It was an exciting moment last month for those wishing to put southern Kyrgyzstan’s poisonous ethnic tensions behind them.
For the first time since the mass interethnic violence that fanned out across the region in June 2010, a judge had acquitted and released an ethnic Uzbek man who had previously been found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment for murder during the riots, the Vechernii Bishkek newspaper reported. But the decision has not sat well with some locals.
At his trial last October, Shamshidin Niyazaliev’s lawyers argued he was not even in Kyrgyzstan at the time and 15 witnesses testified they had seen him in neighboring Uzbekistan on the day he is alleged to have committed the murders. Human Rights Watch called his trial unfair.
Niyazaliev was the 20th defendant in the murders of 16 people near the Sanpa cotton factory in the Suzak District of Jalal-Abad Province. Of the original 19, all had been found guilty; 18 received life sentences, one more got 25 years, according to Vechernii Bishkek.
These trials were among dozens that rights activists say were marred by blatant irregularities. Since the ethnic violence, justice in southern Kyrgyzstan has often looked more like bowing to mob rule than an attempt to find truth and punish the guilty.
Thousands of migrant workers, many from Central Asia and the Caucasus, are toiling in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi to help stage the most expensive Olympic Games in history. Many are abused and exploited, working in miserable conditions for little or no pay, Human Rights Watch said today.
Released a year before the games kick off, the 67-page report, entitled “Race to the Bottom: Exploitation of Migrant Workers Ahead of Russia’s 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi,” documents gross violations of Russian and international law, as well as the Olympic spirit.
Tens of thousands of workers, including an estimated 16,000 workers from outside Russia, are helping prepare Sochi for the showcase games, which open next February 7. Human Rights Watch (HRW) focused on these migrant laborers because, compared with Russian workers, they are particularly vulnerable to abuse. Researchers interviewed 66 construction workers from Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Serbia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Ukraine.
Migrant workers said employers subjected them to a range of abuses and exploitation, including: failing to pay full wages, excessively delaying payment of wages, and in some cases failing to pay any wages at all; withholding identity documents, such as passports and work permits; failing to provide employment contracts, or failure to respect terms of a contract; and requiring excessive working hours and providing little time off. […] In several cases documented by Human Rights Watch, employers retaliated against foreign migrant workers who protested against abuses by denouncing them to the authorities, resulting in the workers’ expulsion from Russia.
Authorities and construction companies interviewed by HRW deny the allegations.
Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia and Turkey have agreed to create a "joint armed forces of Turkic-language countries," the four countries decided at a "constitutive conference of the Association of Eurasian Law Enforcement Organs with Military Status" on January 23 in Baku.
Few details were offered about what exactly this new force would entail. Given that the officials at the conference were from law enforcement agencies (Azerbaijan's Interior Ministry, Turkey's Gendarmerie, Kyrgyzstan's "internal police"), the phrase "joint armed forces" seems a bit grandiose, but that's what they're calling it. What will be the function of this unit? Will Kyrgyz police operate in Turkey, or vice versa? And is Mongolian really a Turkic language?
The one concrete thing that seems to have been decided is that the symbol of the new unit will be a horse. Still, it's an intriguing development: most of the energy around Turkic unity in the 1990s has dissipated, and now talk of inter-Turkic unity is relegated mostly to the cultural sphere. So a Turkic armed unit of any sort would break some ground. And if the Tatars join, then we'll really have some news...
UPDATE: Both Turkey and Kyrgyzstan are denying that this actually happened. The dreams of the pan-Turkicists dashed again...
It is no secret that elements of Kyrgyzstan’s underworld enjoyed many freedoms during the reign of the country’s second president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev. Indeed, members of the current political elite are keen to remind us of anything that blackens the former first family’s name and deflects attention from their own shortcomings. But recent comments by Interior Minister Shamil Atakhanov go beyond the usual Bakiyev-bashing and provide some interesting insights into the way the state and mafia became enmeshed during his rule, as well as what Kyrgyz mob-watchers should look out for in the future.
In a January 23 interview with K-News, Atakhanov spoke of the “criminalization of the entire political structure,” and labeled “criminal elements” as the main drivers of the ethnic violence in Osh shortly after Bakiyev’s overthrow in 2010. But he also made some more specific remarks about the fight against drugs and organized crime under Bakiyev.
During the presidency of Kurmanbek Bakiyev, criminals managed to incorporate themselves in the system of state governance. Staffing and government activities were decided thanks to the help of criminal leaders, including in the law enforcement agencies. [...] Not without the participation of criminal elements were the Agency for Drug Control and the Main Department in the Fight Against Organized Crime reduced in size. Practically, the police and the criminal world became one and the same.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Robert Blake meets Kyrgyzstan President Almazbek Atambayev January 16 in Bishkek.
The U.S.'s top diplomat dealing with Central Asia, Robert Blake, visited Kyrgyzstan last week and if we are to believe Press.kg, all over Bishkek, "even in schools and kindergartens, for three days they are saying 'Blake is coming! Blake is coming!'" Journalistic hyperbole aside, this was a highly anticipated visit, as it seems that negotiations over the U.S.'s Manas air base are starting in earnest. Before Blake left, he told Voice of America's Russian service that he would be discussing extending the lease for the base, which is now scheduled to expire in 2014. "Manas has a huge significance for the U.S. from the point of view of logistics," he said.
In Bishkek, Blake met with President Almazbek Atambayev and other officials, and while of course the details of the discussions were not divulged, Blake did make an interesting statement to the press after his meetings. He was asked if the U.S. might use the newly established French transit center in Shymkent, Kazakhstan, and he didn't say no. After it's determined what sort of U.S. troop presence there will be in Afghanistan after 2014, the U.S. will assess what sort of facilities it needs in Central Asia, he said:
Once those important decisions [on troop presence in Afghanistan] are made, then we’ll be in a better position to plan for ourselves what kind of facilities we might need either in Afghanistan or in the wider region. Again, I don’t want to speculate on the future of what those might be.
Kyrgyz villagers in a troubled border region are experiencing food, fuel and medicine shortages, local media reported today, as a state of emergency in southern Kyrgyzstan continues. In Bishkek, officials say they have made no progress getting their Uzbek counterparts to reopen the frontier after Tashkent unilaterally closed most checkpoints on January 17.
The latest tensions date to January 5, when residents of Sokh, an Uzbek enclave surrounded by Kyrgyz territory, reportedly attacked Kyrgyz border guards who were installing electrical wires on a contested piece of territory. The next day locals took several dozen Kyrgyz hostage and destroyed their vehicles.
Though the hostages were quickly released and the Kyrgyz received compensation for their damaged property (reportedly collected from Sokh’s residents, who are mostly ethnic Tajiks), troubles remain in this Ferghana Valley flashpoint.
Sokh is a strategic parcel of land. A 350-square-kilometer valley blessed with water in a parched agricultural region, it basically cuts Kyrgyzstan’s Batken Province in half. The only all-weather Kyrgyz road passes through this Uzbek territory, meaning Kyrgyz traveling between Batken, perhaps Kyrgyzstan’s poorest province, and Osh must stop at Uzbek checkpoints. As the population grows, and land and water become scarcer, the region seethes and occasionally erupts in violence.
Numbers released this week by Kyrgyzstan’s National Statistics Agency suggest a strike at the crucial Kumtor Gold Mine last winter played a major role in shrinking the country’s economic growth from 5.7 percent in 2011 to minus 0.9 percent in 2012.
Workers at Kumtor laid down their tools last February to demand parent company Centerra Gold cover their social security taxes. The walkout was resolved after 10 days, with Toronto-listed Centerra – which is one-third owned by the Kyrgyz government – agreeing to make the payments, even though it said the strike was illegal because it violated a collective agreement with workers.
By then the damage was done. Centerra later reported that while workers were neglecting the high-altitude open-pit mine, ice had formed there, and the company decreased its production forecast by one-third. It had previously predicted it would mine 575,000 to 625,000 ounces of gold in 2012; it eventually pulled 315,238 ounces from the ground.
The mine’s fundamental role in the delicate Kyrgyz economy is well documented. In 2011, Kumtor’s output accounted for 12 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s GDP, and over 50 percent of industrial production, according to official figures. That year, GDP was hurt by another incident: In November, villagers blocked the road leading to the mine. Their weeklong protest drove down the country's year-on-year GDP growth from 8.5 percent for the first 11 months of the year to 5.7 percent by year's end.
Investors operating in three post-Soviet Central Asian republics face an “extreme risk” of having their businesses expropriated, according to a survey released last week in the UK.
Maplecroft, a Bath-based political risk consultancy, said on January 9 that it had found plenty of reasons to be wary of the business climate in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan after “evaluating the risk to business from discriminatory acts by the government that reduces ownership, control or rights of private investments either gradually or as a result of a single action.” Recent fits of resource nationalism in Kyrgyzstan -- where the Kumtor gold mine, operated by Toronto-based Centerra Gold, accounted for 12 percent of GDP in 2011 and more than half the country’s industrial output – and rampant authoritarianism in places like Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have led Maplecroft to rank these countries among the most risky in the world. Not far behind, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan both fall in the “high risk” category.
A second hostage crisis in a week has amplified concerns about ethnic tensions in southern Kyrgyzstan.
Police in Osh Province say a fight between locals and Chinese workers in the village of Kurshab on January 8 left dozens injured. The brawl reportedly started when Chinese workers, possibly intoxicated, accused a local resident of stealing a mobile phone. A fight ensued and the Chinese reportedly took a group of Kyrgyzstanis hostage. Some reports say local police were among the 28 injured in the fracas. All Chinese from the district have been evacuated to Osh city for their safety, KyrTAG reports.
The Chinese were working on a high-profile power line that will connect parts of southern Kyrgyzstan with the north. Due to the fight, the launch of the line has been delayed, said Musazhan Makelek, head of China’s TBEA energy firm in Kyrgyzstan. Makelek told 24.kg that the fight had nothing to do with the $208 million project, which is being financed by China, and blamed both sides.
Thousands of Chinese nationals work in Kyrgyzstan, most on infrastructure projects such as high-voltage electricity lines and roads, and as traders. Beijing has promised hundreds of millions in loans and assistance in recent years. But the Chinese presence and largesse is not without controversy. Many Kyrgyz are deeply suspicious and worry the giant neighbor could swallow their tiny country.
A Ferghana Valley border clash this weekend yet again highlights the potential for violence in Central Asia’s most densely populated and ethnically diverse region.
Several hundred residents of the Uzbek enclave of Sokh reportedly attacked a Kyrgyz border post and took Kyrgyz citizens hostage on January 5 and 6, according to local news wires. Sokh (also spelled Soh) is an island of territory controlled by Uzbekistan and entirely surrounded by one of Kyrgyzstan’s poorest provinces, Batken.
Though Sokh is populated mostly by ethnic Tajiks, a minority in both countries, the episode is an unsettling reminder of the fighting between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan that left hundreds dead in 2010.