Russia’s defeat to a bearded Austrian transvestite at the annual Eurovision song contest earlier this month has prompted some soul searching among Russia’s horrified, homophobic leaders. Some lawmakers have even called for Russia to stop sending participants to the pop extravaganza.
Russians are sure to find a more wholesome competition at the communist-era Intervision song contest, the Eastern-bloc’s riposte to the decadent mores of Eurovision, which Russian organizers have promised to resurrect this fall. But with the Warsaw Pact rotting in the dustbin of history, organizers have invited Russia’s pals in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a club of Asian autocracies including most of the Central Asian states and China.
Intervision was held between 1977 and 1980 in Sopot, Poland. Soviet pop diva Alla Pugacheva won the competition in 1978. This year Russia's entry will be chosen at a competition for young talent in recently annexed Crimea on June 15, said one of the organizers, Russian singer and producer Igor Matvienko, earlier this week.
In comments carried by pop-culture portal dni.ru, Matvienko said Intervision would be held this October in Sochi with Russia competing alongside China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Other countries may include Japan, South Korea, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, Matvienko said.
Two prominent activists lobbying against Kazakhstan’s membership in the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) – due to be created next week – have been hauled in for interrogation by Kazakhstan’s domestic intelligence service over an alleged plot by Russian nationalists to destabilize the country.
Zhanbolat Mamay and Inga Imanbay were questioned for six hours by National Security Committee agents on May 21 as they were finalizing preparations to hold public hearings into Kazakhstan’s EEU membership.
The spooks questioned Mamay and Imanbay over their links to Russian far-right nationalist Aleksandr Potkin, who – according to unattributed material leaked to Kazakhstani media – went to Kazakhstan in 2012 and trained ethnic Kazakh nationalists to “provoke a confrontation” with “the Slavic community.”
In view of Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine on the pretext of protecting Russian speakers, Astana currently has an eye on its own ethnic Russians, who make up about 22 percent of the population. But it is not clear why Kazakhstan’s intelligence service took two years to launch the Potkin probe.
“This is a total lie and utter nonsense,” Mamay told EurasiaNet.org on the sidelines of the Almaty public hearings, describing the accusations as “a provocation carried out with the aim of discrediting me and those who speak out against joining the EEU.”
At least two people were killed in Tajikistan’s troubled eastern mountain town of Khorog on May 21, local news agencies reported, citing unofficial sources. Murky cases of violence are nothing new in the area: Khorog was the epicenter of a military operation in 2012 that killed dozens, including at least 22 locals, but was never clearly explained by authorities.
In one version of today’s events recounted by the Asia-Plus news agency, a shootout started when police attempted to arrest a brother of local warlord Mamadbokir Mamadbokirov, leaving two supporters dead and a police officer in serious condition. In response to that, and possibly some subsequent arrests, angry residents reportedly burned down the police station. Estimates of the crowd varied from several dozen to 700.
Fergana News cited the head of the regional branch of the opposition Social Democratic Party, Alim Sherzamonov, as saying that riot police opened fire “without warning” when they encountered some sort of unofficial local powerbroker. "Spot checks of tinted[-windowed] cars were underway in the city; a car was stopped. The policemen began arguing with the driver, but then the OMON [riot police] came and opened fire without warning,” Sherzamonov said. “One person was killed on the spot and two injured. They opened fire because the guys in the car had informal power in the city. Weapons were used by one side only – the OMON."
As Russia reasserts itself in its former Soviet backyard, the summit of an obscure Asian bloc in China offered a timely reminder that Beijing also has regional leadership aspirations—and, unlike sanctions-hit Moscow, can boast deep pockets too.
The summit of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) gathered a motley crew of Asian leaders in Shanghai on May 21st, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and presidents from post-Soviet Central Asia and the Caucasus as well as leaders from diverse countries such as Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Mongolia.
Central Asia was well represented, with four of its five leaders attending. Neutral Turkmenistan stayed away: It is not a member of CICA, a talking shop set up in 1999 at the initiative of Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev—who used this summit to propose rebranding CICA into the Organization for Security and Development in Asia.
The summit took place against a backdrop of heightened Russo-US tensions over the Ukraine crisis and Sino-US sparring over a military-hacking affair and, more broadly, over China’s geopolitical aspirations in Southeast Asia. All that fueled expectations that mutual antagonism with Washington would cement closer Sino-Russian ties.
“For Russia, China is today a natural geopolitical ally in the formation of a world order in line with China’s interests,” Aydar Amrebayev of the Almaty-based Institute of World Economy and Politics told EurasiaNet.org.
Activists in Kyrgyzstan say they lost another battle against creeping authoritarianism this weekend when President Almazbek Atambayev signed a so-called “False Accusation Law.” The US Embassy says the law could “suppress legitimate news stories, as well as intimidate or punish journalists reporting on matters of public interest."
The new law, which Atambayev signed on May 17, makes intentional defamation a criminal offense punishable by up to three years in prison. Kyrgyzstan decriminalized libel in 2011.
The author says the law – which passed parliament on April 16 with a vote of 85-8 – does not violate freedom of speech, but will stop the publication of slanderous reports.
“Freedom of speech [does not include] making false reports about a crime. The key word here is a crime … there is the presumption of innocence. No one can be accused of a crime unless his guilt is proven in a lawful manner,” Deputy Eristina Kochkarova told EurasiaNet.org. If a journalist has published a report incorrectly charging someone with a crime, she argues, it’s not the journalist who would be punished, but his source. “The rights of a person end where the rights of others’ begin. Freedom of speech is not the only part of democracy,” said Kochkarova.
But the law is vague enough, civil society activists fear, for it to be selectively enforced should, for example, a politician not like the work of a muckraking journalist.
The municipality of Almaty is suing Viktor Khrapunov, a former mayor and a foe of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, in the United States, accusing him of having “systematically looted” millions from city coffers over a decade ago.
Raising questions about why it took the municipality so long to notice the missing millions, the case was lodged in a Los Angeles federal court on May 14, a decade after Khrapunov left the post of mayor and six years after he moved out of Kazakhstan to base himself in a luxury Swiss mansion.
Adding piquancy to the scandal, Khrapunov’s daughter Madina is related by marriage to embattled oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov, Astana’s public enemy number one.
Discredited former banker Ablyazov is in jail in France battling extradition to Russia on fraud charges, and fighting moves to strip him of political asylum in the United Kingdom.
Madina Ablyazova is named as a defendant in the Khrapunov case along with Khrapunov’s wife Leila and son Ilyas, reports The Courthouse News, a Pasadena-based legal wire service.
Khrapunov – a former Nazarbayev administration insider who held a string of top posts including mayor of Almaty from 1997 to 2004 – “abused his position of trust as a public official in order to convert and sell numerous assets belonging to the City of Almaty for his own benefit and the benefit of his co-conspirators,” the report quotes the lawsuit as saying.
An alarmingly high number of people have reportedly been injured in another interethnic clash on the undemarcated Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border overnight. As usual, media and officials in both countries are pointing fingers at the other.
According to the Kyrgyz Border Service, a clash involving 1,500 local residents started late on May 7 in Jaka-Oruk (by the Tajik village of Hoja-Alo), when Tajiks began throwing stones at Kyrgyz cars. Tajiks also burned a Kyrgyz gas station, a shop and two cars, the Border Service said in a statement. Nine people have been hospitalized, one in intensive care. Kyrgyz sources put the total injured at about 30.
Tajik officials say the Kyrgyz started it. “Clashes broke out after a group of young, drunk Kyrgyz men threw stones at a car belonging to a resident of the Tajik village of Vorukh,” an unnamed Sughd Province official told Dushanbe’s Asia-Plus news agency. He said seven Tajiks were hospitalized with head injuries and one received an injury from a hunting rifle.
Kyrgyz villagers are still blocking the only road connecting the Tajik exclave of Vorukh with the Tajik mainland, says Asia-Plus, reporting up to 60 injured total. That road runs through de facto Kyrgyz territory. Last night Tajik villagers blocked the road connecting Batken, the largest nearby Kyrgyz city, with Kyrgyz territory to the west. Vechernii Bishkek, citing Kyrgyz officials, reports that road is now open again.
When Russian state energy giant Gazprom took control of Kyrgyzstan’s gas network last month, the prime minister called the transfer a “historic event.” Gazprom chairman Aleksey Miller promised his company "guarantees a stable gas supply.”
Neither seems very reliable to residents of southern Kyrgyzstan today, the 24th day the region has been without gas.
Four days after the formal transfer ceremony, Uzbekistan cut gas supplies to southern Kyrgyzstan. Residents of Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second-largest city, complain they have been forced to use expensive electricity or cook over wood or dung stoves. Fortunately, the weather is warm. One resident describes a previous cut-off, during winter, when he used seven candles to boil water to make tea for his children.
Gazprom was meant to end such outages. Under the deal, which the Kyrgyz parliament approved in December, for a symbolic $1 Gazprom snapped up Kyrgyzgaz and its property and gained rent-free use of land any facilities stand on. In exchange it took on Kyrgyzgaz’s estimated $38 million debt and pledged some $600 million to improve Kyrgyzstan’s crumbling gas grid. In the long-term, the Kyrgyz hope Gazprom can streamline energy supplies and ease the dire power shortages the country experiences every winter.
Led by a flag bearer hoisting an image of Jesus, and six drummer girls in purple satin, about a thousand supporters of various nationalist causes marched for what they called “Russian May Day” in northwestern Moscow on May 1.
Young and old, men and women shouted, “Russia is for Russians,” “Glory to the Russians,” and angrier slogans, such as “get out, black dirt” – a reference to migrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus.
Indeed, it was migration that seemed to unite this broad swath of rightwing Russia.
“Russian citizenship for Russians. No to handing out citizenship,” some chanted. “Who are we? Russians! We are the power here!”
Several of the groups also yelled, “Cancel 282” – that is, Article 282 of the criminal code, which prohibits inciting ethnic hatred. Each of about 10 groups had its own flag, including a black-yellow-and-white-striped banner used briefly by Tsarist Russia in the 19th century. Other banners incorporated white power symbols. (The kolovrat, seen in several images above on a red flag, is sometimes called the Slavic swastika. Adopted by some rightwing groups, others defend it as an ancient pagan symbol for the sun.)
In many post-Soviet countries, and Kazakhstan is no exception, stories abound of students forced to bribe their professors to pass final exams. At last, Kazakhstan has an official figure: On average, students pay 50,000 tenge ($275) in unofficial fees at the end of each semester
Deputy Minister of Education and Science Takir Balykbaev told a meeting of the country's university heads in Almaty on April 29 that higher education is among the three most corrupt industries in the country. The sector’s shadow economy is worth about $100 million per year, Balykbaev said.
Endemic corruption in education has long been acknowledged in Kazakhstan, but actual figures are rare. Freedom House said in its 2013 report on Kazakhstan that “corruption in the education system is widespread, and students frequently bribe professors for passing grades.”
Salaries in Kazakhstan's universities are low, with the exception of Astana's Nazarbayev University and Almaty's KIMEP University, encouraging professors to supplement their incomes by soliciting bribes.
Balykbaev said that in the near future his ministry would establish a council on anti-corruption policy to coordinate the fight against graft in universities.