Authorities in Tajikistan are taking a leaf out of Ebenezer Karimov’s book and forbidding Santa Claus – or Father Frost, as he’s known in the Russian-speaking tradition – from appearing on television this holiday season.
Last year arch-rival Uzbekistan, presided over by President Islam Karimov, banned the beloved Father Frost from New Year’s broadcasts in efforts to shield Uzbeks from foreign influences and invent a unique Uzbek “culture.”
New Year’s remains one of the most popular holidays throughout the former Soviet Union, celebrated with family meals and fireworks. The robed Father Frost (“Ded Moroz”) brings children gifts, much as Santa Claus does on Christmas Day in the West. But the New Year’s holiday is entirely secular.
The new ban in Tajikistan applies to Father Frost, his maiden sidekick Snegurochka, and Christmas trees, Radio Ozodi reported on December 5. (The ban applies to state television, but Tajikistan has no independent television stations. Many people watch Russian satellite TV.)
In recent years, some Islamic clergy have complained that the New Year holiday, with its Christian undertones, is not appropriate for a Muslim country like Tajikistan.
But the ban is not a nod to the clergy, Dilafruz Amirkulova, deputy head of Tajikistan’s Committee for Television and Radio Broadcasting, told Radio Ozodi: “Our main holiday, in general, is Navruz. Of course we respect holidays of other people, but our real holiday is Navruz,” the Persian New Year, which is celebrated on the vernal equinox in March.
The oral epic Manas so beloved in Kyrgyzstan has been included on the United Nations cultural heritage list.
The poem, which many Kyrgyz boast is the longest in the world, “expresses the historical memory of the Kyrgyz people and survives thanks to a community of epic tellers, both women and men, of all ages,” UNESCO, the UN’s cultural affairs body, said, announcing the decision to include Manas on the List of the Intangible Heritage of Humanity on December 4. “Narrators accept their calling after experiencing a prophetic dream, understood to be a sign from the heroes of the epic.”
Manas, which describes the unification of disparate tribes into a single nation and can take up to 13 hours to recite, is viewed in Kyrgyzstan as a bedrock of the Kyrgyz nation’s cultural heritage. Its inclusion on the UNESCO list is a diplomatic triumph for the government, which was outraged when China beat Kyrgyzstan to have Manas included on the UNESCO list in 2009 on behalf of its Kyrgyz minority population.
Manas is so central to Kyrgyz culture that streets in many towns in the country are named after it, as are public facilities – including the airport where the US airbase is hosted.
The rabble-rousing mayor of Kyrgyzstan’s second-largest city has been abruptly dismissed after he appeared to stoke anti-government protests this week.
Prime Minister Jantoro Satybaldiyev fired Osh Mayor Melis Myrzakmatov on December 5 without explanation. Satybaldiyev appointed Alimjan Baygazakov, Myrzakmatov’s deputy, acting mayor.
The dismissal came three days after some 3,000 demonstrators rallied in Osh to call for the release of opposition politician and Myrzakmatov ally Akhmatbek Keldibekov, who was arrested November 20 on corruption charges. The mayor joined the protest, denouncing the charges against Keldibekov as “nonsense” and a “political order.” Protesters gave the authorities three days, until today, to release Keldibekov.
The news of the dismissal apparently came as a surprise to Myrzakmatov himself, who described it as a “political decision of the authorities.” Speaking in Bishkek, where he had been summoned to meet Satybaldiyev, the former mayor told the 24.kg news agency that Satybaldiyev “hinted to me about my dismissal, but I do not possess any official information that the corresponding order has been signed.”
Myrzakmatov declined to reveal details of his meeting with the prime minister, but said it concerned the rally in support of Keldibekov.
Thousands of protesters rallied in the city of Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan on December 2 to call for the release of opposition politician Akhmatbek Keldibekov, who was arrested on corruption charges on November 20.
They gave the authorities three days to free Keldibekov, a parliamentarian for the nationalist Ata-Jurt party, whose leader Kamchybek Tashiyev was recently convicted on charges of seeking to overthrow the government.
The Vecherniy Bishkek newspaper quoted police as saying that around 3,000 protesters turned out in Osh, but by evening police said most had dispersed, leaving around 100 people on Osh’s main square.
The demonstrators were mostly peaceful but some tried unsuccessfully to storm the regional administration building, Kloop reported. They also threatened to take the government’s representative in the region, Sooronbay Jeenbekov, hostage (he was whisked away by police). Sporadically over the past 10 days, Keldibekov’s supporters have blocked the highway from Osh to the Chinese border at Irkeshtam, an important trade crossing.
Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rakhmon has appointed his son to head the country’s Customs Service, the president’s website reported today. Many have long believed Rakhmon is grooming the 26-year-old Rustam Emomali to be his successor; today’s announcement will certainly cement those views.
Rakhmon held the first meeting of his new cabinet on November 30. The strongman, in his 21st year in power, dismissed the government earlier this month after winning a fourth term in a poll widely derided as farcical. Rakhmon regularly reshuffles senior leaders in a process that ensures few others gain significant power or build strong patronage networks.
For almost three years, the younger Emomali had been deputy head of the Customs Service in charge of combatting smuggling. He has also served on the capital’s city council, worked at the State Committee for Investments and State Property Management and as deputy head of the national football federation, according to Asia-Plus. He is also a founder and part owner of Dushanbe’s Istiqlol Football Club.
For Kazakhs seeking religious enlightenment, a telephone hotline is now available to guide them toward god. Twenty-four hours a day, a dedicated team of specialists is on call to answer burning questions about the divine – and to ensure authorities are kept abreast.
On the surface the hotline – 114 – serves people with genuine inquiries about religious matters. But, says one of its government backers, it will also be useful for ratting on those who deviate from Kazakhstan's myriad restrictions on religious practice.
“Information about breaches of legislation in the religious sphere and illegal and destructive religious activities […] is forwarded to the law-enforcement bodies and departments for religious affairs of the akimats [local government offices] for investigation,” Yulia Denisenko, head of the Association of Centers for Victims of Destructive Religious Organizations, the government organization behind the hotline, told a media briefing in Astana on November 28.
Kazakhstan experienced its first suicide bombing in May 2011. Since then, terror-related incidents have left at least 67 dead, mostly suspects and law-enforcement officers. This September Astana announced a new state program to fight terrorism and extremism amid fears of growing links between homegrown radicals and international terror groups. Kazakhstan's intelligence services estimate around 100 Kazakh citizens are waging jihad in foreign countries.
Kazakhstan is marking the week leading up to First President’s Day on December 1 with public displays of affection for Nursultan Nazarbayev, the leader whom this public holiday – introduced last year – celebrates.
Fueling criticism that a cult of personality surrounds the president who has ruled independent Kazakhstan for 22 years, one Astana university organized a mass display of student adoration for the man who goes by the title Leader of the Nation.
“Supporting the Leader of the Nation!” chanted some 3,000 students from the Kazakh Humanities and Law University who turned out on November 28 to sing one of the president’s favorite songs and release red and white balloons into the sky against the backdrop of a giant banner showing the word “I” with a red heart followed by the words “Kazakhstan” and “Nazarbayev.”
The university administration insisted the event had all been the students’ idea, and they certainly looked as if they were having a good time on a video Radio Azattyk posted on YouTube.
Not to be outshone, the leaders of the nominal “opposition” in Kazakhstan’s pro-presidential rubberstamp parliament joined the outpouring of affection.
The Communist leader even took the unusual step of hailing the aggressive capitalist reforms of the early 1990s – normally anathema to any communist – that Nazarbayev oversaw when he reluctantly inherited Kazakhstan as an independent state in 1991 (a fact that modern-day official history tends to gloss over, preferring to depict this former leader of Soviet Kazakhstan as at the vanguard of the independence movement).
A fresh space spat has erupted between Astana and Moscow over the cost of environmental damage from a Russian rocket crash on the territory of Kazakhstan – and who will pay for it.
After totaling the environmental damage from the July crash of a Proton-M rocket after it blasted off from the Baikonur spaceport in central Kazakhstan, Astana sent Moscow a bill for $89 million earlier this month.
At one meeting of the bilateral group investigating the crash, officials from the Russian Federal Space Agency, known as Roskosmos, “declared their readiness to discuss compensation” for any environmental damage, Kazakhstan’s Environment Ministry said on November 22.
After receiving the bill, however, Russia does not look keen to cough up. “We have received the report about the total for the damage,” Russia’s Izvestiya daily quoted Sergey Gorbunov, head of the Roskosmos press service, as saying laconically on November 27. “The space agency will be conducting its own expert evaluation on this subject. Its aim is to assess the correctness of the calculations cited. It can be a question of paying compensation only for proven damage to the environment.”
Participants at an annual gathering of Kazakhstan’s journalist community have called for authorities to ease tight restrictions on freedom of the media.
Opposition leader Amirzhan Kosanov took the floor after a panel discussion in Almaty on November 27 to demand an end to what he described as de facto “censorship” and for dissident voices to be given access to the mainstream media. Kazakhstan’s opposition has long been marginalized from the media, and the situation has deteriorated since the courts last year closed down dozens of independent media outlets in the wake of late 2011's fatal unrest in western Kazakhstan.
The panel discussion at the sixth Media Kuryltay (“council” or “assembly”) pitted a government official against a prominent journalist who survived an assassination attempt that many observers suspect was linked to his outspoken reporting. The kuryltay offers a rare opportunity for an exchange of opinions between journalists reflecting all sides of Kazakhstan’s media spectrum – from strongly pro-government to staunch opposition – and bureaucrats from Astana.
Bolat Kalyanbekov, chairman of the Ministry of Culture’s Information and Archive Committee, offered a spirited defense of state media policy, pointing out that the government channels millions of tenge to the media every year. Lukpan Akhmedyarov of the regional Uralskaya Nedelya newspaper in northwestern Kazakhstan, who was lucky to survive a vicious attempt on his life last year, pointed out that the state might be throwing money at loyal elements of the media but this did not bring about greater media freedom.
Stories of women abandoned by migrating husbands are not hard to find in Tajikistan. It seems every family has a story about a young man who left to earn a living in Russia and never returned. The remittances trickle to a stop; the letters cease. Later the family might hear he’s remarried. Or wonder, forever fearing worse.
In conservative Tajikistan, few are eager to discuss these stories. But every month the Tajik migration service gets about 15 pleas for help from women requesting that Russia deport their sons, brothers or husbands, Radio Ozodi reports, citing an official spokesman. The women have also been appealing directly to Russian authorities.
“I heard from my sister-in-law that he [my husband] got married. [He] doesn’t send money to his kids. They should deport him. Maybe this will influence him to come back to his kids,” Mokhru Kholova, who says her husband Olim left her with their three children five years ago and doesn’t write, told Radio Ozodi.
Tochinisso Khoshimova says her brother Zokirjon has been away for eight years and only once sent their mother $50: “We want him to get kicked out of Russia,” said Khoshimova, adding that her family is simply worried about him. “Mother often cries and doubts if he’s alive.”
The million-plus Tajiks working in Russia are basically the only thing keeping Tajikistan’s economy afloat. Last year, they sent home the equivalent of 47 percent of GDP, making Tajikistan the most remittance-dependent country in the world, according to the World Bank.