Adam Bol editor Guljan Yergaliyeva in her office. (Photo: Joanna Lillis)
An appeal against the closure of a hard-hitting current affairs magazine was adjourned on February 5 amid circumstances that its hunger-striking editor described as “absurd.”
The hearing was adjourned after the plaintiff, Almaty City Hall, failed to show up, citing illness. That left Adam Bol magazine’s supporters questioning why the mayor’s office could not find another official to appear at the hearing.
One of the last remaining independent media outlets in Kazakhstan, Adam Bol was closed in November after a judge upheld the mayor’s office’s claim that it had called for war in its Ukraine coverage.
Wearing a white armband with “hunger strike” emblazoned across it in red letters and looking visibly emaciated, Adam Bol editor Guljan Yergaliyeva – a 63-year-old veteran journalist – said she believed the delay might be down to the “huge fallout” from the controversy.
The adjournment might be a “good sign” that the authorities may reconsider the closure, Yergaliyeva said. But some supporters suggested the government is simply hoping the publicity will die down.
The closure was described at the time by OSCE freedom of the media representative Dunja Mijatović as a “drastic and disproportionate” step that would “endanger pluralism in Kazakhstan and contribute to an atmosphere of fear for members of the media,” and by Reporters Without Borders as the “orchestrated throttling” of the magazine.
Yet another dissident who has angered Tajikistan’s authorities now languishes in prison.
Maqsood Ibragimov, the 37-year-old head of the Russia-based opposition movement "Youth for the Revival of Tajikistan," was arrested in Moscow on January 20 and promptly appeared in a Tajik prison.
A rights activist who spoke with Ibragimov after his arrest wrote that five men entered Ibragimov’s Moscow apartment dressed as members of Russia’s migration service. On January 30, the Tajik prosecutor general’s office confirmed to Radio Ozodi that Ibragimov had indeed been extradited on charges of extremism. It did not explain how he got home.
Dushanbe had been pursuing Ibragimov since he established the movement last October. At the request of the Tajik government, Russian authorities arrested him in November. But as a dual Russian national, he was released. According to France-based human rights activist Nadezhda Atayeva, the Russian authorities then forced him to relinquish his citizenship. Then followed the detention and extradition in January. (Meanwhile, in late November, an unidentified assailant stabbed Ibragimov in Moscow.)
Ibragimov’s arrest appears to be part of a pattern, whereby the hypersensitive government of strongman Emomali Rakhmon accuses critics of “extremism” and uses the servile judiciary to lock them up.
Kyrgyzstan has denied the embarrassing accusation that it is a delinquent member of the United Nations without the right to vote in the General Assembly.
On January 29, the UN’s website listed Kyrgyzstan and five other countries (Grenada, Marshall Islands, Tonga, Vanuatu, Yemen) as having failed to pay membership dues for two years. Members in arrears for two years automatically lose their right to vote, according to the UN Charter (extreme cases, failed states like Somalia, get an exception).
But on January 30 Kyrgyzstan’s Finance Ministry announced it had fully paid its dues—$40,000 in 2013 and $63,500 last year. That latter amount included some outstanding debt from previous years.
The ministry also says that on January 29 it initiated a transfer in the amount of $54,271 to meet the January 30 deadline for 2015 dues. “Thus, the Kyrgyz Republic has on time and fully complied with its obligations to the United Nations regular budget to pay membership fees for 2015,” the statement says.
What is less clear is whether the country has made contributions for peacekeeping operations and international tribunals, also required under the charter, but under different budgets. Back in 2000, Kyrgyzstan owed almost $800,000 for peacekeeping and tribunals (in that year, all the Central Asian countries save Kazakhstan were delinquent). The recent Finance Ministry statement says only that these two types of payments are not covered by a July 2014 government decree on dues to international organizations and that state agencies obligated to make any payments not listed in the decree must do so using their “budgetary assignations or … special funds.”
January has been a busy month for Kyrgyzstan’s security services as they tackle what they call a growing threat from militants loyal to the Islamic State. As usual, there is little evidence to support their claims and plenty of reasons to fear that heavy-handed tactics and docile judges could only make the problem worse.
On January 27 the State Committee for National Security (GKNB) snatched six alleged militants in Osh. A GKNB spokesman accused the group of planning attacks in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Four of the individuals, authorities suspect, had trained in Syria.
Just two days later Radio Azattyq reported that the GKNB had nabbed a 29-year-old man near Bishkek and accused him of sending five relatives to the Islamic State-controlled city of Raqqa in Syria. The week before, authorities in Osh arrested a 22-year-old, claiming he had spent four months in Syria. Also earlier in the month, six alleged jihadi recruiters were arrested in a series of raids across Kyrgyzstan’s impoverished south. Three women, alleged members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir – a London-based proselytizing group with no known ties to violence – were also seized, Interfax reported.
Kazakhstan’s public health officials in charge of the fight against HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis have conned a flagship global project out of over $5 million by using “smokescreen companies” to rig bids and overcharge for goods and services, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria has said.
A probe by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), the Switzerland-based fund’s oversight arm, “found evidence of systematic collusive, fraudulent, and corrupt practices by local vendors and other parties” involving a total of 76 contracts worth some $16.5 million, it said in a January 28 statement.
As a result of the contracts, awarded by two health centers under the remit of the Ministry of Health, the Global Fund was swindled out of at least $5.4 million through “systematic overpricing for printing, office equipment, health products and food parcels,” the OIG claimed.
There was no evidence that the goods – which included “condoms and a whole range of other goods and services for patients with HIV and/or tuberculosis” – had not been delivered, however.
The OIG is urging the Global Fund to take measures to recover at least $5.4 million, although it described that figure as a conservative estimate of what it had been conned out of by Kazakhstan’s Republican Center for Prophylactics and Control of AIDS (RCAIDS) and National Center of Tuberculosis Problems (NCTP).
Four individuals – called the “Ring Leaders” in the report and identified only as Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta – were allegedly the main beneficiaries of the con, involving 17 companies which were part of an interlinked web colluding with each other. Other public healthcare officials were aware of the scheme, the OIG alleged.
A UN rapporteur has issued some damning findings on civil liberties in Kazakhstan, following a visit to monitor how Astana is upholding its commitments to freedom of assembly.
“I am deeply disappointed by an incident that has left me very worried about the safety of individuals I met during my trip, and generally concerned about the situation of human rights in Kazakhstan,” Maina Kiai, the UN’s special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, said in a January 27 statement.
He was alluding to an incident in which unidentified individuals photographed his interlocutors in the city of Aktau, “in a manner commonly associated with secret police surveillance.” Kiai complained to the authorities and an arrest was made, but the rapporteur did not recognize the suspect (whom he was allowed to meet) as one of the perpetrators.
Kiai found that Astana offers “limited space for the expression of dissenting views.” He highlighted “a general fear of engaging in oppositional political activity or expression within the population,” partly due to “legislation that seeks to control the civil society sector, imposes serious punishments for organizing and participating in peaceful assemblies, stigmatizes and criminalizes dissent, facilitates the imprisonment of opposition political figures, and in general perpetuates a narrative that portrays critical political expression as threatening the stability of the state.”
A Chinese company that has had a string of bad luck in Kyrgyzstan is not getting much support from the country's investment-hungry government—or from Russia.
China’s state-controlled Junda China Petrol Company runs a troubled but potentially strategic oil refinery in northern Kyrgyzstan. The problem now is that Junda doesn’t have enough crude to fuel its $430 million plant. And the regional oil producers, Kazakhstan and Russia, are unwilling to help.
Last week Kyrgyzstan’s Vice Prime Minister Valery Dil called Junda's decision to build a refinery without planning for crude supplies “ridiculous,” in quotes picked up by 24.kg.
"To build a huge refinery and not know where to get the oil, that’s ridiculous,” Dil said.
Those are not exactly welcoming words for a large foreign benefactor already struggling to find reasons to keep investing in perennially troubled Kyrgyzstan. In its short history, Junda itself has faced environmental protests and labor disputes, which one lawmaker claims are backed by opposition politicians bent on using the facility as a weapon in a political confrontation with the government.
Dil also confirmed that Russia and Kazakhstan have refused to supply crude tax-free, though his colleague, Economy Minister Temir Sariev, recently had been hopeful that Kyrgyzstan’s membership in the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union would help solve this problem.
A prosecutor warns supporters of embattled news outlet Adam Bol on January 23 that they are breaking Kazakhstan’s stringent public assembly laws.
Kazakhstan’s authorities have taken a hard line against would-be protesters, rounding them up and throwing them in police cells to prevent them attending a public meeting in defense of a hard-hitting current affairs magazine that has been closed down.
The arrests came in the middle of a visit to Kazakhstan by a UN rapporteur to monitor how Astana upholds the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
Police arrested Guljan Yergaliyeva, the editor-in-chief of the Adam Bol outlet (who is on hunger strike in protest at the closure of her magazine), editors Ayan Sharipbayev and Miras Nurmukhanbetov, and prominent freedom of speech activist Rozlana Taukina as soon as they set off to attend the event on Almaty’s main Republic Square January 23.
“I understood [the police] were waiting for me, but I still intended to go and I went out to go and meet our readers, but our car was forcibly stopped and I was forcibly dragged out [by police officers],” Yergaliyeva said in a video address posted on Facebook after her release.
“They break the law themselves, they repress us,” added Yergaliyeva, who is on the sixth day of a hunger strike in protest at the closure of her magazine last November on the grounds that its reporting on Ukraine contained calls for war or violence.
Kazakhstan signed a cooperation agreement on January 22 with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The pact aims to make the Kazakhstani economy more efficient, and provide a boost to Astana’s ambitions of becoming a global economic player.
Meeting on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Kazakhstani Prime Minister Karim Massimov and OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria signed a memorandum of understanding to launch a Country Cooperation Program. The event signaled the start of a process that officials in Astana quietly hope will lead to Kazakhstan’s admission as a full member of the OECD.
“This agreement confirms our national intention to implement the best practice reform model developed by OECD member-nations,” Massimov was quoted as saying in a written statement. “This will help Kazakhstan achieve its long-term goal of becoming one of the world’s 30 most advanced nations by the year 2050.”
The OECD is a club of 34 prosperous nations dedicated to strengthening market mechanisms, solidifying public financing structures and practices, fostering innovation and ensuring dynamic labor markets. Member states are also expected to embrace civil society concepts. “The common thread of our work is a shared commitment to market economies backed by democratic institutions and focused on the wellbeing of all citizens,” reads the OECD’s mission statement. .
The democratization aspect of the OECD’s mission could create dilemmas for Kazakhstan, which has a moved in an authoritarian direction over the past decade. An OECD review conducted in late 2014 recommended that Kazakhstan needed to decentralize decision-making authority, implement reforms to promote transparency and improve coordinating mechanisms among governmental agencies.
Astana's ambitious plan to add a year to its school curriculum has been postponed indefinitely as lower oil prices and the recession in neighboring Russia batter Kazakhstan’s economy.
“Taking into account the situation, the question of the transition to a 12-year program must be postponed,” Education and Science Minister Aslan Sarinzhipov told journalists after a Senate session on January 22, TengriNews reports.
Sarinzhipov went on to explain how financial considerations were impacting the situation. “There are many factors, including financial possibilities. The government is now working on the head of state's instruction to prepare different scenarios for the economy. Proceeding from this situation, we have decided to put it [the program] on hold.”
The move to add a year to Kazakhstan's 11-grade system, a legacy from Soviet times, is seen as key to modernizing the education sector. The extra year would bring the country's system in line with international standards and enable external recognition of Kazakhstani secondary education qualifications.
Now as Astana slashes its growth expectations and lowers budget revenue forecasts, the 12-year program has become an early casualty of the government's belt tightening.
This is not the first time that these reforms have been shelved. In 2011 the Education Ministry put back plans to add a year to the curriculum until 2015, citing a deficit of space and trained teachers.
The ministry piloted the 12-year model in 104 schools between 2011 and 2014 using experimental textbooks and teaching materials. The 12-year program was supposed to be fully implemented by 2020.