When Uzbekistan’s acting president Shavkat Mirziyoyev addressed a joint session of parliament earlier this month, he made a point of saying that his foreign policy priority was to boost relations with regional neighbors.
"We always remain committed to adopting an open, friendly and pragmatic position toward our immediate neighbors — Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan," Mirziyoyev said.
Since even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, leaders in Central Asia have been paying lip service to the notion of fostering fraternal ties in the region, but Mirziyoyev has tentatively lived up to his word in small if meaningful ways so far.
In an apparent start at trying to mend fences, Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Komilov on September 29 visited Tajikistan, where he met with President Emomali Rahmon.
Discussions were confined to what might sound like meaningless generalities anywhere else. For these two countries, however, talk of positive trends in relations, increased trade, revitalized dialogue on trade and economic cooperation and “the importance of maintaining regular political consultations and dialogue at the highest levels” are more than noteworthy.
Rahmon and Karimov’s relationship was fraught by personal enmity, making reaching state-level agreement on a number of thorny sticking points — of which there are many — all the more difficult.
The biggest source of bilateral unease lies in Dushanbe’s determination to build the giant Roghun hydropower plant, which Tashkent has loudly complained will pose a potentially existential risk to its agricultural sector by stemming the flow of a major river.
A state auction of personalized car license plates in Kyrgyzstan caused astonishment this week after one item sold for almost $25,000— a fortune in a country where the official average monthly salaries is $200.
Even the opening bidding prices at September 28 online auction were high. For example, the plate 01 001 ААА began from a price of 70,000 som ($1,000 USD), but eventually sold for 600,000 som ($8,800), newspaper Vecherny Bishkek reported. The most highly sought-after plate though was 01 777 ААА, which started from 60,000 som and was nabbed with the winning bid of more than 1.7 million som ($25,000).
A series on online sales have been taking place since September 21 with items of varying prestige value going to the highest bidder. Simple straightforward symmetrical numbers, like ones with the figure 121 in them, were sold at fixed prices. But the truly exclusive plates — triplicate figures like 555 are the most popular — drew the high rollers.
These auctions tend to draw high bids, but the record set this time around has shocked many, going by the evidence of the indignation being registered online.
Public relations specialist Yelena Voronina wrote on her Facebook page: “1.716 million som just for a car plate. In a country where there is no money for medicine or equipment for those sick with cancer…”
Others took a more mordantly bitter line.
“It’s a shame they couldn’t have sold 01 777 ААА for $4 billion. That way we could have paid off the national debt,” quipped Ernis Temirkan, an employee for the Sputnik Kyrgyzstan news agency.
The appearance of a figure convicted in Kyrgyzstan on charges of separatism and inciting ethnic hatred at an international rights forum has enraged politicians in Bishkek.
Ethnic Uzbek entrepreneur Kadyrzhan Batyrov, a native of the southern Kyrgyz city of Jalal-Abad, spoke on September 20 in condemnation of Kyrgyzstan’s president at an event held by the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR).
Batyrov, who has lived in Sweden for the past five years evading imprisonment over charges he incited ethnic unrest in his home country in 2010, said current plans to tinker with the constitution were part of President Almazbek Atambayev’s plot to permanently usurp power.
He also used the platform to condemn the plight of fellow ethnic Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan, who he argued are marginalized and underrepresented, and focused in particular on the situation of rights advocate Azimjan Askarov, who is serving a life sentence for his purported involvement in the violence of 2010.
The remarks were like a red rag to a bull to officials in Kyrgyzstan and about as badly timed as could be. Authorities loyal to Atambayev are mounting an intensifying onslaught against opponents to the constitutional reforms, which will likely be put to a referendum on December 4, and Batyrov is being used as the stick with which to beat them.
Even if he had tried, Batyrov could hardly have done more to compromise fellow critics of Atambayev. The Jalal-Abad businessman is referred to regularly in Kyrgyz media with the separatist epithet and the undocumented claim that he sparked the unrest of six years ago by calling for territorial autonomy for Uzbek-populated areas is widely accepted as gospel truth. Being put in the same basket as Batyrov then is political poison for public figures in Kyrgyzstan.
Kyrgyzstan’s parliament has passed a second reading of draft bill on holding a referendum in December on making changes to the constitution.
With the MPs vote on September 22, the likelihood of a plebiscite going ahead on December 4, as planned, has become a virtual certainty. Third readings are typically a formality and President Almazbek Atambayev has already thrown his weight behind amendments that have sown political turmoil in the country.
Of the 104 deputies that voted, 98 were in support of the referendum initiative, while six opposed.
Proposals to tinker with the constitution have come in for strong criticism from civil society as well as from international bodies like the Venice Commission, an advisory body to the European Council that rules on matters of constitutional law.
One key provision of the reform would see the role of prime minister being bolstered at the expense of the parliament. This has raised suspicions that Atambayev, who is limited constitutionally to one presidential term ending in 2017, may be laying the grounds for his immediate entourage to retain a dominant grip over power.
Another fix seen as insidious is one envisioning the introduction of loosely conceived “supreme state values” that would encompass individual human rights but also tag on concepts like “love of the Motherland,” “respect for the elderly” and “the accommodation of tradition and progress.” The ultimate goal of this aspect of the reform appears intended at chipping away at the individual human rights agenda that many governments in the post-Soviet space see as inimical to their model of authoritarian political development.
In the wake of a fresh boundary dispute, Uzbekistan has re-opened a border crossing with Kyrgyzstan and started allowing the passage of private citizens.
Uzbek news site Anhor.uz reported that the crossing began to operate normally on September 19 following telephone negotiations between the presidents of the two countries.
On the face of it, the move marks another surprising thaw over border issues, which had been strained intensely after a helicopter of Uzbek policeman last month occupied a Kyrgyz telecommunications tower on a disputed mountain and detained four technicians working there. The men have since been released and the telecommunications tower was abandoned by the Uzbek police officers over the weekend.
But Kyrgyz residents living near the crossing in question have told EurasiaNet.org that private citizens have not been able to get into Uzbekistan through that point for many years now, so claims the situation will revert to that before an earlier border dispute in March are highly confusing. The only relatively operational land crossing between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan is in the latter’s Kadamjay district — a fact that all but cripples trade and communication between the two countries.
Despite the uncertainty, even the news of potential new border crossings is heartening Uzbek exporters, like Tahir in Tashkent.
Tahir exports cherries to China’s Xinjiang province and is eager to see the border working efficiently.
Kazakhstan troops march in the opening ceremony of the SCO Peace Mission 2016 military exercises in Kyrgyzstan. (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization is conducting its first joint military exercises in Kyrgyzstan, just weeks after a suicide bomber attacked the Chinese embassy in Bishkek.
The 2016 version of the SCO's Peace Mission exercise kicked off on Thursday at the Edelweiss training center near Lake Issyk-Kul. As is often the case, the scenario of the exercise involves an "anti-terror" operation with considerably heavier firepower than is usually employed against terrorists. Chinese helicopters, for example, practiced using air-to-air missiles.
"The need to conduct such exercises is dictated by modern realities," said Colonel Ruslan Mukambetov, the Kyrgyzstan officer commanding the exercises. "They have repeatedly proven their relevance and significance amid the current international situation, both in the SCO area of responsibility and in the world at large... In addition to its direct purpose - the fight against terrorism, extremism and separatism - they also promote closer military cooperation between our countries’ armed forces."
There seems to be some discrepancies in the reporting of how many troops are involved: The official Chinese People's Liberation Army news site said that it was 1,100, while Mukambetov said it was 2,000. The Russian contingent is reportedly 500 strong, and the Chinese, about 300.
A former presidential chief of staff in Kyrgyzstan has said he anticipates being arrested following a report alleging he is being targeted by a set-up orchestrated by the security forces.
Speaking in Bishkek on September 19, Edil Baisalov, who served as chief of staff for interim President Roza Otunbayeva in 2010, claims to have heard from “verified sources” that current President Almazbek Atambayev is seeking “any basis” to imprison him. The president is exploiting inter-ethnic tensions to that end, Baisalov said.
Baisalov’s press conference follows the publication of an article on Moscow-based ferghana.ru claiming knowledge of a plot by Kyrgyz security services to dig up dirt on members of the 2010 post-revolution interim government, of which Atambayev was a leading figure.
The article article alleged, citing a single anonymous source, that employees of the Kyrgyz security services, known as GKNB, were talking to relatives of ethnic Uzbeks that emigrated from Kyrgyzstan following bloody ethnic violence in 2010 and Uzbeks that have taken up residence in Uzbekistan after being convicted of participation in the violence into giving “incriminating testimony against Roza Otunbayeva and some of her colleagues.”
“Disgraced Uzbek community representatives were invited to make an official video message that they ‘organized the inter-ethnic conflict in June 2010 on the say so of Roza Otunbayeva.’” according to the report.
In recent weeks, the president has been engaged in a rapidly escalating conflict with numerous allies-turned-rivals, who have publicly stated their opposition to constitutional changes being pursued by Atmbayev.
The meetings alluded to in the ferghana.ru report reportedly took place in Osh and Tashkent.
Kyrgyzstan’s five-party ruling coalition appears to have seen better days as quarrels over constitutional changes dominate parliamentary sessions and supporters of President Almazbek Atambayev continue to harangue opponents of an upcoming referendum.
The nominally socialist Ata-Meken faction and the pro-agrarian Onuguu-Progress party have expressed doubts about the changes. The former was invited to leave the ruling alliance by Isa Omurkulov, who leads Atambayev’s Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan in parliament.
Onuguu-Progres leader Bakyt Torobayev said at a September 14 session of parliament that the coalition was in “intensive care” and, warming to his theme, on “artificial respiration.”
He also cited a conversation with a citizen from a rural area who “hadn’t read the [proposed] constitutional changes but was concerned that they are being done to usurp power.”
Even if both Onuguu-Progress and Ata-Meken walked out of government, the three remaining parties (SDPK, Bir Bol and the Kyrgyzstan party) would still have enough seats to form a majority. For what it’s worth, Ata-Meken leader Omurbek Tekebayev has stated he has no imminent plans to ditch the coalition.
But suspicions over the constitutional fiddle, which is being pushed by Atambayev as he nears the end of his single term six-year presidency, are growing.
The most significant changes involve a recasting of the state’s obligations toward upholding human rights and enhancing the office of the prime minister against that of the presidency.
The language on rights issues signals a marked lurch toward nationalist conservatism.
Investigators from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization are working on the case of the Chinese embassy bombing in Bishkek, which includes "Russian traces," a senior Russian security official said.
"Work on identifying the individuals who took part in the terror act in Bishkek continues with the coordination of SCO special services," said Sergey Smirnov, deputy director of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), at an SCO meeting in Almaty on Tuesday. "In this work, Tajik, Chinese, and Russian traces are being pursued."
A suicide bomber, whom Kyrgyzstan authorities described as a Uighur holding a Tajikistan passport, attacked the Chinese embassy in Bishkek in late August, killing himself and wounding three embassy employees. If the Uighur connection is confirmed, it would signify that the insurgency that the Uighurs -- a Turkic, Muslim people centered in China's northwest -- have been carrying out in China has expanded into Central Asia.
Smirnov's reference to "SCO special services" is unclear; he could be referring to special services of SCO member countries (which include China, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan) or organs of the SCO itself, like the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure. The former is not newsworthy but the latter would be, suggesting a deepening role of the SCO in regional security. But for now it seems more likely that Smirnov was referring to SCO member states, and phrased it that way because he was at an SCO meeting.