By Mina Muradova (08/07/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)
After 17 days of competition, the first European Games have ended in Baku. Yet the crackdown on dissenting voices continues in Azerbaijan. The country will be remembered not only for its capable hosting of a major sporting event, but also for its silencing of critical voices in connection with the event.
Azerbaijan’s government hailed the games as a triumph and is now considering bidding for the Olympics. “The first European Games will go down in sporting history,” the Minister of Youth and Sport Azad Rahimov said in a statement on July 3. “I’m very proud of what has been achieved in Baku and the positive feedback we have been getting … It has been a success for Azerbaijan and will be a launch pad for future sporting events we will host. The coverage ... and the positive messages we have sent have really highlighted Azerbaijan on the world and European map.”
Next year, Azerbaijan will host the 42nd Chess Olympiad and a Formula One race through the streets of Baku. It will also stage the Islamic Solidarity Games in 2017 and soccer matches in the Euro 2020 competition.
According to Rahimov, “There is a new culture growing, this is very important, of supporting the development of sport … Every ticket sold is an important contribution to sustain and maintain our sporting arenas and develop our athletes in different sports.” Azerbaijan, enjoying loud support at every venue, has surprised many and was second in the medal table with 18 golds. Nearly 6,000 athletes from 50 countries competed in 20 sporting events at the Games that ended on June 28.
However, Azerbaijan was widely criticized before and during the games for politically motivated arrests and for banning the Guardian, along with a number of media outlets and human rights activists, from entering the country to cover the games.
Two days after the closing ceremony in the Baku Olympic Stadium, seating 68,000, the prominent human rights activist and director of Meydan TV Emin Milli posted that “It is remarkable that the government has started repressions against Meydan TV the day after the European Games’ closing ceremony. Several journalists from Meydan TV have been banned from leaving Azerbaijan, stopped at the border and were not allowed to come for a short trip to Tbilisi, Georgia. … from past cases, we may conclude that there is now a criminal case opened and an investigation going on against Meydan TV.”
On June 26, Milli reported that he had received a threat from Minister Rahimov, in connection with his critical reporting on the European Games. Meydan TV is a Berlin-based online television station that provides alternative news coverage of Azerbaijan. During the European Games, Meydan TV’s materials were widely used by international media, including critical cartoons, stories on an Azerbaijani bus driver who crashed into three Austrian swimmers and an interview by a national television station of a fake British tourist – both of which were highly embarrassing to the ruling regime.
International human rights watchdog organizations expressed their concerns over “an increase in the government harassment of independent journalists” in Azerbaijan in the wake of the European Games. “We fear that this growing harassment is a forerunner of a new crackdown targeting Meydan TV’s staff,” said Johann Bihr, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.
Azerbaijan is ranked 162nd out of 180 countries in the 2015 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. There are currently about 100 political detainees, at least 20 of whom are identified as “prisoners of conscience” by Amnesty International.
Sport for Rights calls on the Azerbaijani authorities to put an end to their ongoing attempts to silence critical reporting, and to take immediate steps to improve fundamental freedoms in the country, including by releasing all the journalists and human rights defenders currently behind bars for political reasons.
The campaign further calls on the European Olympic Committees to speak out, publicly condemning the threat against Milli, as well as the broader human rights crackdown taking place in the country. Finally, Sport for Rights calls on German authorities to provide Milli with immediate and full protection.
By George Voloshin (08/07/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)
On June 22-24, Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent, hosted a third meeting of the Uzbek-Tajik intergovernmental commission on economic cooperation. Unlike the two previous sessions, which were organized in Dushanbe in August 2002 and February 2009, this year’s bilateral trade talks took place against the backdrop of an emerging détente between the two Central Asian neighbors. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are currently confronted with a host of shared challenges ranging from the threat of radical Islam to socioeconomic instability, while their bilateral relationship is still constrained by unsettled disputes from the past.
By Arslan Sabyrbekov (06/24/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)
On June 10, Kyrgyzstan marked the fifth anniversary of the tragic inter-ethnic violence that claimed more than 400 lives, displaced tens of thousands of people and destroyed thousands of households. In the aftermath of the bloody events, the President of neighboring Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, issued a statement that third forces provoked the clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, and the Kyrgyz leadership agreed. However, recent developments indicate that Karimov’s position vis-à-vis the authorities in Bishkek and the conflict has changed into a more confrontational stance.
Karimov’s changing mood became apparent after his remarks to his Kyrgyz counterpart at the informal summit of the CIS states held in Moscow on May 8, in connection with the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the victory against Nazi Germany. At the summit, Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev stated that, “It is of course sad that not everybody could make it to this summit because, to some extent, it is a tribute and respect for fathers and grandfathers, mothers and grandmothers who were in the war. I think that this day should remain in the memory of all countries because the future will punish those who forget the past.”
In response to this statement, the Uzbek President said that every democratically elected leader is in a position to decide what to celebrate and where, and no one has the right to force his opinion on others. Karimov continued by referring to his Kyrgyz colleague as simply “Almaz” and described his statements as incorrect and tactless. Atambayev interfered, stating that he was simply expressing his opinion, but Karimov ironically interrupted him by saying, “We all know your opinion already.”
Nevertheless, during his bilateral talks with the United Nations’ Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Karimov described the June 2010 events in southern Kyrgyzstan as a full-scale war. “Power holders in Kyrgyzstan did not draw any conclusions. The causes of the conflict need to be investigated at an international level,” Karimov noted, despite the fact that the inter-ethnic clashes were investigated by a national as well as an international commission led by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. This is in stark contrast to the Andijan massacre of 2005, which were never evaluated either by national or international commissions.
Yet Karimov touched on a weak spot by pointing to Kyrgyzstan’s failure to bring the perpetrators to justice. Well-respected international human rights organizations have also called on the Kyrgyz authorities to retry all those convicted following the June 2010 inter-ethnic clashes, a trial that according to them saw ethnic Uzbeks sentenced at a higher proportion that then their Kyrgyz counterparts. Such a retrial would involve the case of the human rights defender and ethnic Uzbek Azimjan Askarov, sentenced to life for organizing mass disturbances and instigating inter-ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan in 2010. According to Rachel Denber of Human Rights Watch, “In the case of Azimjan Askarov, the Kyrgyz justice system has utterly failed to deliver justice. The case was riddled with blatant flaws from start to finish, and it is astounding that the court did not order a thorough investigation into the way it was conducted.”
In general, Bishkek-Tashkent relations have always been uneasy. The two countries have been divided not only over the ethnic clashes between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in southern Kyrgyzstan, but also on numerous border conflicts and the constant struggle for water resources. According to local political analysts, Karimov’s increasingly critical statements addressed to Bishkek might be guided by geopolitical interests. In a number of interviews, Uzbekistan’s president has stated that Tashkent will not enter the Eurasian Economic Union, the Customs Union or any other alliance that is reminiscent of the Soviet Union, unlike Bishkek, which is pursuing the opposite foreign policy.
Also, earlier this year Kyrgyzstan approved the sale of its gas network to Russia’s Gazprom for the symbolic price of US$ 1 and is now receiving its energy supplies without any delay. This has removed Tashkent’s leverage, which it has previously deployed to bully Bishkek by cutting off supplies during winter. Such developments, along with Bishkek re-equipping its military with the Kremlin’s assistance might are indeed irritants to power holders in Tashkent.
By Erik Davtyan (06/24/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)
In June 2015, Armenia and Iran held numerous talks on political and economic cooperation, energy security, and the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process. On June 10, Armenia’s ambassador to Iran, Artashes Tumanyan, met with Alaeddin Boroujerdi, the chairman of the Committee for Foreign Policy and National Security of Iran’s Islamic Consultative Assembly (parliament). Boroujerdi welcomed the fact that Armenia and Iran pursue a high-level political dialogue and successfully cooperate at the level of parliaments, emphasizing the unique role of the Armenian Diaspora in Iran’s development. In turn, Ambassador Tumanyan stressed the importance of deepening political dialogue and economic exchange and expressed his gratitude to Iranian authorities for the warm attitude towards Iranian Armenians and the preservation of Armenian cultural heritage in Iran. Touching upon the current turmoil in the Middle East and security issues, the Armenian ambassador stated that all regional issues should be solved only by political means and that Armenia runs a constructive and balanced policy in this context.
The official political dialogue between the two neighboring states continued in the following days in Yerevan. On June 11, the President of Armenia’s National Assembly Galust Sahakyan received the head of the Friendship Group Armenia-Iran Ali Qaidi and other members of the group. The parties discussed the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process, as well as issues related to Armenia’s accession to the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), parliamentary cooperation and especially the activity of the Friendship Group. On June 12, Iranian members of the Friendship Group were received by Armenia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Edward Nalbandian. Nalbandian stressed the importance of political dialogue at both the executive and legislative levels and emphasized that several Armenians are engaged in Iranian parliamentary affairs as deputies in the Islamic Consultative Assembly.
Simultaneously, on June 11-12 Armenian officials held separate consultations with another Iranian delegation. The consultations were headed by the Deputy Ministers of Foreign Affairs Shavarsh Kocharyan and Ibrahim Rahimpour. According to the press release of Armenia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the activation of political dialogue and enhancing cooperation in energy, trade-economic, and humanitarian fields bilaterally as well as in the framework of international organizations were on the agenda of the consultations. The counterparts also discussed the realization of joint economic projects in detail. Along with issues of common concern, the interlocutors reciprocally presented the current developments on top priority issues in Armenia’s and Iran’s foreign policies. Kocharyan presented the efforts of Armenia and the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs towards the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. In turn, Rahimpour briefed on the recent developments in the negotiation process on Iran’s nuclear program. On June 14, Ambassador Tumanyan met with Iran’s Minister of Petroleum Bijan Namdar Zangeneh and discussed issues relating to bilateral economic and energy cooperation.
Despite the active and regular interaction between Armenian and Iranian authorities, it is obvious that the vague perspective of constructing a new railway is still the most important problem on the two states’ official mutual agenda. By connecting its railway network to Iran’s, Armenia seeks to circumvent the dual embargo by Turkey and Azerbaijan (imposed more than 20 years ago) and receive the status of a transit state, thereby raising its international importance. For Iran, the new railway will open new opportunities for linking the Persian Gulf through Iran to the Black Sea basin. According to News.am, Tumanyan declared that Iranian authorities will build 60 kilometers of the railway, reaching the Armenian-Iranian state border. Regarding the existing difficulties for this infrastructural program, the Armenian ambassador explained that the construction of an Iran-Armenia railway needs a colossal investment, hence “the railway will be constructed as soon as financial needs are satisfied.”
Tumanyan also said that “Armenia aims at linking Iran and the Eurasian Economic Union” and added that “the members of the EEU are also interested in a broader cooperation with Iran”. In August 2014, the Armenian government approved the railway project at a cost of approximately US$ 3.5billion. Armenia has to build a nearly 300 kilometer-long section of the railway, the construction of which is estimated to be completed in 2022.
By Nurzhan Zhambekov (06/24/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)
Kazakhstan completed its accession negotiations with the World Trade Organization (WTO) on June 10 and will join the WTO later in 2015. This is a milestone in Kazakhstan’s economic development. The WTO’s member states voted in favor of Kazakhstan’s accession at a meeting in Geneva on June 22, 2015. Whereas the economic impact is currently difficult to assess, the reduction in trade tariffs should in theory improve the competitiveness of Kazakhstan’s economy, leading to higher economic growth. In practice, Kazakhstan’s experience within the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) has not been positive, as Kazakh producers have struggled to compete with larger Russian companies. Kazakh consumers are likely to benefit from Kazakhstan’s upcoming membership in the WTO, while Kazakh producers will face increasing international competition.
The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst is a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Transatlantic Research and Policy Center affiliated with the American Foreign Policy Council, Washington DC., and the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm. For 15 years, the Analyst has brought cutting edge analysis of the region geared toward a practitioner audience.