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."
Tajikistan’s slide toward a one-party, family-run order is picking up momentum, even as analysts warn of possible imminent instability.
Asia-Plus news website reported on January 11 that a secret draft bill is in the works to make significant changes to the constitution. The amendments could be put up for a referendum, the website said.
Sources have told EurasiaNet.org that the modifications under review envision banning political parties espousing either religious or atheist views.
The only party embracing a religious identity, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, was already banned in September and has since been designated a terrorist organization.
But the the atheist component of the proposed constitutional reform appears possibly designed to sideline the Communist Party of Tajikistan, which holds two deputies in parliament. The Communist Party has rarely constituted an actual opposition force in Tajikistan, but it is regarded with suspicion all the same.
The current constitution also does not allow for the Leader of the Nation title bestowed last month upon President Emomali Rahmon. Accordingly, that will be amended, and details about Rahmon’s immunity from prosecution and post-rule benefits will be outlined, EurasiaNet.org’s source said.
One more crucial area possibly to undergo review involves the lower age limit for pretenders to the presidency, which currently bars anybody under the age of 35 from running. As things stand, the most likely successor to Emomali Rakhmon would be legally prevented from taking up the post at the next presidential election, in 2020.
Citing police sources, the pro-government news site APA claimed that “more than 60” people had been detained, and 50 subsequently released. An exact tally was not immediately available. The government itself has not released an official statement.
Scores of arrests appear to have been made in Nardaran, located about 30 kilometers northeast of the capital, Baku, since a raid last November that left at least six dead. Among others, the head of the town’s council of elders, Natig Karimov, was detained last week on charges of treason and espionage. Local spiritual leader Taleh Bagirzade was arrested in November.
Authorities claim that the town’s residents harbored plans for an armed coup and colluded with an unnamed foreign power — believed to mean Azerbaijan’s southern neighbor, Iran -- against Azerbaijani security interests. Claims long have run rampant in Azerbaijan, a predominantly Shi'a country, that Iran’s Shi’ite government tries to influence or stir up trouble in Nardaran.
As Iran expressed an interest in monitoring the actions taken in Nardaran, Baku started to pull back from recent expressions of chumminess over potential joint energy-export projects.
Russia says it has completed the handover of air defense systems to Kazakhstan, part of the project of creating a joint air defense system across the former Soviet Union. But Kazakhstan's Ministry of Defense is complaining that the systems aren't actually yet delivered and are not in working condition.
The gift of five Russian S-300 air defense systems to Kazakhstan was announced two years ago (and then was said to be on slate for completion by the end of 2014). This was to be the first step of the Central Asian portion of a joint air defense system Russia is trying to create with its allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization. (Armenia and Belarus are in their own discussions with Russia to build up the system in their regions.)
At December's meeting of the CSTO in Moscow, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu announced that the S-300 transfer to Kazakhstan was complete.
"We have completed the project to transfer without charge the S-300 air defense systems to Kazakhstan, taking into consideration the fact that this is a weighty, if not main, contribution to the integrated air defense system, which, one may say, has become a reality, and now its hardware component has been built up to the expected strength," Shoigu said.
But that's not quite the situation, senior Kazakhstani defense officials say. "The S-300 complexes won't enter service tomorrow. Two complexes are underdoing technical service in Kazakhstan, and three will undergo technical service in Russia," the head of Kazakhstan's air defense forces, General-Major Nurlan Ormanbetov, told the Kazakh service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
Internet users in Uzbekistan look set to suffer an indefinite continuation to the poor service they have been enduring for the past half year or so.
The lingering suspicion is that security services are trying, but struggling, to install cast-iron monitoring mechanisms to keep tabs on users of popular communication software like Skype, WhatsApp and Viber.
State-run Uzbektelecom’s Internet provider division said that the latest decline in the quality of connections would last through to early next month because of maintenance work on the network, Regnum news agency reported on January 6.
The agency said some areas of the capital, Tashkent, might cease to get the Internet altogether.
This has become a routine warning since July, however, and other online providers — Sarkor Telecom, Sharq Telecom, Turon Telecom, ComNet and others — have issued similar statements.
Telecommunications officials have tried to reassure customers that the ultimate aim to all the interruptions in service are to improve quality, but experts are skeptical.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Uzbek service, Ozodlik, has speculated that the ultimate cause may be the National Security Services’ desperate efforts to monitor online traffic.
"It looks like they [the security services] have jumbled up all the Internet traffic settings as they try to set up a monitoring system in the main server, where all international traffic goes through,” an Internet security specialist told Ozodlik on condition on anonymity.
Such claims have no longer been subject of speculation since hackers last year leaked reams of correspondence from an Italian company, Hacking Team, which provides Internet monitoring technology to numerous governments, including Uzbekistan’s.
Some people start off the new year with a new plan for diet or exercise, but the South Caucasus country of Georgia took a different tact. With a parliamentary election ahead, it kicked off 2016 with a new prime minister — the 48-year-old, US-educated Giorgi Kvirikashvili, a former foreign and economic development minister.
So far, however, no sign has emerged that Prime Minister Kvirikashvili intends to make sizable policy shifts. Apart from a new foreign minister (former Deputy Foreign Minister Mikheil Janelidze), the cabinet remains unchanged.
Other details also remain constant.
A longtime banking professional with a master’s degree in finance from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Kvirikashvili may want to promote start-ups, “economic development,” and political cooperation, but, like his 33-year-old predecessor, Irakli Gharibashvili, he is a company man. A Bidzina-company man, that is.
From 2006 until 2011, Kvirikashvili worked as general director of Cartu Bank, an investment bank set up by the billionaire former prime minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili, who founded Georgia's ruling Georgian Dream coalition.
Though Kvirikashvili, a former MP, is no stranger to Georgian politics, it was Ivanishvili who brought him into the cabinet — in 2012 as economic development minister; a position he held until last September, when he became foreign minister.
For many Georgians, his pick as PM is another sign of a blessing from Bidzina, the man still seen, more than two years after his resignation as prime minister, as the country's real leader.
An interview broadcast shortly after Gharibashvili’s surprise December 23 resignation doubtless did little to dispel that popular notion.