The new leadership in Azerbaijan's Ministry of Defense has been undertaking a thorough housecleaning of the ministry in the months since the new minister, Zakir Hasanov, took over.
Earlier this month, it was reported that several senior officers were "sent to reserve," meaning they were removed from active duty service. Among those number were former Defense Minister Safar Abiyev and at least seven other high-ranking officers. Jasur Mammadov Sumerinli, a Baku-based defense analyst, told The Bug Pit that the way this usually works is that because many high-ranking officers formally serve only in a temporary capacity, they are not formally fired. In the case of these several generals, they were all removed from their posts in November and December 2013, and just now moved to the reserve.
Separately, President Ilham Aliyev dismissed the commander of Azerbaijan's navy, Vice Admiral Shahin Sultanov and replaced him with Captain 1st Rank Yunus Mammadov, who had been serving as Chief of Naval Operations. (Not long before, interestingly, there were media reports that Sultanov had been arrested, though the MoD denied them)
Spring, Kyrgyzstan’s traditional season for political jockeying, seems to have begun on schedule as the governing coalition headed by embattled Prime Minister Jantoro Satybaldiyev met a long-expected end March 18. Following the routine in which his predecessor lost power in August 2012, Satybaldiyev’s ouster was triggered when the Ata-Meken party and its capricious leader Omurbek Tekebayev walked out of the three-party governing agreement.
The fall is not surprising. Satybaldiyev had few allies beyond President Almazbek Atambayev and his Social Democratic Party. And, some argue, Kyrgyzstan’s constitution promotes executive turnover by placing the fate of the cabinet firmly in the hands of temperamental (many would say generally self-serving) lawmakers. But with parliament's parties splintered and mutually hostile, it should be difficult for President Almazbek Atambayev to come up with a candidate who can please enough of the 120-seat body to form a new coalition.
Satybaldiyev’s coalition was the third since elections in late 2010; like his forerunner, Omurbek Babanov, Satybaldiyev spent much of his time in office battling accusations of corruption. He and his ministers will remain in their positions until a new coalition is formed.
There is virtually no space for opposition in Azerbaijan’s parliament, but the government often appears happy to provide room for its rivals in prison. Some prominent faces from the country's drubbed-into-a-corner opposition were handed prison sentences on March 17 on controversial charges of inciting riots in a provincial town last year.
A court in the northeastern city of Sheki sentenced Tofi Yagublu, deputy chairperson of the Musavat Party, and Ilgar Mammadov, leader of the Republican Alternative (ReAl) rights group*, to five and seven years in jail, respectively. The court found the two guilty of sparking riots in Ismayilli, where thousands last January took to the streets, burning a hotel and laying siege to the local governor’s office. The government responded with sending riot police and keeping the city in a lockdown for several days.
Yagublu and Mammadov counter that they trekked out to Ismayilli to support the protesters and arrived when the unrest, sparked by a traffic accident involving the son of a cabinet minister, was already in full rage. Nevertheless, the Sheki court turned a deaf ear to the protests from defense lawyers, as well as local and international rights groups.
Hot on the news that Gulnara Karimova, daughter of Uzbekistan’s strongman president Islam Karimov, is a formal suspect in a Swiss money-laundering investigation, embattled Nordic telecommunications giant TeliaSonera has become the target of a related corruption probe in the United States.
“TeliaSonera has been informed that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has an ongoing investigation regarding TeliaSonera’s transactions in Uzbekistan,” the company said in a March 17 statement. “The DOJ has sent a request for documents to TeliaSonera. In addition, TeliaSonera has received a request from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to submit documents and information related to Uzbekistan.”
The company made the announcement five days after revealing that two of its daughter companies, TeliaSonera UTA Holding B.V. and TeliaSonera Uzbek Telecom Holding B.V (the holders of TeliaSonera’s operations in Uzbekistan, where it operates the Ucell brand), are under investigation in The Netherlands in a bribery and money-laundering case.
“Dutch authorities have requested collateral for any financial claims which may be decided against TeliaSonera UTA Holding BV,” TeliaSonera said on March 17, adding that the request for collateral stands at 10-20 million euros.
As Crimea moves to join Russia, it is also joining a neighborhood club of unrecognized territories. Not surprisingly, Moscow-backed separatist Abkhazia and South Ossetia welcomed Crimea's March 16 referendum on seceding from Ukraine and acceding to Russia. Georgia, which feels for Ukraine, dismissed the vote as illegal, while Armenia and Azerbaijan froze in an awkward silence.
The differences between Crimea and the rest of the disputed pack -- Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transdniester and Nagorno Karabakh -- cannot be underscored enough. After all, the peninsula is dominated by ethnic Russians and is reuniting with Russia, while the others underline their independence from everyone.
Nonetheless, while not universally recognized, the 97-percent vote in Crimea for joining Russia has put governments throughout the region on edge.
Azerbaijan's close ally, Turkey, which openly condemned the referendum, has announced it plans to consult with Baku and fellow Turkic cousin Kazakhstan about a response to Crimea. The Crimean Tatars are the ethnic kin of Turks, Kazakhstanis and Azerbaijanis.
Members of the Turkish Barbaros naval task group before their departure around Africa. (photo: Barbaros Task Group)
A small Turkish naval flotilla is setting out on a three-month, 28-country circumnavigation of Africa. It will be the first time in 148 years that Turkish ships have rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and an ambitious demonstration of Turkey's rising ambitions in Africa. But the timing of the deployment is awkward, coming just as the security situation around the Black Sea is becoming more precarious.
The blog Bosphorus Naval News has a thorough rundown of what is known so far about the expedition. It will include joint exercises with African navies and coast guards in Nigeria, Congo, Angola, South Africa, and Kenya, as well as with the U.S. in the Gulf of Guinea. Turkish doctors will conduct medical clinics along the way, Turkish military bands will play, and Turkish defense companies will put on exhibits of their products in Ghana, Nigeria, Angola, Tanzania and Kenya.
The deployment, in particular its timing, has raised criticism. One former high-ranking admiral, Nusret Güner, told Hurriyet Daily News: "The Black Sea waters are boiling because of what's happening in Crimea and Ukraine. The United States and Russia are playing chess. They make moves one after another. When there is an imminent risk of clash, it's an unacceptable situation that the Turkish Naval Forces are engaged in an African campaign in a way that they weaken their presence in the region."
Now that Sunday's referendum in Crimea approved the peninsula's annexation to Russia, the authorities in Moscow and Simferopol appear to be on the fast track to changing Crimea's borders, introducing the Russian ruble in Crimea as early as next week (though they say full incorporation into Russia may take up to a year). The opponents of annexation, meanwhile, are working on various fronts, preparing legal defenses and international sanctions.
For now, Kiev and Moscow have apparently agreed on a weeklong truce: "An agreement has been reached with (Russia's) Black Sea Fleet and the Russian Defence Ministry on a truce in Crimea until March 21," Ukrainian Defense Minister Ihor Tenyukh told journalists. "No measures will be taken against our military facilities in Crimea during that time. Our military sites are therefore proceeding with a replenishment of reserves."
There is no doubt about how Crimea’s March 16 independence referendum is going to go, but keep an eye on the turnout figure. That’s because Crimean Tatars, an ethnic group that comprises an estimated 15 percent of the peninsula’s population, seem inclined to stay home on referendum day.
On March 14, an estimated several thousand Tatars participated in peaceful demonstrations (watch video) along roads leading to the Crimean capital Simferopol. Demonstrators chanted a variety of slogans, including "Crimea is part of Ukraine," "No to a referendum," and "We are for peace."
For the time being, Russian leaders are being solicitous of Tatars in the hopes of winning their acceptance, if not tacit support for Crimea’s occupation by Russian armed forces. Among the rumored incentives offered to the Tatar community was a 20 percent representation quota in the Crimean legislature.
“The Russians and the self-proclaimed Crimean authorities … try to buy us with promises of higher salaries, large investment projects, better representation in government for Tatars and other benefits if we join Russia. There is no intimidation; just lots of offers of bribes. But I do not trust them,” said a Tatar, resident of Simferopol, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Everyone in the Caucasus has reasons to worry about which direction Crimea’s vote goes this Sunday, but for their own reasons. For the breakaway regions, the conflict may have implications for their own future.
Already, it is affecting their actions. On March 12, the de-facto authorities in Abkhazia detained a Ukrainian TV crew that had come to gauge local reactions to the Crimea crisis. After hours of interrogation, which caused alarm and worry back in their station’s newsroom, the journalists were kicked out of Abkhazia into next-door Russia, the Ukrainian site Censor.net.ua reported.
Two more reporters with the same Ukrainian station, 1+1, have been detained in North Ossetia, the Russian twin of breakaway South Ossetia, on the Georgian side of the Caucasus mountains. The journalists, who were released after five hours of questioning, said that local officials have orders to watch out for sightings of Ukrainians.
Journalists are now asking both regions' de-facto authorities questions about any plans to follow Crimea’s suit and seek merger with Russia.
In South Ossetia specifically, such ideas, linked with the idea of union with North Ossetia, have significant backing. The de-facto administration in Tskhinvali told Russia’s Dozhd’ TV that it needs to wait for a national plebiscite law that would simplify the procedure of joining Russia.
Ever since Turkish Airlines introduced a few years back direct flights from Washington's Dulles Airport to Istanbul, the American capital and Turkey and have somehow seemed less far apart. Now, as the ongoing battle between Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the movement of Islamic leader Fethullah Gulen heats up, with both sides trying to pull Washington into the scrum, the two places seem even more closely linked, although in a way that could ultimately drive a wedge between Turkey and the US.
With Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan facing a mounting corruption scandal and the constant leaking of recordings of incriminating personal phone calls, which the PM and his supporters say are being orchestrated by the Gulen movement, Erdogan is striking back, accusing the movement and its leader -- who currently lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania -- of working to destabilize Turkey.
In a television interview last week, Erdogan said that he recently spoke to President Barack Obama on the phone and delivered that message to him. “The person who is responsible for the unrest in Turkey lives in your country, in Pennsylvania. I told him this clearly,” Erdogan said during the interview. “I said, ‘I expect what’s necessary (to be done).’ You have to take the necessary stance if someone threatens my country’s security.” According to Erdogan, Obama told him: "We got the message."