The World Today for September 16, 2016


The Scramble for Samarkand

Longtime Uzbek strongman Islam Karimov wasn’t even cold in his grave before the geopolitical wrangling for influence in the former Soviet republic began.

A week after the long-time dictator’s death on Sept. 2, Uzbekistan’s parliament named Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyaev to succeed him as interim president.

The move put an end to worries about a protracted battle over Karimov’s replacement. But it also circumvented the constitution – which mandated that the Senate chairman take on the interim post for three months – scuttling the hopes of some that the Central Asian country would emerge as a more legitimate democracy after Karimov’s demise.

And even though Uzbekistan’s election authority confirmed that the country will indeed hold a new presidential election Dec. 4, critics fear that the vote will be no more free and fair than polls that kept Karimov in power since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1990, according to Radio Free Europe.

Moreover, the transition may further erode Uzbekistan’s fragile independence from Russia, as Russian President Vladimir Putin seeks to secure his country’s hold over strategic and mineral-rich Central Asia, suggests Foreign Policy.

The US and China have also courted Uzbekistan as an ally. But it was Putin who appeared at Mirziyaev’s side on Uzbek state-owned TV during Karimov’s lavish funeral, having stopped off in Samarkand to visit Karimov’s grave on his way to the G-20 Summit in China.

“Moscow is much more interested in Central Asia than anyone else,” Foreign Policy quoted Bakhti Nishanov, deputy director for Eurasia at the International Republican Institute, as saying. “The Chinese see it as economically important, the Americans want regional stability, but for the Russians, it is almost part of their identity.”

In the past, Karimov succeeded in playing the three superpowers against one another, so that Uzbekistan retained a degree of independence in foreign affairs.

He secured closer ties with Washington by providing access to an air base important to the US war in Afghanistan, for instance, though that deal was derailed after an incident in which Uzbek security forces shot and killed unarmed protesters in 2005.

Similarly, Karimov helped launch the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) of 1992 in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent, only to later suspend Uzbekistan’s membership in that body and the Eurasian Economic Community – one of Putin’s attempted alternatives to the European Union. And though he gave rhetorical support to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, he never officially recognized it. Similarly, he briefly joined the counter-Russian GUAM (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Moldova) Organization for Democracy and Economic Development.

China, meanwhile, is the largest economic player in the region and has invested heavily in Uzbekistan, but has so far refrained from leveraging that economic might in political affairs.

Nothing is certain. But two outcomes seem likely as a result. First, Putin’s drive to gain further sway over Uzbekistan will probably be successful, as the weaker Mirziyaev leverages the relationship to solidify his hold on power. Second, and perhaps partly as a result, Uzbekistan will not emerge as a vibrant example of democracy for Central Asia anytime soon – though the resulting stability will continue to act as a bulwark against the Islamists who’d like to see the country ally with the Islamic State.

However, by vowing not to rejoin the Russia-led CSTO or enter into any military alliance, Mirziyaev this week signaled that he may be hoping for a transition like the one that followed the demise of Turkmenistan’s strongman Saparmurat Niyazov in 2006 – continuing the dictatorship and continuing to play the superpowers against each other.


Wake Up, Europe

It’s not clear whether the bulk of the European Union is in the midst of denial, anger, bargaining, depression or acceptance over the Brexit vote.

Regardless, European Council President Donald Tusk aims to force his fellow leaders into some “brutally honest” introspection at a meeting to discuss why people across the bloc are increasingly voting for eurosceptic parties that begins Friday in Bratislava.

“We must not let this crisis go to waste,” Tusk told reporters on the eve of the meeting of 27 EU leaders – which British Prime Minister Theresa May will not attend.

Taking aim at strengthening external border controls, combating terrorism and reassuring people of protection from adverse effects of economic globalization, Tusk indicated that denial, at least, is off the table.

“We can’t start our discussion … with this kind of blissful conviction that nothing is wrong, that everything was and is OK,” Tusk said.

Breaking the Ceiling

Long known for a patriarchal culture in business and politics, Japan has seen three powerful women elevated to key political posts in recent weeks.

This week Renho Murata, a 48-year-old former TV news personality and swimsuit model, was elected head of the opposition Democratic Party. On July 31, Yuriko Koike, 64, became the first female governor of Tokyo, the same week that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appointed 57-year-old Tomomi Inada his defense minister.

Though a woman was elected head of the Socialist Party as early as 1986, since that time women in high office have remained the exception rather than the rule.

Abe has pushed for measures to encourage women to pursue careers, and a new law requiring public- and private-sector organizations to set numerical targets for the hiring and promotion of female employees came into effect in April. But it’s too early to say whether the rise of the three women to top political posts is a harbinger of bigger changes, the Associated Press reported.

Coming Clean

Politicians rarely cop to mistakes, so an official mea culpa from Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos was an important step – even if it only confirmed what everybody already knew.

On Thursday, Santos admitted that the state was responsible for the killing of thousands of members of a leftist political party formed by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) during a peace deal forged some 30 years ago, Reuters reported.

Perhaps more importantly, given that the statement comes less than two weeks before he will sign a similar peace accord with FARC, he also pledged to prevent such assassinations from occurring under his watch.

As many as 5,000 members of the political party formed by FARC, called the Patriotic Union, were killed by right-wing paramilitary groups in the mid-1980s, frequently with the support of the Colombian government.


No Sarcasm Here

Dictator Kim Jong-un’s recent move to ban sarcasm notwithstanding, North Korea isn’t against laughs, as long as the jokes are politically correct.

Beginning in August, a rare comedy show has returned to Korea Central Television after an unexplained four-year hiatus, the BBC reports.

Called “The stage of optimism that Songun presented,” the show features a handful of performers mostly wearing military uniforms. Typical sketches lampoon US President Barack Obama or South Korean President Park Geun-hye, which the show calls “Granny.” But photos of a cackling studio audience – all wearing so-called “loyalty badges” – suggest that at least some folks in the Hermit Kingdom are eating it up. (Watch an episode here).

Sometimes, you really do have to laugh.

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