As Moscow’s ties with the West continue to deteriorate, Central Asian farmers may be saying prayers for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Kremlin slapped restrictions on imports of meat, dairy, fruit and vegetables from the US, EU, Norway, Canada and Australia on August 7, in response to progressively heavier Western sanctions designed to punish Moscow for supporting rebels in eastern Ukraine.
While that is bad news for Russians who like Camembert and thousands of American and European producers supplying Russia, there is an obvious beneficiary from the fallout: Central Asia, which already supplies Russia with much of its produce.
On August 7 the New York Times detailed the size of the gap in the Russian market that must now be filled:
According to figures compiled by the [World Bank] and other agencies, Russia imports about 25 percent of its food, worth some $43 billion annually. Of that, about 75 percent, or $30 billion, comes mainly from Europe and the United States. The other 25 percent is mainly from former Soviet republics.
With the post-Soviet region embroiled in its deepest crisis since the Cold War over Ukraine and Kazakhstan facing the impact of Western sanctions on Russia, strong leadership and staunch policy decisions would seem to be required from Astana.
But when President Nursultan Nazarbayev summoned his government today, instead he engaged in a bout of cosmetic cabinet tinkering that may distract officials seeking to steer Kazakhstan’s economy through some choppy waters.
Nazarbayev kept his prime minister, Karim Masimov, but made several ministerial replacements and announced a merger of ministries to cut their number from 17 to 12 and subsume some of Kazakhstan’s numerous agencies, departments and committees.
The streamlining of the bloated bureaucracy is welcome, but it will likely spark a bout of distracting infighting as bureaucrats fight to keep their jobs in a vastly diminished pool of vacancies.
Several ministries received a rebranding.
The Oil and Gas Ministry became the Energy Ministry under new minister Vladimir Shkolnik. But a new name and a new face will not solve Kazakhstan’s main energy problem, the stalled Kashagan oilfield, now not expected to resume production until 2016. In an unusual meeting of interests sure to please oil and gas companies, the Energy Ministry was also handed the environment portfolio.
The Economy and Budget Planning Ministry became the National Economy Ministry, swallowing up the Regional Development Ministry. The Emergencies Ministry was merged into the Interior Ministry, and the health and labor portfolios were combined at the new Health and Social Development Ministry. Aset Isekeshev, formerly minister of industry and new technologies, heads up a new Ministry of Investment and Development.
A groundswell of public support for Kyrgyzstan's first president to return home to bury a close relative proves the old adage that absence makes the heart grows fonder.
Askar Akayev was far from a national favorite when opposition-led crowds forced the former physicist and his family to flee Kyrgyzstan in a helicopter more than nine years ago, the culmination of what came to be known fondly as the Tulip Revolution. By most accounts, the 14-year Akayev regime had degenerated into a hotbed of corruption and authoritarianism after the president’s reformist beginnings had seen Kyrgyzstan branded an “island of democracy” in authoritarian Central Asia.
But after five years under his successor, the venal and occasionally brutal Kurmanbek Bakiyev, followed by four years of economic and political uncertainty, some Kyrgyzstanis see Akayev with rose-tinted spectacles.
Since his ouster, Akayev, now 69, has lived in Moscow, where he teaches at Moscow State University. He has never returned to Kyrgyzstan.
The trigger for a public discussion of Akayev’s merits and shortfalls was the August 4 rumor that he would be returning to attend the funeral of his brother, who died August 3.
Citing “sources close to the arriving party," newspaper Vechernii Bishkek wrote: “Tomorrow on August 5, early in the morning, the arrival of ex-president Askar Akayev is expected. Relatives and close allies of Akayev expect him in connection with the death of the ousted president’s older brother, Bolot.”
When I knock on the door of yet another Kyrgyz politician, civil servant or businessman, I have many questions. That’s my job as a journalist. But the most nerve-racking question is not in my notebook: Will he hit on me?
The first time I interviewed an official in Bishkek, he tried to hold my hand while we were alone in his office. I left, humiliated, thinking this would never happen again. I was wrong.
The idea that women are no more than pieces of meat is deeply engrained here. Indeed, until recently, Kyrgyz law called sheep rustling a more serious crime than bride kidnapping.
Women are taught to blame themselves. A study of 8,000 Kyrgyz women released in January found that 6 percent believe a woman deserves to be beaten if she burns dinner, 23 percent if she leaves the house without telling her husband. Last summer, a female member of parliament lobbied to ban girls under age 22 from traveling abroad. She said she wished to “preserve the gene pool.”
At first, I thought the advances were my fault, that I had dressed or acted inappropriately. I changed my makeup and started wearing glasses to look older. But they haven’t stopped. Men regularly call me after interviews, suggesting we have a coffee to “get to know each other better.” Professionally, it is challenging to tell a member of parliament or a minister that I’m not interested while leaving the door open for future interviews.
Kazakhstan's flagship Astana cycling team claimed victory in this year's Tour de France as the team’s Italian leader Vincenzo Nibali lead the turquoise and yellow charge into Paris on July 27.
Nibali bested his nearest rival by over seven minutes to record a third Tour de France success for the Astana team. He won his kisses, too: Earlier, after Nibali had won the second stage of the race, he was awkwardly rebuffed. This time there were no uncomfortable scenes on the winner's rostrum.
The Astana Pro Team for this year's Tour included three Italians, two riders from Kazakhstan and one rider each from Denmark, Ukraine, The Netherlands and Estonia. Spaniard Alberto Contador previously led Astana to wins in 2009 and again in 2010. But the 2010 victory was soured as Contador was stripped of the title over doping allegations.
Following the retirement of Kazakhstan's most famous rider Alexander Vinokourov in 2012, the Astana team was overhauled for the 2013 season with the arrival of an Italian contingent headed by Nibali and two of his teammates from the Liquigas-Cannondale team. Astana scored an immediate success with Nibali, nicknamed “the Shark,” winning the 2013 Giro d'Italia.
The Astana Pro Team was formed in 2006 and has garnered heaps of international PR for Kazakhstan's glitzy new capital, Astana. Its main sponsor is the state asset holding company Samruk-Kazyna, which pumps in more than $20 million a year to keep the wheels turning and buff up Kazakhstan’s international image.
A group of scientists and academics from Kazakhstan have set off in the footsteps of a renowned 19th-century Kazakhstani explorer to highlight the tourism potential of the ancient trade routes linking Central Asia and western China.
The expedition follows the path Shokan Valikhanov took in the 1850s in what was then a part of the world relatively unknown to Europeans. Led by Professor Ordenbek Mazbaev of Astana's L. N. Gulimyov Eurasian National University, the team includes scientists from Astana's Nazarbayev University, along with tourism officials and journalists from Kazakhstan, Tengri News reports.
The 12-day jaunt, which began July 24, aims to open up a route for travelers to explore some of the major sights of the Silk Road. It started in Urumchi, capital of China’s restive Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and is scheduled to arrive in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan on August 4. Along the way the expedition will pass through the fabled oasis towns of Kashgar, Khotan and Yarkand on the fringes of the Taklamakan Desert before entering Kyrgyzstan through the Torugart Pass.
Valikhanov is a legendary figure in the world of Central Asian anthropology. He was born in 1835 near Kostanay, in northern Kazakhstan, and at age 11 enrolled in the Omsk Cadet Corps. After graduating from the academy, the Russian military sent him to the recently established Fort Verny – now Almaty, Kazakhstan – from where he undertook his expeditions to the neighboring regions.
The modern Kazakh explorers will retrace Valikhanov's journeys of 1855-56 and 1858-59, when he travelled through what is now Kyrgyzstan and into China in a camel convoy.
As news trickled out of Taijkistan on July 22 that the government was releasing, albeit with some restrictions, international scholar Alexander Sodiqov after five weeks in jail, a group of scholars and activists gathered at New York University to discuss the long-term effects of his detention. The case, panelists cautioned, could signal on-going trouble for academic freedom for scholars focusing on Tajikistan.
Sodiqov, a political science doctoral student at the University of Toronto and a Tajik national, first traveled to his home country in June as part of a University of Exeter (UK) research project on conflict management strategies. He was detained in Khorog on June 16, before being brought to the intelligence agency headquarters in Dushanbe, where he remained until July 22, accused of espionage.
“Tajikistan was never a no-go area for academic research,” commented John Heathershaw, a lecturer at the University of Exeter who was working with Sodiqov at the time of his arrest. “Alex’s detention is unprecedented… and it sent a message that research is under threat in Tajikistan.”
Sodiqov and others have vehemently denied any connection to espionage, which Heathershaw called “simply untrue.” Disseminating his story and his denials, however, has proved a challenge in Tajikistan, where pro-government media dominate.
“The region thrives on conspiracy theories. Having knowledge – having data – is extremely threatening to these governments,” Alexander Cooley, a political science professor focusing on Central Asia at New York’s Barnard College, affirmed. “Alexander’s detention has had an effect: it’s going to deter research. It’s making this muddled environment even worse.”
Islamic militancy is high on the agenda in Central Asia. This week, authorities have handed lengthy prison terms at two unrelated trials in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
Six people were jailed for between nine and 15 years on terrorism charges at a mass trial involving 66 suspects in southwestern Uzbekistan. A court in central Kazakhstan jailed four citizens for between six and 12 years for recruiting militants to wage holy war in Syria.
At the mass trial in the city of Qashqadaryo in Uzbekistan, three men and three women were jailed on July 22 for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government of the strongman president, Islam Karimov, and propagating terrorism, RFE/RL reported, citing the Tashkent-based Ezgulik (Compassion) human rights center.
In Kazakhstan, the conviction of the four over the Syria recruitment campaign in and around the city of Zhezkazgan, reported by Tengri News on July 22, came as media reports emerged of a new propaganda video showing 16 people believed to be from Kazakhstan (since some are speaking Kazakh) who have headed off to fight in the Middle East.
Authorities in Central Asia have frequently cited Syria-linked threats this year amid a growing number of reports that militants from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are waging holy war in Syria.
A graduate student detained by Tajikistan’s security services over five weeks ago and accused of treason has been released on his own recognizance. Alexander Sodiqov confirmed to the BBC’s Russian Service late on July 22, "I'm home. I'm happy. I'm with my family. I'm doing well. I've been treated well.” He is reportedly not allowed to leave the country.
Sodiqov, 31, was arrested on June 16 while interviewing an opposition leader in Badakhshan province, scene of fighting between militants and government troops in 2012 and renewed upheaval in May. A political science PhD student at the University of Toronto, Sodiqov was home in his native Tajikistan carrying out research for the University of Exeter when he was detained.
The State Committee for National Security (GKNB) accused Sodiqov of carrying out “subversion and espionage” for an unnamed foreign country. As EurasiaNet reported:
Friends and colleagues are growing increasingly concerned that Tajikistan’s heavy-handed authorities may be trying to make an example out of Sodiqov to discourage others from examining tensions between Tajikistan’s authoritarian government and minorities in the restive eastern province of Badakhshan. […]
Tajik authorities are notoriously thin-skinned about anyone prying into their fraught relations with ethnic minorities in Badakhshan, which happens to be a key weigh station on the drug trafficking route between Afghanistan and Russia.
A Kazakhstani citizen, convicted of conspiracy and obstruction of justice in connection with the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, faces up to 20 years in a federal prison.
Azamat Tazhayakov, 20, was convicted on July 21 by a jury in US District Court in Boston. He is scheduled to have sentencing hearing on October 16. His defense team intends to appeal the conviction in the meantime.
According to US prosecutors, Tazhayakov, along with another Kazakhstani national, Dias Kadyrbayev, were friends of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who is accused of carrying out the attacks that claimed three lives and wounded more than 260 people near the marathon finish line on April 15, 2013. All three were students at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth at the time. Tsarnaev’s brother, Tamerlan, believed to be the driving force behind the bombings, was killed during a shootout with police on April 19, 2013.
Days after the bombings, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev allegedly sent a text message requesting that Tazhayakov and Kadyrbayev remove items from the accused bomber’s dormitory room, including a backpack, which they subsequently threw in a dumpster.
Tazhayakov was the first of four individuals indicted on charges of conspiracy and obstruction in connection with the marathon bombings to stand trial. Kadyrbayev’s trial is scheduled to begin in September. Tsarnaev’s trial is slated to start in November.