By Erik Davtyan (05/13/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)
On April 24, the Presidents of France, Russia, Cyprus and Serbia arrived in Yerevan upon the official invitation of Armenia’s President Serzh Sargsyan to commemorate the Centennial of the Armenian Genocide in Yerevan. The event was attended by a myriad of representatives of states, international organizations and Christian churches. During his speech at the Tsitsernakaberd Memorial Complex, President Sargsyan expressed his gratitude to the four heads of state for attending the event and emphasized that “the Armenian people will always remain standing by the side of those who suffered from crimes against humanity” and that “the unyielding international struggle against crimes of genocide will remain an integral part of our foreign policy”.
Following Sargsyan, the visiting presidents used the occasion to reiterate the official position of their states on the issue. Cyprus’ President Nicos Anastasiades stressed that both Armenia and Cyprus are “victims of impunity,” referring to Turkey’s policy of denying the Armenian Genocide and its occupation of a part of Cyprus. France’s President Francois Hollande underlined that Christians are endangered in the Middle East and even in France, and called for “the defense of all minorities and especially Christians of the East.” Russia’s President Vladimir Putin emphasized that nowadays “neo-fascism rises in many regions of the world” and that “radical nationalists come to power.” In referring to new expressions of russophobia, Putin undoubtedly implied the Euromaidan, the new authorities in Ukraine, and the current crisis between Russia and Ukraine over the fate of Ukraine’s southeastern parts. Thus, all present heads of state issued specific messages to the international community about various current problems in international relations.
After the official commemoration ceremony, Sargsyan held separate meetings with the Presidents of France and Russia. Another meeting took place between Hollande and Putin, who discussed various issues of common concern including the Ukrainian crisis. Putin mentioned that a regress in bilateral relations is already noticeable and highlighted the importance of restoring Russo-French ties and improving the deteriorating trade turnover. The Presidents also discussed the €1.2 billion contract on the delivery of French Mistral warships to Russia. In November 2014, France suspended the contract due to Russia’s involvement in Ukraine, therefore the problem is considered to be one of the key issues of the bilateral political agenda. However, the meeting in Yerevan yielded no results.
The fact that Putin termed the 1915 events a “genocide” received a very tough response in Turkey. On April 24, Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement saying “taking into account the mass atrocities and exiles in the Caucasus, in Central Asia and Eastern Europe committed by Russia for a century; collective punishment methods such as the Holodomor as well as inhumane practices especially against Turkish and Muslim people in Russia’s own history, we consider that Russia is best-suited to know what exactly ‘genocide’ and its legal dimension are.” On April 25, Putin’s spokesperson Dmitri Peskov responded by saying that he sees no reason for Turkey to make a negative evaluation and called on Turkish officials to read Putin’s speech carefully.
Turkey also reacted strongly to the part taken by Germany in the international recognition process, after President Joachim Gauck referred to the 1915 events as a genocide. The German president’s speech at a memorial service at the Berlin Cathedral provoked an extremely negative response in Ankara. According to the statement issued by Turkey’s foreign ministry, “contrary to law and historical facts, President Gauck has no right to attribute to the Turkish people a crime which they have not committed … the Turkish nation will not forget and forgive President Gauck’s statements.” Germany is Turkey’s largest trade partner in Europe, with 3.5 million Turkish residents.
On April 24, Turkey organized events dedicated to the commemoration of the Centennial of the battle of Gallipoli, one of the most famous battles of WWI. The ceremony was attended by the presidents of Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Iraq, Azerbaijan, Mali, Pakistan, Senegal, Ireland, and others. Russia was represented by Sergey Naryshkin, the Chairman of the State Duma of the Federal Assembly.
By Mina Muradova (05/13/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)
The Olympic torch has been lit in Azerbaijan and started a journey through 60 cities and regions of the country. In one month, Azerbaijan will host the inaugural European Games, a sort of continental Olympics that convene 6,000 athletes from more than 50 member countries of the European Olympic Committees (EOC).
The government’s preparations include 18 competition venues, including a US$ 500 million Baku Olympic Stadium, development of city infrastructure and an unprecedented crackdown on political dissent.
On May 12, Index on Censorship and a number of other organizations signed a joint letter to Lord Sebastian Coe of the British Olympic Association, to highlight violations against freedom of expression and threats to human rights defenders in Azerbaijan ahead of the European Games.
“On behalf of the Sport for Rights coalition, we are writing to bring your attention to the unprecedented and mounting crackdown in Azerbaijan, which has resulted in dozens of political arrests, including prominent journalists, human rights defenders, and political activists … In the run-up to the European Games, which will take place in Baku on June 12-28, we ask you to publicly support the Azerbaijani people and the rights to free expression, association, and other fundamental freedoms,” the letter says.
The authors of the letter asked Coe to publicly condemn the clampdown, calling for the release of Azerbaijan’s political prisoners: “In making such a statement, you would send a signal to Azerbaijani civil society that they are not alone in their struggle for fundamental freedoms.”
Last summer, a group of Azerbaijani human rights activists launched the Sport for Rights campaign. The campaign has a simple objective: to draw attention to the human rights situation in Azerbaijan in the context of the European Games. As indicated in hundreds of credible reports by media outlets, NGOs and governments, the Azerbaijani government has deployed a wide range of means to repress this initiative.
Observers say that since Baku was awarded the games in 2012, targeted political repression has increased drastically. In April, Rasul Jafarov, an activist and organizer of the Sports for Rights campaign, was sentenced to six and a half years in prison. He was sentenced for illegal business activities, evading taxes, and abuse of power. But it is widely believed that these charges are false, and that his real “crime” was monitoring and reporting on criminal cases against journalists and his successful awareness campaigns highlighting violations of freedom of expression, assembly, and association in Azerbaijan. His “Sing for Democracy” and “Arts for Democracy” campaigns drew attention to Azerbaijan’s poor human rights record, and his planned “Sport for Rights” campaign would have done the same in the run up to the European Games.
A few days after Jafarov’s conviction, the same court sentenced Intigam Aliyev, a leading human rights lawyer who has filed hundreds of cases with the European Court of Human Rights, to seven and a half years behind bars, again on bogus charges. Both had been detained since August 2014.
In early May, Faraj Karimov, a well-known social media activist and leading member of the opposition Musavat party, was handed a six-and-a half year sentence by a Baku court. He was arrested in July 2014 and accused of possessing illegal narcotics. So was his brother Siraj – also a Musavat member – who was given a six-year jail term this March.
Karimov was the administrator of ISTEFA (Resign), which was the largest Azerbaijani-language page on Facebook with 300,000 subscribers before it was closed down in July 2013. He then created a page called BASTA, which has 155,000 subscribers, and was also administrator of the Musavat party’s website.
He declined to address the court at the end of his trial, saying, “I have been arrested for my struggle against an authoritarian regime. If I spoke at a trial that flouts the law, it would be of great benefit to those who ordered my arrest.”
Amnesty International, which has designated both Karimov brothers as prisoners of conscience, said last year that when Faraj was arrested, he was questioned about Facebook, not drugs.
In order to promote the Games, their organizers launched a campaign in social media by hijacking the official hashtag of the European Games, #HelloBaku. In March, the organizers announced a competition for the most creative photo – the winner would get tickets to the games’ opening ceremony, and was announced in early May.
But as Index on Censorship later wrote, the contest backfired with “a number of social media users instead using #HelloBaku to highlight Azerbaijan’s poor record on human rights. One such video was posted by Dinara Yunus, the daughter of Leyla and Arif Yunus who are imprisoned since last summer. She asked President Aliyev “What are you scared Mr. President? Why do you choose repression over freedom?”
According to the initiators of the Sport for Rights coalition, “In the run-up to the European Games, we believe that public condemnation of the crackdown by [international] bodies could help achieve tangible, democratic change at this crucial time.”
By Arslan Sabyrbekov (04/29/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)
On April 23, Kyrgyzstan’s Prime Minister Djoomart Otorbaev has announced his decision to step down, even though the country’s lawmakers have rated his government’s performance for the year 2014 as satisfactory. He is the fourth Prime Minister to resign in the last five years and the 26th since the country’s independence.
When announcing his resignation, the now interim Prime Minister thanked the majority coalition for recognizing his work as satisfactory. He refrained from giving any motive for his decision, simply stating that “No monopoly of power can exist in a democratic country. Therefore, the branch of government should be shaken again. I pursued the goal of the country’s development and advancement and hope that with this decision, the majority coalition can choose a more decisive head of the executive and that this will become a normal practice in the political culture of the country, when high officials leave their posts voluntarily.” Otorbaev also stated that his resignation will not affect the country’s path towards assuming full membership in the Eurasian Economic Union this May.
Immediately after Otorbaev’s decision, Kyrgyz political and expert circles put forward various reasons for his resignation. According to Asylbek Djeenbekov, the Speaker of Parliament, Otorbaev’s decision comes amid a renewed controversy over the operations of the Kumtor Gold Company, which remains one of the biggest unresolved issues for the country. Indeed, much of Otorbaev’s time in office was marked by difficult negotiations with Toronto-based Centerra Gold over the future of the Kumtor Gold Company, which according to various estimates accounts for 12 percent of the country’s GDP and nearly half of its industrial output.
Currently, the Kyrgyz government controls around one-third of the Company, with Canada’s Centerra Gold controlling the rest of the shares. In recent years, the country’s opposition and public have made numerous demands to nationalize the mine or to create a new joint venture with a 50-50 split in ownership, an initiative hampered several times by international tribunals. The Prime Minister opposed this idea as well, stating last month that the launch of a joint venture is no longer in the country’s national interest due to Centerra’s new, lower estimate of the gold reserves. Instead, Otorbaev expressed his intention to increase the government’s representation on Centerra’s board of directors, coming under massive attack from a number of parliamentarians.
However, a number of political experts believe that Otorbaev’s resignation has nothing to do with the fate of the Gold Company. Former MP Alisher Mamasaliev sees pure political motives behind the unexpected move. In his words, “the ruling political leadership cannot afford to have a government in place, which is very much unpopular in the eyes of the electorate, especially shortly before the parliamentary elections, and is striving to appoint a loyal head of the executive.” Others are already speculating who will become the 27th prime minister, mentioning the current Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister for Economy, both fitting the criteria that the Kyrgyz White House is currently looking for.
Otorbaev’s resignation has also prompted local political analysts to speak of the overall crisis in the country’s management system. Since last September, 10 out of 15 Ministers announced their decision to resign, with some elaborating on the matter and others giving no comments. This speaks in favor of the argument that in times of socio-economic instability in the country, with crucial issues unresolved, no one is willing to take responsibility. On April 24, President Almazbek Atambayev accepted the Prime Minister’s resignation, which according to the country’s constitution means the resignation of the entire government. The current three-party majority coalition has 15 days to nominate a new head of the executive to the legislature.
Local media are also speculating over Otorbaev’s future. Some claim that the urbane, Western-oriented, English-speaking politician, who previously worked for Philips Company and taught physics in the Netherlands for several years, might assume a senior position in one of the international financial institutions. Others argue that he will be competing for a parliamentary seat in the upcoming elections.
By Eka Janashia (04/29/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)
In April 2015, youths from the Pankisi gorge a territory in Georgia’s north-east adjoining Russia, left for Syria as a result of the recruitment by the terrorist group calling itself the Islamic State (ISIS) of Georgian citizens.
Pankisi’s rugged terrain is mostly populated by the descendants of ethnic Chechens settled there in the 18th, and later in the 20th, centuries during the Russia-Chechnya wars, and are referred to as Kists. They compose 75 percent of the 11,000 people settled in the valley.
Despite their considerable cultural confluence with Georgians, Kists largely maintain a Muslim confession, having practiced Sufi Islam traditions for centuries. Yet more recently, radical Salafi Islam, also termed Wahhabism, has become increasingly popularity and attracted a growing number of followers among the young generation, gradually supplanting Sufi clout in the gorge.
Religious radicalization in the gorge seems to present a looming menace for the economically weak and insecure Georgia. The exact number of Kists fighting for ISIS is unknown, but could according to some estimates amount to around 100 warriors. Some Kist fighters appear to have been successful in combat operations and achieved leading military positions in the ISIS army. For example, Georgian citizen Umar Al-Shishani, whose real name is Tarkhan Batirashvili, is an ISIS military emir in Syria from Pankisi, and was added to the U.S. list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists in 2014.
On April 2, 16-year-old Muslim Kushtanashvili and 18-year-old Ramzan Bagakashvili left their native Pankisi without their parents’ permission. Bagakashvili’s mother was told by the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) that her son had taken a flight from Tbilisi airport to Turkey. Bagakashvili verified this information via a message he sent to his family.
Kushtanashvili’s grandmother reported that before his disappearance, the teen had been attending a Wahhabi mosque despite his father’s objection. Although Georgia and Turkey exercise passport-free border-crossing rules, it is unclear how the underage Kushtanashvili was allowed to cross the border without his parents’ consent. Interior Minister Vakhtang Gomelauri pledged to investigate the case and punish the responsible.
Meanwhile, Kushtanashvili and Bagakashvili sent a photo to their families, apparently taken in Syria, where the teens are sitting behind an ISIS flag, dressed in military fatigues and holding machine guns.
On April 20, the 19-year-old Pankisi resident George Borchashvili reported that unknown Chechens had threatened him with decapitation unless he went to Syria. Borchashvili applied to the police for help.
Local Kists claim that a specific group of radical Muslim recruiters is targeting young civilians in Pankisi for recruitment to IS combat, most likely in Syria, and call on the government to tighten border control.
Aside from the Pankisi gorge, cases of recruitment have been reported in the Kvemo Kartli (Borchali) region, bordering Azerbaijan and Armenia, and the Autonomous Republic of Adjara, bordering Turkey. Although Muslims compose around 10 percent of Georgia’s population, some Adjarian villages have a Muslim population of over 90 percent. Because these villages are situated along state borders, radicalization can have dire implications for national security.
The ISIS presence in Pankisi is critical in this perspective. The valley edges Russia’s restless North Caucasus, which has made it an easy target and alternative route for Chechen rebels. While Pankisi is unlikely to become a central node of ISIS’ Caucasus network, Russia has historically displayed it as a “hotbed” of Islamist militants. In the early 2000s, Moscow dubbed Pankisi a shelter for Al-Qaeda and has since vigorously sought to place the valley in the media spotlight, diverting attention from North Caucasus where radical Islam has made a much larger imprint. Such accusations potentially provide the Kremlin with another justification for military interference in Georgia’s territory. Whereas this threat is specific for Georgia, ISIS activities on Georgian territory also implies general risks that are familiar to other countries experiencing similar recruitment.
In an attempt to address these risks in January 2015, the Georgian government initiated a package of legislative amendments criminalizing the participation of Georgian citizens in illegal armed formations abroad, their travel overseas for the purpose of terrorism, as well as the promotion of such activities. The bill has yet to be approved by the parliament, and even after it enters into force, it will be difficult to detect militants covertly engaged in terrorist combat operations abroad.
The move is an important measure, but remains a minor step towards addressing the growing threat of radicalization.
The government seems incapable of either strengthening control in villages targeted by ISIS or articulate an integration policy for the Muslim population compactly settled in remote areas. While economic development in border regions should be an urgent question, the problem must also be addressed at a deeper, societal level. The failure of developed European countries to prevent the departure of youth to Syria suggests that the most important reason for the radicalization of local Muslims is their alienation from the rest of society. Without addressing this question, Tbilisi will hardly be able to prevent radicalization and recruitment among Georgia’s Muslims.
In addition, some analysts point out Georgia’s need to pursue strategic dialogue with partner countries to share their experience in fighting IS and to make the country’s participation in the anti-IS coalition more visible.
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.