Police in Tajikistan have reportedly arrested Salafist leader Muhammadi Rahmatullo in what appears on first sight to be an extension of the extensive crackdown against the country’s devout Muslims.
Some aspects of Rahmatullo’s activities, however, hint at a slightly less straightforward story.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Tajik service, Ozodi, reported on February 11 that Rahmatullo, who is better known as Mullah Muhammadi, faces three charges, including one for allegedly inciting religious tensions.
Not much is known about Rahmatullo.
In January 2015, local media cited his relatives as saying that he had been detained by police, but the Interior Ministry later denied the report.
Some time later, weekly newspaper Faraj published an article under Rahmatullo’s byline in which the writer condemned the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), which has since been banned and designated a terrorist organization.
In the piece, Rahmatullo claimed that the IRPT was financed by “foreign governments” and argued that Tajikistan had no need for such parties.
He further stated that the IRPT was to blame for the devastating civil war of the 1990s and said the party had links to Iran. He suggested that the IRPT should be disbanded.
Despite being a member of a group also designated as an extremist organization, Rahmatullo had his piece published in several other publications, including ones owned by the government, as well as on the site of the ruling National Democratic Party of Tajikistan.
Another Salafist, Eshoni Sirojiddin, was also enlisted to smear the IRPT. Sirojiddin was jailed in 2009 along with his son, but was later released in an amnesty. He is still believed to be out of prison.
A cargo train carrying a test shipment along the recently completed China-Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran railway is bearing in on its final destination in a landmark event for Eurasian trade.
State media in Turkmenistan reported that the train, which departed from the Chinese city of Yiwu, just south of Shanghai, at the end of January covered 7,908 kilometers over nine days, and crossed the border into Iran on February 10.
The entire railroad extends around 10,000 kilometers and requires two weeks to cover, which is estimated to be around twice as fast as the sea route.
“The cargo, loaded with all kinds of consumer goods, traversed the Turkmen section in 28 hours, instead of two days, as had been expected. This significant reduction in travel time translates into substantial savings on transportation costs and makes the route more cost-effective,” state news agency TDH reported.
The overall route could, as its proponents argue, radically increase the efficiency in the transportation of goods from China’s eastern seaboard to markets in the Persian Gulf.
A final link in the mammoth railroad was put into place in December 2014 when the presidents of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Iran officially inaugurated a 930-kilometer line running from Ozen in western Kazakhstan through Turkmenistan to Gorgan in northwestern Iran. That sped up cargo transit between the countries by cutting 600 kilometers off the journey on the previously existing route from Beyneu in western Kazakhstan to Mashhad in northern Iran.
Developments put into motion this week are setting the stage for Tajikistan’s irreversible transformation into an autocracy where all power is concentrated in the hands of the president.
On May 22, the country is to hold a referendum to approve amendments to the Constitution that will allow President Emomali Rahmon to run for office indefinitely. Since elections are but a mere formality, the change will in effect allow Rahmon to become a president-for-life.
The existing Constitution limits the president to a two-term limit, but Rahmon is being exempted under the newly enshrined Leader of the Nation title.
Asia-Plus news website reported that the referendum date will be confirmed in parliament on February 10. The legislature is overwhelmingly dominated by the ruling National Democratic Party, while the other deputies all belong to pocket opposition parties.
A few other provisions are envisioned. Amendments to Article 28 of the Constitution, which regulates the creation of political parties, will bar the formation of parties on a religious or atheist basis. That could potentially presage not just the return in a different form of a party built from the ashes of the banned Islamic Renaissane Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), but even the toothless Communist Party, which has two seats in the lower house of parliament.
The role of parties is in any case to be devalued in accordance with a change to Article 1 of the Constitution, which will, once the referendum is approved, designate Tajikistan as a presidential system, according to a draft seen by EurasiaNet.org.
Ever since Russia’s Defense Ministry announced it is to convert its military presence in Tajikistan from a division into a brigade, watchers of the region have been scratching their heads trying to work out the significance of the development.
Authorities in Tajikistan appear no more certain than anybody else what to make of it.
Russian news agency TASS on January 30 cited the commander of the Central Military District, Colonel General Vladimir Zarudnitsky, as saying that the reformatting of the base would make Russian forces more mobile, while reducing the volume of enlisted personnel.
“All the same, the role [of the base] as a Russian outpost in Central Asia and guarantor for peace and stability in the region will remain unchanged,” Zarudnitsky was quoted as saying.
A drastic reorganization of Russian forces in Tajikistan has been in progress since late last year, when news emerged that troops were redeploying away from a base near the southern city of Kulyab. The explanation for the move offered at the time was that it was part of plans to enhance combat readiness.
The motivations for the conversion to brigade status appear even more nebulous, and even Tajik Foreign Minister Sirojiddin Aslov confessed to being in the dark.
“Questions about changes to the organizational and staff structure of the 201st Russian military base in Tajikistan, as far as increasing or decreasing its size goes, have not been discussed at the official level,” Aslov told Deutsche Welle.
It seems remarkable that Russia’s armed forces are adopting strategic military decisions without bothering to consult their hosts, but the episode is characteristic of Moscow’s high-handed attitude toward Dushanbe in its dealings over the base.
Dwindling remittances from Russia to Tajikistan are being squeezed yet again by government measures preventing migrant laborers from wiring Russian rubles.
New rules that came into effect on February 2 obliged people in Tajikistan receiving transfers made in rubles to collect the funds exclusively in the domestic currency, the somoni.
That appears on first analysis to have been motivated by a desperate urgency at the national bank to build up its foreign cash reserves and keep the somoni on an even keel.
At least two major wire companies popular with migrant laborers in Russia have in turn reacted by stopping the transfer of rubles to Tajikistan, and accepting only other currencies, such as dollar or euros. An employee at one of the wire companies, Zolotaya Korona, said the ruble ban had come into effect on February 4.
In effect, this arrangement will require Tajik workers in Russia to first convert their increasingly devalued ruble salaries into a foreign currency, thereby incurring a commission, and then sending that cash home, also against payment. Although people collecting the cash in Tajikistan can still draw the funds in whatever currency they were wired (as long as it is not rubles), there are concerns the government could soon extend the restrictions to dollars and euros.
The fall in the value of the ruble against the dollar has been slower than that of the somoni since the start of the year, so the value of the remittances is being pinched. The ruble has lost 5 percent against the dollar over that period, while the somoni has fallen by around 13 percent.
The picture is grim as it is.
Remittances for the January-September period in 2015 dropped about 65 percent to $1.054 billion, compared to $3.016 billion over the same period the previous year.
A purported U.S. schoolboy has got himself into the Kyrgyz media by appealing to Prime Minister Temir Sariyev’s greatest weakness: a spot of free PR.
According to a letter reportedly posted on Facebook by Bakyt Asanov, the press officer for the government, 14-year-old Tim Li of Minneola High School in New York State wrote to Sariyev calling him “one of my inspirations.”
Li added that “during my free time I read about you and learn how to be successful.”
Li dutifully recited Sariyev’s biography, offered New Year pleasantries and asked for a signed photo of the Prime Minister, according to a piece published on news website zanoza.kg February 4.
It apparently didn’t occur to Sariyev or his press team to question why a schoolboy living thousands of miles away would find an obscure Central Asian politician inspirational.
That might be because Sariyev, strongly rumored to be preparing for a presidential run in 2017, doesn’t consider himself obscure, and according to his harshest critics, would lick himself if he was made of chocolate. (Or even chuchuk)
But Sariyev will feel slightly less special now it is common knowledge that President Jammeh of the Gambia, a country as far off the radar of the average American schoolboy as Kyrgyzstan, also received a letter from Li.
The letter, reported by pro-government media read:
With the crisis biting hard in Kazakhstan, the nation’s most famous cyclist, Alexandre Vinokourov, has bucked the austerity trend by unveiling his latest two-wheeler — a glitzy gold-painted racing bike.
Vinokourov’s bling bike, unveiled ahead of this week’s 2016 Dubai Tour, features a gilded frame and is equipped with top-of-the range fittings. It’s emblazoned with his Vino logo and the Olympic emblem, in honor of his gold-medal winning performance in the London Games in 2012, Cycling News reported
Vinokourov, who retired from competitive racing in 2012 after winning his Olympic gold, now manages Pro Team Astana, which competes on the world tour. The team is part of Kazakhstan's flagship sports project, Astana Presidential Sports Club, which oversees various sports and is bankrolled by Samruk-Kazyna, Kazakhstan's sovereign wealth fund.
The appearance of the bling bike comes at a time when Kazakhstan is facing swingeing, across-the-board cuts as the tenge topples alongside the oil price.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev has urged the nation to tighten its collective belt and eschew foie gras and luxury cars while the crisis rages on. He recently visited a bazaar in the capital, Astana, where he was shocked to see lemons selling for 150 tenge ($0.40). “We can survive without lemons,” he reassured the public.
Kyrgyzstan’s government is coming to the assistance of debtors battered by the U.S. greenback’s rise against the local currency, but it is unclear how useful, widespread or sustainable a new som-for-dollar debt scheme will be.
Nearly 3,000 people that took out large loans in dollars for housing in the first half of 2015 were left unable to make payments as the som plummeted by over one-fifth against the dollar in the last six months of the year, largely on the back of economic peril in Russia.
A government initiative presented on February 1 allows those people to exchange their outstanding dollar debt for Kyrgyz soms at a favorable rate of 62.144 soms — a rate from July 1, 2015, before the dollar began its climb towards the roughly 76 soms it costs now.
The government has put aside over $7.5 million to plug the gap between the exchange rate of yore and the current one and is only intervening in loans worth $40,000 or less.
The questions surrounding the scheme relate to whether this will be too little, too late, and whether the government will expand the plan to other struggling debtors that borrowed large dollar sums in the second half of the year — on July 2, for instance.
Also, the interest on the loans will remain at the high market rate of nearly 16.76 percent, even if the original loans were secured at a lower rate. Whether the most troubled debtors will be able to make these payments remains an unknown.
A political activist recently jailed on charges of inciting ethnic strife has been released pending appeal after issuing a grovelling public recantation for his purported offense.
Serikzhan Mambetalin was freed on January 31 after serving just over a week of his two-year sentence.
“I am at home… How happy I am!” he wrote on his Facebook page on February 1.
Mambetalin’s Facebook page was regularly updated, presumably by his supporters, throughout his trial and incarceration, which began in October.
A court ordered Mambetalin’s release until the appeal is heard, but the activist has been made to sign a written undertaking not to leave his hometown, Almaty.
Mambetalin’s release came after he posted a contrite statement of repentance on his Facebook page on January 29 — a week after he was jailed along with another political activist, Yermek Narymbayev, who remains behind bars.
“The investigation gathered exhaustive evidence of my guilt,” the statement said. “Therefore I fully admit my guilt over the proof presented to me and actively repent.”
Mambetalin has changed his tune since his trial, when he strenuously denied any guilt and denounced the trial — which was condemned by international human rights watchdogs — as a “political order” motivated by his activism and his opposition to President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Kazakhstan’s ruling Nur Otan party is set to be challenged by at least one opposition force at the snap March 20 parliamentary elections, but prospects the competition will be fair should be discounted at the outset.
The All-National Social Democratic Party (OSDP) decided at a congress on January 30 that it will field 27 candidates on the party list. Names include long-familiar habitués of Kazakhstan’s beleaguered opposition movement, such as OSDP leader Zharmakhan Tuyakbay, economist Petr Svoik, activist and former senator Zauresh Battalova and veteran opposition politician Ualikhan Kaisarov.
Fresh faces were few and far between, suggesting that the only-semi-cooperative opposition has struggled to capture the imagination of a new generation.
Tuyukbai was sober about his party’s electoral prospects and suggested that the results have already been determined.
“To talk about real percentages is a thankless task, because nobody knows what the real percentages are, and how many votes each participating party will receive. Nobody counts these votes. Today, the questions of distribution are in the main decided with pencil in hand by high-ranking officials,” Tuyukbai said in remarks quoted by Informburo.kz.
Instead, OSDP’s election campaign should be devoted to raising the alarm about the economic, political and social crisis gripping the country, Tuyukbai said, in the evident belief that the authorities are oblivious to all these factors.
The OSDP is right to be pessimistic about any chances it will be allowed a look-in.