With nerves on the Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan border only now dissipating, authorities in Bishkek have embarked on the potentially foolhardy move of helping themselves to four Uzbek-owned resorts at a popular tourist destination.
Local media has been full of the news about embattled Prime Minister Temir Sariyev signing a government order to appropriate the resorts on Issyk-Kul lake on April 4.
The timing is awkward, although it could stand to help Sariyev out of a tight spot.
On March 26, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan pulled back troops from a disputed section of shared border, ending an uneasy week-long standoff sparked by the sudden deployment of Uzbek soldiers and military vehicles to the area.
On balance, it feels like Uzbekistan lost the battle of wits and nerves. It withdrew its forces first from the high-altitude territory without ever properly explaining what prompted it to mobilize its men in the first place.
Still, the episode did momentarily blow some wind into the beleaguered opposition’s sails, so Sariyev may be looking to shore up his position and exploit the patriotic card to forestall an expected vote of no-confidence in parliament.
By all appearances, this looks like an ill-conceived gambit. According to a report by Tazabek.kg, only one of the four resorts seems to be long-term leased to a commercial organization, while the other three were controlled by state-owned Uzbek entities.
The agreements underpinning the ownership of the resorts date back to the Soviet era, when power-brokers in Moscow decided to boost Issyk-Kul’s profile as a place of rest and therapeutic treatments.
Azerbaijan has intermittently displayed interest in investing in Kyrgyzstan, but the latest set of revelations courtesy of the Panama Papers documents leak suggests that even the presidential family in Baku wanted a piece of the action.
In 2012, an obscure company called Redgold Estates Azerbaijan Ltd. became one of several international bidders hoping to snap up some out of a set of around a dozen gold concessions at an auction in Kyrgyzstan.
In the evening, the televised auction was called off when a group of demonstrators charged into a broadcast studio demanding a halt to proceedings.
As is the norm with offshore companies, tracing the line from a public company to the ultimate beneficiaries is a confusing business. Following the thread linking Redgold Estates Azerbaijan Ltd. to the family of Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev is tricky and requires some circumstantial sleuthing.
All the claims are based on documents leaked from Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca, which has forged a reputation for providing offshore company services to all-comers.
According to an account published on April 4 by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), Redgold Estates Azerbaijan Ltd. was incorporated 20 months before the Kyrgyzstan auction, in which it submitted five bids.
The leaked Mossack Fonseca files show that another company with the same name, Redgold Estates Ltd., was created six weeks before that in the Seychelles, one of many offshore jurisdiction favored for its privacy laws. Other than the name, the two company also shared the same Baku address.
Among the huge spectrum of international figures brought low by the Panama Papers document leak is the grandson of Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
In a highly detailed account published on April 4, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project reveals that Nurali Aliyev’s offshore interests included two companies registered in the British Virgin Islands. The 31-year even had a 23-meter-long pleasure yacht registered in the BVI, although alas for the presidential grandson, he never did get to sail the seas on the ill-fated vessel.
As OCCRP remarked with relish, the revelations are particularly egregious considering how Nazarbayev has, like his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, pontificated in the past against the practice of salting away riches in offshore jurisdictions.
“You shouldn’t hide your money somewhere over the hill. Keep it here. Just look, all these offshore being opened up over the hill, they are going to shame everybody,” Nazarbayev prophesied, accurately as it turned out, in 2013. “If you make money, keep it in Kazakhstan. Live here, build a future for your children here
OCCRP’s account begins in September 2014, when BVI-registered company Alba International Holdings, whose only business was listed as “[holding] a bank account in Cyprus,” was recorded as getting a new owner, another BVI company called Invigorate Group Ltd. Although little is known about either company other than that, data in the files obtained by the OCCRP offer up one useful little nugget.
Kazakhstan’s high-profile world champion boxer, Gennady Golovkin, has been made an ambassador for Astana’s EXPO-2017 in a move to improve the image of the graft-plagued project.
Golovkin, boxing’s undisputed middleweight champion, was anointed as an official ambassador for the international exhibition, which will be held in Astana in 2017, by President Nursultan Nazarbayev during his visit to Washington on March 31.
Golovkin, known as GGG and rated one of the world’s best pound-for-pound boxers, is one of Kazakhstan’s best-known sports exports. He was on the party list for the ruling Nur Otan party in March’s election along with many other celebrities, but did not make the final cutinto parliament. His presence will boost the global image of EXPO-2017, which has been rocked by a huge corruption scandal.
A high-profile trial began in Astana on March 18 with Talgat Yermegiyayev, former chairman of the Astana EXPO-2017 company organizing the exhibition, accused along with 22 others of stealing in excess of 10 billion tenge (US$29 million at the current exchange rates) from the construction funds.
EXPO-2017 has also been landed with budget cuts — with Kazakhstan in the throes of economic crisis, some one-tenth of the originally expected total expenditure of $3 billion has been shaved off the budget.
In August, a new team headed by former Almaty Mayor Akhmetzhan Yesimov was parachuted in to knock the project back into shape. But his leadership has come in for criticism from insiders linked to the project.
Two political activists in Kazakhstan learnt to their cost this year that posts on Facebook can spell trouble. And they aren’t the only ones.
News website Pavlodar-Online reported on March 30 that the former head of a chemicals plant is suing a local journalist, Alexander Baranov, for 10 million tenge ($29,000) in libel damages for posts made on the social media platform.
Yerlan Kusanov, the ex-director of Pavlodar-based Neftehim Ltd, said in his complaint that Baranov used his Facebook page to alleged that the executive had left his job following an accident at his company. According to Kusanov’s retelling of the post, Baranov claimed three laborers were killed and that another two received serious burns while working at Neftehim. Baranov is also accused by Kusanov of implying the chemicals company was involved in illegal activity.
Kusanov says he is now unable to find work because of the damage to his reputation caused by Baranov’s posts.
In an initial court hearing, Baranov’s lawyer moved to have screen grabs of the offending posts dismissed as evidence, arguing that there were discrepancies between those and the original version.
Another court hearing is scheduled for April.
Kazakhstan has drawn criticism in the past for what media rights advocates have described as the excessively punitive libel damages sometimes leveled at journalists.
Proponents of stiff libel damages argue, however, that the legislation is intended to protect individuals from potentially harmful defamatory material. It is widely believed that some journalists in Kazakhstan accept illicit payments for writing what amount to hit-jobs against business rivals.
Russia’s migration authorities have announced plans to organize patrols of busy transportation nodes in Moscow as part of a campaign to clamp down on unregistered foreign residents.
In Kyrgyzstan, meanwhile, authorities are pushing ahead with efforts to get as many people off Russia’s migration blacklist to ensure as many migrant laborers as possible can leave the country in search of much-needed earnings.
The Federal Migration Service in Russia said in a statement on March 31 that their inspectors will be parked near metro stations in cars equipped with complete databases of foreigners with proper permits.
“It will be possible to use them to run complete checks of foreign citizens on the FMS database, including to establish whether they are in Russia legally. The cars will also be equipped with scanners for fingerprint registration,” the statement said.
Authorities are casting the initiative as one intended to enlighten foreign residents, particularly migrant laborers, about residency rules.
“During the checks, foreign citizens will be able to speak directly to representatives of the migration service, ask them questions and receive first-hand information about things like registration of work permits at migration centers in Moscow and Moscow region,” the FMS statement said.
Whether this is likely to put an end to the regular sight of Moscow police targeting unregistered (and registered) migrant laborers for bribes remains to be seen.
Russia’s economic decline is concentrating thoughts on the need to address the issue of illegal migration, which creates much ill-will among the most deprived sections of the population.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev has been courting European Union officials in Brussels in the hope of bolstering Kazakhstan’s trade and economic ties with Europe as way of mitigating the funk back home.
In a conveniently timed development, Nazarbayev also talked human rights in Europe just as two activists jailed in Kazakhstan earlier this year were allowed to walk free by a court in Almaty. Many observers interpreted their release under suspended sentences on March 30 as being designed to send a positive message to Brussels.
Meeting Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, and Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, Nazarbayev stressed the importance to Kazakhstan of the Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with the EU, which was signed in 2014 and will take full effect in May following ratification by Kazakhstan’s Senate earlier this month. (The agreement is one notch below the Association Agreement signed between the EU and hopeful candidates such as Ukraine and Georgia.)
Astana is counting on the deal to boost trade with and investment from the European Union, its largest overall trading partner. Wooing investors has become a major priority for Kazakhstan as it battles its worst economic crisis in years — brought on largely as a result of low oil prices — and it is seeking to lure them with a package of investment perks and visa-free travel.
Tajikistan’s top prosecutor decided this week to flesh out the official explanation for where the country’s volunteers to militant groups in Middle Eastern war zones are coming from.
As General Prosecutor Yusuf Rahmon explained in an interview to state-owned newspaper Jumuhuriat, some 85 percent of the fighters are former migrant laborers.
Rahmon presented a few anecdotal cases as evidence for his assertion. One story involved a group of Tajik citizens, who the prosecutor named as Abdurasul Ahmadov, A. Sattarov, an imam at a mosque in the northern Sughd region, and D. Tohirov. All of them are said to have come under the sway of an alleged Islamic State group member in Moscow in May.
The prosecutor said the suspected recruiter, who he identified as Ilyos Malaboyev, was not intent on enlisting people to fight in Syria, but rather to join up with other alleged IS militants already inside Tajikistan.
“They returned to the motherland, and at the Abuzari Ghifori mosque in the Jabbar Rasulov district (in Sughd), they tried to lure their countrymen into IS. They were detained and a criminal case has now been initiated against them,” Rahmon said.
As in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, the government of Tajikistan says it is undertaking strenuous outreach initiatives to discourage young people from being led astray. Rahmon is particularly concerned about Salafist movements.
Believers in Salafism do not acknowledge the legitimacy of other forms of Islamic worship, including Shi'ism and Sufism. The current first appeared in Tajikistan in the early 2000s, having been brought back to the country by Tajiks that had taken refuge in Pakistan during the civil war.
Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev has had two big wins to celebrate in recent times in a part of the country where his popularity is debatable.
Still, he has much to occupy his mind, as the increasing number of arrests of no-name, non-parliamentary opposition figures appears to indicate.
Last week brought good news for the government, dominated by Atambayev’s Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK), as a week-long border standoff with Uzbekistan came to a conclusion on March 26 with no shots fired.
The following day, SDPK edged out rival parties to claim most of the seats in the the council of the southern city of Osh, the most important of several municipal councils elected Sunday. The party can expect to form a majority with one or more parties.
Both victories should taste sweet. Regarding Uzbekistan, the executive can claim it turned a precarious situation into a diplomatic triumph without publicly losing face. Authorities have noted that the negotiations that led to the drawdown of forces reportedly came at Tashkent’s request and Uzbekistan pulled back its military first.
In the local politics of the country's second-largest city, which saw major ethnic conflict just six years ago, SDPK can be confident of calling the shots. It polled twice as much as any of the other parties, with 30 percent of the vote, while the stalking horse pro-government Kyrgyzstan Party finished second.
But beyond the formalities of border negotiations and local elections, the security services, which are directly controlled by the the president, have been inexplicably busy.
Security services in Kyrgyzstan say they have neutralized another international terrorist cell, although little to no firm information has been provided.
The State Committee for National Security (GKNB) said in a perfunctory statement on March 29 that the seven-person group was engaged in recruitment for combat activities in war zones, apparently a reference to Syria and Iraq.
The statement also states that the cell was priming for terrorist acts within Kyrgyzstan.
There is more that is not known, however. No names have been provided, for the individuals or the group to which they allegedly belonged. Even the location of the arrest is left vague and given only as “in the territory of one of the republic’s regions.”
This degree of nebulousness has become the trademark of the GKNB and will do little to dispel suspicions that its periodic terror scares are work of officials seeking to keep the public on edge.
In the past few months, the authorities have bestowed the anti-terror operation label on shootouts that appeared more like clashes with regular organized crime groups.