Opposition politicians and protesters gathered in Yerevan, claiming that Armenia’s November 7 referendum on constitutional reforms was marked with high rates of corruption. According to Armenia’s Central Election Commission, 63.5% of voters purportedly elected to pass a packet of over 200 changes to the constitution. One of the reforms would curb presidential powers but extend the term from five to seven years. Activists allege this would allow current President Serzh Sargsyan to stay in power past the 2018 end of his second term, which Sargsyan refutes, saying he has no ambition to continue in office.
The European Platform for Democratic Elections, Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and the Armenian branch of Transparency International reported widespread irregularities in the December 6 referendum, including ballot-box stuffing, registering votes of the deceased, bribery at polling stations, harassment of reporters and protesters and carousel voting. Head of the Opposition National Congress and MP Levon Zurabian boycotted the referendum and rejected the turnout figures. State count put voter turnout at just over 50% of the population, which officials with the majority Republican Party of Armenia (RPA) asserted showed the population’s activism. Civic activists and Transparency International alleged that 300,000 to 500,000 (as much as a third of the reported 1.5 million turnout) of the votes were illegitimate, pointing to voting lists on which were registered individuals who had left the country years ago.
The reforms are slated to go into effect after the 2017 parliamentary elections. If implemented, they would change Armenia from a presidential to parliamentary republic. Presidential elections would be abolished, with the national parliament electing the president, from whom head-of-state powers would be transferred to the Prime Minister. Critics of the reforms contend that they would benefit the RPA, which currently controls most government bodies including parliament through a majority. Observers note that the rise to power of the RPA, based on a conservative, nationalist ideology, has mirrored the popularity of right-wing groups that have repressed political opposition across the CIS, including in Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, its co-members in the Eurasian Economic Union.
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- Russian media outlet Sputnik reported that Kazakhstan has agreed to allow Russia to use the Balkhash radio communications facility as part of its ballistic missile early warning system. Russian Defense Ministry International Cooperation Department Chair Sergei Koshelev commented that the addition would be valuable in ensuring the security of Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) member states and further cooperation with Russia, as it continually monitors launches all ballistic missile launches in the region. Kazakhstan and Russia agreed to develop a common air defense system in 2013, the practical implementation of which commenced in April, according to Kazakh Defense Minister Imangali Tasmagambetov. Russia purportedly delivered five S-300 air defense missiles to Kazakhstan in August. A draft of a similar agreement is also waiting to be signed by Armenia and Russia, which has proposed similar plans with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as well.
- Two US officials reported to media that Iran tested another ballistic missile last month in violation of two United Nations Security Council resolutions. According to them, the test took place on November 21 with a missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, near the port city of Chabahar near the border with Pakistan. The alleged test follows a similar one in October that prompted Britain, France, Germany and the US to call for Security Council action, which so far has not been taken. Russia’s envoy to the UN nuclear watchdog reported that he expected the July nuclear deal to be implemented in January, leading to lifting of economic sanctions from the West against Iran. An aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin told press that lifting economic sanctions could bring billions in weapons contracts between Iran and Russia, as Ground Force Commander Brigadier General Ahmad Reza Pourdastan announced Iranian plans to buy T-90 main battle tanks from Russia.
- Kazakhstan’s Kashagan oil field will resume work at the end of 2016, stated a plan laid out by Minister of Economy Yerbolat Dosayev. According to the government, Kashagan could produce 13 million tons in 2020. Work will also begin on expanding Tengizchevroil, a joint venture including Chevron and Exxon Mobil, charged with developing fields estimated to hold up to 1.1 billion tons of crude. In July, the Ministry of Energy reduced its forecast by 11.5% from 104 million tons to 92 million for 2020, predicting a drop in output due to falling oil prices. Deputy Energy Minister Mazgum Mirzagaliyev repeated the revised forecast, reporting that output would take a temporary dip from 77 to 79 million tons in 2016, climbing up to 92 million by 2020. Prime Minister Massimov stated in July that operations will resume by the start of 2017 at Kashagan, which commenced work in 2013 but was shut down shortly thereafter due to technical flaws.
- Ukraine partially restored power to Crimea, as one of four damaged power lines were reconnected to Ukraine’s energy grid. Local authorities reported that the Kakhovskyy-Titan line was repaired with the consent of Crimean Tatar and right-wing activists that had been blocking electricians’ access. Russia Today reported that last week the first of two power lines capable of supplying Crimea with 80-90% of its energy needs was laid across the Kerch Strait from mainland Russia, and that the second cable of the energy bridge is expected to be connected by December 20, the deadline for Ukraine to repay its $3 billion debt in full to Russia. Crimea currently receives at least 70% of its power from Ukraine, all of which was cut off after two pylons were downed on November 21.
- Kazakhstani Minister of Economy Yebolat Dosayev announced in a government meeting plans to introduce a flexible key rate mechanism in April 2016 to control inflation. The central bank earlier postponed meetings to review its key rate, the base interest rate set by the government. Kazakhstan raised its key rate from 12% to 16% in October, which an expert commented would raise the tenge’s attractiveness and discourage banks from borrowing to buy dollars. The tenge has been volatile since its devaluation in August, raising the exchange rate from around 180 to over 300 tenge to 1 USD, and continues to fluctuate.
- Afghan President Ashraf Ghani told press that there is no evidence that Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour is dead, three days after his press secretary tweeted that Mansour had been killed. Sources within the Pakistani Taliban reported last week that Mansour perished in a shootout between leaders of the Islamist movement in western Pakistan, but were refuted by the Taliban’s main spokesman. The Taliban later released an audio message purporting to show Mansour is still alive, as a voice claiming to be his asserted that rumors of his injury were circulating to spread divisions within the group.
- A magnitute 7.2 earthquake hit a remote region of Tajikistan, where according to the national press, two died from rockfall and a reported 500 homes were damaged. The earthquake’s epicenter was located approximately 69 miles west from Lake Karakul in Tajikistan’s Pamir region, near the border with Kyrgyzstan. RIA Novosti reported no damage to Russian military bases in the region, and the quake was felt mildly in the capital Dushanbe. Azerbaijan sent nearly $1 million in aid, mostly food and temporary housing supplies to Kyrgyzstan’s southern Osh region in connection with the earthquake.