Islamic militancy is high on the agenda in Central Asia. This week, authorities have handed lengthy prison terms at two unrelated trials in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
Six people were jailed for between nine and 15 years on terrorism charges at a mass trial involving 66 suspects in southwestern Uzbekistan. A court in central Kazakhstan jailed four citizens for between six and 12 years for recruiting militants to wage holy war in Syria.
At the mass trial in the city of Qashqadaryo in Uzbekistan, three men and three women were jailed on July 22 for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government of the strongman president, Islam Karimov, and propagating terrorism, RFE/RL reported, citing the Tashkent-based Ezgulik (Compassion) human rights center.
In Kazakhstan, the conviction of the four over the Syria recruitment campaign in and around the city of Zhezkazgan, reported by Tengri News on July 22, came as media reports emerged of a new propaganda video showing 16 people believed to be from Kazakhstan (since some are speaking Kazakh) who have headed off to fight in the Middle East.
Authorities in Central Asia have frequently cited Syria-linked threats this year amid a growing number of reports that militants from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are waging holy war in Syria.
A graduate student detained by Tajikistan’s security services over five weeks ago and accused of treason has been released on his own recognizance. Alexander Sodiqov confirmed to the BBC’s Russian Service late on July 22, "I'm home. I'm happy. I'm with my family. I'm doing well. I've been treated well.” He is reportedly not allowed to leave the country.
Sodiqov, 31, was arrested on June 16 while interviewing an opposition leader in Badakhshan province, scene of fighting between militants and government troops in 2012 and renewed upheaval in May. A political science PhD student at the University of Toronto, Sodiqov was home in his native Tajikistan carrying out research for the University of Exeter when he was detained.
The State Committee for National Security (GKNB) accused Sodiqov of carrying out “subversion and espionage” for an unnamed foreign country. As EurasiaNet reported:
Friends and colleagues are growing increasingly concerned that Tajikistan’s heavy-handed authorities may be trying to make an example out of Sodiqov to discourage others from examining tensions between Tajikistan’s authoritarian government and minorities in the restive eastern province of Badakhshan. […]
Tajik authorities are notoriously thin-skinned about anyone prying into their fraught relations with ethnic minorities in Badakhshan, which happens to be a key weigh station on the drug trafficking route between Afghanistan and Russia.
A Kazakhstani citizen, convicted of conspiracy and obstruction of justice in connection with the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, faces up to 20 years in a federal prison.
Azamat Tazhayakov, 20, was convicted on July 21 by a jury in US District Court in Boston. He is scheduled to have sentencing hearing on October 16. His defense team intends to appeal the conviction in the meantime.
According to US prosecutors, Tazhayakov, along with another Kazakhstani national, Dias Kadyrbayev, were friends of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who is accused of carrying out the attacks that claimed three lives and wounded more than 260 people near the marathon finish line on April 15, 2013. All three were students at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth at the time. Tsarnaev’s brother, Tamerlan, believed to be the driving force behind the bombings, was killed during a shootout with police on April 19, 2013.
Days after the bombings, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev allegedly sent a text message requesting that Tazhayakov and Kadyrbayev remove items from the accused bomber’s dormitory room, including a backpack, which they subsequently threw in a dumpster.
Tazhayakov was the first of four individuals indicted on charges of conspiracy and obstruction in connection with the marathon bombings to stand trial. Kadyrbayev’s trial is scheduled to begin in September. Tsarnaev’s trial is slated to start in November.
A popular Russian social networking site appears to have become the latest target of Tajikistan’s Internet sentinels.
Odnoklassniki.ru became inaccessible in Tajikistan this weekend, users say.
Tajik officials often block websites that carry material critical of the government. As usual, the communications agency has said little, today even denying it knows of the problem. But a representative of one leading Internet Service Provider (ISP) said he had received an oral order to block the site.
Odnoklassniki is popular among the million-plus Tajik migrant workers abroad who use it to communicate with their families back home.
Some users told Radio Ozodi that the site may have been blocked because some Tajiks fighting alongside jihadists in Syria have used it to post extremist content. Others point out that, like Facebook – which also has been blocked at times – Odnoklassniki is frequently used to spread material critical of the government and its strongman president.
YouTube also has been unavailable for a few weeks though authorities deny they are responsible. In June, when YouTube was also blocked, all other Google products were unavailable as well for a few days, though that appeared to be a technical side effect of the YouTube block (Google owns YouTube).
As such obstructions have become common in recent years, many Internet users have turned to proxy services. But the authorities are catching up and appear to be hindering access to those, too.
Tourists associate Kyrgyzstan’s Lake Issyk-Kul with beaches, children hawking boiled corn, and a welcome reprieve from the sweltering summers that plague most of Central Asia. But for the residents of Kadji Sai on the lake’s southern shore, the summer tourist influx is only a distraction from the trouble looming, literally, right over them: a derelict Soviet-era uranium mine.
Just uphill, the mine and uranium-processing mill were the original rationale for the settlement. But they closed when the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s. In recent years, the site has become a source of radiation-related concerns. When heavy rains hit the area, the uranium tailings – buried between two creek beds – are frequently covered in water; the overflow drains through the village and into Issyk-Kul.
On a recent visit, one resident expressed the frustration that many of his neighbors share: “Everything was just left here. People that could leave, did. But for those of us who stay here and who have families here, what can we do? It seems like everyone wants to come to Kyrgyzstan and make mines but how do we live with [the mines] once they’re finished?”
As foreign donors, government agencies and NGOs spend time and money discussing the cleanup, local officials are often reduced to hand wringing, begging someone to do something. In the case of Kadji Sai, local authorities say they are unable even to afford guards to keep scavengers from looting the little valuable equipment and infrastructure that remains.
Tajik Foreign Minister Sirojiddin Aslov (center right) speaking at the House of Lords on July 2.
Two weeks after Tajikistan's secret police arrested researcher Alexander Sodiqov on bogus treason charges, Tajikistan’s foreign minister visited London for a series of long-planned bilateral talks. At times, the atmosphere was tense. The Tajiks wanted to focus on issues of political and economic cooperation, but they came away from London with little to show except for a lot of bad press concerning Sodiqov.
Kyrgyzstan's massive loss at an arbitration court this month has encouraged speculation that the country's only significant foreign asset – its stake in a Canadian gold mining company – is up for grabs.
On July 2, a tribunal in Moscow awarded Toronto-listed Stans Energy Corp $118.2 million in damages in a dispute over the Kutessay-II heavy rare earth elements mine in Kyrgyzstan’s Talas Province. Stans acquired a 20-year license to the mine in 2009, which the Kyrgyz parliament recommended the government annul in 2012. (Stans has alleged that powerful Chinese interests in Kyrgyzstan bribed parliamentarians to revoke the license in order to help Beijing maintain control over the lucrative rare earths market.)
Canada’s National Post reports that Stans has few options because Kyrgyzstan, one of the poorest countries in Asia, does not have that kind of cash lying about. So Stans could seek to seize Kyrgyzstan’s shares in Toronto-listed Centerra Gold, which, in turn, owns Kyrgyzstan’s largest industrial asset, the Kumtor Gold Mine. From the National Post’s financial pages:
It is highly unlikely that Kyrgyzstan will respect the ruling and pay out any cash. That leaves Stans the option of securing verdicts against one or more of the state’s foreign assets. And a logical one to go after would be Kyrgyzstan’s 32.7% stake in Centerra, currently worth almost $500 million.
An exchange of fire between troops on a disputed section of the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border reportedly left at least one dead and several injured on July 10. Tensions have risen sharply again in this volatile part of the Fergana Valley after negotiations over a controversial road construction project fell apart earlier this week.
According to the Kyrgyz Border Service, about 30 Tajik citizens were trying to build a water pipeline from Kyrgyz territory to the Vorukh exclave, a parcel of Tajik territory surrounded entirely by Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyz border guards demanded they stop, the Tajiks threw stones and eventually troops from the two sides exchanged fire.
According to the Tajik-language service of Radio Liberty, citing a local doctor in Vorukh, one Tajik national (apparently a civilian) died and five were injured in the exchange of fire. Dushanbe’s Asia-Plus news agency reports seven wounded. Tajikistan's Foreign Ministry says the Kyrgyz border guards picked a fight, shot without warning, and that the Tajik border guards did not fire a single shot.
Later in the day, the Kyrgyz Border Service said Tajik border guards had opened fire on another Kyrgyz checkpoint, this time with mortars and grenades.
That’s the lesson after a Chinese company appears to have bested a Russian one for the right to turn Kyrgyzstan’s main civilian airport into a strategic aviation “hub” for freight and passenger flights connecting Europe and Asia.
The Chinese maneuver would not have surprised anyone in a country where China is building almost everything, except that Kremlin-controlled energy giant Rosneft appeared to have had the deal to remodel Bishkek’s Manas International Airport in the bag. On February 19, Putin ally Igor Sechin, Rosneft’s chairman, and Kyrgyz First Deputy Prime Minister Djoomart Otorbaev (now prime minister), signed a memorandum on Rosneft’s interest in the airport and its lucrative fuel-distribution contracts.
Fast forward five months and both Russian and Taiwanese media are reporting that Beijing Urban Construction Group will invest $1 billion in the makeover, a figure similar to the Rosneft deal. China Machinery Engineering Corporation will sign a $300 million deal for the country’s second airport, in the southern city of Osh—another asset that had interested Rosneft.
"So far these are memorandums of intention, but in the near future the fully planned projects will be ready," Kommersant quoted Kyrgyz Economics Minister Temir Sariyev as saying on July 4. The reports do not mention what share in the airports the Chinese will get.
In the corner of a small pizzeria in central Bishkek, an experiment is unfolding. Central Asia’s first and only bitcoin ATM converts dollars into the world’s most popular cryptocurrency. The machine – which looks like one of the city’s ubiquitous electronic pay terminals – offers a way to convert hard currency into a digital medium that is increasingly used in online transactions.
That could impact how Kyrgyzstan’s estimated one million migrant workers transfer their earnings home, says the machine’s owner, Emanuele Costa, an Italian financial analyst. The World Bank estimates that last year migrant remittances totaled the equivalent of 31 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s GDP. Most of that money, several billion dollars, was transferred through expensive, fee-based services like Western Union and Zolotaya Korona. Costa, a former analyst with Goldman Sachs, sees bitcoin as a low-cost, secure and confidential alternative.
Bitcoin, invented by a group of anonymous Internet users in 2009, is the first and most prominent digital cryptocurrency to gain wide circulation. Not controlled by national governments or banks, bitcoin offers a peer-to-peer encrypted payment system that can be readily converted into cash or, increasingly, used in exchange for products or services. Fees, when they exist, are agreed upon by users and are usually nominal. Bitcoin’s value fluctuates based on supply and demand; one bitcoin is currently worth about $642.
Though Costa is a staunch believer in bitcoin’s potential, he admits that it faces some hurdles. Foremost is a lack of understanding.