Kyrgyzstan’s voters will head again to the polling stations this weekend for a constitutional referendum intended to rebalance powers between the president and the prime minister, as well as enshrine several conservative norms aimed at pacifying the country’s traditionalists.
The December 11 referendum is being pushed through in the teeth of resistance from opposition parties and nongovernmental groups, earning them contempt from President Almazbek Atambayev.
The main amendments concerning the running of the country will bolster the role of the prime minister, who will be able to hire and fire ministers and local government leaders. Proponents of the amendments say the increased authority of the prime minister will ensure continuity and put an end to the regular turnover of heads of government that has been the trademark of Kyrgyzstan’s politics.
Critics maintain, however, that this tinkering is all about Atambayev and his associates clinging onto power. Atambayev is constitutionally required to step down when his single term ends and to give way to the president elected in October 2017. The argument of the revamped constitution’s opponents is that the current elite is rearranging the furniture to ensure they remain in charge even after the presidential transition.
There are multiple other changes, however, that will have a more direct impact on citizens.
One regards a change to rules on the appointment and rotation of judges of local courts, whose position will now be determined by the president, upon advice from the Council of Judges. Critics of this change, which include Venice Commission, an advisory body to the European Council that rules on matters of constitutional law, worry about its detrimental impact on the independence of judiciary.
Authorities in Kyrgyzstan have lashed out at social media and, in particular, how it is being used to say mean things about President Almazbek Atambayev.
In recent days there have been two reports of Facebook users being called in for a stern talk with the security services for things they have written — or might have written — about Atambayev. Nobody has been charged, yet.
There was a surge of hubbub on social media last week when news broke of one man being reportedly grilled over suspicions he is the mind behind Murch, an anonymously run Facebook account that serves as a repository for lowbrow political humour.
Jomart Jamgyrchiyev, a native of Issyk-Kul region, was hauled in by the State Committee for National Security, or GKNB, at the beginning of the month in Karakol along with several relatives. Investigators told him that photos that appeared on Murch, which has around 6,000 subscribers, had been linked to his computer’s IP address.
Although it is not clear that the photos concerned Atambayev directly, most of Murch’s fairly infantile jibes do. A recent post that garnered a lot of attention, for instance, featured a photoshopped image that showed Atambayev squatting on a toilet.
The ever-vigilant authorities then followed up with a similar swoop on December 7, according Temirlan Ormukov, who claims he was called into the General Prosecutor’s office to discuss a poem he wrote about Atambayev on Facebook.
Security forces in Kazakhstan carried out a special operation in the western city of Aktobe on December 7 to break up an alleged group of Islamist radicals stealing and reselling oil and oil products.
The National Security Committee, or KNB, said in a statement that several people have been detained and several tanker trucks confiscated following a special operation at an oil refinery in Aktobe. The raid was carried out together with officers from the anti-corruption agency.
No further information was provided about the identity of those detained or the means by which the oil goods were being resold.
Claims of collusion between criminal gangs and radical Islamists are not new for Kazakhstan. Following a series of terror blasts in 2011, authorities spoke about how criminal group operating under the guise of Islamists were siphoning oil directly from pipelines in western Kazakhstan. Likewise, the head of the anticorruption in June 2014 announced that authorities had broken up a transnational crime group led by a Salafist was stealing oil in the Aktobe region.
The repeated occurrence of such investigations highlights the extent of interdependence between regular financial crime and terrorism in Kazakhstan. While officials have on occasion tried to present one as a convenient cover for the other — underground radical Islamist groups as a good recruitment base for criminal gangs — the phenomenon appears to suggest a far more symbiotic relationship.
A man in northern Kazakhstan has reportedly been sentenced to 5 1/2 years in jail after he called for part of the country to break away and become part of Russia.
Russian news agency Sputnik reported on December 5 that a court in the North Kazakhstan Region ruled that Igor Chuprina had violated two laws — one on disseminating propaganda undermining the country’s territorial unity and another on inciting interethnic hatred through his social media posting.
The trial underlines the enduring anxiety provoked in Astana by the roiling conflict in Ukraine, whose government remains mired in a war with Russian-backed militias in the east of the country seeking independence or possible unification with Russia. Northern Kazakhstan has a substantial ethnic Russian minority.
The court in Petropavlovsk found that in September 2014, Chuprina used his cellphone to log into social media website VKontakte, a Russian analogue of Facebook, and posted disparaging posts about Kazakh people. The posts reportedly lasted until May 2015..
The messages “provoked negative reactions and social tension, and fueled conflict and the emergence of a type of anti-constitutional civil and political conduct, expressed as incitement to ethnic hatred, and also constituted a potential for compromising the [territorial] integrity of the Republic of Kazakhstan,” the court ruling noted, according to Sputnik’s report.
Those responding to Chuprina’s thread on the VKontakte page are also being investigated, Sputnik reported.
Just a few days after the former head of the tax service in Kazakhstan was appointed to serve as deputy to the chief of the security services, another senior tax official has been handed a top job in the defense ministry.
The presidential administration announced on December 1 that Abylkair Skakov would be moving from his post as head of the tax inspectorate in the capital, Astana, to become deputy defense minister.
Both appointments appear to stem from the government’s ongoing efforts to reduce graft and optimize financial efficiency, both key priorities as the economy faces the prospect of indefinite stagnation amid depressed prices for oil.
When Daulet Yergozhin was named as the new deputy head of National Security Committee, or KNB, even his colleagues were candid about the sense of the move.
“Daulet Yergozhin has shown himself to be an effective manager everywhere he has worked. He is a very upstanding person. I hope that [he] will also be effective in the fight against corruption, which is the main threat to our national security,” former deputy tourism and sports minister Bahytzhan Shengelbayev said on his Facebook account.
It is customary for top officials in the former Soviet space to speak notionally about corruption posing a security threat, but this is as concerted an effort to address the issue as the region has seen for a long time.
The twin KNB and Defense Ministry reshuffles look like a pincer movement on the armed forces. The KNB has not been heavily invested in investigating financial crime in recent years, and has focused more on antiterrorism or, in some cases, going after prominent figures in the opposition.
Tajikistan’s Interior Minister has reportedly written a poem in honor of the president, and the head of the security services has written a warm review of the work.
The recent national outbreak of lyrical devotion to Emomali Rahmon was the result of a poetry competition announced by the Interior Ministry to mark the newly created President’s Day, to be henceforth observed annually on November 16.
The requisite tone was set in state-run newspaper Jumhuriyat, which on November 9 published a ripe piece of verse consisting of 55 couplets entitled “In Praise of the Leader of the Nation.” The poem was signed under the enigmatic nom de plume Nihon, the Tajik word for secretive.
And nobody would likely have given the doggerel a second — or even a first — glance had the head of the State Committee for National Security, Saymumin Yatimov, not published a complimentary review of the poem on President’s Day.
As Tajik news website Akhbor has revealed, Nihon is none other than Interior Minister Ramazon Rahimzoda.
According to Akhbor’s investigations, Rahimzoda has been honing his lyrical skills ever since he was a mere stripling of man, although he has refrained thus far from sharing his oeuvre with the world.
The revelation of Rahimzoda’s artistic bent has given rise to suspicions that it is this that may lie behind his ministry’s predilection for holding regular evening poetry and musical performances. Notices for such events are routinely posted on the Interior Ministry website, in between wanted bulletins and statements about the latest arrests, many of them involving members of the opposition.
Tajikistan’s hasty decision to revoke accreditation for six journalists working for RFE/RL’s local affiliate, Radio Ozodi, has sparked broad dismay, including from the US government.
The cancellation of the reporters’ accreditation followed publication on Radio Ozodi’s website of a story about one of President Emomali Rahmon’s daughters, Rukhshona Rahmonova, being nominated to a plum post in the Foreign Ministry.
In customary fashion, the Foreign Ministry called Radio Ozodi warning them to pull the article, but the broadcaster refused, precipitating the reprisal.
RFE/RL President Thomas Kent described the Tajik government’s action as a “blatant attack on our ability to do our jobs as journalists.”
“This is an abuse of an administrative procedure for political purposes that we expect to be reversed without delay,” Kent said in a statement on the RFE/RL website
RFE/RL has said this is not the only recent instance of Tajik authorities trying to force content off its website. Earlier in November, the authorities demanded the broadcaster pull a news item about a statement posted on the US Embassy website warning of a possible imminent terrorist attack on the border with Afghanistan.
This pressure forms part of a systematic campaign of intimidation against Radio Ozodi.
“The Service’s website has been blocked since September, 2015, requiring users to employ alternative means to access it. Radio Ozodi journalists have been portrayed as being ‘unpatriotic’ and damaging the country’s image in official media, interrogated by security service agents, and proffered ‘friendly advice’ by authorities to avoid problems,” RFE/RL said.
“We have a great show tonight!” (Applause and cheers). “And our first guest tonight is Kazakhstan’s president and leader of the nation, Nursultan Nazarbayev!” (Wild applause and cheers).
No, this is not the opening to a recent edition of the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, but it is pretty much what was said over at his Kazakhstani imitators on Late Night in the Nurlan Koyanbayev Studio.
A trailer posted on the Koyanbayev show Facebook page on November 29 has offered a glimpse of what appears to be the latest wheeze by the Nazarbayev entourage to make the ageing authoritarian leader seem to more relatable and down-to-earth.
Such populist antics are, of course, old hat for television viewers in the West, who have become used to seeing their presidents and prime ministers pop up in popular shows for some light banter.
Even before he ascended to the US presidency, Barack Obama energetically courted the housewife vote by appearing on The Ellen Degeneres Show and performing a dance. Ever since taking office, Obama has routinely cropped up in comedic talk shows, drawing criticism from some quarters that he was demeaning the office of the president.
Politicians tend as a rule to keep away from comedy shows for fear of falling prey to mockery, but Obama has done the circuit in relatively certain knowledge he would likely face only gentle ribbing at most.
A court in the the city of Aktobe on November 28 sentenced seven men to life in jail for their role in a group shooting spree earlier this year. Another two men accused in direct involvement in the violence of June 5, when eight people, including three soldiers, were shot dead by a group of attackers that had seized weapons from shops stocking hunting supplies.
Eighteen people charged with abetting the attackers received jail terms of between two and five years.
Investigators have said the group were Islamic extremists and followers of the Salafist current.
According to the Aktobe regional court service, the defendants were given the last chance to speak on November 21, when they appealed for clemency and not to be given life sentence, so that they could one day return to their families.
The fullest account of the state’s case provided to date has become from Aktobe-based newspaper Evrika, which obtained and published a copy of the prosecution indictment in October. The indictment describes a man called Dmitry Tanatarov, who was killed on the day, as the main organizer of the bloodshed. It states Tanatarov converted to Islam in 2009 and fell under the sway of “extremist religious ideologues.” It said Tanatarov had aspired to go fight in Syria, but lacked the funds and decided instead to create his own militant group in Aktobe. He is said to have shared his thoughts about his ambitions to embark on a violent jihad with a friend, Arman Aituganov.
Two activists accused of organizing land protests in Kazakhstan have been sentenced to five years in jail.
At the culmination of a trial lasting one and half months, Max Bokayev and Talgat Ayan were found guilty of inciting social unrest, spreading false information and disrupting public order and will, in addition to serving prison time, be banned from public activities for three years.
Judge Gulnar Dauleshova also said the defendants had to pay 259,000 tenge ($750) to cover the costs of expert witnesses and would have their mobile phones confiscated.
Authorities will hope this verdict puts a definitive end to the season of political unrest that began when thousands of citizens hit the streets in the spring in protest at legislation to privatize swathes of public land. In the absence of adequate information campaigns, speculation circulated that much of the land would be bought by foreign investors, primarily from China — a taboo suggestion in a country where land is popularly deemed a natural birthright and where suspicions toward China run high.
Lawyers for the activists, both from the city of Atyrau, where the trial took place, have said they will appeal the sentence.
A journalist for RFE/RL’s Kazakh service, Radio Azattyq, present in the courtroom reported that the pair reacted calmly to the verdict and thanked their supporters as they were escorted out of the building.
As supporters left the courtroom, dozens of them broke out into renditions of the national anthem and shouted “Freedom” as the paddy wagon carrying Bokayev and Ayan drove past, Radio Azattyq reported.