“What is Putin’s favorite female name?” roars the announcer of a Vladimir Putin-themed quiz at the opening of Putin Pub in Bishkek on Saturday October 11. “Alina!” the crowd chants back in unison, referring to the former Olympic gymnast, Alina Kabaeva, long rumored to be the Russian president’s lover. “Not Lyudmila?” the announcer goads, name-checking Putin’s ex-wife. “No way!” comes the decisive reply.
Aside from the quiz, ubiquitous Putin paraphernalia, and alcoholic drinks named after both Kabaeva and Putin’s political patron-turned-rival, the late Boris Berezovsky, the Putin Pub, located in a southern suburb of Bishkek, has a strangely familiar feel. The pub’s smart phone-wielding administrator, a stout man with a mane of black hair and a pencil-thin beard, seems to have been in charge of every newly opened Bishkek restaurant-pub in recent memory, for instance.
In a nod to the stealth military operation that laid the foundations for Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, wait staff wear the word “#вежливыелюди” (Polite People) stenciled on the reverse of their uniforms. Thankfully these waiters are far more communicative than the unexplained army types who mysteriously surfaced on the Crimean Peninsula in February before calls for a referendum to join Russia. But bringing the onion rings while they’re still warm seems to be a challenge, as it is for waiters in almost every Bishkek gastro-pub.
A band of treacherous radicals will swoop into Tajikistan’s capital and seize power tomorrow at 3 p.m.—at least that’s what senior government officials seem to fear. To thwart their nefarious plans, prosecutors are visiting schools, telling children to avoid provocations; someone in government has shut down a bunch of Internet sites; and with a straight face the nation’s highest court has branded the hazy, little-known Facebook group terrorists.
Last weekend, Group 24, as the proto-opposition movement is known, called on Facebook for supporters to gather in one of Dushanbe’s main squares on October 10 and demand free elections and an end to the rule of long-serving strongman Emomali Rakhmon. Within hours, dozens or possibly hundreds of websites including Facebook and YouTube became inaccessible. Authorities would not say why. Instead, riot police closed off a large patch of Dushanbe, the capital, and, in a rare show of police strength, dispersed a mob – actors they’d brought in for the occasion, as it later turned out.
On October 8, the Interior Ministry deployed armored personnel carriers at entrances to the city. Ministry officials say the troop movements – which are anything but routine – are related to the president’s trip to a CIS Summit in Belarus.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev is in Brussels putting the finishing touches to a landmark agreement with the European Union, cementing ties with Europe even as Astana pushes ahead to join the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union.
Nazarbayev met Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, on October 9, to “confirm the conclusion of negotiations” on the Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, the EU said.
The agreement – three years in the making – aims to boost cooperation in around 30 policy areas including trade and foreign and security policy, it said, and will “significantly deepen political and economic ties” between Kazakhstan and the EU (Astana’s largest trade partner and a major consumer of its energy exports).
The agreement is a far weaker deal than the Association Agreement signed by Ukraine this year, but is still the most ambitious deal to be concluded between the EU and any Central Asian state.
It “puts a strong emphasis on democracy and the rule of law, human rights and fundamental freedoms,” the EU stated, although it failed to specify how.
The visit was marred by news that France is investigating possible kickbacks involving a helicopter deal with Kazakhstan, and probing allegations that Nazarbayev put indirect pressure on Brussels to close a bribery case against Kazakhstani oligarchs.
There was also controversy over Kazakhstan’s human rights record.
French investigators are probing suspected kickbacks paid over a lucrative helicopter deal with Kazakhstan, Le Monde has revealed.
The report emerged the day before President Nursultan Nazarbayev heads to Brussels to cement Kazakhstan-European Union ties. Embarrassingly, it alleges the Kazakh president used a €2 billion contract with Marseille-based Eurocopter (since renamed Airbus Helicopter) to pressure Belgium to drop bribery charges against three Kazakhstani oligarchs.
The investigation into the Eurocopter deal (signed in 2010 when Nazarbayev was welcomed to France by Nicolas Sarkozy, then French president) on suspicion of money-laundering, corrupting public officials and receiving stolen goods began in 2012 and has been conducted in the utmost secrecy, Le Monde reported.
Last month two former Sarkozy associates who held top jobs in his administration were arrested on suspicion of involvement in paying kickbacks over the contract, the newspaper said, naming them as Jean-Francois Etienne des Rosaies, a former adviser to Sarkozy, and Nathalie Gonzalez-Prado, a former senior official at the Elysee palace.
The probe was sparked by the appearance of “suspicious funds” (more than €300,000) in the account of Etienne des Rosaies, the report said, adding that two unnamed “intermediaries” and a lawyer had been indicted.
Sarkozy is also “suspected of having put pressure in 2011 on the Belgian Senate,” at Nazarbayev’s request, over a bribery and money-laundering probe involving three Kazakhstani oligarchs as a condition for the helicopter deal going ahead, Le Monde claimed. The report did not name the oligarchs.
Tajikistan has coupled one of its habitual Internet blocking sprees with an alarming show of police strength in central Dushanbe. The two cautious moves together appear designed to persuade a cowed population that heeding online calls for revolution is a bad idea.
Losing access to several websites simultaneously – typically social media and news sites – has become a regular fact of life for Internet users in Tajikistan. The latest filtering, which the government has denied imposing and Internet Service Providers have refused to admit on record, is unusual only in that Amazon.com, rarely cited as an agent of revolution, has been included on the blacklist. Northern Sughd Oblast, home to Tajikistan’s second-largest city, Khujand, has been almost completely offline since October 4.
Truth is no longer something expected from the government’s hated telecoms regulator, which consistently denies it blocks websites. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have a strong incentive to follow suit by attributing the bans to “technical problems,” or face the possibility of losing their licenses. But one provider speaking anonymously to Russian news agency Interfax was reported as saying October 6: "We have received an order from the communications service [to block] a list of websites: Facebook, vk.com, lenta.ru, youtube.com, mk.ru, amazon.com, ru.wikipedia.org and dozens of web anonymizers that allow bypassing these blockings."
With elections to Kyrgyzstan’s ever-volatile parliament just a year away, it is an uneasy time to be a private businessman in the Central Asian country. According to managers at one of the country’s most popular media outlets, the pre-election shakedown has begun.
As politicians prepare for the 2015 ballot, the competition over votes and the resources necessary to secure them is expected to be intense. One way of fundraising is to turn to the time-honored tradition of corporate raids – raiderstvo in Russian – at key moments in the political calendar. Now Vechernii Bishkek, a profitable media outlet whose Russian-language newspaper has a weekly circulation of over 50,000 copies, is claiming that it has fallen victim to a raid from “people close to President [Almazbek] Atambayev.”
Vechernii Bishkek’s ownership structure is complicated. In 2000, the paper – and, significantly, its wholly owned print house – fell into the hands of Adil Toygonbaev, the son-in-law of then-President Askar Akayev. Toygonbaev secured a 50-percent stake in the holding company from one of its two owners before reportedly expropriating it entirely in a move that simultaneously relieved his family’s regime of the paper’s critical reporting and added the country's best-selling Russian-language newspaper to the family's list of assets.
At PEN International there is a tradition: During the organization’s general assemblies, empty chairs are left prominently vacant as a reminder of imprisoned writers and journalists around the world.
This year, for the free expression watchdog’s 80th anniversary – marked this week in Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek – three empty chairs reminded the assembly of three Central Asian men imprisoned for their writings and activism: Azimjon Askarov from Kyrgyzstan, Ilham Tohti from China and Vladimir Kozlov from Kazakhstan.
PEN President John Ralston Saul noted that Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev extended a personal invitation to the organization. During a private meeting, Atambayev himself raised the case of Askarov, an Uzbek journalist and rights activist serving a life sentence for complicity in murder and other crimes connected to the June 2010 ethnic violence. Human rights groups have pointed to glaring irregularities during his trial and say Askarov was framed to stop him from documenting police abuse. While PEN and the president “disagreed” over the continuing imprisonment of Askarov, the fact that the president invited PEN to discuss the issue with him was itself “significant,” Saul said.
Kazakhstan's chances of hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics took a turn for the better this week as Norway announced it was withdrawing Oslo's bid, leaving only Almaty and Beijing interested in hosting the expensive extravaganza.
Norway pulled out of the race on October 1 citing a lack of public support for the costly venture. This year's Sochi Winter Olympics, in Russia, came in way over budget at $51 billion. The fear of ballooning costs has seen the number of contenders to host the 2022 Games dwindle from six to just two.
With Kazakhstan's economy under pressure from the downturn in close partner Russia, the country’s Olympic Committee will need to carefully watch its budget. So far, Kazakh officials are confident they can keep costs for the Almaty bid down as the city already has much infrastructure required for the Games. It has facilities built for the 2011 Asian Winter Games and is currently splashing out $1 billion on amenities for the 2017 Winter Universiade, which brings together student athletes from around the world.
Kazakh officials see the hosting of high-profile events like the Winter Olympics as great PR. “As government officials we are working hard to attract investments and being in a country recognized all over the world is very good for attracting investments,” Kairat Kelimbetov, chairman of Kazakhstan's National Bank, told TengriNews in August.
Tajikistan’s state-appointed chief mufti has warned that cooperating with journalists or others who intend to “destabilize” the country, or criticizing the authoritarian government to such people, constitutes a “grave sin,” local media report.
The fatwa, according to AFP, includes any “criticism of the ruling powers.” "Criticism undermines trust in the authorities," warned Mufti Saidmukarram Abdulkodirzoda at Friday prayers in Dushanbe.
Abdulkodirzoda did not specify how Muslims are to identify the potentially perfidious reporters, or if they should avoid speaking with the media altogether, but journalists such as prominent editor Marat Mamadshoev said the fatwa is just the latest attack on their rights in the officially secular country.
Lawyer and opposition activist Rahmatillo Zoirov told Radio Ozodi that the fatwa would undermine laws on the freedom of the press (which officials often ignore) and that the clergy “has no right to interfere in the affairs of state.”
Moderate Muslims, including the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party, have also denounced the injunction, according to AFP.
It is not unusual, of course, for a leader to use his people's faith to enforce fealty. In Russia, where Tajik leaders look for inspiration, the Orthodox Church has become the moral mouthpiece for Vladimir Putin’s reign.
From the EBRD report: “The chart shows that Belarus, Armenia and Tajikistan (the latter predominantly through remittance flows) have the highest overall economic exposure to Russia. Such exposures are also significant for the Kyrgyz Republic, Moldova and Ukraine.”
As Russia’s economy goes, Central Asia’s follows. So it is no surprise that the current downward drift in Russia will hurt the region, potentially for years to come. Remittance-dependent countries like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan should be especially worried, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, a multilateral lender, says in a new report.
In its September regional assessment, the EBRD forecasts growth in Russia will come to a “standstill” in the coming months. Already pronounced, Russia’s economic slump is being exacerbated by the war in Ukraine and Western sanctions. The EBRD said Central Asia, and formerly communist countries more broadly, can expect “significant spill-over effects.”
New sanctions by the EU and U.S., which will dampen growth in Russia, “will negatively affect growth in the Central Asian countries.”
As in 2009, during the financial crisis, migrants and their dependents back home will be the first to feel the pain. Remittances from Russia to Central Asia fell in the first quarter of 2014 compared with the previous year, “for the first time since 2009, primarily due to the slowdown in Russia,” the EBRD said. “Particularly vulnerable are [the] Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan, where even a small drop in remittances from Russia is substantive, as remittances make up 29 percent and 49 percent of GDP respectively.”
A fall in remittances “may significantly dampen consumer demand in lower-income countries in the region.”