Washington’s top diplomat traveled to Central Asia to kick-start a historic initiative to reinvigorate U.S. engagement with the region, but it was the unceremonious treatment of a reporter that is going to stick in the memory.
Activists had hoped in advance of John Kerry’s whistle-stop tour that human rights issues might feature prominently on the agenda. But talk of those was relegated to the sidelines — in public at least.
Instead, Kerry focused on prospects of security, energy and economic cooperation, which have long constituted core priorities for Washington.
The closest Kerry came to mentioning Central Asia’s poor human rights record in public was in remarks about “quality of governance and the strength of democratic institutions.”
“In Central Asia, as elsewhere, people have a deep hunger for governments that are accountable and effective,” he said at the meeting on November 1 in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, with foreign ministers from the region’s five former Soviet republics.
The U.S. State Department said in advance of the tour that this meeting would form the basis of a new diplomatic format, which it has dubbed C5+1.
“We should have no doubt that progress in democratic governance does lead to gains in every other field about which we are concerned and about which we are talking,” Kerry said.
The muted tone of those remarks will have come as a disappointment to many.
Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev has dismissed the head of the central bank as the national currency continues to lose value against the dollar.
Nazarbayev dismissed Kayrat Kelimbetov, who has presided over two major currency devaluations during his two years as chairman of the National Bank, on November 2 and replaced him with Daniyar Akishev, a presidential adviser and a former deputy chairman of the central bank.
“Confidence in the [central] bank and in the national currency, the tenge, has been reduced, and this cannot be permitted,” Nazarbayev told parliament in remarks quoted by his office. “A shortage of tenge liquidity is being felt in the country, and the volume of credit to the economy has been reduced.”
The move did not appear to do anything to restore the confidence of the market in the tenge, however. The currency fell below 280 to the dollar in trading on the Kazakhstan Stock Exchange on November 2 for the first time since mid-September, to close at 281.13.
The tenge has lost around 50 percent of its value since the National Bank abandoned its policy of maintaining the tenge in a managed corridor — a strategy Kelimbetov inherited from his predecessor, Georgiy Marchenko.
Harsh prison sentences handed down this week in two separate cases involving articles published in local newspapers in Kazakhstan raise questions over freedom of speech.
In one case, a newspaper editor in the northern city of Pavlodar was sentenced to eight years in jail on charges of attempting to extort money from the regional governor.
In the other, a civil society activist in the south of the country was jailed for one and half years on libel charges over an article criticizing a local prosecutor. One rights group says this is the first time in six years anyone has been jailed on libel charges in Kazakhstan.
Yaroslav Golyshkin, editor of local Pavlodar newspaper Versiya, received his sentence on October 30 after the court found him of guilty attempting to extort money from regional governor Kanat Bozumbayev, Tengri News reports. The court heard accusations that Golyshkin was demanding money to hush up allegations that Bozumbayev’s son was involved in a rape case.
The woman who filed the complaint was paid $5,000 not to press charges, which is legal under reconciliation procedures in Kazakhstani law, the Adil Soz freedom of speech watchdog said.
She reportedly later gave an interview to Golyshkin. Bozumbayev claimed Golyshkin then demanded a payment of half a million dollars to keep the revelations in the interview under wraps.
In the same trial, Askar Bakhralinov, a former deputy district mayor in the region, was sentenced to 10 years in jail — also on extortion charges.
A leading campaigner in the effort to document Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest, which has been blighted by claims of rights abuses, has found his office destroyed by an unexplained fire.
Activists monitoring the harvest have faced an unprecedented wave of intimidation from authorities this year, despite mounting international scrutiny of the sector.
Dmitriy Tikhonov, who has reported cases of forced labor in cotton fields to international organizations, found his office in his home town, Angren, in charred ruins when he returned there on October 29, following an absence.
Files detailing the abuses he had documented were missing. Tikhonov did find a metal box container still intact in the ruins, but the hard drive that was stored inside had disappeared.
“The fire is a horrific escalation of the intimidation campaign against Dmitry and all Uzbek human rights defenders throughout 2015, aimed at preventing them from reporting on forced labor in the cotton sector,” Umida Niyazova, director of the Berlin-based Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights, said in remarks quoted by the Cotton Campaign, an international advocacy group.
The fire appears to have taken place on October 20, which was the same day that Tikhonov was presented with criminal charges of disorderly conduct. The charges were brought after three members of a local neighborhood committee accused him of using foul language while asking them questions about cotton harvest mobilization.
As ever more people in Kazakhstan get onto the Internet, the government is adopting expanding measures to limit access to websites they deem harmful.
Those efforts have earned the country a demotion in Washington-based Freedom House’s latest online freedom rankings to “Not Free,” down from “Partly Free” last year.
The watchdog found in its annual Freedom on the Net report that the government is increasingly cracking down on independent journalism and online content deemed extremist.
“The government also continues to pass restrictive laws banning certain content online and expanding its powers to shut down communication networks and media outlets,” the report found.
Freedom House said that the most significant cases of censorship target reporting on the Islamic State group. The authorities have routinely blocked not only content released by the extremist organization, such as recruitment videos targeting Kazakhstan, but also reports about it in local and foreign media, including EurasiaNet.org.
But there was also pervasive blocking of material unrelated to religious extremism, Freedom House said. Those included reports about the closure of the Adam Bol magazine, the possibility of Ukraine-style secessionism in Kazakhstan, and a minor ethnic clash in south Kazakhstan in February.
That public unrest prompted authorities to temporarily disconnect Internet services and block mobile telephone networks.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wound up a five-nation tour of Central Asia on October 27 in Astana with the promise of multimillion dollar investment deals and an offer from Tokyo to help build a nuclear power plant in Kazakhstan.
In the end, however, nothing substantive appears to have come of this leg of Abe’s historic visit to the region.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev said in remarks cited by his office that Kazakhstan and Japan are moving forward with 10 projects worth a total of $700 million. And yet there were no reports of any investment deals actually being signed between the two countries, which Nazarbayev described as “distant neighbors, but close friends.”
Nazarbayev said hopefully that there was Japanese investor interest in sectors ranging from agriculture and transport to chemicals and rare earth metals.
The agreements on the table in Kazakhstan were dwarfed by the $18 billion and $8.5 billion in investment deals reportedly signed in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan earlier in Abe’s five-nation tour.
Astana is eager to drum up investment as it faces an economic downturn, especially with one of its biggest trading partners, Russia, in recession and another, China, facing slower growth. Tokyo appears to be trying to take advantage of those countries’ plight to muscle more aggressively into the backyard of rival Beijing, whose economic presence in Central Asia is far greater.
A young man in southern Kazakhstan has committed suicide by setting himself alight in a gesture intended to draw attention to what he said was the injustice he has suffered at the hands of the police.
The desperate act bears echoes of a similar self-immolation by a street vendor in Tunisia in 2010, which sparked a wave of protests that led to the toppling of that country’s long-term president.
Yerlan Bektibayev, 20, set himself on fire on October 24 in front of the local headquarters of the ruling Nur Otan party in Taraz. The town was the center of much official coverage earlier this month, when it hosted celebrations to mark what Kazakhstan’s authorities say was the 550th anniversary of Kazakh statehood. Those festivities were designed in part to help shore up support for President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
“I have come here because I hope Nur Otan will help me,” Bektibayev said in a video later posted on YouTube. The footage then shows Bektibayev setting himself on fire before running while screaming with pain into the Nur Otan building.
Police said on October 26 that they had arrested people they suspect filmed the video, but did not specify on what charges. The person filming appears directly complicit in Bektibayev's self-immolation and makes no evident effort to aid the young man once he has followed through on the act.
Central Asia faces a bleak economic outlook and policy-makers should prepare for the long haul as the shocks buffeting the region are likely to be enduring, the International Monetary Fund has said.
In Central Asia, “the situation and outlook are worse than for the world economy as a whole,” Juha Kahkonen, deputy director of the IMF’s Middle East and Central Asia Department, said at a briefing in Almaty on October 23. “This is because the region has been hit by three major external shocks.”
The IMF identifies the wave of external shocks as the fall in global prices for the commodities that Central Asia exports, which range from oil and gas to metals, repercussions from the recession-hit Russian economy, which the IMF expects to contract by 3.8 percent this year, and the shifts in major global exchange rates pressuring regional currencies.
Added to all those woes is the slowdown in China, a major trading partner and investor for the Central Asian states.
The IMF says that as a result, the region will experience slower growth than it has become accustomed to in recent years.
Kazakhstan — which is suffering from low oil and metals prices and struggling with pressure on its currency that has seen the tenge lose around half of its value since the central bank moved to a free float in August — is expected to see growth of just 1.5 percent this year, according to both IMF and government forecasts. That is down from 4.3 percent last year.
A court has ordered the closure of one of Kazakhstan’s last independent media outlets following a legal battle that has been closely observed by freedom of speech campaigners.
The shuttering of the hard-hitting current affairs magazine follows an appeal by an international organization to Kazakhstan’s foreign minister to intervene over the case to protect press freedom.
The court ruling ordering the closure of Adam (Person), which is known for its gutsy reporting and critical take on President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s rule, was handed down on October 22, Kazakhstan’s Adil Soz press freedom watchdog reported.
The ruling followed the magazine’s suspension in August on a linguistic technicality and was made on the same grounds. The court found that when Adam registered with the authorities earlier this year — after the courts had closed a previously existing independent magazine called Adam Bol — it gave its languages of publication as Kazakh and Russian. The magazine in fact only runs in Russian.
Adil Soz deemed the suspension anti-constitutional, since the magazine was under no legal requirement to publish in two languages.
This time, the court ordered the closure not only of the printed magazine but also of an online version and its Facebook page, where Adam’s editorial team had posted material since the suspension.
Shifty U.S. envoys have been spotted lurking in the cotton fields of Uzbekistan digging for dirt on a competitor whose cheap crop could squeeze out America’s own exports.
At least that’s the yarn some media in Uzbekistan are spinning.
The U.S. Embassy has rubbished the claim.
In a report on October 16, website 12news.uz alleged that three suspicious elements were recently seen in the fields in Qashqadaryo Region, posing as journalists and officials from Uzbekistan’s Foreign Ministry.
“The ‘Uzbekistan Foreign Ministry staff and journalists’ turned out to be diplomats from the US Embassy in Tashkent, who had specially gone to the remote region to find some kind of problems which it would be possible to trumpet to the entire word as ‘the grossest cases of violations of human rights and restrictions on freedoms,’” the website wrote.
12news.uz speculated that the fact-finding team was motivated by a desire to thwart the rising sales of “comparatively cheap cotton from Uzbekistan” on world markets, which it said “in no way suits American farmers.”
The embassy was categorical in its denial.
“The allegations in this story are inaccurate, and we strongly disagree with the characterizations contained in the article,” spokeswoman Natella Svistunova told EurasiaNet.org by e-mail.
Pointing out that diplomats are free to travel under the Vienna Convention, Svistunova said embassy staff had traveled to various parts of Uzbekistan, carrying identification.
Svistunova said embassy staff “always correctly represent themselves, when asked.”
One of the embassy’s goals “is to better understand changing practices in Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest,” Svistunova said.