As Kazakhstan marked the one-year anniversary of fatal violence in Zhanaozen on December 16, opposition activists gathered in Almaty to lay wreaths to commemorate those who died at the hands of police last December.
Officials from the administration of President Nursultan Nazarbayev made no mention of the deaths that occurred when security forces opened fire on unarmed protestors during last year’s Independence Day festivities, which were intended as a triumphant celebration of 20 years of sovereignty under Nazarbayev’s leadership.
The mood in Zhanaozen, a run-down town in western Kazakhstan that was the focal point of a protracted strike in the oil sector that was the catalyst for the violence, was “quiet but angry” ahead of the anniversary, Radio Free Europe reported.
Nazarbayev’s administration has spent 2012 trying to put the violence in which at least 15 civilians were killed (most were shot; one died following torture in police custody) behind it. A series of trials this year have brought jail terms for protestors, police, former officials and a prominent opposition leader.
Two days after Kazakhstan's top space official suggested that the country was reexamining its agreement with Russia on the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the country's deputy prime minister sought to tamp down such speculation.
While Kazcosmos head Talgat Musabayev was quoted as saying the Russia-Kazakhstan agreement -- which is supposed to last until 2050 -- "has run its course" and that Kazakhstan was "formulating a new, all-encompassing agreement on Baikonur," Deputy Prime Minister Kairat Kelimbetov quickly sought to clarify Astana's position, that it was committed to the current agreement. Reports Central Asia Newswire:
“As you know, in 2004 [Kazakh] President Nursultan Nazarbayev and [Russian President] Vladimir Putin agreed to extend the term of the lease of the Baikonur cosmodrome until 2050,” state media reported Kelimbetov as saying.
“The Government of the Republic of Kazakhstan, of course, confirms the commitment of those arrangements. In October 2012, Presidents Nazarbayev and Putin instructed the intergovernmental commission to study the question of sharing the Baikonur cosmodrome and the following year to work out the appropriate changes to the regulatory framework of our cooperation.”
The story also notes the Russian press reaction to Musabayev's comments, which it describes as "explosive":
Russian media, including Pravda and Kommersant, has dismissed the threat as a low-level official posturing before the Kazakh parliament and does not believe the threat to preclude Russian use of the facilities to be viable.
Kazakhstan is closing down places of worship as a controversial law on religion takes effect.
The state is enforcing closures of religious communities through the courts, Oslo-based religious freedom watchdog Forum 18 reports: Sometimes “liquidation decisions are arbitrary and flawed, often taken amid questionable legal procedures.”
The shutdowns come after a deadline passed this October for all religious groups to reregister, established by a law governing religious affairs adopted in 2011. Forum 18 said religious communities had complained that the reregistration process was “complex,” “burdensome,” “arbitrary,” “unnecessary,” and “expensive.”
The watchdog has recorded the closures of “many Muslim and Christian religious communities.” One group, south Kazakhstan’s Light of the World Pentecostal Church, was abolished for giving “false information” in its application because one of its founders died while it was applying to reregister. Representatives of one independent mosque told Forum 18 it had been closed for “failing to give extensive information about its beliefs” during a court hearing of which it was unaware. Members of a Protestant church wishing to remain anonymous put the closure of their group down to its membership being “predominantly made up of ethnic Kazakhs.” (Most ethnic Kazakhs are Muslims.) Officials at the government Religious Affairs Agency declined to comment to Forum 18.
When the reregistration deadline passed in October, Kayrat Lama Sharif, chairman of the Religious Affairs Agency, said the number of recognized religious communities had been slashed from 4,551 to 3,088, and the number of faiths recognized by the state reduced by about 60 percent, from 46 to 17.
A military conscript accused of a massacre at a border unit near Kazakhstan’s frontier with China has been found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Vladislav Chelakh was found guilty on nine charges including murder, desertion, stealing weapons, and damaging military property on December 11, Bnews.kz reported. His conviction followed a month-long trial during which he has displayed erratic behavior.
Chelakh, now 20, was arrested following a May massacre at the Arkankergen border unit in southeastern Kazakhstan. When military officials investigated after losing contact with the remote post, they found 15 people dead, Chelakh’s fellow border guards and one national park ranger. The border unit had been set on fire in an apparent attempt to conceal the crime.
Chelakh was found hiding in the forest and confessed, saying that military hazing had made him “flip.” He later recanted his confession, saying he had been pressured, and testified at the trial that his post had been attacked by “serious people” in civilian clothes. He said he had fled in terror and burned down the border post to conceal evidence in fear that his story would not be believed.
Debris from space launches at Baikonur land on the Kazakh steppe.
Kazakhstan may suspend the current agreement allowing Russia to use Kazakhstan's territory for its main space-launch center, Baikonur, the head of Kazakhstan's space agency has said. Currently, Russia pays Kazakhstan about $115 million a year to lease Baikonur, under an agreement scheduled to last until 2050. But it looks like Kazakhstan may be rethinking that agreement. From the AP:
Interfax-Kazakhstan news agency cited Kazcosmos head Talgat Musabayev as telling parliament that proposals are being considered to bring the Baikonur facility under Kazakhstan’s jurisdiction....
“The rent agreement on Baikonur adopted in 1994 has run its course. The head of state held talks with (Russian President) Vladimir Putin and has tasked us with formulating a new, all-encompassing agreement on Baikonur,” Interfax-Kazakhstan cited Musabayev as saying.
So why is Kazakhstan doing this? The AP notes:
It is unclear what is motivating Kazakhstan’s decision to push for a revision of arrangements on Baikonur, but it is known that it has been pushing for an increased role in the space industry.
Russia also has been moving to reduce its dependence on Baikonur, constructing a new launch facility in the Russian Far East. In a 2008 interview, Musabayev suggested that Kazakhstan was coming up with contingency plans in case Russia decided to leave Baikonur:
Seven citizens of Kazakhstan who strayed into Turkmenistan accidentally have been jailed for seven years, reports western Kazakhstan’s Lada newspaper, quoting an unnamed relative of one of the detainees.
The group includes four law-enforcement officers who were working in the border area, and three hunters who were in their company for reasons yet to be established. The four officers had been sent to a border district with Turkmenistan on the hunt for illegal migrants and wanted criminals, Mangystau Region police chief Kayrat Otebay said following their October 19 arrest.
Otebay said the law-enforcement officers were headed to Kazakhstan’s Boget border unit but lost their way in the desert. Officials have yet to establish why they had teamed up with the three hunters, but there has been speculation the officers were giving them a lift.
Confirming the arrest a week after it happened, the Turkmen Foreign Ministry said the seven had been arrested for “illegally crossing the state border and penetrating three kilometers into the territory of Turkmenistan.” It also said they were carrying firearms.
The group received prison terms of seven years after a trial in the Caspian city of Turkmenbashi, Lada quoted the sister of one of the detained Kazakhs as saying. The newspaper, which is based in Kazakhstan’s Caspian city of Aktau, did not identify the source by name.
American government statements on human rights in Central Asia tend to be pretty tepid, especially when they focus on countries necessary for transit routes into and out of Afghanistan.
A December 6 speech by Hillary Rodham Clinton, the US Secretary of State, was not much different, though she did single out the region for attention as part of what she called wider backsliding on human rights in the former Soviet world.
I just met with a group of the Civil Society Solidarity Platform leaders from a number of member states. They talked to me about the growing challenges and dangers that they are facing, about new restrictions on human rights from governments, new pressures on journalists, new assaults on NGOs. And I urge all of us to pay attention to their concerns.
For example, in Belarus, the Government continues to systematically repress human rights, detain political prisoners, and intimidate journalists. In Ukraine, the elections in October were a step backwards for democracy, and we remain deeply concerned about the selective prosecution of opposition leaders. In Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan, there are examples of the restrictions of the freedom of expression online and offline as well as the freedom of religion. In the Caucasus, we see constraints on judicial independence, attacks on journalists, and elections that are not always free and fair.
Clinton was speaking at an OSCE Ministerial Council meeting in Dublin (all five Central Asian states are OSCE members). She didn’t get into details on Central Asia, so here’s a quick recap of recent events:
--In Tajikistan, authorities have been blocking websites critical of President Emomali Rakhmon and his military’s violent assault on the Gorno-Badakhshan region this summer.
Respublika has been suspended by the courts, but published last week under the name Azat (Freedom). Photo: EurasiaNet.org
A prominent Kazakh opposition party, Alga!, and outspoken media outlets are fighting a legal battle against a bid to shut them down. They say authorities are attempting to muzzle dissident voices in Kazakhstan.
The move to close Alga! -- whose leader Vladimir Kozlov is serving a jail term for allegedly inciting fatal unrest in Zhanaozen last December, which he denies -- has become bogged down in a legal paradox: Alga! has been arguing in court that it cannot be closed because it does not exist, since the authorities have for years refused to register it and make it legal. Alga!’s case has been adjourned to December 11.
One media outlet, the Stan TV Internet television station, has already been ordered to close by a court, which on December 4 declared its output “illegal,” Kazakhstan’s Adil Soz media watchdog reported.
The blackouts usually start this time of year. As the temperature drops and the days get shorter, Central Asia’s aging energy infrastructure struggles to keep up, leaving residents cold and in the dark.
When the region was managed by Moscow and was not divided by international borders, upstream, water-rich Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan would produce hydropower in the summer, and receive gas from downstream Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in the winter. The five independent countries still trade, begrudgingly. But as they bicker, the system is falling apart.
Kazakhstan is again talking about withdrawing from the system altogether, Business New Europe reports, blaming Uzbekistan for deviously siphoning off electricity from the regional grid. Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are experiencing vast shortages. From BNE:
Uzbekistan has introduced rolling electricity blackouts across the country, with the power turned off for one or two hours a day in Tashkent and until 6pm in other cities. Rural areas are receiving no electricity at all, and many towns have no heating. In addition to the electricity shortage, a lack of gasoline has resulted in mile-long queues at petrol stations, and cutbacks to public transport.
Kyrgyzstan is also struggling to supply its population with heat and electricity, which has caused the country to cut its electricity exports to both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Kyrgyzstan cut electricity generation in September to conserve water in its reservoirs, resulting in a fall in electricity exports of over 1bn kWh to 1.5bn kWh.
The start of the heating season has put further pressure on Kyrgyzstan's energy sector, with gas imports from Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan having been cut due to the debts run up by the struggling government.
Security and energy topped the agenda on the first day of European Union foreign affairs envoy Catherine Ashton’s visit to Central Asia, disappointing campaigners hoping she would make vocal calls for improvements to what they see as the five states’ dismal human rights records.
Following the EU-Central Asia Ministerial meeting in Kyrgyzstan on November 27, Ashton cited first security (due to the region’s proximity to Afghanistan) then energy and trade as key to “the growing importance of Central Asia.”
“We face shared security challenges. We have great potential to further develop our energy, trade and economic relations,” she said, only then pointing to the EU’s desire to “support the efforts of the countries of Central Asia as you take that journey of political and economic reforms.”
She listed topics of discussion as education; the rule of law; the environment; and energy and water resources (a particular bone of regional contention). “And we talked about democratization and human rights and the development of civil society,” Ashton then added.
Human rights campaigners had been hoping for stronger language from the EU foreign policy chief, who promised ahead of her visit in an interview with Radio Free Europe to make human rights “a core part of the dialogue.”