Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev triumphantly joined the torch-relay for the European Games on June 7 in Baku.
Two days after his government booted out the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a smiling Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev ran through the streets of Baku with an Olympic torch. The flame was for the European Games, a presidential pet-project that kicks off on June 12. But its intended symbolism was much broader – Azerbaijan, once again, is playing the big time, and international criticism should be checked at the door.
“Long live President Ilham Aliyev!” cheered a crowd of onlookers in a scene reminiscent of Soviet-era staging as the 53-year-old leader jogged along. “Success for the first European Games!” Beaming broadly, First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva, son, Heydar, and daughters Leyla and Arzu later also joined the torch-relay.
Within Azerbaijan these days, state-spread adulation for the Games and panegyrics to Aliyev dominate traditional media. With some of the government’s most outspoken critics, whether journalists or activists, now in jail, critical scrutiny of the “landmark event” from within Azerbaijan is expressed with caution.
On the eve of Baku’s mini-Olympics for Europe, Germany’s body for Olympic sports seems to have become the first major European sports authority to heed calls to take Azerbaijan’s government to task for human-rights abuses.
With a week to go before the European Games kick off, the German Olympic Sports Confederation (DOSB) on June 4 said it shares international concerns over Azerbaijan’s crackdown against government-critics.
“We support human rights and freedom of the press, and we are going to talk about this in Baku, too,” the confederation’s chairperson, Michael Vasper, said, Frankfurter Allgemeine reported.
Students in Kazakhstan have long dreamed up inventive ways to rig their scores at the make-or-break nationwide university entrance exam each year. But this year is the first that cross-dressing has featured as a cheating tactic.
To help his girlfriend make the grade, student Ayan Zhardemov came up with an elaborate plan to impersonate her and take the exam in her place this week, reports Tengri News.
He no doubt felt he had a good chance of doing well, since he had already passed the exam (known as ENT) three years ago himself, to enter the prestigious Kazakh British Technical University in the commercial capital of Almaty, where he is a chemical engineering student.
Zhardemov went to some pains for his audacious bid, taking a journey of nearly 1,000 kilometers from Almaty to southern Kazakhstan, near the border with Uzbekistan, to cheat for his girlfriend.
He donned a long black wig, a gray skirt, a white T-shirt, and white sandals, completing his look with a touch of eye makeup and some pink lipstick.
Unfortunately for him, his efforts did not convince invigilators: They got wise to the con and called the police, who presented Zhardemov with fraud charges that could lead to a short prison term, a fine, or community work.
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with the foreign ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization member states in Moscow on June 3. (photo: Kremlin)
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization will "upgrade" Iran's status in the group if Tehran reaches an agreement with international powers on its nuclear program, Russia's foreign minister has said. Meanwhile, China is pushing for the organization to take a greater role in regional security.
The SCO foreign ministers met in Moscow this week in preparation for the July 9-10 summit in Ufa. It has been clear for some time that this would be an expansion summit, at least for India and Pakistan. Those countries are now observers, but have sought full membership for years. Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that: "If relevant decisions are made in Ufa, they will pave the way for the SCO’s extension, and India and Pakistan will have an opportunity to launch the initial procedures for joining the SCO."
The SCO now includes China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. China has been the main driver of the organization, and in recent years it had taken on more of an economic role than the military or security role it seemed to aspire to when it formed in 1996. But the crisis in Ukraine has reenergized Russia's attempts to find non-Western allies, and since then Moscow given the SCO much more of its attention.
Giving away perhaps the last opportunity for energy independence, Armenia plans to sell its 41-kilometer-long section of an Iranian natural-gas export pipeline to Russian energy leviathan, Gazprom. The decision leaves Moscow in full control of natural-gas supply routes to Armenia.
Armenia Energy Minister Ara Simonian assured Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, however, that the terms of a state license will not allow Gazprom Armenia to mess with imports from Iran.
Those imports, though, are just a quarter of the annual 2 billion cubic meters Armenia receives from Russia, its economic and security patron.
Moscow is believed to use its position as Armenia’s economic, energy and security patron to ensure the country’s fealty – a situation that does not necessarily make it tolerant toward market-competitors.
Moscow first tried to set a limit to the Iranian-Armenian pipeline’s diameter and, hence, its supply capacity. Then, Gazprom muscled its way into taking over domestic distribution and, now, all import infrastructure.
Commenting on the takeover of the Iranian pipeline, Gazprom Armenia, Gazprom’s local distribution monopoly, said that it only made business sense to let one company operate the country’s supply-and-distribution infrastructure.
Alarms about the threat of war in Transnistria, the breakaway territory of Moldova, have been repeatedly sounded in recent days by government officials and media in Transnistria, as well as the de facto state's main sponsor, Russia.
Two weeks ago Ukraine canceled the agreement that allowed Russia to supply its roughly 1,500 troops stationed in Transnistria through Ukrainian territory. The Ukrainian route was the only way by which Russian forces in Transnistria could be reached by land; the territory's only other land border is with Moldova, which also has been restricting what limited access it was giving Russian forces to Transnistria.
While Ukraine insists that its move solely affected the agreement to supply the Russian military, many Russian and Transnistrian sources claim that Transnistria is now the subject of a full "blockade" and that Ukraine and Moldova, backed by the United States, are preparing a military assault.
Transnistria's de facto foreign minister, Nina Shtanski, said on June 1 that Ukrainian troops were massing at the border with Transnistria. "It's clear to everyone what is on the Transnistrian border: they are building tent camps, deploying soldiers. Imagine what panic this is causing among Transnistrians and especially people who live on the border with Ukraine," she said.
After stalling for almost two years, Kyrgyzstan’s parliament has overwhelmingly passed a bill that will have a chilling effect on the Central Asian country’s vibrant civil society, if it becomes law. Local media reported that legislators voted 83 to 23 on June 4 in favor of the “foreign agents” bill.
The bill – which must go through two more votes in parliament before landing on the president’s desk – is modeled on a similar law passed in Russia in 2012 that has been used to crack down on independent groups there. Kyrgyzstani rights activists fear that with Russia tightening its grip on the region, and lawmakers seemingly eager to please Moscow, the walls are fast closing in on free speech and other civil liberties.
The bill would require non-governmental organizations that receive money from abroad to register as “foreign agents” – a term widely associated with espionage in the former Soviet Union. It would also saddle NGOs with burdensome reporting requirements.
Human Rights Watch has said the bill “would be incompatible with the right to freedom of association” and has called on Kyrgyzstan’s parliament to reject it.
Lawmaker Nurkamil Madaliev, who co-sponsored the bill, told EurasiaNet.org last autumn that “not all the funds that finance NGO activities in Kyrgyzstan are aimed at creating a favorable situation.” He said his legislation would help protect an embattled nation from two existential threats: Islamic extremism funded by wealthy Gulf Arabs and the efforts by some Western-funded organizations to educate young Kyrgyz about gay rights and reproductive health.
He may have lost his Georgian citizenship, but even as a regional governor in Ukraine, ex-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili appears to be planning a comeback in Georgia.
In an hour-long interview with the ever-Misha-friendly Georgian TV channel, Rustavi2, broadcast on June 2, the former Georgian leader shared grand plans for Georgia’s future and shook his fist at back-home foes.
Yes, he said, I shall return, and “we will” bring jobs, education and dignity to Georgia, which, he claims, has "become uncool" (gabandzda) under a government of amateurs and sycophants to billionaire ex-Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili.
Yes, the seaside metropolis of Lazika, which so far exists only in Misha’s head, will be built for all the separatists to see and to be dazzled by its skyscrapers.
And, yes, he said, drawing on “very good experience in Ukraine with how to make oligarchs return their money,” he will wreak vengeance upon Ivanishvili, whom, he alleged, without offering detailed proof, supposedly has run off with billions at taxpayers' expense.
But when directly asked if he plans to lead his homeland again, Saakashvili, wearing a Georgian-flag lapel-pin, demurred. “People will vote for the man or the group who best fits their vision of what kind of country they want to live in,” he said.
Voters may have gone for Ivanishvili and the Georgian Dream back in 2012 “because they were given a hope for a better life,” he conceded, but not because, “as [Ivanishvili] thinks . . . he is so handsome and magnificent, so eloquent and educated . . . .”
The pull of sakartvelo (Georgia), though, does not come as a surprise to some regional observers.
Prominent human rights activist Elena Urlayeva was detained and abused by police while monitoring the Uzbek government’s use of forced labor in its springtime cotton planting effort on May 31, she has told EurasiaNet.org.
Officers subjected Urlayeva, 58, to physical and sexual abuse during her 11 hours in police custody and confiscated a camera on which she had recorded evidence of forced labor, she said by telephone from Tashkent on June 3.
“With some other activists, I was conducting monitoring of forced labor involving medics, teachers, and public-sector workers,” Urlayeva, who heads the Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan, explained.
The arrest took place when she was interviewing and photographing some doctors early in the morning on May 31 at a gathering point in the small town of Chinaz (60 kilometers southwest of Tashkent) from which the authorities were dispatching healthcare staff to the cotton fields.
When she refused to hand over her camera to officials, police took her to the precinct where “they started to use violence, they hit me on the head.”
Urlayeva accused officers of subjecting her to vaginal and rectal internal examinations (claiming they were searching for a hidden USB flash drive) and other sexually humiliating procedures, including photographing her nude. She was released without charge.
She has filed complaints with the Interior Ministry, the prosecutor’s office, and police authorities over her detention and treatment in custody.
Urlayeva said she believed her arrest “was an attempt to intimidate me … and to put a stop to my activity” monitoring the use of forced labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest.
The administration of strongman President Islam Karimov regularly comes under fire over the use of forced and child labor to reap the cash crop that fills up state coffers.
Kazakhstan’s recently re-elected president has made a vaguely worded pledge of political reform for his new term. Nursultan Nazarbayev suggested that Kazakhstan must transition from its super-presidential system to a more balanced one with greater checks and balances.
Yet while mulling reforms to pave the way for the eventual post-Nazarbayev era, the president made no specific pledges about what form they might take or when they might be enacted, leaving skeptics wondering if his intentions are serious.
Kazakhstan’s political system has hitherto been characterized by “strong presidential rule,” Nazarbayev said on May 29 in remarks quoted by the Kazakhstanskaya Pravda government-owned daily.
Yet as a middle class emerges “this should probably be weakened and the government should be given more opportunities to work independently and more powers should be handed over to parliament.”
There has long been talk in Kazakhstan about weakening the top-down system in which Nazarbayev wields all powers, the government carries out his orders, and parliament (which contains no genuine opposition parties) rubberstamps executive decisions.
Reforms, the thinking goes, would pave the way for a time when the aging president – who has ruled Kazakhstan for a quarter century and will be 80 when his term of office ends in 2020 – will no longer be in power, allowing him to bequeath his successor a system less dependent on one personality.