The Russia-Ukraine crisis is having a profoundly unsettling effect on authoritarian-minded governments in Central Asia. On the one hand, they are keen to keep the forces unleashed by the Euromaidan movement at bay; on the other, they appear unnerved by the Kremlin’s power play.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s administration in Kazakhstan has weathered the tempest stirred up by the devaluation of the country’s currency earlier in February. But officials now face a longer-term test as they confront an erosion of public trust.
Central Asia’s autocrats were no doubt watching askance as Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich fell from power this weekend. But regional media coverage of the dramatic developments in that other volatile former Soviet republic, while generally cautious, has presented a few surprises.
Of course, given the unpleasant parallels between Yanukovich’s governing style and the rule of Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan and Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov in Turkmenistan, those countries’ tightly controlled media have maintained a studied silence on popular protests that overthrew an entrenched leader.
However, one Uzbek website that sometimes takes a maverick stance did broach the topic – pooh-poohing the idea of a Ukraine-style scenario playing out in Uzbekistan.
The circumstances in the two countries do not bear comparison, argued a commentary published February 25 on Uzmetronom, a site believed to have links to the powerful SNB domestic intelligence agency. Karimov is not susceptible to Western pressure, said editor-in-chief Sergey Yezhkov, and it is more in his nature to make a last stand than to give up power.
Officials also know where their bread is buttered, Yezhkov continued, and take the view that “better a bit of bread and butter today (being in power guarantees this) than uncertainty in the future.” Finally, ordinary people have something to lose: “It is paradoxical, but [even] with serious restrictions on political and civil liberties [and] a difficult economic situation… [still] no harbingers or signs of a rebellion are observed in Uzbekistan.”
Security officials in several Central Asia states are playing up the threat posed by Islamic militants returning to the region from Syria. While authorities warn of potential problems ahead, analysts are struggling to assess the real risk level.
Kazakhstan’s central bank is appealing for calm as rumors that some financial institutions are in trouble following last week’s currency devaluation have provoked a run on three banks.
On February 19 the National Bank sent text messages to the public urging people to disregard the “false information” and not succumb to panic.
“All Kazakhstani banks have sufficient funds in national and foreign currency,” the messages read; people should not submit to “provocations” and “keep calm.”
Large queues formed at some banks in the financial capital, Almaty, for a second day on February 19 as customers rush to withdraw funds, fearing a bank collapse.
A EurasiaNet.org correspondent witnessed a line spilling out onto the street at a downtown branch of Kaspi Bank, where around 30 people were waiting to enter and more were lining up inside – underlining that, as rumors circulate fast on social networks, they risk becoming self-fulfilling.
Kaspi Bank – which has offered a 100 million tenge ($540,000) reward for information on the origin of the rumors – issued a statement around lunchtime on February 19 saying that sums five times greater than usual had been withdrawn in cash on that day alone, but that the bank was meeting all its obligations.
Three women arrested for wearing panties on their heads were among nearly three dozen protesters hauled through the courts in Almaty this weekend, as last week’s devaluation of the tenge brought demonstrators out onto the streets of Kazakhstan’s commercial capital.
Zhanna Baytelova, Yevgeniya Plakhina, and Valeriya Ibrayeva were arrested at an anti-devaluation protest on February 16 after putting lace panties on their heads and trying to place them on a monument to Kazakhstan’s independence.
They were immediately tried on hooliganism charges and fined around $100 each. Their quirky protest was inspired by obscure regulations, due to come into force in July, that will govern the level of moisture absorption in underwear sold in Customs Union member states Kazakhstan, Russia and Belarus.
The action, Plakhina told EurasiaNet.org “is a symbol of the absurdity which is taking place in our country, including the recent tenge devaluation.”
“In Russian we have a saying, ‘giving one’s last underpants,’ which literally means becoming poor,” she explained. “This was a symbolic action.”
The three women were among five people arrested at the small anti-devaluation rally that drew around 30 people on Republic Square. That followed a larger rally the previous day, which riot police broke up after some 200 protesters marched to Republic Square.
Up to several dozen protesters demonstrating against Kazakhstan’s recent devaluation of the national currency were arrested on February 15 in the commercial capital, Almaty.
Riot police swooped down on as many as 200 protesters as they marched to city hall from their original venue nearby, where they had held a small unsanctioned rally against this week’s 19-percent devaluation of the tenge. Demonstrators urged government action over mounting socioeconomic problems and inflation.
Kanagat Takeyeva, who was designated spokeswoman among protesters who besieged the National Bank headquarters on February 12, was among the detained. “They’re taking me away,” she shouted into her telephone, as riot police grabbed her arms and marched her to a police truck amid what appeared to be targeted arrests of specific protesters.
It was not immediately clear how many arrests were made; EurasiaNet.org witnessed six, but witnesses spoke of up to 30. Three trucks containing detainees drove off.
The security forces moved in as the protesters attempted to reach Republic Square in front of Almaty’s city hall. Police formed a cordon to enclose protesters and chased down some who had escaped.
A prosecutor speaking through a megaphone warned the demonstrators to disperse and cautioned them that they were breaking Kazakhstan’s strict law on public assembly, which requires protesters to obtain official permission 10 days before a rally. Demonstrators breaching that law face fines or up to 15 days in jail.
Protesters in Kazakhstan’s commercial capital, Almaty, forced their way into the National Bank on February 12 to confront the country’s top financial officials over the sudden devaluation of the tenge, which wiped a fifth off the value of the currency in one fell swoop the previous day.
A group of around 50 people – including low-paid workers, worried mortgage holders, and pensioners – gathered outside the bank in freezing temperatures, demanding a meeting with National Bank chief Kayrat Kelimbetov to address concerns about spiraling inflation that analysts say is certain to result from the devaluation.
“What are the people to do? How should they act in this situation? What is the way out? We want to know this!” Zhasaral Kuanyshalin, a prominent activist who was taking part in the protest, told EurasiaNet.org.
Police stood by as irate protesters barged into the National Bank’s lobby. Riot police reinforcements were summoned, but management moved to deflate tension by inviting the demonstrators inside.
At a turbulent meeting with National Bank Deputy Chairman Kuat Kozhakmetov, Kanagat Takeyeva, a designated spokeswoman for the protesters, put forward demands ranging from a meeting with Kelimbetov (who is in Astana, the capital) to jobs and tackling the rising cost of housing and mortgages.
Kozhakmetov’s explanations that the government had pledged to rein in inflation (which is inevitable as the price of hard currency-denominated imports rockets in the wake of the devaluation) were met with cries of “Lies, lies!” “Why do you deceive us?” and “Kelimbetov, resign!” The meeting broke up inconclusively, with Kozhakmetov promising to consider the demands.
The retrial in Kazakhstan of a man convicted of the 2006 murder of a leading opposition leader was supposed to fill in blanks left by the initial proceedings. Instead, it reopened old wounds for the victim’s family and raised fresh questions about the fairness of Kazakhstan’s justice system.
Kazakhstan allowed a rapid-fire devaluation of the tenge on February 11, causing the currency to lose a fifth of its value.
The National Bank announced the devaluation without notice to forestall panic buying and currency speculation. In a statement the bank said it had decided to stop its costly policy of propping up the tenge and let it slide to a new currency corridor of 185 tenge to the dollar, plus or minus 3 tenge. That is 19 percent lower than the official National Bank rate of 155.5 tenge early on February 11.
The news caused public outrage, particularly since the devaluation comes just a month after National Bank Chairman Kairat Kelimbetov denied – again – that Kazakhstan would be forced to stop pouring reserves into propping up the currency.
Social networks were abuzz with consternation about the devaluation, with users incensed that their tenge-denominated salaries and savings will be worth around a fifth less in dollar terms, and that sharp rises in the prices of imports (on which Kazakhstan is heavily dependent for everything from food to consumer goods) will follow.
“The government of my country just broke my heart,” commented one user, Zauresh Amanzholova.
At a stormy press conference, Kelimbetov fought off resignation calls, defended the devaluation, and said Astana would strive to keep inflation within the now ambitious target of 6-8 percent this year.