Kyrgyzstan’s government has de facto blocked a popular and hard-hitting news website with the argument that reporting on terrorism is akin to supporting terrorists. Authorities seem to have pressured the website’s local host to disconnect its servers.
ProHost said on December 15 that it would immediately kick Kloop.kg off its servers following a request from the State Agency for Communications, Kloop co-founder Bektour Iskender informed readers through Facebook.
The block has been looming since November 24, when Kloop reposted a video from Britain’s Daily Mail featuring a propaganda video that showed Kazakh children allegedly training as jihadists in Syria. Officials in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan both insist Kloop has aided the terrorist Islamic State by republishing the video.
Kloop was swiftly blocked in Kazakhstan after refusing a written request from the Kazakh prosecutor’s office to remove the offending material; harassment from Kyrgyzstan’s Interior Ministry quickly followed.
Kyrgyz authorities have stepped up pressure on the media in recent months. In October President Almazbek Atambayev broadly blamed journalists for sullying Kyrgyzstan’s reputation abroad.
Last month, Kyrgyzstan’s Education Ministry announced two tenders worth almost $3 million to print more than 1 million textbooks. But it appears the ministry did not want just anyone to bid.
Someone involved in posting the tenders on the government’s procurement website included a couple of Latin-script vowels within Russian keywords (written in the Cyrillic script), making it impossible to search for the announcement.
For example, there is no difference to the naked eye between these two words: books and bооks. But the second word contains two Cyrillic o’s. That makes it impossible to find with an Internet search, which requires an exact match.
In the same way, the Education Ministry used the Latin letters a, e and o (which also appear in the Cyrillic alphabet) in its tender announcements, which are worth a total of $2.8 million. Reporters at Kloop.kg, who revealed the trick, recorded video evidence of how the announcements were hidden.
Anyone who didn’t know about the Latin letters would struggle to find the tender announcements. Anyone who did – someone colluding with a ministry official, for example – would have a massive advantage.
Kyrgyz officials didn’t think up this scheme on their own.
Back in 2012, Russian anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny, known for revealing fraud in state procurements there, described how officials “embezzle millions and billions” using this tactic.
Russia's ruble became worth less than a Kyrgyz som for the first time on December 12. (xe.com)
The Russian ruble crossed a psychological barrier in Kyrgyzstan on December 12, becoming worth less than the som for the first time. Across Central Asia, the ruble’s slide is pushing local currencies to new lows. But they can’t seem to fall fast enough to keep a competitive advantage.
Central Asian economies are deeply dependent on Russia as an export market. When the ruble is weak, Central Asia’s exports are relatively expensive for Russian consumers. So, weaker local currencies benefit the region’s producers. Of course falling currencies also mean inflation, as the price of imported goods from outside the region shoots up—as does the cost of servicing foreign debt. The World Bank projects inflation in Kyrgyzstan this year to top 10 percent. In Tajikistan, food prices rose 10.5 percent in November alone, according to a Deutsche Welle report.
Thanks to Kyrgyzstan’s on-again, off-again experiment with democracy, the Central Asian country has fewer journalists in jail than most of its neighbors. But over the last few months, a number of officials have signaled a cooling attitude toward the fourth estate. A theme stands out: Journalists are the reason Kyrgyzstan has a poor reputation; they must write nice things and stop criticizing.
Together with restrictive new legislation the officials’ comments paint a profile of an elite increasingly intolerant of criticism. Journalists are worried; one local editor says the attacks are encouraging self-censorship.
President Almazbek Atambayev deployed a wide brush on October 27, venting at a session of the national council on sustainable development:
“For the image of a country where corruption is a real disaster, even by comparison with African countries, we have our journalists to thank. Not in a single [other] country does the press pour dirt on officials like ours. They write that everything is bad in Kyrgyzstan, that corruption is blooming. This is disrespect for the country and for the truth. There’s this idea that the more dirt a journalist has poured on, the more freedom-loving and better he is.”
“[Journalists] get offended, because I say this very often, but this is the truth. I hope that the conscience of the majority awakens and they will start publishing impartial information.” [Sources: first paragraph Vechernii Bishkek; second paragraph BBC Monitoring translation of KyrTAG, which is paywalled.]
Rossiya Segondya's Moscow headquarters: Now broadcasting in Kyrgyz.
Kyrgyzstan is doubtless “tired of the propaganda of the unipolar world.” But the country should prepare for a potential uptick in propaganda from a more familiar source—Russia. A newly minted Kremlin media outlet called Sputnik has opened a hub in Bishkek.
Dmitry Kiselyov, who heads the state-backed media giant Rossiya Segodnya (formerly RIA Novosti) that launched Sputnik last month, does not do irony.
His “unipolar world” reference at Sputnik’s unveiling was a dig at the United States. But if you were in Kyrgyzstan, you could be forgiven for thinking he meant Russia, which already dominates Central Asian media and has a sweeping impact on public opinion.
Competition seems to be the name of the game. Sputnik’s name, “so recognizable, so warm, so to the point and so romantic,” according to Kiselyov, is steeped in the nostalgia of Cold War rivalry.
Sputnik will handle Rossiya Segodnya’s in-country reporting in foreign countries, the conglomerate confirmed in a December 10 press release.
Sputnik will be available in Kyrgyz, too, shoring up the Kremlin’s influence in a region where Russian proficiency is rapidly subsiding.
The new Kyrgyz chief editor, Yelena Cheremenina, is a former professor of media ethics at the Kyrgyz-Russian Slavic University in Bishkek. She also sits on Kyrgyzstan’s independent media watchdog, the Commission for Media Complaints.
If Central Asia’s two poorest countries ever get around to building their massive but long-delayed hydropower dams, the facilities may be useful for a few decades. After that, they’ll be rendered obsolete by a fast-warming climate that is melting the region’s once-abundant glaciers and threatens to reduce precipitation sharply.
So suggests an alarming new World Bank report on the effects of climate change around the developing world.
“Turn Down the Heat: Confronting the New Climate Normal,” released in late November, offers just about everyone in Central Asia some bad news, especially the region’s megalomaniacal dam builders. In landlocked Eurasia, the temperatures are expected to rise “above the global mean land warming,” bringing a slew of unpleasant consequences, from decreased crop yields to contentious water shortages.
Effects like these are difficult to assess and prepare for even in places with relatively responsible and capable governments. How will they be dealt with by dysfunctional, near-sighted and volatile governments in impoverished, corrupt countries like Central Asia’s?
The 275-page report starts with the informed assumption that an increase in global average temperatures of 1.5 degrees Celsius by mid-century is unavoidable. It also looks at two more frightening, but plausible, scenarios: an increase of 2 degrees and 4 degrees. (Temperatures have already warmed by 0.8 degrees above pre-industrial levels.)
No matter which model they apply, forecasters predict a dramatic reduction in the size of Central Asia’s glaciers and amount of precipitation. That translates into a sharp decrease in the water flows the largely arid region can expect for hydropower and agriculture.
The collapse of the ruble is causing economic doom and gloom in Russia. But in border regions of neighboring Kazakhstan demand for the ailing currency is rocketing as people rush across the frontier to snap up bargains.
“In northern Kazakhstan, people are buying up rubles en masse and going shopping across the border,” reports KTK TV.
Bringing goods across the long border is relatively straightforward as Russia and Kazakhstan are fellow members of the Customs Union. So people are hurrying across from cities in northern Kazakhstan to buy anything from property and cars to clothes and food in Siberia.
The price of an apartment in some Siberian cities, once far higher than in the depressed towns of northern Kazakhstan, is now on a par, KTK said.
“I’ll sell my apartment, and for the same price I’ll buy in Omsk, because of the fall of the ruble,” an inhabitant of the city of Petropavl, which lies just 70 kilometers from the Russian frontier, said. “It’s an investment.”
In Kazakhstan’s capital, status-conscious bargain hunters are using the cheap ruble to buy expensive cars, an Astana-based dealer told Kazinform news agency. “We brought five cars over from Yekaterinburg [in Russia] yesterday, now we’re going to sell them on. Our rivals are doing the same, as are ordinary people wanting to acquire an expensive vehicle. You can find good options almost half as cheap as in Kazakhstan. Some people are going over and driving new cars right out of the showroom.”
The ruble has fallen almost 40 percent against the dollar and 60 percent against the euro since the beginning of this year. That may be good news for Kazakhstanis near the Russian border, but more generally it is bad news for Kazakhstan, economists say.
Kazakhstan does not persecute political opponents or attack freedom of expression, President Nursultan Nazarbayev has avowed, fending off awkward questions from journalists during a December 5 visit to Astana by his French counterpart, François Hollande.
“There are no censorship questions here, no political persecutions,” Nazarbayev said in remarks quoted by Vlast.kz, calling on critics to “abandon stereotypes here and look with new, open eyes.”
Nazarbayev was speaking the same day that two high-profile cases which raise questions about political liberties and freedom of speech reached the courts.
In one, the Adam Bol magazine – which was one of the last remaining independent media outlets in Kazakhstan – is fighting closure on the grounds that it allegedly called for war in its coverage of the Ukraine conflict. The case was adjourned until December 22.
The magazine was closed down on November 20 over an interview in which opposition activist Aydos Sadykov pledged to urge citizens of Kazakhstan to take up arms to fight pro-Russian separatist forces in eastern Ukraine. The closure was condemned by OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatovic as “drastic and disproportionate,” and by Reporters Without Borders, a media watchdog, as the “orchestrated throttling” of an opposition-minded outlet.
Prosecutors in Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s southern capital, have dropped a criminal case against a local non-governmental organization accused of inciting inter-ethnic conflict. The decision is being cheered by civil society activists, who had earlier expressed concern that the case was a possible harbinger of a crackdown on the non-governmental sector.
In a resolution dated November 28, the Osh prosecutor’s office halted the investigation of the Advocacy Center for Human Rights for lack of evidence of criminal wrongdoing. The criminal case was opened in late September at the instigation of the local branch of the GKNB, or Kyrgyz state security service, which alleged that a research project conducted by the NGO posed a threat to national security. The Advocacy Center, in conjunction with the US-based watchdog organization Freedom House, had been carrying out a pilot research project on the civil rights of ethnic minorities in two regions of southern Kyrgyzstan – Batken and Jalal-Abad.
“We are pleased that the prosecutor rejected the charges of inciting inter-ethnic hatred against the staff of the Human Rights Advocacy Center,” Robert Herman, Freedom House’s vice president for regional programs, said in a written statement distributed by the watchdog organization. “The allegations were baseless and the prosecutor’s decision represents a triumph of the rule of law.”
While the decision may mark a limited victory for due process in Kyrgyzstan, a convoluted provision in the prosecutor’s November 28 resolution indicates that the rule of law was probably not the sole factor in the decision to drop the case. Instead, it hints that behind-the-scenes maneuvering among various state agencies played a significant role in the outcome.
Authorities in Kazakhstan suspect toxic emissions of “dangerous substances” from Karachaganak – one of the world’s largest gas and condensate fields – is to blame for the mass poisoning of children in the country’s northwest last week.
There were atmospheric emissions of highly toxic hydrogen sulfide beyond permissible levels from Karachaganak on November 27, the day before 20 children and three teachers were rushed to hospital in the village of Berezovka, Serik Karamanov, the prosecutor of West Kazakhstan Region, said on December 3.
The emissions were the result of a gas leak during flaring eight and a half kilometers away by Karachaganak Petroleum Operating (KPO), Karamanov said in remarks quoted by the Uralskaya Nedelya local newspaper. KPO is an international consortium that includes Britain’s BG Group, Italy’s ENI, US-based Chevron, Russia’s LUKOIL, and Kazakhstan’s KazMunayGaz.
The children and teachers were rushed to hospital after they started fainting en masse at a village school, while other villagers complained of dizziness and nose bleeds. “Weird things are happening here,” as one put it to Tengri News.