Russia has hastened to assure its Central Asian allies that they will not be involved in any military moves in Ukraine, a sign that Moscow is aware of the growing worry about its new assertiveness.
The issue is the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Russia-led post-Soviet security bloc that includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. The group thus far has seen a lot more talk than action, and plenty of questions remain about what it will actually do. On Monday, Kyrgyzstani MP Tursunbai Bakir Uulu expressed concern that the CSTO might embroil Kyrgyzstan in the conflict in Ukraine:
"The agreement was ratified, but before the events in Ukraine. I don't want to be a hostage to these agreements. You know, that the [Russian] Federation Council took a decision that, if the need arose, they could intervene militarily in Ukraine. If tomorrow war breaks out between Russia and Ukraine, we would be obliged to fight on Russia's side. We need to withdraw from these agreements so we don't get drawn into a war in Ukraine."
The collapse of the Soviet Union left industry scattered across the Fergana Valley regardless of modern borders. This oil field stands near Jany Jer, Kyrgyzstan, on the Uzbek border.
Last October, according to Kyrgyz accounts, Tajik soldiers crossed into disputed territory to repair an oil and gas well that a Tajik company had used since independence—pumping, by some estimates, 5 tons of oil a day. Kyrgyz border guards took notice, shut down the operation, and told the Tajiks to get lost.
Could that episode have led to a shootout between Tajik and Kyrgyz border guards near Ak-Sai on January 11? Both countries are starved for energy resources, so the idea they could fight over an oilfield seems plausible.
When Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan were all Soviet republics, their winding, undefined borders mattered little. But when Moscow’s rule evaporated, the Soviets left an industrial legacy overlying the Fergana Valley’s new borders: crisscrossing pipelines and derelict derricks in no man’s land.
Since the 1970s, Soviet Tajikistan and then the Republic of Tajikistan had been pumping oil from the field, Katta-Tuz, which the Kyrgyz say is on disputed territory. “In August 2013 I told them to stop,” recalls Kyrgyz Deputy Prime Minister Tokun Mamytov. “It’s a big problem. […] The first problem is not the road, but oil and gas.” (Mamytov’s counterparts in Tajikistan refused to comment.)
Like a tsunami that arrives without any warning, the confection known as "trilece" -- a sponge cake soaked in a creamy milk bath -- has taken Istanbul's dessert scene by storm over the last few years. From ritzy uptown patisseries to humble old city kofte joints, the dessert seems to be everywhere.
But where did it come from? That's the difficult question Culinary Backstreets tries to answer in a story posted today. Trilece (pronounced "tree-leche"), as the name implies, is connected to the famous Latin American tres leches cake. But the one that has taken over Istanbul hails from the Balkans, creating something of a mystery about how a cake with South American roots worked its way through the Balkans and into the pastry shops of Istanbul. From Culinary Backstreets' story:
We’ve been following the movement of trileçe all over the city and it is spreading fast. Just in the past couple of years, it has made its debut in sweetshops, from modern Etiler all the way down to the historic Grand Bazaar. There are wholesalers of this cake supplying restaurants all over town. Tuğra Restaurant, at the Çırağan Palace Kempinski hotel on the Bosphorus, includes it on the menu as a signature dish. But even more significantly, trileçe has breached the seemingly impenetrable bulwark against fads, working its way into even Köfteci Arnavut, a third-generation, exceedingly old-school meatball shop where the menu has not changed since 1947.
Could 2018 become the new 1980? It might, if recent initiatives aiming to use a major sporting event to punish Russia for geopolitical misbehavior can gain traction.
Back in 1979, it was the Kremlin’s military occupation of Afghanistan that prompted a US-led boycott of the Moscow Summer Olympic Games the following year. The trigger today is Russia’s land grab in Crimea, an act of territorial aggression that has evoked memories of Nazi Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland back in 1938.
Russia, as readers may remember, is scheduled to host the 2018 World Cup football tournament, the world’s most watched sporting event. A couple of football fans in the United States and Europe, outraged by Russia’s incursion, have launched web-based petitions calling on FIFA, football’s governing body, to relocate the 2018 World Cup.
“International sporting bodies have an obligation to speak up when there’s injustice, and there’s a tournament being held in the country that’s perpetuating the injustice,” said Zach Lewis, a New York City resident who launched a petition drive hosted by the global activism website, Change.org.
The post-Soviet states of Central Asia have been generally cautious in their response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, likely concerned that an aggressive Russia could have unpredictable designs on its “near abroad.” Just as we saw before Crimea held a vote to secede from Ukraine and join Russia on March 16, statements from Central Asian governments continue to mix support for their powerful neighbor with wariness about developments.
After Bishkek blasted “all acts aimed at destabilization of the situation in Ukraine” on March 11, the Kyrgyz – who are dependent on Russian economic aid and migrant remittances – came around to see Moscow’s point of view. In a March 20 statement, Kyrgyzstan’s Foreign Ministry recognized Crimean secession as “the will of an absolute majority.”
Uzbekistan, which is a tad less dependent on Russia and generally takes as independent a point of view as it can muster, issued a statement March 25 respecting Ukraine’s territorial integrity, calling for negotiations and the respect for international law. This is Uzbekistan’s
"firm and invariable" stance, the Foreign Ministry said, without mentioning Russian authorities.
Tajikistan – which would appear to have plenty in common with the corrupt dictatorship of ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych – has been silent. So has gas-rich, totalitarian Turkmenistan.
An American MRAP is loaded on to a Russian An-124 aircraft at Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina, in 2012. (photo: U.S. Air Force 20th Fighter Wing Public Affairs)
Russia's potential blockage of the U.S. military's transportation corridors to Afghanistan has received a fair amount of attention as the U.S.-Russian relationship has collapsed over the crisis in Ukraine. Behind the scenes, however there is also discussion of suspending the substantial commercial cooperation that the U.S. military has with Russia over transport to and from Afghanistan.
At issue are the massive Antonov An-124 aircraft, the largest cargo plane in regular use. There are only three companies in the world that operate the 20 An-124s in commercial use, and only two of them -- the Russian company Volga-Dnepr and the Ukrainian company Antonov -- conduct military business, according to a 2012 article by Defense Media Network: "In the last dozen or so years, Russian and Ukrainian commercial carriers have flown thousands of missions in support of American and allied military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and all over the globe." The aircraft are useful in particular for carrying the Mine-Resistant, Armor-Protected (MRAP) vehicles in heavy use by U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
Volga-Dnepr has ten An-124s and Antonov seven, and Volga-Dnepr's director of North American operations, Colon Miller, said business is booming: “We’ll go from an oil mission out of Houston, Texas to something out of Africa, or a mission to Central Asia, then to Europe and back to the United States, a military mission leaving Charleston Air Force base, head over to CENTCOM area, offload its cargo in Afghanistan, pick up additional cargo while it’s there and fly it back to Kuwait and then reposition to South America for an oil job back to the United States, then Indonesia, Australia, Russia. They’re hot moving, pretty much all the time.”
After a spectacular, months-long campaign to discredit her mother, her sister, and Uzbekistan’s secret police boss, the elder daughter of Uzbek strongman Islam Karimov went silent in mid-February. Reports that Gulnara Karimova has been held against her will could not be independently confirmed, but she’s been unavailable for comment as prosecutors in two European countries have named her as a suspect in corruption investigations.
Now the BBC says it has received a letterthat appears to be from Karimova. In it, the author claims she is under house arrest in Tashkent and has been beaten by men working for her notoriously brutal father.
"I am under severe psychological pressure, I have been beaten, you can count bruises on my arms," reads the letter, apparently smuggled out, which the BBC reproduced in part on March 24. "How naive I was to think that the rule of law exists in the country.”
A graphologist specializing in Cyrillic handwriting told the BBC that there is a 75 percent chance the unsigned letter was written by the scandal-plagued Karimova, Uzbekistan’s former ambassador to the United Nations, who describes herself on her website as a “poet, mezzo soprano, designer and exotic Uzbekistan beauty.”
"I never thought this could happen in a civilized, developing nation that Uzbekistan portrays itself as," the letter says, complaining of "Pinochet-style persecution."
Georgia's ex-President Mikheil Saakaashvili is, by himself, controversial enough. But add two former prime ministers -- one dead, one living -- to the mix and you've got the makings of an HBO special.
The basic plot line is simple enough: busy reexamining the investigation into Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania's 2005 death, the Georgian government has summoned Saakashvili, Zhvania's political ally, to Tbilisi for questioning on this and a host of other issues.
But the ex-president, now on an international circuit of advising, teaching and commenting, has refused to come, saying he smells a plot. Namely, between Russian President Vladimir Putin and ex-Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire founder of Georgia's ruling Georgian Dream coalition, to run him into the ground. And to shut him up on advising the acting Ukrainian government about how to respond to Putin's armed sally into Crimea.
"Of course, I will come to Georgia, but not now, to fulfil Putin's wishes . . ." he told Georgian TV reporters. He did not present any proof for his allegations.
In an interview published in the March 24 edition of Kviris Palitra, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili warned that if Saajashvili does not obey the summons for March 27, "he will place himself in a dire situation and even more questions will arise."
The Dniestr River, dividing Transnistria from Chisinau-controlled Moldova (photo: The Bug Pit)
Fears that the crisis in Ukraine could be spreading to Moldova have sharpened as American and European leaders warn that the Russian military may be casting its eyes further West.
"There is absolutely sufficient force postured on the eastern border of Ukraine to run to Trans-Dniester if the decision was made to do that. That is very worrisome," said U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, NATO's supreme allied commander. Strobe Talbott, one of the U.S.'s top diplomats in the ex-Soviet world, tweeted: "[N]ow that we've had crash course on Crimea, read ahead about Transnistria, a likely target for Putin next move."
Added Nicu Popescu, an analyst at the EU Institute for Security Studies in Paris" “What happened to Crimea in two weeks, most of that had happened to Trans Dnestr in the last 22 years, except for what happened to Crimea in the last 24 hours: recognition by Russia and annexation. That could happen in Trans Dnestr.”
Russian officials denied they had any expansionist aims: “Russian armed forces are not involved in any manner of unannounced military manoeuvres that would endanger the security of neighbouring states,” said Russia’s deputy defence minister, Anatoly Antonov. “We have nothing to hide.”
When a dismal and sensational video hits the Internet, you know it is election time in Georgia. A YouTube video showing the corpse of the late Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania has rocked the country ahead of local elections this June, and raised questions about the government's involvement in its release.
Zhvania and a young regional official, Raul Usupov, were found dead on February 3, 2005 in a rented Tbilisi apartment; the official cause of death was carbon-monoxide poisoning from a faulty gas heater, but has been widely disputed.
The ruling Georgian Dream coalition has long made ample promise to shed light on the deaths of both men, yet, so far, has unearthed little new information.
The leaked video offers more shock-value than conclusive evidence. (Warning: Some viewers may find the scenes disturbing.)
The identity of the YouTube user who posted it is unknown, but generally suspected to be somehow linked with the government. A former chief prosecutor told Georgian media that the footage had been kept in a safe under lock and key in his office.
Like a teaser from some sinister TV series, the video opens with a close-up of Zhvania’s lifeless face. After a relay of photos from the autopsy, the video shows Usupov lying lifeless on the apartment floor.
For viewers’ convenience, the anonymous YouTube user has highlighted suspicious marks on the dead bodies, which could be anything from bruises to Photoshop. The photos do not eliminate any existing explanations for Zhvania’s death or validate the YouTube user’s claim that “[President Mikheil] Saakashvili killed Zhvania.”