Foreign ministers of the Caspian littoral states meet in Astana on July 13, 2016. (photo: MFA Russia)
Are the five states around the Caspian Sea finally going to resolve their dispute about how to divide the body of water between themselves?
A number of unusually positive statements from diplomats from the littoral states have suggested that the seemingly intractible dispute is on the verge of being resolved. But if any of the Caspian countries have softened their negotiating positions -- the intransigence of which has resulted in this long dispute -- they aren't telling.
The foreign ministers of the five states -- Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan -- met last week in Astana, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the sides could reach an agreement in a year.
"I believe it is absolutely realistic to aim for signing the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea in 2017. I think this can be done even in the first half of the year," he said. That enthusiasm was shared by Kazakhstan, whose prime minister, Karim Massimov, tweeted: "Met with foreign ministers of Caspian littoral states. There's hope for prompt completion of talks over Caspian Sea Legal Status Convention."
A court in Tajikistan has sentenced the leader of an ultraconservative Islamic Salafist movement to eight years in prison on charges of membership in an extremist organization.
As RFE/RL’s Tajik service, Radio Ozodi, reported on July 19, Muhammadi Rahmatullo’s case has been shrouded in secrecy and marked as classified information, so few details are known. This is not so unusual in Tajikistan of late as the government has become increasingly opaque about the multitude of criminal cases it pursues against its real and perceived opponents.
Not much is known about Rahmatullo.
He first emerged as a self-described Salafist in the early 2000s, when the current first established itself in the country, having been brought back by Tajiks that had taken refuge in Pakistan during the civil war. In 2008, Rahmatullo claimed in an interview that his movement counted 20,000 Tajik citizens.
The movement was banned by a Supreme Court decision after a wave of mysterious blasts in Dushanbe in 2009. Rahmatullo fell out of public view around that time. During that time, it is believed he busied himself converting migrants working outside Tajikistan, particularly in the regions of Russia, and studying at the Faculty of Shariah and Law of the International Islamic University in Islamabad, Pakistan. According to Radio Ozodi, Rahmatullo returned to Tajikistan in 2011, but what he got up is not a matter of public record.
In a custom fitting to the region, Turkmenistan’s ruler has picked a plum job in government for his only known son, Serdar.
Foreign-based website Alternative News of Turkmenistan, or ANT, reported on July 19 that Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov appointed his son to a post in the Foreign Ministry.
Before taking up the job in the Foreign Minstry, Serdar Berdymukhamedov had a management position in the State Agency for Management and Use of Hydrocarbon Resources. That agency, as well as the Oil and Gas Minstry have now been dismantled, however, as part of efforts intended to optimize the country’s energy sector.
Streamlining in one area of government though has been accompanied by expansions elsewhere. Berdymukhamedov senior has created three new departments at the Foreign Ministry to deal with international organizations, legal contracts and “international information,” respectively. ANT reported that Serdar Berdymukhamedov got the nod to head up one of those departments and will now occupy the rank of deputy minister.
Turkmenistan’s Foreign Ministry is headed by Rashid Meredov, one of the long-term survivors in the Cabinet, a fact likely made possible by his experience and the esteem in which he is held by foreign diplomats.
ANT reported that Meredov was tasked with taking Serdar Berdymukhamedov under his wing as long ago as spring last year.
The theory the website offers on this job is that Berdymukhamedov is priming the young man for eventual succession.
Turkey's TCG Tekirdağ patrol boat, taking part in Breeze 2016 exercises off the coast of Bulgaria (photo: The Bug Pit)
Russia has announced the deployment of more advanced air defense systems to Crimea, a move to protect the region from what one official called NATO's "air hooligans."
In August, the18th anti-aircraft missile regiment of the 31st Air Defense Division, based in Feodosia, will be equipped with Russia's top-of-the-line S-400 Triumf air defense system. It's yet a further buildup of Russia's defenses along its southwestern border against what it sees as a hostile western military threat in the Black Sea. This would complement Russia's system of land-based anti-ship missile defenses along the Black Sea, which already effectively let Russia control the surface of the sea.
"Placing the S-400 air defense system on duty in Crimea effectively locks down the Crimean sky against any attack from the air. The very fact of the placement of this advanced air defense system in Crimea will keep honest all NATO aviation based in the Black Sea region," said Crimea's vice premier, Ruslan Balbek.
The deployment is most likely directed against the United States as the only air force likely to threaten Crimea by air, said retired Colonel General Igor Maltsev, a former commander of Russia's air defense force.
A puppet polling organization in Uzbekistan has revealed that 98.9 percent of the population are positively disposed toward the introduction of bank cards.
The figure defies belief considering the intensely cash-based nature of the national economy.
Local media cited slavishly government-loyal polling company Izhtimoy Fikr as stating that cards are increasingly giving way to cash in retail transactions.
“Cards are very convenient, safe and reliable means of payment,” website Nuz.uz quotes 98.9 percent of people as thinking, according to the Izhtimoy Fikr research.
Banks cards were made available to local customers in Uzbekistan in 2004 as a means of reducing the public’s reliance on cash. The payment system was first introduced in the retail and catering sectors, since these are areas of the economy where the grey economy is strongest. Authorities made it mandatory for retail outlets to install payment terminals, which were imported in large quantities from abroad.
Outlets refusing to accept payment by card were subject to substantial fines, which could be as high as the equivalent of 200 times the minimum wage. Advertisements on television and radio stations publicized telephone numbers that members of the public could call to complain about retailers’ failure to accept card payments.
The drive has been largely successful in the capital, Tashkent. But paying by card is hardly convenient, as the Izhtimoy Fikr poll claims.
In remarks to the Batumi broadcaster TV25, Consul Yasin Temizkan charged that the Refaiddin Şahin Friendship School, which teaches five to 12-year-old children, “is not serving the government; they’re serving terrorist groups.” The Gülen network, he claimed, uses such schools “to strengthen their own position.”
Temizkan said that he would petition Georgia’s education ministry “in the nearest future” to close the school. In the meantime, he called on parents to withdraw their children from the school.
Speaking with TV25, Refaiddin Şahin Friendship School Principal Elguja Davitadze, however, denied the allegations.
How the Georgian government will respond is unclear, but a demand from Ankara to close the school could put Tbilisi in an awkward situation. Turkey is a close economic and security partner for Georgia, yet, at the same time, the government can ill afford to shut the door on foreign investors without cause.
At least four people, including three policemen and one civilian, were killed on July 18 in the heart of Kazakhstan’s largest city following an attack on a police station.
Police in Almaty said that the attack began around 11 a.m. local time as a man attempted to force his way into the Almaly district police station. The attacker shot a sentry guard and stole his weapon, officials said in a statement.
The suspect then shot two pursuing officers, the statement said.
Police say that during his escape, the gunmen tried to carjack a civilian, killing him in the process.
Authorities have detained a 27-year old native of the southern Kyzylorda region who is also suspected of killing a woman over the weekend. Police earlier said that another person connected to the attack remained on the loose.
There have scattered reports of separate attack around the city, suggesting a coordinated action, but the details remain highly confused.
Soon after the unrest began, police issued a statement to say an antiterrorism operation was underway and asked the public to avoid large crowds.
“Law enforcement authorities will in good time provide information about all suspect individuals and asks the public to be understanding toward the actions of police and special forces,” the Almaty police said in a statement.
The National Security Committee, or KNB, said in a statement that it had raised the terrorism alert in Almaty to red, which stands for critical. The statement said gunmen attacked the Almaly district police station and an Almaty branch of the KNB.
Russian politicians and state media sounded sharp alarm about the July 15 military-coup attempt in Turkey, Moscow's traditional regional rival, with some calling for "responsible organs" to come to the rescue of Russian citizens in Turkey. By contrast, officials in the South Caucasus, which borders directly on Turkey, expressed much greater caution .
The failed coup attempt led to the deaths of 1,661 people, and the injury of 1,440, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim announced at an afternoon briefing on July 16 in the Turkish capital, Ankara. Some 2,839 armed-forces personnel allegedly involved in the coup-plot have now been arrested, he said, according to Turkey's official Anadolu Agency.
Yet even as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that the coup had been put down, Russia’s state-run TASS news agency led with a statement from Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev that “we should undertake all measures for the defense of the interests of our citizens, and also our companies, our entities . . . “ in Turkey.
What measures, if any, were under consideration is not clear, but Deputy Parliamentary Speaker Alexander Romanovich, citing alleged bombing by Turkish military planes, earlier in the morning of July 16 called for "our responsible organs" to organize the immediate evacuation of all Russian citizens from Turkey.
In a bad year for grain, farmers in Uzbekistan are feeling pressure from all sides as they struggle to meet government-imposed quotas.
The grain harvest reached 8.2 million tons in 2015, a slight increase on the year before, and a similar amount was expected this year. Blights brought on by patches of spring and summer showers may well have put a dent in crop returns this year, however.
To ensure that the plan is fulfilled, officials are applying particularly strong pressure on farmers. Under an agreement between farmers and the government, grain growers are permitted to retain a certain amount of the crop for their own uses. Instead, local official are pressuring farmers into giving up even their own stores.
“Farmers that don’t meet the grain quota need to find the missing tons any way that they can. As a rule, they buy it from farmers with extra supplies or they pay [the government] 750,000 sum ($125) per ton. And that is while the government purchases grain for 500,000 ($84) per ton,” Muhammadasodyk, a farmer from the Ferghana Valley, told EurasiaNet.org.
Things are especially bad in arid southern regions. In the Kashkadarya region, the local government enlists policemen to confiscate grain grown on low-yield, rain-fed lands, which provokes particularly intense dismay and rage.
“All I have is 2 hectares (20,000 square meters) of land and the police brought a combine harvester to take away my crop. And while they’re doing it, they threaten and intimidate us. This is the harvest I am supposed to use to feed my family and cattle. And now are waiting for winter,” Murad, a farmer in the Yakkabagsky district of the Kashkadarya region, told EurasiaNet.org.
Even without official interference, arable farming makes for a tough, hardscrabble life in many parts of Uzbekistan
Islamic State terrorists may have confirmed the death of their Georgian military commander Omar al-Shishani (Omar the Chechen aka Tarkhan Batirashvili), but in the 30-year-old militant’s native Pankisi Gorge, locals appear to have adopted a wait-and-see attitude.
Georgia’s largest national broadcaster, Rustavi2, reported on July 14 that unnamed residents of Pankisi, a narrow valley about 161 kilometers/100 miles northeast of the capital, Tbilisi, did not confirm Batirashvili’s death, saying that his family knows nothing about it.
Over the past few years, multiple reports of Batirashvili’s death have surfaced periodically; the most recent, in March. His father, 72-year-old Temur Batirashvili, a Georgian Orthodox believer who says he has not heard from his son in years, has not responded to these latest reports of his death.
But in Georgia, as elsewhere in the South Caucasus, locals will still look to relatives first for confirmation.
Batirashvili’s older brother Tamaz is reportedly another ISIS military commander, supposedly handling security issues. For residents of Pankisi, the daily Rezonansi reported in June, this brother is “the most reliable” source of information.
“He’s always by his brother’s side and, as they say, they’ll confirm the information about [Tarkhan Batirashvili] with Tamaz as well,” Pankisi elder Khasan Khangoshvili commented to the paper, denying the March report of the younger Batirashvili's death.