Uzbekistan’s long-serving leader Islam Karimov has been granted an extension of his current seven-year term of office, which will now stretch into 2015.
According to a law passed by the Senate on March 23, Karimov will face reelection in spring 2015, though his term officially ends in December 2014.
The new law stipulates that presidential elections will be held 90 days after the official results of parliamentary elections, scheduled for December 2014, are published, meaning that voters won’t get to choose their president until spring 2015.
The Senate session heard that the law would “give a powerful impulse to further modernization of the state legal and political system and deepening of democratic reforms and the formation of civil society,” the official UzA news agency reported.
That will no doubt be welcome to the people of Uzbekistan, which has never held an election deemed free and fair by credible international observers.
Like many a Central Asian strongman, Karimov is no stranger to sleights of hand over term limits.
In 1995 he didn’t bother going to the ballot box, using a referendum to extend his rule. In 2000 he stood for reelection in a one-horse race: The “opposition” challenger publicly acknowledged that he had chosen to vote against himself and for Karimov.
In 2002 presidential terms were extended to seven years from five by referendum, prolonging this political survivor’s rule for two more years.
Officials in Astana famously lose their sense of humor when it comes to Borat, so the playing of his spoof version of Kazakhstan’s national anthem at a sporting ceremony in Kuwait isn’t raising many smiles in the Kazakh capital.
The Borat anthem was accidentally played by organizers at a medal ceremony at the Arab Shooting Championships. Gold medalist Maria Dmitrienko stood on the podium looking bemused at the mix-up, which was described as a “scandal” by Kazakh Foreign Ministry spokesman Ilyas Omarov.
The film featured Sacha Baron Cohen as a spoof journalist from Kazakhstan who engages in sexist, racist and childish antics around America. It delighted audiences in the West but left officials and ordinary people in Kazakhstan – where cinemas declined to show it – fuming that their country had been singled out for ridicule.
Kazakhstan’s not having much luck with its national anthem lately: The blunder in Kuwait came days after a goof-up in northern Kazakhstan, where the Ricky Martin song Livin' la Vida Loca was accidentally played instead of the national anthem at the opening of a skiing festival.
Attendees pray for those who died in Zhanaozen 100 days ago.
An opposition rally in downtown Almaty on March 24 drew only a couple of hundred demonstrators, indicating that a protest movement launched in the wake of violence in Zhanaozen in December and disputed parliamentary elections in January is losing momentum. Police abandoned the heavy-handed tactics they employed at a rally in February, keeping their distance and allowing the demonstration to proceed.
Protestors could not reach the planned demonstration site around a statue to Kazakh poet Abay, however, because it was cordoned off for a public celebration that some activists believed was arranged to thwart them. Music from that event drowned out prayers at the rally for those who died in Zhanaozen a symbolic 100 days ago, blasting through the minute’s silence observed in memory.
Top leaders from the OSDP Azat party, which has been a driving force in the protest movement, did not attend. Co-leader Bolat Abilov and deputy leader Amirzhan Kosanov, who both served two short prison sentences for organizing rallies without official permission in January and February, flew to western Kazakhstan to attend mourning ceremonies for the victims of the Zhanaozen violence.
Scenes from the Navruz spring festival in Samarkand.
In the fabled Silk Road city of Samarkand there’s singing, dancing and kite flying, and the city’s a riot of color as women take to the streets in their bright Uzbek silks. Uzbekistan may have put a dampener on Valentine’s Day last month, but it’s celebrating Navruz -- “new day,” the Persian New Year -- in style.
The Navruz spring equinox festival is marked by Turkic and Persian peoples across Central Asia and in places such as Azerbaijan, Iran and Turkey (chiefly, in the latter, among Kurds).
Despite unusually freezing temperatures and recent snow on the ground, Samarkand, with its mixed population of Uzbeks and ethnic Tajiks, is embracing the festival enthusiastically. Residents are particularly glad to be marking the end of what’s been an abnormally long, harsh winter.
Children are performing stunts with colorful kites above the majestic turquoise domes of the Registan, and schools are competing to see which has produced the grandest stall this year. The stalls are manned by bowing girls dressed as brides or wearing traditional atlas silks, and they are plying passers-by with free snacks. These are dishes traditionally cooked up for Navruz and believed to fortify the body after the winter.
King among them is sumalak, made of wheat shoots, oil, flour and water. Women make a culinary festival out of this cooking ritual—sumalak must be stirred continuously for 24 hours, and they gather at each other’s houses to help with all that arduous mixing, casting stones into the pot for luck. The people of Uzbekistan attach mystical properties to sumalak: One Samarkand resident said his wife had wished for a son every year while cooking sumalak, and after seven years (seven is a lucky number here) her wish was granted and he fathered a boy.
Newspaper editor Igor Vinyavskiy, who had been in detention facing seven years on charges of anti-constitutional activities, has been abruptly freed under amnesty. The authorities’ surprise about-face comes only days after they suddenly released a lawyer who was jailed for her role advising striking oil workers in the troubled town of Zhanaozen.
Vinyavskiy was released on March 15 and shortly afterwards posted a message on Facebook: “I’m free. At home. From the bottom of my heart I thank those who supported me, since that warmed my soul.”
Vinyavskiy was arrested on January 23 on suspicion of advocating the “violent change of constitutional order” with some leaflets authorities seized almost two years previously. He was arrested on the same day Vladimir Kozlov, leader of the unregistered Alga! party, was detained on suspicion of inciting violence in Zhanaozen, where 17 people were killed in December when security forces fired on protestors.
The timing, amid a political crackdown in Kazakhstan, sparked suspicions that Vinyavskiy’s arrest was a reprisal for his Vzglyad newspaper’s reporting on Zhanaozen.
Kozlov and other activists remain in jail facing charges over the unrest. Forty-three protestors also face trial, along with five police officers.
Polygamy, though illegal, has become a fact of life in Kazakhstan. Men with multiple wives are not uncommon.
But now some powerful women are looking for a piece of the action, turning to Almaty dating agencies to help them find just what the woman who has everything needs: a second “husband.”
“It sometimes seems to me that the world’s turned upside down and a matriarchy is setting in,” Irina Proshina, the deputy director of one unnamed Almaty dating agency, told the Megapolis newspaper.
One high-powered businesswoman decided that “since one husband wasn’t coping with his spousal obligations, she needed to acquire a second,” Proshina said, though in her view “guys aren’t pets” to be acquired like that.
Sometimes women bring along their husbands to help make the tricky selection. Proshina’s agency has had three women, husbands in tow, come by seeking a second man. Perhaps not surprisingly, the men looked “down-trodden and hen-pecked” to Proshina’s well-trained eye.
Polygamy was outlawed in Soviet times but has gained ground across Central Asia since the collapse of the USSR, growing in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan as well as Kazakhstan. It’s illegal but mullahs often bless polygamous marriages, giving them a degree of legitimacy in the eyes of society.
Authorities in Kazakhstan have abruptly released trade union lawyer Natalya Sokolova, who had been sentenced to six years in prison for advising strikers in the troubled oil town of Zhanaozen, the Aktau-based newspaper Lada reports.
The unexpected release of a union activist whose jailing sparked an international outcry has raised tentative hopes that those suspected of involvement in December’s violence may be treated with leniency.
Sokolova was released on March 7, it has emerged several days later, her six-year sentence commuted to three years’ probation. She is also forbidden from engaging in social work for three years.
She was found guilty of “inciting social discord” among the Zhanaozen strikers last September, months before the industrial dispute there turned violent. She called the charges politically motivated. At least 17 were killed in and around Zhanaozen in December after security forces opened fire on protestors.
The court freed Sokolova “taking into account extenuating circumstances, and also governed by the fact that the designated punishment should be just,” Lada quoted the ruling as saying – though the judge added that she “fully admits guilt” and had repented.
“Converting union lawyer Natalia Sokolova’s 6-year prison sentence to a 3-year suspended sentence is a positive step by the authorities and wonderful news for Sokolova and her family, but she should never have been imprisoned for speaking out on workers’ rights in the first place,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement after her release.
Not too long ago, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe was held in the highest regard by President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s administration, in large part because Astana chaired the group in 2010. Now, the OSCE is an object of Kazakhstan’s contempt.
The trials of those facing charges over December’s fatal violence in Zhanaozen are approaching: Investigators announced on March 2 that they had finished work, paving the way for hearings to start within the coming weeks.
The trials will be open, but – belying official statements that the situation in the town has stabilized – they will be held 120 kilometers away, in Aktau, since Zhanaozen is too “restless” to host them, Aktau-based newspaper Lada quoted a local prosecutor as saying.
The number of protestors standing trial vastly outnumbers the five police officers facing charges, though security forces caused most of the 17 deaths that occurred amid the violence when they opened fire on demonstrators in Zhanaozen and the nearby town of Shetpe.
At least 40 protestors are facing trial, including three on charges of organizing the unrest; 29 people are under arrest, 11 are out on bail and six have been amnestied.
Three police officers face charges of abuse of office over the fatalities, and the former deputy regional police chief will be tried for failing to “prevent the illegal actions of subordinates.” The head of a detention center in which one man, Bazarbay Kenzhebayev, was beaten to death is being charged – but the police officers who inflicted the beating have not been identified.
Opposition leaders are back behind bars in Almaty, jailed for organizing a protest less than two weeks after their release from prison for rallying without official permission last month. The growing cycle of protests, arrests, and more protests appears to be encouraging the opposition, which is calling for fair elections and political reform in Kazakhstan.
OSDP Azat party co-leader Bolat Abilov and deputy leader Amirzhan Kosanov were jailed for 15 days immediately after the February 25 protest. The sentence is “political revenge by the regime,” Kosanov told EurasiaNet.org by telephone as he was being taken to prison, announcing that he and Abilov would stage a hunger strike in protest.
The sentences add to mounting tensions in Kazakhstan, which is in the throes of what critics see as a political crackdown launched by President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s administration following December’s deadly violence in Zhanaozen. Astana denies any crackdown.
The imprisonments followed a tense rally in central Almaty that saw scuffles between police and protestors amid cries of “Nazarbayev out!” Several demonstrators were arrested, some carried aloft to police vans as they shouted anti-government slogans.
OSDP Azat leaders Kosanov, Abilov and Zharmakhan Tuyakbay were rounded up before reaching the rally, as were three other organizers – Bakhytzhan Toregozhina, Bakhytgul Makimbay and Yermurat Bapi.