It has been 25 years since the Soviet Union collapsed, but some habits die hard.
Before September 27, the day on which President Nursultan Nazarbayev was due to visit, the city of Kyzylorda, in southern Kazakhstan, went into overdrive to prepare for the leader’s arrival.
As a rule, that kind of visit means city workers hastily tidying up the streets, effecting express repairs on the roads, demolishing dilapidated facilities and smartening up facades.
Kyzylorda, however, has more than the average amount of eyesores to hide, particularly on the road along which Nazarbayev was set to drive into town, so authorities adopted some creative solutions, as local media reported. One particular headache in Kyzylorda are the amount of dilapidated homes and potholed roads.
Rather than repair the problem homes, city authorities simply erected a long fence to hide the offending buildings from Nazarbayev’s view, news website Nur.kz reported.
This drastic measure might have gone unremarked upon but for the fact that the fence has caused a sudden surge in car accidents. As motorists pull into the road from behind the barricade, they are unable to see oncoming traffic, often leading to collisions. Local residents have told media they are afraid for their children’s lives and are making sure they don’t get too close to the fence.
Kyzylorda resident Ainur Aldabergenova complained to Nur.kz that real problems, meanwhile, are not being dealt with.
A shocking outbreak of violence in the western Kazakhstan city of Aktobe in June was quickly linked by authorities to radical Islam and prompted calls for greater emphasis on sidelining extremist currents of the faith.
Those ambitions, however, have not translated into any material improvements for the city’s main mosque — theoretically a bastion for state-approved Islam.
Employees at Aktobe’s Nur-Gasyr mosque have filed suit in a municipal court after exhausting all other efforts to be paid their wage arrears.
Sputnik news website on September 26 ran a report citing the plaintiffs as saying they had initially appealed to head of mosque’s management, Bakhytkerei Balkenov, to address the problem, but received only obscenities and threats in reply. They also tried to get help from the imam, Ospan Tole bi Dadiluliy, and again were unsuccessful.
Faith-focused online portal E-Islam.kz describes Nur-Gasyr as one of the two largest mosques in Aktobe along with the Central Mosque. It can accommodate up to 3,500 worshippers and houses a madrassa, or Islamic school, with 25 students.
In its time, Nur-Gasyr mosque was seen as an important project for advancing the influence of the government-affiliated Spiritual Association of Muslims of Kazakhstan (DUMK). Around $16.6 million were spent building the mosque from 2005 to 2009. Money was sourced from donations from Aktobe residents and businesspeople. Funding was also provided by major national companies.
Construction of the building was completed in September 2008. The opening was attended by Kazakhstan’s topmost elite, from President Nursultan Nazarbayev downward, as well as senior guests from Russia like then-President Dmitry Medvedev and the presidents of Dagestan, Ingushetia and Kalmykia.
The appearance of a figure convicted in Kyrgyzstan on charges of separatism and inciting ethnic hatred at an international rights forum has enraged politicians in Bishkek.
Ethnic Uzbek entrepreneur Kadyrzhan Batyrov, a native of the southern Kyrgyz city of Jalal-Abad, spoke on September 20 in condemnation of Kyrgyzstan’s president at an event held by the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR).
Batyrov, who has lived in Sweden for the past five years evading imprisonment over charges he incited ethnic unrest in his home country in 2010, said current plans to tinker with the constitution were part of President Almazbek Atambayev’s plot to permanently usurp power.
He also used the platform to condemn the plight of fellow ethnic Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan, who he argued are marginalized and underrepresented, and focused in particular on the situation of rights advocate Azimjan Askarov, who is serving a life sentence for his purported involvement in the violence of 2010.
The remarks were like a red rag to a bull to officials in Kyrgyzstan and about as badly timed as could be. Authorities loyal to Atambayev are mounting an intensifying onslaught against opponents to the constitutional reforms, which will likely be put to a referendum on December 4, and Batyrov is being used as the stick with which to beat them.
Even if he had tried, Batyrov could hardly have done more to compromise fellow critics of Atambayev. The Jalal-Abad businessman is referred to regularly in Kyrgyz media with the separatist epithet and the undocumented claim that he sparked the unrest of six years ago by calling for territorial autonomy for Uzbek-populated areas is widely accepted as gospel truth. Being put in the same basket as Batyrov then is political poison for public figures in Kyrgyzstan.
Kyrgyzstan’s parliament has passed a second reading of draft bill on holding a referendum in December on making changes to the constitution.
With the MPs vote on September 22, the likelihood of a plebiscite going ahead on December 4, as planned, has become a virtual certainty. Third readings are typically a formality and President Almazbek Atambayev has already thrown his weight behind amendments that have sown political turmoil in the country.
Of the 104 deputies that voted, 98 were in support of the referendum initiative, while six opposed.
Proposals to tinker with the constitution have come in for strong criticism from civil society as well as from international bodies like the Venice Commission, an advisory body to the European Council that rules on matters of constitutional law.
One key provision of the reform would see the role of prime minister being bolstered at the expense of the parliament. This has raised suspicions that Atambayev, who is limited constitutionally to one presidential term ending in 2017, may be laying the grounds for his immediate entourage to retain a dominant grip over power.
Another fix seen as insidious is one envisioning the introduction of loosely conceived “supreme state values” that would encompass individual human rights but also tag on concepts like “love of the Motherland,” “respect for the elderly” and “the accommodation of tradition and progress.” The ultimate goal of this aspect of the reform appears intended at chipping away at the individual human rights agenda that many governments in the post-Soviet space see as inimical to their model of authoritarian political development.
Authorities in Kazakhstan have declared that Almaty, which was the capital until 1998, is one millennium old.
To celebrate this purported landmark, the city held celebrations capped off with a firework display on September 18.
Kazakhstan, like other Central Asian nations, has something of a dubious fondness for round dates. The people of Almaty were certainly quite surprised. Schoolchildren have long been told that Almaty first appeared on the map in 1854, when Fort Verniy was erected along the Malaya Almatinka river. That outpost grew in the following decade into a town known as Almatinsk, and then subsequently Verniy.
So how did Almaty suddenly grow more than 800 years older all of a sudden is a mystery to many residents. The date has been greeted with a fair dose of scorn online.
News website Kazday put together some of the most acid responses.
Sergei Kovalenko, writing under the handle Fizik, remarked: “In 2000, the people of Almaty marked the 150th anniversary of their city. Today, Almaty is already knocking on 1,000 years.”
And @altrbgdt was even more sarcastic: “This business about Almaty’s 1,000th anniversary reminds me of the novel 1984, in which people were told that two times two is five and everybody worshipped lies.”
Popular blogger Alisher Yelikbayev (@yelikbayev) quipped: “Because of a trip to Astana I missed the 1,000th anniversary of Almaty. Hopefully I won’t miss the 1,200th anniversary. According to our historians, that will pass in seven years time.”
And then @normkorm: “Next year our officials will show us some stone age tools they found and we will celebrate Almaty’s one millionth anniversary!”
Mortgage holders picket a bank in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in a demand for their loans to be refinanced following the dramatic fall in value of the national currency, the tenge.
In a reprisal of impromptu rallies seen earlier this year, around 30 mortgage holders in Kazakhstan’s business capital picketed banks on September 19 demanding their loans be refinanced.
Frustration is mounting among many debtors that a program ordered by President Nursultan Nazarbayev for the central bank to provide commercial lenders with 130 billion tenge ($380 million) to refinance loans is failing to take full effect.
The rallying mortgage holders, who complained that their debts had not been refinanced, called during their picket for them to be granted 1 percent interest rates and five-year repayment periods.
But Zhanna Sadykova, a member of the Let's Leave Housing for the People, claimed in remarks to EurasiaNet.org that banks are refusing to grant those terms.
Those suffering the most are people like 64-year old pensioner Tatyana Alenkina, who obtained a dollar mortgage worth $35,000 in 2008 to buy an apartment. She repaid $27,000, but a paltry monthly pension worth 35,000 tenge (devalued to $89 by the collapse of the national currency) means she can no longer keep up with payments.
“They kicked me out of my apartment in the evening, they won’t let me into my apartment any longer. I cannot find my things. I am going hungry. Now I’m living in a basement,” Alenkina told EurasiaNet.org.
The National Bank has said that as of September 1, almost 18,000 refinancing requests out of a total of more than 24,200 have been fulfilled. Protesters blamed banks for disruptions to the refinancing program.
A former presidential chief of staff in Kyrgyzstan has said he anticipates being arrested following a report alleging he is being targeted by a set-up orchestrated by the security forces.
Speaking in Bishkek on September 19, Edil Baisalov, who served as chief of staff for interim President Roza Otunbayeva in 2010, claims to have heard from “verified sources” that current President Almazbek Atambayev is seeking “any basis” to imprison him. The president is exploiting inter-ethnic tensions to that end, Baisalov said.
Baisalov’s press conference follows the publication of an article on Moscow-based ferghana.ru claiming knowledge of a plot by Kyrgyz security services to dig up dirt on members of the 2010 post-revolution interim government, of which Atambayev was a leading figure.
The article article alleged, citing a single anonymous source, that employees of the Kyrgyz security services, known as GKNB, were talking to relatives of ethnic Uzbeks that emigrated from Kyrgyzstan following bloody ethnic violence in 2010 and Uzbeks that have taken up residence in Uzbekistan after being convicted of participation in the violence into giving “incriminating testimony against Roza Otunbayeva and some of her colleagues.”
“Disgraced Uzbek community representatives were invited to make an official video message that they ‘organized the inter-ethnic conflict in June 2010 on the say so of Roza Otunbayeva.’” according to the report.
In recent weeks, the president has been engaged in a rapidly escalating conflict with numerous allies-turned-rivals, who have publicly stated their opposition to constitutional changes being pursued by Atmbayev.
The meetings alluded to in the ferghana.ru report reportedly took place in Osh and Tashkent.
In yet another fatal motor accident in Tajikistan involving the relative of a top official, the 23-year old son of the deputy prime minister this week crashed his Toyota Camry into a public utilities vehicle, killing two people.
Asia-Plus news website cited an unnamed security source as saying that one of the people killed was Faromuz Saidov’s passenger, a 25-year old woman, and that the other was a city worker. RFE/RL’s Tajik service, Radio Ozodi, reported that the Toyota was being driven at a high speed when it collided.
Saidov, who is the son of first deputy premier Davlati Saidov, was treated for his injuries at a hospital in Dushanbe.
The sight of expensive cars speeding unimpeded along the main thoroughfares of the capital is not an uncommon one. It is widely whispered that the drivers are more often than not the monied offspring of rich government officials.
Previously, Davlati Saidov served as head of the youth, sport and tourism committee, then was Tajikistan’s ambassador to Japan, later the head of the investment committee and, since 2013, has been first deputy prime minister. Unconfirmed media reports have suggested he is related somehow to President Emomali Rahmon.
The Interior Ministry has promised a fair investigation into the accident, but there are grounds to be skeptical. Similar things have happened before, only for those guilty to walk away scot free.
Kyrgyzstan’s five-party ruling coalition appears to have seen better days as quarrels over constitutional changes dominate parliamentary sessions and supporters of President Almazbek Atambayev continue to harangue opponents of an upcoming referendum.
The nominally socialist Ata-Meken faction and the pro-agrarian Onuguu-Progress party have expressed doubts about the changes. The former was invited to leave the ruling alliance by Isa Omurkulov, who leads Atambayev’s Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan in parliament.
Onuguu-Progres leader Bakyt Torobayev said at a September 14 session of parliament that the coalition was in “intensive care” and, warming to his theme, on “artificial respiration.”
He also cited a conversation with a citizen from a rural area who “hadn’t read the [proposed] constitutional changes but was concerned that they are being done to usurp power.”
Even if both Onuguu-Progress and Ata-Meken walked out of government, the three remaining parties (SDPK, Bir Bol and the Kyrgyzstan party) would still have enough seats to form a majority. For what it’s worth, Ata-Meken leader Omurbek Tekebayev has stated he has no imminent plans to ditch the coalition.
But suspicions over the constitutional fiddle, which is being pushed by Atambayev as he nears the end of his single term six-year presidency, are growing.
The most significant changes involve a recasting of the state’s obligations toward upholding human rights and enhancing the office of the prime minister against that of the presidency.
The language on rights issues signals a marked lurch toward nationalist conservatism.