Ata-Meken leader Omurbek Tekebayev at a march to commemorate the first anniversary of the April 7, 2010, revolution. (Photo: David Trilling)
Authorities in Kyrgyzstan are threatening to spark a political crisis with their shock arrest of a prominent opposition leader.
Ata-Meken party leader Omurbek Tekebayev was held by police as soon as he flew into the capital, Bishkek, in the early hours of February 26. Dozens of his supporters demonstrated outside Manas airport and some were later detained.
Large numbers of police with riot gear were deployed to the terminal to contain any possible outbtreaks of protest. As well as Tekebayev supporters, police at one stage also detained a reporter with RFE/RL's Kyrgyz service, Ulanbek Egizbaev, and a member of parliament with Ata-Meken, Kanybek Imanaliyev.
The detention of the Ata-Meken leader followed an announcment by the General Prosecutor’s Office on February 25 that it was initiating a criminal investigation into the politician on suspicion of corruption and fraud.
Prosecutors say the case is based on materials provided by the State Committee for National Security, or GKNB, and involve an instance of alleged bribe-taking in 2010 in exchange for granting a Russian businessman preferential access during the sale of a part-nationalized mobile phone company.
Tekebayev was in Vienna, Austria, when prosecutors made their statement, but was due to return to Kyrgyzstan overnight. He vehemently denied the allegations.
A number of Ata-Meken deputies have been target of a sustained barrage of criminal investigations, all initiated by the security services, that political observers have argued are politically motivated.
The sight of large, angry crowds outside government buildings has become relatively rare in Kyrgyzstan of late, so the rally outside the headquarters of the security services on February 24 brought back some unnerving memories.
Dozens of people rowdily mustered outside the State Committee for National Security, or GKNB, in protest at the marathon interrogation of a prominent opposition politician Almanbet Shykmamatov. The former justice minister, a leading member of the Ata-Meken party, is ostensibly suspected of corruption, although his supporters have little doubt the investigations are politically motivated.
Fellow Ata-Meken member Aida Salyanova, best known for her stint as the general prosecutor, said the GKNB questioning of Shykmamatov over a nine-hour stretch was tantamount to torture.
At one stage, a group of protesters appeared to crush up against the police cordon protecting the building, eliciting memories of similar standoffs ahead of the bloody 2010 revolution. More police were reportedly brought in as the day wore on, although significant scuffles were avoided and no protesters were detained.
Pro-government media portrayed the demonstrators as lackeys in the pay of pro-Western nongovernmental organizations — a recurrent theme in Central Asian loyalist press. Vecherny Bishkek, which was a lively independent outlet before being expropriated in a murky court case in 2015, unblinkingly relayed the GKNB position.
Police in Kazakhstan have acted quickly to prevent any public gestures of solidarity with the jailed editor of an independent newspaper, whose supporters fear is being subjected to ill-treatment in prison.
On February 23, political activist Yerlan Kaliyev announced his intent to hold a one-man picket in support of Zhanbolat Mamay, who is facing accusations of laundering the proceeds of corruption through his Tribuna newspaper. But before Kaliyev could reach the headquarters of the Security Services Committee, or KNB, in the city of Almaty, he was detained by police.
Other activists, Galym Ageleuov and Askhat Bersalimov, later made it to the same building to report on Kaliyev’s fate, only to also find themselves being detained, according to RFE/RL’s Kazakh service, Radio Azattyq. Kaliyev and Ageleuov were later released, but Bersalimov has been ordered to served a 15-day jail term for summoning an unsanctioned protest.
Concern has been mounting about Mamay’s wellbeing over reports he has been physically maltreated since being taken into custody on February 10.
A independent committee known as the national mechanism for the prevention of torture stated on February 23 that it had visited the detention facility where Mamay is being held and found that there was indeed apparent evidence of abuse in the prison.
“It has been established that the safety of the detainee was indeed not observed as required,” the committee said in a statement after meeting with Mamay and his lawyer. “In part, he faced psychological and physical intimidation by those with him in the same cell, who were people with multiple convictions.”
Rights activists argue that investigators habitually place suspects in cells with other dangerous prisoners as a form of intimidation.
When top officials are fired in Tajikistan, it is usually with reassuring formulations about the person in question being moved to another job or retiring. The absence of such language typically suggests a fall from grace that in some instances serves as a prelude to a criminal prosecution.
So eyebrows were raised this week when President Emomali Rahmon on February 21 abruptly ordered the dismissal of US-educated deputy finance minister Umed Latifov without indicating what his fate is to be. The development had been linked with the much whispered-about elite infighting believed to be taking place over the country’s largest industrial asset — Talco aluminum manufacturer.
Latifov had not been in the job for long and was appointed only in July 2016. Before that, he was deputy head of the National Bank, a post he filled in May 2015.
His presumably lucrative background of working in US investment vehicles made his decision to return to his home country something of a surprise at the time. According to his LinkedIn profile, he completed a finance degree at Arizona State University and later obtained an MBA from Stanford University. He later dabbled in online startups and worked in various capacities at several investment firms.
In the teeth of opposition from the public, the government in Kazakhstan has revived costly plans to build what it is billing as a “national pantheon” — a mausoleum to house the remains of the country’s great and good and dead.
Finance Minister Bakhyt Sultanov announced on February 21 that just one phase of the project alone will set the state coffers back $5.3 million. The final cost will likely be much greater, possibly running into the hundreds of millions, if the earlier blueprint was anything to go by.
A spot has been allocated for the mausoleum in a location around 20 kilometers outside the capital, Astana, next to an existing building housing the tomb of 18th-century Kazakh warrior prince Kabanbai Batyr. Sultanov was unable to offer more specifics, inviting reporters instead to put their questions to the mayor’s office.
Decisions of who is to be buried at the national pantheon are to be taken by President Nursultan Nazarbayev himself. The intended site for the mausoleum is already the resting place to numerous departed public figures whose importance was acknowledged by the president.
In 2013, Nazarbayev decreed that the first person to be buried there should be the late member of parliament Oral Muhamedjanov — “for his massive contribution to the development of the state.” Kazakhstani poetess Fariza Ongarsynova; Sayahat Konakai, the younger brother of Nazarbayev’s wife; former Supreme Court chairman Maksut Narikbayev; and writer and scholar Abish Kekilbayev are among others buried there. The site also allows for Christian burials, like that of Sergei Dyachenko, a former deputy speaker of the lower house, who died last year.
When Uzbekistan suddenly decided this week to deny permission for an airline from Tajikistan to land in its capital, it might have been safe to expect an outcry.
Privately owned Somoni Air was due to carry a couple dozen paying passengers for the February 20 flight to Tashkent — the first along this route in 25 years — when it learned permission had been revoked.
Tajikstan’s Asia-Plus reported on January 21 that Uzbek authorities fired off an incensed letter laying all the blame at the feet of the Tajiks.
The letter argued that Somoni Air had filed a request to effect charter flights and not regular scheduled flights. It also claimed it only received the official paperwork authorizing the route on February 19, one day before the flight. That gave the insufficient time to adopt a decision, as the matter had to be considered by security services and air defense officials, the Uzbek letter stated.
And finally, the Uzbek authorities said Somoni Air still had no branch office in Tashkent and that the sale of tickets was accordingly not possible.
This is high bunkum even by the normally lofty standards of Central Asian officialdom.
A date for the Somoni Air maiden flight had been set weeks ago and widely advertised by media in both countries, which makes nonsense of the implication that Uzbek oversight bodies were somehow caught by surprise. As to the sale of tickets, Somoni Air has a website through which that can be done, so even this is unconvincing grounds for rescinding permission to operate. In any event, it is unclear how Somoni Air’s commercial strategy is supposed to be of any interest to Uzbek authorities.
Supporters of a jailed journalist in Kazakhstan have said he has been targeted for physical mistreatment since being detained last week.
Authorities accuse Zhanbolat Mamay, editor of Tribuna newspaper, of involvement in fraudulent schemes with fugitive banker and government foe Mukhtar Ablyazov.
Mamay’s lawyer, Zhanara Balgabayeva, said on February 21 that she filed a request to meet see her client in person and for him to be moved to a more secure pretrial detention facility but was rebuffed on both counts.
Tribuna is one of very few independent media outlets in Kazakhstan that have either not been shut down or coopted by the authorities, leading rights activists to speculate Mamay is facing politically motivated charges. Unlike most media in Kazakhstan, Tribuna is not a beneficiary of the “state order” system, whereby the government either finances outlets outright or pays for the publication of material publicizing state policies and initiatives. It focuses primarily on social issues and has a line that tends toward robust criticism of the government and provides a platform for the few opposition politicians remaining on the scene.
Balgabayeva cited a note conveyed to her by Mamay stating that he had been “subjected to beatings in his prison cell,” but added that the claim might have been “sharply worded” and that there was no way to independently verify his wellbeing for now.
Mamay’s spouse, Inga Imanbay, said in a Facebook video message that she had met with the head of pretrial detention facility No. 18, where her husband is being held, in a failed bid to see him.
Unguarded comments made by Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev in remarks to Euronews while on a visit to Brussels have been greeted with dismay in neighboring Kazakhstan.
The flare-up has once again illustrated the persisting underlying tensions within the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union trade bloc, which has to date fallen far short of the hopes of its backers.
A recurrent criticism made by EEU objectors stems from the perception that the trading bloc has been designed to serve primarily Russian interests. Asked about this point by a Euronews interviewer, Atambayev deflected the blame elsewhere.
“We have to trade with somebody, we have to work with our neighbors somehow. If we had not entered the Eurasian Economic Union we would have been at risk of a blockade. In 2010, when Kazakhstan blockaded us for one and a half months, we even had casualties,” he said. “We have six million people. What are supposed to do — shut ourselves off and survive like we’re in the jungle or something? We have to develop, we need a market.”
It is not entirely clear what casualties Atambayev was alluding to, and requests for clarification filed by reporters with the presidential administration have shed no light on the matter.
But media in Kazakhstan appear to have gone out of their way to whip up some ill-will by, for example, writing headlines about the interview such as “The president of Kyrgyzstan accuses Kazakhstan of claiming human casualties.”
The president of Tajikistan’s son has only been mayor of the capital city for a few weeks and already life is improving.
In the old days, people traveling on public transport had little by way of mental stimulation beyond possibly staring blankly out of the window or reading a newspaper.
But now Mayor Rustam Emomali has instructed taxi and minibus drivers in Dushanbe to play musical paeans of praise to the country and, of course, President Emomali Rahmon himself.
Asia-Plus news website reported that the instructions were already being carried out on February 20.
One minibus driver said that they buy flash drives carrying patriotic duties from their own employers at 35 somoni ($4.50) a pop. City officials told Asia-Plus that the practice will soon be rolled out across all public transport vehicles.
The surge of patriotic song-writing followed the adoption of the 2015 law decreeing that Rahmon be officially designated “The founder of peace and leader of the nation.” That formulation, which is even more cumbersome in the original Tajik, is now used pretty much every time the president is referenced on state television. Beyond elevating Rahmon to para-demigod status, the founder of peace and leader of the nation law also granted the president de facto rule for life, since he will retain a degree of power even after or if he should ever step down.
It is not just the middle of the road, light entertainers that have volunteered (or been enlisted) to performs songs to flatter Rahmon. Hip-hop artists have got in on the act too.
A sudden shortage of dollars in circulation in Tajikistan has led to another dip in the value of national currency, the somoni.
At the start of the year, official figures showed the greenback trading at around 7.9 somoni. This week, currency exchange points were trading at just over 8 somoni to the dollar, but the US banknote was, in fact, hard to find at all.
The black market, which has come under intensified scrutiny in the past couple of years, was reportedly trading the US currency at around 8.30 somoni on February 17.
While major banks like Agroinvestbank, Tojiksodirotbank, Oriyonbank had no dollars to speak of, some smaller lenders had small amounts to go around, according to news website Asia-Plus.
Market watchers suspect that the reason for the sudden dollar crisis is linked to the recent effort by the government to recapitalize a number of distressed banks, which then proceeded to pay out account-holders who have been unable to withdraw their savings for several months. Worried about possible devaluations to the somoni, people getting their hands on that cash have quickly sought to convert it into relatively more secure dollars.
Tajikistan has mainly resorted to “administrative resources” to keep the currency on an even keel.
In December 2015, the National Bank ordered the closure of all unauthorized currency exchange points in the city. After that, only banks were able to perform foreign exchange operations. Anybody found violating this new arrangement could face jail terms of up to nine years. Also, banks are forbidden by law from selling somoni at more then 1.5 percent the rate established by the National Bank.