Tajikistan is purportedly the linchpin of Moscow's security strategy in Central Asia, but local employees of the Russian military base there have protested that they haven't been paid their wages for six months.
According to RFE/RL's Tajik service, "dozens" of locals who work at the base in Kulyab, in southern Tajikistan near the border with Afghanistan, protested on April 15 to call attention to the slow payment. Russian base officials told the service that a third party company is responsible for the support staff, but that company has said that the base hasn't paid them.
If Russia isn't in fact making its payments on the base, that bodes ill for the ambitious plans that the Kremlin has announced for the base. Earlier this month, Russia announced that by 2020 it will increase the number of soldiers stationed there from 6,000 to 9,000. (It's already Russia's largest military base abroad.)
Russia is ostensibly concerned about Tajikistan's long border with Afghanistan, and has lately been ratcheting up the rhetoric about the possibility of Islamist radical spillover from Afghanistan into Central Asia. The new Russian-led security bloc, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, last week held a meeting in the northern Tajikistan city of Khujand, where "particular attention was given to the current situation in Afghanistan with regard to the activities of the IS international terrorist organization."
Azerbaijan’s status in a prominent international transparency organization has been downgraded. Representatives of the group cited Baku’s ongoing crackdown on individual liberties as the reason for the demotion.
Azerbaijan had been a member of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, or EITI, since 2003. The organization comprises companies, governments and civil-society groups and is dedicated to promoting greater transparency about state revenues earned from energy extraction and mining operations. Also inherent in membership is a commitment by member states to uphold basic liberties, in particular freedom of the press and broad access to information.
On April 14, EITI’s board deemed Azerbaijan was falling short in fulfilling the group’s obligations and downgraded the country from full member to candidate. To have its membership restored, Baku needs to “ensure that civil society in Azerbaijan can participate in the EITI in a meaningful way,” the Norway-based group’s chairperson, Clare Short, said.
Azerbaijan’s troubles with the EITI date back to 2013, when some organization representatives expressed concern about a crackdown on government critics, and launched a probe into the country’s commitment to the transparency standard.
The continued departure of young men for jihad in Syria is raising alarm in Georgia’s Pankisi Valley, a Sunni Muslim area that allegedly has seen scores of men leave for the war over the past few years.
Parents from Pankisi have asked for the government’s help to stop the trend. A photo that shows two Pankisi high-schoolers armed and posing before the Islamic State flag in a jihadist training camp has added to the sense of urgency. Police had been searching for the duo since April 2, when they vanished after being seen entering the public school they attended.
Now, attention has begun to focus on Georgian border officers as well. One of the two, 16-year-old Muslim Kushtanashvili, allegedly used his father’s passport to slip through the Georgian-Turkish border. (Georgian citizens can enter Turkey visa-free.)
Angry members of Pankisi’s council of elders have demanded that the government take greater responsibility for blocking such departures at the border. The interior ministry has started an investigation.
“It is a tragedy for an entire nation, when kids are taken to war straight from their school desks,” said Meka Khangoshvili, a Pankisi activist and adviser for the Georgian Ministry for Reconciliation and Civic Equality, in an interview with the Kakheti Information Center. She called on the government to step up efforts to integrate the secluded area into Georgian society.
At the same time, according to local media, parents blame individuals they term Wahhabis, who reportedly deny involvement, for the boys’ departure to Syria, and also Abu Omar al-Shishani (born Tarkhan Batirashvili), a Pankisi-born commander with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Exasperation also appears targeted at the young jihadists themselves.
The waters of the Syr-Darya river are highly polluted and should not be used for irrigating crops, let alone for drinking, scientists from Kazakhstan have concluded.
Tests of the waters of Central Asia’s longest river – which flows for 2,200 kilometers through Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan – found dangerous concentrations of metals including chromium, copper, nickel, mercury, molybdenum, and zinc, the Nur.kz site quoted scientists from South Kazakhstan State University as saying.
“The water of the Syr-Darya is not recommended for use either for agricultural needs or for the fishing industry,” concluded Uylesbek Besterekov, one of the professors who took part in the three-year study funded by a €600,000 NATO grant.
The scientists (who tested waters flowing for around 1,000 kilometers through Kazakhstan, from the border with Uzbekistan up to the Aral Sea) could not pinpoint which industrial enterprise was the greatest polluter – or even which of the four countries through which the river flows is causing the most contamination. Even if the main polluters could be identified and stopped, it would take at least a decade for the waters to become clean, Besterekov said.
The findings – which back up 2009 data suggesting that the Syr-Darya’s waters were too dirty to drink or use in agriculture safely – are worrying for the Central Asian governments, since the river is used to irrigate crops that are then transported all over the region for public consumption. (It was the use of this river’s waters for agricultural irrigation – particularly for cotton – that led to the shrinking of the Aral Sea into which it empties.)
Russia's post-Soviet security bloc is facing a wave of recent criticism that the organization is more talk than action. That accusation has long dogged the organization, but the recent burst of criticism comes at an awkward time as the crisis over Ukraine means that Russia is relying more and more on its non-Western allies.
The Collective Security Treaty Organization includes Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, and the criticism has been coming from several of those member-states. Last month, it was reported that Tajikistan is complaining that military aid promised to its border guards has been slow to arrive.
At a press conference last week in Bishkek, CSTO Secretary General Nikolay Bordyuzha had to defend the organization against accusations that it was ineffective.
"Everyone who talks about the ineffectiveness of the CSTO are talking complete nonsense," Bordyuzha said. "Only analysts who don't know the real picture and don't have full information can say that."
And on Monday, Bordyuzha met with Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, who also expressed his skepticism. "The Belarusian President noted that he would like to discuss a number of issues which have an impact on the performance of the organization in order 'to prevent it from turning into another fictitious organization,'" the state news agency Belta reported. (The report concluded laconically: "Nikolai Bordyuzha also put forward a number of proposals regarding military cooperation. Alexander Lukashenko approved some of them.")
Every year the cotton harvest in Uzbekistan creates a storm of controversy over the use of forced and child labor. But a damning new report by a German-based watchdog sheds fresh light on the scale of human rights abuses.
Forced labor during the fall harvest “decimated” public services as teachers and doctors were driven into the cotton fields, while the cotton-production system itself rests on “rampant, widespread and systematic corruption,” said the report by the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights (UGF) published on April 13.
The forced-labor system “took an even greater toll” in 2014, it said, “as the government mobilized more public sector workers than in previous years, decimating the provision of essential public services such as health care and education.”
The UGF, which gathered data from human rights monitors and interviews with people who participated in the harvest, found that – as in previous years – Tashkent’s efforts to stamp out child labor had shifted the burden to adults, including students.
Some 4 million adults were pressed into the harvest last fall, the Cotton Campaign (a coalition pushing to end forced labor in the sector, of which the UGF is a member) has estimated.
Schoolchildren and younger students were not mobilized en masse in 2014, the UGF report found. However, “many” 17-year-olds were, “and in some regions local authorities forcibly mobilized younger children […] to meet quotas assigned by the same central government authorities that simultaneously decreed children should not pick cotton.”
Georgia's defense minister has said that negotiations to acquire air defense systems remain underway, contrary to claims from his predecessor that Russia scuttled attempts to buy such weaponry from the West.
Last week, ex-defense minister Irakli Alasania held a press conference to air allegations that, in deference to Russia, the government sabotaged his efforts to acquire air defense systems from France. The political fallout continued this week, doing nothing to clear up the political controversy but shedding some more light on what is by all accounts one of Georgia's most critical military priorities.
"Over the past 22 years, air defence has been our 'Achilles' heel,'" Alasania said in a TV interview, reported BBC Monitoring. "Therefore, when I came to the [Defence] Ministry, the first thing I did together with our military men was to determine air defence as our top priority. This was a system of exclusively defensive character, and I openly spoke about it in my plans."
Irakli Aladashvili, Georgia's leading defense journalist, noted that Alasania said that the air defense system he had negotatied with France would be able to shoot down any kind of Russian aircraft, as well as Iskander ballistic missiles (which were reportedly used for the first time against Georgia in 2008). Aladashvili concludes:
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva at the sacred Black Stone inside the Haram Mosque's Kaaba, the most revered site in Islam.
Yes, you read that right. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev on April 7 swapped his usual suit-and-tie look for the white robes of a Muslim pilgrim to Mecca. His wife, Mehriban Aliyeva, and daughters Leyla and Arzu, the country’s glamor-icons, and teenage-son, Heydar, came along, too.
Azerbaijan may be a predominantly Shi’a Muslim country, but this is the first time that its all-powerful ruling family has been known to circumambulate the Haram Mosque’s Kaaba, the high holy point for Islam.
Religious piety, in fact, has never been seen as the strongest of suits for the 53-year-old Aliyev, who was born to a Soviet nomenklatura family and essentially inherited the presidency from his father, Heydar Aliyev, a Soviet-era leader of Azerbaijan.
Indeed, in keeping with that Soviet past, the Azerbaijani government and much of Azerbaijani society itself also remain resolutely secular. Azerbaijan has arms and energy deals with Israel, and did not flinch at hosting what clerics in neighboring Iran termed the “gay,” “Zionist” Eurovision Song Contest in 2012.
Yet with popular devotion to Islam on the rise within Azerbaijan, Aliyev most likely feels the need to show he’s in tune with the times; as the extensive photo-spread on the president’s official site suggests.
The fact that Aliyev and his family made it inside the Kaaba, solemnly observed the state-run Azertag, is "a manifestation of the importance the Islamic world attaches to the personality and activity of President Ilham Aliyev.”
That said, the surprising tableau could also have been seen as good for business. Energy-rich Azerbaijan, it appears, has its eye on Arab investment.
Being president may not be enough for Emomali Rahmon. If a band of obsequious, state-sponsored academics have their wish, he could soon become “Leader of the Nation” – a title that has been used in the region to evade pesky regulations, like term limits.
In a lengthy article published on the ruling People Democratic Party’s website, political scientists Nosirjon Salimi and Holahmad Sami of Dushanbe’s Pedagogical University insist that Rahmon – who came to power 23 years ago and has systematically crushed all opposition – is more than a president: “The leader of our nation is the guarantor of justice, law and order; he protects our citizens from arbitrary bureaucracy and defends their rights and freedoms. He creates a climate of law and order.”
It is safe to say the article exaggerates Rahmon’s achievements, crediting him with building a democratic government, fighting drug trafficking and reducing poverty. The authors place a special emphasis on Rahmon as peacemaker. “Today, without exception, all members of society recognize it was our leader who was responsible for the restoration of peace, stability and national reconciliation,” they state, suggesting that Rahmon alone ended the 1990s civil war.
The academics liken Rahmon to Charles de Gaulle, Mahatma Gandhi and the late Singaporean autocrat Lee Kuan Yew. Like them, Rahmon has built a nation, bringing “success and progress for the people,” they say.
“Perhaps leaders do not need to be given such titles,” the academics conclude. But “nations experiencing the clash of civilizations and impact of globalization need to acknowledge their leaders.”
The United States State Department has criticized its embassy in Tajikistan for its cooperation on an investigation into military aid practices there, suggesting that embassy staff in Dushanbe were giving a sanitized view of events to their superiors in Washington.
On April 7 the State Department's Office of the Inspector General released a report on the Dushanbe embassy's activities, and among the issues it investigated was U.S. military aid policy in the context of the controversial 2012 military operation in Khorog. In that operation, special forces units -- which have been the focus of extensive U.S. training and equipping programs -- opened indiscriminate fire in the town, killing about 20 civilians. That raised questions about whether the aid was in violation of U.S. laws that try to prevent military aid going to human rights violators.
When the State Department tried to look into the event and U.S. military aid policies in Tajikistan, the information they were given was written by the military officers of the embassy, rather than the diplomats who were supposed to be providing oversight, the OIG report says. That "frustrated" officials in Washington trying to investigate, and "undermined confidence that the embassy provides a full and reliable picture of local developments."