Islamic militancy is high on the agenda in Central Asia. This week, authorities have handed lengthy prison terms at two unrelated trials in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
Six people were jailed for between nine and 15 years on terrorism charges at a mass trial involving 66 suspects in southwestern Uzbekistan. A court in central Kazakhstan jailed four citizens for between six and 12 years for recruiting militants to wage holy war in Syria.
At the mass trial in the city of Qashqadaryo in Uzbekistan, three men and three women were jailed on July 22 for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government of the strongman president, Islam Karimov, and propagating terrorism, RFE/RL reported, citing the Tashkent-based Ezgulik (Compassion) human rights center.
In Kazakhstan, the conviction of the four over the Syria recruitment campaign in and around the city of Zhezkazgan, reported by Tengri News on July 22, came as media reports emerged of a new propaganda video showing 16 people believed to be from Kazakhstan (since some are speaking Kazakh) who have headed off to fight in the Middle East.
Authorities in Central Asia have frequently cited Syria-linked threats this year amid a growing number of reports that militants from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are waging holy war in Syria.
Kazakhstan has lifted visa requirements for citizens of selected countries, a move designed to lure business travelers, and which is also expected to boost the tourism sector. But even without a need for visas, tourism experts believe that Kazakhstan will remain a hard sell for foreign visitors.
Astana is rebooting a program to lure ethnic Kazakhs living abroad to move to Kazakhstan. Observers believe Astana’s revived interest in the program is motivated by a desire to limit Russia’s potential to meddle in Kazakhstani affairs.
Amid reports that two close associates of Gulnara Karimova, the embattled daughter of Uzbekistan’s strongman president Islam Karimov, have been jailed, a man claiming to represent her family has denied allegations of her involvement in bribery and money-laundering in Europe. The spokesman suggests the root of her troubles could be political infighting ahead of next year’s presidential election.
“There has been no proof to back up any of the claims made against Gulnara Karimova,” the spokesman – who works for a recognizable London-based communications firm, but insists that neither he nor the firm be identified – said in the statement, sent to EurasiaNet.org by email on July 14.
“However,” he continued, “given her relationship to the president of Uzbekistan, we cannot ignore the likelihood of these allegations against Gulnara Karimova being politically motivated ahead of the forthcoming 2015 elections.”
Karimova, a one-time powerful player previously tipped as a possible successor to her father, has reportedly been under house arrest in Tashkent since February. This follows a vitriolic family feud with her mother, Tatyana Karimova, and younger sister, Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva.
As well as her mother and sister, Karimova has blamed Rustam Inoyatov, the head of Uzbekistan’s domestic intelligence service (known as the SNB), for her woes. In an interview with Russia’s REN TV last month, her son (called Islam after his grandfather) blamed unnamed “powerful” figures for arranging the detention of his mother and 16-year-old sister Iman in Tashkent.
When Zeinulla Kakimzhanov took over a dilapidated vineyard in the foothills of the Tian Shan Mountains in south-eastern Kazakhstan in 2006, he had ample reason to wonder whether the property would ever be productive again.
Hard-drinking Kazakhstan is moving to curb alcohol abuse by extending a ban on late-night alcohol sales.
The new bill banning retail sales between 9 p.m. and noon was signed into law by President Nursultan Nazarbayev on June 18. The rules extend an existing late-night ban on alcohol sales (including beer) and will hit retail outlets which do a roaring trade in late-night booze sales. Restaurants, bars, and nightclubs will not be affected.
The law also bans alcohol sales altogether at filling stations as well as education and health institutions, but moves by parliamentarians to ban sales at markets and stadiums as well failed.
Kazakhstan raised the legal drinking age from 18 to 21 in 2009. The new bill doubles fines for selling liquor to under 21s to a maximum of $1,200 (with the revocation of an offender’s license to sell alcohol).
The government says the bill is aimed at curbing excessive alcohol consumption, for which Kazakhstan rates 34th worldwide, according to a World Health Organization survey of 188 countries released in May.
Each person in Kazakhstan aged over 15 imbibes on average 11.3 liters of alcohol a year, almost double the global average of 6.2 liters, the report said—although the government has questioned the WHO’s methodology.
The report found the prevalence of “heavy episodic drinking” (defined as consuming at least 60 grams or more of pure alcohol on at least one occasion in the past 30 days) to be 7.8 percent in Kazakhstan. Among drinking males the prevalence stood at 30 percent. Some 8.9 percent of males and 1.9 percent of females have drinking disorders in Kazakhstan, according to the report.
The WHO singles out Kazakhstan as one of 11 countries with the “most risky patterns” of drinking.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye kicked off a six-day tour of Central Asia on June 16 in Uzbekistan.
Park was reportedly pushing for new joint gas-sector projects in Uzbekistan, and offering investment in a $300-million solar energy plant that is to be built in Samarkand as part of Uzbekistan’s fledgling renewable energy industry.
Two deals worth $350 million were signed on June 17, Uzbek media reported. Under the first, the Korea International Cooperation Agency will provide $250 million for investment in unspecified projects; the second involves a $100 loan agreement between the National Bank of Uzbekistan and South Korea’s Exim Bank to invest in joint projects.
Park and her Uzbek host, President Islam Karimov, issued a joint statement vowing to boost trade and investment, especially in the IT sphere, as well as road and rail construction, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported.
South Korea’s INHA University is to open a university in Tashkent specializing in IT courses in the coming academic year, it was reported in March.
With an estimated $8 billion worth of joint projects, South Korea is now one of Uzbekistan’s largest investors, along with Russia, China, and Kazakhstan. One of South Korea’s top investment spheres is energy; South Korean companies are building a gas processing plant at the Kandym gas field and a gas and chemical plant at the Surgil field. Textiles have also attracted South Korean interest, with three factories owned by Daewoo International corporation operating in Uzbekistan.
Isabel Santos, chair of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly's Committee on Democracy, Human Rights and Humanitarian Questions, wrapped up a short visit to Kazakhstan on June 11. In talks with officials, Santos raised concerns about Astana’s track record on democracy and civil society.
The Canadian company operating Kyrgyzstan’s troubled Kumtor gold mine has announced that a shutdown will not happen. A last-minute agreement appears to end a period of brinksmanship between Kyrgyz officials and company representatives that could have pushed the country’s shaky economy over the edge.
Toronto-listed Centerra Gold threatened on June 2 to start implementing a shutdown plan at close of business on June 13, if it did not receive government approval for its annual work plan. Centerra executives said they had been seeking approval since late last year.
The company – Kyrgyzstan’s largest investor – said that “despite repeated submissions and discussions with senior officials,” the company remained in limbo, unable to receive the necessary permits to operate until Bishkek signed off on the work plan.
Environmental concerns were one reason for the hold-up: the State Agency for Environmental Protection had voiced misgivings that the company’s plans could damage the Davydov Glacier high up in the Tian Shan Mountains, where the mine is located.
Centerra Gold warned that “an extended shutdown […] would likely have a material adverse impact on the Kumtor mine and the Company’s operations, future cash flows, earnings, results of operations and financial condition.”
Astana is abolishing visa requirements for citizens of 10 countries with a strong track record of investing in Kazakhstan, President Nursultan Nazarbayev has announced.
The visa-free countries are France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, the Netherlands, South Korea, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and the United States, Nazarbayev told a June 12 gathering of the Foreign Investors Council at the lake resort of Burabay, to the north of Astana.
The visa-free system is expected to go into effect on July 15 and initially be in force for a pilot period of one year, Rapil Zhoshibayev, the deputy foreign minister, later explained. Citizens of 10 designated countries can stay in Kazakhstan without visas for 15 days; anyone needing to stay longer would be required to apply for business or investor visas.
Astana is also mulling simplifying the visa process with the introduction of online applications for tourists from China, India and Middle Eastern states, Aset Ishekeshev, the minister of industry and new technologies, announced on June 16.
The visa-free regime is part of a package of investment perks that Nazarbayev signed into law on June 12, which also includes tax breaks.
The perks are part of a push by Astana to attract investment, especially outside the extractive sectors. They are part of the government’s strategy to diversify the economy away from oil and gas, upon which it is heavily reliant at present.