Iraq has been the site of one of the great turnarounds in Turkish foreign policy. On the one hand, in the north, Ankara has gone from having dreadful relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government -- it was not that long ago that Turkish government officials refrained from even using the word "Kurdistan" -- to working closely on a host of political and economic issues with the Kurdish-led government there. On the other hand, Ankara's relations with Baghdad have taken a nosedive over the last few years, with the Turkish and Iraqi governments failing to see eye-to-eye on a score of issues.
These simultaneous changes are, of course, not isolated from each other. One of the issues driving a wedge between Turkey and Iraq is the question of Ankara's energy ties with the KRG and whether the Iraqi Kurds can bypass the central government in Baghdad and sign independent energy deals with the Turks. The issue may get even more complicated if a recent report by Bloomberg, which claims Ankara and the Iraqi Kurds have signed a secret deal to send northern Iraqi oil and gas to Turkey, is true. From Bloomberg's report:
Iraq’s Kurdish region has signed a landmark agreement with Turkey to supply it directly with oil and gas, two people familiar with the matter said.
The accord was signed last month when Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan met Iraqi Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani in Ankara, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the plans are private. Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz, contacted via his press office, declined to comment, as did an Iraqi Kurdish official. The Oil Ministry in Baghdad didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
It’s never a good time to be an opposition figure in Tajikistan. But this election year looks particularly dangerous.
Unknown assailants attacked the deputy head of the country’s main opposition party, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), outside his home on Friday night, said a colleague.
“Some people attacked him, cruelly beat him and ran away. Relatives saw Mahmadali Hayit, who had lost a lot of blood, and called an ambulance. Now he’s hospitalized at the National Medical Center,” IRPT press secretary Hikmatulloh Saifullohzoda – himself brutally beaten two years ago by unidentified men outside his home – told Dushanbe's Asia-Plus news agency. Saifullohzoda believes the attack is related to Hayit’s political work.
The IRPT has not said whether it will field a candidate in presidential elections scheduled for November. Though incumbent President Emomali Rakhmon has not said he will run, and some challenge the legality of a run, few expect the strongman, who has served as head of state since 1992, to step aside.
The IRPT, with two seats, is the only opposition party in the country’s 63-seat legislature. With power so jealously guarded by Rakhmon and his loyalists, the party faces all sorts of trouble – from the mundane to the violent.
In the Caucasus, Georgia is often seen as spoiled for choices. But, for Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and his United National Movement, the big choice boils down to just one: with the West or against it.
Or, in other words, with the United National Movement (UNM) or against it. At an April 19 rally in downtown Tbilisi meant to prove to Georgia that the former ruling party is still a political force with which to be reckoned, President Saakashvili whipped up hundreds of supporters with memories of the Russian army's invasion of the country in 2008, and the world’s support for Georgia.
Leveraging lingering fears that Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili is driving Georgia away from the West, Saakashvili called on Georgians to “make a choice” against occupation.
“I want to say that the Georgian people will choose, not between traitors and half-traitors, but between patriots and even bigger patriots,” he said, speaking to a crowd that stretched down Rustaveli Avenue for more than a block.
“If we choose dishonorably, we will receive complete occupation,” he asserted. (Tbilisi argues that the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, housing thousands of Russian troops since the 2008 war, are under occupation.) “If we stand with honor, we will free the entire country.”
Anticipating the punch, a session of leaders from Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition had taken to the airwaves before the rally to remind voters that they firmly support membership in the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Police in Boston have named two brothers hailing from Kyrgyzstan as chief suspects in the April 15 Boston Marathon bombings, which killed at least three and left more than 170 wounded. It appears the two, members of the country's dwindling ethnic Chechen community, left Kyrgyzstan over ten years ago and had been in the United States for about a decade.
Authorities in Boston are searching for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19. His brother, Tamerlan, 26, was killed after a series of violent engagements with police in several parts of the metropolitan area early on April 19 that left one officer dead and one severely wounded, The Boston Globereported. A police source told the paper that an explosive trigger was found on Tamerlan’s body.
In Bishkek, the State Committee on National Security (GKNB) confirmed the two lived in Kyrgyzstan and left in 2001. Because they were 8 and 15 when they left, the GKNB said in a statement, it is "inappropriate to link them with Kyrgyzstan."
Adnan Jabrayilov, the head of the country's Chechen community, told Radio Azattyk that he believes the entire family emigrated over ten years ago. He said the family was from Tokmok and added that members were very well educated.
As Georgian wine continues on the path towards what looks like its return to the Russian market, Armenian wine producers are expressing concern that Georgia's gain may come at their expense. Reports the Arminfo website:
Return of Georgian wines to the Russian market following embargo suspension may cut growth of export of Armenian wines to Russia, Avag Haroutiunyan, Head of the Union of Armenian Winemakers, told ArmInfo.
A threefold growth of export of Armenian wines to Russia was planned for the coming five years. Wine export from Armenia grew 60% in 2012 to 1.185 million liters versus 744,000 liters in 2011, with nearly 75% of sales being in Russia. A few years ago, export totaled 500,000 liters, Haroutiunyan said. Before the embargo on Georgian wines in Russia, 50-55 million bottles of Georgian wine were sold in that country annually, despite the fact that the production capacity of Georgian wineries is some 15-20 million bottles. This shows that counterfeit production was manufactured either in Georgia or in
Russia. Georgian wineries have raised significant investments in modernization over the last years and have greatly improved the quality of wines.
"Now, they will offer the best products in the Russia market. Georgian wines are now of higher quality than the Armenian ones, but the prices will be similar. Armenia will have to raise additional investments in modernization of wineries to sustain competition," Haroutiunyan said.
Tajikistan President Emomal Rahmon meets with Indian vice president Mohammad Hamid Ansari in Dushanbe.
India has set up a military hospital in southern Tajikistan in an attempt to "further strengthen India's geo-strategic footprint in the crucial Central Asian region," an Indian newspaper has reported. India's vice president visited Dushanbe earlier this week, and the Times of India reported that there are 100 Indian personnel at the air base at Ayni and that "India has quietly airlifted a military hospital, with doctors, paramedics and equipment" to Tajikistan:
India already has over 100 Indian military personnel stationed at the Ayni airbase in Tajikistan, a country that also shares close proximity to Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir (PoK), as a kind of a "military outpost". The new hospital will serve to further strengthen India's geo-strategic footprint in the crucial Central Asian region.
Defence ministry sources say two of the newly-acquired C-130J "Super Hercules" aircraft of the IAF airlifted medical stores, equipment and 55 personnel over the last month to establish the "India-Tajik Friendship Hospital" in southern Tajikistan.
"The 50-bed hospital will treat both military as well as civilian people," said a source. The setting up of the hospital comes at a time when vice-president Hamid Ansari is on a visit to the landlocked country to further cement the bilateral strategic partnership and well as expand its "Connect Central Asia Policy" to build stronger linkages with the five Central Asian countries.
It's not many politicians who can manage to be a doting family man, a gallant cavalier and a busy head of state all at the same time. But, according to declassified government expense records released on April 17, Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili, long touted as an anti-corruption crusader, has spared no public expense for parental, party and pretty-lady needs.
Frequently expatiating on the importance of education, the Georgian president stands accused of putting taxpayers' money where his mouth is by allegedly taking cash from state coffers to pay for his two sons' studies at prestigious private schools in Tbilisi.
While forking out for family needs, Saakashvili also supposedly catered to the interests of young women, too. The released records suggest that he gave an iPhone 4 and a gold bracelet to two young female members of his United National Movement party, and also gifted an expensive necklace to a visiting Russian media diva, all courtesy of the Georgian taxpayer.
Speaking of the latter, he did not forget voters, and allegedly used the presidential security budget to purchase 40 sheep for farmers.
Busy as the president may have been dispensing gifts from the state budget, he did purportedly find time for himself and a close circle of friends. The records state that he spent about $140,000 on a New Year's party in Dubai and some $70,000 on weight-loss procedures for himself and the loyally plump mayor of Tbilisi, Gigi Ugulava.
Most of these expenses supposedly came from the president’s security budget.
Kazakhstan's Education Ministry has enlisted the secret police to monitor students studying abroad on a government-sponsored scholarship program. The KNB, successor to the Soviet-era KGB, will ensure the students return home to serve the motherland.
“The ministry, jointly with the National Security Committee [KNB] has fully adopted the 'student abroad' program. The return of our graduates to the homeland will now be strictly tracked,” Education Minister Bakytzhan Zhumagulov told a cabinet meeting in Astana on April 16, News-Kazakhstan reports.
In exchange for the scholarship, which covers all tuition fees and living expenses for the duration of a student's course, alumni of the Bolashak (“Future”) program are expected to return to Kazakhstan to work in any sector for five years after completing their studies.
The minister did not present any figures for non-returnees, so it is unclear how much work is cut out for Big Brother. A 2008 diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks quotes government statistics claiming that only 29 out of some 4,500 students sent abroad on the program by that time had failed to return.
Since its implementation in 1993, Bolashak has sent around 10,000 students from Kazakhstan to educational institutions across the globe. Initially the focus was on undergraduate students, but following the opening of the Nazarbayev University in Astana in 2010, the program has turned its attention to Ph.D. students.
When Tajikistan announced that it was sending troops to the Gorno Badakhshan region, the site of a controversial military operation last year, it was bound to raise some suspicion: Tensions are still high in the region, and mistrust of the government pronounced. But the controversy that has unfolded this time has been stranger than one would have expected.
Shortly after the troop movement was announced, the government was quick to point out that it was for a regularly scheduled exercise. Asia Plus reported on April 9:
“The Ministry of Defense is not going to carry out any military operation in Khorog and military convoys heading for Gorno Badakhshan are connected with the ongoing spring conscription campaign and the planned military exercises that will be conducted in Gorno Badakhshan in late May – early June,” said Faridoun Mahmadaliyev, a spokesman for the Ministry of Defense (MoD). “Similar military exercises for servicemen of the power-wielding and law enforcement structures were finished in Khatlon province on March 29 and now such exercises will be conducted in Gorno Badakhshan and Sughd province.”
According to him, the GBAO population’s apprehensions regarding military convoys heading for Khorog are absolutely unfounded.
Then, when one opposition politician commented on the troop movement, he said -- or seemed to say -- that it was to quell unrest among the population over the fact that China was effectively stealing land on the Tajik side of the countries' mountainous, uninhabited border. The politician, Rahmatillo Zoirov, head of the Social-Democratic Party of Tajikistan made his comments to an Iranian newspaper, Sada-ye Khurasan:
Following last year’s crackdown on Kazakhstan’s media and opposition, many have wondered what political course President Nursultan Nazarbayev is steering.
Today, Nazarbayev delivered his response: Kazakhstan is firmly set on becoming a Western-style democracy, he said – but it will take time.
“We believe that the democracy and freedom that exist in the West, as in Finland, are for us the final goal, and not the start of the path,” he told visiting Finnish President Sauli Niinistö, in remarks quoted by Tengri News. “We are going along that path.”
Kazakhstan may have occasionally stumbled along the way, but Nazarbayev believes the glass of democracy is at least half full. “To put it vividly in the words of a philosopher, our glass is half or three-quarters full, and we have to fill it up,” he said.
Nazarbayev was speaking the day after a motion was made in the European Parliament urging members to vote for a new resolution expressing concern about Kazakhstan’s human rights situation.
The draft resolution specifically points to court rulings last year banning the Alga! party and independent media outlets, alleging that such a move "violates the principles of freedom of expression and assembly and raises great concerns with regard to subsequent repression of media and opposition.”