President Nursultan Nazarbayev is in Brussels putting the finishing touches to a landmark agreement with the European Union, cementing ties with Europe even as Astana pushes ahead to join the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union.
Nazarbayev met Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, on October 9, to “confirm the conclusion of negotiations” on the Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, the EU said.
The agreement – three years in the making – aims to boost cooperation in around 30 policy areas including trade and foreign and security policy, it said, and will “significantly deepen political and economic ties” between Kazakhstan and the EU (Astana’s largest trade partner and a major consumer of its energy exports).
The agreement is a far weaker deal than the Association Agreement signed by Ukraine this year, but is still the most ambitious deal to be concluded between the EU and any Central Asian state.
It “puts a strong emphasis on democracy and the rule of law, human rights and fundamental freedoms,” the EU stated, although it failed to specify how.
The visit was marred by news that France is investigating possible kickbacks involving a helicopter deal with Kazakhstan, and probing allegations that Nazarbayev put indirect pressure on Brussels to close a bribery case against Kazakhstani oligarchs.
There was also controversy over Kazakhstan’s human rights record.
Uzbekistan has made “no advancement” in eliminating the worst forms of child labor, the US Department of Labor has found, despite Tashkent’s efforts to remove younger children from the cotton fields.
The judgment will come as a blow to the administration of strongman President Islam Karimov, which – under sustained international pressure – says it has banned children from picking cotton and last year invited the International Labor Organization (ILO) in to monitor the issue.
“Notwithstanding initiatives to reduce child labor, Uzbekistan has received this [“no advancement”] assessment based on the government's continued complicity in the use of forced child labor,” the Labor Department’s annual Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor, released October 8, state.
“Although the government continues to publicly deny the use of forced labor, including of children, in the cotton harvest, information indicates that children continue to be required to engage in the worst forms of child labor in cotton production,” it continued.
The findings acknowledged that Tashkent had by and large ensured that children under 15 “were able to continue to attend school during the harvest season,” but said local officials continued shutting down colleges and lyceums, “mobilizing children ages 15 to 17 to pick cotton to meet the government-mandated harvest quotas.”
In 2012, Tashkent – facing widespread international pressure over its widely documented use of child labor to harvest its main cash crop – moved to take younger children out of the cotton fields. However, human rights groups reported that this merely shifted the burden of forced labor onto older children and adults, while Tashkent denies using forced labor at all.
Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan meets with CSTO Secretary General Nikolay Bordyuzha in Yerevan. (photo: president.am)
The head of Russia's post-Soviet military bloc has made his first-ever visit to the Armenia-Azerbaijan border, checking on the readiness of Armenian troops there. The show of support was made just before Armenia was scheduled to sign an agreement to become a member of Russia's other big Eurasian integration project, the Eurasian Union.
But Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan took the occasion of the visit to criticize the bloc, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, for failing to consistently support Armenia's interests in its conflict with Azerbaijan over the territory of Nagorno Karabakh, which Armenian forces control but which de jure belongs to Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan's government has repeatedly threatened to take back the territory by force, and Armenia's alliance with Russia and the CSTO is its strongest security guarantee.
"The president underscored that the positions of a number of CSTO partners on issues being of paramount importance to allies, particularly on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, expressed in different international platforms, do not correspond to the common spirit of the negotiation process, contradict the statements and proposals of the OSCE Minsk Group, as well as to the documents endorsed within the framework of the CSTO," Sargsyan's office said in a statement. "[Azerbaijan President] Ilham Aliyev’s bellicose and Armenophobic statements do not rouse a keen response among our CSTO partners which could have suppressed the adventurous desires of the Azeri leadership."
These days, this question is a subject of passionate debate in Georgia. Many recoiled in distaste to see Moscow this month hosting a so-called Tbilisoba, an annual, Oktoberfest-style festival of Georgian arts, national crafts and cuisine held in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. Some accuse participating Georgian pop stars of selling out to the Kremlin, while others speak of the need of building cultural bridges amid animosity.
In Soviet and early post-Soviet times, Russia was as much of a main outlet for Georgian song and dance as it was for the country’s fruit and vegetables. Given the modest size of Georgia’s show business, many Georgian performers still turn to Russia, with its massive showbiz industry and remnants of nostalgic appreciation for Georgian culture.
After 2008, some Georgian showbiz stars quit on Russia, and Tbilisi discouraged cultural exchange events. That approach changed with the Georgian Dream’s advent to power in 2012, and the lifting of the Russian embargo on Georgian food-products.
Yet, still, part of Georgian society thinks such performances are inappropriate so long as Russian troops remain stationed in breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and help separatists prevent the homecoming of thousands of ethnic Georgians who fled these regions. They see irony in the same pop stars participating in Moscow’s Tbilisoba who previously performed in patriotic, anti-Kremlin concerts in Georgia.
A group photo of the presidents of the six SCO member states, at the 2014 summit in Dushanbe. Will the 2015 photo have two more presidents? (photo: SCO)
After last month's summit in Dushanbe, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization appears poised to finally expand its membership after years of discussion and speculation. SCO members signed protocols for admitting new members, and various officials from member countries have signaled that India and Pakistan will be invited to join at next year's summit in Ufa, Russia.
This would be a watershed move for the organization, which has captured the geopolitical imagination of many around the world who see it as a growing counterweight to Western dominance. That mystique has grown in spite (or perhaps because) of the fact that the group has thus far been more about talk than action.
The SCO is now dominated by two powers, Russia and China, and also includes the Central Asian republics Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Those were the original six members when the group was founded in 2001, and despite many entreaties to join -- in particular by India, Pakistan, and Iran -- the group has never expanded. So why is it doing so now? And will expansion add to the group's clout, or dilute its ability to act?
Russia's interest in SCO expansion is relatively obvious: in the wake of the collapse of its relations with the West, the Kremlin is eager to make it appear as if it has plenty of friends around the world and so doesn't need Europe or the U.S. That's resulted in a renewed enthusiasm in Moscow for the SCO; Russia had previously mistrusted the group as being a possible stalking horse for Chinese expansion into what it considers its own strategic backyard, Central Asia.
French investigators are probing suspected kickbacks paid over a lucrative helicopter deal with Kazakhstan, Le Monde has revealed.
The report emerged the day before President Nursultan Nazarbayev heads to Brussels to cement Kazakhstan-European Union ties. Embarrassingly, it alleges the Kazakh president used a €2 billion contract with Marseille-based Eurocopter (since renamed Airbus Helicopter) to pressure Belgium to drop bribery charges against three Kazakhstani oligarchs.
The investigation into the Eurocopter deal (signed in 2010 when Nazarbayev was welcomed to France by Nicolas Sarkozy, then French president) on suspicion of money-laundering, corrupting public officials and receiving stolen goods began in 2012 and has been conducted in the utmost secrecy, Le Monde reported.
Last month two former Sarkozy associates who held top jobs in his administration were arrested on suspicion of involvement in paying kickbacks over the contract, the newspaper said, naming them as Jean-Francois Etienne des Rosaies, a former adviser to Sarkozy, and Nathalie Gonzalez-Prado, a former senior official at the Elysee palace.
The probe was sparked by the appearance of “suspicious funds” (more than €300,000) in the account of Etienne des Rosaies, the report said, adding that two unnamed “intermediaries” and a lawyer had been indicted.
Sarkozy is also “suspected of having put pressure in 2011 on the Belgian Senate,” at Nazarbayev’s request, over a bribery and money-laundering probe involving three Kazakhstani oligarchs as a condition for the helicopter deal going ahead, Le Monde claimed. The report did not name the oligarchs.
Tajikistan has coupled one of its habitual Internet blocking sprees with an alarming show of police strength in central Dushanbe. The two cautious moves together appear designed to persuade a cowed population that heeding online calls for revolution is a bad idea.
Losing access to several websites simultaneously – typically social media and news sites – has become a regular fact of life for Internet users in Tajikistan. The latest filtering, which the government has denied imposing and Internet Service Providers have refused to admit on record, is unusual only in that Amazon.com, rarely cited as an agent of revolution, has been included on the blacklist. Northern Sughd Oblast, home to Tajikistan’s second-largest city, Khujand, has been almost completely offline since October 4.
Truth is no longer something expected from the government’s hated telecoms regulator, which consistently denies it blocks websites. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have a strong incentive to follow suit by attributing the bans to “technical problems,” or face the possibility of losing their licenses. But one provider speaking anonymously to Russian news agency Interfax was reported as saying October 6: "We have received an order from the communications service [to block] a list of websites: Facebook, vk.com, lenta.ru, youtube.com, mk.ru, amazon.com, ru.wikipedia.org and dozens of web anonymizers that allow bypassing these blockings."
In a move that many Georgians believe bodes ill for their remaining links with breakaway Abkhazia, the region’s new de-facto leader, Raul Khajimba, has stated he wants to eliminate all crossing points but one into Georgian-controlled territory.
“The national border with Georgia on the Enguri River will be reinforced,” RIA Novosti quoted Khajimba as saying in reference to what most of the rest of the world sees as an administrative boundary line between Abkhazia and the Tbilisi-controlled region of Samegrelo.
“There should be only one checkpoint for reasons of national security,” Khajimba told an assembly of his party, the Forum of People’s Unity of Abkhazia.
For now, there are five crossing-points – four pedestrian and one vehicular – operating across the Russian-policed administrative boundary between breakaway Abkhazia and Samegrelo.
Residents of Abkhazia’s ethnic Georgian-dominated Gali region regularly use these so-called official crossings to travel into Samegrelo, the best local place for shopping, and where most have family or friends.
“Russian border guards often turn a blind eye if we show them an Abkhaz or Soviet passport or residency documents provided by the local administration and they let us herd livestock to pastures on the Georgian-controlled side,” one Gali resident told Ekho Kavkaza.
A MiG-29 fighter jet and an icon of Mercurius of Smolensk. (Wikimedia Commons; Bug Pit composite image)
The Russian air force has decorated three of its MiG-29 fighter jets based in Armenia with images of medieval Christian saints. "The pilots are sure that the faces of the holy men on the fuselages of the military machines will not only protect them, but will strengthen their martial spirit," the press service of the Southern Military District announced.
One can't help but notice that the three heroes so honored -- Alexander Nevsky, Dmitry Donskoy, and St. Mercurius of Smolensk -- are known for their struggles and martyrdom fighting against the Tatar-Mongol yoke.
"The earthly journey of Prince Alexander Nevsky, Dmitry Donskoy, and the martyr Mercurius of Smolensk was marked with military glory and honor and they became Christian saints. The pilots consider them to be their heavenly protecters," the Russian military announcement continued.
Dmitry Donskoy is best known for his victory in the Battle of Kulikovo, a decisive moment in Russia's throwing off Mongol rule. Russian forces in that battle were famously inspired by an icon of Alexander Nevsky. And Mercurius was martyred after an icon of the Virgin Mary instructed him to attack the forces of Batu Khan which were nearing Smolensk.
That sort of historical reference may gladden the hearts of the MiGs' Armenian hosts, whose enemy, Azerbaijan, are kin to the Tatars. But one wonders how it will be received by Russia's Turkic Muslim allies in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
Regrettably, the press service didn't release any photos of the decorated planes.
With elections to Kyrgyzstan’s ever-volatile parliament just a year away, it is an uneasy time to be a private businessman in the Central Asian country. According to managers at one of the country’s most popular media outlets, the pre-election shakedown has begun.
As politicians prepare for the 2015 ballot, the competition over votes and the resources necessary to secure them is expected to be intense. One way of fundraising is to turn to the time-honored tradition of corporate raids – raiderstvo in Russian – at key moments in the political calendar. Now Vechernii Bishkek, a profitable media outlet whose Russian-language newspaper has a weekly circulation of over 50,000 copies, is claiming that it has fallen victim to a raid from “people close to President [Almazbek] Atambayev.”
Vechernii Bishkek’s ownership structure is complicated. In 2000, the paper – and, significantly, its wholly owned print house – fell into the hands of Adil Toygonbaev, the son-in-law of then-President Askar Akayev. Toygonbaev secured a 50-percent stake in the holding company from one of its two owners before reportedly expropriating it entirely in a move that simultaneously relieved his family’s regime of the paper’s critical reporting and added the country's best-selling Russian-language newspaper to the family's list of assets.