Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif rounded off an energy-themed jaunt across Central Asia on May 22 in Bishkek, where he spoke about electricity exports to his energy-starved nation two days after visiting Turkmenistan to discuss a troubled gas-pipeline project.
The trip demonstrated Pakistan’s limited leverage in its dealings with Central Asia and, publicly at least, did not produce much of substance.
In Ashgabat, Sharif called on partners to “intensify work” on the long-stalled Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline. In his meeting with Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov on May 20, Sharif called TAPI a “project that would bring benefits to the entire region.”
But the pipeline, which would traverse Afghanistan and has been on the drawing board since the mid-1990s, may cost over $10 billion. With no commercial investor so far, initiative rests with both Turkmenistan, the would-be-supplier, and the main export market, India. Delhi must decide if its own energy deficit warrants pushing a link that many see as risky and expensive.
Neither president mentioned either the hoped-for 2017 TAPI completion date, or the more pessimistic projection of 2020 mentioned in late April by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. (Many say both timelines are still pipedreams.)
Kyrgyzstan took another halting step toward joining the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union on May 21 when President Almazbek Atambayev signed an accession treaty into law.
The other four members must still approve the impoverished Central Asian state’s membership (a process that is largely seen as a formality), and Bishkek must finish upgrading its border checkpoints to EEU standards before Kyrgyzstan becomes a formal member. But Atambayev was in a jubilant mood.
“Today is a wonderful day for us. Today [I am] signing the law ratifying international agreements on Kyrgyzstan’s accession to the Eurasian Economic Union. In this way, we complete all the internal governmental procedures for entering one of the biggest economic unions in the world,” Atambayev said on May 21 in comments carried by his website.
Kyrgyzstan first formally applied for membership two years ago and has been speaking about joining for four. Accession has dragged for so long that confusion over whether Kyrgyzstan is yet a member has reigned in recent weeks. It is still unclear how long it will take for Kyrgyzstan to upgrade its checkpoints.
In his remarks, Atambayev celebrated a “a new phase of development” for his country, while warning that the “journey will not be easy.” For years, thousands of Kyrgyzstanis have survived by re-exporting Chinese goods to other former Soviet republics. Those goods now face higher import tariffs. Kyrgyzstan’s economy must “restructure in a very short space of time,” Atambayev acknowledged.
The Islamic State has narrowly missed a chance to enlist its most high-profile Tajik recruit to date, according to a sensational report circulating in Tajikistan.
According to TojNews, Turkish authorities have arrested the decorated commander of Tajikistan’s Interior Ministry paramilitary squad (OMON), Gulmurod Halimov, who disappeared last month. Colonel Halimov was travelling on a fake passport with the intention of crossing into Syria, an unnamed Interior Ministry source told TojNews on May 19.
Halimov disappeared on April 23, telling his family he was leaving for a short business trip. His brother told Radio Ozodi that his phone was switched off, but that his personal items, including his passport, were left as if he departed in a hurry. Citing unnamed sources, Dushanbe’s Asia-Plus news agency reported that he flew to Russia on May 1 with ten others and was seen in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport the next day.
The colonel’s disappearance set the Tajik rumor mill into overdrive. A sensational theory emerged: Halimov had joined the Islamic State. A number of Halimov’s colleagues fuelled this speculation, describing how he had developed an unhealthy interest in the terrorist group. Halimov had “become a fanatical follower of the Islamic State and began to spread its propaganda amongst his relatives,” one unnamed friend told Asia Plus.
Central Asia faces a gloomy economic outlook for the rest of this year and into next, battered by the tanking Russian economy and low commodity prices, according to a regional outlook released by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on May 19. Several countries face double-digit inflation.
“The region has been hit by two major external shocks: the oil price and the slowdown in the Russian economy,” Juha Kahkonen, deputy director of the IMF’s Middle East and Central Asia department, told a briefing in Almaty as the forecast was released.
Growth slowed last year and is set to decrease “much more significantly” this year, he said, before recovering “only slightly” next year.
All the Central Asian states are feeling the pinch of the slump in Russia, “which has close linkages with the region through remittances, trade, and foreign direct investment,” the IMF pointed out.
Energy exporters (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) and importers (Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) alike are suffering: exporters are battling falling revenues from the drop in global oil and gas prices, while importers are feeling what Kahkonen described as “only a very small beneficial impact” from lower prices because of the long-term nature of their energy import contracts in which prices are set.
Falls in prices for other commodities (gold in the case of Kyrgyzstan and aluminum for Tajikistan, for example) are also biting.
Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are also suffering from a drop in labor remittances from Russia, as migrants lose their jobs and the dollar value of remittances falls because of the depreciation of the ruble. This is causing weaker domestic demand in remittance-dependent economies.
Former Soviet dictator Josef Stalin has been experiencing some ups and downs in Kazakhstan lately. The only full-sized monument to the iron-fisted leader remaining in the Central Asian state – where a quarter of the population died during a famine under his watch – was recently restored, and then quickly taken down.
Blown off his pedestal in a storm last summer, the silvery Stalin was reinstalled by jubilant villagers in Stariy Ikan, near the border with Uzbekistan, earlier this month. It was torn down again on May 15 amid controversy over the glorification of the brutal colonialist dictator.
The villagers “gave their agreement to the removal of the monument,” mayor Abdulla Saydikarimov said in remarks quoted by Bnews.kz. The authorities had said villagers had not obtained the paperwork to erect the statue. But there was plainly far more to Comrade Stalin’s fall than planning permission.
It was no coincidence that the monument – standing five meters high with its pedestal and showing a commanding figure in military greatcoat and cap – was re-erected on May 6 by Stariy Ikan community elders.
That was during the run-up to May 9, the anniversary of the end of World War II, known as the Great Patriotic War in much of the former Soviet Union and celebrated with particular gusto this month, the 70th anniversary of victory.
At the ceremony to re-erect the contentious statue, veteran Babadzhan Nishanbayev waxed lyrical about its symbolism for those who returned from battle. “More than 300 of us went to the front from [Stariy] Ikan, almost all the men of the village. And 58 returned,” he told local news site Otyrar.kz. “Throughout the war, we went onto the attack with the cry ‘For the Motherland! For Stalin!”
A Tajik conscript in GBAO guards the border with Afghanistan.
Tajikistan has banned foreigners from visiting its vast mountainous Badakhshan Province, the country’s main draw for tourists and the scene of fighting between locals and government forces in 2012 and 2014, Asia-Plus reports.
The government claims it has stopped issuing permits to foreigners to visit the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) due to fighting across the border in Afghanistan. The ban is a temporary measure done for the safety of tourists, said Rizo Nazarzoda of the Committee on Youth, Sports and Tourism.
Fighting has intensified in northern Afghanistan in recent months, but some analysts question the Tajik government’s claim that it poses an imminent threat to the Central Asian country. Indeed, some feel it offers cover for the government to crack down on Islamic worship and hype the threat of radicalism.
Dushanbe has tenuous control over GBAO, which comprises approximately 45 percent of Tajikistan’s territory but 3 percent of its population. The region is home to a disaffected ethnic and cultural minority that has been largely ignored by the government in the far-off capital. GBAO is also a hive of drug smuggling, which seems to have played a role in the recent violence.
Update, May 26: According to Kazakhstan's Agriculture Ministry, the number of confirmed saiga deaths now exceeds 85,000.
Over a thousand saiga antelopes have been found dead in northern Kazakhstan. Conservationists had been hoping that populations of this rare steppe-roaming ruminant were recovering.
The corpses have been found in Kostanay Region in northern Kazakhstan, the Ministry of Agriculture said in a May 13 statement that did not specify the precise figure.
The cause of death is unknown. Experts are running tests on the dead animals and on the surrounding soil and water, with the results expected in a week, the ministry said.
Last time there was a case of mass saiga deaths in this region, in 2012, the cause was established as pasteurellosis, a disease that attacks the lungs and which killed nearly 12,000 saigas – a species listed as Critically Endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List – in an epidemic in 2010.
The latest deaths have occurred just as conservationists have been reporting something of a success story in the saiga population's recovery. The distinctive creature has a long, humped nose that allows it to filter air during the dusty summer months and breathe warm air during the freezing winters.
The Tajik security services are well known for employing heavy-handed tactics as they attempt to stamp out extremism. In recent months, some have reportedly forced men with beards under the razor, tried to ban sales of hijab, and carried on with the usual mass arrests of suspected Islamists. But there is a softer side to counter-terrorism in Tajikistan.
On May 9 the Interior Ministry promised amnesty to Tajik militants in Syria and Iraq who wish to come home. The ministry “is ready to help them return,” the statement declares.
“The Ministry of Interior has received information through its law enforcement agencies that young people have been led astray and are fighting in Syria, Iraq and other countries. Some are now in Turkey and can return home voluntarily. We also inform you that these persons will be exempt from criminal liability,” the ministry’s statement said, without naming any conditions.
Last year the prosecutor’s office in Sughd Province, in the north, offered to amnesty returning fighters. This is the first time authorities have declared a nationwide amnesty.
Authorities are keen to counter messages that the Islamic State is some kind of paradise on earth. On May 7, a man claiming to be a repenting jihadist who had recently returned from Syria spoke to a large crowd in Khujand about his experiences there. Farrukh Sharifov described beheadings, sexual slavery and terrible living conditions. The event, organized by the Interior Ministry, has been widely publicized.
The “sex school” in Kyrgyzstan’s capital that EurasiaNet.org profiled last year has moved to a bigger facility and opened a branch in neighboring Kazakhstan.
The Jade Gift School’s new location on Bishkek’s Bokonbaeva Street includes a larger gymnasium, where men and women learn to exercise muscles used during intercourse. There’s also now a separate room for theoretical instruction, such as courses on sexual fantasy and “playing the flue” – the school’s metaphor for oral sex. The school now also offers yoga, weight training, and customized workout trainings.
“I never expected this to become a full-time job,” confesses Jade Gift School founder and owner Rakhat Kenjebek kyzy, 31, describing how the school started out as a personal project rather than a business.
While working in China in the late-oughts, Kenjebek kyzy became acquainted with traditional treatments for women’s health. When she returned home, she started passing her knowledge around among friends. The circle of people seeking her advice grew wider and she eventually founded Jade Gift in 2011.
The school now employs three sales managers, a social media manager and five trainers. There are about 50 regular students; another 50 or so attend one-time events each month.
In this conservative country, many eschew talking openly about sex. But Kenjebek kyzy says some of her students are girls from religious families. Some confide that they attend classes because they are afraid their husbands will take second wives, she says. (Polygamy, though illegal, is increasingly common in Kyrgyzstan.)
A tenth-grader in Tajikistan’s capital has been detained after successfully soliciting a $50,000 bribe by impersonating the son of President Emomali Rahmon, Asia-Plus reports.
Last August, according to the state anti-corruption agency, Khushdil Kurbonov and a relative took $50,000 from a man in exchange for promising him 0.3 hectares of land just outside the capital.
Kurbonov then called a local official in charge of the land and said he was Somoni Emomali (sometimes Somon), the president’s younger son, and instructed him to hand over the deed. The official did not believe Kurbonov.
Kurbonov attends the Dushanbe International School, according to Asia-Plus. In 2012 Tajik media reported that Somoni was attending the Dushanbe International School; he would now also be in the 10th grade.
The organization investigating the case, officially known as the Agency for State Financial Control and Combating Corruption, is headed by another of the president’s nine children, Rustam Emomali. Rustam became head of the agency in March. His appointment (by his father) increased long-standing concerns that official corruption investigations will steer far and wide of the long-ruling first family.
That someone thought he could pull this off by posing as the president’s son speaks volumes about how business works – and the first family is viewed – in Tajikistan, a country that ranks 152 out of 175 on Transparency International’s most recent Corruption Perceptions Index.