Good news for the endangered saiga antelope in Kazakhstan: Numbers have almost doubled over the past two years to hit 187,000, the environment minister reports.
That means that numbers of this unusual-looking antelope, with its distinctive long, humped nose that allows it to filter air during the dusty summer months and breathe warm air during the freezing winters, have risen by over a third since last June, when the Ministry for Environmental Protection estimated the tally at 137,000, and almost doubled since 2011, when numbers rose above the symbolic 100,000 mark.
The latest figures indicate that the population of the saiga, which is listed as critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List, is starting to recover, although numbers still stand at less than a fifth of Kazakhstan’s million-strong population of the 1970s. The government has set a target to bring the population up to half a million by 2025.
Four days after the mysterious, violent deaths of 11 men near Kyrgyzstan’s border with China, key questions remain unanswered – like why none of the men, whom Kyrgyz officials suspect of decapitating a local hunter and plotting terrorism, could be taken alive. In a country where conspiracy theories flourish and distrust of authorities abounds, many Kyrgyz, including some lawmakers, seem to doubt official explanations.
"There's a lot that's not clear. There are no witnesses. We don't know whom to believe. Some people say one thing, others say something completely different,” Kyrgyz lawmaker Nurlan Torbekov, an Afghan war vet, was quoted as saying by Kloop.kg on January 27.
Kyrgyzstan’s State Border Service says the men, tentatively identified as ethnic Uighurs, crossed over from China’s Xinjiang Province and were carrying belongings that indicate they harbored “extremist” views – prayer rugs, a Koran, knives, masks, a compass, and more.
The group, described initially as “armed,” had one gun. They had stolen it from the Kyrgyz hunter, Alexander Barykin, whom they allegedly killed early on January 23 about 40 kilometers inside Kyrgyz territory after he killed two of them. Later that day, the remaining nine suspects in Barykin’s murder were “liquidated” by border troops, the only witnesses.
Officials in Kyrgyzstan have expressed alarm in recent weeks over blood shortages in hospitals. The problem has become so acute that parliamentarians are discussing new laws to encourage citizens to donate. But, as I experienced recently, there are some basic reasons people are unwilling to give blood, and they cannot be addressed by legislation.
On January 22, parliament began considering a bill that would encourage military personnel to donate by giving them an extra day off.
But, even if I were given such an incentive, I would think twice before visiting the aggressive and offensive people running our nation’s Republican Blood Center, which is managed by the Ministry of Health.
In late December, an appeal was circulating on a popular local social network: a two-year-old boy was very sick and needed blood. The next morning my friend and I visited the Republican Blood Center, eager to help.
After answering a few questions about my health in a written questionnaire, I was called to speak to a middle-aged woman at the reception desk. “What did you eat over the last three days?” she asked through a small window in a glass wall. I answered that, to be honest, I couldn’t really remember. “Who are you? A princess?” she yelled. “Quickly, tell me what you ate and don’t waste my time!”
Rude service is nothing new in Kyrgyz government agencies, but next the woman said something that all but guaranteed any young woman in this conservative country would not return to the Blood Center.
Officials in Kyrgyzstan say they have killed 11 unidentified attackers in a remote mountain valley near China, sparking a storm of speculation but providing very little concrete information about what happened or how.
The State Border Service said in a statement that the members of a “criminal gang” had been killed while putting up resistance on January 23 at an isolated frontier post, some 40 kilometers from the Chinese border, after they had killed a hunter and used his gun against border troops.
It’s unclear what the alleged attackers, nationality unknown, were doing running around in the dead of winter in a remote region where mountain valleys average above 3,500 meters (11,500 feet), but Kyrgyz media, officials and talking heads were happy to spend the day speculating, pontificating, and criticizing the bizarre situation.
Governor Emil Kaptagaev of Issyk-Kul Province, where the incident took place, started the guesswork off provocatively when he suggested the group could be Uighur militants from China. (No stranger to drama, Kaptagaev made headlines last autumn when he was kidnapped and doused with petrol by match-wielding constituents demanding the nationalization of a Canadian-run gold mine not far from Thursday’s shootout.)
A man in northern Kazakhstan who was the victim of police torture has won a seven-year legal battle for damages, after a court upheld a ruling that he is entitled to financial compensation for his injuries.
The ruling was handed down by an appeals court in Kostanay on January 23, local newspaper Nasha Gazeta reported. Police must now pay some $13,000 in compensation to 44-year-old Aleksandr Gerasimov for injuries they inflicted by beating him up and suffocating him with a plastic bag in police detention to extract a confession in 2007. Gerasimov was arrested after going to a police precinct looking for his stepson, who had been rounded up during a murder investigation.
The court upheld a lower court ruling issued in November which came after Gerasimov, supported by the Open Society Justice Initiative and the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law, won his case at the UN Committee Against Torture in 2012, the first ever brought from Central Asia. [Editor’s note: The Open Society Justice Initiative and EurasiaNet.org are separate entities operating under the auspices of the Open Society Foundations.]
“This ruling is an important step in redressing unjust actions from which victims of the most terrible violations of human rights such as torture continue to suffer,” Roza Akylbekova, director of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law, said in remarks quoted by Nasha Gazeta.
Kazakhstan’s parliament was the scene of heated debates about bride kidnapping on January 23. One outraged lawmaker urged the death penalty for the crime; another vehemently defended the abduction and forced marriage of young women as a national tradition.
“For kidnapping a person for one hour, for a minute, for a whole life – there should be [execution by] shooting,” MP Kamal Burkhanov told parliament as it discussed a new draft of the Criminal Code.
“The main thing here is the infringement of basic human rights -- the kidnapping of a person and their detention,” Burkhanov said in remarks quoted by Tengri News. “It doesn’t matter to what end – for exploitation, for violence, for marriage, for something else. A basic human right has been infringed, and for this the toughest punishment should be introduced.”
Another male parliamentarian, Kairbek Suleymenov, pointedly disagreed, defending the practice as “our national tradition.” (National traditions are a mantra for Suleymenov, who last year urged “mechanisms” against gay marriage – which does not exist in Kazakhstan – as “alien to Kazakhstani psychology” and “traditions.”)
Suleymenov said he was not “justifying” bride kidnapping but claimed, without citing a source, that 90 percent of kidnapped women wish to be abducted.
Kazakhstan’s famous alpine skating rink outside Almaty turned into a love-fest for President Nursultan Nazarbayev this weekend, as skaters were bombarded with pearls of wisdom from his recent state-of-the-nation address.
Hundreds of students from Almaty universities were bussed up to the Medeu complex on January 18 amid an attempt to break the world record for mass alpine skating, with at least 500 people gathering on the ice in the presence of an official from Guinness World Records, the body which will assess the record-breaking bid.
But the event was soon hijacked to remind the young people whom they have to thank for all their fun – Nazarbayev, who goes by the title of Leader of the Nation. The giant screen that usually plays pop videos as skaters circle the ice was given over to excerpts from his state-of-the-nation address, which was delivered on January 17 and contained the usual dry statements about improving the economy and boosting social well-being.
Critics have long claimed that 73-year-old Nazarbayev – who, in power for over two decades, is one of the world’s longest serving rulers – is the subject of a thriving cult of personality in Kazakhstan, where he brooks no opposition to his autocratic rule but also enjoys genuine public popularity for bringing stability and relative economic prosperity.
Nearly a week after a border shootout between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, Dushanbe admitted firing mortars, raising the specter of further militarization along the disputed frontier. And conflicting stories about exactly what happened have developed into a heated diplomatic row with the potential to do long-lasting damage to once-decent ties.
On January 17, six days after the violence, a Tajik official finally commented on allegations that his troops had fired mortar rounds at Kyrgyz border guards. Yes, Tajikistan did, said Major-General Sharaf Faizullayev, first deputy commander of Tajikistan’s border troops. But the outnumbered Tajiks used mortars only to protect themselves after first being fired upon by Kyrgyz sharpshooters and without the intention to hurt anyone, he said.
"Given the numerical superiority of the Kyrgyz border guards and the intensity of their fire, a decision was made to use a small-caliber mortar to curb [the Kyrgyz’s] fire with the aim of evacuating the wounded," Faizullayev said in comments carried by Dushanbe’s Asia-Plus news agency. He added that the fighting occurred on Tajik territory.
Thousands of supporters of southern strongman Melisbek Myrzakmatov rallied in Kyrgyzstan’s second-largest city, Osh, on January 15 to protest his defeat in mayoral elections.
A controversial figure who has long opposed central authorities in far-off Bishkek, Myrzakmatov was fired last month after appearing to support an anti-government protest.
Over the following weeks, Myrzakmatov somehow lost his support in the Osh city legislature, which voted 25-19 against the former mayor. He alleges the vote was rigged and says his backers were intimidated. Supporters and opponents alike believe the central government engineered his removal.
Kazakhstan’s parliament is to discuss the possibility of introducing legal sanctions against “lesbianism,” a member of the lower house revealed on January 14 in remarks that will alarm Kazakhstan’s low-profile lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community.
Parliamentarians are to raise the question of “bringing to book” for “lesbianism and other aspects of the sexual and gender sphere,” deputy Nurlan Abdirov told a session of the lower house’s legal affairs committee in vaguely worded remarks quoted by Tengri News. Deputies plan to hold “special themed sessions and round tables” on the topic, he said, without offering further details.
So far no bill has been drawn up and the type of discussions Abdirov is proposing would not carry legal force. Nevertheless, the remarks are alarming for the embattled LGBT community, which was shaken by a spate of homophobic outbursts in parliament last year.
MP Kairbek Suleymenov was the first to speak out, demanding “mechanisms” to counteract gay marriage as “alien” to national traditions, in response to a symbolic lesbian wedding held last April in Karaganda. But no legal mechanism for gay marriage exists or is planned in Kazakhstan.