Kazakhstan’s long-serving president has confirmed widespread expectations that the country will go to the polls in a snap election, setting the date for April 26.
Incumbent Nursultan Nazarbayev, 74, did not confirm he will stand in the poll. But in an address to the nation late on February 25 he dropped strong hints that he will, stressing the need for “stability” and “continuation.”
“First, all the appeals to me [to hold a snap election] reflect nationwide alarm that no internal discord or external conflicts should affect our country,” Nazarbayev said. “People understand that for this it is necessary to boost stability and the unity of our society.”
Secondly, he added, amid a “global economic crisis, the people need confidence in tomorrow. This means above all assuring jobs, and stability in social payments, salaries, and grants.”
Nazarbayev invoked “global geopolitical contradictions,” in an indirect reference to tensions in the post-Soviet region over the conflict in Ukraine. This means that “our citizens are concerned about the question of assuring national security,” he said. “Kazakhstanis are, therefore, coming out in favor of the further continuation of a balanced domestic and foreign policy.”
Nazarbayev’s words strongly suggest that he has every intention of staying in power for another term, since a change of leader in Kazakhstan, which has had the same president for a quarter of a century, would undoubtedly bring political upheaval in its wake.
Uzbekistan’s guardians of moral values have imposed a curfew on Internet cafes in Tashkent, which they believe are perverting the nation’s teens, encouraging them to view material “contradicting our national mentality.”
According to new rules issued by the Tashkent mayor’s office, Internet cafes and computer clubs must close by 9 p.m., with immediate effect. City hall says the curfew is needed because of the existence of “clips, pictures, sites, and films advocating aggression, brutality, and immorality, which exert a negative influence on minors and are one of the main causes of the increase in the number of crimes among young people.” As a further reason, the decree cites “the increase in the number of Internet cafes and computer clubs” in the capital.
The decree (which was passed on February 18 and came into force as it was published on February 25—just ahead of a presidential election next month) also banned minors from being in Internet cafes in school time or “at a late hour” without the presence of a parent or adult guardian. It did not specify what was meant by a “late hour,” but that is evidently before 9 p.m.
The decree also imposes a sweeping – and hard to define and enforce – ban on the existence “in the establishment’s computer memory” of any material “advocating immorality, religious extremism, [and] nationalism in the form of computer games, or their use through the Internet.”
In a televised speech, President Aliyev said on February 24 that Azerbaijanis should have seen the devaluation coming, given the geopolitical oscillations afoot in the post-Soviet world and the drop in oil-prices. He appeared to have forgotten about the fact that only a month ago he had asserted that none of this would affect Azerbaijan’s currency.
He conceded, though, that if the manat-dollar rate had held, Azerbaijan’s foreign-currency reserves could have been reduced sharply by year's end. Five hundred million dollars, he alleged, was being bought a day; he did not name a time-period.
Nonetheless, in the Aliyev theory of economics, every dark cloud has a silver lining. The manat’s former strength just shows how successful Azerbaijan’s economic reforms have been, he argued. The catch is . . . “events in the neighborhood” made it too much of a good thing.
The mighty manat’s increase in value posed a problem for economic development, he claimed, making no mention of the currency’s nearly four-year-long peg to the US dollar. “This is why we decided to devalue the manat a little,” he said.
“A little” meant the Central Bank’s February-21 decision to slash the manat’s rate against the dollar by more than a third, and against the euro by 30 percent. It already had divorced the currency from the dollar.
Just days after Turkey's defense minister said that its new, controversial air defense system would not be integrated with NATO's, the president's spokesman openly contradicted him.
"As one of the most important countries in NATO's security line, we will definitely ensure this integration and harmony," said Ibrahim Kalin, spokesman for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Kalin did not address the other recent plot twist in this long-running saga -- that Ankara's decision on whether to continue as planned with a Chinese system, or instead switch to a Western one, would be based on how the bidding countries mark the upcoming 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide.
But his statement does -- again -- make it appear likely that Ankara will eventually reverse course and decide to go with a Western, NATO-compatible system. NATO officials have repeatedly argued that they could not integrate a Chinese system into their own for security purposes, and failing to integrate NATO's system would be a big handicap for Turkey. By not integrating with NATO "Turkey will lose half of its radar capabilities,” one unnamed defense analyst told Hurriyet Daily News.
Turkey analyst Aaron Stein notes that Defense Minister Ismet Yilmaz, whose remarks initially set all this off, may not know what he's talking about, and in any case the decision is not going to be made in the defense industry but in the presidential palace.
Azerbaijan’s most prominent investigative reporter, Khadija Ismayilova remains in extended pre-trial detention, awaiting her day in court to face a variety of criminal charges. Meanwhile, Ismayilova’s fellow reporters at the Azeri service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty are experiencing a rising level of harassment.
Authorities seem intent on turning the screws slowly on Ismayilova. On February 23, following a closed-door trial, she was found guilty of libel and fined the equivalent of $2,400. Ismayilova was originally arrested on December 5 on charges of incitement of suicide. She denies all charges. Media freedom monitors consider the criminal case against her to be politically motivated.
In a recently published letter to The Washington Post, Ismayilova says she has no access to news and her family members are not allowed to visit her. “My cellmates are also my new audience, that most precious thing that every journalist must have, even a journalist whom the government is trying to silence,” Ismayilova wrote.
These days, Azerbaijani authorities are paying more attention to others with an RFE/RL affiliation. For example, Babek Bakirov, RFE/RL’s former Baku bureau chief, was not allowed to board an international flight on February 23, the same day when Ismayilova’s libel decision was announced. The RFE/RL bureau also revealed that one of its contributors was questioned by prosecutors. His name was not disclosed for safety concerns.
Rakhat Aliyev, the flamboyant and controversial former son-in-law of Kazakhstan’s president, has been found dead in an Austrian prison, where he was awaiting trial on charges of murdering two bankers in Kazakhstan eight years ago.
Once a major powerbroker in Kazakhstan, widely feared for his ruthless pursuit of business interests and personal vendettas, Aliyev was found hanged in the Vienna jail on February 24, Reuters reported. Austrian corrections department director Peter Prechtl reportedly described the death as suicide, though Aliyev’s lawyer expressed doubts.
Aliyev’s death puts an end to a tumultuous life which saw him climb the dizzy heights of power alongside his ex-wife Dariga Nazarbayeva (the eldest daughter of President Nursultan Nazarbayev) and amass a vast fortune in Kazakhstan, before suffering a spectacular fall from grace and ending up behind bars on a murder rap in Europe.
The former senior official in the Nazarbayev administration fell out with his father-in-law in 2007 and holed up in exile to escape criminal charges, first in Austria and then in Malta (where he lived under his second wife’s surname, Shoraz).
He vociferously protested his innocence of all charges, waging a media war with Nazarbayev and making claims of political persecution that were widely ridiculed in Kazakhstan (including by the political opposition, to which he had never demonstrated any previous allegiance).
It’s tough to find good economic news coming out of Central Asia these days. But for those yearning for some, a recent report issued by the German financial giant Commerzbank seems to want to turn back the clock to the dreamy days of booming growth and soaring commodity prices.
The bank’s recently released 36-page report, titled Insights: Central Asia and Mongolia, touts numerous investment opportunities in the region.
“We view the trend for the Central Asian region and Mongolia as positive, owing to the diverse opportunities, and will be pleased if our work helps to make a positive mark and send out a positive signal to politics and business,” the report states.
Axel Bommersheim, one of the bank’s regional heads, goes so far as to predict in a press statement that “future economic growth in the region will be considerably higher than the global average.”
Production schedules make it understandable why the report may be a few steps behind in tracking the decline of Central Asian economies. Still, the report seems to gloss over multiple factors that aren’t exactly new, and which are stalling Central Asian economies – including sagging oil prices and the cratering Russian economy. Ultimately, the report comes across as more wishful thinking than forecasting. The projections in the Commerzbank report aren’t in line with forecasts made by the World Bank or EBRD.
Hurting the report’s credibility is a statement that Mongolians achieved their independence in “1991.” The joke may have been that Mongolia was little more than the 16th Soviet republic, but in actuality the country gained independence in the early 20th century.
It was to national disappointment that Georgian director Zaza Urushadze’s Tangerines did not get an Oscar at last night’s Academy Awards. For Georgia’s glass-is-half-full crowd, however, the film’s nomination for Best Foreign Film was a sufficient accomplishment after almost two decades of creative stagnation in the country’s film-industry.
Technically, Tangerines is an Estonian film. But although it was submitted and also co-sponsored by Estonians, it is essentially a Georgian film, directed and mostly acted by Georgians.
Set during the 1992-1994 war with separatists in Abkhazia, the film tells the story of an Estonian carpenter and farmer Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak), who saves two wounded warring combatants, Akhmed, a Chechen (Giorgi Nakashidze) supporting the separatists, and the Georgian Niko (Mikheil Meskhi). As the enemies recover from their gun wounds at Ivo’s house, they also slowly recover from their hatred of each other.
Yet for all its noble aims, the film’s peace message is so loud that it comes at the expense of verisimilitude. In one awkwardly written and played bit, the fighters even exchange condolences to each other for their respective sides’ losses.
Such an exchange of courtesies may tick off all the boxes in a wish-list for a reconciliation-promoting NGO, but, for many Georgian viewers, who know how characters like Akhmed and Niko would normally speak and act in real life, such scenes damaged the movie’s artistic value.
Nonetheless, the film boasts a well-structured and paced script, with handsomely done visuals and an atmospheric setting for the three-men drama as a microcosm of the larger crisis happening outside Ivo’s house.
The gates of the Dastan factory in Bishkek in February 2015 (photo: twitter user @Bakai04)
Russia has apparently lost interest in a Soviet legacy torpedo factory in Kyrgyzstan that it has long sought to acquire, which officials in Bishkek say is the result of the Ukraine crisis.
The Dastan torpedo plant in Bishkek has been the source of extended negotiations between Kyrgyzstan and Russia. But the story seemed more or less over in 2013, when Kyrgyzstan announced that it would finally put the factory up for sale, and that Russia would be the buyer. Now, though, that seems to have fallen through.
According to Kyrgyzstan Deputy Prime Minister Valery Dil, Russia is no longer interested in buying Dastan because, in the wake of the Ukraine crisis, it's trying to reduce its dependency on other countries' defense businesses. (Ukraine has an extensive defense industry on which Russia has depended heavily even since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and now that cooperation has obviously been curtailed.)
"Dastan is a unique enterprise, the likes of which don't exist any more in the former USSR. Because of the crisis in Ukraine, when Russia lost its relationships with many foreign defense enterprises, they are limiting their entrance into third countries," Dil told journalists last week. "[So] Dastan can't find a place in the defense-industrial complex. But the potential of the factory is huge, it needs to work."
That explanation would be at odds with Russia's claim that the Ukraine crisis would have the opposite result, that its allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization -- including Kyrgyzstan -- would gain business by replacing Ukrainian imports.