Numerous objectors to plans to tinker with Kyrgyzstan’s constitution have found themselves reportedly object of criminal investigations in a worrying sign the country may be slipping back to old authoritarian ways.
President Almazbek Atambayev’s office on November 14 released details of his meeting with Abdil Segizbayev, head of the State Committee for National Security (GKNB), whose anticorruption department is increasingly said to serve as a stick with which to beat government critics.
At the meeting, Segizbayev is said to have informed Atambayev of materials supposedly provided to the government by the authorities of Belize, in central America, linking unnamed politicians to offshore companies purportedly set up to help benefit the hated son of deposed president Kurmanbek Bakiyev.
The online statement did not identify the suspected figures, but it does mischievously leave their names clearly visible on documents shown in accompanying illustrative photos. They include former Justice Minister Almanbet Shykmamatov, former general prosecutor Aida Salyanova and leading politician Omurbek Tekebayev — all three members of the now-opposition Ata-Meken party.
Ata-Meken quit the ruling coalition last month in protest at the proposed constitutional reforms, which are designed to bolster the authority of the executive branch and reduce that of parliament and the judiciary.
Kazakhstan’s Interior Ministry has said it plans to create a national fingerprint database that would include details on all the country’s citizens by 2021. Deputy Interior Minister Rashid Zhakupov said on November 15 that the initiative will cost 36.8 billion tenge ($107 million).
Submitting fingerprints within the coming four years is to be made compulsory, news website Vlast.kz reported.
“Including fingerprints in identification documents will allow for 100 percent certainty in identification. This will facilitate passage through border controls,” said Serik Sayinov, head of the Interior Ministry’s migration department.
Kazakhstan is drawing on the experience of the European Union, where member nations of the Schengen zone are required to provide fingerprint information to obtain travel documents. In 2009, Kazakhstan introduced biometric passports that included basic information and a digital signature of the passport holder. Under the new rules, the chip incorporated in the document will also include prints from two fingers.
All citizens of Kazakhstan above the age of 16 will have to submit biometric data to receive their IDs. Children between 12 and 16 will need to give consent before their fingerprints can be taken. The rules will also apply to foreign citizens living in Kazakhstan.
DNA registration, meanwhile, will be mandatory for people convicted of serious crimes and those with immediate relatives that have gone missing.
Zhakupov said that refusing to register details will be punishable by a fine. Anybody refusing to submit their fingerprint will not be granted documents.
Kazakhstan’s anticorruption agency says it has detained the chief editor of the Central Asia Monitor newspaper and the executive director of Radiotochka.kz news website on suspicion of fraud — another in a widening array of arrests of journalists in the country.
The National Anti-Corruption Bureau said in a press release on November 15 that Bigeldi Gabdullin was using media under his control to attack government officials by publishing articles about them. According to investigators, Gabdullin later sought money from the officials in exchange for desisting from negative reporting about them.
The officials targeted in this scheme allegedly lobbied for Gabdullin to receive government contracts through a system of media subsidies known as the state order. The objects of the claimed blackmail operation later had positive articles about them appear in the media, investigators claim.
Gabdullin is accused of targeting the government of Zhambyl region with this approach and pressuring it into paying him 10 million tenge ($29,000). Seven state bodies were blackmailed by Gabdullin in this way, anticorruption officials said.
Gabdullin is being held in a detention facility in the capital, Astana, pending investigations. Neither Gabdullin nor his representatives have commented on the accusations against him so far, but Radiotochka.kz has said it is continue to operate as normal.
This marks the second high-profile arrest of a journalist within the past year in connection to the state order — a contentious arrangement that media experts say undermine the development of a sound and independent media landscape. The system was established in 2010 and consolidated funding for government-friendly outfits. State media outlets get expenses covered through the system, while private sector peers are required to compete for allocations.
Quick on the heels of independent newspaper Nigoh, another media outlet has closed it doors in Tajikistan. TojNews news agency announced its demise on its own website on November 14 and predicted that it would soon be curtains for other outlets.
Both Nigoh and TojNews were run by Dushanbe-based think tank Indem.
“After we announced on November 2 that we were closing Nigoh, we expected the news agency would follow. It will soon also be the turn of some other private publications. This reason is clear: the conditions in Tajikistan no longer exist for independent media and free journalism. We do not believe this situation will be permanent,” Indem said in a statement.
Nigoh declared it was suspending operations earlier this month on the eve of the publication’s 10th anniversary, citing an unspecified “lack of appropriate conditions.” While doing so, the newspaper made it clear that its finances were in good order, thereby heavily suggesting a political subtext to its demise.
Soon after Nigoh’s closure, the National Association of Independent Mass Media of Tajikistan, or NANSMIT, released a statement conveying its concern and describing the news as a further blow to the country’s media landscape.
“For 10 years operating as a national publication, Nigoh has sough to serve as an alternative news source. But the newspaper’s editorial policy, whose independence was guaranteed under the law, did not suit certain officials and state bodies. We have documented attempts to intimidate the publication’s reporters, harassment of their operations and interference in Nigoh’s editorial output,” NANSMIT said in its statement.
An internationally celebrated fashionista in Kazakhstan has been sentenced to seven years in jail on kidnapping charges, closing the book on a case that has shocked the country.
The influential Business of Fashion website once described Lilya Rakh as a “trailblazing fashion entrepreneur” for her work behind creating the exclusive chain of Sauvage boutiques, which brought brands like Alexander McQueen, Tom Ford and Yves Saint Laurent into Kazakhstan. The only threads Rakh will be showing off this winter season are her prison fatigues.
The saga began on July 9, when police received a tipoff about the disappearance of 33-year Hamro Suvanov, a citizen of Uzbekistan. Investigations revealed that Suvanov had been kidnapped and was being held captive in an Almaty apartment. Four people, including Rakh, were later arrested.
The news sent a ripple of excitement across media in Kazakhstan. Newtimes.kz cited an anonymous source from Rakh’s entourage claiming Suvanov was the businesswoman’s personal assistant and owed her $3 million.
The same source told Newtimes.kz that Suvanov had entered into Rakh and her friends’ confidence and began to assist them in business affairs. With time, he borrowed money from them, as well as precious possessions and jewelry that he then redeemed for cash at pawn shops.
“He led a very glamorous lifestyle. Everybody was amazed at how a simple shop assistant could get his hands on so much money. But nobody gave it a lot of importance,” the source said.
Kyrgyzstan’s parliament endorsed the composition of a tweaked cabinet on November 9 that will be backed by a new, slimmed-down coalition and led by an unchanged prime minister firmly allied to single-term President Almazbek Atambayev.
MPs voted 114 to 4 to endorse Jeenbekov’s reshaped cabinet wherein the most eyebrow-raising appointment was that of Ulan Israilov, Atambayev's former bodyguard and the ex-head of the government's main anti-corruption inspectorate, as Interior Minister.
Among other additions, Cholpon Sultanbekova, a member of the pro-Atambayev Kyrgyzstan party and most famous as the widow of a former mob boss from the south of the country, took up the position of deputy prime minister for social affairs.
Jamshitbek Kalilov became the new transport minister with predecessor Zamirbek Aidarov presently under investigation by Israilov's former unit for corruption in a road tender won by a Chinese company.
The overwhelming parliamentary backing for the new government has become a tradition in Kyrgyzstan's mixed political system and does not mean that all is well in the legislature.
Two parties previously in the ruling coalition, Onuguu Progress and Ata-Meken are no longer part of the alliance that collapsed last month following their opposition to a controversial, Atambayev-driven referendum set to take place on December 11.
That leaves Atambayev's Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK) governing along with the Kyrgyzstan party that survived the collapse and new entrants Bir Bol.
Central Asia has looked at Donald Trump’s election to the US presidency and some of it likes what it sees. The rest seems unbothered.
Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev fired off a note of congratulations to his counterpart-to-be and suggested that Trump drop in for a visit.
“I believe that under your leadership, the United States will remain a mainstay in the preservation of stability, security and prosperity in the entire world,” Nazarbayev said in the statement.
The haste and palpable warmth of the statement are hard not to see as a ringing endorsement. Nazarbayev, like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, clearly see in Trump a figure untroubled by such trifles as the promotion of democracy and human rights.
When Hillary Clinton last visited Kazakhstan, in 2010, she made a point of raising the plight of a jailed human rights defender, Yevgeny Zhovtis, while also hailing Astana for its progress on human rights.
Maulen Ashimbayev, a member of parliament with the ruling Nur Otan party, predicted that Trump’s victory would prove beneficial to Kazakhstan by virtue of the prospect of improving relations between Washington and Moscow.
The US Embassy in Tajikistan issued a warning on its website on November 9 about terrorist groups possibly targeting public gatherings or crossings on the border with Afghanistan.
The message claimed to be based on specific information received by the embassy and urged US citizens to take additional precautions.
Advice included avoiding large crowds and public transport. The embassy singled out the mountainous eastern region of Gorno-Badakhshan as a potential site of risk and warned against camping or biking in the dark there.
Clashes have taken place along Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan periodically, although the Tajik government’s accounts of those skirmishes are usually far from transparent about the causes.
Security officials in Dushanbe reported a surge of disturbances at the start of this year across several points of the border. But while in some instances links to Taliban-linked groups and individuals could be divined, in other cases it was evident that the incursions were the work of drug smugglers.
The singling out of Gorno-Badakhshan is likely linked to the mounting concern over Taliban gains into remote regions of Afghanistan previously thought to be immune to their incursions.
A recent Reuters report from Afghanistan’s Badakhshan Province was a sobering reminder of how militants are strengthening their hold of illegal gemstone mining operations in the area. In more heavily populated locations around the city of Kunduz too, the Taliban has shown it remains a formidable fighting machine with which to be reckoned.
Only some panicked, last-minute diplomacy has prevented Tajikistan being plunged into almost total isolation after Russia backed away from threats to suspend flights between the two countries.
In more positive aviation news, Uzbekistan’s plans to reopen air links with Tajikistan as of next year portends new possibilities in much-needed regional cooperation.
Russia last week dangled the threat of unilaterally closing air traffic with Tajikistan after the latter dragged its feet granting permission for flights to Dushanbe and the northern city of Khujand from Moscow region’s recently completed Zhukovsky International Airport.
That prospect would have been nothing short of cataclysmic for Tajikistan. Flights to and from Russia account for 95 percent of the totality of Tajikistan’s international air traffic. Passengers are in the main the labor migrants that keep the economy afloat. The remaining 5 percent of routes are accounted for by flights to Istanbul, Bishkek and Dubai and are, according to industry insiders, not nearly as profitable as those to Russia.
Last week, while Tajikistan was still sticking to its guns, the head of the aviation department at the ministry of transportation, Mahmadyusuf Rahmonov, explained that under a bilateral agreement, Russia and Tajikistan were automatically entitled to have two airlines each service routes between the countries’ capitals.
The founders of an independent newspaper in Tajikistan have decided to suspend operations on the eve of the publication’s 10th anniversary following what appears to have been pressure from the authorities.
The Indem think tank, which owned Nigoh newspaper, said in a statement earlier this week that it was halting its print edition because of a “lack of appropriate conditions."
It is evident that the problems do not appear to have been financial since the newspaper has pledged to keep paying its employees until 2017. Nigoh could also boast having no debts to its printing house or outstanding tax liabilities.
“Unfortunately, we can make no further comment,” Indem said in its statement.
EurasiaNet.org has learned, however, that Nigoh’s fate was sealed by a pattern of reporting disliked by the authorities and, most recently, an unfortunately typographical error.
The latest issue featured a piece on the front page about the banned Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT). Authorities have given clear signals to the media to refrain from even alluding to the IRPT, whose leadership was jailed last year amid accusations of involvement in a purported coup plot. Nigoh argued in its article that the closure of the party had simply precipitated an exodus of members from Tajikistan and promoted IRPT’s status to an international party.
Nigoh had previously published critical pieces about the trial against the lawyer Buzurgmehr Yorov, who was sentenced to 23 years in jail on fraud charges in what was transparently a reprisal for him agreeing to represent the IRPT.
A perversely trifling solecism in the last issue of Nigoh may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back, however.