Wednesday, 20 May 2009

20 May 2009 News Digest

Published in News Digest

By Alima Bissenova (5/20/2009 issue of the CACI Analyst)

only Tajik-Chinese border crossing reopens 7 May The only border crossing between Tajikistan and China has reopened for the spring, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reports. Mirafzun Mirafzunov, chief of the custom's service in Tajikistan's mountainous Kohistan-Badakhshan Province, told RFE/RL that the Kulma border post was reopened on May 5 but that deep snow on roads in the Murghob and Shughnon districts will prevent Chinese traders from transporting goods into Tajikistan. On the eve of the Summer Olympic Games last year, China closed Kulma and all Tajik merchants had to go to the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, and fly to China in order to conduct business.

only Tajik-Chinese border crossing reopens 7 May The only border crossing between Tajikistan and China has reopened for the spring, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reports. Mirafzun Mirafzunov, chief of the custom's service in Tajikistan's mountainous Kohistan-Badakhshan Province, told RFE/RL that the Kulma border post was reopened on May 5 but that deep snow on roads in the Murghob and Shughnon districts will prevent Chinese traders from transporting goods into Tajikistan. On the eve of the Summer Olympic Games last year, China closed Kulma and all Tajik merchants had to go to the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, and fly to China in order to conduct business.The Kulma border post was established in 2004 and is usually open from spring until the end of autumn. Provincial customs officials say that last year Tajik businesses imported $7.5 million worth of goods from China, including some 5,000 Chinese-made cars. (RFE/RL)

Armenia casts shadow over regional energy 8 May Turkish moves to mend relations with Armenia may harm the European energy sector as resource-rich Azerbaijan eyes moves toward Russia in response. Turkey moved toward normalizing relations with longtime foe Armenia following a visit to Ankara by U.S. President Barack Obama. The situation bodes well for Ankara's ties to the European community but could have a ripple effect on relations with oil-rich Azerbaijan. The Czech presidency of the European Union on Friday hosted a major summit in Prague to hammer out energy security in the region, calling for implementation of measures on the long-awaited Nabucco pipeline "as soon as possible." The Prague summit brought together energy giants from the Middle East and Caspian region to work in harmony in the regional oil and gas sector, but with Azerbaijan deeply offended by Turkish moves toward Armenia, efforts toward unity could unravel, Britain's The Daily Telegraph noted. Azerbaijan sits on some of the richest resource fields in the world, notably the Shah Deniz gas field and the Azeri-Chirag-Guneshli oil complex. The EU puts considerable weight on those resources, particularly as Prague urges swift action on Nabucco. The Prague summit brings delegates from Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan together on energy-security issues, but securing gas from the Caspian region may require additional diplomatic efforts beyond oil and gas contracts. (UPI)

U.S. Drone Attack Kills At Least Five In Pakistan 9 May Missiles fired by suspected pilotless U.S. drone aircraft have struck a compound in a Pakistani region on the Afghan border, killing at least five militants, intelligence and Taliban officials said. Four missiles fired by two drones hit a compound in the village of Sarorogha in the South Waziristan tribal region, a stronghold of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud and a known Al-Qaeda and Taliban hotbed, one of the intelligence officials said. "We have reports of at least five militants killed in the missile attack," said the official. The same figure was given by a Taliban official in the region. Another intelligence official put the death toll at as high as 20, and said one of the missiles also hit a vehicle carrying militants. The United States began increasing the frequency of drone attacks in Pakistan a year ago. There has been no let-up since President Barack Obama's administration took office in January, despite complaints from the Pakistani government. The United States carried out about 40 drone air strikes since the beginning of last year, most since September, killing more than 300 people, according to a tally of reports from Pakistani intelligence agents, district government officials and residents. Including the May 9 strike, there have been 15 attacks this year, with five in April. (Reuters)

Double Suicide Strike On Afghan Police Kills Five 10 May At least five people were killed on May 10 when two suicide bombers attacked a convoy of police in Afghanistan's volatile southern province of Helmand, a provincial police chief said. Despite increasing numbers of foreign forces, violence has surged in the past year to its worst level since U.S.-led troops overthrew the Taliban government more than seven years ago. In the latest incident, two suicide bombers, each riding on a motorcycle, blew themselves up near a group of police who had just parked their vehicles in the Girishk district of Helmand Province, provincial police chief Assadullah Sherzad said. "So far, I can say that five people, including civilians, have been killed and 10 more wounded," Sherzad told a Reuters reporter by phone in the south. Helmand is one of the main bastions for Taliban guerrillas and is the biggest drug producing region of Afghanistan, the world's top supplier of heroin. The Taliban often rely on suicide attacks and roadside bomb blasts as part of their insurgency against the Afghan government. The attack came just three days after a suicide bomber in the same district killed 20 Afghan civilians and two British soldiers from a NATO-led force. Girishk straddles a main highway across the restive province and has seen fighting in recent months. The spread of Taliban attacks in Afghanistan as well as in nuclear-armed neighboring Pakistan have raised alarm worldwide. The new U.S. administration is sending 17,000 soldiers to Afghanistan in the next few months, about half of whom will be deployed in Helmand. The new troops are part of a wave of reinforcements that will see the total U.S. force increase from 32,000 at the start of this year to 68,000 by year's end.  (Reuters)

Erdogan in Iran on Nabucco? 11 May Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan plans to visit Iran to discuss energy cooperation, possibly on the Nabucco pipeline, Iranian media reports. Erdogan told Turkish television Friday he would include a visit to Tehran as part of a broader regional energy tour that includes Azerbaijan and Russia, Iran's Press TV reports. "I intend to visit Tehran after my near-future visits to Baku and Moscow, where I hope to talk about the future of Tehran-Ankara cooperation with Iranian leaders," he said. Press TV said the Turkish premier considers Iran as a potential supplier to the planned Nabucco natural gas pipeline for the European Union. Nabucco would bring natural gas from Central Asia and the Middle East, and possibly Iran, to European markets, sidelining Russia. A summit held Friday in Prague, Czech Republic, brought renewed declarations from potential Nabucco suppliers on the so-called Southern Corridor, though Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan failed to sign a final statement on the package of energy transit projects. Iran could emerge in a stronger position in the wake of the declaration boycott as Nabucco critics continue to point to potential supply shortfalls for the 2,050-mile pipeline. (UPI)

Saakashvili-Opposition Talks End 11 May “Perception of the crisis by us and by Mikheil Saakashvili absolutely differ,” Levan Gachechiladze, an opposition figure, said in a brief comment made after two-hour talks with President Saakashvili. “He believes that everything is all right in the country and we believe that everything is very bad; that is the only result of this meeting;” he told journalists and added that the opposition negotiators would now meet with other leaders to inform about the details of the talks. He also said that detailed statements would be made at a protest rally outside the Parliament at 6pm local time on Monday. Irakli Alasania, leader of Alliance for Georgia, who was among the group of four opposition negotiators, said that the sides had exchanged views on the political crisis in the country. “There are serious differences,” he said, “but the fact in itself that the meeting took place is a positive step.” “We had an open conversation, a very open conversation,” Salome Zourabichvili, leader of Georgia’s Way party, told journalists after the meeting. “But we assess the crisis absolutely differently.” Kakha Shartava, leader of the National Forum, said that the opposition negotiations put forth the opposition’s major demand about President Saakashvili’s resignation and also listened to the authorities’ position about the current situation in the country. “Our views mostly do not coincide with each other. We have listened to what steps they are planning to take in future,” he told reporters. “If there are some acceptable proposals we will decide at a joint meeting. Our today’s mandate was limited by informing them about our vision, pushing the most important issues and listening to their options. (Civil Georgia)

Tajikistan’s agriculture suffers $10mln worth damage after rains 13 May The damage caused to Tajikistan’s agriculture by heavy rains and mudflows exceeds 10 million U.S. dollars, the head of the Agricultural Ministry’s press service, Narzullo Dadabayev, told a news conference on Wednesday. “These estimates are not final. The damage may be much higher after the governmental commission sums up the results of its work,” he said. Last week’s heavy rains hit Tajikistan’s cotton fields hard. Almost 5,500 hectares or 4 percent of the planted areas were washed away. Hundreds of hectares were partially destroyed. Agricultural experts say framers can re-sow the fields until June 1. “Of course, this will affect the yielding capacity, but it is better to have less than nothing,” Dadabayev said. Cotton along with aluminum remains the main source of foreign currency in the country. Lower prices for cotton amid the global economic crisis forced the government to correct the cotton policy, but cotton still remains the major export item in the agricultural sector. This spring over 200,000 hectares were sowed with cotton as against 240,000 hectares in 2008. (Itar-Tass)

Burjanadze Says Against Talks with Saakashvili 13 May Nino Burjanadze, leader of Democratic Movement-United Georgia, said that she was against of holding talks with President Saakashvili on proposals, which he had proposed after talks with the opposition leaders on May 11. “There is one part [of the opposition], which believes that it is possible to resolve problems through dialogue [with the authorities] and there is another part which believes that it won’t help and more active steps are required – I am in this latter part [of the opposition],” she told journalists. “Path of those will be more successful, which will lead to the joint goal sooner,” she said. “If some one else wants to continue a dialogue and talk on other issues except of [President Saakashvili’s] resignation, they can do that and they can continue moving on that path of dialogue. I personally believe that the only topic of discussion should be terms of President Saakashvili’s resignation. I am in favor of taking concrete actions,” Burjanadze said and added that it was a mistake that the opposition had not been holding active protest rallies in recent days, including picketing of the public TV. “I am sure that ‘corridor of shame’ should resume from tomorrow outside the public TV,” she said. (Civil Georgia)

Azerbaijani Official: Minsk Group Favors Armenia In Karabakh Dispute 13 May Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's foreign-policy adviser has said he sees double standards and clear evidence of "Christian solidarity" by the Minsk Group members in talks over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Novruz Mammadov told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service that the Russian, French, and U.S. co-chairs of the Minsk Group might also be manipulating the talks on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict for professional reasons. "The co-chairs are interested in prolonging the conflict so they can travel to and fro and maintain their positions," Mammadov said. "Or maybe [U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and Minsk co-Chairman] Matthew Bryza himself is interested in ensuring his career and his job by misinforming [Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton and [President] Barack Obama" by suggesting progress is being made in the talks. Mammadov said Armenia's position at the meeting between Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian and Aliyev in Prague on May 7 was "not constructive," and accused the Minsk co-chairs of supporting the Armenian position. He added that the Minsk co-chairs are falsely portraying the talks as positive, but said the Azerbaijanis "are not going to give [their] territory to Armenians. This will never happen. Let the co-chairs, even the whole world support Armenia. [It will not matter], it will never happen." Bryza has said the Prague meeting was "the most substantive exchange of views" between the two leaders and a "conceptual breakthrough." The Minsk Group was created in 1992 by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to mediate a peaceful settlement to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Along with Bryza, the current co-chairmen are Bernard Fassier of France and Yury Merzlyakov of Russia. (RFE/RL)

Kazakhstan signs Russia pipeline law 14 May In a modest blow to Nabucco, Kazakhstan signed a measure approving the construction of a natural gas pipeline with Russian gas giant Gazprom. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev signed a law granting construction of a 994-mile pipeline to carry domestic and Turkmen gas, the Financial Times reports. The pipeline will carry 700 billion cubic feet of regional gas each year in a move that solidifies the position of Gazprom in the Central Asian energy sector. The European Union and regional leaders gathered in Prague, Czech Republic, last week for a conference on the Southern Corridor of energy transit networks, including the long-heralded Nabucco gas pipeline. Turkmenistan had signed onto agreements with Germany's RWE, a Nabucco partner, in what was seen as a blow to Gazprom following a pipeline disruption earlier this year. Europe sees Nabucco as the answer to its plans to move away from Russian energy reliance. Nabucco would bring gas from suppliers in the Caspian region and the Middle East along a Turkish route north to European markets. The leaders emerged from the Prague summit with a declaration of support from key parties to Nabucco, including Azerbaijan. However, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan did not sign the final declaration. (UPI)

Georgian opposition staging 'corridor of conscience' action 14 May The Georgian opposition is staging "a corridor of conscience" action in front of the entrance to the Public Television (OTVG) building in Tbilisi. The action began at 09:00, Moscow time. Two ropes stretching toward the building make a narrow passage for OTVG personnel, who the opposition claims are giving a biased coverage of their protests. Leader of the New Rightists party David Gamkrelidze (a former presidential hopeful and one of the leaders of the Alliance for Georgia political association), said "the purpose of the "corridor of conscience" action is to protest the biased information policy by the OTVG." Earlier, Georgian opposition leaders decided to remove kiosks and cages from the road in front of the OTVG building in order to reopen it to traffic. “The suspension of traffic in front of the Public Television building created more problems for the population of Tbilisi than for the authorities of the country ,” Gamkrelidze said. The opposition has set up pickets and ‘corridors of conscience’ several times before, last time on May 5. The opposition continues to insist on Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili’s resignation and on an early presidential election. On Wednesday, former speaker of the Georgian parliament Nino Burdzhanadze said she did not believe a dialogue with Saakashvili would do any good. Burdzhanadze called for "active and drastic Constitutional actions" aimed at securing the resignation of Saakashvili. "I have a plan of actions of my own – it’s a plan of active, drastic, but absolutely Constitutional actions, and I intend to act together with the supporters of this plan," said Burdzhanadze, who now leads the Democratic Movement – United Georgia opposition party. "The forces who are intent to pursue other way and other plan of actions will be acting in accordance with their plan," she said, implying the part of the radical opposition which calls for "continuing dialogue with Saakashvili and securing his resignation through dialogue." On Wednesday, Georgian media outlets claimed the "differences in the opinions in the ranks of the Opposition are becoming more and more pronounced." Several opposition parties -- the Alliance for Georgia and the National Forum party -- called for "phased resignation of Saakashvili and phased concessions on his part." Another part of the Opposition is demanding more radical moves for quick resignation of the president. Burdzhanadze and secretary general of the For United Georgia party Eka Beselia belong to the hardliners, who demand Saakashvili's unconditional resignation. Reports from Tbilisi earlier this week indicated that Georgian authorities might cancel the military parade in Tbilisi on May 26, when Georgia marks its Independence Day, to avoid possible unrest in the city. (Itar-Tass)

Opposition Unblocks Traffic Outside Public TV 15 May Opposition activists removed improvised cells from Tbilisi’s one of key thoroughfares and unblocked traffic outside the public TV overnight on Friday. Kostava Street outside the public TV was blocked since April 14. Opposition leaders decided to unblock the street on May 13, but they had to put off the move after the objections from activists camped in improvised cells. Opposition said that the mocked-up cells would now be installed closer to the public broadcaster, which they accuse of biased coverage of the ongoing protests. Opposition activists will resume four-hour long picketing of the broadcaster’s premises at 9am on Friday. (Civil Georgia)

U.S. Strikes Killed 140 Villagers, Afghan Probe Finds 16 May U.S. air strikes earlier this month killed 140 villagers, an Afghan government investigation has concluded, putting Kabul starkly at odds with the U.S. military's account. The official death toll, announced by the Afghan Defense Ministry, makes the bombing the deadliest incident for civilians since U.S. forces began fighting the Taliban in 2001, and is likely to worsen anger over the presence of foreign troops. A copy of the government's list of the names, ages, and father's names of each of the 140 dead was obtained by Reuters earlier this week. It shows that 93 of those killed were children -- the youngest 8 days old -- and only 22 were adult males. "No other news makes me as sad and sorrowful as incidents of civilian casualties during military operations," the Defense Ministry statement quoted President Hamid Karzai as saying. The Afghan government paid the relatives of victims the equivalent of about $2,000 for those who were killed and $1,000 for 25 others wounded, it said. U.S. aircraft bombed villages in the Bala Boluk district of Afghanistan's western Farah Province on May 3 after U.S. Marines and Afghan security forces became involved in a firefight with Taliban militants. According to villagers, families were cowering in houses when the U.S. aircraft bombed them. The incident has prompted anger across Afghanistan toward Western troops, and caused Karzai to demand a halt to all air strikes, a plea that Washington has rebuffed. (Reuters)


Third Kazakh lender haults debt repayments 19 May Kazakhstan's Astana Finance has become the third local lender to halt debt repayments and seek a restructuring of its loans, as the financial crisis tightens its grip on the oil-producing Central Asian state. Astana Finance, which has a license to lend but does not take retail deposits, said it froze payments after its financial position deteriorated and some loan schedules were accelerated due to credit-ratings downgrades. The company is an active player in the mortgage and leasing sectors and has total foreign debt of $1.2 billion. Lenders in Central Asia's biggest economy borrowed heavily abroad before the credit market boom ran out of steam in mid-2007. Investors have viewed local banks' efforts to cope with tougher debt conditions as a barometer for market sentiment since the country's biggest bank, BTA, as well as Alliance suspended repayments and announced plans to restructure earlier this year. The government, now worried about possible rising social discontent in the mainly Muslim country, has allocated $25 billion to help the $100 billion economy weather the storm. Astana Finance, in which the government holds about 25 percent, said auditors would prepare a report on its first-quarter performance within the next 12 weeks and that JP Morgan and Clifford Chance would advise it on restructuring. Astana Finance said the devaluation of the national tenge currency by 18 percent in February and a slump in property prices had hampered its asset quality. Analysts said the economic slowdown may cause further trouble in the sector. Property prices in Kazakhstan's largest city, Almaty, have halved after reaching their peak in 2007 and many analysts think the economy will shrink this year after growing by 10 percent a year, on average, between 2000 and 2007. The Kazakh finance minister said that debt-restructuring talks between BTA and its creditors were proceeding well and both sides were hopeful of reaching a deal. "Many creditors have said that they are largely ready to accept restructuring.... So their position is quite positive," Bolat Zhamishev told reporters. Few details have emerged from the talks, but the state's Samruk-Kazyna welfare fund said this week BTA would complete restructuring by the end of July. BTA -- in which Samruk took a 75.1 percent stake in February -- has defaulted on $550 million in bilateral loans and stopped paying the principal on its wholesale borrowings. BTA owes about $15 billion in total. A restructuring would pave the way for Russia's Sberbank to decide in August on a possible acquisition of the lender. Sberbank has been in talks since February. (Reuters)

Russian recognition of S-Ossetia, Abkhazia guarantees absence of new attacks 19 May The Russian recognition of independent South Ossetia and Abkhazia guarantees that no one will ever attack them, Russian State Secretary – Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin told a Tuesday press conference in Geneva. He visited Geneva to attend the fifth round of the consultations on Caucasian security and stability. “The decision to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia was not easy for Russia. For 16 years Russia had been honestly fulfilling its peacekeeping commitments and settling regional conflicts. Yet the taboo on the use of force was breached in August 2008. That buried Georgia’s territorial integrity,” he said. (Itar-Tass)


Kyrgyz High Court Upholds Convictions For Religious Extremism 20 May

Kyrgyzstan's Supreme Court has upheld verdicts against 32 people convicted of spreading ethnic and religious hatred, although it slightly reduced their sentences, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reports. The defendants, from the southern Osh region, were accused of organizing a mass gathering in October in the town of Nookat to protest a government decision not to allow a religious celebration for the Muslim holiday Eid al-Fitr. On November 27, the Osh Regional Court sentenced the defendants to prison terms ranging from nine to 20 years. The Supreme Court reduced the sentences to between five and 17 years. The defendants complained that they were severely beaten and tortured while in detention. Public defenders Dmitry Kabak and Aziza Abdyrasulova say many of those convicted -- the majority of whom are ethnic Uzbeks -- are uneducated and that two of them are women who were under 18 when they were arrested. Additionally, most are not fluent in Kyrgyz or Russian, the two official languages in which all the court hearings were held. (RFE/RL)


Official: Kazakhstan Bank Defaults Not Encouraged 20 May Kazakhstan will not interfere in local banks' foreign debt policies or encourage them to restructure their debt, a senior state offical has said, a day after a third Kazakh lender halted debt repayments. State-run BTA, Kazakhstan's largest bank, and No. 4 bank Alliance defaulted on their debts last month. Astana Finance, a lender which does not accept retail deposits, also suspended debt servicing this week. The string of announcements has prompted worries about the prospects of other banks meeting their obligations at a time when the government is keen to make sure that money is used domestically to prop up the shrinking economy. Kairat Kelimbetov, chief executive of Kazakhstan's state welfare fund Samruk-Kazyna, which acts as the government's agent in bank bailouts, said the state was not behind those decisions. Asked if investors should expect similar steps from other Kazakh banks, Kelimbetov said: "If the question is whether this is a systemic approach by the state, this is not true." He said there were different reasons behind each borrower's decision to restructure. Samruk bought a 75 percent stake in BTA in February and has appointed new managers at Alliance. The state owns about 25 percent in Astana Finance. Samruk also owns stakes of about 20 percent in Kazkommertsbank and Halyk, Kazakhstan's second- and third-largest lenders. "The deal [with Kazkommertsbank and Halyk] that the policy on foreign debt servicing is decided by the management," Kelimbetov said. He added Samruk was "snowed under" dealing with BTA, Alliance, Halyk, and Kazkommertsbank and had little time to look into problems at Astana Finance. (Reuters)



Turkey 'Should Not Link' Armenia Thaw To Karabakh: Negotiator 20 May Turkey should not link its efforts to normalize ties with Armenia to a settlement between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, a French negotiator has said. Ankara and Yerevan have been engaged for months in high-level talks aimed at establishing diplomatic relations after a century of hostility and last month announced a "road map" to reopen their borders. But after Turkey's Muslim ally Azerbaijan condemned the reconciliation moves, Ankara said there would be no progress until the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was resolved. Turkey closed its border with Armenia in 1993 in solidarity with Azerbaijan, which fought a war with ethnic Armenian separatists in the 1990s over the Caucasus enclave. Last week, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan promised Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev during a visit to Baku that Turkey would not open the border with Armenia until the "occupation" of Nagorno-Karabakh ended. "Normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations and the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute are two separate processes which should continue in parallel but along their own paths," the French Embassy in Ankara said in a statement after a visit earlier this week by Bernard Fassier, a co-chairman of the Minsk Group. The Minsk Group -- set up in 1992 and co-chaired by Russia, the United States, and France -- is seeking a solution to Nagorno-Karabakh, one of the most intractable conflicts arising from the Soviet Union's collapse. A thaw between Turkey and Armenia, who trace their dispute to the mass killing of Christian Armenians by Ottoman Turks during World War I, would shore up stability in the Caucasus and boost Turkey's drive to join the European Union. U.S. President Barack Obama has urged Ankara and Yerevan to reach a solution soon, but Turkey has been careful not to harm energy projects with Azerbaijan. The two countries, which share linguistic and cultural ties, are in talks to sign energy deals, including the purchase of Azeri gas which could be used for the planned Nabucco pipeline to transport Caspian gas to Europe. (Reuters)


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