A public commission set up in Kazakhstan as an attempt to defuse tensions over contentious planned land auctions convened for its third session over the weekend, but was overshadowed by an ongoing campaign by prosecutors against anti-reform demonstrators.
Out of the 75 people initially nominated to the commission, which is intended as a platform of discussion between government officials and critics of the land reform, 62 turned up on May 28.
Deputy prime minister Bakytzhan Sagintayev, who moderated the session, said the land commission would work for the next six months to compile public recommendations for submission to parliament. In the coming week, representatives from the commission will travel across the country to sound out public opinion.
The commission has been broken down into four working groups focusing on legal and economic aspects, as well as on how to draw up effective mechanisms for informing the public about, and enhancing transparency of, eventual land sales. The working groups met for the first time on May 25 to generate suggestions that will eventually be pooled at plenary sessions of the commission in Astana.
The primary area of discussion this past weekend was the thorny topic of renting land to foreigners. The semi-formal exchange of views lasted around four hours and drew contributions from around 30 or so of the commission’s members. Many others, however, could be seen uninterestedly perusing their smartphones at length.
One of the more practical suggestions was to create a publicly available land ownership database.
Authorities in Kazakhstan are categorical about what they believe was the ultimate goal of last weekend’s protests against land reforms — to seize power by sowing unrest and ethnic hatred.
In a statement published on May 27, the General Prosecutor’s Office laid out a stark declaration of intent on how it intends to proceed against future displays of antigovernment activity.
The prosecutor’s office is attempting to cast the government as the reasonable party, arguing that it invited people that had announced their intent to take part in the unsanctioned May 21 rallies to engage in “clarificatory activities.” That term is typically a euphemism for preventative summons issued to individuals suspected of planning to participate in anti-government demonstrations.
“Despite that, certain people tried to ignore the law on meetings and to provoke people into taking part in illegal actions,” the prosecutor’s statement said. “Their final goal was not to hold peaceful meetings and to seek changes to the land code, but to destabilize to social and political situation, to incite ethnic hatred and to seize power.”
The General Prosecutor’s Office certainly seems to adopt a loose definition what clarification constitutes. In several cases, it consisted of jailing people for intent to rally. For what it’s worth (not much as it turns out), Kazakhstan is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which grants citizens the right to protest peacefully. Laws on public assembly in Kazakhstan severely curtail that privilege, however, so the prosecutors are in effect on formally legitimate grounds when they formulate their accusations.
Lawmakers in Kyrgyzstan have provoked outrage in some quarters by rejecting proposals to change the criminal code that would have outlawed the religious consecration of marriage rites for minors.
The phenomenon of the very young entering into marriages in Kyrgyzstan is not unusual. The National Statistics Commission estimates that 15 percent of married women between the ages of 25 and 49 sealed their nuptials before turning 18 — 1 percent did it under the age of 15.
The changes to the law rejected by parliament on May 26 specifically related to religious marriage rites (nikah), as opposed to nuptials registered with the state. The legal age of marriage in Kyrgyzstan is 18, although that can be lowered by special dispensation.
The broader ambition of the amendments proposed by Ata-Meken party deputy Aida Salyanova were to criminalize the forcible imposition of religious marriage rites before their official registration.
“The religious consecration of marriages before registration with authorized bodies is a crude violation of human rights. It is inimical to development and substantially increases the likelihood of a woman becoming a victim of (domestic) violence,” Salyanova was cited as saying by Zanoza.kg in a report on parliament’s vote.
By way of a regional comparison, Islamic authorities in neighboring Kazakhstan have as recently as last year issued orders for mosques to desist from performing religious marriage rites without a state-issued marriage certificate, but many have reportedly flouted that edict.
Kyrgyzstan’s largest foreign investor is in hot water again and has been ordered to pay out 6.7 billion som ($98 million) in fines for claimed environmental violations.
24.kg news agency reported that a judge at the Inter-District Court of Bishkek on May 25 ruled in favor of the penalty as part of a handful of lawsuits filed against Kumtor Operating Company by the State Ecology and Technical Inspection Agency.
Kumtor’s parent company, Toronto-based Center Gold, said in a statement that the award was related to accusations that the miner placed waste rock on dumps “subject to tariffs that are normally applicable to industrial or domestic waste.”
Local media has cited authorities as saying waste rock was placed too close to waterways, which risked contaminating rivers and and would eventually require the construction of water purification facilities downstream.
The longer-term concern surrounds the major glaciers alongside which the Kumtor mine is located. Kyrgyz officials, as well international environmentalists, worry that the practice of piling excess amount of waste rock on top of glaciers is causing them irreparable damage. Kumtor, meanwhile, has engaged its own independent expertise to evaluate the impact of its operations on the glaciers and apparently found the threat to be “insignificant.”
On May 24, the Inter-District Court of Bishkek fined Kumtor another $10,000 after it found it guilty of failing to record waste being expelled from the concession’s sewage treatment facility.
With the referendum out of the way, Tajikistan is back to usual business: banning things.
On May 24, Education and Science Minister Nuriddin Said issued a decree abolishing the cherished tradition of the “final bell,” wherein graduating secondary school students celebrate their last day of class.
Terms ends this year on June 7, but instead of the usual merriment, students will simply attend class and then presumably be expected to forlornly file home.
According to Said, failure to enforce this new order will result in punitive measures against education ministry officials and headmasters.
Unaccountable as it may seem for a country’s whose educational system is so riddled with shortcomings, the final bell has become something of an obsession. Every year has brought new amendments and restrictions.
In 2007, the name of the final day was changed from “final bell,” as it is known across most of the former Soviet space, to “bell of maturity” and the date pushed back from May 25 to June 6. That provision was intended to dampen the ardor of revelry and was accompanied by a ban on parties in restaurants, whip-rounds for graduating students, gift-giving and mass outdoor gatherings.
Typically, the day begins at 8 a.m. with a 45-minute assembly at students bring balloons, dance and sing. Diplomas, medals and awards are handed out.
The ban on grand last-day celebrations is based in part, it would seem, on concerns that some parties can on occasion get out of control. Some students mark the day by riding in cars, often recklessly and great speed, around their neighborhoods and on occasion cause fatal accidents.
An accident at a metals mining-and-processing complex in a northern Kazakhstan town is sparking alarm about a possible unfolding environmental disaster.
Residents in the town of Ridder spoke of their shock when they saw that a nearby, previously pristine river had turned a dirty grey as a result of a spill whose causes have yet to be fully explained.
One eyewitness, Konstantin Pimenov, posted pictures of the results of the accident on his Facebook page.
“Shock — that’s what I felt when I saw the river in Ridder. The water isn’t just cloudy. It looks like what is flowing past is thick cement. We all get mad when somebody throws a cigarette stub out of a passing car, and that is indubitably swinish behaviour that should be condemned. But here we are seeing how every second, tons (of water) are polluting the river and soil,” Pimenov wrote on May 25.
State broadcaster Khabar reported that a spill from a dump for ore residues overflowed into the nearby Filippovka River.
Officials have said environmental experts are now assessing the scale of the damage caused by the incident. Prosecutors dealing with environmental protection are also investigating the cause of the spill.
The processing plant owned by Kazzinc, which is in turn controlled by Swiss-based commodity trading and mining monolith Glencore, has for the time being halted operations.
Kazzinc has said that it will provide compensation for the damage caused by the accident in full accordance with the law. Company spokesman Andrei Lazarev was adamant that the accident posed no risk.
A draft bill in Kyrgyzstan aimed at marginalizing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transexual communities has once again hit the buffers, raising faint hopes of a reprieve for the country’s embattled sexual minorities.
On May 24, a parliamentary subcommittee proposed holding up the bill for a fresh second reading — an unusual move since progress to a third and final review for legislation is typically a formality.
Kyrgyzstan’s anti-LGBT bill was first proposed in May 2014 and closely mirrored a law approved by Russia’s State Duma the year before. But in addition to the fine for the dissemination of “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” envisioned by the Russian law, the Kyrgyz bill also proposed jail terms of up to one year for those who “promote homosexual relations” through the media or among children.
The head of the committee on rule of law, order and fighting crime, Janybek Bakchiev, said that although the bill had already passed through two readings in the previous session of parliament, another second-tier examination was required.
“Considering that this [new session of] parliament has not yet discussed this bill — and I think this is a very ambiguous issue important for society — it deserves to be discussed by the MPs of the current parliament,” Bakchiev told the committee. His suggestion was unanimously approved by the committee.
Bakchiev did not elaborate on the specific motivations for further scrutiny, however.
Kazakhstan is showing signs it is stepping up its campaign against critical journalists with the one-and-a-half year jail sentence handed down to the editor of a defunct news website.
An Almaty court on May 23 found Guzyal Baydalinova guilty of deliberately distributing false information in relation to her outlet’s reports on trouble at the country’s largest bank, Kazkommertsbank.
The Committee to Protect Journalists has slammed the verdict and demanded Baydalinova's release.
"CPJ condemns [the] sentencing of Guzyal Baydalinova, who has already spent five months behind bars merely for doing her job," CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said in a statement.
Baydalinova and her now-closed website, Nakanune.kz, have already been on the receiving end of Kazakhstan’s punitive libel laws, which media advocacy groups argue are specifically designed to quash independent reporting.
Last April, Kazkommertsbank filed suit after Nakanune.kz ran a letter claiming the lender was implicated in corruption. A court in Almaty in June ordered Baydalinova, who owns the domain name, to remove the offending post and pay 20 million tenge ($107,000) to compensate for damage to Kazkommertsbank’s commercial reputation. Baydalinova’s legal team had argued that the lender failed to prove that the Nakanune.kz post had in fact caused any financial damage, which should have invalidated the monetary penalty.
What appears evident from this latest verdict is that the libel laws were not considered to be a sufficiently severe tool in coping with Nakanune.kz and its staff.
Authorities in Kazakhstan reacted with startling severity to attempts to hold rallies against land reforms on May 21 by detaining possibly hundreds of journalists, activists and demonstrators.
Police had been laying the ground for their hardline approach in the days ahead of the demonstrations by arbitrarily detaining and jailing people suspected of organizing the protests.
Security was notably high in the capital, Astana, where scores of police and national guardsmen occupied the city center in anticipation of the rallies. Around 50 police officers lined the boulevard leading to the presidential palace from the landmark Baiterek monument.
The protest had been scheduled to kick off at 11 a.m. although police were left with little to do at the appointed time. As the morning wore on, police around Baiterek began detaining people they suspected of being potential protesters. Onlookers refrained from filming anything for fear of also being carted away. One man observing everything from a bench said a few buses full of people had already left the scene.
“They detain anybody who says something negative about the government,” the man said.
Authorities in Kazakhstan are betraying a note of panic ahead of planned nationwide demonstrations by rounding up activists and sticking them behind bars.
Activists reported on social media accounts that police on May 17 barged into several homes of hopeful meeting participants and took them into detention.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Kazakhstan service, Radio Azattyq, reported that at least five people were detained in Almaty. One of the people held by police was Yermek Narymbayev, who was recently convicted, but later given a suspended sentence, on charges of incitement to ethnic strife.
Narymbayev wrote on his Facebook account that another two Almaty activists, Suyundyk Aldabergenov and Bakytzhan Toregozhina, had been ordered to serve 15 days in jail. In an indication of the authorities' determination to keep as many potential rally organizers off the streets, the court passed its verdict against Aldabergenov and Toregozhina after 10 p.m.
The rallies planned for May 21 were scheduled ahead of a government decision to shelve proposed land auctions that had sparked widespread discontent. Prime Minister Karim Masimov announced subsequently that a state commission was to be set up to discuss privatization of land and that talks would include prominent opposition figures. Critics of the authorities have insisted, however, that it is necessary to keep up the tempo of public demonstrations to ensure that the government keeps to its word.