What a difference a month can make. In the final days of February, Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev was engaged in an emotional and unseemly spat with Belarus over the death of a Kyrgyz gangster.
By the end of his 10-day European tour this week, Atambayev was positioning himself as a peacemaker between Brussels and Moscow – one eager to continue receiving Western aid. Kyrgyzstan is due to join the Russia-led Eurasia Economic Union next month.
Atambayev made some revealing comments during an April 1 interview with Euronews – an outlet notorious for softball questions and sympathetic interviews with regional leaders. He used the opportunity to praise Russia’s leadership, present himself as a wise leader dabbling in international diplomacy, and remind Western donors that their assistance hasn’t been enough.
Euronews: “Mr. President, welcome to Euronews. Can we regard your visit to Brussels as something of a farewell before Kyrgyzstan joins the Eurasian Economic Union in May and when you will stop getting closer to the European Union?”
Atambayev: “On the contrary. I think, as a part of the Eurasian Union, Kyrgyzstan will be pushing it towards tight engagement with the European Union. Europe should extend from Lisbon and Brussels – to Vladivostok, and of course, I think, to Bishkek.”
The key to massaging your own Wikipedia profile is not getting caught. But Kazakhstan’s efforts to turn the freely editable online encyclopedia into free advertising are yet again in the spotlight.
On March 20, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales hosted an Ask Me Anything conversation (AMA) on Reddit, a social-networking platform. Before long the audience was questioning Wales’s and Wikipedia’s roles in helping to improve Kazakhstan’s image. Back in 2011, Wales awarded a once-and-future Kazakh government employee, Rauan Kenzhekhanuly, the inaugural “Wikipedian of the Year” for his work with WikiBilim, a Kazakh-language platform criticized both for receiving state funds and for publishing multiple articles toeing the authoritarian government’s line. At the time, Wales told EurasiaNet.org, “As far as I know, the WikiBilim organization is not politicized.”
But during the AMA, Wales backpedaled on his decision to name Kenzhekhanuly the first Wikipedian of the Year.
Wales was on the receiving end of a fresh round of criticism last year when Kenzhekhanuly was named deputy governor of Kazakhstan’s Kyzylorda region. During the AMA, a commenter asked Wales if he would have bestowed the award had he known Kenzhekhanuly would go on to serve as deputy governor. “If I had known in 2011 that someone would get a job that I disapprove of in 2014, would I refuse to give them an award in 2011?” Wales responded. “Yes, I would have refused to give that award.”
There’s apparently no end to Kazakhstan's sporting ambitions. While it waits for the International Olympic Committee to decide if it can host the 2022 Winter Games, the oil-rich Central Asian country – not exactly a soccer star – has declared its desire to host the Football World Cup finals in 2026.
“We want to hold the Winter Olympics in 2022, and then it's in the plan to compete for the World Cup in 2026,” Yerlan Kozhagapanov, president of the Kazakhstan Football Federation, told Russia's Sport Express newspaper this week. Our economy is growing rapidly, the country is developing, so why not?”
Kazakhstan – which ranks 138 in the FIFA World Ranking – is far from a soccer superpower. The country has has never qualified for the final stages of a major international tournament and is currently languishing last place in its qualification group for the Euro 2016 championships; it has earned just one point in five matches.
But Kozhagapanov hopes that with a bit of investment, this is all about to change: “We are now starting a program to develop football in Kazakhstan from 2015 to 2022, and establishing a coaching school is one of five priorities.”
In Kazakhstan there is one coach for every 347 children. This compares with one to eight in Germany and one to three in England. Other priorities include developing training infrastructure and combating match-fixing.
UPDATE, March 28: American journalist Umar Farooq says he has been freed and is leaving Kyrgyzstan. Meanwhile, lawyers for human rights watchdog Bir Duino have filed a complaint with the prosecutor's office for the raids on their office and several top employees’ homes.
The arrest of an American journalist on extremism charges and the subsequent raid of a prominent human rights organization, both in southern Kyrgyzstan’s largest city, Osh, suggest that Kyrgyz authorities are still cagey about independent inquiry in a region associated with growing adherence to Islam and festering inter-ethnic tensions.
Kyrgyzstan has styled itself as a bastion of democracy in an authoritarian region, but rights activists see looming Russian-style legislation that would brand NGOs “foreign agents” as impending death for the country’s once-vibrant civil society.
Umar Farooq was researching the recent arrest of a popular cleric accused of supporting Syrian radicals, said a local journalist who had met with him shortly after he arrived in Kyrgyzstan a few weeks ago. On his webpage, Farooq identifies himself as a journalist who has written for the Los Angeles Times, the Christian Science Monitor and others.
The State Committee for National Security (GKNB) released a statement late March 27 confirming Farooq’s March 25 arrest, and claiming he had been found with documents and video materials of a "religious extremist and terrorist character."
A US Embassy spokeswoman told EurasiaNet.org that American officials had been in touch with Farooq and were providing consular support.
Rahmon, seen here placing the first brick for his new city, likes to build.
Faced with a bulging population, Tajikistan’s government plans to build an entire new city in a stretch of northern desert. State television showed President Emomali Rahmon breaking ground this week, inspecting plans, receiving applause and placing the first brick.
Tajikistan’s population has more than doubled since 1979. With an annual growth rate of 2.3 percent, Tajikistan has the fastest growing population in Central Asia (the global average is around 1.2 percent), according to UN data.
The new city project – located 10 kilometers from Tajikistan’s second-largest city, Khujand – will house 250,000 people, the president’s website reports. Rahmon suggested the new city be named Saihun, after a nearby river. He ordered the building of over 50 new schools and 40 sports facilities. Over 7,000 hectares of orchard will rise from the desert, he promised.
The strongman likes to build. Last week, Rahmon laid the first stone for the region’s largest theatre. In 2011, he unveiled the world’s tallest flagpole (which was recently surpassed by another vainglorious dictatorship, Saudi Arabia). Tajikistan already boasts the world’s biggest teahouse, the region’s largest library (with few books) and has, for years, been building its largest mosque.
The hated younger son of Kyrgyzstan’s former president is living the highlife in the United Kingdom, inhabiting a house bought by an opaque shell company – probably with money stolen from the Kyrgyz people – while he waits for asylum. So alleges transparency watchdog Global Witness in a March 25 report.
Maxim Bakiyev never returned to Kyrgyzstan after his father, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, was ousted in a bloody April 2010 uprising that left around 100 people dead. He has since been found guilty at home of stealing millions in government funds and attempted murder, charges he says are politically motivated.
Meanwhile, he has applied for asylum in the UK and is eligible for permanent residency in three months, according to Global Witness.
How Maxim came to live in a $5.2-million mansion, bought by a secret Belize-registered company just after his father’s regime imploded, is the focus on the Global Witness report.
The report provides strong evidence suggesting that the scion of the Bakiyev clan, if not fully identifiable as the owner of the house in a posh London suburb, at least inhabits it.
Kyrgyzstan’s obscurity has allowed Maxim to fly under the radar of the British press for the most part. Even the British football club he was rumored to have a stake in was fairly unfashionable.
Reports that Russia is uncomfortable with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) stepping into banking are nothing new. In particular, Moscow’s quiet efforts to block the creation of an SCO development bank that would funnel largely Chinese credit into Russia’s backyard have featured at the organization’s meetings in recent years.
But a thought-provoking analysis by Alexander Gabuev of the Carnegie Moscow Center, published last week by Russia in Global Affairs, suggests the Kremlin is mistaken, placing fears about appearing to be a junior partner over a sound geopolitical strategy that could give it a measure of control over China’s Central Asia policy.
The SCO – which groups China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – has tried hard to convince the world it is more than just a club for dictators. China’s push to include economic initiatives on the SCO agenda was a part of this process, Gabuev notes, and a development bank has been on the table at SCO powwows since 2009.
Tajikistan’s economy faces mounting troubles. The impoverished country has long been the most remittance-addicted in the world, with cash transfers from migrant laborers totaling the equivalent of almost half of GDP. But with the slowdown in Russia and tightened regulations for foreigners wishing to work there, remittances are now, as predicted, falling.
The national currency, the somoni, is also hurting, and it is unclear if the authorities are realistic about their options.
Last year remittance inflows declined over 8 percent to $3.9 billion according to Tajikistan’s National Bank. This year will be even gloomier. In early March, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) forecast that remittances would drop 30 percent.
Meanwhile, officials in northern Tajikistan have reported a 30 percent drop in out-migration during the first months of 2015 compared to the same period last year. About one million Tajik citizens work abroad, mostly in Russia.
Emomali Rahmon meeting with PR flacks from United World in October 2014.
Any writer who deploys the word "stable" to describe Tajikistan without half a dozen caveats has either never heard of the place or is being paid to produce puff. Or both.
“Stable and Strategic at the Crossroads of Asia” declares the headline on a eight-page supplement (presumably not produced for free) distributed March 20 with USA Today, the largest paper by circulation in America.
Full of Silk Road tropes and liberally sprinkled with words of wisdom from President Emomali Rahmon, now in his 23rd year in power, the supplement may fool readers who have never heard of the corrupt and authoritarian Central Asian country, the poorest in the former Soviet Union.
It hits all the government’s key talking points: about Tajikistan’s “multi-vector” foreign policy; cooperation with the West fighting terror and drug trafficking; the visionary leadership of its president (so paranoid he has shut out political opposition despite power-sharing agreements); efforts to tap Tajikistan’s gas reserves (too deep to be economically feasible anytime soon); and the potential for tourism in its mountains (beautiful to be sure, but lacking infrastructure and requiring tiresome extra paperwork to visit the most spectacular places).
Besides the truth-bending, outright untruths abound. A piece on the finance sector highlights a local bank that is insolvent.
But the expectation seems to be that the average American reader will stay none the wiser.
Cracks in the fledging Eurasian Economic Union were on clear display in Astana on March 20 as the leaders of Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus met to discuss the regional economic slump.
Nursultan Nazarbayev, the host president, made a point of affirming Kazakhstan’s support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity – a statement guaranteed to raise the Kremlin’s hackles. Vladimir Putin responded with a call for an EEU currency union, something that is anathema to both Nazarbayev and Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus.
“It is necessary to emerge from the situation that has arisen in Ukraine via diplomatic means; no military solution to this problem exists,” Nazarbayev said of Ukraine. “In so doing, it is important that any decisions taken are based on fundamental principles of international law. We are interested in Ukraine remaining a stable, independent, and territorially intact state.”
With Russia denying it has fomented separatist strife in southeastern Ukraine, such a pointed public statement from a close partner was guaranteed to rouse Putin’s ire. In his remarks, Putin said a ceasefire deal reached in Minsk in February – which has been routinely flouted – created a “real opportunity for a gradual de-escalation of the armed conflict.”