Late last month, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan took part in the opening ceremony of a new soccer stadium in Istanbul. Rather than simply cut a ribbon, Erdogan -- a standout amateur soccer player in his youth -- put on a team jersey and went down to the field to play a friendly match. After his team fell behind by three points in the match, which was being broadcast live on television, the 60-year-old PM incredibly found a way to score three goals in 15 minutes, against a goalkeeper who plays in Turkey's top tier professional league no less.
As Turkey heads towards a presidential vote this Sunday -- the first one in which the people, rather than parliament, will elect the new president -- Erdogan's hat-trick performance seems emblematic of the way the campaign has been playing out. Despite the presence of two other substantive candidates, Erdogan has been dominating the field, receiving the lion's share of the state television broadcaster's attention. A fawning pro-government press, meanwhile, has been dutifully reporting about the PM's every move and utterance, imbuing them with an almost otherworldy quality (in the case of Erdogan's soccer game performance, one paper declared "his style was likened by some....to Barca star Lionel Messi.").
Uzbekistan is asking Germany for an increase in rent paid for the use of the air base at Termez, on the Afghanistan border, which the Germans have operated since 2002, according to local media reports. Reports also suggest that Germany is considering helping Uzbekistan expand the airport at Termez.
"Since November of last year there have been negotiations between Tashkent and Berlin on reexamining the status of the agreement on Germany's use of the transit hub at the Termez airport," according to a piece on CentrAsia.ru, widely republished in the Uzbekistani media. "In particular, according to informed experts, the Uzbek side, with the aim of maintaining the infrastructure of this important military-strategic object in good condition, proposes increasing the rent paid for Germany's use of the Termez airport."
The piece concludes: "Continuing to prolong the resolution of the 'Termez question,' Germany risks not only being left with nothing, but also ruining its relations with Uzbekistan, the key government of Central Asia playing an important role in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. It seems the Germans don't realize that the money they are trying to save on the rent paid for the use of the Termez airport is not worth the strategic importance that this object has for Germany."
The renewed ruckus between Armenia and Azerbaijan has prompted calls for rehashing the international approach to finding a peaceful resolution to the 26-year-long Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. But, so far, it appears to be only Russian President Vladimir Putin who's planning to meet with the two countries' leaders.
The reasons for reviving the half-dormant ex-Soviet conflict remain moot. For years now, gusts of fighting have occasionally disrupted the 1994 ceasefire agreement, which ended a full-blown war over breakaway Karabakh. To quote Armenian Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian, Karabakh ever since has been a place of “no war, no peace.”
But with a record number dead in recent weeks, a real threat of another ex-Soviet war is in the air.
With reports of casualties coming in daily, Azerbaijani military officials have claimed that volunteers have been stepping forward to help national forces with the “liberation of the occupied lands.”
In Armenia, Defense Minister Ohanian said on August 5 that, so far, there is no need for mobilization or the deployment of an international peacekeeping force. “Karabakh is the only conflict zone in the world where relative peace is maintained through a balance between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces,” Ohanian declared at an August-6 press-conference.
With the post-Soviet region embroiled in its deepest crisis since the Cold War over Ukraine and Kazakhstan facing the impact of Western sanctions on Russia, strong leadership and staunch policy decisions would seem to be required from Astana.
But when President Nursultan Nazarbayev summoned his government today, instead he engaged in a bout of cosmetic cabinet tinkering that may distract officials seeking to steer Kazakhstan’s economy through some choppy waters.
Nazarbayev kept his prime minister, Karim Masimov, but made several ministerial replacements and announced a merger of ministries to cut their number from 17 to 12 and subsume some of Kazakhstan’s numerous agencies, departments and committees.
The streamlining of the bloated bureaucracy is welcome, but it will likely spark a bout of distracting infighting as bureaucrats fight to keep their jobs in a vastly diminished pool of vacancies.
Several ministries received a rebranding.
The Oil and Gas Ministry became the Energy Ministry under new minister Vladimir Shkolnik. But a new name and a new face will not solve Kazakhstan’s main energy problem, the stalled Kashagan oilfield, now not expected to resume production until 2016. In an unusual meeting of interests sure to please oil and gas companies, the Energy Ministry was also handed the environment portfolio.
The Economy and Budget Planning Ministry became the National Economy Ministry, swallowing up the Regional Development Ministry. The Emergencies Ministry was merged into the Interior Ministry, and the health and labor portfolios were combined at the new Health and Social Development Ministry. Aset Isekeshev, formerly minister of industry and new technologies, heads up a new Ministry of Investment and Development.
With Russia and Ukraine facing off over the fate of the small separatist region in eastern Ukraine supported by Moscow, the two countries have been using food policy as a way to punish each other.
This Russian-Ukrainian food fight actually already started last year, when Moscow banned the import of a popular line of Ukrainian chocolates, apparently to punish Kiev's overtures to Europe. In response, the Ukrainian government put a halt to the import of certain Russian sweets.
But with things heating up in eastern Ukraine, so is the use of food import restrictions as a weapon. In late July, Kiev banned the import of Russian pork products, citing a concern about the presence in Asian Swine Flu in certain regions in Russia. Not to be outdone, Moscow soon after announced a ban on Ukrainian soy and a few other agricultural products due to "a breach of phytosanitary requirements" (whatever that means).
But recent moves by the Kremlin are dragging Ukraine's neighbors into the food battle. After the European Union announced new sanctions against Russia last week, Moscow retaliated by announcing a ban on most fruit and vegetable imports from EU-member Poland. The move, the Kremlin said, was due to "sanitary reasons" and could be extended to the entire EU.
For Poland, the ban is serious business, as Reuters explains:
Uzbekistan has taken the rare step of commenting publicly to deny reports that it plans to allow the United States to set up a military base in the country.
The rumors arose after the recent visit to Uzbekistan by the head of U.S. Central Command, General Lloyd Austin, and the report on a website with good sources in Uzbekistan's government saying that the Austin was discussing setting up a base in Termez, on the Afghanistan border.
The report was implausible in many ways -- it said the U.S. was going to pay $1 billion a year in rent -- but Uzbekistan's government nevertheless saw fit to deny it. "Uzbekistan's laws do not allow to host any foreign military bases on its territory," Adilbek Kaipbergenov, spokesman for Uzbekistan's foreign ministry, told AFP.
The U.S. also denied it: “Gen. Austin has no knowledge of any plans for a possible U.S. base in Uzbekistan,” a CENTCOM spokesman told the Army Times. “He did not discuss any such options with the Uzbeks during his trip.”
The Uzbekistan opposition website uznews suggests that it was Russia's negative reaction to the rumors that may have spooked Tashkent.
Speaking on Russian radio station Govorit Moskva, Ilya Drozdov, a member of the Russian parliament and a CIS and Eurasian integration committee member, stated that if Uzbekistan really did allow the U.S. to re-open a military base, then Russia should throw out all Uzbek migrant workers from Russia. “I think then we need to take strong action at the highest level of government.” says Drozdov,
Already facing charges of abuse of power, Saakashvili now stands accused of allegedly ordering the beating of a businessman-lawmaker nine years ago. Valeri Gelashvili, at the time an opposition member of parliament, was severely thrashed in July 2005. The prosecutors allege that the masked men involved were special police officers acting on orders from Saakashvili and then Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili in retaliation for a newspaper interview in which Gelashvili accused Saakashvili of unlawfully seizing his property and made disparaging comments about the president’s private life.
In 2005, however, the story was somewhat different. In an interview with EurasiaNet.org at the time, Gelashvili stated that the attack was related to some $2.19 million (4 million lari) that the government supposedly had owed for work his construction company, Evra, had done on Georgia’s new presidential palace.
In comments to the press on August 5, Gelashvili described himself as “thankful” for these latest charges against Saakashvili, who has been sentenced to pre-trial detention in absentia. Merabishvili, who also has been indicted, already is doing time on other charges.
The prosecutors’ statement contains no details about the corroborating evidence against either man.
A groundswell of public support for Kyrgyzstan's first president to return home to bury a close relative proves the old adage that absence makes the heart grows fonder.
Askar Akayev was far from a national favorite when opposition-led crowds forced the former physicist and his family to flee Kyrgyzstan in a helicopter more than nine years ago, the culmination of what came to be known fondly as the Tulip Revolution. By most accounts, the 14-year Akayev regime had degenerated into a hotbed of corruption and authoritarianism after the president’s reformist beginnings had seen Kyrgyzstan branded an “island of democracy” in authoritarian Central Asia.
But after five years under his successor, the venal and occasionally brutal Kurmanbek Bakiyev, followed by four years of economic and political uncertainty, some Kyrgyzstanis see Akayev with rose-tinted spectacles.
Since his ouster, Akayev, now 69, has lived in Moscow, where he teaches at Moscow State University. He has never returned to Kyrgyzstan.
The trigger for a public discussion of Akayev’s merits and shortfalls was the August 4 rumor that he would be returning to attend the funeral of his brother, who died August 3.
Citing “sources close to the arriving party," newspaper Vechernii Bishkek wrote: “Tomorrow on August 5, early in the morning, the arrival of ex-president Askar Akayev is expected. Relatives and close allies of Akayev expect him in connection with the death of the ousted president’s older brother, Bolot.”
When I knock on the door of yet another Kyrgyz politician, civil servant or businessman, I have many questions. That’s my job as a journalist. But the most nerve-racking question is not in my notebook: Will he hit on me?
The first time I interviewed an official in Bishkek, he tried to hold my hand while we were alone in his office. I left, humiliated, thinking this would never happen again. I was wrong.
The idea that women are no more than pieces of meat is deeply engrained here. Indeed, until recently, Kyrgyz law called sheep rustling a more serious crime than bride kidnapping.
Women are taught to blame themselves. A study of 8,000 Kyrgyz women released in January found that 6 percent believe a woman deserves to be beaten if she burns dinner, 23 percent if she leaves the house without telling her husband. Last summer, a female member of parliament lobbied to ban girls under age 22 from traveling abroad. She said she wished to “preserve the gene pool.”
At first, I thought the advances were my fault, that I had dressed or acted inappropriately. I changed my makeup and started wearing glasses to look older. But they haven’t stopped. Men regularly call me after interviews, suggesting we have a coffee to “get to know each other better.” Professionally, it is challenging to tell a member of parliament or a minister that I’m not interested while leaving the door open for future interviews.
The death toll in fighting between Armenians and Azerbaijanis continued to rise, reaching at least 18 as the two sides blamed each other for the escalation and Russia began efforts to try to defuse the crisis.
As sporadic fighting continued through the weekend, Azerbaijan's losses grew to 13, by Baku's count, while Armenia's grew to five by their count. Both sides said the others' losses were greater than reported; Armenia said 25 Azerbaijanis had been killed since July 28, when the fighting flared up, while Azerbaijan claims that 70 Armenians died just August 1-2.
In an interview with state television, the defense minister of the de facto Nagorno Karabakh Republic, Movses Hakopyan, blamed the Azerbaijani defense minister, Zakir Hasanov, for provoking the conflict in order to "prove himself" after being recently appointed. And he expressed confidence in his forces: "Ignorant and shortsighted acts by the enemy have shown that he is capable of anything, however if large-scale military activity begins, the armed forces of Karabakh have nothing to worry about," he said. "I think that after the recent events the people of Azerbaijan have to understand toward what its leadership's adventurism is leading. The number of losses will only increase and our borders won't change, and if some change happens it will come at the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan."