Kazakhstan’s National Security Committee, or KNB, is set to receive more powers.
Under a government-initiated draft bill now under consideration, the KNB could be authorized to investigate suspected cases of corruption by certain government departments, including the anti-corruption services and the military.
First deputy Prosecutor General Johann Merkel on February 15 described this provision as laying the ground for greater balance among investigative organs, although the KNB appear to be gaining the upper hand in this arrangement.
The evolution of the KNB into the battering ram of the government’s stated goal to stamp out corruption has been taking place for some weeks already. Placing the anticorruption agency under the KNB’s watch, therefore, represents a formal confirmation of an already existing situation.
Another contentious section of the same legislative package envisions a stiff increase in fines for people found guilty of harassing — even if not physically molesting — law enforcement officers — up to 11 million tenge ($34,000).
Even the speaker of the Majlis, the lower house of parliament, Nurlan Nigmatulin, was moved to describe the proposed fine as “mind-numbing” and suggested that it perhaps be revised downward.
Despite this unusual grumbling, MPs waved the bill through its first reading, thereby readily confirming the reputation of the Majlis as a rubber-stamping adjunct of the government. A review on the size of the fines is expected during the second reading.
Screengrab from a promotional film produced by Tajikistan's aluminum giant Talco.
It is virtually axiomatic in Tajikistan that any major investor should, metaphorically speaking, expect to get their fingers burnt and then be forced to pay for a taxi to the hospital afterward.
Consider the long-running saga with Russian metals giant Rusal, which has after years of trials and tribulations finally left Tajikistan and with losses likely running into the dozens of millions of dollars.
Under a recently thrashed out deal, Tajikistan’s heavily indebted aluminum producer Talco has relieved Rusal of its two remaining assets in the country — the Sozidanie business center and the Hyatt Regency Hotel.
Talco will pay Rusal around $150 million over a 10-year period, RFE/RL’s Tajik service, Radio Ozodi, reported on February 14. A source familiar with the deal has told EurasiaNet.org that the foreign staff managing both facilities will leave the country, leaving Tajik personnel to take over.
Talks about the transfer of property had been going on for some time and likely turned a final corner in the last week of December, when Rusal chief executive Vladislav Soloviev traveled to the Tajik capital, Dushanbe.
Talco is controlled by Hasan Asadullozoda, brother-in-law of President Emomali Rahmon, so this is yet more of the country’s wealth falling into the hands of the ruling family. (That said, Asadullozoda is going through his own troubles with the rest of the family, so this is not quite as cozy as it may initially appear).
The transaction appears to put a definitive end to the long-standing row between Tajikistan and Rusal, which is owned by Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska.
In the wake of the mayor of Tajikistan’s capital getting sidelined, his allies are now systematically being cleared out of jobs in and near the government.
On February 13, the executive committee of President Emomali Rahmon’s People’s Democratic Party assembled and decided to remove six leading party apparatchiks.
The changes were effected at Rahmon’s behest.
Tajikistan-focused news website Akhbor cited an unnamed source in the party as saying the process is intended to rid the city hall of ex-mayor Mahmadsaid Ubaidulloev’s cronies. New appointees will reportedly instead be the cronies of the new mayor, who also happens to be son of President Rahmon — Rustam Emomali. (Tajik sons take the first name of their father as a second name).
The authorities are trying to cast Emomali’s ascendancy to the mayor’s job as a much-needed injection of energy. Rahmon in December declared 2017 the year of youth and in that spirit gave his 29-year old scion a job for which he has little obvious background.
Acting quickly, Emomali dumped the sitting mayoral press secretary and the head of the city television station, Poytakht. Then on January 16, he fired the head of Dushanbe’s public records department, Saidhomid Mahmudov, who is Ubaidulloev’s cousin.
On February 7, less than a month after losing his mayoral post, Ubaidulloev resigned his seat on the Dushanbe city council, as did his ex-city hall chief of staff, Firuz Ulmasov.
A third heavyweight has entered the running in Kyrgyzstan’s presidential election, setting the stage for what could become Central Asia’s most eagerly ever contested democratic battle.
The parliamentary faction of the Respublika-Ata Jurt party tandem on February 14 unanimously nominated wealthy businessman and former prime minister Omurbek Babanov to stand in October’s vote.
Babanov has been active in politics since 2005 and proven a canny and cynical operator ever since. Early on, he was a member of the now-ruling Social Democratic Party (SDPK) and accordingly a leading figure among the opposition to former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s rule before he was successfully co-opted and named deputy prime minister in January 2009.
That stint under Bakiyev did not last very long, however, and Babanov was duly released from his duties in October 2009. Babanov was adamant at the time that “there is no talk of my return to the opposition.” The timing of the departure from government was fortuitous since Bakiyev was overthrown in a bloody revolt in April 2010.
Despite his sniffy stance toward his erstwhile SDPK allies in the latter days of the Bakiyev regime, Babanov was named prime minister in 2011 only to be forced out of the job in 2012 by a scandal involving the suspicious gift of an English-bred horse.
Babanov has remained an ever-present if relatively low-key presence on the political scene, occasionally criticizing the government but largely refraining from the type of flamboyant antics favored by the nationalist Ata-Jurt component of his political current.
Anti-corruption officials on February 10 detained the editor of one of Kazakhstan’s few surviving independent news publications on charges of corruption, once more arousing anxieties about the fast-vanishing space for free media in the country.
Authorities are accusing Zhanbolat Mamay, editor of Tribuna newspaper, of involvement in fraudulent schemes with fugitive banker and government foe Mukhtar Ablyazov.
The Anti-Corruption Service said in a statement that they suspect Mamay of using his publication to launder money allegedly embezzled from BTA Bank by Ablyazov and his associate Zhaksylyk Zharimbetov.
Ablyazov is accused of defrauding BTA Bank, which he used to run, of billions of dollars between 2005 and 2009. Kazakhstan has sought but failed on repeated counts to secure Ablyazov’s deportation from either the United Kingdom or France.
Anti-corruption officials have said they are running searches for documentation possibly confirming allegations of money-laundering.
A journalist for Tribuna, Inga Imanbai, published video footage on her Facebook account of the moment when the anti-corruption officers arrived to search the newspaper’s offices. Imanbai said that the same officers had previously also visited Mamay’s apartment.
Unlike most media in Kazakhstan, Tribuna is not a beneficiary of the “state order” system, whereby the government either finances outlets outright or pays for the publication of material publicizing state policies and initiatives. It focuses primarily on social issues and has a line that tends toward robust criticism of the government and provides a platform for the few opposition politicians remaining on the scene.
The picture for Kyrgyzstan’s presidential election is becoming ever clearer with new candidates either throwing their hat into the ring or being linked with plans to do so imminently.
The second addition to the roster, following former prime minister Temir Sariyev, is the leader of the Onuguu-Progress party, 43-year old Bakyt Torobayev, who told his supporters on February 10 that he wants to see Kyrgyzstan install a “dictatorship of law,” borrowing an old line from Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
Torobayev struck a populist and workmanlike tone in his declaration of intent to run in October’s vote.
“People ask me what form of system I favor — presidential or parliamentary. If I am honest, we have really tired people with this business. I am for that form of government that will create jobs, where young people won’t need to go abroad for work, where every citizen will feel protected, both legally and socially. I would call this form of government a dictatorship of law,” Torobayev was cited as saying by 24.kg news agency.
Onuguu-Progress is a recent fixture on the Kyrgyz political scene, having been formed in May 2013 as a Torobayev-led, four-deputy splinter group of the business-focused Respublika party faction in parliament. Torobayev was deputy speaker of parliament at the time.
Onuguu-Progress, and Torobayev accordingly, have cast themselves as “centrist” and “neo-conservative,” agitating for the protection of property rights, advancing the values of a market economy and promoting political competition. The party has explicitly renounced any appeals to the street-based politics that has prevailed in Kyrgyzstan for much of the past two decades.
Kazakhstan is patting itself on the back after a successful conclusion to the Universiade 2017 winter student games in Almaty.
“Universiade 2017 has proved to be a true festival of sport for all Kazakhstanis,” President Nursultan Nazarbayev said in a statement posted on his official website.
The games culminated with a boisterous closing ceremony which saw athletes parading through the 12,000-capacity Almaty Arena to a soundtrack of pulsating Kazakh music provided by the group Ulytau, 150 drummers and other stars from Kazakhstan.
“The 28th Winter Universiade has taken place at a high level, despite the modest budget input,” Prime Minister Bakhytzhan Sagintayev told the crowd at the closing ceremony.
“Over a billion viewers followed the Universiade. We have seen how sports, health and culture facilities, that are going to function for the good of our country's inhabitants, were erected in a short time. We are proud of our victories and we thank you all,” he said.
Nazarbayev offered further congratulations to Kazakhstan’s athletes on finishing second on the medal table with 11 golds, 8 silvers and 17 bronzes, behind only Russia who scooped up more than one-third of the gold medals on offer.
Authorities in Kazakhstan have responded to the moral panic about the widely reported online suicide games by proposing fresh restrictions on access to social media websites.
The scare originally had its roots in Russia, where media outlets — primarily the liberal-leaning Novaya Gazeta — last year whipped up a hysteria over claims that shadowy individuals on the internet were egging on youngsters into taking their own lives. Novaya Gazeta came in for strong criticism for creating a hype on the basis of scant evidence of a real major threat.
Out of the blue, however, at the end of January, several Russian-language outlets in Central Asia almost simultaneously took up the mantle of reviving the scare.
In Kazakhstan, the charge was led by privately owned television channel KTK, which ran a lurid and skimpily sourced report claiming the grisly fad had spread from Russia.
The hype was given a fresh kickstart this week following reports that a 19-year old girl in the city of Karaganda had committed suicide. Media reports claimed to cite her parents as saying they found strange hashtags in messages on their daughter’s phone that indicated she may have been lured into one of the much talked-about suicide games.
Suggestions of a link between online games and this suicide were swiftly scotched by police, however. Interior Ministry representative Almas Sadubayev said on February 7 that investigations into the death were still ongoing, but that “information about the suicide being committed under the influence of social media websites is incorrect.”
Sadubayev said there had been no confirmed cases of any teenage suicide as a result of online games.
Weeks after the government in Tajikistan announced an ambitious bond issue to help finance a bailout for several struggling banks, prosecutors have decided to start investigating the lenders.
The four banks being audited by the General Prosecutor’s Office are Tojiksodirotbank, Agroinvestbank, Tojprombank and state-owned Amonatbank.
Another troubled lender, Fononbank, is being spared the treatment because it was already audited last year over suspicions that it was somehow collaborating with the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT).
RFE/RL’s Tajikistan service, Radio Ozodi, reported that checks on the four banks are set to last six months. A representative for the General Prosecutor’s Office, Hotam Nazarzoda, said that the operation was being carried out at the request of the government to establish that the lenders were not being “mismanaged.”
If this explanation sounds unilluminating, it may be by design. Prosecutors have refrained from explaining quite what they mean by “mismanagement” or why this should be a matter for them to investigate.
But one unidentified source told Radio Ozodi this was primarily a reference to the way in which the banks issue loans. The source explained that some banks have been known to accept doors, windows, cows and other livestock as collateral for credit, immaterial of whether the customer was ever likely to be able to repay their debt. This sort of liberal credit-giving has, in the opinion of the authorities, led to lenders being driven to the verge of collapse.
“Animals have the habit of dying, and sometimes they do it early. And there have been cases when an apartment worth $50,000 could be displayed as being worth $100,000. These is called unguaranteed collateral,” the source told Radio Ozodi.
Photo: Mariusz Kluzniak via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/dbutrT
The protests that spread across Kazakhstan last spring forced authorities to backtrack on a land privatization agenda that had been quietly approved without consulting the public.
Concerns are now mounting among opponents of the idea of allowing the sale of land to foreign nationals that the government is seeking to achieve that aim by stealth through changes to the constitution.
Those suspicions center around the language in Article 26 of Kazakhstan’s founding law, which currently states that “Citizens of the Republic of Kazakhstan may privately own any legally acquired property.” Under the revised version of the constitution, this passage could be ambiguously amended to read “Anybody may privately own any legally acquired property.”
Zhanbolat Mamay, editor of Tribuna newspaper, conveyed the anxieties being expressed by many people online.
“This proposed change to Article 26 of Kazakhstan’s constitution has created strong discontent. Thousands of people are on social media expressing their deep unhappiness at these changes,” he wrote on his Facebook account. “What is most worrying is that any foreign citizen could buy our land. There is no guarantee that on this land they might build a village or even a city.”
This latter point sounds like a mischievous attempt to tap into popular fears about the specter of eventual mass Chinese resettlement in Kazakhstan. In fact, although it is true that the land privatization law passed in 2015 was adopted with little public consultation, it is not correct to say that the law would have legalized the sale of land to foreigners, as claimed by many objectors.