Nerves in Kazakhstan over the state of the national currency turned first to alarm, and now to pretty much outright panic.
Yielding to the inevitable, Prime Minister Karim Masimov announced on August in a special video message that the government would switch to a free-float currency exchange. The value of the tenge duly plummeted 26 percent against the dollar and was trading at 255 by the end of the day.
“On July 15 this year, the National Bank took a decision to widen the currency corridor in order to enable a more flexible and floating exchange rate for the tenge,” said Masimov. “But the situation on the global economy continues to worsen. The prices for the main export goods of our country — oil and metals — have continued to fall, which has had a negative effect on the economic growth.”
Masimov said a priority would be placed on shoring up social welfare, but such remarks will do little to stave off immediate reactions to the collapse of the currency.
TengriNews posted pictures online showing closed currency exchange points in Almaty, where traders are understandably concerned at making large losses in such uncertain times. Vedomosti newspaper reported that some are so desperate that they are offloading their tenge to buy Russian rubles, which is itself experiencing major tribulations, although in a more gradual manner than the tenge.
Alarm is spreading as well deepening as Kyrgyzstan’s som felt the shockwaves from its northern neighbor.
Step aside, CNN, and make room, Al Jazeera: an international news network is coming to break the current "monopoly" on news and promote a Turkic point of view.
Media scholars like John Merrill may welcome a diversity of perspectives in the global news flow as a counterbalance to Western news companies and their takes. The caveat is that the latest new channel is a brainchild of four autocracy-prone governments; primarily of Kazakhstan's president-for-life, Nursultan Nazarbayev.
The idea of a pan-Turkic news has been in the can for a while, but on August 18 information ministers signed a memorandum of understanding about the project in the Kazakh capital of Astana.
Kazakh communication officials said that Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkey have reached a conceptual agreement on the network, which will broadcast "Turkic cultural values" in the four countries' languages and English. It is unclear when the channel goes live.
But, already, Ali Hasanov, a senior aide of Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev and the longtime presidential point-man for media matters, has his ideas.
Looking back to this summer’s European Games, he complained that “the great strides” made by his country “are hardly highlighted by some leading global media resources.” Rather, as the country’s star has risen, the “ media attacks based on preconceived, false accusations” only have increased, he claimed, the pro-government Trend news agency reported.
For all the ceremony that marked Kyrgyzstan’s entry into the Eurasian Economic Union, not much appears to have changed on the border with the only neighboring fellow member, Kazakhstan.
Speaking at a press conference on August 13, Damira Dootoalieva, chairman of the central committee of the Kyrgyzstan Traders Union, said a visit to the border had revealed that Kazakh officials are still not letting goods pass through unhindered.
“You can take across two or three bags, but large-scale cargo still cannot be transported into Kazakhstan. A lot of obstacles are being put in the way by the Kazakhs, including by their traffic police,” Dootoalieva said.
Dootoalieva said that a Porter Nissan van carrying goods from Kyrgyzstan was seized on the Kazakhstan side of the border of August 12, only hours after an inaugural ceremony attended by Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev and his Kazakh counterpart, Nursultan Nazarbayev.
“For about three hours, we tried to get it released. As to how we did that, you understand how these things are done,” Dootoalieva said, adding that money exchanged hands.
When the Kazakh customs officials were asked on what grounds the van had been stopped, they responded only that they would be remaining in place for another 100 days, Dootoalieva said.
At the same press conference, Sergei Ponomaryov, president of the Association of Markets, Trade Enterprises and Service Industries of Kyrgyzstan, said teething problems appeared to be down to poor preparation.
Turkmenistan’s leader Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has flown to Kyrgyzstan with promises of enduring friendship and, on a more practical note, supplies of cheap electricity.
As ever though, natural gas was being discussed as Turkmenistan presses forward in its program to create as many export routes for its fuel as possible.
Speaking after talks in Bishkek on August 5, Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev was fulsome in his gratitude for commitments that are still only notional.
“I want to thank you for your brotherly word about Turkmenistan’s readiness to deliver electricity at very low prices. I think that all the issues to do with its transportation will be settled,” he told his guest.
Easier said than done given the not inconsiderable issue of Uzbekistan, which lies between the two countries. Tashkent has historically proven an unreliable transit nation for power deliveries. In 2009, Uzbekistan interrupted electricity supplies from Turkmenistan to Tajikistan when it pulled out of the Soviet-engineered power grid that links Central Asian nations.
Ashgabat committed in 2013 to investing $5 billion over a seven year period into increasing its export capacity fivefold, so it should on paper have enough to go around. It is unclear, other than sheer brotherliness, why Turkmenistan would commit to subsidizing Kyrgyzstan’s notoriously inefficient electricity system.
Any Kyrgyz government unwilling to countenance political unrest will consider raising electricity tariffs at their own peril.
Skirmishes sparked by a territorial dispute between residents along the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border escalated on August 4, leaving several people injured and damaging multiple homes.
News website Asia-Plus cited Tajik officials as saying Kyrgyz border guards were actively engaged in the disturbances and deployed firearms. Kyrgyzstan promptly denied that accusation, but confirmed that shots were indeed fired, possibly from a shotgun.
The area at the focus of this and much previous unrest lies on the jagged frontier where the east of Tajikistan’s Sughd province and Kyrgyzstan’s Batken province meet.
Kyrgyzstan’s border service said the trouble began on August 3 after crowds on the Tajik side blocked a road passing through the village of Maiskoe, which is used by Kyrgyz residents from the village of Kok-Tash to reach a local cemetery.
“In protest, Kyrgyz citizens blocked the water in a canal that flows into the Tajik village of Chorku,” the border service said in a statement.
The account from Tajikistan, as told by a border service source to Asia-Plus, flips around the sequence. Tajik villagers barred the road to the cemetery because the flow of the river was stemmed, the source said.
Either way, given the value of the river in an otherwise highly barren region, it is likely that depriving a large village of water was what escalated the stakes.
Kyrgyzstan's president has suggested that Russia's military base in the country will have to leave at some point, perhaps in an effort to signal that even as relations with the United States suffer, he doesn't intend the country to be a Russian vassal.
"We have a long term agreement, but sooner or later in the future Kyrgyzstan will have to defend itself, without relying on the bases of brotherly friendly countries," Almazbek Atambayev said at a press conference on July 27.
He did suggest that the base's presence was still welcome today: the base's establishment "was due to threats which the republic can not withstand still today, so the decision on the opening of the base was correct and remains relevant today," he added.
But the reference to the base leaving some day recalled a somewhat stronger statement Atambayev made in 2012 when he publicly questioned whether Kyrgyzstan needed a Russian base. And it comes at a particularly geopolitically volatile time for Bishkek; last week the government canceled a key treaty with the United States in what is probably the most serious diplomatic crisis with Washington in the short history of their bilateral relations. So is Atambayev trying to show that, just because he's angry at Washington, that doesn't mean the country is automatically in Moscow's camp?
In any case, the importance of the air base, at Kant near Bishkek, has risen substantially since 2012. Russia set up the base in 2003, its first new foreign military base since the collapse of the Soviet Union. It had been more or less merely a geopolitical placeholder with no apparent function except as a response of sorts to the U.S. setting up its own air base in the country.
Authorities in Kyrgyzstan have fallen largely silent about the alleged Islamic State cell that they neutralized earlier this month, only for the group itself to purportedly address a video message to the nation.
The nine-minute clip, titled “Address to the people of Kyrgyzstan,” was posted on July 25 and remained online for only a few hours before being taken down, news website Kloop.kg reported.
As Kloop reported, the video consisted of an address to camera by a man speaking in Kyrgyz who appealed to viewers with calls for the Kyrgyz people to “relocate to the lands of Islamic State from infidel nations.” The speech was accompanied by Russian subtitles.
It is specified by the speaker that Kyrgyzstan is one such “infidel nation,” because of the country’s embrace of “man-created laws and rules, “such as democracy.
The video was stamped with the logo of Furat Media, the Russian-language wing of the IS group’s online propaganda operation. Pending further verification by security experts, the authenticity of the video remains in question.
Authorities have for months been warning of a Kyrgyz contingent within the IS group. According to the Interior Ministry’s latest estimates, 422 citizens of Kyrgyzstan, including 55 women, are engaged in combat activities with radical Islamic organizations in Iraq and Syria.
Kloop notes that the footage issued over the weekend was bereft of the scenes of brutality or violence that have increasingly come to typify the IS group’s output.
The takedown of a once-powerful politician in Kyrgyzstan who served as mayor of Osh when that city was devastated by a wave of deadly ethnic clashes in 2010 appears to have been completed.
News website 24.kg reported that Osh city court on July 22 sentenced Melis Myrzakmatov, who is evading capture in an overseas location, to seven years in jail for abuse of office.
The case revolves around alleged financial misdemeanors involved in the construction of an elevated bridge in Osh. Prosecutors have said no cost estimates exercise were performed before tenders were issued and that the entire affair has already cost the state more than $450,000. (Myrzakmatov’s successor, Aitmamat Kadyrbaev, has pledged to complete the job and name it in honor of Russian President Vladimir Putin.)
Myrzakmatov’s current whereabouts are not known with certainty, although newspaper Vecherny Bishkek in December cited a source among the ex-mayor’s associates as saying he had taken refuge in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region
Given his once untouchable status, Myrzakmatov’s downfall has been observed with some incredulity by long-term watchers of the region. He distinguished himself during the 2010 unrest for his markedly nationalistic tone, which earned him the contempt of his city’s ethnic Uzbek community and admiration from sections of the Kyrgyz population. Some believe he had a role in instigating the violence that scarred the city.
Attempts by the government to remove Myrzakmatov from power were met with open contempt. He was finally unseated in December 2013, however.
In the face of widespread hopes of a last-minute change of heart, Kyrgyzstan’s government has torn up a foundational treaty in the Central Asian nation’s ties with the United States.
By signing off on the cancellation of the 1993 treaty on July 21, Prime Minister Temir Sariev stands to endanger the millions of dollars worth of assistance that Washington provides to Kyrgyzstan every year.
Bishkek has adopted the measure in response to the U.S. State Department bestowing the 2014 Human Rights Defender Award on jailed activist Azimjan Askarov.
In September 2010, Askarov, an ethnic Uzbek, was sentenced to life imprisonment for what Kyrgyz authorities say was his role in inciting the mob killing of a police officer during the ethnic unrest in June that year. Western governments and advocacy groups have regularly mounted staunch defenses of Askarov, saying that he was framed and later found guilty in a trial marred by irregularities.
The U.S. award enraged Bishkek, which has described the recognition of Askarov as an attempt to destabilize the country and sow interethnic tension.
The 1993 treaty provides for a tariff waiver on goods imported into Kyrgyzstan as part of U.S. aid programs. It also exempts non-Kyrgyz employees of U.S. government or private aid programs from income and social security taxes.
It seems unlikely that the risk-averse U.S. government will entertain the prospect of being majorly exposed to tax checks in a country where such inspections are regularly conducted by officials seeking bribes, as investors have had cause to learn to their detriment. The change, which comes into effect on Aug. 20, will also require a cumbersome layer of bureaucratic wrangling that could in any event stand to hamstring programs for an indefinite period.
The targets of a special forces raid in Bishkek were ISIS members planning attacks on the Russian air base in Kyrgyzstan and on a celebration in the center of Bishkek marking the end of Ramadan, Kyrgyzstani security officials announced.
"The underground terrorist group was planning terror acts at a mass gathering for Orozo Ait (Eid) on July 17, and also on the territory of the air base of the Russian Ministry of Defense located in the city of Kant," Kyrgyzstan's state security service GKNB said in a statement.
The raid, in which six alleged terrorists were killed and another seven arrested, occasioned a lot of skepticism among Kyrgyzstanis, both for the fact that it took place in a heavily populated neighborhood and that the government provided no evidence that the people it targeted were in fact terrorists. ISIS is a convenient bugaboo for post-Soviet governments, though there is little evidence that the group has any designs on the region, let alone any current presence.
And the supposed targeting of the Russian base hardly adds credibility to the authorities' version of events. Russia established the base in 2003, its first new foreign military base since the fall of the Soviet Union. It had been more or less merely a geopolitical placeholder with no apparent function, but in recent years Russia has renovated it, increased the number of aircraft deployed there, and announced plans to make it the Central Asian hub of the planned joint air forces of the Collective Security Treaty Organization.