The presidents of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Iran have opened a long-anticipated railroad link connecting landlocked Central Asia to the Persian Gulf.
On the Turkmen-Iranian border, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov of Turkmenistan, Hassan Rouhani of Iran, and Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan donned white gloves to bolt together a final section of track that was symbolically colored gold, the Associated Press reported, inaugurating the last stage of the freight link that they hope will herald a boom in trade between the three Caspian littoral states.
Highlighting those expectations, the first cargo to cross the border between Turkmenistan and Iran on December 3 was a wagonload of wheat from Kazakhstan.
The line – which carries only freight but may carry passengers later – has an initial capacity of 5 million tons per year, projected to rise to 12 million tons. Forecasts suggest the new line could triple trilateral trade in the short term from 3 million to 10 million tons, and double it again by 2020 to 20 million.
Kyrgyzstan’s preparations to join a Russia-led economic bloc are proceeding at breakneck speed.
Wholesale changes to dozens of regulations are sailing through Kyrgyzstan’s parliament as a December 23 deadline for signing Eurasian Economic Union accession documents approaches.
The legislature can play host to stormy debates when it wants to, but when the subject is the finer details of the tax code and trade policy, it appears MPs can’t really be bothered. The amendments legislators are passing may have far-reaching implications for the local economy, however.
Moscow, upon whom Kyrgyzstan’s dependence grows by the day, has now confirmed it will provide up to $1.2 billion over the next two years to ease the country’s entry into the Customs Union and Eurasian Economic Union (which includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia), after Russia’s State Duma ratified the package November 26. Kyrgyz policymakers had talked up the aid package with little by way of confirmation from the Kremlin. The first $100 million, a grant, should be disbursed before the end of this year.
According to Russia’s state-run TASS news agency, the money:
…is designed to develop cooperation in [the] agro-industrial sector, the sewing and textile industries, processing, mining and metallurgical industries, transport, housing construction, development of entrepreneurship and infrastructure. A special development fund is going to be set up in the form of an international organization. Its status, functions, structure and rules of functioning will be defined in a separate agreement.
A former mayor of Kyrgyzstan’s second-largest city faces criminal charges connected to his time in office, local media are reporting.
The state prosecutor issued an arrest warrant for Melisbek Myrzakmatov on abuse of office charges November 28. With less than a year before elections to the Kyrgyz legislature next fall, some will see the charges as politically motivated. Myrzakmatov, who has pledged to run for parliament, is believed to be abroad, although exactly where is the subject of speculation.
Myrzakmatov shot to infamy in June 2010 as Osh’s mayor during ethnic violence between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks that left hundreds dead. Described by the International Crisis Group as a “cruel and unyielding young nationalist,” Myrzakmatov, who remains very popular with many ethnic Kyrgyz in the country’s south, did little to prevent the violence; some believe he had a role in instigating it.
Myrzakmatov held his position for almost five years, from January 2009, before the violent change of government in Bishkek, to December 2013. For much of that time, Osh resembled a recalcitrant fiefdom, only nominally subordinate to authorities in Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek.
By reporting on terrorist propaganda, is a journalist propagating terrorism? Journalists often debate how to cover terrorism without doing more harm than good. But prosecutors in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have a cut and dry answer.
Earlier this week, Kloop.kg – an innovative, independent news outlet in Kyrgyzstan – published a story about an Islamic State recruiting video that purports to show Kazakh-speaking children training for jihad in Syria and threatening to slaughter infidels. In its story, Kloop included stills the Daily Mail had reproduced and a link to video embedded in the Daily Mail's story. Few Kazakhstan-based news outlets covered the story, likely fearing Kazakhstan’s anti-extremism legislation.
Indeed, the day the story started circulating, November 24, Kazakhstan’s prosecutor warned media that Kazakhstani law forbids the “propaganda and justification” of terrorism.
The Kloop story was quickly blocked in Kazakhstan, as were several other stories about the video. (EurasiaNet.org’s story, although it did not include a link to the IS recruitment video, was also blocked in Kazakhstan.)
Editors at Kloop received an email from a Kazakhstani government agency calling itself the “Computer Emergency Response Team,” which demanded Kloop remove the material. Kloop, the email said, had violated not just Kazakhstani laws on the “justification of extremism and terrorism,” but international law, too.
A boy described as Kazakh undergoing military training in the video. (Al Hayat media)
The Islamic State has released a propaganda video featuring Kazakh-speaking children calling for the slaughter of infidels. This is the latest propaganda effort by the extremist group appearing to target Central Asians.
The 15-minute video, entitled "Race Towards Good" and subtitled in English and Arabic, shows children at a training camp in an undisclosed location, where fighters are “raising tomorrow’s mujahedin,” according to a subtitle.
“I will be the one who slaughters you, O kuffar [infidel],” a Kazakh-speaking boy aged about 10, who gives his name as Abdullah and says he is from Kazakhstan, tells the camera. “I will be a mujahid [holy warrior], insha’allah.”
The high-quality video – apparently released over the weekend – shows young boys loading assault rifles as they undergo weapons training, and also marching with guns and practicing martial arts. [EurasiaNet.org is not posting a link to the video in order to abide by the provisions of Kazakhstan's anti-extremism legislation outlawing the propaganda of terrorism.]
It also features a girl aged around four in a camouflage headscarf cradling a weapon, and ends with an older girl aged around 10 telling the camera in Kazakh: “Right now, we’re training in the camp. We’re going to kill you, O kuffar. Insha’allah we’ll slaughter you.”
The other children sitting with her respond with a resounding cry of “Allahu akbar [God is great]!”
The film also features men firing weapons and completing military-style assault courses, and speaking to camera in Russian and Kazakh about their training.
“Meet some of our newest brothers from the land of Kazakhstan,” says a subtitle. “They responded to the crusader aggression ... and raced to prepare themselves and their children, knowing very well that their final return is to Allah.”
Security services in Kyrgyzstan have filed charges against a human rights group in a high-profile case that a leading watchdog calls “absurd.” The charges are widely seen as an excuse to implement Russian-style legislation that would sharply curtail the activities of foreign-funded non-profits.
The State Committee on National Security (GKNB) charged two staff of the Human Rights Advocacy Center, an anti-torture campaigner in Osh, on November 20 with “inciting interethnic hatred,” a source with intimate knowledge of the case told EurasiaNet.org. One was told that the former director of Freedom House’s Kyrgyzstan office would also be charged.
The GKNB had outlined its case in a September criminal complaint, stating that an opinion survey distributed by the Advocacy Center posed a threat to national security and could reignite interethnic conflict in the country’s volatile south. The Advocacy Center project was funded by Freedom House, which receives some of its funding from the US Agency for International Development (USAID).
“The case implicating Freedom House, our partner, and USAID is utterly absurd. Not only is the investigation baseless, but we are worried that it is part of a larger trend of repressive measures targeting civil society, and that this is only the beginning of a crackdown reminiscent of the rest of the region,” Robert Herman, vice president for regional programs at Freedom House, told EurasiaNet.org by email. “It is profoundly disappointing to see a country like Kyrgyzstan turn its back on its democratic promise.”
Western and Russian companies are helping Central Asian governments build and maintain vast surveillance networks that facilitate indiscriminate monitoring of all types of communication, according to a report released November 20 by a watchdog organization. Such sales of technology appear to violate international law and obligate Western governments to take action to tighten export controls of surveillance-related trade, the report adds.
The report, titled Private Interests: Monitoring Central Asia, is the product of a year-long investigation carried out by the watchdog group Privacy International. It shows how local and foreign communications service providers, including telecoms and Internet-related companies, are complicit in helping governments carry out authoritarian-style snooping. It also provides exhaustive documentation on the types of spyware and technical assistance that firms based in the United States, United Kingdom, Germany and Israel are supplying to Central Asian states.
While focusing on the surveillance architecture of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the report also provides overviews of practices in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
"Some countries are equipped with sophisticated surveillance capabilities that allow the monitoring of communications on a mass scale,” the report stated. “These surveillance capabilities are centralized and accessed by security agencies in monitoring centers, located across the region, allowing agents to intercept, decode and analyze the private communications of thousands of people simultaneously.”
Footballers for Galatasaray, the legendary Turkish club, may soon be wearing the name of Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana, across their chests. Kazakhstan’s sovereign-wealth fund, Samruk-Kazyna, is rumored to be close to signing a five-year, $50 million deal to sponsor Galatasaray, Turkish media has reported.
Samruk-Kazyna is the main source of funding for the Astana Presidential Sports Club. Astana was already affiliated with the Istanbul-based team after the two signed a cooperation agreement in April. It is unclear if the jerseys will be marked “Astana” or “Samruk-Kazyna.”
Team Astana, founded in 2012, has had a good year. In cycling, the team’s Vincenzo Nibali won the Tour de France. Figure skater Denis Ten, who receives funding from Samruk-Kazyna, won bronze for Kazakhstan at the Sochi Winter Olympics. And Samruk-Kazyna-funded middleweight boxer Gennady Golovkin successfully defended his world champion title in October.
The wins are part of President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s relentless effort to promote the capital city he founded in 1997, and Kazakhstan more generally, on the world stage. Senior officials are actively engaged in the effort. National Bank Chairman Kairat Kelimbetov, for example, is president of the Cycling Association funded by Samruk-Kazyna.
A former prime minister of Kazakhstan has been placed under house arrest on corruption charges. The rare move against such a high-ranking member of the political establishment is sure to set tongues wagging about the presidential succession.
Serik Akhmetov – who was premier until this April and defense minister until last month – has been charged with graft under an ongoing investigation that has seen high-profile arrests in Karaganda Region, the former PM’s political fiefdom, Tengri News reported, citing Kazakhstan’s anti-corruption agency.
Baurzhan Abdishev, a former regional governor and ex-mayor of the city of Karaganda, and Meyram Smagulov, another former mayor, were arrested this fall on corruption charges relating in part to the lucrative metallurgy industry based in the central region.
Akhmetov – who forged his career in the Karaganda metallurgy industry and the Soviet Communist Party in the 1970s and 1980s – was governor of Karaganda Region from 2009 to 2012, at a time when Abdishev was city mayor. This implies that the two are political allies, and commentators in Kazakhstan had already been linking the Karaganda corruption case with a likely move against Akhmetov.
He was appointed prime minister in 2012 and dismissed this April, amid hints that President Nursultan Nazarbayev was disappointed by his lackluster performance.
Yet Akhmetov was still appointed defense minister in that reshuffle, a post from which Nazarbayev abruptly fired him in October after just six months in the job.
Kazakhstan’s journalistic community has long debated how to face the pervasive influence of Russian media in the Central Asian country. The topic has increased in urgency with the bitter international standoff between Russia and Ukraine, which is partly playing out on Russian television.
Russian state channels like Rossiya, NTV, and First Channel – which critics see as Kremlin propaganda tools – enjoy huge popularity in Kazakhstan, the Media Kurultai (an annual gathering of journalists in Almaty) heard on November 14.
This creates a national security threat to Kazakhstan, where viewers are swallowing their poisonous coverage about Ukraine, speakers told a panel on information security.
The public mindset in Kazakhstan is being shaped by Russian officials and TV presenters like Dmitry Kiselyov, who is well-known for his anti-Western tirades, opposition politician Amirzhan Kosanov told the conference. This means Kazakhstanis end up “viewing events in Ukraine through the eyes of [Russian Foreign Minister Sergey] Lavrov or Kiselyov,” he said.
Yet Astana is itself pushing viewers into the arms of Russian TV, Kosanov argued, by controlling the Kazakhstani media so tightly that it becomes unattractive.
“The challenge to information security emerges from governmental policies,” agreed Adil Nurmakov, a journalism professor at Almaty’s KIMEP University. “It’s a vicious circle.”
“Now [government officials] have found themselves in a situation when they’re wondering why people are not watching Kazakhstani TV channels and why they’re not reading the Kazakhstani press,” Nurmakov told EurasiaNet.org on the sidelines of the forum. “But there’s nothing to read and nothing to watch.”