Kazakhstan is blocking reports of an ethnic clash in the south, in a sign of sensitivities in Astana over friction between two of the country’s 140 ethnic groups.
Reports highlighting the ethnic angle of the unrest in the village of Bostandyk on February 5 – which pitted local Kazakhs against Tajiks after a row over a greenhouse ended in murder – have mostly become unavailable inside the country, while reports that covered the unrest without stressing the ethnic component are largely available.
Individual reports have been blocked on Kazakhstani sites such as Today.kz and in international media such as EurasiaNet.org and RFE/RL (some of whose reports were blocked while others were not).
Blocking individual reports rather than whole sites is a tactic increasingly used by the authorities to restrict access to information Astana deems sensitive. Legislative changes last year gave prosecutors power to block information without a court order. Since last fall law-enforcement agencies have blocked 703 websites and 198 individual reports, general-prosecutor Askhat Daulbayev said last month, mostly on grounds of extremism.
Calm has returned to a village in southern Kazakhstan following clashes between ethnic Kazakhs and ethnic Tajiks after a Kazakh man was murdered in an argument over a greenhouse.
Enraged friends and relatives of the murder victim, 30-year-old Bakytzhan Artykov, set fire to cars, damaged buildings, and attacked a Tajik-language school (no children were inside) in the village of Bostandyk, local resident Behruz (not his real name) told EurasiaNet.org by telephone.
“They set fire to buildings and cars,” the eyewitness said. “My own car was set on fire.”
He described how some 300 Kazakhs arrived in Bostandyk from the neighboring village of Yntymak on February 5 following the funeral of Artykov (whom police suspect was murdered by Navmidin Narmetov, a Tajik man now on the run). They rampaged through the streets from around 6 p.m. to midnight on February 5, despite the presence of riot police who arrived in response, Behruz said.
Grainy cellphone footage posted on YouTube said to be from Bostandyk (its authenticity could not be verified), a village mainly inhabited by ethnic Tajiks and located in the southern Saryagash District near the border with Uzbekistan, showed scenes of angry locals, some wielding sticks, and a burning car.
The administration of Nursultan Nazarbayev touts Kazakhstan as a model of tolerance because of the level of harmony among its 140 different ethnic groups. This unrest reveals how arguments can quickly escalate and split locals along ethnic lines.
Some of the attackers were shouting that Tajiks should leave for Tajikistan, Behruz said, “as if we were foreigners in our own country.”
Kazakhstan's slowing economy is pinching the country's industrial heartland.
Several industrial behemoths have announced cutbacks that they blame on a toxic mix of factors hitting their bottom lines, from falling commodity prices to an overvalued tenge. And as the enterprises pass the losses onto their workers, Astana is looking on anxiously, with memories of violent unrest in Kazakhstan’s oil fields still fresh.
Copper producer KAZ Minerals (previously called Kazakhmys) announced on February 2 that it would temporarily shut down unprofitable operations and redeploy 2,000 employees to other projects—though it promised no “mass” job cuts for its staff of 60,000. Meanwhile, steel producer ArcelorMittal Temirtau slashed salaries in January, reducing local staff pay by a quarter and cutting expatriate salaries in half.
KAZ Minerals pointed the finger at “complicated economic conditions” mostly brought on by a fall in copper prices, while ArcelorMittal Temirtau blamed a cash shortage caused by “a complicated geopolitical situation” (shorthand for economic problems stemming from the conflict in Ukraine and western sanctions against Russia). ArcelorMittal also blamed the regional economic slowdown and an “unfavorable” sales market.
The company – owned by international steel giant ArcelorMittal – said it could not compete with Russian steel, which is cheaper following the dramatic fall in the value of the ruble.
Industrialists from car manufacturers to natural resources exporters have been complaining for months that the value of Kazakhstan’s currency is eroding their competitive edge.
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.