A young man in southern Kazakhstan has committed suicide by setting himself alight in a gesture intended to draw attention to what he said was the injustice he has suffered at the hands of the police.
The desperate act bears echoes of a similar self-immolation by a street vendor in Tunisia in 2010, which sparked a wave of protests that led to the toppling of that country’s long-term president.
Yerlan Bektibayev, 20, set himself on fire on October 24 in front of the local headquarters of the ruling Nur Otan party in Taraz. The town was the center of much official coverage earlier this month, when it hosted celebrations to mark what Kazakhstan’s authorities say was the 550th anniversary of Kazakh statehood. Those festivities were designed in part to help shore up support for President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
“I have come here because I hope Nur Otan will help me,” Bektibayev said in a video later posted on YouTube. The footage then shows Bektibayev setting himself on fire before running while screaming with pain into the Nur Otan building.
Police said on October 26 that they had arrested people they suspect filmed the video, but did not specify on what charges. The person filming appears directly complicit in Bektibayev's self-immolation and makes no evident effort to aid the young man once he has followed through on the act.
Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe embarked on his historic days-long tour of the five countries of Central Asia with a small army of businessmen, banking officials and academics in tow.
This is the first time a Japanese leader has taken all the region’s countries, as well as Mongolia, in a single visit — a clear signal of intent to expand Tokyo’s presence in an area increasingly dominated by the rival economy of China.
Energy was at the top of Abe’s agenda, as suggested by the sealing of $18 billion in deals in Turkmenistan on October 23.
“We have signed documents on a range of projects in the chemical industry and for the construction of electrical generation plants for a total value of $18 billion,” Abe told reporters in Ashgabat.
Those projects include development on the huge Galkynysh natural gas field, building of power stations in the east of the country and polyethylene and propylene production plants, according to Turkmen officials.
The agreements will see Japanese companies like JGC Corporation, Mitsubishi, Chiyoda Corporation and Sojitz Corporation collective investing around $10 billion in Galkynysh, which is estimated to possibly hold 21.2 trillion cubic meters of gas.
Meanwhile, Sumimoto Corporation has received a $300 million order to complete gas-fired power plants with a 400 Megawatt capacity.
Large dollars figures were also flung about with abandon on October 25 in Uzbekistan, where the two countries signed off on $8.5 billion worth of deal.
According to Uzbekistan’s presidential website, Japanese investment will be primarily targeted at modernization of energy and transportation infrastructure, developing mineral resources, automobile construction, the oil, gas and chemical industries, and telecommunications.
Central Asia faces a bleak economic outlook and policy-makers should prepare for the long haul as the shocks buffeting the region are likely to be enduring, the International Monetary Fund has said.
In Central Asia, “the situation and outlook are worse than for the world economy as a whole,” Juha Kahkonen, deputy director of the IMF’s Middle East and Central Asia Department, said at a briefing in Almaty on October 23. “This is because the region has been hit by three major external shocks.”
The IMF identifies the wave of external shocks as the fall in global prices for the commodities that Central Asia exports, which range from oil and gas to metals, repercussions from the recession-hit Russian economy, which the IMF expects to contract by 3.8 percent this year, and the shifts in major global exchange rates pressuring regional currencies.
Added to all those woes is the slowdown in China, a major trading partner and investor for the Central Asian states.
The IMF says that as a result, the region will experience slower growth than it has become accustomed to in recent years.
Kazakhstan — which is suffering from low oil and metals prices and struggling with pressure on its currency that has seen the tenge lose around half of its value since the central bank moved to a free float in August — is expected to see growth of just 1.5 percent this year, according to both IMF and government forecasts. That is down from 4.3 percent last year.
A manhunt in Kyrgyzstan for a group of prison fugitives culminated in a bloody showdown on October 22 with police and special forces killing the last escapee at large.
Authorities sought to cast the fugitives as dangerous Islamist militants, but a spate of mysterious deaths and implausible details in the official narrative suggest the focus may fall elsewhere.
According to the government account, the drama began on the night of October 11, when nine inmates at a detention facility outside the capital, Bishkek, overpowered guards and made their escape. Three guards are said to been killed during the breakout, and another to have died of his injuries some days later.
Five of the men were captured almost immediately and again incarcerated. Within ten days, three of them had died in strange circumstances.
But the focus of attention over the past week has been on the four that got away.
Progress was slow to begin with, but all but one from that group has now been killed.
The first to be tracked down was Daniyar Kadyraliev, who was surrounded by police as he holed up in the Dordoi residential complex in the capital, Bishkek.
The Interior Ministry said Kadyraliev was shot dead after tried to attack a police officer with a knife. In a confusing detail, it was initially reported that it was not Kadyraliev that had been killed but another person in the group of escapees, Azamat Masuraliev.
In fact, Masuraliev would end up being killed by police four days later in the a village in the Sokoluk district of the northern Chui province.
An Interior Ministry source told AKIpress that Masuraliev was killed resisting arrest while hiding in a barn.
A court has ordered the closure of one of Kazakhstan’s last independent media outlets following a legal battle that has been closely observed by freedom of speech campaigners.
The shuttering of the hard-hitting current affairs magazine follows an appeal by an international organization to Kazakhstan’s foreign minister to intervene over the case to protect press freedom.
The court ruling ordering the closure of Adam (Person), which is known for its gutsy reporting and critical take on President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s rule, was handed down on October 22, Kazakhstan’s Adil Soz press freedom watchdog reported.
The ruling followed the magazine’s suspension in August on a linguistic technicality and was made on the same grounds. The court found that when Adam registered with the authorities earlier this year — after the courts had closed a previously existing independent magazine called Adam Bol — it gave its languages of publication as Kazakh and Russian. The magazine in fact only runs in Russian.
Adil Soz deemed the suspension anti-constitutional, since the magazine was under no legal requirement to publish in two languages.
This time, the court ordered the closure not only of the printed magazine but also of an online version and its Facebook page, where Adam’s editorial team had posted material since the suspension.
As winter draws closer and temperatures drop, Tajikistan is entering another season of electricity rationing.
Interfax news agency reported from a press conference on October 19 with the head of state energy company Barki Tojik that an official limit would be imposed on the amount of electricity being supplied to households from October 28.
Nozirjon Yodgori told reporters that the rolling blackouts were needed to preserve required water levels at the all-important Nurek reservoir. The Nurek hydropower plant produces 80 percent of Tajikistan’s electricity requirements.
Before the day was out, however, it became increasingly obvious that the rationing regime would have to be brought forward.
In fact, after the press conference, Yodgori announced through state news agency Khovar that rationing had in fact already started, on October 18.
“Electricity will be supplied to the country’s citizens in accordance with payment — the timetable of power supply will be established later. Also, energy supply may depend on weather conditions,” he said.
It is a confusing picture overall, although residents of the capital, Dushanbe, may not be too bothered as they are to be spared rationing.
Shortages had already been reported in rural areas. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Tajik service, Radio Ozodi, said residents of rural areas around the town of Kulyab have been getting power for only four hours in the morning and five hours in the evening since September 29. Speaking to Radio Ozodi, however, Yodgori denied those reports of shortages.
Kyrgyzstan’s election commission has published definitive results from the October 4 vote, which has handed the leading Social Democratic Party (SDPK) 38 out of the 120 seats on offer.
The figures released on October 15 show that runner-up Respublika-Ata Jurt has won 28 seats. Other parties with deputies in parliament are Kyrgyzstan, on 18, Onuugu-Progress, on 13, Bir Bol, on 12, and in final place Ata-Meken with 11 seats.
Hard negotiating now lies ahead before parties can form a majority coalition, but with the economy in the state that it’s in, there may be strong competition for staying out of the fray.
Even as back-room talks are going on, some surprising personalities have either left or been booted out of their party lists, meaning they will miss out on a place in parliament.
One such prominent figure was Djoomart Otorbayev, who resigned as prime minister in April and ran in fifth place on the Ata-Meken party list. The speculation is that Otorbayev may have fallen on his sword after failing to boost the party’s performance in the Kemin district in northern Kyrgyzstan, where he had been expected to rally support.
Otorbayev had been thought to be a potential shot for the presidential election in 2017, but his prospects look to have been weakened.
Every elected party lost people from its list for one reason or another, but nobody came even close to Respublika-Ata Jurt for its enthusiasm on that front. A staggering 70 candidates from the party’s list have been excluded, making way for more obscure members.
Almaty is cleaning up its act as residents have now got a direct line to the mayor via Instagram for reporting problems on the city's streets in real time.
Baurzhan Baybek was appointed in August as a leading light of Kazakhstan's new guard of western-educated apparatchiks. A few months into his term, Baybek’s office brought the administration kicking and screaming into the cyber-age by setting up the akimat_almaty Instagram account.
The page, which has already attracted more than 22,000 followers, encourages residents to post images of problems in the city using the hashtag #akimatalmaty. Concerned citizens have posted pictures of garbage heaps and missing drain covers. In response, the mayor's office has fixed the problems and then posted photos of its work.
Since replacing the old guard mayor, Akhmetzhan Yesimov, Baybek has overseen a more hands-on approach to running Kazakhstan's most populous city. In one notable case, he visited an Almaty children's hospital after pictures of appalling conditions in the clinic were posted on Facebook.
The Instragram account has also been used to publicize city hall initiatives, including the establishment of a dedicated bus lane on the main Abai Avenue and pre-paid tickets for the city's public transport network.
It also harnessed cyberspace to promote a city-wide clean-up day on October 10, which saw students and public sector workers tidying up their places of study and work. The exercise bore echoes of the Soviet-era subbotnik, when 'volunteers' got involved in community service projects on weekends.
Police in Kazakhstan have thrown two activists behind bars on suspicion of fomenting ethnic strife through postings on social networks in which they quoted from an old, unpublished book.
The arrests of Serikzhan Mambetalin and Yermek Narymbayev – who are vocal online critics of President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s rule, but wield little on-the-ground influence to rally support against it – are symptomatic of the extent to which the authorities in Kazakhstan go to crush even limited, or virtual, dissent.
The two were arrested on October 12 on the basis of allegations of “their dissemination on social networks of information containing clear signs of fomenting ethnic strife, [and] insults against ethnic honor and dignity,” the Almaty police department said in a statement put out the following day.
They are being investigated under a broad charge covering incitement to social, ethnic, tribal or religious strife. The offense is punishable with a fine or up to 12 years in jail.
This is one of the charges under which opposition leader Vladimir Kozlov was jailed in 2012 for seven and a half years after being found guilty of fomenting social strife that prosecutors argued led to fatal unrest in the town of Zhanaozen.
Police did not further specify the nature of the suspicions against the two activists, but Mambetalin offered a clue before his arrest. Writing on his Facebook page two days earlier, he said they were under attack for citing the writings of Murat Telibekov, another activist who is known for his anti-regime views.
In their intent to marginalize the role of Islam in public life, authorities in Tajikistan are reportedly prohibiting government employees from attending Friday prayers.
Independent news website Asia-Plus based its October 12 report on the ban on testimonies from unnamed civil servants.
The prohibition fits into a broader pattern of pressure against public displays of piety. An informal ban against young men wearing beards is eagerly enforced, while women with veils covering the face can expect to be hauled off the streets by police.
That intimidation is coupled with an ongoing crackdown of what was Central Asia’s only legal Islamic political party – the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan – until it was banned this summer. Almost the entire party leadership is now behind bars pending trials on flimsy claims of involvement in an alleged insurgency.
Moves against government workers attending Friday prayers at the mosque appear to be a recent development and began after the Eid al-Adha holiday, better known as Idi Qurbon in Tajikistan, which was marked this year on September 23.
“Over the last two weeks, after Idi Qurbon, our management forbade us from leaving work to attend Friday prayers,” one unnamed government employee told Asia-Plus.
The website said that the report had been confirmed by the state Committee for Religious Affairs and the Regulation of Traditions and Customs.