The former NATO Central Asia liaison office in Tashkent. (photo: NATO)
Central Asians are more likely to see NATO as a threat rather than as a source of protection, according to a new survey.
The survey, by the American firm Gallup, polled residents of all the ex-Soviet republics except for Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. All of the Central Asian states saw NATO as more of a threat than as protection. Tajikistan was the most anti-NATO state, with 34 percent seeing it as a threat and eight percent as protection. Next is Kyrgyzstan, at 19 percent protection and 30 percent threat; then Kazakhstan, 25 percent protection and 31 percent threat.
It's hard to imagine what NATO would possibly threaten in Central Asia. And while it's tempting to attribute this to exposure to Russian narratives about NATO, Tajikistan is the least Russian-speaking of all these countries, and Kazakhstan the most Russian-speaking, so that explanation isn't satisfying. (The Bug Pit is unable to come up with a better one, though.)
Note that NATO closed down its Central Asia liaison office in Tashkent last year, deciding that it would henceforth operate all of its modest cooperation programs in the region from Brussels.
Armenia also had a mostly negative response, with 20 percent saying NATO is a threat and only eight percent as a protection. Armenia's government makes not-insignificant efforts to maintain real cooperation with NATO, in spite of being a member of the NATO rival Collective Security Treaty Organization. But the fact that the only NATO country on Armenia's border is Turkey no doubt colors public opinion on the alliance.
Uzbek entrepreneur Olim Sulaimanov speaking in a Facebook video address posted on February 11 in which he speaks about his latest run-ins with prosecutors. (Source: Facebook screenshot)
An entrepreneur in Uzbekistan who made a splash last year after appearing on national television to complain about the excesses of corrupt officials has himself now been targeted with fresh criminal investigations.
Back in November, Olim Sulaimanov provoked a sensation with his appearance on the TV show Business Club, where he explained how employees with a branch of the anti-finance crime department of the Prosecutor General’s Office in Tashkent had tried to extort money from him. The businessman named names and figures in his description of how tax officials were targeting his company.
Now, investigators are getting their own back. Earlier this month, Sulaimanov was summoned to appear in Mirzo Ulugbek district court in Tashkent to hear a case filed against him by Tashkent prosecutors on charges of fraud and slander.
As before, Sulaimanov has made full use of social media to document his situation.
“I was stunned when on February 1 I got a phone call from a judge called Kamolov and he summoned me to court the next day as an accused party. Actually, the Tashkent city court is currently considering my appeal [in an unrelated case] and the return of 203 million sum ($57,000) confiscated from my accounts. It turns out that I am involved in two cases at the same time,” he told EurasiaNet.org.
The entrepreneur suggested that some strange developments indicate the authorities are trying to apply pressure, as is customary. Sulaimanov said he did not attend a hearing eventually set for February 8 as his lawyer, Amriddin Abdullayev, informed him he was outside the city and therefore unable to come to court. Sulaimanov hinted that the lawyer had come under pressure.
Ilia II, patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church, in an undated photo. (photo: Patriarchate of the Georgian Orthodox Church)
The arrest of a senior Georgian Orthodox priest accused of plotting to poison an unnamed high level church official has roiled the country, where the church plays an outsized role in politics and society.
The priest in question, Giorgi Mamaladze, was arrested on February 10 moments before boarding a flight to Germany, where the ailing, 84-year-old Georgian Orthodox Patriarch Ilia II is recovering from a bladder procedure -- leading to rampant speculation that the patriarch was the would-be assassin's intended target. According to a statement from Georgia’s Office of the State Prosecutor, Mamaladze was caught with cyanide in his baggage:
The investigation began on February 2, based on information from a citizen who informed the prosecutor's office that his acquaintance Giorgi Mamaladze had asked for the lethal poison cyanide because he wanted to murder a cleric at the highest level of the hierarchy.
As had been widely anticipated, Turkmenistan’s president has not only won the presidential election, but has done so with a stratospheric majority, despite his nation’s sinking economy.
In light of the intensely authoritarian nature of the country, it is no surprise that Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov should have got 97.69 percent of the vote. And the turnout was high too.
“The 97.27 percent turnout indicates a high degree of civic involvement by the population and demonstrates its conscious desire to participate directly in democratic reforms in Turkmenistan,” an election official was quoted as saying by the state news agency.
The figures are grimly comical and news websites run by exiled Turkmens have argued convincingly that they are deeply fraudulent. It is perhaps worth dwelling upon them in passing for the intended symbolism, however.
Berdymukhamedov has, going by the official election figures, become only more popular with every passing election.
In February 2007, in the wake of the sudden death of President Sapamurat Niyazov, a still-diffident Berdymukhamedov was declared the election winner with a relatively modest 89.2 percent of the vote, and a 95 percent turnout. He bettered that performance by getting 97.14 percent of the vote, with a 96.7 percent turnout, in February 2012.
And since the size of the electorate has, according to official figures, risen from around 2.6 million in 2007 to 3.22 million people registered for this weekend’s vote, so that represents not just a proportional increase in would-be favorability, but also a hefty jump in outright support.
A plane carrying paying customers, officials and reporters completed the first commercial flight between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan for the first time in 25 years, signaling a hopeful new chapter in the two countries’ often-strained relations.
The plane departed the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, at 10 a.m. on February 10 and arrived less than an hour later in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent.
“The Tashkent-Dushanbe-Tashkent flight, which the peoples of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have awaited for 25 years, was made possible by the willingness of the two nations’ leader to meet halfway,” Tom Hallam, chief executive at Tajikistan’s privately owned Somon Air, was quoted as saying by RIA Novosti news agency.
Regular flights along the same route are scheduled to start from February 20.
Dushanbe-based news website Asia-Plus reported that only 14 tickets were sold for the maiden flight. Aside from paying customers, other fliers included aviation officials and journalists.
Asia-Plus quoted one passenger, Jamila Yusupova, as describing the flight as a momentous personal occasion.
“I am originally from Tashkent and back in the Soviet days I moved to Tajikistan together with my husband. And it has been 25 years since I have not been able to see my family. Now my brother and sister, who I haven’t seen for a quarter of a century, are waiting for me there,” she said.
Narmurad Rajabov, an ethnic Tajik living in the city of Bukhara, said his brother lived in neighboring Tajikistan. He said they had not seen one another for many years because of the difficulties entailed in securing a visa.
Georgian Foreign Minister Mikheil Janalidze meets with U.S. National Security Adviser Michael Flynn in Washington on February 10. (photo: MFA Georgia)
Eager to keep relations with the United States on the front foot, Georgian Foreign Minister Mikheil Janelidze has traveled to Washington to meet with senior American officials as Tbilisi seeks to shore up ties with a new administration that has at times demonstrated an affinity with Georgia's nemesis, Russia.
Relations between the U.S. and Georgia have steadily grown closer since the early 2000s, when the distant Caucasian state found itself in a privileged position in the George W. Bush White House’s foreign policy agenda.
But Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency has raised doubts about the future of cooperation between Washington and Tbilisi, given his new administration’s reputedly Russia-leaning inclinations.
No doubt hoping to keep ties on an even keel, Janelidze met on February 10 with U.S. National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and recently confirmed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, along with an assortment of members of Congress. Janelidze’s visit was likely meant to both confirm U.S. support and use the opportunity to assert Georgia’s carefully cultivated image as a regional stalwart for the new administration.
The diplomatic brouhaha over a travel blogger has led to senior officials in Armenia calling for Belarus to be kicked out of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the security alliance to which they both belong.
Alexander Lapshin, the now-notorious Russian-Israeli travel blogger, was extradited from Belarus to Azerbaijan on February 8. He is facing charges in Baku related to his visit to Nagorno Karabakh, a de jure part of Azerbaijan that is de facto controlled by Armenian forces. Azerbaijan considers a visit to Karabakh to be an illegal border crossing.
Demanding Lapshin's extradition was a dramatic step for the relatively minor crime of an illegal border crossing, especially given that both Russia and Israel are two of Azerbaijan's most important partners, and both have strongly objected to the extradition.
Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev called his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko to personally thank him for the extradition, calling it a "manifestation of the Azerbaijan-Belarus friendship and strategic partnership."
The episode, correspondingly, resulted in outrage in Armenia, including protests at the Belarusian embassy in Yerevan, and there were calls to retaliate against Minsk in various ways, including withdrawing its ambassador and suspending relations. But the most commonly proposed retaliation was to try to kick Belarus out of the CSTO.
Anti-corruption officials on February 10 detained the editor of one of Kazakhstan’s few surviving independent news publications on charges of corruption, once more arousing anxieties about the fast-vanishing space for free media in the country.
Authorities are accusing Zhanbolat Mamay, editor of Tribuna newspaper, of involvement in fraudulent schemes with fugitive banker and government foe Mukhtar Ablyazov.
The Anti-Corruption Service said in a statement that they suspect Mamay of using his publication to launder money allegedly embezzled from BTA Bank by Ablyazov and his associate Zhaksylyk Zharimbetov.
Ablyazov is accused of defrauding BTA Bank, which he used to run, of billions of dollars between 2005 and 2009. Kazakhstan has sought but failed on repeated counts to secure Ablyazov’s deportation from either the United Kingdom or France.
Anti-corruption officials have said they are running searches for documentation possibly confirming allegations of money-laundering.
A journalist for Tribuna, Inga Imanbai, published video footage on her Facebook account of the moment when the anti-corruption officers arrived to search the newspaper’s offices. Imanbai said that the same officers had previously also visited Mamay’s apartment.
Unlike most media in Kazakhstan, Tribuna is not a beneficiary of the “state order” system, whereby the government either finances outlets outright or pays for the publication of material publicizing state policies and initiatives. It focuses primarily on social issues and has a line that tends toward robust criticism of the government and provides a platform for the few opposition politicians remaining on the scene.
The picture for Kyrgyzstan’s presidential election is becoming ever clearer with new candidates either throwing their hat into the ring or being linked with plans to do so imminently.
The second addition to the roster, following former prime minister Temir Sariyev, is the leader of the Onuguu-Progress party, 43-year old Bakyt Torobayev, who told his supporters on February 10 that he wants to see Kyrgyzstan install a “dictatorship of law,” borrowing an old line from Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
Torobayev struck a populist and workmanlike tone in his declaration of intent to run in October’s vote.
“People ask me what form of system I favor — presidential or parliamentary. If I am honest, we have really tired people with this business. I am for that form of government that will create jobs, where young people won’t need to go abroad for work, where every citizen will feel protected, both legally and socially. I would call this form of government a dictatorship of law,” Torobayev was cited as saying by 24.kg news agency.
Onuguu-Progress is a recent fixture on the Kyrgyz political scene, having been formed in May 2013 as a Torobayev-led, four-deputy splinter group of the business-focused Respublika party faction in parliament. Torobayev was deputy speaker of parliament at the time.
Onuguu-Progress, and Torobayev accordingly, have cast themselves as “centrist” and “neo-conservative,” agitating for the protection of property rights, advancing the values of a market economy and promoting political competition. The party has explicitly renounced any appeals to the street-based politics that has prevailed in Kyrgyzstan for much of the past two decades.
The recently released trailer for a film telling the story of militant Uzbek Islamist leaders Tahir Yuldashev and Juma Namangani has come in from criticism for its depiction of devout Muslims.
The promotional preview for Sacred Desire, a production by state film company Uzbekfilm, promises an action-packed melodrama spilling over with scenes of Islamic plotting, domestic violence, gun-battles and even some sly seduction.
“Most social media website users were extremely irritated by director Hilol Nasimov’s film, where by showing terrorists, they smear the Muslim faith,” BBC’s Uzbek service reported on February 7.
The trailer is also tainted by a decidedly racist depiction of an Arabic character, according to critics of the movie. An older female character in the movie is seen shouting that she refuses to see her daughter married off to “some black Arab.”
“I was quite amazed when I heard the expression ‘black Arab’ in the trailer. Why this is blatant racism!” blogger Arbor Masharipov was quoted as saying by the BBC.
The BBC quoted another blogger, Sardor Salim, as comparing Uzbekfilm’s current output with the kinds of films made in the Soviet era about the basmachis, a Central Asian insurgency that sought and failed to counter Moscow’s rule.
One unnamed woman, a self-described devout Muslim, told the British broadcaster that if she had lived in a rules-based country, she might have considered filing suit against Nasimov for slandering Muslims, and women in particular.