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Britain's Prince Harry is no stranger to press controversy. (file photo)
The British royal family has come under fire after Prince Harry, the grandson of Queen Elizabeth, accepted a luxury ski trip to Kazakhstan sponsored by a close associate of President Nursultan Nazarbaev.

Twenty-nine-year-old Harry and his girlfriend, Cressida Bonas, took a four-day trip to the oil-rich Central Asian nation this week, enjoying heli-skiing, gourmet mountaintop meals, and chairs lined with warm fur blankets.

Britain's " Daily Mail" newspaper reports that the trip was paid for by Burak Oymen, a Turkish-born property developer and the son of senior Turkish politician Onur Oymen.

Burak Oymen and his business partner, Serzhan Zhumashov, have built a number of luxury properties in Kazakhstan. Both men are considered to be close to the Kazakh president.

Buckingham Palace has defended Harry's trip as a "private" holiday, but Amnesty International has condemned the visit, accusing the Queen's grandson of ignoring Kazakhstan's record of brutal rights violations.

"[Harry] might want to spare a thought for the people who aren't going to be sharing the slopes with him," said Amnesty spokesman Allan Hogarth. "Kazakhstan is a repressive country where torture is rife and political opposition is crushed."

It is not the first intersection between Britain's royal family and the Kazakh elite. Harry's uncle, Prince Andrew, came under scrutiny in 2010 when it emerged that he had sold a country house to Timur Kulibaev, a Kazakh billionaire and Nazarbaev's son-in-law.

The purchase of the 600-acre Sunninghill Park estate was notable because Kulibaev, who spent $28.5 million to buy the house, paid nearly $6 million more than the asking price -- fueling suspicion the purchase was more a favor than a simple real-estate transaction. The house, run-down to begin with, remains unoccupied.

Andrew has also been photographed repeatedly with Goga Ashkenazi, a wealthy Kazakh socialite who was also Kulibaev's mistress. The couple had two children together, a fact that did not appear to disrupt Kulibaev's marriage to Nazarbaev's middle daughter, Dinara.

Ashkenazi, for her part, has said she "loves" Prince Andrew.

The apparent coziness between the royal family and the Kazakh elite extends to Britain's top political figures. The firm of former Prime Minister Tony Blair was paid $13 million dollars to serve as a special adviser to Nazarbaev, a deal that earned him jeers from the rights community.

Nazarbaev, who sits atop one of the world's richest sources of oil, gas, and minerals, has courted favor with Western leaders in an attempt to transform his post-Soviet country into an international power.

But its rights record continues to deteriorate, with Human Rights Watch noting in its 2014 global report growing crackdowns on free speech and public assembly, political prosecutions, and the continued use of police torture.

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-- Daisy Sindelar
Armenian Consul-General in St. Petersburg Hrair Karapetian (file photo)
Yerevan's consul-general in St. Petersburg, Hrair Karapetian, has denied local reports that he recognized Russia's annexation of Crimea as "reunification," according to RFE/RL's Armenian Service.

The official website of Russia’s Pskov Oblast published a report earlier this week suggesting Karapetian in a March 24 meeting with Pskov Governor Andrey Turchak "congratulated the Russian official and all Russians on the reunification of Crimea with Russia."

Armenia's relations with Moscow -- and indeed Kyiv -- are under particular scrutiny since Yerevan essentially abandoned hopes of an Association Agreement with the European Union by pledging in September to join the Customs Union of Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.

Ukraine's government protested and withdrew its ambassador to Armenia after Yerevan's president endorsed the March 16 referendum in Crimea, which has been occupied by Russian troops and pro-Moscow forces since late February, as legitimate.

Correspondent Aza Babayan writes of the consul-general in St. Petersburg's denial and the previous statements from Yerevan:
Karapetian rushed to deny the report, saying that his meeting with Turchak was of a ‘fact-finding nature’ and that during it they mostly discussed community issues, as well as issues connected with the development of economic ties between the Pskov Oblast and Armenia.

The Armenian diplomat underscored that he did not make any such statements during the meeting, suggesting that the reporter who covered the event "may have confused something."

“Taking the opportunity, I said that, of course, our official position is -- and both the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other sources declared about that -- that the right of peoples to self-determination, which was accepted in relevant UN documents, must be respected. I also cited the example of Nagorno-Karabakh as a self-determined territory and our conversation was limited to that," Karapetian explained.

"Probably the regional correspondent, who was listening to our conversation, concluded for himself that this could be presented as a greeting or congratulation regarding the recognition of Crimea [as part of Russia], and that way the wrongwording appeared. I corrected that, turning to the corresponding news service, the problem was corrected,” Armenia’s consul general to St. Petersburg told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service (Azatutyun.am).

In their telephone conversation on March 19, Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin were quoted as stating that the referendum in Crimea “constitutes another case of exercise of peoples’ right to self-determination via free expression of will.”

Ukraine construed that statement as Armenia’s recognition of Russia’s annexation of what official Kyiv and the broader international community still consider to be Ukrainian territory. Last week Ukraine officially recalled its ambassador from Armenia, warning of serious damage to bilateral ties.

Earlier, United States Ambassador to Armenia John Heffern voiced Washington’s disappointment with the Armenian government’s decision to effectively recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea strongly condemned by the West.

Talking to RFE/RL’s Armenian Service (Azatutyun.am) on Tuesday, German Ambassador to Armenia Reiner Morell, however, allowed for this to be a simple statement of Yerevan’s approach towards the right of peoples to self-determination in general. He said the German Embassy in Yerevan had got that understanding from its communication with the Armenian government.

-- RFE/RL Newsroom

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About This Blog

Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at transmission+rferl.org

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