UPDATE, March 28: American journalist Umar Farooq says he has been freed and is leaving Kyrgyzstan. Meanwhile, lawyers for human rights watchdog Bir Duino have filed a complaint with the prosecutor's office for the raids on their office and several top employees’ homes.
The arrest of an American journalist on extremism charges and the subsequent raid of a prominent human rights organization, both in southern Kyrgyzstan’s largest city, Osh, suggest that Kyrgyz authorities are still cagey about independent inquiry in a region associated with growing adherence to Islam and festering inter-ethnic tensions.
Kyrgyzstan has styled itself as a bastion of democracy in an authoritarian region, but rights activists see looming Russian-style legislation that would brand NGOs “foreign agents” as impending death for the country’s once-vibrant civil society.
Umar Farooq was researching the recent arrest of a popular cleric accused of supporting Syrian radicals, said a local journalist who had met with him shortly after he arrived in Kyrgyzstan a few weeks ago. On his webpage, Farooq identifies himself as a journalist who has written for the Los Angeles Times, the Christian Science Monitor and others.
The State Committee for National Security (GKNB) released a statement late March 27 confirming Farooq’s March 25 arrest, and claiming he had been found with documents and video materials of a "religious extremist and terrorist character."
A US Embassy spokeswoman told EurasiaNet.org that American officials had been in touch with Farooq and were providing consular support.
Rahmon, seen here placing the first brick for his new city, likes to build.
Faced with a bulging population, Tajikistan’s government plans to build an entire new city in a stretch of northern desert. State television showed President Emomali Rahmon breaking ground this week, inspecting plans, receiving applause and placing the first brick.
Tajikistan’s population has more than doubled since 1979. With an annual growth rate of 2.3 percent, Tajikistan has the fastest growing population in Central Asia (the global average is around 1.2 percent), according to UN data.
The new city project – located 10 kilometers from Tajikistan’s second-largest city, Khujand – will house 250,000 people, the president’s website reports. Rahmon suggested the new city be named Saihun, after a nearby river. He ordered the building of over 50 new schools and 40 sports facilities. Over 7,000 hectares of orchard will rise from the desert, he promised.
The strongman likes to build. Last week, Rahmon laid the first stone for the region’s largest theatre. In 2011, he unveiled the world’s tallest flagpole (which was recently surpassed by another vainglorious dictatorship, Saudi Arabia). Tajikistan already boasts the world’s biggest teahouse, the region’s largest library (with few books) and has, for years, been building its largest mosque.
The hated younger son of Kyrgyzstan’s former president is living the highlife in the United Kingdom, inhabiting a house bought by an opaque shell company – probably with money stolen from the Kyrgyz people – while he waits for asylum. So alleges transparency watchdog Global Witness in a March 25 report.
Maxim Bakiyev never returned to Kyrgyzstan after his father, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, was ousted in a bloody April 2010 uprising that left around 100 people dead. He has since been found guilty at home of stealing millions in government funds and attempted murder, charges he says are politically motivated.
Meanwhile, he has applied for asylum in the UK and is eligible for permanent residency in three months, according to Global Witness.
How Maxim came to live in a $5.2-million mansion, bought by a secret Belize-registered company just after his father’s regime imploded, is the focus on the Global Witness report.
The report provides strong evidence suggesting that the scion of the Bakiyev clan, if not fully identifiable as the owner of the house in a posh London suburb, at least inhabits it.
Kyrgyzstan’s obscurity has allowed Maxim to fly under the radar of the British press for the most part. Even the British football club he was rumored to have a stake in was fairly unfashionable.
Reports that Russia is uncomfortable with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) stepping into banking are nothing new. In particular, Moscow’s quiet efforts to block the creation of an SCO development bank that would funnel largely Chinese credit into Russia’s backyard have featured at the organization’s meetings in recent years.
But a thought-provoking analysis by Alexander Gabuev of the Carnegie Moscow Center, published last week by Russia in Global Affairs, suggests the Kremlin is mistaken, placing fears about appearing to be a junior partner over a sound geopolitical strategy that could give it a measure of control over China’s Central Asia policy.
The SCO – which groups China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – has tried hard to convince the world it is more than just a club for dictators. China’s push to include economic initiatives on the SCO agenda was a part of this process, Gabuev notes, and a development bank has been on the table at SCO powwows since 2009.
Tajikistan’s economy faces mounting troubles. The impoverished country has long been the most remittance-addicted in the world, with cash transfers from migrant laborers totaling the equivalent of almost half of GDP. But with the slowdown in Russia and tightened regulations for foreigners wishing to work there, remittances are now, as predicted, falling.
The national currency, the somoni, is also hurting, and it is unclear if the authorities are realistic about their options.
Last year remittance inflows declined over 8 percent to $3.9 billion according to Tajikistan’s National Bank. This year will be even gloomier. In early March, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) forecast that remittances would drop 30 percent.
Meanwhile, officials in northern Tajikistan have reported a 30 percent drop in out-migration during the first months of 2015 compared to the same period last year. About one million Tajik citizens work abroad, mostly in Russia.
Emomali Rahmon meeting with PR flacks from United World in October 2014.
Any writer who deploys the word "stable" to describe Tajikistan without half a dozen caveats has either never heard of the place or is being paid to produce puff. Or both.
“Stable and Strategic at the Crossroads of Asia” declares the headline on a eight-page supplement (presumably not produced for free) distributed March 20 with USA Today, the largest paper by circulation in America.
Full of Silk Road tropes and liberally sprinkled with words of wisdom from President Emomali Rahmon, now in his 23rd year in power, the supplement may fool readers who have never heard of the corrupt and authoritarian Central Asian country, the poorest in the former Soviet Union.
It hits all the government’s key talking points: about Tajikistan’s “multi-vector” foreign policy; cooperation with the West fighting terror and drug trafficking; the visionary leadership of its president (so paranoid he has shut out political opposition despite power-sharing agreements); efforts to tap Tajikistan’s gas reserves (too deep to be economically feasible anytime soon); and the potential for tourism in its mountains (beautiful to be sure, but lacking infrastructure and requiring tiresome extra paperwork to visit the most spectacular places).
Besides the truth-bending, outright untruths abound. A piece on the finance sector highlights a local bank that is insolvent.
But the expectation seems to be that the average American reader will stay none the wiser.
Cracks in the fledging Eurasian Economic Union were on clear display in Astana on March 20 as the leaders of Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus met to discuss the regional economic slump.
Nursultan Nazarbayev, the host president, made a point of affirming Kazakhstan’s support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity – a statement guaranteed to raise the Kremlin’s hackles. Vladimir Putin responded with a call for an EEU currency union, something that is anathema to both Nazarbayev and Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus.
“It is necessary to emerge from the situation that has arisen in Ukraine via diplomatic means; no military solution to this problem exists,” Nazarbayev said of Ukraine. “In so doing, it is important that any decisions taken are based on fundamental principles of international law. We are interested in Ukraine remaining a stable, independent, and territorially intact state.”
With Russia denying it has fomented separatist strife in southeastern Ukraine, such a pointed public statement from a close partner was guaranteed to rouse Putin’s ire. In his remarks, Putin said a ceasefire deal reached in Minsk in February – which has been routinely flouted – created a “real opportunity for a gradual de-escalation of the armed conflict.”
Documents have come to light proving that the beneficiary of a $748,000 renovation funded by the U.S. military was not the state or people of Kyrgyzstan, as initially claimed by Kyrgyz and U.S. officials, but a private citizen who acquired the property under dubious circumstances.
The former state hospital, in the Bishkek suburb of Shopokov, was intended to be a “development center for battered women” and “a shelter for up to 55 women and their children,” according to U.S. military press materials distributed during a ribbon-cutting ceremony in 2010. The American airbase at Manas funded the renovations. The base commander and U.S. ambassador attended the event.
For a time, the impressively refurbished two-story building stood empty. Today it accommodates a private kindergarten that earns its owners roughly $47,000 per year, based on calculations using figures provided by the school’s employees.
The $748,000 grant was unusually large for Manas, accounting for one-third of the base’s humanitarian aid spending that year. Most of Manas’s development grants that year were for less than $20,000.
American officials appeared to believe at the time that the funds were being used to refurbish a state-owned building. In 2011, when the building stood empty, a Manas spokesperson told EurasiaNet.org that after refurbishment the building was supposed to remain Kyrgyz government property and said Manas was not responsible for monitoring program activity.
The implementing partner was Zamira Akbagysheva, the head of Kyrgyzstan’s Congress of Women.
Today, a sign on the gate outside the building declares “Authorized People Only.” With its sparkling paint-job, new windows, and bright-red roofing tiles, the building stands out in the neighborhood of dilapidated gray houses.
A group of nationalist activists has announced it is forming a paramilitary militia to defend Kyrgyzstan from foreign threats – and foreign flags.
Known as “El Namysy” (The People’s Dignity), the group “will be a nationwide association, a paramilitary, whose members will be ready to mobilize and be sent to any part of the republic,” prominent anti-gay activist Jenishbek Moldokmatov said while introducing the founders at a March 18 press conference in Bishkek.
El Namysy leader Adilet Daiyrov told journalists at the press conference that members are all “sportsmen” – a loaded term in a country where groups of physically fit men in tracksuits always seem to appear at times of trouble.
El Namysy co-chair Ruslan Niyazakunov, a champion in ultimate fighting, told Kloop.kg the group would begin with community outreach, though his methods sound vaguely threatening.
“We will conduct preventive work, promote our ideology and explain what is good and what is bad. I want to stress that if there are people who do not support or understand us, we will work with them,” Niyazakunov said. He said he was particularly bothered seeing “flags of Russia, Europe, the United States or other countries.”
Niyazakunov added that he considers NGOs a “foreign threat.” He said members of his group would not carry firearms, but repeatedly used the term “paramilitary” (полувоенный in Russian) to describe how they would organize.
Moldokmatov, who heads a nationalist youth group called Kalys, added that El Namysy would react to events and rallies that he determines are being held on behalf of a foreign power.
Foreign flags are a recurring irritation, members say.
President Emomali Rahmon opened Tajikistan’s new parliament on March 17 with a rousing, self-congratulatory speech. International observers may have found the March 1 parliamentarian elections to be full of fraud, but Rahmon felt the vote had represented the highest form of democracy.
After some initial confusion about the results, the new parliament contains just two opposition members, both representing the Communist Party. The Islamic Renaissance Party lost its seats for the first time. All other representatives in the 63-seat legislature are loyal to Rahmon’s regime. That Tajikistan held a “well organized, transparent, free and democratic” vote, the long-serving strongman said, was a clear “victory” for his impoverished Central Asian country:
The political campaign was held in a free and democratic atmosphere; this was highly appreciated by the representatives of authoritative international organizations, national and international observers. The Tajik people took part in this event with a high sense of patriotism, firm confidence for a brighter future and with a deep awareness of civic responsibility.