With The New Republic, I looked at one of the under-reported - and indicative - angles of the unfurling Trump-Russia scandal: its to Azerbaijan's kleptocracy.
All Emin Agalarov ever wanted was fame. Like most pop stars, he sought the largest limelight he could find—in Moscow and St. Petersburg, at the Miss Universe pageant, as a participant in the gaudy spectacle of EuroVision. A sort of Russian Robin Thicke, he surrounded himself with swimsuit models, established a faux-Rat Pack, and even put together a hirsute alter ego. All of it, all of his costumes and crooning, in pursuit of an international audience.
Now, following the release of Donald Trump Jr.’s staggering emails—which show the Trump campaign seeking to contact a “Russian government attorney” for dirt on Hillary Clinton—America has discovered Agalarov. As the emails illustrate, he served as the catalyst for the 2016 get-together between Trump’s team and the Russian lawyer, who according to NBC News was accompanied by a former Soviet intelligence officer. Per the messages, Agalarov encouraged his PR man, Rob Goldstone, to “contact [Trump Jr.] with something very interesting.”
The fallout from Agalarov’s efforts to hook the Trump campaign up with Natalia Veselnitskaya—and, in so doing, spark the first instance of a presidential campaign accepting aid from Moscow—continues to spread, demolishing prior attempts by the Trump campaign to deny that there was any “collusion” with the Kremlin.
But it’s not only that the Trump campaign took the bait from a hostile power. Lost in the controversy surrounding the emails’ release is the fact that the Trump team’s attempted collusion was not instigated by a mere “Russian pop star,” as Agalarov is often described. Rather, Agalarov is also a former member of the first family of Azerbaijan, a man who was once entrenched in one of the most kleptocratic regimes in the world, dominated by a family that shares discomfiting similarities with the current first family in Washington.
And with The Diplomat, I looked through the new anti-Christian crackdowns rolling through Kazakhstan:
However, any claims toward putative freedoms of religion in Kazakhstan have clearly crumbled over the past few years. Like political or press freedoms before it, religious freedom in Kazakhstan has only constricted over the prior decade. Following notorious 2011 legislation that shuttered some two-thirds of “nontraditional” religious groups in the country, Kazakhstan has only continued closing the noose around remaining “nontraditional” religions — especially those of the Christian variety.
The latest move against domestic Christian denominations, first flagged by Newsweek, came just last week, with the country’s Jehovah’s Witnesses watching operations at their Almaty headquarters suspended. The closure, which follows on the heels of Russia’s effective banning of any and all Jehovah’s Witness worship on its territory, “came less than two months after a 61-year-old believer was sentenced to five years in prison on a charge of inciting religious hatred,” Newsweek reported. As Bekzat Smagulov told the publication, “How will we think because if what happened in Russia and then we have these problems? How do you explain these things?” One of the Jehovah’s Witnesses reportedly arrested may not be “receiving proper medical care for his cancer,” according to rights activists.
Kazakhstan’s move against its Jehovah’s Witnesses is of a piece with recent raids against fellow Christian denominations. As the most recent assessment from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) on Kazakhstan illustrated, government officials recently turned their sights on Baptists and Pentecostals, the latter of which, like Jehovah’s Witnesses, originally began as an American strain of Christianity. Per USCIRF, Kazakh police “reportedly fined without trial at least three Council of Churches Baptists,” although one fine was later annulled. Police also raided a pair of Baptist summer camps last year, with a Pentecostal church in Aktau likewise “a frequent target of official harassment.” While Ahmadi and Hare Krishna texts have also been banned in the country, administrative fines — the most frequent kind of punishment deployed against religious groups in Kazakhstan — “are often levied against Christians.”