President Islam Karimov has hit the campaign trail in Uzbekistan, after several weeks of absence from public life sparked rumors that the septuagenarian leader’s health was failing ahead of a presidential election next month.
Karimov appeared on state television late on February 19 campaigning in the southern region of Qashqadaryo, a source in Tashkent told EurasiaNet.org. TV footage showed the president addressing a meeting of several hundred voters in the city of Qarshi, after Uzbekistani media reported – citing a source in the ruling Liberal-Democratic Party of Uzbekistan – that he had left for Qashqadaryo and other regions to campaign.
Karimov had last been seen in public on January 27, when he received the credentials of incoming US Ambassador Pamela Spratlen. On February 6 he reportedly presented his election manifesto to the Liberal-Democratic Party, which he heads and which has nominated him to stand in the presidential election on March 29. But Uzbekistani TV did not broadcast footage of that appearance until February 18.
In that speech, he railed against the USSR as a “a system of totalitarianism and repression,” accorded to translated excerpts emailed by the US Embassy in Tashkent the next day.
Karimov’s unusually long absence from TV screens had fueled rumors that the health of the 77-year-old president was failing, helped along by reports on an opposition website notorious for planting canards about his imminent demise that he had fallen into a coma.
Moves are afoot in Kazakhstan to hold a snap presidential election. Proponents say an early election would give incumbent strongman Nursultan Nazarbayev a fresh mandate as the country faces a slumping economy and regional geopolitical tensions over the Ukraine conflict.
Nazarbayev, who has ruled Kazakhstan since before the collapse of the Soviet Union, won a snap election with little opposition in 2011.
The council of Assembly of People of Kazakhstan (APK), an umbrella organization representing the interests of Kazakhstan’s ethnic groups, called for the early election over the weekend. Nazarbayev chairs the organization and appoints its members.
“The country’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, must be given a new mandate of national confidence in order for the country to successfully navigate a period of global travails,” the APK’s council said in a statement issued on February 14, hinting at Kazakhstan’s economic difficulties and at regional tensions stemming from the escalating conflict in Ukraine.
“A mandate of confidence in the Leader of the Nation [one of Nazarbayev’s official titles] will unite and rally the people at this new stage of world development, allowing all efforts to be concentrated on the most important questions of state development,” the council said.
This public appeal from a quasi-official body for a snap election (which has been rumored for several months) means an early vote is practically a fait accompli. And it is no secret who is the favorite to win.
With Kazakhstan in the economic doldrums, the government is asking the “independent” media to don their rose-colored specs.
“At a time when measures to improve the economic situation are being carried out, the media is recommended to adhere to the following structure for publishing material,” says a statement sent to Kazakhstan’s private media outlets by the authoritarian government's Committee for Communications, IT, and Information and re-published by the Adil Soz media freedom watchdog on February 12.
A list of detailed “recommendations” follows, containing information on what the non-state media should publish, right down to the content, the frequency, and the thrust of the reporting.
The recommendations include publishing “material on every briefing as they are held (1-2 reports in the ‘Main News’ section)”; expert comments on the “correct measures [being taken by the government] and Kazakhstan’s margin of safety that will allow it to withstand a crisis”; and “infographics about Kazakhstan’s margin of safety and achievements in the years of independence (no less than once a month).”
Private media are also recommended to base their reporting on “official statements by competent state bodies,” and they should publish material “on negative social phenomena in foreign countries owing to the global economic situation (daily).”
Rumors that Uzbekistan’s strongman leader, Islam Karimov, has fallen ill are swirling around Tashkent, yet again, as the country heads for a presidential election in March.
The gossip stems from reports on an opposition website based abroad which is notorious for planting canards about Karimov’s alleged ill health and impending demise. Nevertheless, the fact that the ageing president – who turned 77 last month – has not been seen in public for over two weeks has set tongues wagging in the Uzbek capital.
The rumors surfaced late last month, when the People’s Movement of Uzbekistan (PMU), a Norway-based opposition group headed by long-exiled leader Muhammad Solih, reported – citing unidentified “sources” – that Karimov had fallen into a coma on January 28.
Many observers treated the report with skepticism, since the PMU is known for reporting ill-sourced information about Karimov’s health. In spring 2013, the PMU’s report that Uzbekistan’s president had had a heart attack and was at death’s door did the rounds of the world’s media. But Karimov soon turned up safe and sound.
He may well do again – but it now transpires that Karimov has not been seen in public for over two weeks, as the Fergana News website reports – despite the fact that a presidential election campaign in which he is the only realistic candidate is supposedly in full swing.
“Kazakhstan is a land of unity and accord,” reads the billboard looming over the highway to the southern village of Bostandyk, which was hit by ethnic clashes between the Kazakh and Tajik communities last week.
Kazakhstan is blocking reports of an ethnic clash in the south, in a sign of sensitivities in Astana over friction between two of the country’s 140 ethnic groups.
Reports highlighting the ethnic angle of the unrest in the village of Bostandyk on February 5 – which pitted local Kazakhs against Tajiks after a row over a greenhouse ended in murder – have mostly become unavailable inside the country, while reports that covered the unrest without stressing the ethnic component are largely available.
Individual reports have been blocked on Kazakhstani sites such as Today.kz and in international media such as EurasiaNet.org and RFE/RL (some of whose reports were blocked while others were not).
Blocking individual reports rather than whole sites is a tactic increasingly used by the authorities to restrict access to information Astana deems sensitive. Legislative changes last year gave prosecutors power to block information without a court order. Since last fall law-enforcement agencies have blocked 703 websites and 198 individual reports, general-prosecutor Askhat Daulbayev said last month, mostly on grounds of extremism.
Calm has returned to a village in southern Kazakhstan following clashes between ethnic Kazakhs and ethnic Tajiks after a Kazakh man was murdered in an argument over a greenhouse.
Enraged friends and relatives of the murder victim, 30-year-old Bakytzhan Artykov, set fire to cars, damaged buildings, and attacked a Tajik-language school (no children were inside) in the village of Bostandyk, local resident Behruz (not his real name) told EurasiaNet.org by telephone.
“They set fire to buildings and cars,” the eyewitness said. “My own car was set on fire.”
He described how some 300 Kazakhs arrived in Bostandyk from the neighboring village of Yntymak on February 5 following the funeral of Artykov (whom police suspect was murdered by Navmidin Narmetov, a Tajik man now on the run). They rampaged through the streets from around 6 p.m. to midnight on February 5, despite the presence of riot police who arrived in response, Behruz said.
Grainy cellphone footage posted on YouTube said to be from Bostandyk (its authenticity could not be verified), a village mainly inhabited by ethnic Tajiks and located in the southern Saryagash District near the border with Uzbekistan, showed scenes of angry locals, some wielding sticks, and a burning car.
The administration of Nursultan Nazarbayev touts Kazakhstan as a model of tolerance because of the level of harmony among its 140 different ethnic groups. This unrest reveals how arguments can quickly escalate and split locals along ethnic lines.
Some of the attackers were shouting that Tajiks should leave for Tajikistan, Behruz said, “as if we were foreigners in our own country.”
Kazakhstan's slowing economy is pinching the country's industrial heartland.
Several industrial behemoths have announced cutbacks that they blame on a toxic mix of factors hitting their bottom lines, from falling commodity prices to an overvalued tenge. And as the enterprises pass the losses onto their workers, Astana is looking on anxiously, with memories of violent unrest in Kazakhstan’s oil fields still fresh.
Copper producer KAZ Minerals (previously called Kazakhmys) announced on February 2 that it would temporarily shut down unprofitable operations and redeploy 2,000 employees to other projects—though it promised no “mass” job cuts for its staff of 60,000. Meanwhile, steel producer ArcelorMittal Temirtau slashed salaries in January, reducing local staff pay by a quarter and cutting expatriate salaries in half.
KAZ Minerals pointed the finger at “complicated economic conditions” mostly brought on by a fall in copper prices, while ArcelorMittal Temirtau blamed a cash shortage caused by “a complicated geopolitical situation” (shorthand for economic problems stemming from the conflict in Ukraine and western sanctions against Russia). ArcelorMittal also blamed the regional economic slowdown and an “unfavorable” sales market.
The company – owned by international steel giant ArcelorMittal – said it could not compete with Russian steel, which is cheaper following the dramatic fall in the value of the ruble.
Industrialists from car manufacturers to natural resources exporters have been complaining for months that the value of Kazakhstan’s currency is eroding their competitive edge.
Adam Bol editor Guljan Yergaliyeva in her office. (Photo: Joanna Lillis)
An appeal against the closure of a hard-hitting current affairs magazine was adjourned on February 5 amid circumstances that its hunger-striking editor described as “absurd.”
The hearing was adjourned after the plaintiff, Almaty City Hall, failed to show up, citing illness. That left Adam Bol magazine’s supporters questioning why the mayor’s office could not find another official to appear at the hearing.
One of the last remaining independent media outlets in Kazakhstan, Adam Bol was closed in November after a judge upheld the mayor’s office’s claim that it had called for war in its Ukraine coverage.
Wearing a white armband with “hunger strike” emblazoned across it in red letters and looking visibly emaciated, Adam Bol editor Guljan Yergaliyeva – a 63-year-old veteran journalist – said she believed the delay might be down to the “huge fallout” from the controversy.
The adjournment might be a “good sign” that the authorities may reconsider the closure, Yergaliyeva said. But some supporters suggested the government is simply hoping the publicity will die down.
The closure was described at the time by OSCE freedom of the media representative Dunja Mijatović as a “drastic and disproportionate” step that would “endanger pluralism in Kazakhstan and contribute to an atmosphere of fear for members of the media,” and by Reporters Without Borders as the “orchestrated throttling” of the magazine.