If the Abkhaz want to visit the Winter Olympics next February in the Russian city of Sochi, about 25 kilometers to the north, they might need to walk. And even then there is no guaranteed access through a gateway that Russia plans to keep ajar.
In a recent decree laying out the do's and don'ts during the Olympics, Russian President Vladimir Putin called for strictly limiting access to Sochi from the de-facto border crossing with breakaway Abkhazia, recognized by Moscow as a sovereign state.
Residents living in the border area will have some freedom of movement, though they might find interior ministry troops hanging out in their backyards. The troops also will be policing the coastline south of Tuapse, a seaside city north of Sochi.
The Sochi area itself will be broken up into restricted zones, entrance into which will be subjected to search. All demonstrations, unless part of the Olympics, will be prohibited. The sale of poisonous or potentially poisonous substances, save for prescription drugs, will also be banned.
Such restrictions are not exactly what Abkhazia, which largely depends on Russia for its economic survival and, itself, cannot participate in the Games, had in mind.
Nearly every day, the exact same headline pops up in the news feeds of those who follow conflict n the Caucasus: "Armenian Armed Forces violate ceasefire in several directions." And with only slightly less frequency, and only slightly more variation, another headline appears: Azerbaijan Violates Ceasefire over X times Last Week."
The stories -- reprinted press releases from the respective ministries of defense -- follow the same numbing pattern. From the Azerbaijani side, after a couple of paragraphs saying where the alleged shooting took place, the exact same four paragraphs close out the piece:
The conflict between the two South Caucasus countries began in 1988 when Armenia made territorial claims against Azerbaijan.
Armenian armed forces have occupied 20 per cent of Azerbaijan since 1992, including the Nagorno-Karabakh region and seven surrounding districts.
Azerbaijan and Armenia signed a ceasefire agreement in 1994. The co-chairs of the The OSCE Minsk Group, Russia, France and the U.S. are currently holding peace negotiations.
Armenia has not yet implemented the U.N. Security Council's four resolutions on the liberation of the Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding regions.
The Armenian press releases are even more repetitive, not bothering to name the sites of the alleged violation. They all follow this form, nearly verbatim, the only variation being the number of violations over the past week:
The adversary violated the ceasefire, at the line of contact between the Karabakh-Azerbaijani opposing forces, around 200 times past week.
The cell phone dings in the middle of a meeting. Expecting an important message, you carefully reach for the phone, trying to keep eye contact with your interlocutor. Out of the corner of your eye, you read: “Phenomenal news: buy four Japanese tires and get two brake pads for free!”
In two minutes, the phone beeps again: “A refrigerator and laundry machine for just 888 lari . . .” Just as you apologize and switch the phone to silent, another SMS buzzes in: “We know you are doing repairs and we know just what you need . . .”
To stop the barrage, you turn off the phone and miss the single SMS you need.
Carpet bombing cell-phone users with unsolicited SMS ads has become the thing in Georgia and the wider region. Anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International Georgia* recently published a list of 29 of Georgia's top SMS-spammers.
According to the organization, the spam is not just a nuisance, but is against the law. Georgia’s privacy laws do require companies to obtain customers' consent for such advertising and to provide a mechanism for opting out of it, but that usually does not happen.
It is not fully clear how companies get hold of the numbers. Most cell-phone operators claim they do not give out the data, but customers are not convinced. Companies which offer SMS-advertising services refuse to disclose the origin of their large databases of phone numbers.
How to stop the spam-flow remains an open question. Georgia recently introduced the office of a personal-data ombudsperson, but, for now, the office can only send warnings to companies that use SMS spam.
Still, in this highly image-conscious culture, bad PR can play a role. Sort of.
Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon has sailed to victory again after a poll marked by the absence of competition and other shortcomings, international election observers said today.
With Tajikistan's election officials claiming an 86.6 percent turnout, Rakhmon garnered 83.6 percent of votes, installing him as president for another seven years, to 2020.
Rakhmon faced five placid competitors who the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) said hardly bothered to campaign. The five were widely seen as supportive of the incumbent, running to give the November 6 election a veneer of plurality. Rakhmon’s closest rival, the Communist Party’s Ismoil Talbakov, won five percent of the vote, the state-run Khovar news agency reported early on November 7.
An ODIHR monitoring mission said the elections were peaceful, but noted "serious problems" with ballot box stuffing, authorities interfering in the count, and a count that "often lacked transparency." ODIHR also described “a lack of pluralism and genuine choice.”
“Extensive state media coverage of the official activities of the incumbent provided him with a significant advantage,” ODIHR said in a November 7 statement:
"While quiet and peaceful, this was an election without a real choice," said Gordana Comic, the Special Coordinator who led the short-term OSCE observer mission. "Being in power requires abiding by OSCE commitments, not taking advantage of incumbency, as we saw. Greater genuine political pluralism will be critical for Tajikistan to meet its democratic commitments."
As a result of a U.S. attack that killed the head of the Pakistani Taliban, there are renewed threats in Pakistan to shut down the border with Afghanistan to U.S. and NATO forces. This, of course, would have a direct impact on Central Asia, by forcing the U.S. military to again shift its supply routes back to the Northern Distribution Network through Central Asia and Russia. And this just as American military officials have managed to get away from the more expensive, difficult northern route and back to Pakistan.
The political party that rules the province that borders Afghanistan "passed a resolution that threatened to block the supply lines through the region in response to a C.I.A. missile strike that killed Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, on Friday," the New York Times reported. It set a deadline of November 20 for the U.S. to stop drone attacks, after which they promised to shut the border. The resolution, the Times says, "was a means of building pressure on the Pakistani prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, to end American drone strikes, while buying time to avoid a tricky confrontation with Mr. Sharif’s administration, which does not favor blocking NATO lines."
And also, crucially, the Pakistani military appears to favor the strike and to oppose closing the border. From an analysis of the political fallout by Ariq Rafiq in Foreign Policy:
Sticks, stones and homemade smoke-bombs flew in downtown Yerevan on November 5 as police brawled with a few dozen anti-establishment protesters, some wearing Guy-Fawkes masks.
Flamboyant activist Shant Harutyunian’s call for a revolution ended with police breaking up his small, but ambitiously billed "March of a Million Masks" rally, and making 37 arrests. Few in number, protesters nonetheless put up a tough fight battling police officers. Footage carried by several news outlets showed groups of policemen failing to hold down even individual protesters. The activists were eventually overpowered after riot-police reinforcements arrived.
An outspoken nationalist who claims the government is undemocratic, corrupt and controlled by Moscow, Harutiunian began his movement with “occupying” the city's central Liberty Square for about a week. He vowed to bring down the president and lead the people to take over main government offices. The clash broke out when police tried to prevent the protesters from marching through the city.
Video from the scene show riot police dragging activists and stacking them in vehicles as onlookers booed. Several protesters and policemen were hospitalized.
Harutiunian, who spent a year in jail after Yerevan's deadly 2008 protests, blames police for the violence, and was among those detained. Charging that the protesters were anarchists, the ruling Republican Party of Armenia defended the police's actions.
Presidents Alexander Lukashenko and Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov in Ashgabat. (photo: press service of the president of Belarus)
Belarus will help build a factory for drone aircraft in Turkmenistan, the two countries announced during a visit by President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko to the Central Asian country:
The unmanned aerial vehicles are needed for Turkmenistan “to monitor its territory, its borders and drug-trafficking,” Lukashenko said after a meeting with his Turkmen counterpart, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov.
From Belarus's perspective, this would appear to be part of a recent effort to take advantage of its substantial defense insustry to set up joint ventures in other countries, including Vietnam, Laos, Indonesia, and Bangladesh.
This is not Turkmenistan's first acquisition of drones: in 2009, it bought a number of small tactical UAVs from Russian company Zala Aero to be "operated by special units of Ministry of Internal Affairs of Turkmenistan to provide support in surveillance missions and on counterterrorist operations." But this new venture would appear to be the first time that Turkmenistan itself is building drones -- and indeed, almost any defense equipment at all. Turkmenistan has no defense industry to speak of, and the fact that it is trying to start out with something so flashy as drones is suggestive of a tendency that some have noticed in Turkmenistan's military buildup, that it is motivated as much by a drive for prestige as by genuine operational needs.
Considering Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has gotten involved in telling Turks how many children they should have (at least three), what they should drink (the non-alcoholic ayran) and what kind of bread they should eat (whole wheat, preferably), it would seem unlikely that the opinionated leader could still shock with his intrusions on people's private lives.
But, true to form, Erdogan again stunned the nation, telling members of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) today that the government is not only working towards creating segregated dormitories for male and female university students (known as "adults" in many parts of the world) but that it is also working to ferret out any instances where members of the opposite sex may be living together off campus. Reports the Hurriyet Daily News:
The prime minister said the government was already on a mission to “segregate” girls’ and boys’ buildings in dormitories operated by the state, adding that this segregation had been completed in around three quarters of all dorms.
“There are some troubles concerning the share of houses in some places since we could not meet needs at the dormitories,” Erdoğan was quoted as saying by the Anadolu Agency on Nov. 5 as he addressed a parliamentary group meeting of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Kazakhstan is not famous as a destination for gourmets, but a few chefs are trying to infuse a bit of excitement into a cuisine often accused of being unremittingly dull.
The country’s first international culinary competition brought together around 100 chefs from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Saudi Arabia, Ukraine and Russia last week in Kazakhstan’s commercial capital, Almaty. Alexander Tregubenko, president of the Chefs' Association of Kazakhstan, told Tengri News that the gathering gave emerging local talent a chance to experiment with new ideas from abroad.
This being Kazakhstan, where equine culture is a prominent part of the national identity, of course horse meat featured prominently on the menu. On the last day of competition, October 31, Kazakh chefs competed for the “Best Chef of the Year” title on the condition their main course included horse meat. Almaty-based Khalmurat Nurdinov took the prize with his fried horse meat seeped in a secret marinade.
It's not clear how this innovation will go down with traditionalists. Kazakhstan's national dish is known simply as kazaksha et, or “Kazakh meat.” It is also called beshbarmak -- or five fingers, because it was traditionally eaten by hand.
Georgia's interior ministry is taking the lead in fighting blasphemy, an offense category not usually a pressing concern for "European-style" governments these days. The motion has given the country’s free-speech activists pause.
The measure, an amendment to Georgia's civil code, addresses anything from desecrating religious institutions and symbols to publicly offending the feelings of the faithful. The punishment proposed ranges from a fine (for first-time offenders, between 300 and 500 laris, or about $179 to $299, and up to 1,500 laris, or roughly $897, for repeat offenders) and/or 15 days in prison.
How offenses would be defined was not immediately clear. Nor are the origins of the amendment clear. Civil-rights activists say that they noticed the proposal on the interior ministry's website during a first reading in parliament of changes to the civil code before the October 28 presidential elections. EurasiaNet.org could not immediately locate the original proposal.