Exiled Turkmen activists have noted a strange detour during President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s return from New York this week, prompting speculation that he might be unwell.
The Chronicles of Turkmenistan website said a keen-eyed reader scouring planespotter resource FlightRadar24 noted that Berdymukhamedov’s plane had stopped off in Munich, Germany, on September 26 instead of heading straight to Ashgabat.
That was enough to prompt opposition site Gundogar.org to speculate that the president had stopped off for medical consultations precipitated by a health scare.
According to his official schedule, Berdymukhamedov was due to travel on September 24-27 to take part in the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly.
As it happens, Berdymukhamedov’s speech before the General Assembly included a passage on health and on the need to promote healthy lifestyles.
The plot thickened further when BBC Monitoring, a service that closely watches media output across Central Asia, noted that state television station Altyn Asyr failed to report on the president’s regular Monday government meeting this week.
“Instead, its flagship evening news bulletin carried a report recapping the main events of last week,” BBC Monitoring said in a report summing up news from September 28.
That Berdymukhamedov is in poor health is always possible, although state media tirelessly rams home the message that the president is a superior sporting specimen.
The Munich connection is an intriguing one, however.
A report aired after a live prime-time election debate in Kyrgyzstan on the evening of September 26 is sparking suspicions the state broadcaster is trying to influence the outcome of the vote.
The apparent hatchet job of rivals to President Almazbek Atambayev’s Social Democratic Party (SDPK) bears hallmarks of the “administrative resources” used by semi-democratic systems in the post-Soviet world to give incumbents an unfair advantage.
SDPK is already widely expected to win the largest share of the ballot in the October 4 contest to pick the 120 members of the Jogorku Kenesh.
Under Kyrgyzstan’s first and second presidents, Askar Akayev and Kurmanbek Bakiyev, KTRK (Kyrgyz Teleradio Company) was regularly used to help enhance the ruling party’s performance. While more voters are now reliant on the Internet for their news, television remains the country’s most powerful resource.
All this was supposed to have changed in 2010, when the interim government passed a decree transforming KTRK into a public broadcaster with its own supervisory board.
But what followed an otherwise stimulating weekend debate — between the leaders Ata-Meken, Butun-Kyrgyzstan-Emgek and Onuguu-Progress parties; Omurbek Tekebayev, Adahan Madumarov and Bakyt Torobaev, respectively — was strongly reminiscent of the bad old days.
The short news item, entitled “How Much Is Your Vote Worth?,” saw KTRK journalists canvass various experts and members of the public about the risk of candidates buying votes.
The primary targets for criticism were Ata-Meken, Bir Bol and Respublika-Ata-Jurt — all parties believed to have good prospects of entering parliament and potentially robbing SDPK of a flat-out majority.
In providing updates to its would-be insurgency and smears of the opposition almost daily, Tajikistan’s government has succeeded mostly in undermining its own credibility.
A dispatch circulated by Khovar state news agency on September 26 reaches new heights of implausibility. The story contends that the alleged renegade deputy defense minister Abduhalim Nazarzoda had plotted his uprising since 2010 in collusion with the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT).
From 2005 onward, Nazarzoda occupied numerous high-ranking positions in the security establishment. Between then and 2007, he served as first deputy commander of the ground forces, and from 2007 to 2014, he headed the Defense Ministry’s military security services. His elevation to deputy defense minister came in January 2014.
Allegations that plotting should have been happening for so long at the highest level is at best an astonishing admission of incompetence by Tajikistan’s security structures. Alternatively, Dushanbe is spinning a yarn in full confidence that nobody within the country, including all the diplomatic stations based there, will dare to question its narrative.
Some details in the latest account are recycled versions of earlier, barely credible, accusations, but there are some new aspects.
Khovar cites prosecutors as saying Nazarzoda teamed up with IRPT leader Mukhiddin Kabiri to create 20 organized crime groups comprising a total of 300 members, who were paid $100 or more each monthly with funds of unknown provenance.
In what will come as a surprise to nobody, a pre-election poll conducted in Kyrgyzstan by the International Republican Institute has revealed corruption to be near the top of a list of the country’s greatest perceived burdens.
The theme has been part of the background noise during campaigning season, which will culminate with a vote on October 4.
IRI’s poll revealed that 46 of respondents saw graft as the most important problem facing Kyrgyzstan. Corruption was sandwiched between the 59 percent that see unemployment as a pressing issue and the 35 percent concerned at rising prices.
Parties vying for ballots have sought in various ways to address these concerns, albeit in often less than specific details. That has not deterred voters, however, according to the IRI survey.
IRI said its research showed 77 percent of its 1,500 respondents declared their intent to participate in the election.
IRI’s Eurasia regional director Stephen Nix said in a statement accompanying the release of the survey that the poll results indicate a strong mandate to tackle graft.
"The parliamentary elections are a great opportunity for the Kyrgyz government to demonstrate its commitment to the fight against corruption,” Nix said.
So what are all the parties offering on corruption?
President Almazbek Atambayev’s Social Democratic Party (SDPK), which is expected to easily outpace its rivals, this past week unveiled its Taza Koom, or Clean Society, program, which it says will prevent the theft of 30 billion Som ($434 million).
Kazakhstan’s diplomatic balancing act over the conflict in Ukraine has been upset by a fresh row about the status of the Russia-annexed Crimean Peninsula.
Ukraine’s embassy in Astana on September 25 addressed a note of protest to Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry over school textbooks that show Crimea — which most of the international community, including Kazakhstan, recognizes as part of Ukraine — as belonging to Russia.
The information in the textbooks “contradicts the position of the international community and the leadership of the Republic of Kazakhstan, which has more than once stated its support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity,” the embassy said in its statement.
Only a handful of countries, including North Korea, Cuba, Syria and Venezuela, have recognized Crimea as part of Russia. Other members of the international community — even usually staunch Moscow allies, like Belarus — insist the territory should be handed back to Ukraine.
Kiev has asked Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry and Education and Science Ministry to work toward “the immediate recall of these textbooks from secondary schools,” the embassy statement said. No response was immediately forthcoming.
The Ukrainian embassy’s contacts with Mektep, the publishing house that put out the offending textbooks, “testified that, unfortunately, a certain part of Kazakhstani society is deeply infected by Russian propaganda,” the statement said.
It urged action to boost Kazakhstan’s information security by restricting broadcasting of Russian television channels, which are beamed into homes all across Kazakhstan and play a large public opinion-forming role.
An influential Russian media figure best known for his calls to burn and bury the heart of gay people killed in accidents has visited Kyrgyzstan with calls for the two countries to sync their approach to spreading information.
Dmitry Kiselyov, head of the Rossiya Segodnya state media holding, has in his position as a prominent television personality cast himself as a bulwark for conservative values against the would-be pernicious influence of the degenerate West.
That and other subjects were on the agenda at a September 22 discussion in Bishkek with the uninspired title: “Informational cooperation between Russia and Kyrgyzstan in the framework of Eurasian integration.”
Reprising a favorite theme, Kiselyov explained how a Eurasian media system might distinguish itself from the West.
“The difference between journalism in the post-Soviet space and the West is that we produce, we don’t reproduce,” he said, nebulously and without elaboration.
Kiselyov dismissed the propagandist label that accompanies his name in most Western news reports.
“I am a journalist, I cover [events] and draw conclusions,” he said.
All Kiselyov’s major talking points at the discussion were Kremlin favorites: the single-sex marriages and double standards of the West, the sins of the Ukrainian government and Russia’s brave struggle for a multipolar world.
The talk was also a promotional push for the five-member Eurasian Economic Union, which Kyrgyzstan joined last month.
After highlighting the perils awaiting nations — such as Ukraine — that “follow the paths of others”, Kiselyov, sanctioned by the West following Russia’s annexation of Ukraine, debated Kyrgyzstan’s own “choice”:
The downward trajectory of Kazakhstan’s national currency since last month has caused economic pain all around, but the free-float engineered by the country’s financial authorities was intended to benefit at least one group: exporters.
Not so, says Moody’s Investors Service.
“Any positive revenue effects for exporters from depreciation will be offset by the revaluation of debt and higher expenses, owing to exporters’ significant share of expenses pegged to foreign currency and cost inflation,” Moody’s vice president Denis Perevezentsev said in a briefing note on September 21.
Importers will take the biggest hit from the devaluation of the tenge, which has lost 50 percent of its value since mid-August, Perevezentsev said.
“Import-oriented businesses, such as food and non-food wholesalers and retailers, will suffer the most and we expect that these companies will find it difficult to quickly pass price increases on to their customers without incurring a possible reduction in demand,” he said.
This echoes what retailers are saying on the ground in Kazakhstan, where they are fretting over the rocketing costs of the goods they import, which they doubt they can pass on to customers.
A rise in inflation as a result of a weaker tenge will also end up “eroding the upside for companies that stand to benefit from a reduction in their cost bases while lower real incomes and higher prices for imported goods will result in reduced demand,” Moody’s said.
There is going to be a lot of broken hearts in Kazakhstan as the starlet of the volleyball scene, Sabina Altynbekova, is set to fly the nest and ply her trade in Japan, Kazinform reports.
In all the media clamor surrounding Sabina Altynbekova, it is sometimes difficult to remember that is was volleyball that first thrust her into the spotlight. Now the 18-year-old poster girl of Kazakhstani sport is to play for GSS Sunbeams of the V.Challenge Ligue, the second tier of pro volleyball in Japan.
Altynbekova rose to prominence last year while representing Kazakhstan at the Asian Under-19 Championships in Taiwan. Local media went crazy for her looks, likening her to a character from anime, the Japanese take on animation that is hugely popular across Southeast Asia.
The media interest sparked a social networking frenzy across the region. YouTube videos of Altynbekova went viral and she inspired numerous Facebook groups. Her Instagram account boasts nearly 500,000 followers.
Such is her fame in Kazakhstan, and Asia in general, that she was wheeled out as part of Almaty’s bid to win the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, at the end of July. But her good looks were not enough to sway the delegates as Almaty narrowly lost out to Beijing in the race.
On September 16, Lord Desai stood up in the British House of Lords and proposed what he acknowledged to be a “utopian” solution to a burgeoning crisis that has challenged EU cohesion: Brussels should work via the United Nations to develop and fund a plan to resettle refugees from Syria and other Middle Eastern states in Central Asia.
“There are sparsely populated countries in Central Asia – Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Mongolia and so on. There, [in Central Asia] population density is one-hundredth of the population density in Europe,” Lord Desai said. “I would like the United Nations to arrange a transfer of as many migrants and refugees as possible, with the cooperation of those countries, to settle in those countries.”
Lord Desai cited supposed cultural similarities as a reason why Central Asian states might be receptive to accepting refugees from the Middle East. “These are Muslim countries,” he said, referring to Central Asian states. “They are co-religionists.”
Lord Desai’s proposal betrays a bewildering lack of knowledge about the countries to which he would dispatch those hoping to escape either the tyranny of Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime or radical Islamic terror. Some Central Asian states, particularly Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, are every bit as repressive as Syria. Turkmen leader Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, for example, is focused on locking his country down, not opening it up to newcomers.
When an irate mother posted shocking pictures of a dilapidated children’s hospital in Almaty on her Facebook page, she no doubt hoped the authorities would act — but she probably did not expect such a fast result.
The pictures posted by Ainura Seitakyn showing grimy toilet facilities and a dismal-looking ward with peeling paintwork and cracked tiles caused a social media outcry. The furore got Almaty’s new mayor, Baurzhan Baybek, out from behind his desk to take a non-virtual look at conditions at the Almaty Children’s City Clinical Infection Hospital.
Hospital staff spruced the place up with a lick of paint before he arrived — but Baybek was not fooled. After the grim-faced mayor visited the hospital on September 17, the head of the chief doctor and two senior healthcare staff rolled, Almatynews.kz website reported.
“You’re sitting in here, it’s alright for you. So you don’t care what it’s like over there for others,” said an angry Baybek, presumably referring to the somewhat more luxurious office of the chief doctor, which was also pictured in Seitakyn’s photos. “Would you place your children here in these conditions?”
Baybek’s hands-on approach won plaudits from a public unaccustomed to top officials delving into the nitty-gritty of their problems and reacting so fast to solve them.
His actions suggest that the 42-year-old mayor, an up-and-coming politician who only came to office a month ago, has a keener sense of the public mood than his older-generation predecessor, Akhmetzhan Yesimov.