inside the so-called Islamic State. In a YouTube video released on May 27, the US-trained officer explains that he joined IS to protest increasing restrictions on religious freedom at home in Tajikistan.
The high-definition release is glossier than the usual Tajik extremist videos. IS, it appears, has wasted no time capitalizing on the propaganda potential of their most high-profile Tajik recruit to date.
In the ten-minute clip, Colonel Halimov – who spends most of his time speaking in Russian, suggesting he seeks a wide post-Soviet audience – discusses his 19-year career with Tajikistan’s paramilitary police unit (OMON). He talks about going to the United States in 2003 and 2007 to train with the U.S. Army and defense contractor Blackwater. “I came to America three times. I saw how you train people to kill Muslims. I will come with this gun to your home and kill you,” he declares.
He talks about studying Islam at school and how he started praying in 2001. His country’s repressive religious policy, he says, made him decide to join the Islamic State’s jihad. All Tajiks, including those in Russia, should join IS, Halimov declares, and fight the regime of Emomali Rahmon.
Taking aim at his former colleagues in Tajikistan’s secular security forces, he claims that Interior Minister Ramazon Rahimzoda ordered a hijab ban in Dushanbe and that the Interior Ministry paid prostitutes 10 dollars each to appear in hijabs in a recent video that state media used to discredit Islam.
Almost half of Kazakhstan’s population of rare saiga antelopes has been wiped out in recent weeks. The endangered beasts are believed to have succumbed to a lung disease that is sweeping across the steppe.
Latest figures show that the number of dead saigas has reached 120,977, the Agriculture Ministry reported on May 27. That is 40 percent of Kazakhstan’s total saiga population of 300,000 before disease started striking down the long-nosed antelopes, according to government estimates. (Astana’s figures are higher than an estimate of 265,000 released last year by the international Saiga Conservation Alliance after an aerial study of roaming grounds in Kazakhstan.)
Some 90 percent of the dead animals are females, the Agriculture Ministry said. This has enormous implications for breeding capacity to restore the population.
“Measures to monitor the state of the wild animals and establish the cause of mortality continue,” said the ministry, which has set up a working group and flown in experts from the UK, Germany, and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization to assist with the investigation.
The Saiga Conservation Alliance also has a team in the field, a representative told EurasiaNet.org, and the government says the World Organization for Animal Health is to send in specialists.
Scientists suspect the cause of death to be pasteurellosis, a disease that attacks the lungs and killed nearly 12,000 saigas in a 2010 epidemic.
Other theories floated include poisoning by rocket fuel from launches at Kazakhstan’s Baikonur spaceport (which is leased by Russia). However, Meirbek Moldabekov, the head of the government’s Aerospace Committee, has argued that the vast areas over which saigas are dying make this hypothesis unlikely.
Three Chinese warships are have visited Istanbul while a Turkish vessel made a stop China, a "rare moment in naval diplomacy" while the two countries are navigating some rocky shoals in their military relationship.
The guided-missile frigates Linyi and Weifang and the supply ship Weishanhu arrived in Istanbul on May 24 for a five-day stay. (The Linyi and Weifang, recall, were the ships that recently took part in joint Russian-Chinese exercises in the Mediterranean and Russian Victory Day celebrations in Novorossiysk on the Black Sea.)
Meanwhile, a Turkish frigate, the TCG Gediz, visited the Chinese port of Qingdao from May 22-24. The TCG Gediz is on a long trip around the Far East, stopping in 14 countries, and although the stop in China has garnered the most attention, Turkish analysts saw the tour as part of a broader pivot to Asia. "As a Nato member, Turkey is sending everyone the message … that it can collaborate with everyone in the military field, not only with the allies of Western countries," Selcuk Colakoglu, vice-president of the Ankara-based think tank International Strategic Research Organisation, told the South China Morning Post.
Kazakhstan’s Constitutional Council has struck down a controversial law that would have outlawed “propaganda” of homosexuality to minors, amid signs the legislation was damaging the country’s bid to host the Winter Olympics.
The law was “not in line with the constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan” the Vlast.kz website quoted the Constitutional Council (which rules on the legality of legislation) as saying.
The law governed “the protection of children from information causing damage to their health and development." It was passed by parliament in February. The council struck down the law because of unclear wording rather than human rights concerns, the Vlast.kz report said.
The announcement came after a group of household-name sports stars urged the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to reject Kazakhstan’s bid to host the Winter Games in Almaty in 2022, arguing that the law outlawing the “propaganda” of homosexuality to minors was incompatible with Olympic principles of equality.
Georgian company Delta's new armed drone. (photo: MoD Georgia)
Georgia has rolled out a new, domestically produced armed drone, a substantial step forward for the country's growing defense industry.
The as-yet-unnamed unmanned aerial vehicle was produced by Georgian state defense manufacturer Delta, and was displayed in Tbilisi as part of the country's independence day celebrations.
Georgia has had a checkered history with drones. It bought some from Israel in 2007, then discovered that Israel had given the codes needed to control the aircraft to the very enemy Georgia is trying to arm itself against: Russia.
Then in 2012 Georgia showed off a new military UAV, announcing with great fanfare that it was domestically produced. “When you make procurement from abroad a seller may not give you a full technology or may share technology [bought] by you to your adversary,” then-president Mikheil Saakashvili said at a presentation of the drone. “No one will share this [pointing to the Georgian-made drone] with others; it’s ours… We no longer depend on others.” But it then quickly emerged that the drone was in fact a near-copy of an Estonian model.
This time, the fanfare isn't as great but it appears to be a more impressive accomplishment. "It looks like they made this one from scratch," Michael Blades, a military UAV analyst at consulting firm Frost & Sullivan, told The Bug Pit. "Although several foreign-produced parts were used to create the platform, Delta considers it a unique, all-Georgian product by its design and concept," reported Georgian news site Agenda.ge.
The World Bank has released yet another dire economic forecast for Tajikistan, predicting that the downturn in Russia and devalued ruble will push down labor migrants’ remittance transfers by 40 percent this year (in dollar terms). Unemployed young men are expected to return home in droves.
Job-poor Tajikistan is the world’s most remittance-dependent state; the migrants’ transfers account for the equivalent of 49 percent of GDP. This year and next are going to be especially hard for the millions of Tajikistanis who have been lifted out of poverty in recent years by their relatives’ transfers from Russia.
Up to half of working-age men, most of them under 30, have sought work abroad, mostly in Russia. Twenty-five percent are expected to return home this year, putting enormous social pressures on one of Central Asia’s most fragile states.
Some key takeaways from the May 25 report:
Declining remittances would significantly reduce disposable incomes in Tajikistan, forcing the poorest and the lower middle class to cut non-priority expenditures, including those on social services, such as education and health. Reintegration of returned migrants will be difficult given the limited jobs available, mismatched skills, and competition from youth entering the labor market. Returnees are likely to lack awareness of employment and business opportunities, and related legislation—employment information and services are both inadequate.
Ukraine and Moldova are restricting Russian military access to the breakaway territory of Transnistria, where Russia maintains about 1,500 troops.
Last week Ukraine's parliament voted to suspend military cooperation with Russia. And while much cooperation was of course already suspended, throughout the current crisis Russia has been able to use Ukrainian territory to supply its troops in Transnistria, a slender territory on Ukraine's western border. No longer.
Russia responded defiantly: "The Ministry of Defense is left with no other option than to supply Russian forces with all the necessities by air bridge, with military-transport aircraft," said Yuriy Yakubov, a senior Russian MoD official in an interview with Interfax after the Ukrainian vote. "The Russian contingent will be supplied under any circumstances."
A member of the Russian Duma committee on defense, Vladimir Komoedev, added: "We have to think now how to act, to find ways. We shouldn't throw out Transnistria and Moldova."
Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov solidified his role as the isolated country’s “protector” and leading equestrian on May 25, unveiling the first gold-plated statue of himself.
Officials say the 21-meter statue, cast in bronze and covered in 24-carat gold leaf, was built to satisfy public demand. It is named “The Protector,” for Berdymukhamedov’s adopted title, and features the strongman with his right hand outstretched and a dove perched upon it. Some have ridiculed it for bearing an uncanny resemblance to a statue of Peter the Great in Russia’s second city, St Petersburg.
Berdymukhamedov is not famous for originality. He has persistently built his own cult of personality while dismantling that of Saparmurat Niyazov, the Turkmenbashi, who died in 2006 after scattering golden busts and statues of himself across the gas-rich nation.
Notably, Berdymukhamedov has relegated to the suburbs a statue of Niyazov that rotated to face the sun. He has also gradually phased out Niyazov’s Ruhnama, or “Book of the Soul,” which was required reading in schools and government offices.
In hindsight it is clear that these moves were less about dismantling an old cult and more about making space for a new one.
In recent years Turkmenistan’s pliant and obsequious parliament has bestowed horse-mad Berdymukhamedov with titles such as “Master Jockey-Mentor of Turkmenistan” and “People’s Horse Breeder.” He has also authored a range of books, on horses among other things, and elevated his father, Myalikguli Berdymukhamedov, to the status of a living demigod. (In a nod to Central Asian patriarchy, Myalikguli got a monument before his son – though it is not covered in gold.)