At PEN International there is a tradition: During the organization’s general assemblies, empty chairs are left prominently vacant as a reminder of imprisoned writers and journalists around the world.
This year, for the free expression watchdog’s 80th anniversary – marked this week in Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek – three empty chairs reminded the assembly of three Central Asian men imprisoned for their writings and activism: Azimjon Askarov from Kyrgyzstan, Ilham Tohti from China and Vladimir Kozlov from Kazakhstan.
PEN President John Ralston Saul noted that Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev extended a personal invitation to the organization. During a private meeting, Atambayev himself raised the case of Askarov, an Uzbek journalist and rights activist serving a life sentence for complicity in murder and other crimes connected to the June 2010 ethnic violence. Human rights groups have pointed to glaring irregularities during his trial and say Askarov was framed to stop him from documenting police abuse. While PEN and the president “disagreed” over the continuing imprisonment of Askarov, the fact that the president invited PEN to discuss the issue with him was itself “significant,” Saul said.
Kazakhstan's chances of hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics took a turn for the better this week as Norway announced it was withdrawing Oslo's bid, leaving only Almaty and Beijing interested in hosting the expensive extravaganza.
Norway pulled out of the race on October 1 citing a lack of public support for the costly venture. This year's Sochi Winter Olympics, in Russia, came in way over budget at $51 billion. The fear of ballooning costs has seen the number of contenders to host the 2022 Games dwindle from six to just two.
With Kazakhstan's economy under pressure from the downturn in close partner Russia, the country’s Olympic Committee will need to carefully watch its budget. So far, Kazakh officials are confident they can keep costs for the Almaty bid down as the city already has much infrastructure required for the Games. It has facilities built for the 2011 Asian Winter Games and is currently splashing out $1 billion on amenities for the 2017 Winter Universiade, which brings together student athletes from around the world.
Kazakh officials see the hosting of high-profile events like the Winter Olympics as great PR. “As government officials we are working hard to attract investments and being in a country recognized all over the world is very good for attracting investments,” Kairat Kelimbetov, chairman of Kazakhstan's National Bank, told TengriNews in August.
Tajikistan’s state-appointed chief mufti has warned that cooperating with journalists or others who intend to “destabilize” the country, or criticizing the authoritarian government to such people, constitutes a “grave sin,” local media report.
The fatwa, according to AFP, includes any “criticism of the ruling powers.” "Criticism undermines trust in the authorities," warned Mufti Saidmukarram Abdulkodirzoda at Friday prayers in Dushanbe.
Abdulkodirzoda did not specify how Muslims are to identify the potentially perfidious reporters, or if they should avoid speaking with the media altogether, but journalists such as prominent editor Marat Mamadshoev said the fatwa is just the latest attack on their rights in the officially secular country.
Lawyer and opposition activist Rahmatillo Zoirov told Radio Ozodi that the fatwa would undermine laws on the freedom of the press (which officials often ignore) and that the clergy “has no right to interfere in the affairs of state.”
Moderate Muslims, including the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party, have also denounced the injunction, according to AFP.
It is not unusual, of course, for a leader to use his people's faith to enforce fealty. In Russia, where Tajik leaders look for inspiration, the Orthodox Church has become the moral mouthpiece for Vladimir Putin’s reign.
From the EBRD report: “The chart shows that Belarus, Armenia and Tajikistan (the latter predominantly through remittance flows) have the highest overall economic exposure to Russia. Such exposures are also significant for the Kyrgyz Republic, Moldova and Ukraine.”
As Russia’s economy goes, Central Asia’s follows. So it is no surprise that the current downward drift in Russia will hurt the region, potentially for years to come. Remittance-dependent countries like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan should be especially worried, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, a multilateral lender, says in a new report.
In its September regional assessment, the EBRD forecasts growth in Russia will come to a “standstill” in the coming months. Already pronounced, Russia’s economic slump is being exacerbated by the war in Ukraine and Western sanctions. The EBRD said Central Asia, and formerly communist countries more broadly, can expect “significant spill-over effects.”
New sanctions by the EU and U.S., which will dampen growth in Russia, “will negatively affect growth in the Central Asian countries.”
As in 2009, during the financial crisis, migrants and their dependents back home will be the first to feel the pain. Remittances from Russia to Central Asia fell in the first quarter of 2014 compared with the previous year, “for the first time since 2009, primarily due to the slowdown in Russia,” the EBRD said. “Particularly vulnerable are [the] Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan, where even a small drop in remittances from Russia is substantive, as remittances make up 29 percent and 49 percent of GDP respectively.”
A fall in remittances “may significantly dampen consumer demand in lower-income countries in the region.”
It’s not often that a Kyrgyz film wins praise abroad, as an epic biopic has in recent weeks. Proud Internet users in Kyrgyzstan are seeking to ensure that the recent burst of international acclaim endures with an online campaign to rank the new film highly at the online movie database IMDB.com.
“Kurmanjan Datka” is reportedly the most expensive Kyrgyz movie ever, and the first feature-length film commissioned by Kyrgyzstan’s perennially impoverished government. The Montreal Gazette called the film a “haunting poetic piece” that “transports you to another world.”
Two weeks after opening in cinemas in Bishkek and Osh, the historical epic – about a queen who united Kyrgyz tribes in the face of Russian aggression in the 19th century before succumbing to Moscow – has garnered more than 1,200 10-star ratings (out of 10 stars) at IMDB. Local social media users believe most of the votes come from Kyrgyzstanis who hope their ratings will help the movie attract prominent American distribution companies, and positive publicity for their remote country.
Journalist and blogger Ulugbek Akishev used Facebook to push his idea to organize a voting campaign on the day the film premiered in Bishkek, August 31. He believes a high IMDB rating would draw the interest of big distribution companies, help “Kurmanjan Datka” go global, and recoup the $1.5 million the government spent on production.
Three years after Kyrgyzstan slapped Vladimir Putin’s name on a mountain, some intrepid local businessmen are aiming to cash in on the name of Russia’s strongman president—recently found to be the most popular politician among Kyrgyzstanis.
Since early this month a black billboard promising a “Putin Pub” coming “soon” has loomed over the intersection of two central thoroughfares in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek. Cast in white, the Russian leader’s visage emerges out of the darkness in a style reminiscent of Marlon Brando on “The Godfather” film posters.
The backers of the “pub/sports bar/karaoke” joint are shrouded in mystery. That is not uncommon in Bishkek, where locals spend hours debating which parliamentarian owns what. But Artem Kolosov, who has been promoting the bar actively on social media, confirmed to EurasiaNet.org that the billboard is no hoax.
Thailand-based Kolosov, who describes himself as the pub’s “PR Director and Art Director” wrote to EurasiaNet.org in English: “I am sorry I cannot say where and when it will open. In mid-September opening [sic]. That's all I can say.”
As with Bishkek’s popular Obama Bar, with which Putin will soon compete, few in Bishkek seem concerned about naming rights. There is already the Guinness Pub, Kyrgyz Fried Chicken, Burger Kiиg and a number of other rip-offs.
But one commenter writing on the website of Kyrgyz news service AKIpress thought differently, musing: “Maybe Putin is opening the bar himself? Now that [Western] sanctions have hit Russia, his profits have fallen. So, he has decided to open a pub in a friendly country to create a new stream of income.”
Dushanbe and Beijing have launched construction of a key gas pipeline that will turn Tajikistan into a transit country for Central Asian gas supplies to neighboring China, the world’s largest energy consumer.
The pipeline will lock Tajikistan into an energy partnership with its powerful neighbor from which the former Soviet Union’s poorest country will reap millions of dollars every year in transit fees.
The project has “immense political, economic, and historical significance,” Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon said at the groundbreaking ceremony on September 13. His visiting Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, described the pipeline as a “symbol of China-Tajikistan friendship.”
The link will supplement the existing Central Asia pipeline running from Turkmenistan to China via Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. The new section bypassing Kazakhstan and passing through Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, known as Line D, will increase the pipeline’s overall annual capacity by 30 billion cubic meters, to around 85 billion. Like the other lines, it will also pass through Uzbekistan.
Tajikistan will host the longest section of the new 1,000-kilometer spur, with 400 kilometers passing through its territory. China will pick up the $3.2 billion price tag for that leg.
Beijing is already ramping up gas supplies through the existing Central Asia pipelines. A third line known as Line C started pumping from Turkmenistan in May, almost doubling the pipeline’s overall annual capacity to 55 billion cubic meters.
Russian President Vladimir Putin failed to score any major diplomatic victories at a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Tajikistan on September 12. The Kremlin appears eager to boost the six-state security bloc as its confrontation with the West over Ukraine drags on.
Putin used the Dushanbe summit – also attended by China’s Xi Jinping and the presidents of the four Central Asian members (Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kyrgyzstan’s Almazbek Atambayev, Tajikistan’s Emomali Rakhmon, and Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov) – to court international support for his policies in Ukraine.
Speaking after the summit, Putin said that the approaches of the SCO members on Ukraine were “identical and close.”
That looked like wishful thinking, however, given the evident concerns of his Chinese and Central Asian partners over Russia’s apparent military interventions and support for separatism in Ukraine.
Contending with separatist movements at home in Tibet and Xinjiang, China has always opposed what it terms “splittism,” while the Central Asian states – which, like Ukraine, have ethnic Russian minorities – are nervous of Russia’s regional saber-rattling.
The summit ended with the signing of a joint declaration containing a pro-forma call for “restoration of peace in Ukraine” (and a declaration of opposition to “unilateral and unrestricted” deployment of anti-missile systems, in a side swipe at the United States).
Gas-guzzling Kazakhstan – where the jeep has long since overtaken the horse as the favored means of transport – has been urged to save fuel, as a months-long gasoline shortage continues to distress drivers across Central Asia.
On September 2 Energy Minister Vladimir Shkolnik urged the people of his oil-rich country to cut back on consumption, suggesting carpooling and downsizing to small cars from the road-hogging jeeps his compatriots favor.
Kazakhstan is entering its third month of gasoline shortages, with long queues forming in many cities at filling stations, some of which have unilaterally imposed rationing.
The minister’s remarks caused a storm of protest on social media, as Radio Azattyq reported, prompting users to question if Shkolnik would be driving his neighbors to work and wonder where all the oil their country pumps is going, if not into their tanks.
As with so many of Kazakhstan’s economic woes these days, the answers to Kazakhstan’s fuel conundrum lies over the border in Russia, where rising prices mean Kazakhstani importers can no longer afford to buy fuel to sell at home.
This is due to the devaluation of the tenge in February, which has priced importers out of the Russian wholesale market, Aset Magauov, head of the Kazenergy industry association told Bnews on August 29. With prices at the pump controlled by the state in Kazakhstan, retail prices fell lower than wholesale prices in Russia, making imports uncompetitive.
Russia's Defense Ministry has announced plans to hold large-scale military maneuvers near the border with Kazakhstan. The announcement comes as relations between Moscow and Astana sink to their lowest level since the collapse of the Soviet Union, amid heightened regional tensions over the war in Ukraine.
Military exercises involving 4,000 troops and 400 pieces of military hardware will take place in the southern region of Altay in mid-September, Major Dmitriy Andreyev of Russia’s Strategic Missile Troops said on September 3, as quoted by RIA Novosti.
Andreyev described the maneuvers – in which troops will practice repelling strikes by precision weapons and counteracting saboteurs – as part of the Strategic Missile Troops’ “training plan.” However, Kremlin-controlled RIA Novosti did not miss the chance to note that recent military maneuvers in other parts of Russia “have aroused the concern of Western countries in the context of the situation in Ukraine.”
The announcement came amid a chill in the usually warm Russo-Kazakh relationship. Kazakhstan is a close ally of Russia and a fellow member of the Customs Union free trade zone, which is set to become the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) in January. The two presidents, Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, generally enjoy an affable personal relationship, too.
However, Astana’s loyalty has been tested to the limits by Russian policy in Ukraine, and by Moscow’s heavy-handed attempts to dictate its own vision of the EEU on other members.