Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif rounded off an energy-themed jaunt across Central Asia on May 22 in Bishkek, where he spoke about electricity exports to his energy-starved nation two days after visiting Turkmenistan to discuss a troubled gas-pipeline project.
The trip demonstrated Pakistan’s limited leverage in its dealings with Central Asia and, publicly at least, did not produce much of substance.
In Ashgabat, Sharif called on partners to “intensify work” on the long-stalled Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline. In his meeting with Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov on May 20, Sharif called TAPI a “project that would bring benefits to the entire region.”
But the pipeline, which would traverse Afghanistan and has been on the drawing board since the mid-1990s, may cost over $10 billion. With no commercial investor so far, initiative rests with both Turkmenistan, the would-be-supplier, and the main export market, India. Delhi must decide if its own energy deficit warrants pushing a link that many see as risky and expensive.
Neither president mentioned either the hoped-for 2017 TAPI completion date, or the more pessimistic projection of 2020 mentioned in late April by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. (Many say both timelines are still pipedreams.)
Russia announced this week that it has formally cut off the transit of NATO military cargo through Russian territory. But in theory, Moscow remains open to cooperation on Afghanistan: it annulled the agreement only after NATO quietly allowed the agreement to lapse after the formal combat mission in Afghanistan ended at the end of 2014. And the comparable military transit agreement with the United States remains in effect, though the Pentagon isn't currently using Russian territory for its Afghan transit.
On May 18, the Russian government announced that Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev had signed a decree annulling the NATO transit agreement. Russia has allowed NATO countries to transport equipment to Afghanistan since 2008, and even allowed NATO to set up a controversial logistics facility in Ulyanovsk in 2012, though the latter, in the end, was rarely used.
In general, the transit routes through the former Soviet Union -- collectively known as the Northern Distribution Network -- have declined in significance over the last few years. The main reason is that Pakistan, which offers a much closer route to the sea from Afghanistan, has become a more reliable partner, making it a much more economical option and Russia and the rest of the NDN effectively a backup.
A court in Tashkent has ordered one of Uzbekistan’s few privately owned newspapers to close, accusing it of undermining the nation’s moral values.
The silencing of the Noviy Vek weekly is the latest blow to the beleaguered media in Uzbekistan, which watchdogs single out as having one of the world’s worst press-freedom records.
“The newspaper was closed down” by court order, Shakhriyor Mansurov, a spokesman for the government’s Agency for Press and Information – which brought the case – confirmed to EurasiaNet.org on May 21, the day after the ruling.
Noviy Vek could not be reached for comment, its telephones going unanswered on May 21. Its website was updated on May 21, but did not mention the case against the newspaper (which is published in print every Thursday).
Mansurov said he was unable to provide any background details to the case. But the Uzmetronom.com website – the only Uzbekistani-based outlet to mention the trial – reported that the government agency had accused Noviy Vek of publishing material “contradicting principles of moral development, shaping an incorrect notion of the socio-political situation in the country, and causing detriment to traditional values.”
The Agency for Press and Information, which had found these alleged violations in the Russian-language newspaper’s reporting, refused to hold the trial in Russian (as the defense had wished) on the grounds that its officials could not speak Russian, Uzmetronom.com said.
Kyrgyzstan took another halting step toward joining the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union on May 21 when President Almazbek Atambayev signed an accession treaty into law.
The other four members must still approve the impoverished Central Asian state’s membership (a process that is largely seen as a formality), and Bishkek must finish upgrading its border checkpoints to EEU standards before Kyrgyzstan becomes a formal member. But Atambayev was in a jubilant mood.
“Today is a wonderful day for us. Today [I am] signing the law ratifying international agreements on Kyrgyzstan’s accession to the Eurasian Economic Union. In this way, we complete all the internal governmental procedures for entering one of the biggest economic unions in the world,” Atambayev said on May 21 in comments carried by his website.
Kyrgyzstan first formally applied for membership two years ago and has been speaking about joining for four. Accession has dragged for so long that confusion over whether Kyrgyzstan is yet a member has reigned in recent weeks. It is still unclear how long it will take for Kyrgyzstan to upgrade its checkpoints.
In his remarks, Atambayev celebrated a “a new phase of development” for his country, while warning that the “journey will not be easy.” For years, thousands of Kyrgyzstanis have survived by re-exporting Chinese goods to other former Soviet republics. Those goods now face higher import tariffs. Kyrgyzstan’s economy must “restructure in a very short space of time,” Atambayev acknowledged.
In a smack-down to Georgia and Ukraine’s European aspirations, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on May 21 that the two countries should not have expectations for a visa-free regime with the EU anytime soon.
Merkel’s comments came amid the European Union’s summit with its EU-curious neighbors in the Latvian capital, Riga. In the run-up to the summit, it was clear that the EU would not be granting a visa-waiver at this time, but Georgia and Ukraine expected to make significant progress toward such a waiver, as well as toward integration with the bloc.
As of early evening, Tbilisi had not yet responded officially to Merkel’s remarks. In comments earlier in the day in Riga, however, Georgian Foreign Minister Tamar Beruchashvili told Georgian reporters that Georgia has met with flying colors most of the EU’s requirements for a visa-free regime, and that it is “only a step “ away from heading toward receiving that status.
Kyiv’s reaction was not immediately available.
Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova are the main EU-enthusiasts among the six ex-Soviet republics courted by the EU under its Eastern Partnership Program. Moldova, Ukraine's southwestern neighbor, received its visa-free deal in 2014.
After the last Eastern Partnership in Vilnius, Lithuania, where Ukraine had pulled away from signing an association agreement with the EU, helping to set in motion a domestic conflict over Ukraine’s leadership, the bloc arrived at this next summit in Riga with far less enthusiasm for integrating the countries and to engage Russia in a full-on competition for the region.
Kazakhstan soldiers in southern Tajikistan for CSTO joint military exercises. (photo: CSTO)
Russia and several of its allies have completed joint military exercises on the Tajikistan Afghanistan border, which they say was necessitated by the worsening situation in northern Afghanistan.
The drills of the Collective Security Treaty Organization began last week and the first step was deploying the 2,500 troops, without prior notice, to the exercise site in Tajikistan's Khatlon province. According to the scenario of the exercises, "the situation on the Tajik-Afghan border seriously deteriorated. Armed groups invaded the territory of Tajikistan from the territory of Afghanistan. The Tajikistan armed forces together with other security structures carry out military operations to repel the invasion."
Military units from the various CSTO member states carried out individual tasks: Tajikistani aircraft carried out aerial reconnaissance and identified the position of "terrorist groups" numbering 700 people.
Then an Armenian special forces company reconnoitered the site on the ground, traveling with modified Nissan pickup trucks armed with machine guns. Then, various special forces units from Belarus, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan advanced to "capture the militants' field commander and secure the withdrawal of the Armenian reconnaissance troops."
In the final stage, Russian and Kazakhstani bomber jets carried out air strikes on the militant positions, and drones identified targets for further artillery strikes.
Tashkent is reportedly restricting access to dollars for the business community, in the latest development to suggest that Uzbekistan’s government is facing a liquidity crisis.
The National Bank of Uzbekistan has “halted all convertibility operations for an unspecified period,” the Tashkent-based Uzmetronom.com website reported May 20, citing “information from reliable sources.” There was no confirmation on the website of the central bank, which EurasiaNet.org could not reach for comment.
These are the operations through which foreign and domestic companies convert their revenues earned in Uzbekistani sums into dollars, to repatriate earnings and pay for imports.
“Thus foreign investors and local entrepreneurs who depend on supplies from abroad (raw materials, parts, equipment and so on), who could still recently count on at least minimal levels of profit conversion within the limits of the quotas set for them, are now deprived of this opportunity,” remarked Uzmetronom.com (an unusually outspoken website which is believed to be close to Uzbekistan’s security services).
Investors regularly cite convertibility of sums into foreign currency and repatriation of revenues as the main barriers to doing business in Uzbekistan. Privately, businessmen report delays stretching into months to obtain permission from the central bank to convert sums to dollars, during which time they cannot access the funds since they are held in zero-interest accounts at the National Bank.
If confirmed, the suspension of currency conversion would be the latest indication that Tashkent is suffering from a shortage of dollar liquidity as it struggles under exchange rate pressures, caused in part by the depreciation of the Russian ruble (which has hit currencies across the region).
Local news reported trapped residents jumping to their death from the burning high-rise in the Binagadi district. Harrowing footage shows friends and families rushing to the scene and arguing with police who blocked access to the building. Scores of apartment-dwellers were hospitalized for burns and smoke-poisoning.
Murisif Makhmudov, the head of the company, Global Construction, which allegedly put the facing on the building, has been charged with the use of low-quality materials and was arrested on May 19, news agencies have reported.
Outrage over the incident, strongly expressed on Facebook, is running strong and building. Five children, including a one-and-a-half-year-old, died in the fire. Sick of rampant corruption, many Azerbaijanis see this tragedy as the result of many officials and businesspeople’s willingness to go cheap on building materials or blind on safety standards. This was the second Baku-fire this year blamed on polyurethane-based sidings.
Abkhazia has appointed a retired senior Russian military officer as its new chief of general staff of the armed forces, suggesting a tightening control by Moscow over the nominally independent breakaway Georgian territory.
De facto President of Abkhazia Raul Khajimba announced the appointment of General Anatoliy Khrulev to head the armed forces on May 18, just three days after Khajimba met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi. Until his retirement in 2010, Khrulev had commanded the Russian 58th Army, and was wounded in South Ossetia fighting in the 2008 war between Georgia and Russia.
In announcing the appointment, Khajimba said it would help improve "cooperation" with Russia: "Our army isn't large, but in conditions of great military difficulty, when it was formed, it showed itself to be capable," Khajimba said. "Today is a different time, and we are taking on new missions, including those connected with the development of military-technical cooperation with Russia. We are counting on your [Khrulev's] knowledge and experience."
The appointment follows last year's signing of an integration deal between Abkhazia and Russia, which called for a "unified defense space" and other forms of tighter military coordination.
Khrulev isn't the first non-Abkhazian to hold such a high-ranking role in the security services: Sultan Sosnaliyev, a native of Kabardino-Balkaria who fought in Abkhazia's war against Georgia in the early 1990s, served two terms as defense minister, including as recently as 2007.
The Islamic State has narrowly missed a chance to enlist its most high-profile Tajik recruit to date, according to a sensational report circulating in Tajikistan.
According to TojNews, Turkish authorities have arrested the decorated commander of Tajikistan’s Interior Ministry paramilitary squad (OMON), Gulmurod Halimov, who disappeared last month. Colonel Halimov was travelling on a fake passport with the intention of crossing into Syria, an unnamed Interior Ministry source told TojNews on May 19.
Halimov disappeared on April 23, telling his family he was leaving for a short business trip. His brother told Radio Ozodi that his phone was switched off, but that his personal items, including his passport, were left as if he departed in a hurry. Citing unnamed sources, Dushanbe’s Asia-Plus news agency reported that he flew to Russia on May 1 with ten others and was seen in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport the next day.
The colonel’s disappearance set the Tajik rumor mill into overdrive. A sensational theory emerged: Halimov had joined the Islamic State. A number of Halimov’s colleagues fuelled this speculation, describing how he had developed an unhealthy interest in the terrorist group. Halimov had “become a fanatical follower of the Islamic State and began to spread its propaganda amongst his relatives,” one unnamed friend told Asia Plus.