Civil society in Kyrgyzstan has begun a counter-offensive against proposed tinkering to the constitution that critics of the amendments suspect constitutes a move to consolidate the power of the current ruling elite.
The Committee for Civic Control, a coalition 70 nongovernment groups, issued a passionate statement on August 24 urging President Almazbek Atambayev to avoid an attempt to make the same mistakes as his two deposed predecessors, Askar Akayev and Kurmanbek Bakiyev.
Talk of constitutional reform have been in the air from some time, despite provisions incorporated in 2010 in the last adopted constitution that prohibited any changes before 2020. Atambayev himself spoke for the need to change the basic law as prerequisite for improvements to the justice system.
But the Committee for Civic Control argued that any constitutional amendments would be the thin end of the edge.
“The entire history of independent Kyrgyzstan shows the negative experiences of any changes to the constitution that have been initiated from above. These have always led only to the usurpation of power by those who proposed the changes,” the committee said in a statement.
There are many proposed changes, but the most significant involve a recasting of the state’s obligations toward upholding human rights and enhancing the office of the prime minister.
The language on rights issues signals a marked lurch toward nationalist conservatism
Local authorities in Kazakhstan’s business capital, Almaty, have begun demolition work on a building used to host press conferences for political activists and independent journalists.
The building was also home to KazTAG, a news agency run by two prominent media figures — father and son, Seytkazy and Aset Matayev — facing trial on charges of defrauding the state of nearly $1 million.
The official reason given for the demolition of the National Press Center is that the 300-square meter, two-story building does not correspond to earthquake standards and is therefore illegal.
The Matayevs are currently facing trial in the capital, Astana. Prosecutors have ruled out any link between the trial and the fate of the building, which is situated on a valuable piece of real estate in central Almaty. Media observers and rights activists are a little more skeptical, however, suggesting that the Matayevs have fallen victim to a crude attempt at a property grab.
Tamara Kaleyeva, head of the Adil Soz press advocacy group, told Channel 31 that she believes the charges of fraud against Matayevs are without foundation and that the situation surrounding the National Press Center headquarters can hardly be considered a coincidence.
Representatives of the National Press Center have said a second story was added to their building 10 years with all the necessary permits from the city administration. Despite that, in February, just as the charges were being level at the Matayevs, a note was delivered to the center declaring the building unfit. Appeals to reverse that decision were rejected.
Police from Uzbekistan have detained four citizens of Kyrgyzstan in a contested border zone, threatening to unleash a new wave of tension between the two nations.
Kyrgyzstan’s border service said on August 24 that Uzbekistan deployed a group of police officers to the disputed Ungar-Too mountain, site of a Kyrgyz-run television relay station, and took four men into custody.
The mountain and surrounding areas were object of a testy standoff in March that culminated with Uzbekistan deploying several armored personnel carriers. The situation was resolved peaceably after negotiations.
RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz service reported about an Mi-8 helicopter carrying seven Uzbek policemen landing on Ungar-Too on August 22, but news of the detentions only emerged later.
“According to Uzbek side, four Kyrgyz citizens working at relay station were taken to Yangikurgan police department in Uzbekistan for procedural measures. According to the Uzbek border service, there is no cause for concern about the detained Kyrgyz citizens,” Kyrgyzstan’s border service said in its statement.
As happened earlier this year, this dispute is centering around disagreement over which country can post which law enforcement and military personnel where. Kyrgyzstan says it is in talks with Uzbekistan to have it remove its forces from the disputed mountain. Uzbekistan is in turn demanding that Kyrgyzstan in turn remove its police checkpoints leading to another disputed facility — the Kasan-Sai reservoir, whose water is used to irrigate fields in Uzbekistan.
This latest standoff has been brewing for almost two weeks. Kyrgyz border guards had earlier reported that Uzbek policeman was detained after allegedly illegally crossing the border on August 13.
Tajikistan’s hunt against the opposition took a grim turn this week with the disappearance of the wife and son of the jailed deputy leader of the banned Islamic Renaissance Party, or IRPT.
This reported development follows an article published on the IRPT website on August 18 alleging Mahmadali Hayit had been severely beaten in prison and was pleading to see his relatives.
“Hayit asked to see his lawyers or his family, but the request was rejected. Afterward, he asked for a paper and pencil to write a complaint, after which he was beaten by law enforcement personnel. As a result of the beatings, he has sustained broken arms and legs,” Payom.net reported.
On August 20, Hayit’s wife, Savrinisso Jurayeva announced that the Supreme Court had given clearance for her to meet her spouse for half an hour. Her initial comment was to calm fears about the alleged beatings.
“Everything is normal with him, he wasn’t beaten, he is walking normally, he smiled all the time. He reads all the time. The only pain is in his heart, because of the lack of freedom,” she said.
But the BBC’s Russian service reported on August 22, citing Hayit’s relatives, that a group of people barged its way into the house where Jurayeva lives with her 17-year son Firuz Hayit.
“Several people in civilian clothing used to force to get into Mahmadali Hayit’s apartment, ransacked the place, and then took away his wife and son. They told them that they were taking them away to a precinct of the State Committee for National Security (GKNB). They refused to introduce themselves or show their documents. Nobody knows now where [Hayit’s] wife and son are or what has happened to them,” one relative told the BBC Russian service.
Kazakhstan’s security services say they have detained members of an extremist organization plotting a series of terror attacks.
The National Security Committee, or KNB in its Russian initials, said in a statement on August 22 that that the four people captured in the Almaty region in a special operation were citizens of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. The operation took place on August 18.
The KNB said that they found components of improvised explosive devices and extremist religious material in the places where the group resided.
“The plan of the radicals to mount armed attacks on staff and places of deployment of KNB officers and police and on military bases have been neutralized. Their next stage was to be terrorist attacks on places where the public gather in large groups,” the KNB said.
The statement was typically perfunctory and similar in tone and detail to one in late June, when the KNB said it had intercepted a group in the central Karaganda region that it believed was also planning a series of terrorist strikes. Initial reports spoke of seven suspected plotters being arrested, but that figure was increased to eight in the first half of August.
And that is as much of a public update as has been provided, other than that the group is to be tried on terrorism and a variety of arms-related charges. The line is that in the interests of the investigation, no more details are being released.
This lack of transparency or even the slightest insight into what might be motivating would-be attackers is standard operating procedure for Kazakhstan’s security services.
Police in Tajikistan have taken to drawing up lists of women known to wear the hijab in a fresh measure to combat signs of what they perceive as excess Islamic piety.
Asia-Plus news last week cited the head of police in the northern city of Khujand, Emin Jalilov, as saying that raids have been mounted in markets with the aim of maintaining security and upholding national customs. That translates in practical terms to clamping down on any clothing deemed suggestive of radical Islamic beliefs.
“During raids we found that at 38 retail points in the city there were saleswomen wearing (veils),” Jalilov said.
Jalilov noted with regret that many bazaar directors are failing to clamp down on the phenomenon.
“At the moment, the city police has a list of 643 women that wear the hijab. Of those, 513 are residents of the city. These neighborhoods are under the close supervision of the police,” he said.
Authorities are always eager to stress that the threat is not hypothetical but real.
As Jalilov noted, 30 residents of Khujand have been detained on suspicion of associating with radical and terrorist Islamic groups so far this year. At least 245 members of the banned Hizb ut-Tahrir group and 226 followers of the Salafi movement have been recorded in Khujand, he said. Most of those have received criminal sentences of some kind.
These figures are of questionable value, however, given how arbitrarily police and courts assign membership status in underground groups to anybody they deem even mildly suspicious. True membership or affiliation figures may be much smaller, or for that matter, much greater.
Starting from August 1, internet service providers in Kazakhstan have reportedly massively hiked fees for online services to companies in neighbor and fellow Eurasian Economic Union member Kyrgyzstan.
Media in Kyrgyzstan are warning that internet users should expect their traffic bills to increase substantially in the future.
Kazakhstan is Kyrgyzstan’s only dependable, high-quality link to global online infrastructure, so any shift in the former’s market inevitably has a knock-on effect in the latter.
The Association of Communication Operators has called in a letter for the government to intervene by raising the issue at the Eurasian Economic Commission, the executive body of the EEU.
According to the letter, addressed to Prime Minister Oleg Pankratov, Kazakhstani operators, who they say have raised their tariffs by two- to threefold, are playing hardball. Any attempts by Kyrgyz to shop around for alternative providers will result in automatic cutoffs.
“Also, Kazakhstani operators are increasing transit prices for European and Russian operators which supply internet services to Kyrgyzstan,” the letter said.
Non-Kazakhstani-sourced internet dominates supply, accounting for 90 percent of the total in Kyrgyzstan.
Kyrgyzstan’s only medal winner thus far at the Rio Olympics, weightlifter Izzat Artykov, has been stripped of his bronze medal after testing positive for strychnine.
Artykov, who won bronze in the 69-kilogram category, became the first athlete to be excluded from these Olympics for doping after he tested positive for strychnine, a banned performance enhancer more commonly used to kill pesky rodents.
Strange though it may seem, strychnine has history in the Olympics. Way back in 1904, Thomas Hicks won the marathon after receiving a reviving mix of strychnine and egg whites washed down with a hefty measure of brandy after he started to falter on his way to the finish line. At the time, strychnine was in common use as a stimulant.
It’s not clear what reception Artykov will get on returning home, but he shouldn’t expect any sympathy from Kanat Amankulov, director of Kyrgyzstan’s State Agency for Youth, Physical Culture and Sport, who publicly upbraided wrestler Aisuluu Tynybekova after she narrowly missed out on a bronze medal.
In other Olympics news concerning Central Asia, Kazakhstani boxer Vasily Levit, who controversially lost out on a gold medal to Russia’s Evgeny Tischchenko, is to receive the reward for a gold medal finish from Astana — a cool $250,000.
No sooner had Kyrgyzstan’s parliament canceled deals with Russian companies to build two major hydropower plant in January, talk began of having to pay money back.
With more than six months having elapsed since that decision, Russia is now raising the issue anew, demanding the return of $37 million its companies sunk into the projects, RFE/RL has reported.
The deal agreed between Kyrgyzstan and Russia on construction of the Upper Naryn cascade and Kambarata-1 hydropower projects, which were to be built by RusHydro and Inter RAO UES, respectively, officially expired on August 9.
Kyrgyzstan has, on paper at least, been candid about its obligations since day one. In January, deputy Economy Minister Nurlan Sadykov said that $37 million spent on a worker dormitory, cement production facility and other items would be reimbursed.
There was one catch though.
Sadykov added that money would be returned only once Kyrgyzstan had found new investors for the projects in question.
“Kyrgyzstan has fully abided by the obligations placed upon it by the project [agreement],” he said.
Sadykov said that while Kyrgyzstan allocated the necessary land for work, Russia had failed to provide funds required develop it in the required timeframe.
“The lack of financing was what became the cause of the cancellation of the deal,” he said.
No alternative has materialized and it does not appear that Bishkek has made especially concerted efforts to seek out such a party. Generating interest from individuals, companies or states will be tough given the likely costs. RFE/RL explains how the initial estimate for the Upper Naryn cascade was calculated at $400 million, but that this figure later rose to $700 million. And Inter RAO UES was contemplating $2 billion investments into Kambarata-1.
A high-ranking member of a banned opposition party in Tajikistan jailed for purportedly masterminding the hoisting of an Islamic State flag in his town has died in prison, Ozadagon news website has reported.
Ozadagon reported on August 16 that Kurbon Mannonov, who was head of the local branch of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan in the town of Nurek, died at detention facility (SIZO) NO. 1 in Dushanbe overnight. At the time of his sentencing, in February, Mannonov was 73 years old.
Ozadagon cited sources in the IRPT as saying that Mannonov had recently complained of ill-health and bleeding.
A couple of cases involving Islamic State flags over the past year have revealed the new depths being probed by the arch-paranoid government as it seeks to crush all those opposed to its rule. Tajikistan’s Western partners have registered only mute condemnation of the regime embrace of outright authoritarian practices and the United States continues to lavish the government with security assistance.
The Khatlon regional court in February sentenced Mannonov and 12 others to jail terms between 10 and 25 years for putting up the terrorist group’s distinctive black flag. Formally, the group was charged with membership in a criminal organization, public calls for the overturning of the constitutional order and extremist activity.
The group was arrested in August, just as the authorities were beginning to ratchet up their pressure against the IRPT, which has since been banned.