An influential U.S. government body has once again recommended the State Department classify Tajikistan as home to some of the world’s worst restrictions on religious freedom.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) – a bipartisan American group that advises the State Department, the president and Congress – said in its 2015 report, released April 30, that Dushanbe “suppresses and punishes all religious activity independent of state control.”
For the third year running, USCIRF recommends that Tajikistan join two other post-Soviet republics – Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – on Washington’s official list of Countries of Particular Concern (CPC). CPC are “either perpetrating or tolerating some of the worse abuses of religious freedom in the world.”
So far the State Department has ignored the recommendation.
This year USCIRF says worshipers in Tajikistan face tough times that only seem to be getting worse. The regime of strongman President Emomali Rahmon, the report argues, systematically interferes in the religious lives of citizens:
Numerous laws that severely restrict religious freedom have been implemented in the country since 2009. […] Tajik officials monitor mosques and their attendees for views they deem extremist or statements critical of the government; place restrictions on Muslim religious dress; control the age and the numbers of hajj (religious pilgrimage) participants; and indirectly control the selection and retention of imams and the content of sermons.
How long can Kyrgyzstan postpone its entry into the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union?
The plucky Central Asian state’s delays acceding to the protectionist bloc have become a curious subplot to the generally unsuccessful story of Eurasian integration thus far.
Acting Economics Minister Temir Sariev said on April 29 that Kyrgyzstan would likely not make the May 8 deadline President Almazbek Atambayev had promised to Moscow last December. May was already an extension on the January 1 deadline officials talked about throughout 2014. Instead, Kyrgyzstan will join by the end of May, said Sariev – who was named by parliament’s ruling coalition on April 29 as its candidate for premier.
Earlier, Sariev reported to Atambayev on “differences of opinion” with other EEU members – Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia – suggesting the parties are still haggling over Kyrgyzstan’s entry terms even though it signed accession papers long ago.
There are two sticking points, according to Sariev. First, Kyrgyzstan insists it continue to receive concessions on imports of Chinese construction materials. Second, it rejects EEU members’ demands it undertake additional sanitary inspections, above and beyond current EEU regulations, on its meat and produce.
A leading newspaper in Kyrgyzstan claims President Almazbek Atambayev’s administration has launched a frontal assault on critical media in the run-up to parliamentary elections this fall.
The embattled, opposition-minded Vechernii Bishkek, whose ownership is the subject of a protracted legal dispute, is under investigation by the secret police for accusing, in an April 17 statement, the president’s aids of attempting to seize the paper.
The State Committee on National Security, the GKNB – which answers to Atambayev – is evaluating if the paper’s statement contains “public calls for a violent overthrow of the constitutional order in the country,” Fergana.ru reported April 25, citing a GKNB press release. Rights lawyers complain the GKNB finds whatever it wants when it conducts such linguistic investigations of allegedly offensive documents.
In Vechernii Bishkek’s statement, the paper appealed to citizens not to remain indifferent to an expropriation bid they say is backed by Atambayev’s team, and which may eventually lead to owner Alexander Kim losing full control of the paper and its lucrative printing press.
Officials in Atambayev’s administration, the paper argues, are trying to silence independent media ahead of parliamentary elections this fall; presidential elections are due in 2017.
The offending statement alleges the current elite around Atambayev is adopting the rapacious habits of previous authoritarian regimes. It may be slightly hyperbolic at times, but one would be hard-pressed to find anything in the statement that threatens the government’s existence.
The thick ice that has long coated relations between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan continues to thaw. Last week the Tajik parliament announced the establishment of a Tajik-Uzbek “friendship and cooperation group.” Officials have not disclosed details of what this body would do, and the Uzbek side has yet to confirm its participation, but the symbolism is accompanied by growing cross-border links.
The same day, April 24, a delegation of Uzbek border guards led by the chief of the Border Service's General Staff, Major-General Nosirbek Usmonbekov, visited northern Tajikistan to discuss cooperation.
Despite a common 1,300-kilometer border, border guards from the two sides had never before officially met, according to authorities in Khujand, Tajikistan’s second city. The two countries have long been at odds over the border, much of which remains undefined. Uzbekistan has mined sections of the frontier and shootings remain common.
The talks produced a woolly statement, but even that is progress given how poor relations had become. “The parties noted the willingness and interest in further development of cooperation on all issues of mutual interest in ensuring the reliable protection of the Uzbek-Tajik state border,” a press officer for the Uzbek Border Service told Uzbekistan’s 12News.uz.
Someone is profiting from Tajikistan’s official Islamophobia, peddling expensive permits purporting to allow observant Muslims to wear a beard or hijab – fashions that are officially discouraged. The permits, adorned with an official-looking stamp, allegedly go for 250 somoni (about $40) each.
In recent weeks, Tajikistan’s secular government has turned up its routine hysteria about the spread of Islamic practice, with state media dutifully declaring that prostitutes wear hijab – a headscarf and modest clothing for women – to drive up their rates, and police reportedly nabbing bearded men on the street and forcing them under the razor. The campaign seems to be part of an effort to liken any Islam outside of state control to terrorism.
The State Committee on Religious Affairs – the body that oversees mosques, appoints all imams, and tells them what to say during their Friday sermons – says the idea of such permits is “absurd,” the Asia-Plus news agency reported April 24. No one has the right to issue such documents, the State Committee said in a statement.
But gullibility is understandable. Anyone can see that freedom in practicing Islam is under assault in Tajikistan and, meanwhile, the government has allowed very few trustworthy sources of information on religious affairs.
Djoomart Otorbaev during an interview with EurasiaNet.org in November 2014.
After a tumultuous year in office, Kyrgyzstan’s prime minister – the fourth since parliamentary elections in 2010 – has resigned.
Djoomart Otorbaev, an urbane, Western-oriented technocrat, announced he was stepping down on April 23 shortly after presenting his annual report to parliament. His year in office was dominated by inconclusive negotiations over the country’s largest gold mine and attempts to mitigate the fallout from Kyrgyzstan’s impending entry into the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union.
"Thank you for recognizing the work of the government as satisfactory. This is not the work of one person. In democratic country there should not be a monopoly on power. I think this branch of power needs another shake, therefore today I'm announcing that I leave my post,” Otorbaev said in comments carried by the AKIpress news agency. "I think my decision to resign will allow the majority coalition to choose a more decisive prime minister.”
Much of his time in office since April 4, 2014, had been spent negotiating with Toronto-listed Centerra Gold over the fate of the Kumtor gold mine, located high in the mountains near the Chinese border. The two sides have been locked in a dispute for over two years, since parliament demanded more of the mine’s profits stay inside Kyrgyzstan. Kumtor produces between 8 and 12 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s annual GDP, and almost half of industrial output.
In November 2014, in a Kazakhstani village near one of the world’s largest oil, gas and condensate fields, 25 schoolchildren and four adults suddenly grew ill and fell unconscious.
Residents of the village, Berezovka, had noticed flaring at the nearby Karachaganak field and had smelled gas the day before. They say they were poisoned and have demanded relocation. Though some local officials did speak publicly about the problem at the time, a watchdog says that Kazakhstan’s government and its Western partners are ignoring the illnesses and falsely accusing residents – who have complained of poisonings since 2002 – of faking.
The field is operated by Karachaganak Petroleum Operating BV (KPO), a consortium including BG Group from Britain, Italy’s ENI, Chevron from the USA, Russia’s Lukoil and Kazakhstan’s state-run KazMunayGaz. It is Kazakhstan’s largest producing gas field.
Crude Accountability, a Virginia-based watchdog focusing on hydrocarbon extraction in the Caspian Sea basin, says KPO is trying to “hush up” the tragedy.
Independent monitors have found dangerous chemicals including hydrogen sulfide in Berezovka’s air, Crude Accountability said this month. And since the initial poisonings last November, several other bouts of fainting and illness have hit the village: “Almost 50 percent of the villagers are chronically ill and 80 percent of the children suffer from respiratory diseases.”
A new website aims to help Central Asian scholars enter the academic mainstream.
Launched in early April, the Central Asian Analytical Network, or CAAN, is the brainchild of the George Washington University’s Central Asia Program. The website’s goal is to make it easier for scholars in the region to publish and distribute their work. It will post commentaries and academic papers on a daily basis, as well as provide a digital library to facilitate research.
“Young scholars [in Central Asia] often complain that they have limited opportunities to publish their work, either due to higher academic standards set by western journals or censorship issues in their home countries,” Aitolkyn Kourmanova, CAAN’s chief editor, told EursasiaNet.org in an email interview.
“The idea is to connect local researchers, academics, policymakers, NGOs and media through one regional networking platform which provides equal opportunities for all to speak up on hot issues, initiate debates, or publish their work,” added Kourmanova. [Editor’s Note: GWU’s Central Asia Program receives funding from the Open Society Foundations. EurasiaNet.org operates under OSF’s auspices].
CAAN additionally plans to produce a regular digest in Russian of English-language academic resources that focus on Central Asia. It also hopes to conduct trainings to improve regional scholars’ writing skills to increase their chances of getting published in outside journals.
“We seek to establish partnership with most think-tanks in the region to keep everyone informed about their work, projects, publications or events,” Kourmanova said.
Jessica Gisondo is an editorial associate at EurasiaNet.
New data show that Central Asian governments have been right to fear Russia’s economic crisis was heading their way: Remittances from migrant laborers are falling sharply, more than in any other region worldwide.
Migrant remittances are the largest single source of foreign currency in Tajikistan and an important factor in declining poverty rates throughout Central Asia in recent years. So the contracting Russian economy and stricken ruble – brought on by a sudden fall in oil prices and Western sanctions – have a direct impact on millions of the region’s laborers and their families back home.
“Overall, reduced remittances are likely to worsen standards of living in remittance-receiving countries, and the increasing number of returned migrants could put upward pressures on unemployment rates,” the World Bank said in a regular briefing on April 13.
Tajikistan – which sends approximately one-half of its working age males to labor in Russia – is the most remittance-dependent country in the world. Remittances account for the equivalent of 49 percent of GDP, according to the World Bank. In dollar terms, they fell 8 percent last year, largely in the fourth quarter, and are expected to decline another 23 percent in 2015.
Kyrgyzstan is the world’s second most remittance-dependent country, with remittances totaling the equivalent of 32 percent of GDP. Last year they fell 1 percent, but are expected to drop another 23 percent this year.
In Uzbekistan, where remittances total the equivalent of 11.9 percent of GDP, they fell 16 percent last year; they are expected to drop another 30 percent in 2015.
Tajikistan’s National Bank has ordered the immediate closure of private currency exchange offices, a move that suggests Dushanbe is concerned about the somoni’s sharp depreciation. The currency has fallen 14.5 percent against the dollar this year as remittances from Russia slow.
The National Bank cited the need to assure the “stability” of Tajikistan’s currency market and the somoni exchange rate and “the protection of the interests of clients of credit organizations,” in a terse statement issued on April 17 announcing the closures with immediate effect.
The blanket ban on private exchange offices means more than half of the country’s exchange offices – 818 out of a total 1,581 – are being shuttered, leaving 763 operating, according to National Bank figures cited by Dushanbe-based Asia-Plus news agency.
With plenty of currency offices still working, the closures sparked little panic in Dushanbe, an observer in the city told EurasiaNet.org on condition of anonymity.
In dollar terms, remittances sent to Tajikistan from Russia declined by 7.6 percent in 2014 year on year, according to data recently released by Russia’s Central Bank. Remittances are likely to continue to drop this year amid ongoing economic turmoil in Russia.
This is bad news for the world’s most remittance-dependent country. The World Bank estimates remittances total the equivalent of 42 percent of Tajikistan’s GDP. Over a million Tajiks, or roughly half of working-age males, labor in Russia.