A group of scientists and academics from Kazakhstan have set off in the footsteps of a renowned 19th-century Kazakhstani explorer to highlight the tourism potential of the ancient trade routes linking Central Asia and western China.
The expedition follows the path Shokan Valikhanov took in the 1850s in what was then a part of the world relatively unknown to Europeans. Led by Professor Ordenbek Mazbaev of Astana's L. N. Gulimyov Eurasian National University, the team includes scientists from Astana's Nazarbayev University, along with tourism officials and journalists from Kazakhstan, Tengri News reports.
The 12-day jaunt, which began July 24, aims to open up a route for travelers to explore some of the major sights of the Silk Road. It started in Urumchi, capital of China’s restive Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and is scheduled to arrive in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan on August 4. Along the way the expedition will pass through the fabled oasis towns of Kashgar, Khotan and Yarkand on the fringes of the Taklamakan Desert before entering Kyrgyzstan through the Torugart Pass.
Valikhanov is a legendary figure in the world of Central Asian anthropology. He was born in 1835 near Kostanay, in northern Kazakhstan, and at age 11 enrolled in the Omsk Cadet Corps. After graduating from the academy, the Russian military sent him to the recently established Fort Verny – now Almaty, Kazakhstan – from where he undertook his expeditions to the neighboring regions.
The modern Kazakh explorers will retrace Valikhanov's journeys of 1855-56 and 1858-59, when he travelled through what is now Kyrgyzstan and into China in a camel convoy.
The government of Kyrgyzstan is complaining that the United States is reducing its military cooperation in the wake of the eviction of the air base that the Americans operated there until last month.
In an interview with Interfax, Deputy Defense Minister Zamir Suerkulov said that "recently, the intensity of contacts between our sides in the sphere of military cooperation is decreasing." Suerkulov added that Kyrgyzstan would like to maintain the level of cooperation "but the Americans do it their own way. For the continuation of contacts the Americans proposed creating a legal base similar to the one which was implemented during the time of the [Manas] Transit Center, but we didn't want that."
According to most recent data on U.S. security assistance to Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan's has decreased, but not any more than in any of the other countries of the region. I asked the State Department to clarify what happened, and they provided this statement:
Our security cooperation has historically included bilateral work on key, mutually-beneficial areas of counterterrorism, counter-narcotics,border security, and building peacekeeping capability. The termination of the 2009 Agreement for Cooperation in July 2014 severely inhibits the ability of the United States to continue its military assistance and cooperation with the defense and security ministries of the Kyrgyz Republic.
Tourists associate Kyrgyzstan’s Lake Issyk-Kul with beaches, children hawking boiled corn, and a welcome reprieve from the sweltering summers that plague most of Central Asia. But for the residents of Kadji Sai on the lake’s southern shore, the summer tourist influx is only a distraction from the trouble looming, literally, right over them: a derelict Soviet-era uranium mine.
Just uphill, the mine and uranium-processing mill were the original rationale for the settlement. But they closed when the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s. In recent years, the site has become a source of radiation-related concerns. When heavy rains hit the area, the uranium tailings – buried between two creek beds – are frequently covered in water; the overflow drains through the village and into Issyk-Kul.
On a recent visit, one resident expressed the frustration that many of his neighbors share: “Everything was just left here. People that could leave, did. But for those of us who stay here and who have families here, what can we do? It seems like everyone wants to come to Kyrgyzstan and make mines but how do we live with [the mines] once they’re finished?”
As foreign donors, government agencies and NGOs spend time and money discussing the cleanup, local officials are often reduced to hand wringing, begging someone to do something. In the case of Kadji Sai, local authorities say they are unable even to afford guards to keep scavengers from looting the little valuable equipment and infrastructure that remains.
Kyrgyzstan's massive loss at an arbitration court this month has encouraged speculation that the country's only significant foreign asset – its stake in a Canadian gold mining company – is up for grabs.
On July 2, a tribunal in Moscow awarded Toronto-listed Stans Energy Corp $118.2 million in damages in a dispute over the Kutessay-II heavy rare earth elements mine in Kyrgyzstan’s Talas Province. Stans acquired a 20-year license to the mine in 2009, which the Kyrgyz parliament recommended the government annul in 2012. (Stans has alleged that powerful Chinese interests in Kyrgyzstan bribed parliamentarians to revoke the license in order to help Beijing maintain control over the lucrative rare earths market.)
Canada’s National Post reports that Stans has few options because Kyrgyzstan, one of the poorest countries in Asia, does not have that kind of cash lying about. So Stans could seek to seize Kyrgyzstan’s shares in Toronto-listed Centerra Gold, which, in turn, owns Kyrgyzstan’s largest industrial asset, the Kumtor Gold Mine. From the National Post’s financial pages:
It is highly unlikely that Kyrgyzstan will respect the ruling and pay out any cash. That leaves Stans the option of securing verdicts against one or more of the state’s foreign assets. And a logical one to go after would be Kyrgyzstan’s 32.7% stake in Centerra, currently worth almost $500 million.
An exchange of fire between troops on a disputed section of the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border reportedly left at least one dead and several injured on July 10. Tensions have risen sharply again in this volatile part of the Fergana Valley after negotiations over a controversial road construction project fell apart earlier this week.
According to the Kyrgyz Border Service, about 30 Tajik citizens were trying to build a water pipeline from Kyrgyz territory to the Vorukh exclave, a parcel of Tajik territory surrounded entirely by Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyz border guards demanded they stop, the Tajiks threw stones and eventually troops from the two sides exchanged fire.
According to the Tajik-language service of Radio Liberty, citing a local doctor in Vorukh, one Tajik national (apparently a civilian) died and five were injured in the exchange of fire. Dushanbe’s Asia-Plus news agency reports seven wounded. Tajikistan's Foreign Ministry says the Kyrgyz border guards picked a fight, shot without warning, and that the Tajik border guards did not fire a single shot.
Later in the day, the Kyrgyz Border Service said Tajik border guards had opened fire on another Kyrgyz checkpoint, this time with mortars and grenades.
That’s the lesson after a Chinese company appears to have bested a Russian one for the right to turn Kyrgyzstan’s main civilian airport into a strategic aviation “hub” for freight and passenger flights connecting Europe and Asia.
The Chinese maneuver would not have surprised anyone in a country where China is building almost everything, except that Kremlin-controlled energy giant Rosneft appeared to have had the deal to remodel Bishkek’s Manas International Airport in the bag. On February 19, Putin ally Igor Sechin, Rosneft’s chairman, and Kyrgyz First Deputy Prime Minister Djoomart Otorbaev (now prime minister), signed a memorandum on Rosneft’s interest in the airport and its lucrative fuel-distribution contracts.
Fast forward five months and both Russian and Taiwanese media are reporting that Beijing Urban Construction Group will invest $1 billion in the makeover, a figure similar to the Rosneft deal. China Machinery Engineering Corporation will sign a $300 million deal for the country’s second airport, in the southern city of Osh—another asset that had interested Rosneft.
"So far these are memorandums of intention, but in the near future the fully planned projects will be ready," Kommersant quoted Kyrgyz Economics Minister Temir Sariyev as saying on July 4. The reports do not mention what share in the airports the Chinese will get.
In the corner of a small pizzeria in central Bishkek, an experiment is unfolding. Central Asia’s first and only bitcoin ATM converts dollars into the world’s most popular cryptocurrency. The machine – which looks like one of the city’s ubiquitous electronic pay terminals – offers a way to convert hard currency into a digital medium that is increasingly used in online transactions.
That could impact how Kyrgyzstan’s estimated one million migrant workers transfer their earnings home, says the machine’s owner, Emanuele Costa, an Italian financial analyst. The World Bank estimates that last year migrant remittances totaled the equivalent of 31 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s GDP. Most of that money, several billion dollars, was transferred through expensive, fee-based services like Western Union and Zolotaya Korona. Costa, a former analyst with Goldman Sachs, sees bitcoin as a low-cost, secure and confidential alternative.
Bitcoin, invented by a group of anonymous Internet users in 2009, is the first and most prominent digital cryptocurrency to gain wide circulation. Not controlled by national governments or banks, bitcoin offers a peer-to-peer encrypted payment system that can be readily converted into cash or, increasingly, used in exchange for products or services. Fees, when they exist, are agreed upon by users and are usually nominal. Bitcoin’s value fluctuates based on supply and demand; one bitcoin is currently worth about $642.
Though Costa is a staunch believer in bitcoin’s potential, he admits that it faces some hurdles. Foremost is a lack of understanding.
Chinese workers in Kyrgyzstan are known for their stoicism amid rising xenophobia and appalling labor conditions. But something seems to have snapped this week for a crew of migrants toiling to build an oil refinery in the northern city of Tokmak.
According to Kyrgyz and Russian press reports, 39 Chinese migrants downed tools, blocked entry to the facility and took several Kyrgyz employees hostage on June 30. Police fired shots into the air to break up the protest, according to a police source.
Twenty-five of the migrants were working illegally, police say, and have been deported. The rest have been fined.
The riot coincided with payday and the Chinese appear to have felt shortchanged. According to Kyrgyz media outlet Knews, citing local police in contact with the refinery’s Chinese director, the migrants were angered that pay was being withheld to cover the cost of their transport from China.
The Chinese Embassy in Bishkek has not commented on the incident.
Russian forces transported during recent snap military exercises in the Central Military District (photo: Russian MoD)
Snap Russian military exercises involving 65,000 troops also included Russian forces based in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. And the exercises demonstrated that "the main tasks of the Russian army in the near future will be focused not only on the Western, but also on the Central Asian military theater," wrote Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta.
The exercises took place June 21-28 in Russia's Central Military District, and is part of a broader push by Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu to institute these sorts of large-scale, unannounced exercises as a way of testing the armed forces' readiness. "The war games will give the picture of combat readiness of the troops stationed on a swathe of huge territory from the Volga River through the Urals Mountains to Siberia, and from the Kara Sea in the Arctic to the steppe on Russia’s southern border with Kazakhstan," reported state television network RT.
Some units from the Western and Southern military districts also took part in the drills, and NATO accused Moscow of using them to threaten Ukraine. "A NATO spokeswoman, Oana Lungescu, lamented Moscow’s military exercises, saying that 'it can be seen as a further escalation of the crisis with Ukraine,'" the AP reported.
Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon has staked his legacy on the Rogun dam. From the National Museum of Tajikistan.
Two new reports should interest anyone following progress building the world’s tallest dam—Tajikistan’s 3,600-MW dream, Rogun.
The World Bank has released drafts of its long-awaited Rogun feasibility studies. They appear to give Tajikistan the green light to build Rogun, saying the dam is the best way to end the country’s crippling energy shortages. However, the economic model used to make the recommendation seems to assume a set of unlikely conditions, from financial reforms and improvements in Tajikistan’s insolvent electricity industry to a major breakthrough in relations with a prickly neighbor.
Meanwhile, in a second report, Human Rights Watch says the resettlement of 42,000 people whose homes will be destroyed or flooded by Rogun is not going as smoothly as the government has promised.
The World Bank studies look at technical, economic, environmental and social considerations for three potential heights. Overall, the Bank found the tallest Rogun option – 335 meters, the only one Tajik officials talk about – the most economical: “building a dam at the Rogun site is a lower cost solution to meeting Tajikistan’s energy needs than any of the alternatives.”