As the European Union prepares to review its Central Asia strategy, a leading international human rights watchdog has urged Brussels to demand the five republics improve their human rights records, or face consequences.
In a June 21 statement ahead of an EU meeting on Central Asia policy, Human Rights Watch urged the 27-member organization not to allow geopolitical interests to serve as “an excuse for downplaying the EU’s focus on human rights abuses in the region.”
“Affecting positive change in Central Asia isn’t easy, but being clear about expectations and linking closer engagement to progress is a good place to start,” Veronika Szente Goldston, HRW’s Europe and Central Asia advocacy director, said in a statement. “The EU has resisted doing this so far, but it’s not too late to set things right.”
EU foreign ministers will meet on June 25 to assess its 2007 program, “The EU and Central Asia: Strategy for a New Partnership.”
HRW said the governments of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan “all have distinctly poor human rights records and to various degrees resist meaningful reform.”
The watchdog documented concerns in a report issued on June 20, which singled out all five states for failing to prevent torture in places of confinement, restricting media freedoms and pressuring civil society activists.
Central Asia has long been associated with difficult border crossings and onerous visa requirements. But now three states are moving to abolish visas for citizens of developed countries in a bid to boost tourism, local media reports say.
Kyrgyzstan became the latest country to take steps to ease visa requirements with a parliamentary vote on June 14 in favor of a bill allowing citizens of 44 states visa-free entry for 60 days, the K.News website reported.
If President Almazbek Atambayev signs the bill into law, citizens from the United States and Canada, EU member states and some Middle Eastern countries will be able to visit Kyrgyzstan without the traditional visa hassle.
The parliament of neighboring Tajikistan last month also voted to lift visa requirements for US and EU nationals and citizens from some Southeast Asian states, Asia-Plus reported. If approved by President Emomali Rakhmon, this would absolve visitors of the need to obtain an invitation and apply for a visa in advance.
Kazakhstan is also mulling an easing of procedures, with plans afoot to allow citizens from the 34 member states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (including the United States, Canada, EU countries, Australia and New Zealand) visa-free travel for 15 days, reports Tengri News.
Two prominent political activists have been arrested in Kazakhstan as a fresh trial over December’s violence in Zhanaozen looms.
Bolat Atabayev, a 60-year-old theater director known for his outspoken political views, and Zhanbolat Mamay, a well-known youth activist, were arrested on June 15, Novosti-Kazakhstan news agency reported.
The two had already been charged with “inciting social unrest” in Zhanaozen for visiting striking oil workers in the town, where a protracted industrial dispute descended into deadly violence on Independence Day.
They had been out on bail pending the start of their trial. Eleven other activists are in jail awaiting trial on the same charge.
The arrests come less than two weeks after the conclusion of the largest Zhanaozen trial to date, in which 34 people were convicted of crimes relating to the violence. Thirteen were imprisoned after a trial described by Human Rights Watch as “flawed.”
Atabayev had declared he was refusing to cooperate with the investigation in protest at those convictions.
Following some embarrassing incidents involving its national anthem, Kazakhstan has passed new legislation imposing stiff punishments for treating its state symbols with disrespect.
Under a bill passed by the upper house of parliament on June 14, anyone who mistreats or desecrates state symbols, which include the country’s flag as well as its anthem, faces up to a year in jail or a stiff fine, the Novosti-Kazakhstan news agency reports.
The new legislation was drafted after Kazakhstan made international headlines over a mix-up involving its national anthem at a March sporting event in Kuwait. Then, the hosts accidentally played a version of the spoof anthem that featured in the 2006 movie “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” which extols Kazakhstan’s potassium and prostitutes and memorably contains the line “Kazakhstan – greatest country in the world, all other countries are run by little girls.”
That blunder came just days after a goof-up in northern Kazakhstan, where the Ricky Martin song "Livin' la Vida Loca" was accidentally played instead of the anthem at the opening of a skiing festival.
The incidents made headlines and got laughs abroad, but at home Astana – ever sensitive to its international image – was not smiling.
A young man, believed to be the sole survivor of a massacre late last month at a border post near Kazakhstan's frontier with China, has confessed to murdering 15 people because of disagreements within the military unit, according to video released by the prosecutor’s office.
The film showed 20-year-old conscript Vladislav Chelakh describing the catalyst for the murder as an argument with a fellow soldier who refused to get out of bed, which made Chelakh “boil over and flip.”
This was part of wider disagreements at the border post where “I was humiliated […] insulted too often,” he said.
While the motive may seem weak, it lends weight to an initial theory that the murderer was the victim of hazing, the practice of senior soldiers bullying junior ones common in the armed forces of some former Soviet states.
Chelakh was shown confessing on video at the scene of the crime. Evoking scenes straight out of a horror movie, he confessed to hunting the victims down around the unit and shooting them, setting fire to the building, then killing a gamekeeper in his lodge to eliminate a witness. Chelakh spoke coherently, with no sign of reciting a prepared speech.
Further video showed him confessing to his mother and, in a clip reportedly filmed by Chelakh himself after the crime, hiding in what appears to be a cave in the forest.
Gay men are not welcome in Kazakhstan’s military on the grounds that the state classifies homosexuality as a “disorder,” Defense Minister Adilbek Dzhaksybekov has declared.
Asked by a visitor to his official blog if gay men are called up for Kazakhstan's mandatory army service, Dzhaksybekov ruled this out on the grounds that homosexuality is a “disorder of sexual desire” that prevents “entry into military service in the armed forces, other forces and military formations of the Republic of Kazakhstan.”
Citing the health requirements soldiers have to meet by law (which do not explicitly rule out such “disorders” but establish mental health standards), Dzhaksybekov said that homosexuality is determined through psychiatric checks.
This attitude harks back to Soviet times, when homosexuality was classed as a mental disorder and sodomy was punishable by law (most former Soviet countries, including Kazakhstan, have now decriminalized it).
The question of whether homosexuals can serve in Kazakhstan’s military has not featured prominently on the agenda in the past, but the defense minister’s remarks place Kazakhstan among countries that explicitly ban them from serving.
The policy is at odds with practice in neighboring Russia, where gay men and women are allowed to serve. The United States has relaxed its policy in recent years, abandoning its “don’t ask don’t tell” strategy -- which barred openly gay people from serving -- last year.
As southern Kyrgyzstan marks the second anniversary of ethnic clashes between its Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities, local and international rights activists are concerned about wounds that continue to fester, and what they describe as ongoing discrimination against the Uzbek minority.
Amnesty International released a report June 8 that it says “outlines the failure of the Kyrgyzstani authorities to fairly and effectively investigate the June 2010 violence,” which killed hundreds and displaced hundreds of thousands.
“There are wounds that time will not heal. Truth, accountability and justice are the only tools that will mend the bridges between the two ethnic communities,” Maisy Weicherding of Amnesty said in a statement.
As Amnesty pointed out, during the June 10-14 violence in 2010, both the Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities were involved in “killings, looting and rampaging” in and around Osh, but most injuries and deaths were suffered by ethnic Uzbeks.
An internationally led inquiry found that 470 people were killed, 74 percent of whom were Uzbeks. Nevertheless, the inquiry said ethnic Uzbeks were accused of murder over 30 times more often than members of the Kyrgyz community. Bishkek subsequently rejected the findings of that inquiry.
It’s a high-stakes time of the year in Kazakhstan as graduating high school students head into the make-or-break final exam that will determine their future prospects. Some are leaving nothing to chance, local media report.
Invigilators in Karaganda were surprised to see one girl sitting the test with an enormous beehive hairdo – only 60 years out of date. Exploring her fluffy 'do, they discovered that she hadn’t suddenly developed a taste for 1950s fashion. No, she’d deliberately cultivated her beehive to conceal a cellphone to cheat in the exam.
The girl was allowed to sit the test after the telephone was painstakingly untangled from her hair, presumably in recognition of the amusement value her prank had caused.
The lengths she went in order to cheat seem miniscule in comparison to the efforts of a student in Ridder in northern Kazakhstan: This high school senior went to the trouble of typing out a crib sheet that stretched to an astonishing 11 meters and contained 25,000 answers, reports local website YK-news.kz.
Despite security checks, the enterprising student managed to smuggle it into the exam hall folded into sections. But there his luck ended: It was confiscated by officers from the domestic intelligence service, the KNB, who were conducting checks.
Every year the ENT national standardized exam brings new controversies: over the exam’s multi-choice format, which critics say fails to test critical-thinking skills; and over cheating, with irrepressible students trying new tricks each spring.
Security in Afghanistan topped the agenda as Vladimir Putin, inaugurated as Russian president a month ago, visited Tashkent on June 4, holding late-night talks with his Uzbek counterpart Islam Karimov.
According to a Kremlin transcript, Karimov used the visit to expound on Uzbekistan’s “serious concern” about the dangers of security threats from Afghanistan spilling over its borders after the drawdown of NATO troops, scheduled for completion by 2014. He warned against “complacency” that everything will go to plan.
Karimov, whose country shares a southern border with Afghanistan, said Russia “has never been indifferent to the problems of Central Asia,” and he was counting on “Russia’s interest in resolving the serious, quite acute problems that will arise in the Central Asian region” with the NATO withdrawal.
Putin characterized cooperation with Uzbekistan as “extremely important” in light of the drawdown, which he described as linked to “security inside the Russian Federation itself.”
Putin and Karimov met the same day NATO announced it had secured agreements with Uzbekistan and two Central Asian neighbors -- Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan – to use a key transport route to return equipment from Afghanistan to Europe. NATO already had a deal with Russia to use the Northern Distribution Network for reverse transit out of Afghanistan.