The inevitability of Kyrgyzstan caving in and joining the Russia-dominated Customs Union is looming ever larger on the horizon.
Speaking in Brussels this week, President Roza Otunbayeva may have issued her most explicit position on the issue to date.
Joining the Customs Union “is highly important to us. Or rather, you could say that they are pulling us in, because everything produced in Kyrgyzstan is aimed at the markets of Kazakhstan and Russia. Moreover, our labor and capital is oriented in exactly that direction.”
Kyrgyzstan has until now thrived on being a transit nation through which cheap Chinese goods could be re-exported. Since both Kyrgyzstan and China are members of the World Trade Organization, the former benefitted to an extent, according to Otunbayeva.
As she then ruefully notes, with the appearance of the fenced-off Customs Union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, there is no longer anywhere to send these goods:
“With the existence of the Customs Union, the door to Kazakhstan is closing firmly and so membership for us has become an issue. It would be good if Russia could also join the WTO as soon as possible.”
Curiously, this puts opponents to Russia’s WTO membership in a key position to affect the fate of struggling nations, like Kyrgyzstan and another potential Customs Union aspirant, Tajikistan.
The consensus that joining the Customs Union is a must has become common among Kyrgyz politicians, although some experts have warned against it.
Justice is relative in southern Kyrgyzstan. But blame seems to be absolute.
The murder of a tax official has set off a protest with frightening parallels to events preceding ethnic violence last summer.
Sagynbek Alimbayev, the deputy head of the regional tax service, was found dead February 23 in a brand-new Lexus sedan with a gunshot wound to the chest. Two days later, local authorities said they had arrested the culprits, three ethnic Uzbeks, who had allegedly acted on orders from a businessman in Uzbekistan.
Employing the kind of mob justice that has replaced courts here, several hundred Kyrgyz rioted in the southern town of Nookat on March 1 and burned down a house or three that, they say, belong to the killers.
As police dispersed the rioters, taxman Alimbayev’s son Nurbek did his part to keep hostilities ablaze. He announced, improbably, that the murder was carried out on order of the elusive, exiled enemy number one: Kadyrjan Batyrov. A wealthy businessman from Jalal-Abad, Batyrov had called last spring for Uzbeks to have greater representation in government, but not, independent investigators have found, much more. Yet he is constantly blamed for sparking the ethnic violence that left at least 400 dead.
By shutting its border with Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan has imposed a “catastrophic” de facto embargo, stimulating a shadow economy in the beleaguered Central Asian state, say researchers at a Bishkek-based think tank.
The Central Asian Free Market Institute (CAFMI) found a 75 percent drop in trade at southern Kyrgyzstan’s largest market since Tashkent unilaterally closed the border following the upheaval that unseated the Kyrgyz president last April.
The closure has also pushed up food prices -- which have risen more in Kyrgyzstan this year than anywhere else according to the World Bank -- since Uzbekistan traditionally was a major supplier of fruits and vegetables to Kyrgyzstan.
But the 1100-kilometer border is open for smuggling, entrenching corruption as the arbiter of economic activity. In interviews with 109 illegal smugglers, the researchers found that many of them ferry cheap Chinese consumer goods to Uzbekistan and fruits and vegetables back to Kyrgyzstan, paying border officials bribes along the way. (At the prices they found, it’s not a stretch to imagine drugs, weapons and even militants are also getting across.)
Along the entire […] border there are illegal paths by which goods transit from Kyrgyzstan into Uzbekistan and vice versa. At the moment, traders are forced to pay bribes to border guards along paths that bypass the border. Payment to the border guards is 200 som [$4] for every person crossing and 300 som [$6] for goods weighing up to 80 kg. […]
Lately it seems everyone in Kyrgyzstan has become a political forecaster, each with an opinion on when, and how, the dreaded “third revolution” will commence.
To help steer the country through volatile times ahead, the losers in last October’s parliamentary elections have appointed themselves in charge of a “shadow government,” which they claim, though those elections were hailed as the freest and fairest in Central Asian history less than five months ago, represents the true will of the people.
Promising a government of “professionals, people with a spotless reputation, youth,” (without specifying whence such saviors will hail) former Foreign Minister Alikbek Jekshenkulov declared himself prime minister of this “shadow government” on February 24.
“You know that, after the parliamentary elections, people’s expectations are not yet being met. Future successes are declared. And in order not to be passive observers, we have decided to switch to active political actions. During the last week of February we came to the decision to establish an alternative government and parliament. It’s a bold and rather daring step,” Jekshenkulov said.
It’s kind of him to offer, but voters already declined his help. Jekshenkulov’s Akyikat (Justice) Party came in twelfth place in the October polls with 0.8 percent of eligible votes nationwide.
Nikolai Bordyuzha has said what we’ve all been thinking.
The chief of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the region’s dithering, would-be NATO, has said that members of deposed President Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s court were trafficking narcotics through southern Kyrgyzstan. That part of the country was Bakiyev’s home base and, after his bloody ouster last spring, the epicenter of ethnic violence that left hundreds dead and thousands wounded.
"A year ago, before the events in Kirgizia, some security forces, controlled by President Bakiyev among others, controlled drug traffic through the south of Kirgizia," Bordyuzha, referring to the country by its Soviet-era moniker, said in comments carried by RIA Novosti on February 21.
Whether Bakiyev was complicit, or, as many suspect, profiting directly from the drug trade, Bordyuzha didn’t elaborate. But he made a comment about Kyrgyzstan’s current security forces, or “siloviki” -- a term referring collectively to agencies with the legitimate right to use force, including police, army, intelligence services and others -- that left journalists guessing about his meaning:
"Over the last month, several caravans of drugs have been intercepted and, moreover, this transfer was made possible by security forces," he said, adding that the new Kyrgyz authorities could use some help in the fight against drugs.
Was Bordyuzha referring to the transfer of troops that stopped the drug shipments? Or was he suggesting, as interpreted by Lenta.ru, that some members of the security forces continue to smuggle drugs?
After winter’s seasonal scarcity, spring is the traditional time for protest in Kyrgyzstan. And though cold weather may hold onto the country for some weeks more, what happens next seems to be on everyone’s mind in Bishkek. Most expect protests of some sort, fueled by inflation, rising bread prices, and perceptions of a paralyzed parliament.
The fears are so acute that some are even beginning to ask themselves: What would Kyrgyzstan look like if this new government were unseated, like the last two, through popular protest? The answer is: Afghanistan.
“If another coup takes place in Kyrgyzstan, then surely a regime of warlords will be established in the country,” the president’s chief of staff, Emilbek Kaptagayev, said on February 16.
Of course it is in Kaptagayev’s interest to warn against unrest; he wants to hold onto his post. But some regions are already governed by the warlords of which he warns -- a mix of criminal gangs and other local power brokers, sometimes with connections to the police, and with no loyalty to Bishkek. Parts of the south are the most obvious examples.
The first deputy governor of Osh Province, Kushbak Tezekbaev, said the same day that in his region, “Many senior government bodies do not work; they are concerned with earning money and receiving bribes.” Only five percent of those in law enforcement there do their jobs, he added.
A wheat farmer in Tajikistan: Will his harvest soon bring untold riches?
Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are tapping into their strategic reserves of flour, seeking to dampen exploding wheat prices, which, according to the World Bank, have increased more in Kyrgyzstan than in any other country. Prices have climbed 54 percent in Bishkek since last June, while Tajikistan registered a 37 percent increase nationwide.
The reasons for the surge are well beyond Bishkek or Dushanbe’s control, with poor weather and export restrictions in wheat-growing countries, as well as fears of large orders in some consuming markets, to blame, says the World Bank. Internationally, wheat prices increased by 20 percent in the last quarter of 2010, the most of any grain.
What does this mean for consumers in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan? Populations in both countries depend on wheat flour for a large proportion of their calorie intake. In Kyrgyzstan it’s estimated at 40 percent, and in Tajikistan it is a whopping 54 percent. Moreover, people in both countries spend a huge portion of their income on food.
The potential for these exogenous shocks to stir unrest is high, especially in Kyrgyzstan, coming on top of its rabid inflation, which the International Monetary Fund measured at almost 20 percent last year. And the rate shows no sign of changing, according to data released this week by the National Statistics Committee.
Russian officers from the Kant air base in Kyrgyzstan have made their first ever visit to their U.S. counterparts at the Manas air base, an event the Manas wing commander says the U.S. side has been trying to arrange for nine years:
Why did the Russians finally give in and accept the U.S. hospitality? The commander suggests it's a part of the "reset" with Russia, and that there is a possibility, this summer or fall, of formal "military-to-military engagements" with U.S., Russian and possibly Kyrgyz troops.
A chorus of feral dogs barking in the wee hours is a familiar sound to any Bishkek resident. In some neighborhoods at night, the strays can be almost as threatening as the roving bands of muggers (the canines scatter when stomped or yelled at, the thugs don’t). Mutts and muggers: Together, or taken alone, they’re a good reason to taxi it home after dark.
Tackling half of this problem, a grim campaign to clean Bishkek’s streets is about to begin, RIA Novosti reports. Some of us may wish the offensive were aimed at the thieves. But instead, Bishkek shall shoot 10,000 pooches.
One city official said Bishkek simply does not have enough money to build a pound. "Don't think of us as barbarians," he said. In 2010, about 5,000 dogs were shot, RIAN reported.
"We receive around 20 requests to shoot stray dogs every day," city government representative Pavel Klimenko said. "There are an estimated 10,000 homeless dogs living in the city."
The dogs will only be shot early in the morning and in the evening when the streets are quiet, Klimenko said.
The relatively calm mornings and evenings are choice times to scare Bishkek residents. Since the violence last year, many grow agitated merely at the sound of fireworks, a staple of weddings for the well-to-do. Chances are they’d prefer a dog barking in the middle of the night to explosions of uncertain provenance at daybreak.
(Update: RFE/RL reports that the State Language Committee boss was sacked February 11 for his controversial de-Russification plan. Officials said Azimjan Ibraimov's push to eradicate Russian place names was complicating measures to improve relations with Moscow.)
A group appointed by Kyrgyzstan’s president is trying to make Kyrgyzstan sound more Kyrgyz. By doing away with Russian-language place names -- except for the newly christened Mt. Vladimir Putin -- they say they will protect their country from irredentist Russian claims.
According to a February 10 report by the State Language Committee, as cited by local press, 150 villages in northern Chui Province are “corrupted or ruined” because they have Russian-sounding names. Northern Kyrgyzstan still has a large Russian minority, though the population has dwindled in the past few years. Besides economic motives for emigration, many minorities are also feeling the pinch of Kyrgyzstan’s rising, often bitter, nationalism.
Members of the committee, pointing out that Kyrgyzstan’s other post-Soviet neighbors have changed many Russian names to reflect local languages, are tapping a fear that has spread quickly since ethnic violence last summer between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the south: that the Kyrgyz nation is on the verge of extinction, endangered by outsiders and fifth columns.