Moves are afoot in Kazakhstan to hold a snap presidential election. Proponents say an early election would give incumbent strongman Nursultan Nazarbayev a fresh mandate as the country faces a slumping economy and regional geopolitical tensions over the Ukraine conflict.
Nazarbayev, who has ruled Kazakhstan since before the collapse of the Soviet Union, won a snap election with little opposition in 2011.
The council of Assembly of People of Kazakhstan (APK), an umbrella organization representing the interests of Kazakhstan’s ethnic groups, called for the early election over the weekend. Nazarbayev chairs the organization and appoints its members.
“The country’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, must be given a new mandate of national confidence in order for the country to successfully navigate a period of global travails,” the APK’s council said in a statement issued on February 14, hinting at Kazakhstan’s economic difficulties and at regional tensions stemming from the escalating conflict in Ukraine.
“A mandate of confidence in the Leader of the Nation [one of Nazarbayev’s official titles] will unite and rally the people at this new stage of world development, allowing all efforts to be concentrated on the most important questions of state development,” the council said.
This public appeal from a quasi-official body for a snap election (which has been rumored for several months) means an early vote is practically a fait accompli. And it is no secret who is the favorite to win.
With Kazakhstan in the economic doldrums, the government is asking the “independent” media to don their rose-colored specs.
“At a time when measures to improve the economic situation are being carried out, the media is recommended to adhere to the following structure for publishing material,” says a statement sent to Kazakhstan’s private media outlets by the authoritarian government's Committee for Communications, IT, and Information and re-published by the Adil Soz media freedom watchdog on February 12.
A list of detailed “recommendations” follows, containing information on what the non-state media should publish, right down to the content, the frequency, and the thrust of the reporting.
The recommendations include publishing “material on every briefing as they are held (1-2 reports in the ‘Main News’ section)”; expert comments on the “correct measures [being taken by the government] and Kazakhstan’s margin of safety that will allow it to withstand a crisis”; and “infographics about Kazakhstan’s margin of safety and achievements in the years of independence (no less than once a month).”
Private media are also recommended to base their reporting on “official statements by competent state bodies,” and they should publish material “on negative social phenomena in foreign countries owing to the global economic situation (daily).”
A street sweeper cleans Moscow’s Tverskaya Ulitsa. Central Asian migrants often do the dirtiest jobs in Russia.
It’s February, so Muscovites are grumbling about their city’s slippery sidewalks. The complaint isn’t unusual in winter, but this year many say they know why everything is covered in ice: The “Tajiks” have left.
Russian media report that the collapse of the ruble and strict new rules for migrant laborers have encouraged an exodus of Central Asians. But preliminary numbers are far smaller than many Muscovites believe. Besides, new government hurdles can be overcome with a bribe.
The startling number often reported and repeated is 70 percent fewer labor migrants than last year. It dates back to January 7, from comments by the head of the Federal Migration Service (FMS), Konstantin Romodanovsky, who cited it as the decrease in arriving migrants year on year. But the comparison is of dubious statistical value, referring only to the first week of 2015, which falls amid Russia’s protracted winter holidays, and also happened to be the first week that the stringent new rules were in place. Nonetheless, even migrants quote the figure when asked for estimates of how many of their compatriots have chosen to leave.
Last week FMS offered more detailed figures. In January, compared with a year earlier, the number of Uzbek citizens in Russia fell 4.3 percent and Tajik citizens by 2.2 percent, according to the RBK business-news website. Yet the number of Kyrgyzstanis had grown by 3.8 percent. (Numbers showing departures in the second half of the year are misleading, as traditionally many migrants leave Russia each winter when seasonal work dries up.)
Kazakhstan is blocking reports of an ethnic clash in the south, in a sign of sensitivities in Astana over friction between two of the country’s 140 ethnic groups.
Reports highlighting the ethnic angle of the unrest in the village of Bostandyk on February 5 – which pitted local Kazakhs against Tajiks after a row over a greenhouse ended in murder – have mostly become unavailable inside the country, while reports that covered the unrest without stressing the ethnic component are largely available.
Individual reports have been blocked on Kazakhstani sites such as Today.kz and in international media such as EurasiaNet.org and RFE/RL (some of whose reports were blocked while others were not).
Blocking individual reports rather than whole sites is a tactic increasingly used by the authorities to restrict access to information Astana deems sensitive. Legislative changes last year gave prosecutors power to block information without a court order. Since last fall law-enforcement agencies have blocked 703 websites and 198 individual reports, general-prosecutor Askhat Daulbayev said last month, mostly on grounds of extremism.
Calm has returned to a village in southern Kazakhstan following clashes between ethnic Kazakhs and ethnic Tajiks after a Kazakh man was murdered in an argument over a greenhouse.
Enraged friends and relatives of the murder victim, 30-year-old Bakytzhan Artykov, set fire to cars, damaged buildings, and attacked a Tajik-language school (no children were inside) in the village of Bostandyk, local resident Behruz (not his real name) told EurasiaNet.org by telephone.
“They set fire to buildings and cars,” the eyewitness said. “My own car was set on fire.”
He described how some 300 Kazakhs arrived in Bostandyk from the neighboring village of Yntymak on February 5 following the funeral of Artykov (whom police suspect was murdered by Navmidin Narmetov, a Tajik man now on the run). They rampaged through the streets from around 6 p.m. to midnight on February 5, despite the presence of riot police who arrived in response, Behruz said.
Grainy cellphone footage posted on YouTube said to be from Bostandyk (its authenticity could not be verified), a village mainly inhabited by ethnic Tajiks and located in the southern Saryagash District near the border with Uzbekistan, showed scenes of angry locals, some wielding sticks, and a burning car.
The administration of Nursultan Nazarbayev touts Kazakhstan as a model of tolerance because of the level of harmony among its 140 different ethnic groups. This unrest reveals how arguments can quickly escalate and split locals along ethnic lines.
Some of the attackers were shouting that Tajiks should leave for Tajikistan, Behruz said, “as if we were foreigners in our own country.”
Kazakhstan's slowing economy is pinching the country's industrial heartland.
Several industrial behemoths have announced cutbacks that they blame on a toxic mix of factors hitting their bottom lines, from falling commodity prices to an overvalued tenge. And as the enterprises pass the losses onto their workers, Astana is looking on anxiously, with memories of violent unrest in Kazakhstan’s oil fields still fresh.
Copper producer KAZ Minerals (previously called Kazakhmys) announced on February 2 that it would temporarily shut down unprofitable operations and redeploy 2,000 employees to other projects—though it promised no “mass” job cuts for its staff of 60,000. Meanwhile, steel producer ArcelorMittal Temirtau slashed salaries in January, reducing local staff pay by a quarter and cutting expatriate salaries in half.
KAZ Minerals pointed the finger at “complicated economic conditions” mostly brought on by a fall in copper prices, while ArcelorMittal Temirtau blamed a cash shortage caused by “a complicated geopolitical situation” (shorthand for economic problems stemming from the conflict in Ukraine and western sanctions against Russia). ArcelorMittal also blamed the regional economic slowdown and an “unfavorable” sales market.
The company – owned by international steel giant ArcelorMittal – said it could not compete with Russian steel, which is cheaper following the dramatic fall in the value of the ruble.
Industrialists from car manufacturers to natural resources exporters have been complaining for months that the value of Kazakhstan’s currency is eroding their competitive edge.
Adam Bol editor Guljan Yergaliyeva in her office. (Photo: Joanna Lillis)
An appeal against the closure of a hard-hitting current affairs magazine was adjourned on February 5 amid circumstances that its hunger-striking editor described as “absurd.”
The hearing was adjourned after the plaintiff, Almaty City Hall, failed to show up, citing illness. That left Adam Bol magazine’s supporters questioning why the mayor’s office could not find another official to appear at the hearing.
One of the last remaining independent media outlets in Kazakhstan, Adam Bol was closed in November after a judge upheld the mayor’s office’s claim that it had called for war in its Ukraine coverage.
Wearing a white armband with “hunger strike” emblazoned across it in red letters and looking visibly emaciated, Adam Bol editor Guljan Yergaliyeva – a 63-year-old veteran journalist – said she believed the delay might be down to the “huge fallout” from the controversy.
The adjournment might be a “good sign” that the authorities may reconsider the closure, Yergaliyeva said. But some supporters suggested the government is simply hoping the publicity will die down.
The closure was described at the time by OSCE freedom of the media representative Dunja Mijatović as a “drastic and disproportionate” step that would “endanger pluralism in Kazakhstan and contribute to an atmosphere of fear for members of the media,” and by Reporters Without Borders as the “orchestrated throttling” of the magazine.
Yet another dissident who has angered Tajikistan’s authorities now languishes in prison.
Maqsood Ibragimov, the 37-year-old head of the Russia-based opposition movement "Youth for the Revival of Tajikistan," was arrested in Moscow on January 20 and promptly appeared in a Tajik prison.
A rights activist who spoke with Ibragimov after his arrest wrote that five men entered Ibragimov’s Moscow apartment dressed as members of Russia’s migration service. On January 30, the Tajik prosecutor general’s office confirmed to Radio Ozodi that Ibragimov had indeed been extradited on charges of extremism. It did not explain how he got home.
Dushanbe had been pursuing Ibragimov since he established the movement last October. At the request of the Tajik government, Russian authorities arrested him in November. But as a dual Russian national, he was released. According to France-based human rights activist Nadezhda Atayeva, the Russian authorities then forced him to relinquish his citizenship. Then followed the detention and extradition in January. (Meanwhile, in late November, an unidentified assailant stabbed Ibragimov in Moscow.)
Ibragimov’s arrest appears to be part of a pattern, whereby the hypersensitive government of strongman Emomali Rakhmon accuses critics of “extremism” and uses the servile judiciary to lock them up.
Kyrgyzstan has denied the embarrassing accusation that it is a delinquent member of the United Nations without the right to vote in the General Assembly.
On January 29, the UN’s website listed Kyrgyzstan and five other countries (Grenada, Marshall Islands, Tonga, Vanuatu, Yemen) as having failed to pay membership dues for two years. Members in arrears for two years automatically lose their right to vote, according to the UN Charter (extreme cases, failed states like Somalia, get an exception).
But on January 30 Kyrgyzstan’s Finance Ministry announced it had fully paid its dues—$40,000 in 2013 and $63,500 last year. That latter amount included some outstanding debt from previous years.
The ministry also says that on January 29 it initiated a transfer in the amount of $54,271 to meet the January 30 deadline for 2015 dues. “Thus, the Kyrgyz Republic has on time and fully complied with its obligations to the United Nations regular budget to pay membership fees for 2015,” the statement says.
What is less clear is whether the country has made contributions for peacekeeping operations and international tribunals, also required under the charter, but under different budgets. Back in 2000, Kyrgyzstan owed almost $800,000 for peacekeeping and tribunals (in that year, all the Central Asian countries save Kazakhstan were delinquent). The recent Finance Ministry statement says only that these two types of payments are not covered by a July 2014 government decree on dues to international organizations and that state agencies obligated to make any payments not listed in the decree must do so using their “budgetary assignations or … special funds.”
January has been a busy month for Kyrgyzstan’s security services as they tackle what they call a growing threat from militants loyal to the Islamic State. As usual, there is little evidence to support their claims and plenty of reasons to fear that heavy-handed tactics and docile judges could only make the problem worse.
On January 27 the State Committee for National Security (GKNB) snatched six alleged militants in Osh. A GKNB spokesman accused the group of planning attacks in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Four of the individuals, authorities suspect, had trained in Syria.
Just two days later Radio Azattyq reported that the GKNB had nabbed a 29-year-old man near Bishkek and accused him of sending five relatives to the Islamic State-controlled city of Raqqa in Syria. The week before, authorities in Osh arrested a 22-year-old, claiming he had spent four months in Syria. Also earlier in the month, six alleged jihadi recruiters were arrested in a series of raids across Kyrgyzstan’s impoverished south. Three women, alleged members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir – a London-based proselytizing group with no known ties to violence – were also seized, Interfax reported.