Russia’s annexation of Crimea stands to have a potentially devastating impact on the tourism industry, the peninsula’s economic engine.
Crimea attracted about 6 million tourists annually in 2012 and 2013. This year, Russian authorities will be hard-pressed to attract half that number, despite very costly government subsidies for air travel and vacation packages. That’s because recent statistics show that about two-thirds of tourists came to Crimea from mainland Ukraine, and roughly a third came from Russia. Visitors from other countries traditionally have accounted for a negligible percentage of tourists.
Ukrainians are unlikely to be arriving in large numbers this year because of security concerns and newly erected, and tightly-sealed, Russian checkpoints on the Crimean border. Making up for the loss of such a huge chunk of tourists will be a tremendous challenge, especially because Russian tourists can expect to encounter difficulty getting to Crimea this year too, mostly due to transport issues.
Russian officials are striving to achieve roughly 50 percent growth in the number of Russian tourists in 2014, as compared to 2013 totals. “We should strive to increase the number of tourists from Russia [to Crimea in 2014] to 3 million,” Dmitry Amunts, the deputy head of Rostourism, Russia's federal government agency regulating the tourism industry, said on April 9.
The Kremlin has pledged to send hordes of public employees on semi-compulsory, heavily-government-subsidized vacations to Crimea to support the region's tourism business and even has started a national campaign, called "Vacation in Crimea." But tourism professionals do not see the program as having a major impact.
With possible changes afoot in the country's power structure, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan has announced that he will not run for president again. “I would like to place on the record that I, Serzh Sargsyan, will never nominate my candidacy for President of Armenia,” he announced on April 10, RFE/RL's Armenian service reported.
Sargsyan does not intend to cut short his second term, expiring in 2018. But local political wonks sense fatigue in the erstwhile warrior.
Analyst Stepan Danyelian believes that Sargsyan, who already has experienced a run of anti-government protests, has moved from his usual strongman position to a sit-back-and-let-it-happen stance. “Serzh Sargsyan’s influence has weakened,” Danielian told the Hetq news site. “The fact that Sargsyan said he would appoint a new prime minister acceptable to all [the main political factions] proves that his position and that of the [ruling] Republican Party has weakened.”
Sargsyan's entourage indicated that the next cabinet chief, to be announced on April 14, may be selected from minority parties.
Danielian believes that the perceived symptoms of their leader’s mellowing will weaken the hold on power by the ruling Republican Party of Armenia, which Sargsyan heads.
But others believe that Sargsyan is giving up some power to gain power. Those, who have confidence in Sargsyan’s tactician skills believe that by agreeing to form a coalition government, he may take the wind of out the sails of an opposition-proposed vote of no confidence scheduled in parliament for April 28.
Tashkent is set to host an international tourism expo on April 17 and 18. But the timing isn’t very auspicious, coming only a few days after state television warned viewers that inviting unknown foreigners to Uzbekistan is “like playing with fire.”
Uzbekistan TV reported this month that an Uzbek citizen had set up "fake" tourist outfits to unlawfully provide visa support to 300 Pakistani and Chinese nationals since February 2013. Another Uzbek woman "illegally" helped 42 foreigners enter Uzbekistan in 2013 alone, the program said.
The broadcast criticized such people "for bringing so many people from abroad and not doing any business with them.”
Tourism might count as doing business with visitors, though the tone of the program echoed other state media campaigns warning Uzbeks to shun anything alien. The authorities regularly use state media to warn about the “harmful” effects of foreign toys, video games, and anything else that might undermine Uzbeks’ “moral heritage and mentality.”
“What if the visiting foreign entrepreneurs have totally different intentions? Our point is reinforced by the fact that some of the people are complete strangers to business," Uzbekistan TV said on April 3, in remarks carried by BBC Monitoring. The report did not specify what kind of intentions the unwanted visitors may have had, but warned, “Every one of us should be vigilant and watchful.”
Wine tastings at a bucolic vineyard sound like a distinctly foreign idea. At the very least, for $50 to $75 per person, they’re more likely to attract foreigners.
NATO is planning to increase its cooperation with Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Moldova as a result of the crisis in Ukraine. But regional experts say that NATO is nevertheless likely to remain a marginal factor in the security and geopolitics of the Caucasus.
The German newspaper Der Spiegel originally reported NATO's plans, which then were largely confirmed by NATO's special representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia James Appathurai in an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (available only in Azeri and Romanian). They include boosting training with all three countries, increasing the interoperability of the countries' militaries with NATO, and, in the case of Azerbaijan, helping to protect oil and gas fields in the Caspian Sea.
Armenia's government appreciates its cooperation with NATO both as a balance against Russia and as a way to improve its armed forces, but it's skeptical that the cooperation will amount to much, said Yerevan-based analyst Sergey Minasyan. "After the Ukrainian events ... Armenia should be worried that closer cooperation with NATO would anger Russia, especially if the West-East tensions continue," he said in an email interview with The Bug Pit. "At least in the South Caucasus the West, including NATO, is too far while the 'angry Russians' are already here," he said. "If Brussels think it can offer Armenia something more serious as a real addition to the current level of security cooperation, that would be very welcomed by Yerevan, but it seems too unrealistic from here."
“Come out, come out,” chanted demonstrators, marching through Tbilisi's empty streets after midnight on April 9, 1989. The rhythmic, polyphonic call resounded eerily as the city held its breath for the culmination of Georgia’s push to end the rule of Soviet-era Moscow.
Several hours later, it woke up to the news that the Soviet army had brutally dispersed the pro-independence rally. A combination of beatings, stampede and tear-gas poisoning left 20 dead that night and hundreds injured.
Every April 9, the scenes are revisited. TV stations broadcast archival footage showing thousands of people holding candles on downtown Rustaveli Avenue; nationalist leaders making fiery speeches; Georgian Orthodox Church Patriarch Ilia II calling for demonstrators to disperse to a nearby church to avoid conflict; and, last, armored vehicles moving into the crowd, as violence and panic ensues.
The old footage revives memories of a more naive time when everyone, however briefly, united around a common cause. With all its songs, dances and lofty ideals, April 9 seems very distant compared to latter-day Georgia with its bare-knuckle politics. But for many Georgians, their country is still waging the same battle against the same enemy.
“Unfortunately, after 25 years ago [sic], it feels like we have never left that moment,” Tina Khidasheli, a leader of the Republican Party, part of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition, told the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) on April 9 this year.
“Year after another, we are seeing [the] Russian army, Russian boots marching from one independent country to another… pursuing their very imperial cause of restoring . .. their imperial pride,” Khidasheli went on.
As Ukraine battles pro-Russia separatists in its east, Kazakhstan is holding nationwide security drills to check the ability of its law enforcement forces to maintain public order. Some of the exercises are being held in areas abutting Kazakhstan’s long border with Russia.
The drills are designed to coordinate responses of the police, army, and emergency services if “crisis situations” arise, Kazinform reports. Underlining their significance, Security Council head Kayrat Kozhamzharov is personally overseeing the maneuvers and Prime Minister Karim Masimov is observing.
Astana has supported the Kremlin’s position on Ukraine, including Moscow’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula last month. Yet the pro-Russian activists making trouble in eastern Ukrainian cities like Donetsk and Luhansk cannot fail to arouse consternation within the administration of President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Like Ukraine, Kazakhstan is home to a large ethnic Russian minority, which forms 22 percent of the overall population, but a far higher proportion in northern areas along the 7,000-kilometer border with Russia.
On April 9 EurasiaNet.org witnessed riot police in the sleepy Altay mountain town of Ridder, where ethnic Russians make up 85 percent of the population, marching out of the city police precinct. The security forces, helmets donned and sporting riot shields, batons and assault rifles, were headed out for “training,” one officer said.
Although the rules of conflict forbid the targeting of civilians, that hasn't stopped Russia and Ukraine from punishing each other's populations with a very cruel method: cutting off access to beloved chocolate and candy brands.
Moscow fired the first shot in this confectionary war, placing a ban last summer on chocolates, candies and cookies made by Roshen, a Ukrainian company that is one of Europe's largest manufacturers of sweets and whose products have a large and devoted following in Russia. As the New York Times explained last October: "Roshen was doing so well in Russia partly because it introduced a Russian Classic line of chocolates, reviving 18 Soviet brands like the Seagull bar, a plain milk chocolate slab with a Socialist Realist style beach scene on the wrapper."
"Alternative" tourism is all the rage these days. Rio has its favela tours and New York its organized outings to the outer boroughs in search of obscure ethnic cuisines. And what about Istanbul? Well, perhaps the city should start thinking about offering excursions that allow visitors to take in what is becoming Istanbul's newest claim to fame: it's profusion of environmentally, aesthetically and legally dubious megaprojects.
Several recent articles and online projects are certainly making virtual tours of Istanbul's megaprojects -- grand construction schemes that are very much at the heart of the recent corruption scandals that rocked Turkey -- possible. A new article from the Istanbul-based Cornucopia magazine offers an introduction to Istanbul's "ten most gruesome development projects," from the new bridge across the Bosphorus to plans for a mall to be built on the spot where the city's most iconic movie theater now stands. The Megaprojeleristanbul.com site, meanwhile, offers an interactive map that gives a detailed look (in Turkish only) at many more of the big projects being built across Istanbul. Networks of Dispossession, another site, goes a bit more high-concept, with spider web-like maps that attempt to trace the relationship between all the different companies involved in Istanbul's megaprojects.
A Chinese HQ-9 air defense system, possibly no longer headed soon to Turkey. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Amid the continuing controversy over Turkey's selection of a Chinese company to build a sensitive air defense system, Turkey's top state defense industry official has been demoted and there are reports Ankara may be considering trying to build the whole thing itself.
Recall that the controversy began in September, when after a drawn-out competition, Turkey announced that it had chosen the Chinese HQ-9 air and missile defense system. The Chinese system was competing against ones from Russia, the U.S., and Europe, so the competition appeared to have -- rightly or wrongly -- a geopolitical component. Turkey's announcement resulted in a significant amount of U.S. and NATO pressure; Turkey's Western partners are concerned about the possibility that China could gain sensitive NATO data via the system.
Over the last month or so, there have been several indications that Turkey is rethinking its choice. Unnamed sources told the newspaper Hurriyet that the U.S. and European companies that lost out are considering changing their offer to give Turkey more of the sensitive technology involved in building the system (a key Turkish criterion for the program and one which the Chinese company, by all accounts, was best at). That also, though, would increase the price (and the Chinese system was already cheaper).
As leaders across the former Soviet Union watch another predominantly Russian-speaking region of Ukraine demand independence this week, Astana is mulling legislation that would jail anyone who calls for separatism in Kazakhstan.
Under a proposed amendment to the criminal code, Kazakhstanis could get 10 years in prison for making "illegal and unconstitutional calls for changes to the territorial integrity of the Republic of Kazakhstan,” Arman Ayaganov of Kazakhstan's Prosecutor General's office told journalists April 8, Tengrinews reports.
"The article refers to serious [offenses] and the first part provides a maximum penalty of imprisonment for up to seven years. If these same actions would be performed by a person using his official position, up to 10 years," Ayaganov added.
The amendment would cover calls for separatism or independence made in the media, including the Internet – and thus, it seems, on social media platforms like Facebook.
In February, Russian nationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky sparked outrage in Astana by suggesting Russia should reabsorb Central Asia.