With a cold, dark winter inching closer each day in Kyrgyzstan, the government is desperately trying to strike bilateral energy-import agreements with anyone and everyone. But as policymakers go hunting around Central Asia to plug an estimated deficit of over 2 billion kilowatt-hours, prices and political differences are potent sticking points.
Any bilateral deal would require the differential in electricity costs be borne either by the insolvent government, or by ordinary Kyrgyzstanis, who are accustomed to paying $0.015 per kilowatt-hour. That’s far below the cost of production and substantially less than citizens pay in any other Central Asian country.
So Kazakh electricity, which costs around four times as much for Kazakhs, is expensive to most Kyrgyz, although that didn’t stop Astana and Bishkek agreeing to an import deal in principle last week. Tajik electricity is over one-and-a-half times as expensive as the Kyrgyz version and it is doubtful whether a country whose own rural residents spend a lot of time in the dark has any power to spare.
The perfect cure to a Kyrgyz winter of misery, then, could come from gas-rich Turkmenistan.
Lawmakers in Kyrgyzstan have voted overwhelmingly to adopt a tougher version of Russia’s so-called “gay propaganda” law. The Kyrgyz version mandates jail terms for gay-rights activists and others, including journalists, who create “a positive attitude toward non-traditional sexual relations.”
The vaguely worded bill passed its first reading on October 15 with a vote of 79 to 7, AKIpress reported (the 120-seat legislature is rarely full). During a meeting last week to discuss the bill, one lawmaker said the draft is not tough enough and proposed to increase sentences from up to one year to three. If it passes two more readings, the bill will go to President Almazbek Atambayev – a staunch Russia ally – for his signature.
One of the bill’s authors, Kurmanbek Dyikanbayev, often sounds as if he is repeating Kremlin talking points. Dyikanbayev told Radio Azattyk last week that he sponsored the bill to protect Kyrgyzstan’s “traditional families.” He also blames Western democracy for moral degeneracy and for encouraging homosexuality.
Bishkek-based LGBT-rights organization Labrys, whose advocacy would be outlawed by the bill, notes that the legislation contradicts numerous human-rights provisions in Kyrgyzstan’s constitution. Nika Yuryeva of Labrys said she fears the bill will encourage more violence against the LGBT community.
An Ontario court has frozen much of Kyrgyzstan’s share in its largest industrial asset, the Kumtor Gold Mine, adding an awkward new twist to the epic saga over the mine’s future.
Kumtor is fully owned by Toronto-listed Centerra Gold, which is one-third owned by Kyrgyzstan’s state-run Kyrgyzaltyn gold company. Since early 2012, Kyrgyzstan has been trying to increase its share in the high-altitude mine, which accounts for over 50 percent of the impoverished country’s industrial output and 10 percent of GDP in a good year. Early this year, the government and Centerra were moving toward an agreement that would increase Kyrgyzstan’s share in Kumtor to 50 percent, but negotiations have stalled as some lawmakers continue to demand the mine be nationalized.
The Ontario Superior Court of Justice ruling favors another investor with no role in the Kumtor dispute: Stans Energy, which says Kyrgyzstan has failed to pay the $118 million in damages awarded in Moscow this summer related to a different mine site, Kutessay II. In July, the Arbitration Court at the Moscow Chamber of Commerce and Industry ordered the Kyrgyz government to pay Stans in compensation for seizing the company’s license to Kutessay II, a heavy rare earths deposit.
Stans Energy announced on October 14 that the court order “prohibits the Kyrgyz Republic and Kyrgyzaltyn JSC ("KJSC") from selling, disposing, exchanging, assigning, transferring, pledging or encumbering 47,000,000 shares in the capital of Centerra Gold Inc. registered in the name of KJSC.”
“What is Putin’s favorite female name?” roars the announcer of a Vladimir Putin-themed quiz at the opening of Putin Pub in Bishkek on Saturday October 11. “Alina!” the crowd chants back in unison, referring to the former Olympic gymnast, Alina Kabaeva, long rumored to be the Russian president’s lover. “Not Lyudmila?” the announcer goads, name-checking Putin’s ex-wife. “No way!” comes the decisive reply.
Aside from the quiz, ubiquitous Putin paraphernalia, and alcoholic drinks named after both Kabaeva and Putin’s political patron-turned-rival, the late Boris Berezovsky, the Putin Pub, located in a southern suburb of Bishkek, has a strangely familiar feel. The pub’s smart phone-wielding administrator, a stout man with a mane of black hair and a pencil-thin beard, seems to have been in charge of every newly opened Bishkek restaurant-pub in recent memory, for instance.
In a nod to the stealth military operation that laid the foundations for Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, wait staff wear the word “#вежливыелюди” (Polite People) stenciled on the reverse of their uniforms. Thankfully these waiters are far more communicative than the unexplained army types who mysteriously surfaced on the Crimean Peninsula in February before calls for a referendum to join Russia. But bringing the onion rings while they’re still warm seems to be a challenge, as it is for waiters in almost every Bishkek gastro-pub.
With elections to Kyrgyzstan’s ever-volatile parliament just a year away, it is an uneasy time to be a private businessman in the Central Asian country. According to managers at one of the country’s most popular media outlets, the pre-election shakedown has begun.
As politicians prepare for the 2015 ballot, the competition over votes and the resources necessary to secure them is expected to be intense. One way of fundraising is to turn to the time-honored tradition of corporate raids – raiderstvo in Russian – at key moments in the political calendar. Now Vechernii Bishkek, a profitable media outlet whose Russian-language newspaper has a weekly circulation of over 50,000 copies, is claiming that it has fallen victim to a raid from “people close to President [Almazbek] Atambayev.”
Vechernii Bishkek’s ownership structure is complicated. In 2000, the paper – and, significantly, its wholly owned print house – fell into the hands of Adil Toygonbaev, the son-in-law of then-President Askar Akayev. Toygonbaev secured a 50-percent stake in the holding company from one of its two owners before reportedly expropriating it entirely in a move that simultaneously relieved his family’s regime of the paper’s critical reporting and added the country's best-selling Russian-language newspaper to the family's list of assets.
At PEN International there is a tradition: During the organization’s general assemblies, empty chairs are left prominently vacant as a reminder of imprisoned writers and journalists around the world.
This year, for the free expression watchdog’s 80th anniversary – marked this week in Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek – three empty chairs reminded the assembly of three Central Asian men imprisoned for their writings and activism: Azimjon Askarov from Kyrgyzstan, Ilham Tohti from China and Vladimir Kozlov from Kazakhstan.
PEN President John Ralston Saul noted that Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev extended a personal invitation to the organization. During a private meeting, Atambayev himself raised the case of Askarov, an Uzbek journalist and rights activist serving a life sentence for complicity in murder and other crimes connected to the June 2010 ethnic violence. Human rights groups have pointed to glaring irregularities during his trial and say Askarov was framed to stop him from documenting police abuse. While PEN and the president “disagreed” over the continuing imprisonment of Askarov, the fact that the president invited PEN to discuss the issue with him was itself “significant,” Saul said.
U.S. troops board an aircraft headed to Afghanistan at the Mihail Kogalniceanu air base in Romania, which this year replaced the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan. (photo: U.S. Army Europe)
Kyrgyzstan's truck drivers say they are suffering because the U.S. military has shifted traffic to Uzbekistan in the wake of the closure of the Manas air base, which operated in Kyrgyzstan until earlier this year. But the U.S. military denies that any decrease in traffic is connected to the base closure.
The director of Kyrgyzstan's Truck Drivers' Association, Temirbek Shabdanaliyev, told website KNews that as a result of the Manas closure, 2,000 truckers are now out of a job:
"After the departure of the Manas Transit Center our truck drivers were left without work. Shipments through our territory to and from Afghanistan immediately stopped, for some reason traffic now goes through Uzbekistan. Before, every week our drivers carried out 300-400 trips to Afghanistan and back, now they sit idle."
"Now these 2,000 drivers are left without work, unemployment increased. Very many drivers are parked without work, and tension and dissatisfaction among the drivers is growing."
From the EBRD report: “The chart shows that Belarus, Armenia and Tajikistan (the latter predominantly through remittance flows) have the highest overall economic exposure to Russia. Such exposures are also significant for the Kyrgyz Republic, Moldova and Ukraine.”
As Russia’s economy goes, Central Asia’s follows. So it is no surprise that the current downward drift in Russia will hurt the region, potentially for years to come. Remittance-dependent countries like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan should be especially worried, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, a multilateral lender, says in a new report.
In its September regional assessment, the EBRD forecasts growth in Russia will come to a “standstill” in the coming months. Already pronounced, Russia’s economic slump is being exacerbated by the war in Ukraine and Western sanctions. The EBRD said Central Asia, and formerly communist countries more broadly, can expect “significant spill-over effects.”
New sanctions by the EU and U.S., which will dampen growth in Russia, “will negatively affect growth in the Central Asian countries.”
As in 2009, during the financial crisis, migrants and their dependents back home will be the first to feel the pain. Remittances from Russia to Central Asia fell in the first quarter of 2014 compared with the previous year, “for the first time since 2009, primarily due to the slowdown in Russia,” the EBRD said. “Particularly vulnerable are [the] Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan, where even a small drop in remittances from Russia is substantive, as remittances make up 29 percent and 49 percent of GDP respectively.”
A fall in remittances “may significantly dampen consumer demand in lower-income countries in the region.”
It’s not often that a Kyrgyz film wins praise abroad, as an epic biopic has in recent weeks. Proud Internet users in Kyrgyzstan are seeking to ensure that the recent burst of international acclaim endures with an online campaign to rank the new film highly at the online movie database IMDB.com.
“Kurmanjan Datka” is reportedly the most expensive Kyrgyz movie ever, and the first feature-length film commissioned by Kyrgyzstan’s perennially impoverished government. The Montreal Gazette called the film a “haunting poetic piece” that “transports you to another world.”
Two weeks after opening in cinemas in Bishkek and Osh, the historical epic – about a queen who united Kyrgyz tribes in the face of Russian aggression in the 19th century before succumbing to Moscow – has garnered more than 1,200 10-star ratings (out of 10 stars) at IMDB. Local social media users believe most of the votes come from Kyrgyzstanis who hope their ratings will help the movie attract prominent American distribution companies, and positive publicity for their remote country.
Journalist and blogger Ulugbek Akishev used Facebook to push his idea to organize a voting campaign on the day the film premiered in Bishkek, August 31. He believes a high IMDB rating would draw the interest of big distribution companies, help “Kurmanjan Datka” go global, and recoup the $1.5 million the government spent on production.
Three years after Kyrgyzstan slapped Vladimir Putin’s name on a mountain, some intrepid local businessmen are aiming to cash in on the name of Russia’s strongman president—recently found to be the most popular politician among Kyrgyzstanis.
Since early this month a black billboard promising a “Putin Pub” coming “soon” has loomed over the intersection of two central thoroughfares in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek. Cast in white, the Russian leader’s visage emerges out of the darkness in a style reminiscent of Marlon Brando on “The Godfather” film posters.
The backers of the “pub/sports bar/karaoke” joint are shrouded in mystery. That is not uncommon in Bishkek, where locals spend hours debating which parliamentarian owns what. But Artem Kolosov, who has been promoting the bar actively on social media, confirmed to EurasiaNet.org that the billboard is no hoax.
Thailand-based Kolosov, who describes himself as the pub’s “PR Director and Art Director” wrote to EurasiaNet.org in English: “I am sorry I cannot say where and when it will open. In mid-September opening [sic]. That's all I can say.”
As with Bishkek’s popular Obama Bar, with which Putin will soon compete, few in Bishkek seem concerned about naming rights. There is already the Guinness Pub, Kyrgyz Fried Chicken, Burger Kiиg and a number of other rip-offs.
But one commenter writing on the website of Kyrgyz news service AKIpress thought differently, musing: “Maybe Putin is opening the bar himself? Now that [Western] sanctions have hit Russia, his profits have fallen. So, he has decided to open a pub in a friendly country to create a new stream of income.”