There is a cat story that Mikheil Saakashvili, now controversially appointed as Ukraine government’s top foreign advisor, likes to tell. Back in 2003, when the soon-to-be-Georgian-President Saakashvili first walked into the presidential office, he was greeted there by a cat, a purring testimony to the dysfunctional administration of his overthrown predecessor, the late Eduard Shevardnadze. Now, as Saakashvili is tasked to help modernize Ukraine and reach out to Washington for support, the ex-president says he is again having the Shevardnadze-cat moment.
“There was no functioning pest-control service back then, so the cat stepped in” to control the Georgian government’s rampant mice population, Saakashvili reminisced in a February 17 interview in Kyiv with Rustavi2 television. There was also a bucket to collect intermittently flowing tap water and a makeshift water-heater, he continued, in a lengthy prelude to his point about fixing Ukraine.
The previous cat-in-residence could not take the pressure and “committed suicide,” jumping to her death from the 11th floor, Saakashvili claimed. Screens were put up on the windows to make sure future presidential felines did not flip.
“It is more or less the same situation here [in Ukraine]. I have seen no cat so far, but … Ukraine is just in that shape” with its obsolete, Soviet-style state institutions, said Saakashvili, who now chairs Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s international advisory council.
The International Crisis Group’s latest report, “Syria Calling: Radicalization in Central Asia,” has generated a lot of media buzz. But two prominent experts on the region are less than convinced. In a critique published February 17, John Heathershaw and David Montgomery slam the report’s fundamental assumptions, calling the research “suggestive impressions masquerading as solid insights.”
Heathershaw, of the University of Exeter (full disclosure: he is my PhD supervisor), and Montgomery, of the University of Pittsburgh, argue that there is little evidence to support the ICG’s assumptions on post-Soviet Muslim radicalization. Drawing on a limited number of interviews with “Islamic State sympathizers,” the ICG infers a causal relationship between what sympathizers say and what militants do, where none can be proven. By concluding that Islamization drives radicalization, the ICG helps legitimate Central Asian regimes’ repression of religious practices, the two contend.
Many of the ICG’s conclusions are based on guesswork, the authors say. The exclusive use of anonymous sources makes it difficult to judge whether the interviewees are serious academics or attention-grabbing, self-styled “experts”—of which Central Asia has so many. Yet these “experts” are uncritically cited and provide the sole evidence for the report’s conclusions.
For instance, Heathershaw and Montgomery take issue with the number of Central Asians that the report states have gone to Syria and Iraq:
Proponents of a controversial plan to build a high-voltage electricity export line from Tajikistan to South Asia argue that the connection – known as CASA-1000 – will not be used in winter, when the country’s own citizens suffer debilitating electricity shortages.
But a senior Tajik official has undermined that promise, arguing that no matter how little it has for itself, Tajikistan must export electricity year-round lest any transmission equipment be looted.
Most regions of Tajikistan are currently receiving about 12 hours of electricity per day; some areas get less than 10 hours and, as anyone in remote areas can attest, the current is often so weak that it cannot charge a cell phone.
Despite these extended blackouts, Tajikistan increased its electricity exports to Afghanistan through existing lines from 30 million kWh in January 2014 to 55 million kWh last month, Asia-Plus reported on February 17, citing the State Statistics Agency.
Many ask the obvious question: Shouldn’t a country’s resources first serve its own people?
After years of speculation, now we have the answer. The head of the state electricity monopoly, Barki Tajik, says that the company must export in winter because it cannot risk allowing existing infrastructure to stand idle. “We keep the voltage in these lines because there is a high probability of equipment theft,” the Asia-Plus article quoted Rustam Rakhmatzoda as saying.
That confession should impact CASA-1000, which has been on the drawing board since 2007.
A few weeks ago, Russia’s state-run Gazprom announced it would sharply and immediately cut the amount of gas it purchases from Turkmenistan. Now Turkmenistan’s authoritarian government has responded with a rare outburst. Unfortunately for Ashgabat, these days there’s not much it can do but screech.
Russia is an “unreliable partner,” a think-tank inside Turkmenistan’s own state energy company, Turkmengaz, said in a February 16 rant published on its website.
The article – “Will Gas Exports of Turkmen Gas to Russia Recover?” – criticizes Russia and Gazprom for all of the unhappiest moments in an up-and-down relationship that has seen deliveries of Turkmen gas to Russia drop from a peak of around 45 billion cubic meters per year (bcm) in 2008 to the 4 bcm the Russian giant says it will now import in 2015.
The piece expressed outrage at Gazprom’s failure to fulfill a 2008 agreement to build a Trans-Caspian pipeline and fingered Gazprom for an unexplained pipeline explosion in April 2009 that marked the beginning of the decline in its purchases.
Gazprom and its affiliates “periodically violate agreements at interstate, intergovernmental and interdepartmental levels,” the article notes.
Talco, the company behind Tajikistan’s largest factory, is nearing a deal that would end an eight-year legal battle with the world’s largest aluminum maker, the company says.
The state-owned Talco aluminum smelter is controlled directly by Tajikistan’s strongman President Emomali Rakhmon, whose family has appeared to benefit disproportionately from the plant’s revenues.
But a history of troubled deals with Russia’s Rusal and its subsidiaries saw Talco lose in arbitration hearings in Switzerland and the British Virgin Islands in 2013 and 2014. According to Rusal, as of May 2014 the Tajik company owed $363 million, including interest. With interest accruing at nearly $45,000 per day, the total would be roughly $375 million today.
Now Talco says it has made a proposal that satisfies Rusal and that the two companies have signed off on a draft agreement, Radio Ozodi quoted Talco executive Igor Sattarov as saying on February 16. Tajikistan’s government and the Rusal board must still okay the deal, said Sattarov, who did not disclose any of the terms. Last week President Rakhmon replaced the company’s boss.
A Rusal spokesperson would not offer any details about the alleged deal, only telling EurasiaNet.org, “We can officially say that nothing has been signed yet and the agreement in question is pending approval of Rusal’s board of directors.”
Tajikistan does not mine alumina, but imports the raw materials and uses its cheap electricity to operate the smelter, which was opened in 1975 when the country was part of the Soviet Union. When the plant was functioning at capacity, it used 40 percent of Tajikistan’s electrical output, leaving much of the country in the dark.
Russia may soon be exporting its model of counterinsurgency across the globe, as Chechnya's president is building an international special operations training center with the aim of training elite troops both from Russia and abroad.
The center is already under construction in the town of Gudermes and should be finished by the end of the year, the president, Ramzan Kadyrov, told Russian newspaper Izvestia.
That seems like an ambitious timetable given what Kadyrov says he has planned (among many other things, facilities for training in "underwater combat"), but if it ends up actually being built, negotiations are underway with Belarus and Kazakhstan to train their forces at the center. Latin American, Arab, and other ex-Soviet countries are other potential customers, Izvestia reports.
"The complex isn't open yet, but work is going according to plan, and construction won't take more than a year," Kadyrov said in an interview. "As you know, we have enough experience -- our instructors, who have a lot of good work under their belts, will be teaching."
The center "could, of course, open anywhere, but we know very well that the Chechen Republic has great experience in the fight against international terror, they have figured this problem out and know all the current methods to deal with it," said Timur Akulov, a member of parliament who belongs to the ruling United Russia party and sits on the defense committee.
It was Nobel laureate John Steinbeck who once said; “Power does not corrupt. Fear corrupts ... perhaps the fear of a loss of power.” Steinbeck’s sentiments would help explain why Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia is so scared of oversight.
Reflecting the Russian government’s aversion to scrutiny, district prosecutors in Moscow recently issued a ruling designed to hamper the ability of a leading watchdog organization, Transparency International-Russia (TIR), to operate. The document calls on TIR to register as a “foreign agent,” a designation that would hinder the organization’s ability to receive funding from abroad.
TIR, as every Kremlin crony is acutely aware, does a good job at tracking corrupt practices. In Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index for 2014, Russia showed itself to be among the most venal states in the world, ranking 136th out of the 175 countries surveyed. It is no surprise, then, that Russian officials would want to be rid of TIR.
Moscow prosecutors based their ruling on an assertion that TIR’s activities were aimed “at interfering in the conduct of government policy in connection with the fight against corruption by lobbying on behalf of its own proposals for change.”
Yelena Panfilova, a Russian citizen who serves as the deputy chair of Transparency International’s global organization, called the prosecutor’s ruling “illiterate nonsense.”
Russia is behind schedule implementing billions of dollars of critical hydropower projects on the Naryn River.
A top official in Kyrgyzstan has grumbled that Russia is far behind schedule implementing billions of dollars of critical hydropower projects in the energy-starved country.
The giant Kambar-Ata 1 hydropower dam and the Upper-Naryn Cascade of four smaller hydropower dams were supposed to be well on their way to completion by now. Moscow and Bishkek signed deals for their construction in August 2012. As part of the package of related agreements, Moscow secured a 15-year extension on its military facilities in the Central Asian country after the current lease expires in 2017.
But according to Kyrgyz Energy Minister Kubanychbek Turdubayev, nothing much is happening. Speaking at a ministry meeting on February 12, in comments carried by Vechernii Bishkek, Turdubayev said:
We have been barraged with criticism over [energy] projects. People can see no real progress in such projects as [the construction of] two Kambar-Ata hydroelectric power plants and the Upper-Naryn Cascade of hydroelectric power plants. It should be admitted that there are serious omissions. Kyrgyzstan's rights have been violated and there is no progress. […]
After a U.S. Congressional committee held a hearing critically examining U.S.-Azerbaijan relations, Azerbaijan's parliament responded with a retaliatory event of its own, accusing the U.S. of ignoring Baku's strategic cooperation with Washington.
On February 12, the House's Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats held a hearing, "Azerbaijan: U.S. Energy, Security, and Human Rights Interests." As expected, members of Congress and American experts on Azerbaijan criticized Baku for its accelerating crackdown on any opposing voices in the country, including the raid on and closure of the U.S. government-funded RFE/RL office.
Baku has been increasingly vocal in its criticism of the U.S., and this time took the step of organizing its own counter-hearing just two days later, "Energy and Security Cooperation: Partnership Based on Mutual Interests." Azerbaijani opposition website contact.az noted that government officials in Baku resent what they see as ingratitude for the contributions that they make to U.S. security interests:
The head of the Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Relations Samad Seyidov described relations between the two countries 'strategic partnership'. He further spoke about the support that Azerbaijan provides to Washington and how the US does not appreciate this.
Moves are afoot in Kazakhstan to hold a snap presidential election. Proponents say an early election would give incumbent strongman Nursultan Nazarbayev a fresh mandate as the country faces a slumping economy and regional geopolitical tensions over the Ukraine conflict.
Nazarbayev, who has ruled Kazakhstan since before the collapse of the Soviet Union, won a snap election with little opposition in 2011.
The council of Assembly of People of Kazakhstan (APK), an umbrella organization representing the interests of Kazakhstan’s ethnic groups, called for the early election over the weekend. Nazarbayev chairs the organization and appoints its members.
“The country’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, must be given a new mandate of national confidence in order for the country to successfully navigate a period of global travails,” the APK’s council said in a statement issued on February 14, hinting at Kazakhstan’s economic difficulties and at regional tensions stemming from the escalating conflict in Ukraine.
“A mandate of confidence in the Leader of the Nation [one of Nazarbayev’s official titles] will unite and rally the people at this new stage of world development, allowing all efforts to be concentrated on the most important questions of state development,” the council said.
This public appeal from a quasi-official body for a snap election (which has been rumored for several months) means an early vote is practically a fait accompli. And it is no secret who is the favorite to win.