Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made his first visit to Central Asia since becoming president earlier this year, to Turkmenistan. And while the headline news from the visit was a deal to supply Turkmenistan natural gas to Turkey, boosting military cooperation likely was on the agenda as well, regional analysts say.
During Erdogan's visit, he signed an agreement with his counterpart, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, to supply gas to the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP) project. That project, which is scheduled to be completed in 2018, would take gas from the Caspian shore of Azerbaijan to Turkey's western border. How Turkmenistan would get its gas to the pipeline was left unsaid, but Russia has expressed strong opposition to the idea of a pipeline being built across the Caspian, and should such a pipeline be constructed it would really ramp up tensions on the sea. From a Reuters story on the visit:
[T]o join the pipeline Turkmenistan will have to lay another pipeline across the Caspian Sea.
Asked how Turkmenistan could join the TANAP project, Atagas head Osman Saim Dinc told Reuters: "We are working on all alternative routes." He did not elaborate.
The United States embassy in Baku has categorically denied a report in The Times which claimed that Washington and Tehran will conduct “secret talks” in Baku this week about restoring some form of ties between the United States and Iran after an almost 35-year break.
Citing an anonymous Iranian government advisor, The Times’ Hugh Tomlinson reported on November 10 that the supposed talks would cover setting up in Tehran “an umbrella office for US trade” or, possibly, “a cultural office, purely for academic exchanges.”
The Times wrote that Mohammad Reza Sabzalipour, head of Iran’s World Trade Center, would lead the alleged talks with the US side in Baku. Azerbaijani officials so far have not made any comments.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is set to visit the Azerbaijani capital on November 12 for a state visit, but no public indication has been made that Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev intends to play intermediary for the US.
In a statement to the pro-government Azerbaijani news agency Trend, however, the US embassy to Baku rejected The Times story as “completely untrue.”
“[W]e have had no conversations, and have no plans to engage in conversations, in trade talks or any talks similar to those described in this misleading news story,” read the statement, published on November 11.
Sabzalipour, however, had his own take. On November 11, he remarked that “reciprocal visits by the Iranian and the US economic delegations” are "on the agenda" of Tehran's World Trade Center. Details will be forthcoming "when the grounds are prepared," he added.
Uzbekistan’s practice of sending forced laborers to pick the cotton harvest causes a furor abroad every year. But now there are rumblings of discontent from within the country.
National University students have taken the unusual step of publicly complaining about being forced to help with the harvest, publishing an open letter to the prime minister and law-enforcement agencies on the Dunyo Uzbeklari (World of Uzbeks) opposition website.
Third-year male journalism students were ordered to the cotton fields by the rector and faculty deacon, says the letter. It is addressed to Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev; the prosecutor’s office; the National Security Service (SNB); the Higher Education Ministry; and the university rector, Mirzo Mukhamedov.
“Surely the legislation of Uzbekistan does not mention the responsibility of students for taking part in the cotton harvest?” the outraged students (who remained anonymous, no doubt fearing repercussions) ask. “Of course not!”
Students who do not wish to pick cotton could cough up 300,000 sums to buy themselves out, the letter said. That is equivalent to around $125 at the official exchange rate, or two months’ worth of a student’s living grant.
Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest relies on forced labor to help farmers meet government-set 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 have reported that this merely shifted the burden of forced labor onto older children (including students) and adults. Tashkent denies using forced labor at all.
Central Asians already clean Russia's streets and work on its construction sites, so why couldn't they fight its wars, too? That appears to be the thinking behind a Russian lawmaker's proposal to create military units manned by migrants from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to fight in Ukraine and against ISIS in Central Asia.
The proposal was made by Roman Khudyakov of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (led by ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky) and caused quite a stir in the Russian press. (One blog post called the would-be fighters "Gastarbeiter-Soldiers.") The newspaper Izvestia carried the most detailed description of Khudyakov's proposal. In his words:
In the French Foreign Legion there are soldiers from 136 countries, and not one French person dies in war. Why should our soldiers die? One way or another we need to respond to the challenges of today -- this is connected with global security and the threat of terrorism. We can't allow ourselves to close our eyes to the fact that fanatics from ISIS are now preparing an expansion into Central Asia and Russia. And we should stop them outside Russia's borders and preferably without the participation of the Russian armed forces. The foreign legion could deal with this.... Residents of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan would gladly fill the legion, there's no problem there.
Being a parent is no easy task. Obedience is key. But when it comes to criticism from his political papa, 58-year-old billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, founder of Georgia's ruling Georgian Dream coalition, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili appears willing to try and be the dutiful political son.
Following nationally televised criticism from Ivanishvili of his recent description of ex-Defense Minister Irakli Alasania as “an adventurist, foolish and ambitious,” Gharibashvili conceded in comments on November 10, that his remark, coming amidst a dramatic government shake-up last week, was perhaps a little out of line. “I, too, did not like what I said about Alasania,” he said.
He tried to amend his words after Ivanishvili, his career mentor and former boss, commented that “[e]motions must be reined in… “
Ivanishvili, though supposedly no longer interested in politics, has not restrained himself from weighing in heavily on last week’s dismissal of Alasania and the resignations of ex-Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze and State Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration Aleksi Petriashvil over Alasania's claims that NATO-membership plans are at risk.
Astana has promised to save Kyrgyzstan from near-certain energy crisis this winter, committing to supply over a billion kilowatt-hours of electricity and releasing several Kyrgyzstan-bound oil tankers stuck on the border between the two countries since April. But questions remain about the terms of the deal signed by Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev and Kyrgyzstan’s Almazbek Atambayev on November 7.
Chiefly, how will Kyrgyzstan finance the difference between the cost of the electricity it is buying from Kazakhstan and the low rates its own citizens expect to pay—lower, according to energy officials, than the cost of production?
In other words, Kyrgyzstan has agreed to pay Kazakhstan far more than it charges its citizens per kilowatt-hour. Most of the energy will be subsidized by the impoverished government, Nurbek Elebaev, director of Kyrgyzstan’s State Department for the Regulation of the Fuel and Energy Complex, told Vechernii Bishkek on October 31. (Note: $1 is about 58 soms at current rates.) He said:
It is worth noting that the cost of the imported energy is 5.13 soms for a kilowatt-hour. Accordingly, every kilowatt-hour will be subsidized [by Kyrgyzstan] by around 3 soms. Moreover, 5.13 soms is the cost of electricity up to the Kazakh border. The cost of transit from the border to the consumer will be borne by [Kyrgyzstan’s] energy company. How the company will cover the financial deficit will be decided by the government. The cabinet will need to borrow money. This tariff will apply to 1 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity. A further 400 million kilowatt-hours will be determined by an exchange in kind.
The man convicted of ordering the murder of an opposition leader eight years ago is to be released on parole, a court in Astana has ruled. The decision raises, yet again, questions about the judiciary’s independence.
Yerzhan Utembayev will be released after serving eight years of his sentence over the brutal killing of Altynbek Sarsenbayev, an opposition leader and former government minister, in 2006, Tengri News reports.
Sarsenbayev’s brother, Rysbek Sarsenbay, had asked the court not to release Utembayev, claiming that he is concealing the names of those really responsible for the murder. “We want those who are really guilty to be exposed and convicted,” Sarsenbay said. But his arguments fell on deaf ears.
At his trial in 2006, Utembayev – who originally confessed to contracting the murder, but later recanted – was jailed for 20 years after being found guilty of hiring a hitman to kill Sarsenbayev for $60,000 in revenge for a newspaper article making unflattering revelations about him.
The trial found that Utembayev (who was at the time was head of the Senate secretariat) contracted Rustam Ibragimov, a former Interior Ministry officer, who set up a death squad comprising rogue members of elite Kazakhstani anti-terrorism units, which kidnapped Sarsenbayev and two aides and delivered them to Ibragimov, who killed the three men.
Georgia's richest man may have no formal government status, but the main characters in the country’s ongoing political drama are now busy paying visits to billionaire ex-Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili.
Fired ex-Defense Minister Irakli Alasania had his tête-à-tête with Ivanishvili, founder of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition, last night; now, Ivanishvili, generally seen as the real power behind the government, at latest report is currently meeting with Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili.
"One thing that we agreed on is to handle all political processes in a fashion that does not damage the state,” Alasania told TV reporters on November 7. “This was the gist of our conversation. We spoke of many things, but it obviously is going to stay between the two of us."
The November 6 evening meeting was at the agreement of both, he added. After being fired as defense minister earlier this week, Alasania had categorically refused to talk with Ivanishvili, who, for all his assurances that he has retired from politics, decided to drop in on a Georgian Dream meeting to discuss the coalition’s future. The meeting resulted in Alasania’s Free Democrats pulling out of the coalition and potentially leaving the group without a parliamentary majority.
Ivanishvili has not yet commented about his Alasania chat. No word has yet emerged about his talks with Gharibashvili, a former business associate.
Russian President Vladimir Putin at the CSTO Parliamentary Assembly session in Moscow on November 6. (photo: Kremlin)
The head of Russia's post-Soviet security bloc said that instability in the region is "in most cases" the result of external manipulations, particularly by the United States. Russian officials also said the group was pursuing ties with countries from around the world, in particular Iran.
The Collective Security Treaty Organization held a session of its parliamentary assembly in Moscow on November 6. In addition to full CSTO members Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan, the parliamentary assembly includes Afghanistan and Serbia. And that group may expand to include Iran, said the speaker of Russia's state Duma, Sergey Naryshkin.
“We believe that in the long term, that experience may be expanded and representatives from the parliaments of other countries, for instance, Iran, might be invited into the CSTO Parliamentary Assembly,” Naryshkin said.
And more broadly, the CSTO is pursuing closer ties with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, China, Iran, Latin America and countries of the Caribbean, said the group's general secretary, Nikolay Bordyuzha.
Most interesting were Bordyuzha's claims about the U.S. and other Western countries fomenting dischord in the CSTO region. While this isn't an especially new theme for Russian officials, Bordyuzha's comments contained an unusual amount of detail. From the CSTO's account of the event:
The crisis that kicked off when former Defense Minister Irakli Alasania charged the government with trying to derail Georgia’s NATO-membership plans is all about one “adventurist, foolish, ambitious” minister, Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili insisted to an early-morning cabinet-meeting on November 6.
He also accused former Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze, who stepped down following the dismissal of Alasania (her brother-in-law), of sabotage.
Many Georgians, though, suspect that the crisis has more to do with political rivalry. Gharibashvili reinforced that impression when he fumed to the cabinet that Alasania’s accusations amounted to a “betrayal” of the 2012 parliamentary victory that brought his Georgian Dream coalition to power.
Alasania’s party, the Free Democrats, yesterday left the Georgian Dream, forcing it to lose its parliamentary majority.