Not long ago, Russia was one of the primary markets for Kyrgyzstan’s agricultural goods. Then came the Eurasian Customs Union of Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan, which removed customs checkpoints between the three in 2011. Kyrgyz produce was suddenly on the other side of a wall and exports to Russia plummeted from 195,000 tons in 2008 to 7,500 tons last year, according Kyrgyzstan’s Agriculture Ministry.
Now Russia, having banned produce from the West in response to sanctions over its support for rebels in Ukraine, needs Kyrgyzstan again. Kyrgyz officials are eager to help fill Russian stomachs, but unsure just how much they can abruptly increase exports.
On August 19 local news agency KyrTAG.kg quoted Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov telling a meeting of the Eurasian Economic Commission, the Customs Union’s regulatory body, “We are lifting all restrictions on the supply of Kyrgyz fruits and vegetables. In case of unjustified barriers, contact me – we will assist.” Kyrgyz authorities also hope that Russia will terminate restrictions on meat imports.
While some locals fear Russia will export its inflation and shortages to Kyrgyzstan, officials are losing no time pointing out the benefits of closer cooperation with Russia to a reluctant population.
The Agriculture Ministry hopes to restore exports to Russia to the their pre-Customs Union peak (an increase of 2,500 percent), Zhumabek Asylbekov, head of the ministry’s Food Supply and Marketing Department, told local news agency Vechernii Bishkek on August 20.
Kyrgyzstan’s local government councils are infested with gangsters, according to the Interior Ministry.
Speaking at a meeting of parliament’s Ata-Meken faction on August 20, Interior Minister Abdulla Suranchiev named over 20 figures in local governments across Kyrgyzstan that he alleges have ties to organized crime.
Not all of the councilors Suranchiev named have criminal records. Details on the accused, later relayed by 24.kg, were limited to names, dates of birth and presumed association with alleged criminal leaders such as Kamchybek Kolbayev, Maksat Abakirov and Almas Bokushev.
Cynics believe Ata-Meken party leader Omurbek Tekebayev engineered the expose as a PR stunt ahead of next year’s parliamentary elections. Ata-Meken has suffered serious brand damage since scraping into the legislature in 2010. Political rivals have accused three of its members, including Tekebayev, of looting during the 2010 revolution. Another scandal struck the party in 2012 when it emerged that one of its candidates for a municipal seat in Jalal-Abad Province was a seasoned criminal with the record to prove it.
At first blush, it seems Kazakhstan's strongman President Nursultan Nazarbayev likes to keep business in the family. A daughter heads his party in the rubber-stamp parliament; his sons-in-law held various official positions and became fabulously wealthy. So why is it not surprising that Kazakhstan is paying the wife of Nazarbayev’s most distinguished advisor, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, hundreds of thousands of pounds for her legal services?
Citing an anonymous source, The Telegraph broke the story today. The paper describes Cherie Blair as known for her “ardent” defense of civil liberties and human rights. Kazakhstan is known for muzzling free speech and locking up critics. The contract with Mrs Blair’s law firm Omnia Strategy doesn’t concern those sensitive issues, however. Instead, the paper reports, Mrs Blair will review Kazakhstan’s “bilateral investment treaties.”
The first stage of the review, which was expected to take as little as three months, is worth £120,000 [$200,000], sources have told The Sunday Telegraph.
A second phase of the project is worth a further £200,000 to £250,000 for another three to four months’ work, it is understood. Omnia Strategy, which Mrs Blair set up in 2011, also has an option to complete a third stage of the legal project for the Ministry of Justice at a fee to be decided, according to the source.
Mrs Blair is understood normally to charge clients £1,150 an hour but will bill the Kazakh taxpayer at a reduced rate of £975 an hour if the Ministry of Justice, based in the capital Astana, continues to employ Omnia on the legal review into its third stage.
When Russia banned many Western agricultural products last week in response to Western sanctions, it created a $9.5 billion hole for other countries to fill. Immediately, officials across Central Asia optimistically announced plans to help plug the gap.
But sudden shortages created by the ban have all but guaranteed to increase inflation in Russia, a major food importer. And Central Asians will suffer likewise because their expected jump in exports will leave fewer products available to local consumers, thus driving up prices at home.
All this highlights a paradoxical mix of opportunities and risks for Kazakhstan, a member of the Moscow-led Customs Union whose economy often feels ripple effects from Russia. Aside from the immediate pros and cons of the food ban, Kazakhstan is clearly spooked by Russia’s deepening confrontation with the West over its support for rebels in Ukraine, concerned about the fallout from a slowing Russian economy.
Kazakhstan’s response to the food ban paints a picture of a junior partner struggling to navigate the shoals between an increasingly isolationist Kremlin and its own ambitions of greater global integration.
Russia has promised Kyrgyzstan $500 million in assistance to help the reluctant country’s preparations to join the Moscow-led Customs Union, an economic bloc that currently includes Belarus and Kazakhstan. As usual when numbers fly between Russian and Kyrgyz officials, details are scarce.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on August 11 that the funds (“details to be agreed upon”) will ensure “maximum comfort” for Bishkek during its journey into the common economic space. Few believe that Kyrgyzstan, which has long served as a conduit for cheap Chinese goods through Central Asia into Russia, has much to offer the protectionist trade bloc. But always eager to please Moscow, Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev has been talking about membership since his inauguration in December 2011.
Lavrov’s announcement came while Atambayev was visiting Russia for a meeting with President Vladimir Putin.
Atambayev told Putin that Kyrgyzstan would enter the Customs Union by the end of the year (and the Eurasian Economic Union, when it is born in January), but noted the “difficulties” the country will face integrating with the more industrialized economies already in the bloc.
For almost a year now, Kyrgyz policymakers, notably Economics Minister Temir Sariev, have been putting figures on those “difficulties”—expected inflation and a rise in unemployment stemming from the decline in lucrative re-export trade from China. Last November, Sariev said Kyrgyzstan would require $200 million a year over six or seven years in the form of a “fund” to help readjust its re-export-dependent economy to the demands of the Customs Union.
Vladimir Putin is riding a wave of popularity in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan that mirrors his approval rating at home in Russia, a new poll has found. Most residents of these impoverished post-Soviet states wish to join his Eurasian Union. America and Barack Obama, on the other hand, fare poorly in the region.
In Kyrgyzstan, 90 percent of respondents express either a “great deal” or “fair amount” of confidence in the Russian president. Fewer than 60 percent say the same about their own president, Almazbek Atambayev; 26 percent voice confidence in Barack Obama, according to the poll, released last week by Toronto-based M-Vector Consulting, and 35.3 percent in Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
In Tajikistan, 85 percent proclaim confidence in Putin, 26.5 percent in Obama, and 31.1 in Xi. (By comparison, in July 85 percent of Russians said they approve of Putin, according to the Levada Center in Moscow.) M-Vector did not undertake the politically sensitive task of measuring support for Tajikistan’s authoritarian strongman, Emomali Rakhmon.
M-Vector interviewed 1,021 adults in Kyrgyzstan and 1,077 in Tajikistan by telephone in late June and early July for the poll, part of its Central Asia Barometer series. The poll has a margin of error of 3.2 points and a confidence level of 95 percent. (The pollster shared the results with EurasiaNet.org by email.)
Putin’s Eurasian Union is almost as popular as he is, the poll found. In Kyrgyzstan, 71.2 percent say their country should join; 8 percent say they are not sure. In Tajikistan, 80.3 percent favor joining; 13.5 percent cannot say.
As Moscow’s ties with the West continue to deteriorate, Central Asian farmers may be saying prayers for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Kremlin slapped restrictions on imports of meat, dairy, fruit and vegetables from the US, EU, Norway, Canada and Australia on August 7, in response to progressively heavier Western sanctions designed to punish Moscow for supporting rebels in eastern Ukraine.
While that is bad news for Russians who like Camembert and thousands of American and European producers supplying Russia, there is an obvious beneficiary from the fallout: Central Asia, which already supplies Russia with much of its produce.
On August 7 the New York Times detailed the size of the gap in the Russian market that must now be filled:
According to figures compiled by the [World Bank] and other agencies, Russia imports about 25 percent of its food, worth some $43 billion annually. Of that, about 75 percent, or $30 billion, comes mainly from Europe and the United States. The other 25 percent is mainly from former Soviet republics.
With the post-Soviet region embroiled in its deepest crisis since the Cold War over Ukraine and Kazakhstan facing the impact of Western sanctions on Russia, strong leadership and staunch policy decisions would seem to be required from Astana.
But when President Nursultan Nazarbayev summoned his government today, instead he engaged in a bout of cosmetic cabinet tinkering that may distract officials seeking to steer Kazakhstan’s economy through some choppy waters.
Nazarbayev kept his prime minister, Karim Masimov, but made several ministerial replacements and announced a merger of ministries to cut their number from 17 to 12 and subsume some of Kazakhstan’s numerous agencies, departments and committees.
The streamlining of the bloated bureaucracy is welcome, but it will likely spark a bout of distracting infighting as bureaucrats fight to keep their jobs in a vastly diminished pool of vacancies.
Several ministries received a rebranding.
The Oil and Gas Ministry became the Energy Ministry under new minister Vladimir Shkolnik. But a new name and a new face will not solve Kazakhstan’s main energy problem, the stalled Kashagan oilfield, now not expected to resume production until 2016. In an unusual meeting of interests sure to please oil and gas companies, the Energy Ministry was also handed the environment portfolio.
The Economy and Budget Planning Ministry became the National Economy Ministry, swallowing up the Regional Development Ministry. The Emergencies Ministry was merged into the Interior Ministry, and the health and labor portfolios were combined at the new Health and Social Development Ministry. Aset Isekeshev, formerly minister of industry and new technologies, heads up a new Ministry of Investment and Development.
A groundswell of public support for Kyrgyzstan's first president to return home to bury a close relative proves the old adage that absence makes the heart grows fonder.
Askar Akayev was far from a national favorite when opposition-led crowds forced the former physicist and his family to flee Kyrgyzstan in a helicopter more than nine years ago, the culmination of what came to be known fondly as the Tulip Revolution. By most accounts, the 14-year Akayev regime had degenerated into a hotbed of corruption and authoritarianism after the president’s reformist beginnings had seen Kyrgyzstan branded an “island of democracy” in authoritarian Central Asia.
But after five years under his successor, the venal and occasionally brutal Kurmanbek Bakiyev, followed by four years of economic and political uncertainty, some Kyrgyzstanis see Akayev with rose-tinted spectacles.
Since his ouster, Akayev, now 69, has lived in Moscow, where he teaches at Moscow State University. He has never returned to Kyrgyzstan.
The trigger for a public discussion of Akayev’s merits and shortfalls was the August 4 rumor that he would be returning to attend the funeral of his brother, who died August 3.
Citing “sources close to the arriving party," newspaper Vechernii Bishkek wrote: “Tomorrow on August 5, early in the morning, the arrival of ex-president Askar Akayev is expected. Relatives and close allies of Akayev expect him in connection with the death of the ousted president’s older brother, Bolot.”
When I knock on the door of yet another Kyrgyz politician, civil servant or businessman, I have many questions. That’s my job as a journalist. But the most nerve-racking question is not in my notebook: Will he hit on me?
The first time I interviewed an official in Bishkek, he tried to hold my hand while we were alone in his office. I left, humiliated, thinking this would never happen again. I was wrong.
The idea that women are no more than pieces of meat is deeply engrained here. Indeed, until recently, Kyrgyz law called sheep rustling a more serious crime than bride kidnapping.
Women are taught to blame themselves. A study of 8,000 Kyrgyz women released in January found that 6 percent believe a woman deserves to be beaten if she burns dinner, 23 percent if she leaves the house without telling her husband. Last summer, a female member of parliament lobbied to ban girls under age 22 from traveling abroad. She said she wished to “preserve the gene pool.”
At first, I thought the advances were my fault, that I had dressed or acted inappropriately. I changed my makeup and started wearing glasses to look older. But they haven’t stopped. Men regularly call me after interviews, suggesting we have a coffee to “get to know each other better.” Professionally, it is challenging to tell a member of parliament or a minister that I’m not interested while leaving the door open for future interviews.