After weeks of suspense and guesswork, Georgia finally has a nominee for president from its ruling Georgian Dream coalition. To the fanfare in walks 43-year-old Education Minister Giorgi Margvelashvili.
Margvelashvili, who holds a doctorate in philosophy, may not cut as prominent a figure as the last three individuals who ended up becoming Georgia's president (in order of appearance: a nationalist dissident, a USSR foreign affairs chief and a pro-West revolutionary), but neither is the president’s office the desired job it used to be.
Constitutional changes, which go into effect after the October presidential election, will place key powers in the hands of Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, while the president, aside from the role of commander-in-chief, becomes largely a ceremonial head of state.
Fluent in English and Russian, Margvelashvili is mostly known in Georgia as the former rector of the private Georgian Institute for Public Affairs, a higher-education facility, and as a frequent commentator on politics. He has not been in public office long enough to succeed or to fail, and the biggest controversy involving him pales compared to the bare-knuckle battles of the past.
That said, Margvelashvili does not command a wide personal following, and, arguably, Ivanishvili could have found more popular candidates in his cabinet of ministers. Among those whose names Georgian media bandied about were soccer- star-turned-energy-minister Kakha Kaladze and Defense Minister Irakli Alasania.
Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan have launched a direct railway linking their oil-and-gas-rich Caspian Sea regions, bypassing Uzbekistan. The new line promises to benefit "tens of countries" in the region, opening the remote areas to major markets, says Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Kazakhstan's state-run Kazinform news agency reports that Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov and Nazarbayev opened the 869-kilometer stretch from Ozen in Kazakhstan to Etrek in Turkmenistan at their Bolashak-Serhetyak border crossing on May 11. The segment is designed to link up to the Iranian rail network.
"Not only will the new railway simplify exports of our goods but it will also attract transit shipments," Kazinform quoted Nazarbayev as saying at the opening ceremony. Reduced delays will offer the two sides “a significant competitive advantage."
Berdymukhamedov, who was in Kazakhstan on a state visit May 10 and 11, praised the new line, too. "Our project also means a connection to transport infrastructure in the eastern direction with access to such economic centers of global development as China, India and the Asia-Pacific," Kazinform quoted him as saying.
The two leaders also launched a new fiber-optic data line, which should link Kazakh networks with those of Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Iran, and Turkmen networks (such as they exist) with Russia, Eastern Europe and Asia via Kazakhstan.
Landlocked Central Asian countries are often burdened by broad transport rivalries and suspicions. While closely cooperating in building new export routes for their hydrocarbons, they often shy away from transport teamwork.
As many as 10,000 people languish in Uzbek prisons for their faith. Once there, they are subjected to another injustice, a religious-freedom watchdog reported this week: They are often denied access to clergy and religious literature.
Oslo-based Forum 18 has collected new evidence that Uzbekistan's brutal penal system prevents prisoners of conscience, and those locked up on dubious extremism charges, from worshipping in prison.
Relatives of Muslim prisoners of conscience told Forum 18 that Muslims "cannot openly pray, or read any Muslim literature – even the Koran."
Forum 18 says that prisoners, both Muslims and Christians, are regularly denied visits by clergy. Even the state-controlled Spiritual Board of Muslims and the state-friendly Russian Orthodox Church have limited access to prisons, while clergy from other denominations have virtually no access, the watchdog said.
An official from one recognized religious group, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of state reprisals, told Forum 18 that authorities did not allow his clergy to visit or conduct religious ceremonies in prisons. Though the Board of Muslims claimed to Freedom 18 that it has no problem accessing prisoners, it declined to specify when it had last visited any prisoners.
According to recent estimates by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, Islam Karimov’s government has imprisoned "as many as 10,000 individuals" for their non-violent Islamic religious affiliations.
Like in previous years, Turkish police and protesters this year again clashed in the heart of Istanbul after authorities blocked unions and other labor organizations from holding an event celebrating May 1 in downtown Taksim Square.
The excuse for keeping the groups out of Taksim this year was different than in the past, though. This time, authorities said, the square was too dangerous a place to be because of a massive construction project going on there that will redirect car traffic into several underground tunnels and remake Taksim in other ways.
The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) may have had other motives for closing off Taksim to the labor groups, many of which are fierce opponents of the government, but it's hard to deny that Taksim Square has in fact become one big construction site. Actually, all of Turkey has become a big construction site over the last decade, with cities expanding at a rapid rate and "urban renewal" projects -- most of them initiated by the government-run housing administration, a highly unaccountable body known as TOKI -- changing not only the skyline but also the social fabric of many cities.
The rapid rate of construction is now giving rise to concerns about the "cementization" of Turkey's cities, particularly Istanbul. Writes Bulent Kenes, editor of Today's Zaman, in a very good recent column:
In what could prove to be a historic day for Turkey and the decades-old Kurdish issue, fighters from the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) today started withdrawing from Turkish soil and returning to bases in the mountains of northern Iraq.
Turkish security forces manned checkpoints along the mountainous border with Iraq, keeping watch as the agreed pullout started by the first small groups of up to 2,000 Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) fighters.
The withdrawal, ordered late last month by top PKK commander Murat Karayilan, is the biggest step yet in a deal negotiated by the group's jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan with Turkish officials to end almost 30 years of conflict.
The PKK has accused the army of endangering the pullout with reconnaissance drones and troop movements they said may trigger clashes. But there was no sign of military activity in the grey skies over southeast Turkey.
"I can say the withdrawal began today based on the information we have," pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) co-leader Gultan Kisanak told Reuters. "Local sources report that the armed PKK militants are on the move."
California’s Fresno County has become entangled in a conflict from another world.
Late last month, on the eve of the April 24 anniversary of the 1915 slaughter of ethnic Armenians in Ottoman Turkey, the county government felt the urge to weigh in on the decades-long dispute over the predominantly ethnic-Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh region and recognize Karabakh's independence from Azerbaijan. Soon enough, angry Azerbaijan, which has vowed to reclaim the territory, came knocking on the county’s door.
The Fresno Bee has the story:“The resolution [supporting Karabakh's independence], even if symbolic and from a seemingly irrelevant county government, undermines Azerbaijan’s sovereignty, wrote the nation’s officials in a recent letter to the county. The [county] supervisors’ support, they wrote, contradicts even the US government’s official position that Nagorno-Karabakh is rightfully part of Azerbaijan.”
But Fresno has snapped its fingers back at Azerbaijan, saying the energy power picked the wrong guy. “We will not be muscled by a well-funded lobbying effort by the Azerbaijanis," Supervisor Andreas Borgeas, who penned the Karabakh resolution, proudly commented to The Fresno Bee.
Almaty’s arts scene has acquired an innovative new theater that aims to promote experimental drama and also prove that theater can be a profitable business.
Theatre BT launched in March as “an open, experimental platform,” director Aigul Sultanbekova said. BT stands for “business theater,” and the idea is to harness the corporate world to make an economic success out of the project -- a rarity in Kazakhstan, where few theaters turn a profit.
Theatre BT is offering five-day corporate training programs based on improvisational acting techniques, which should help finance its drama productions.
The training, conducted by psychologist Valeriy Bochkarev (who is the theater’s deputy director and also acts in its productions), in tandem with an actor, is targeted at business people and covers areas such as effective communication and conflict management.
“The main value driver is the business theater, for the time being, but in the long run we want to come to the point where the place would be self-sustainable,” Sultanbekova told EurasiaNet.org.
“My idea is that theater could be profitable; it could be economically viable, but of course you need to get to that point. [...] The market should be ready."
Most theaters in Kazakhstan receive heavy state subsidies and continue the Soviet tradition of charging low prices for tickets to make culture accessible for the masses.
Theatre BT’s prices won’t break the bank: It charges 2,000 tenge (around $13) for tickets. The repertoire includes Amerika, based on the novel by Franz Kafka, and O.k.no, based on the play Jean et Béatrice by Canadian playwright Carole Fréchette.
U.S. military officers show Kyrgyz journalists the Manas air base. (photo: U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Rachel Martinez
One thing that was notable about the early coverage of the U.S. air force refueling jet crash on Friday was how unpoliticized it was. The air base at which the KC-135 Stratotanker was based, Manas, is a very sensitive issue in Kyrgyzstan, and any developments there are closely parsed for their political and geopolitical meaning. This crash, in which three U.S. airmen were killed, would seem to be a human tragedy and possibly an aviation safety story, with no political angle. When I noted on twitter that the Kyrgyz press focused primarily on the search for victims and, somewhat surprisingly, avoided any political angles, the press secretary of the president of Kyrgyzstan, Kadyr Toktogulov, responded, "what kind of political speculation could there possibly be?"
Well, now we're starting to find out. 24.kg reported that the Americans were "obstructing the examination" of the bodies of the crew members killed in the crash:
Representatives of the Transit Center at Manas didn’t let the investigation agencies to examine the bodies of the crashed airplane casualties, the special investigation group told 24.kg news agency today.
It’s noted that, despite promises of the U.S. side not to interfere and assist in investigation of the plane crash, the transit center officers decided to take the bodies of pilots away.
The bodies of the three crew members were taken to the airbase. Local investigators have no information about further actions of the Transit Center at Manas.
Also, the investigation group noted that the filling station at the base is cordoned off; however, American officers do not let Kyrgyz investigators to the base.
With foreign trade already under tight government control, Uzbekistan increased customs duties on a number of foodstuff imports from May 1.
The Novyy Vek newspaper reports that, according to a government resolution signed by President Islam Karimov last week, the import duty on meat products rose from 50 percent previously to 70 percent; on pasta it rose from 20 to 30 percent.
Tashkent, a major supplier of produce to CIS countries, slapped a 50 percent duty on imports of fruit and vegetables (up from 30 percent) and a duty ranging from 10 to 30 percent on fresh vegetables.
The duty on imported beer increased to 100 percent of declared customs value, up from 70 percent. The duty on imported cigarettes jumped from about $18 to $40 per 1,000 smokes.
The new taxes are probably attempts to reverse a trend by encouraging Uzbek shoppers to buy local. According to official figures from the State Statistics Committee, food imports increased by about 19.5 percent to $1.2 billion last year, while food exports fell by 55.9 percent to $884 million.
Food already makes up a substantial chunk of the average Uzbek household’s income. The Korzinka.uz chain of supermarkets prices domestic beef at about $8.50 per kilo and domestically produced sausages at between $6.20 and $8.60 per kilo (at the black-market exchange rate). The average monthly salary is believed to be about $200.
Georgia has begun thinking of banning abortions after influential Georgian Orthodox Church Patriarch Ilia II pitched the idea in his Easter sermon on May 5.
Many churches may be pro-life, but in this devotedly Christian country, which cherishes the church leader above any other public figure, words from the patriarch can carry as much power as papal bulls once did in Europe.
During his sermon, the patriarch called on the government to stop the “terrible sin” of abortion and “filicide,” aside from a few circumstantial exceptions. He blamed both Bolshevik “atheists” from the past and modern liberal philosophy for the prevalence of abortions.
Georgia tops the South Caucasus for abortions, with 408 performed per 1,000 live births, according to a study by the World Health Organization, the Caucasus Research Resource Centers reported. (By comparison, the European Union rate is 222.)
Georgian government officials, who cannot hold a candle to the patriarch in terms of public support, quickly gave the nod to the church on considering an abortion ban. Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili responded by saying that baby-boosting legislation is in order. He carefully suggested, however, that to improve the country’s bleak demographic situation, the main focus should be on economic incentives rather than abortions.