Qahhor Mahkamov, the first president of Tajikistan, who led the country until the eve of independence and at a time of profound political convulsions, has died at the age of 84.
Asia-Plus website reported on June 8 that Mahkamov had long been suffering from illness.
Mahkamov was born to a peasant family on April 16, 1932, in the northern city of Khujand, which produced much of Tajikistan Soviet elite. His career followed a classic Soviet trajectory.
In 1953, he graduated from the Leningrad mountain mining institute and that same year began working as an engineer at a coal mine in Shurab, a village straddling the border with Kyrgyzstan. While progressing steadily up the ranks of the mining sector, in 1957, he joined the Communist Party.
In 1961, he was appointed chairman of the city executive committee of Leninabad, as Khujand was known at the time. Two years later, he was promoted to chairman of the Tajik SSR’s State Planning Committee, or Gosplan, a position he occupied for 19 years. From 1965, he simultaneously acted as deputy chairman of ministers in the Tajik SSR. And then from 1982 to 1986, he served as chairman of ministers in the Tajik SSR.
In December 1984, Mahkamov was appointed first secretary of the central committee of the Communist Party of Tajikistan, de facto making him the republic’s leader. From 1986, he became a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Despite being a true-believer in the communist system, Mahkamov embraced the reforms that came with perestroika and thought they would enable to flourishing of national self-awareness.
In his first public statement since the bloodshed in Aktobe, Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev depicted his country as being a target for outside-led, violent revolutionaries.
The rhetoric underscored the frenzied paranoia gripping the leadership in Astana as policymakers struggle to devise solutions to an increasingly radicalized mood in the country.
Nazarbayev was ostensibly referring in his June 8 address to the string of shootouts over the weekend, but the remarks suggested he also sees antigovernment protests as part of the broad destabilizing efforts hatched by mysterious foreign parties.
He was explicit about his suspicions that Aktobe was organized by outside forces.
“According to information in our possession, the terrorist acts were organized by adherent of radical pseudo-religious currents — they received instructions from overseas,” Nazarbayev said in a televised speech, which included a belated expression of condolence for the families of people killed in Aktobe.
From there, it was a short leap to the recent anti-land reform protests. Nazarbayev did not identify the rallies specifically, but the implication was clear.
Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev, meeting with National Security Committee chief Vladimir Zhumakanov on June 8, 2016.
Authorities in Kazakhstan look like anything but in control.
For a whole three days after violence erupted in the western city of Aktobe, Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev was nowhere to be seen.
Prime Minister Karim Masimov tepidly assured his Cabinet on June 6 that the president was monitoring events closely: “The head of state is maintaining this issue under his control.” But still no messages, of either reassurance or condolence, came out of the presidential administration in Astana.
The silence was finally broken on June 8, when the Akorda presidential administration released a video of a brief exchange between Nazarbayev and the chairman of the National Security Committee, Vladimir Zhumakanov.
In the briefing, Zhumakanov told Nazarbayev that 13 of the attackers involved in the shootouts in Aktobe had been killed and that another 14 were injured. Between gunmen, servicemen and civilians, a total of 20 people died in the clashes.
“During preparations for the crime, 20 people declined to participate directly — they have been identified and questioned,” he said. “Six people are wanted and, according to our information, they are in the Aktobe region.”
Nazarbayev, who looked weary and curiously had a bottle of hand sanitizer before him on his desk, tried to transmit some sense of menace and grit, although not very effectively.
“We know they are in the region, their names are known and the population has been warned. It is imperative that every last one is captured,” he said, barely raising his voice above a monotone. “If they resist, they must be eliminated. They should all be punished in a most severe fashion.”
Kazakhstan’s intelligence agency has named a Kazakh businessman as one of the mysterious “third forces” behind recent land protests that investigators claim was an attempt to mount a coup to overthrow President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Tokhtar Tuleshov, an entrepreneur from southern Kazakhstan who has been under arrest on corruption charges since January, “actively took specific steps toward the forcible seizure of power,” Ruslan Karasev, a spokesman for the National Security Committee, known by its Russian acronym — KNB, said at a briefing on June 6.
The KNB has proof that “protest actions against so-called ‘land reform’ that took place in the cities of Atyrau, Astana, Almaty, Uralsk and Kyzylorda were inspired and financed by Tuleshov.”
Protests against planned land reforms hit cities around Kazakhstan in late April and May, and an attempt to hold a nationwide day of protest on May 21 ended in forcible dispersals and the arrests of over 1,000 people, according to civil society campaigners.
“[Tuleshov’s] plan of action envisioned the destabilization of the situation in the country by means of creating hotbeds of tension, organizing protest actions and mass unrest, against the background of which he planned to form a so-called alternative government and change the structure of the existing power,” Karasev said.
Authorities in Kazakhstan said at least 10 people were killed on June 5 in a spate of shootouts in the western city of Aktobe instigated by a group of religious extremists.
Internet connections in the city were suspended shortly after the unrest broke out and officials provided only scant details about the unfolding events, fueling online speculation and sometimes muddled reporting.
Late in the evening, Interior Ministry spokesman Almas Sadubayev was reported as saying that a group of gunmen in the mid-afternoon stormed a hunting supplies shop, killing a sales clerk and a guard. Three police officers dispatched to the scene received gunshot wounds. During a raid on another gun store later in the day, a customer was killed, Sadubayev told Vlast.kz.
Sadubayev the armed gang also commandeered a commuter bus and rammed the gates of military base in the city.
“Having got into the grounds [of the base], they opened fire indiscriminately, killing three and wounding six servicemen,” he said.
Police joined troops on the base in repelling the assault and killed one of the attackers in the process, Sadubayev said.
Authorities reacted to the outbreak of violence by deploying special forces and declaring an antiterrorist operation.
“During the antiterrorist operation in Aktobe, four criminals were killed, seven were detained — two of them were injured,” Sadubayev said.
Earlier statements from the Interior Ministry identified the attackers as “adherents of nontraditional, radical religious groups.” That term is typically used as shorthand for Islamic extremists.
In recognition of their degree of concern, authorities declared a level red terrorism alert, the highest available.
The leadership of what was once Tajikistan’s last surviving genuine opposition party has been sentenced to lengthy prison terms, ending a trial that has sealed the country’s inexorable descent into full-fledged authoritarianism.
The Supreme Court in Dushanbe sentenced Mahmadali Hayit and Saidumar Khusaini, deputy leaders of the now-banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, to life in prison, RFE/RL’s Tajik service, Ozodi, reported on June 2.
IRPT faced accusations that it was involved in an alleged attempted coup in September that authorities say was mounted by a disaffected deputy defense minister.
Another 12 leading party figures were handed sentences of between two and 28 years in jail at the end of the closed-doors trial, according to lawyers and relatives of the accused.
The mildest sentence, two years in jail, was reserved for Zarafo Rahmoni, the only woman on trial. The others senteced were Rahmatullo Rajab, Kiemiddin Avazov, Abdukahhor Davlat, Sattor Karimov (28 years), Zubaydulloh Roziq (25 years), Fayzmuhammad Muhammadalii (23 years), Rustam Sadiddin (20 years), Vohidkhon Qosiddinov (20 years), Hikmatullo Sayfullozoda (16 years), Mahmadsharif Nabiev and Abdusamad Ghairatov (14 years). All were members of IRPT political council, except for Ghairatov, who led the party cell in the southern Kulob region.
The sentences are in line with what had been expected and reflect the rapid decline of Tajikistan’s political freedoms and human rights.
The summit of leaders from Eurasian Economic Union member states in Astana this week brought much grumbling with it, but there are some incremental signs of progress.
Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev set the tone on May 31 by pointing out problems on the border with Kazakhstan.
“Despite the positive aspects of integration, including the elimination of customs controls on the Kyrgyz-Kazakh border, the improvement of conditions for [Kyrgyz labor] migrants in Russia and other [EEU] states, I would like to note a number of problems. These are the matters of the harmonization of railway [transit] tariffs, the ban on the export of Kyrgyz potatoes to Kazakhstan, [phytosanitary-veterinary] controls on the Kyrgyz-Kazakh border, the transit of goods in Russia and a number of other things,” Atambayev said in remarks cited by Sputnik news agency.
There is a lot to unpack there, and even the good news Atambayev offered needs to be qualified.
Although custom controls were indeed lifted at the Kyrgyz-Kazakhstan border, it was only for them to be replaced with more stringent inspection regimes aimed at quashing the activities of unregistered traders exploiting differences in prices for various goods in the respective countries. Lengthy waits are still the norm for motorists and it will be a long time before the EEU becomes the kind of border-free space one sees in western Europe.
A group of activists in Kazakhtan’s business capital, Almaty, held an unsanctioned rally on May 31 in front of the US consulate in a gesture of support for the government.
A similarly unauthorized demonstration 10 days previously in the same city — albeit one against the government — resulted in firm action by riot police and multiple detentions, including of journalists covering the event.
The contrast has neatly illustrated the government’s arbitrary approach to enforcing public assembly laws that have come under much international criticism.
The US consulate rally was intended as a protest against marches that were held in two US cities, New York and San Francisco, in a show of solidarity for those detained on May 21. Curiously, the anti-US event was mounted by activists that have themselves repeatedly organized public events aimed at pressuring authorities into relieving them of what they feel to be onerous mortgages repayments.
“We understand everything perfectly well. If the United States begins to interfere in the affairs of one or other government, then soon enough this country will descend into chaos and disorder,” Zhanna Sadykova, a member of the Leave the Houses to the People coalition, told RFE/RL’s Kazakhstan service, Azattyq.
Sadykova’s remarks appeared to very closely echo positions expressed in recent weeks by media either owned by or loyal to the state.
Estimates of the number of people attending the US consulate rally ranged between 20 and 40.
People attending the solidarity marches in New York and San Francisco carried flags of Kazakhstan and carried signs calling for the ouster of President Nursultan Nazarbayev. It is presumed they were citizens of Kazakhstan, although it has not been possible to independently verify that fact. Sadykova was in little doubt, however.
Villages in the Pamir mountains of Tajikistan and Afghanistan have been joined by an electricity transmission line that will bring power to 3,000 Afghans for the first time in their history.
A ceremony to commemorate the event was observed by representatives from the US Embassy and the Aga Khan Foundation, who jointly funded the project, and Tajik and Afghan government officials, a US Embassy said in a statement issued on May 31.
The tortuous road that snakes along the Panj River, which marks the boundary between Tajikistan’s Pamir region and Afghanistan, presents a scene of stark contrasts. Villages on the Tajik side receive steady supplies of electricity from Pamir Energy, an energy company founded in 2002 as a public-private partnership between the government of Tajikistan, the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development and the International Finance Cooperation. When night falls, Afghan villages are largely plunged into darkness, while countless electric lights almost a literal stone’s throw away twinkle in the Tajik villages.
The US Embassy statement said that joining the Afghan villages to the electricity grid in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast
was completed with $1 million grant from USAID and a complementary $464,000 contribution from the Aga Khan Foundation.
“In addition to the newly connected villages, the project helped Pamir Energy upgrade its existing systems and infrastructure, laying the groundwork for further expansion and service improvement to customers on both sides of the Tajik-Afghan border,” the statement said.
Similar stories of cross-border cooperation are all too rare, but this precedent is a heartening change from the stories of violence and drug-trafficking more typically associated with the Afghan border.
Being hard of hearing in Kazakhstan is enough in at least one major credit company to ensure you will be denied a loan.
News website Nur.kz has reported on the recent case of a woman with a hearing impairment in the southern city of Kyzylorda who tried, and almost failed, to raise the money to buy a tablet computer worth 55,000 tenge ($164). The woman’s plan was to take out credit and pay the debt off out of her disability benefits.
She was turned down by one bank, so she went instead with a relative, who could communicate through sign language, to a branch of Bank Home Credit, which is one of Kazakhstan’s largest household credit institutions.
While processing the forms, the Bank Home Credit employee hid the fact that the applicant had a disability. The bank worker warned that if a manager from a head office called the customer for further questions, she should avoid mentioning the disability as it could result in a disqualification. In the event, no information about the disability was disclosed and the loan was granted.
Following the furor caused by the story, Bank Home Credit on May 30 had to issue a statement defending its policy of denying loans to disabled customers. The lender said that in order to establish the creditworthiness of an individual, they have to be able to communicate fully with the person, which they said was rendered impossible by impairments in vision, hearing and speech.
The woman in Kyzylorda confessed to being shocked by the bank’s policy. Her loan would have required monthly repayments of 7,000 tenge ($21), a sum that she said even benefit recipients could manage.
As bizarre as it may seem, this kind of discrimination is not unique.