My television in Bishkek is old. The antenna often only provides a weak black and white signal. But these images from public broadcaster ELTR should give those outside the country an idea what Kyrgyzstan’s presidential race looked like from a local living room.
This week, as the campaign wound down and candidates tried to spend the remaining funds in their war chests, television aired their advertisements almost non-stop. Of 83 who originally expressed interest in running, only 16 appeared on the October 30 ballot.
Most of these spots ran in Kyrgyz with Russian subtitles.
Voters in Kyrgyzstan's ethnically divided southern city of Osh voted for a new president on October 30, turning out in large numbers despite fears of unrest.
Osh was the scene of ethnic violence between Kyrgyz and minority Uzbeks in June, 2010. Two nationalist politicians are popular with ethnic Kyrgyz in this southern region: Adahan Madumarov and Kamchybek Tashiev. But most Uzbeks told me they were voting for Almazbek Atambayev, a northerner, who they feel is more able to unify the country.
That is, Uzbeks who were voting. The day before the poll, in the Uzbek neighborhood of Cheremushki, which was largely destroyed during the “June Events,” many young men told me they wouldn’t vote at all, so afraid of reprisals from Kyrgyz supporters of Madumarov and Tashiev.
Overall, the day was calm, with everyone I met expressing hope for a peaceful and stable Kyrgyzstan.
Editor's Note: Nicolas Tanner is a freelance journalist based in Osh.
Here’s some good news for the Ferghana Valley: Uzbekistan has reopened its frontier with Kyrgyzstan, 18 months after unilaterally screwing it shut. Tashkent closed the border during the bloody ouster of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in April 2010, dramatically wounding trade in southern Kyrgyzstan.
One study last winter found commerce in the region’s largest market, Kara-Suu, had fallen by 75 percent, encouraging higher food prices and smuggling.
The Dostuk (“Friendship”) border post between Osh and Andijan reopened early on October 26, Bishkek’s AKIpress news agency reported. There is no word yet whether other posts along the 1100-kilometer frontier will open.
But why now, four days before Kyrgyzstan’s presidential election, when Bishkek is bracing for more political or ethnic violence? Wasn’t Tashkent’s original logic to keep Kyrgyzstan’s messy politics contained?
A few possibilities come to mind:
For one thing, the reopening, decided on in Tashkent, looks like a vote of confidence for Prime Minister Almazbek Atambayev, the leading candidate in the October 30 poll. Opening the border would revive commerce, which could add a notch to the premier’s belt. Moreover, though the rights of minority ethnic Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan may not be the top priority on Uzbekistan’s foreign-policy list, Tashkent has shown concern about the issue, and Atambayev stands apart from the two other leading candidates as less of a nationalist hothead. (Besides, if, heaven forbid, the election should trigger a new round of interethnic strife, Kyrgyzstani Uzbeks in the south would have somewhere to run.)
As voters in Kyrgyzstan prepare to elect a new president on October 30, allegations that some candidates are using their official positions to influence the campaign – employing “administrative resources,” in local parlance -- continue to saturate the Kyrgyz press. But this week, local and international elections observers said they have seen few such examples.
On October 24, the Bishkek-based Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, which is conducting long-term campaign monitoring, expressed cautious optimism. “The electoral process is taking place relatively openly, transparently, and democratically,” concluded the coalition’s third report on the process, noting only three cases of administrative abuse.
Two involved state-employed teachers gathering students at campaign events for leading candidate Almazbek Atambayev, who stepped down as prime minister to run. The coalition did not observe the third incident, which was cited in parliamentary debate: Policemen in Osh backing former Emergencies Minister Kamchybek Tashiev allegedly seized the licenses of drivers who expressed support for Atambayev.
The list of irregularities is surprisingly short given that new allegations of violations, primarily against Atambayev, have appeared almost every day of the campaign. Only two weeks ago, Coalition leader Dinara Oshurahunova publicly listed a large number herself.
At a press conference October 24, Oshurakhunova said that despite the allegations, complaints have lacked factual evidence, making them difficult to investigate.
As if labor migrants in Russia didn’t already have enough trouble contending with xenophobia and violent harassment, a recent study shows that a significant number of guest workers from Central Asia can’t speak Russian.
Citing research by the Center for Migration Studies, an official from the Federal Migration Service said that more than 20 percent of migrants from Central Asia do not speak Russian and 50 percent cannot independently fill out a simple form in the language, the state-run Rossiiskaya Gazeta reported last month. The official said a lack of language skills leaves the migrants vulnerable to exploitation.
Underscoring Russia’s dependence on foreign laborers, regional governments across the country have sponsored programs aimed at teaching the migrants Russian.
But “the guests are in no hurry to take advantage of the opportunity,” Rossiiskaya Gazeta laments, noting only about 5,000 have enrolled this year. (Over 6.7 million foreigners registered with the migration services between January and August, of whom more than 80 percent are from the former Soviet Union.) Migrants are overworked and their employers lack interest in seeing them learn Russian, the migration official said, adding that many gastarbeiters are exploited by members of their own diaspora communities.
After independence, most states in Central Asia and the Caucasus sought to replace colonial Russian influence by emphasizing national languages and culture. As a result, knowledge of the lingua franca has diminished, especially among those born since 1991.
Flags are flying in downtown Almaty to welcome delegates to the upcoming Cooperation Council of Turkic-Speaking States summit. But hang on a minute. You thought there were six Turkic-speaking states? Why, then, are only four flags on display?
Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkey, who jointly set up this “Turkic Council,” are taking part. Where are Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan?
President Nursultan Nazarbayev will host the October 21 summit in Kazakhstan's commercial capital. Kyrgyzstan's Roza Otunbayeva and Azerbaijan's Ilham Aliyev have RSVP’d their plans to attend, along with representatives from Turkey—Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pulled out on October 19 after violence at home.
The Council was set up in Nakhchivan, Azerbaijan, in 2009, with the aim of enhancing links in areas such as trade, energy, education, agriculture and tourism.
In 2010, following the Heads of the Turkic Speaking States summit (yes, another grouping), Ashgabat embraced the Turkic Council enthusiastically, but it has since melted away and is not taking part this week. Tashkent has struck its usual go-away-and-leave-us-alone pose.
So, with delegations from perpetual spoilers Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan out of the picture, could we witness something meaningful come out of the summit? Or will it be just another photo op?
Kyrgyzstan’s Russia-friendly government is getting closer to the point of no return.
Two weeks after Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin launched his proposal for a new Eurasian Union based on the Moscow-led Customs Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan has taken another step toward accession with the formation of a working group to resolve outstanding issues.
On October 17, Acting Prime Minister Omurbek Babanov, a Customs Union supporter, noted that Kyrgyzstan still had some issues to work out before joining. Among the problems Babanov mentioned is “finding work for the tens or hundreds of thousands of people who will be left jobless when we enter the Customs Union.”
One might think losing so many jobs would be a big enough concern to rule out accession for a country with widespread unemployment and an economy that shrank in 2010.
But wishful thinking is all the rage. The leading presidential candidate in next week’s elections, Almazbek Atambayev (Babanov’s boss and for all intents and purposes the man who stands to gain the most from a quid pro quo with Moscow), has promised the Customs Union will contribute to “the development of manufacturing.”
It's a bird … It's a plane … It's Kyrgyz Superboy!
A man in Kyrgyzstan has developed what might be the country’s proudest toy.
The die-cast plastic boy -- wearing a national hat, the kalpak, vest and riding boots -- sings Kyrgyzstan’s national anthem as well as three patriotic Kyrgyz songs. His kneeling sidekick, sold separately, recites verses from the Koran, AKIpress reported. (With video, too).
Akyikat – named after designer Irisbek Zhabirov’s son – could be an inspiring figure for Kyrgyz children. But what will he inspire? Nationalism or something more benign? A rabid anti-foreigner sentiment is flourishing in Kyrgyzstan, particularly since ethnic violence last year left hundreds dead. What kind of values, then, shall we hope for from Akyikat?
The little guy also faces a congenital struggle: He’s made in China – the target of much Kyrgyz xenophobia.
But parents, don’t worry. The $6 price tag includes a guarantee from the manufacturer: All its Chinese-made toys are non-toxic and harmless to your children. So hurry, there are only 10,000 copies of each available.
In recent weeks, the mammoth Friday edition of Vechernii Bishkek, the newspaper of record for Russian-speaking Bishkek, has featured two full-page editorials warning that “the future of the secular state” is in danger.
So one would have expected the October 14 editorial to reference the “terrorist” hunt last week, in which one individual was shot dead near Osh and 10 more arrested. Perhaps the government’s story -- that the arrests disrupted a multi-ethnic Islamic Jihad Union cell determined to destabilize the country ahead of a presidential election on October 30 -- was too much for even Vechernii Bishkek to stomach.
Yet the October 14 editorial does sound the alarm about “groups of partisans of different varieties of Islam” working within the state-sponsored Muslim Spiritual Board, or Muftiate. On this score, Mufti Chubak hajji Jalilov appears to have gotten the message.
Last month, after stoking protests over a de facto ban on headscarves in public schools, the Muftiate quickly retreated and backed the government line – that no ban was in place. Islamic civil society groups were not satisfied, however, and some may now be taking their anger to the mosque.
Kyrgyzstan is a dark-horse candidate in elections for a non-permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council, but one of its advantages is the Manas air base, according to an analysis by Bloomberg:
The impoverished former Soviet state, which has no credit rating or international bonds, has been criticized by the U.S. and UN for corruption and a range of human rights abuses, including the abduction of girls for forced marriages.
Still, it has two cards to play in seeking a place in the UN’s most powerful group: a woman leader and air bases.
The land-locked country has Central Asia’s first female president and is unique in having both Russia and U.S. use military bases on its territory. The U.S. relies on the Manas Transit Center to support operations in Afghanistan, after Uzbekistan evicted U.S. military from its airfield in 2005....
[President Roza] Otunbayeva “is certainly going to do her best to ensure the maximum number of Western votes for the only democracy in that part of the world with a valuable transit military base leased by the U.S,” said Lilit Gevorgyan, a London-based analyst at IHS Global Insight.
Well, and that's the only evidence presented that Manas will have any effect on the vote. Kyrgyzstan is a candidate for the de facto Asia seat on the council, and its primary competition is Pakistan. And there is much speculation in the South Asian press that the U.S. is marshaling support for Kyrgyzstan over Pakistan. From the Times of India: