A purported U.S. schoolboy has got himself into the Kyrgyz media by appealing to Prime Minister Temir Sariyev’s greatest weakness: a spot of free PR.
According to a letter reportedly posted on Facebook by Bakyt Asanov, the press officer for the government, 14-year-old Tim Li of Minneola High School in New York State wrote to Sariyev calling him “one of my inspirations.”
Li added that “during my free time I read about you and learn how to be successful.”
Li dutifully recited Sariyev’s biography, offered New Year pleasantries and asked for a signed photo of the Prime Minister, according to a piece published on news website zanoza.kg February 4.
It apparently didn’t occur to Sariyev or his press team to question why a schoolboy living thousands of miles away would find an obscure Central Asian politician inspirational.
That might be because Sariyev, strongly rumored to be preparing for a presidential run in 2017, doesn’t consider himself obscure, and according to his harshest critics, would lick himself if he was made of chocolate. (Or even chuchuk)
But Sariyev will feel slightly less special now it is common knowledge that President Jammeh of the Gambia, a country as far off the radar of the average American schoolboy as Kyrgyzstan, also received a letter from Li.
The letter, reported by pro-government media read:
Kyrgyzstan’s government is coming to the assistance of debtors battered by the U.S. greenback’s rise against the local currency, but it is unclear how useful, widespread or sustainable a new som-for-dollar debt scheme will be.
Nearly 3,000 people that took out large loans in dollars for housing in the first half of 2015 were left unable to make payments as the som plummeted by over one-fifth against the dollar in the last six months of the year, largely on the back of economic peril in Russia.
A government initiative presented on February 1 allows those people to exchange their outstanding dollar debt for Kyrgyz soms at a favorable rate of 62.144 soms — a rate from July 1, 2015, before the dollar began its climb towards the roughly 76 soms it costs now.
The government has put aside over $7.5 million to plug the gap between the exchange rate of yore and the current one and is only intervening in loans worth $40,000 or less.
The questions surrounding the scheme relate to whether this will be too little, too late, and whether the government will expand the plan to other struggling debtors that borrowed large dollar sums in the second half of the year — on July 2, for instance.
Also, the interest on the loans will remain at the high market rate of nearly 16.76 percent, even if the original loans were secured at a lower rate. Whether the most troubled debtors will be able to make these payments remains an unknown.
Kyrgyzstan’s thin-skinned President Almazbek Atambayev’s long-running and unseemly spat with an outspoken local journalist has taken a fresh and typically farcical turn.
After Atambayev successfully sued the editor of Kyrgyz language outlet Maalymat.kg, Dayirbek Orunbekov, for defamation last year for a whopping $26,000, the journalist has managed to persuade a local court to take up a case against the president on similar grounds.
If Orunbekov wins — which few expect — he will claim from the head of state a single unit of the battered national currency, the som.
Judicial proceedings to determine whether or not Atambayev defamed Orunbekov in his end of year speech, by effectively accusing him of being a slanderer-for-hire, began earlier this week.
Testifying in Atambayev’s favor, presidential representative Chynara Musabekova told the court on January 28 that suggestions Orunbekov was “working on somebody’s money” when writing articles critical of the head of state were only a “hypothesis” rather than an insult to Orunbekov’s “honor and dignity.”
According to local news site Kloop.kg, Orunbekov was prevented from making his own argument in court due to his inadequate Russian, with testimony in the state language Kyrgyz oddly inadmissible.
Bad driving, severe code violations and pervasive corruption among traffic cops are rampant on Kyrgyzstan’s roads.
The Interior Ministry has reported that more than 6,600 car accidents occurred in 2015, leaving 976 people dead and another 9,847 injured.
“Traffic accident fatalities have a great impact on the economic and social development of our country as the main victims in accidents are young people of working age. Various experts estimate that the Kyrgyz economy loses $250 million (about 4 percent of the gross domestic product) every year as a result of these crashes”, the ministry has stated.
To tackle the problem, before the parliamentary elections in 2015, deputies proposed a bill on mandatory car insurance, which would allow the injured and the families of car crash victims to secure compensation for damage to their health and property. It was the first time any compulsory insurance was to be introduced in the country. The law will oblige car owners to insure their civil liability within five days of buying their vehicle and to extend the policy annually.
The cost of the insurance is to be around $40. In the event of a death, insurance companies would be liable to pay $2,600 and a sum up to that amount in case of injuries.
Since the law takes effect in early February, many car owners are now fretting about possible fines for people found not in possession of an insurance policy. The head of the Financial Market Control Service, Sanzhar Makanbetov, tried to reassure drivers by telling them they will have two months to get insurance before they could start facing fines.
When demonstrations begin taking place in the town of Naryn in Kyrgyzstan, the authorities need to start worrying.
As Kloop.kg reported, about 200 people gathered on January 27 on the main square of the high-altitude town for a rally to complain about issues including electricity tariffs and lack of transportation links in the region.
Maybe the most sensitive issue, however, was related to the salary bonuses paid to workers in mountainous locations. State employees there receive a 50 percent additional payment to compensate for the arduous living conditions, but lawmakers had been considering scrapping or minimizing that allowance to save costs. The government earlier in the week hastily ditched the proposal in recognition of its potential to provoke unrest, but that has not entirely soothed moods.
Not only do Naryn residents want the allowance to remain in place, but they also want it raised to 70 percent of their salaries. The Naryn rally was peaceful and proceeded without incident.
When former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was toppled in 2010, it was at the culmination of quality of life protests that first gained momentum in Naryn, so the government is acutely aware of the need to placate discontent.
With that in mind, remarks made in parliament on January 27 by a member of the main coalition force, the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan, were particularly provocative.
Anticorruption officials in Kyrgyzstan say they have exposed a $58 million money laundering operation — the largest ever seen in the country’s history.
The graft-fighting department at the State National Security Committee (GKNB) said on January 20 that the cash was laundered by a construction company called LLC Berkut Stroi, which they said was based in the southern city of Osh.
The GKNB say two employees of a commercial bank in Osh, Amanbank, registered the construction company in the name of Kanybek M. They then opened bank accounts in Amanbank and another bank, Rosinbank.
The next step was to sign bogus contracts for the purchase of construction materials from companies in China and Latvia, to which the 4.4 billion Kyrgyz som ($58 million) were transferred between January and October 2014. Meanwhile, tax records at Berkut Stroi reflected no economic activity.
The man identified as the founder of Berkt Stroi, whose name can only be given as Kanybek M., said he had no idea of what business was being done by the company he purportedly controlled.
“I was told [by a friend]: ‘Let’s start a company, we will take care of banking operations.’ I know nothing about banking operations,” he told the Kloop.kg news website.
Kanybek M. said anytime the alleged money-launderers need a document signed, they paid him an additional 500 soms ($7).
Another figure that Kloop.kg reported was linked to the case said that although he worked at the bank at the time of the alleged offense, he worked as the chief accountant and didn’t work directly with clients, so he couldn’t know who transferred the money.
Kyrgyzstan’s year has begun in incendiary fashion amid talk of horse penises, offended national pride and the fate of the country’s most valuable economic asset.
At the center of the controversy is chuchuk — a long, thick and greasy Central Asian culinary delicacy obscure enough to send thousands heading to Google for more information.
If Michael Mcfeat, a British employee at Kyrgyzstan’s largest private foreign investor, Centerra Gold, had thought to do the same before updating his Facebook page on New Year’s Eve, he might have avoided trouble.
As midnight approached, Mcfeat observed in a message that Kyrgyz people would soon be “queuing out the door” for chuchuk, which he ribaldly likened to “horse penis.”
That swiftly sparked the rage of his local co-workers at the high-altitude Kumtor gold mine, which accounts for around one-tenth of the country’s economy.
The police have also got in on the action, detaining Mcfeat on January 3 on charges of inciting racial hatred — a crime punishable by up to five years in jail.
Ironically, chuchuk is an equine dish not wholly dissimilar to haggis, a traditional and much-mocked, offal-laden specialty from Mcfeat’s home country, Scotland.
In 2005, for instance, the immensely popular Russian sci-fi writer Sergei Lukyanenko had one of his characters in the best-selling book Last Watch uncharitably liken the taste of haggis to that of a soiled nappy, and managed all the same to avoid any legal reprisals from the British authorities.
In a fresh act of brinkmanship, Kyrgyzstan has told Canada’s Centerra Gold that it is pulling out of talks on restructuring the joint project to develop the economically all-important Kumtor gold mine.
The government said in a statement on December 22 that the agreement under review was against “the interests of the Kyrgyz Republic.”
In its statement, the government complained that although a joint development deal had been in place since January 2014, negotiations have been at a standstill since the past April.
Kyrgyzstan owns a 33 percent stake in Toronto-listed Centerra Gold, which in turns controls Kumtor and other mines elsewhere, but Bishkek has instead pursued a 50-50 shared ownership of the mine.
The government has now said it will pursue a restructuring of Kumtor that will ensure it will an “increase in financial flows,” resolution of environmental grievances and an improvement to corporate governance at the company running the mine. Beyond those general points, however, it is not yet clear how the proposed new format will substantively differ from what is on the table at the moment.
The government has expressed particular annoyance about Centerra’s new development plan for Kumtor unveiled in March that envisioned substantially lower estimated gold reserves than earlier — 6.1 million compared with the previous 8.5 million ounces.
A member of the public supervisory board at Kyrgyzstan’s state mining agency has sent local media into a spin by claiming work at the giant Kumtor gold mine could grind to a halt January 1.
Eldar Tadjibayev, also chair of one of the local mining industry’s biggest trade unions, bases his claim on the fact that the license to operate the mine has not been renewed because of a hold-up in parliament .
Even temporary stoppages at the mine, which accounts for about one-tenth of the struggling nation’s economy, could portend calamity.
“Kumtor’s fate is in the hands of the newly elected parliament,” Tadjibayev told journalists on December 16.
The companies directly affected appear confident matters will be settled in good time. Kumtor Gold, which is the local affiliate of Toronto-listed Centerra Gold and operates the giant mine, has called the delay an “ordinary process.”
The hitch owes much to the disarray in the former parliament and negligence in the present one. The main problem, as a Centerra press release in June noted, is the local environmental agency’s “interpretation of the water code.”