I got to see a little bit of Uzbekistan, but only from the air. Here's what's left of the Aral Sea.
I wanted to shoot a story about Uzbek weddings, lavish affairs that are the stuff of legend among the Uzbek migrant population in Moscow, where I live.
As a Russian citizen, I don’t need a visa to visit Uzbekistan. But I knew the country is deeply suspicious of journalists of any sort. So as not to look too professional, I selected only a few lenses for my trip. And, another precaution: I deleted some phone contacts, cleared the browsing history on my iPad, deleted the Facebook app.
Around midnight last Wednesday I took off from Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport and at 5.30 a.m. landed in Tashkent. My future fixer was at the airport to fetch me and take me to a barbeque at his home.
At passport control, I waited behind a crowd of Uzbek migrant laborers. But when it was my turn with the immigration officer, something was clearly wrong. He scanned my passport several times, then frowned and said, gesturing to a bench, “Bro, would you be so kind to wait a little bit over there?”
The crowd thinned and disappeared. After maybe half an hour, two polite men in the olive-green uniforms of border agents across the former Soviet Union asked me to follow them. As we walked, they asked if I’d ever been to Uzbekistan. Yes, I’d lived briefly in Tashkent as a first-grader, but I grew up in Russia. And I’d visited some friends there in 1998.
They looked disappointed. I asked what was happening and they said only that I was on a “blacklist” and that I was being sent home.
At the gate, the olive-green men approached an attendant for the return Moscow flight and said, “This guy is being deported back to Russia. Find him a free seat.” They handed her my passport.
What does Turkey have in common with Iran, North Korea, China and Cuba? As of last night, the NATO member and European Union candidate had joined those four other countries with dismal freedom of expression records as one of the few nations to have instituted a total ban on access to Twitter. Turkish Twitter users have been quick to circumvent the block, but the move marks yet another disturbing anti-democratic turn for the government of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The block on Twitter access started late yesterday, just a few weeks after the government passed a new internet law that gives it enhanced powers to shut websites down and only hours after Erdogan vowed at a campaign rally to "eradicate" Twitter, which has been playing a prominent role in recent weeks as the conduit for links to leaked phone calls and documents connecting the PM and other official to corrupt activity. The Hurriyet Daily News provides some interesting background on how the new internet law was used to put the Twitter block in place through executive order, rather than a court action:
Twitter, the social media platform with 12 million Turkish users, has been blocked by the Communication Technologies Institution (BTK), working under the Ministry of Transport, Maritime and Communication.
In the second major utility tariff increase in six months, Uzbeks will soon begin paying about 10 percent more for water, gas and electricity. Gasoline, when consumers can get it, soared in price repeatedly last year and another 20 percent this January. Yet officially, inflation somehow manages to stay under 7 percent.
Uzbekneftegaz, the national oil and gas company, http://www.ung.uz/business/tarifs " title="" target="">said this week that according to a March 17 Finance Ministry resolution, the price of natural gas would rise 8.9 percent on April 1. The price last rose 8.5 percent in October 2013.
The state-run electricity provider, Uzbekenergo, announced on March 18 that its tariffs would rise 9.5 percent on April 1. Electricity prices climbed 7 percent last October.
On March 13 the state-run Suvsoz water-supply company said that in Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital, water prices would jump between 9.8 and 10.5 percent above rates set last October. Suvsoz said the hike was "due to an increase in the prices of electricity and other resources."
The Gazeta.uz news website reported on March 14 that tariffs for hot water and heating would climb 11.7 percent in Tashkent next month because of "a growth in prices of energy sources and materials."
Belarus has been increasing its military cooperation with Russia during the period of the crisis in Ukraine, but analysts argue that is as much as a way to keep Moscow at arm's length as a desire for closer ties.
Earlier this month, Russia sent six Su-27 fighter jets to Belarus's Babruisk airfield, which Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said was prompted by the U.S. sending its own fighter jets to neighboring Poland and Lithuania. “We reacted calmly until large-scale exercises began ... in Poland,” Lukashenko said. “There is a clear escalation of the situation near our borders.”
Meanwhile, however, Belarus's government has been noticeably reluctant to toe Moscow's line on Russian policy in Ukraine. Its foreign ministry has not endorsed the Crimean annexation, unlike many of its fellow Collective Security Treaty Organization members like Armenia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan.
As the Belarus Security Blog argued, Belarus considers its military to be a low priority. "In this case, official Minsk decided to demonstrate its loyalty on defense issues in order to neutralize the effect from refusing to follow Russian policy," a recent post said.
The European Union has announced the approximate date for the signing of association agreements with Georgia and Moldova, and set the timer ticking for another potential face-off with Russia. The countdown began with both countries bracing for Russia to stir up Ukraine-style trouble to prevent seeing either former Soviet republic pass into the EU's camp.
A day before Ukraine hastily signed a redacted version of the agreement on March 21, an EU statement declared that Georgia and Moldova are coming up next, “no later than June.” This is the second time that the signing has been moved forward to leave less time for Moscow to jam sticks into the wheels -- a sign of the unease sparked by Russia absconding with Ukraine's Crimean peninsula.
And the geopolitical cogwheels are still in motion.
NATO is wary of Russia trying to bite off even a bigger chunk of Ukraine. Moldova fears that after Crimea, Moscow will try to annex Transdniester, which split away from Moldova in the 1990s. Transdniester’s separatist officials already have traveled to Moscow to discuss Russia taking on the territory.
A March 18 appeal to the EU from Moldova’s Prime Minister Nicolae Timofti to speed up the association process preceded a Twitter announcement from José Manuel Barroso, the president of the EU’s executive body, the European Council, that Moldova and Georgia will be signing association agreements by June.
Poster promoting a referendum in Transniester. (photo: Odnoklassniki)
With Russia's annexation of Crimea accomplished breathtakingly quickly, is Russia's land grab over? Anyone listening to President Vladimir Putin's speech on Tuesday, with its soaring appeals to restoring Russian greatness might think that Crimea is too small a prize to right all the wrongs that Russia has suffered. And while just two weeks ago further changes to the map of Europe seemed unthinkable, now they seem a very real possibility. "Russian annexation of Crimea is likely to initiate a pernicious cascade within Ukraine and further deepen the conflict," wrote analysts Samuel Charap and Keith Darden in an analysis for Reuters. "It is not a stable end-point for the crisis."
Concern has been raised anywhere that ethnic Russians live, from Estonia to Kazakhstan. Both those are unlikely to be Moscow's next targets, however, Estonia because it's a NATO member and Kazakhstan because its government has been a relatively compliant Russian partner, especially lately.
Today marks the start of Nowruz (or "new day"), the Persian New Year celebration, a 13-day holiday which involves some very deep and specific culinary traditions. NPR's "The Salt" blog takes a look at the most important one, the setting of the traditional haftseen table:
Nowruz begins at the stroke of the vernal equinox, when the sun crosses the equator. Today (March 20), spring will come at 12:57 p.m. EDT. At that precise moment, millions of families of Iranian descent will gather around a ceremonial table known as the haftseen. (Think colorful, elaborate Day Of The Dead-type altars meet a mashup of Easter and Passover traditions.) Young and old hold hands and count down to the New Year together and cheer Eide Shoma Mobarak, or Happy New Year!
The haftseen table is a relatively recent addition to Nowruz – a folksy tradition with murky beginnings. "We do not even find this spread mentioned in the chronicles of travelers to Iran up to the modern times," says Ahmad Sadri, a professor of sociology and anthropology at Lake Forest College and an expert on ancient Persia.
Haftseen "seems to have come into vogue only in the last century, owing to publicity in the media," according to Columbia University's extensive entry in its Encyclopedia Iranica.
And yet, "its essential items perfectly afford reasonable explanation as the reflections of the pastoral and sedentary conditions of ancient Iranians and of their beliefs."
In every home, the haftseen table is decorated with seven items – since seven is considered a lucky number. Each item begins with the letter sin (s) in Persian, and each item is a symbol of spring and renewal, including:
Seeb (apple), representing beauty
Seer (garlic), representing good health
Georgia’s billionaire kingmaker, Bidzina Ivanishvili, has said he is disappointed in the man he tapped to be president of Georgia, Giorgi Margvelashvili.
Such musings are no mere tittle-tattle. In Georgia, where ex-Prime Minister Ivanishvili, the country's richest resident, is seen as the real power behind the government, they invariably become the talk of the town.
In a March 18 interview with Imedi TV, the tycoon commented that he can no longer recognise the man whom, less than a year ago, he told voters would make "the best president ever."
But since Margvelashvili became president last October, the two have grown estranged, the billionaire confided sorrowfully. “I can’t think of any instance of a man changed like this,” he complained.
The two no longer talk, he continued. “We don’t have informal relations,” said Ivanishvili. But he will find the strength to get over it. “This is not a tragedy; we both decided that we don’t need this [relationship].”
Now that Russia’s snatching of Crimea is complete, the dirty business of plundering assets is kicking into gear.
The process, of course, does not involve lawyers and courts; it relies on the use of force. In the highest-profile hostile takeover to date, a truckload of armed, masked men wearing military-style uniforms seized control of a Simferopol car dealership March 18. The property, located on Balaklavskaya Street in the Crimean capital, belonged to the Bogdan Corp., a Kyiv-headquartered auto company with dealerships across Ukraine. Bogdan Corp. reportedly has close ties to Petro Poroshenko, one of the richest men in Ukraine and a member of the Ukrainian Rada. He was also a prominent figure in the Euromaidan protests in Kiev.
What person or entity wrested control of the dealership from Bogdan Corp. is difficult to discern. When journalists from a local television station, ATR, started asking questions, they were quickly chased away by the armed brigands, and one unfortunate reporter took a rifle butt on the chin.
A statement issued by Bogdan Corp. asserted that several employees at the dealership were being held against their will.
With law and order on the peninsula in disarray, it seems a fair bet that the dealership take-away marks the start of the process of divvying up Crimea’s spoils.
Turkmenistan has called up military reservists to train on its border with Afghanistan following reports of recent skirmishes with Afghanistan-based militants.
On March 18 the Alternative Turkmenistan News (ATN) service reported that Turkmen reservists were being summoned to military enlistment offices to "undergo retraining" near Afghanistan. "In particular, several tens of people have been sent to Serhetabad (formerly Kushka) in the country's south in the past few weeks," ATN said, citing "reliable sources.” The soldiers are being housed in separate barracks without leave and are subject to strict military discipline, ATN said: "There is no more information but there is no talk of full mobilization. Our sources in Ashgabat haven't yet received summons to military enlistment offices."
The news service, run by exiled Turkmen opposition members, linked the move to recent violence on Turkmenistan's border with Afghanistan. Afghan media reported on February 26 that a group of Taliban fighters had killed three Turkmen border guards. A Taliban source later denied involvement. ATN cited Turkmen sources saying the number of border guards killed may have been five.
Underscoring how instability has spread to the bordering provinces, on March 18 AFP reported that a suicide bomber on a motorbike killed at least 15 people at a crowded market in Afghanistan's Faryab Province, which borders Turkmenistan. There was no immediate claim for the attack.