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.
The Russian military is handing Astana more than a million hectares of land it has been renting in Kazakhstan, which hopes to use the territory to boost its extractive industries.
During talks in Moscow on April 16, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and his Kazakhstani counterpart Imangali Tasmagambetov finalized the deal that will see 1.6 million hectares of land that is part of two military testing grounds ceded to Kazakhstan, Russian news agency TASS reported.
“Unused territories and sectors where communications routes and mineral wealth are located will be removed from the lease and handed over to Kazakhstan,” Shoigu said.
The land is part of two military facilities operated by Russia in Kazakhstan: the Saryshagan anti-ballistic missile testing ground at Lake Balkhash in the southeast and a flight testing center in Aktobe in the energy-rich west.
“We have taken into account all the desires of the Kazakhstani side in removing the land from the lease,” Shoigu added.
For Kazakhstan, the deal reasserts its sovereignty over the territory and opens up the opportunity to build infrastructure and prospect for energy and mineral resources, just as Astana launches a program to increase Kazakhstan’s proven reserves.
“This agreement is linked to the economic interests of the Republic of Kazakhstan,” the country’s Ministry of Defense said in a tight-lipped statement. The land “will be used in the interests of the oil-and-gas sector, the construction of housing, railroads, and highways, and for other needs.”
The waters of the Syr-Darya river are highly polluted and should not be used for irrigating crops, let alone for drinking, scientists from Kazakhstan have concluded.
Tests of the waters of Central Asia’s longest river – which flows for 2,200 kilometers through Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan – found dangerous concentrations of metals including chromium, copper, nickel, mercury, molybdenum, and zinc, the Nur.kz site quoted scientists from South Kazakhstan State University as saying.
“The water of the Syr-Darya is not recommended for use either for agricultural needs or for the fishing industry,” concluded Uylesbek Besterekov, one of the professors who took part in the three-year study funded by a €600,000 NATO grant.
The scientists (who tested waters flowing for around 1,000 kilometers through Kazakhstan, from the border with Uzbekistan up to the Aral Sea) could not pinpoint which industrial enterprise was the greatest polluter – or even which of the four countries through which the river flows is causing the most contamination. Even if the main polluters could be identified and stopped, it would take at least a decade for the waters to become clean, Besterekov said.
The findings – which back up 2009 data suggesting that the Syr-Darya’s waters were too dirty to drink or use in agriculture safely – are worrying for the Central Asian governments, since the river is used to irrigate crops that are then transported all over the region for public consumption. (It was the use of this river’s waters for agricultural irrigation – particularly for cotton – that led to the shrinking of the Aral Sea into which it empties.)
Being president may not be enough for Emomali Rahmon. If a band of obsequious, state-sponsored academics have their wish, he could soon become “Leader of the Nation” – a title that has been used in the region to evade pesky regulations, like term limits.
In a lengthy article published on the ruling People Democratic Party’s website, political scientists Nosirjon Salimi and Holahmad Sami of Dushanbe’s Pedagogical University insist that Rahmon – who came to power 23 years ago and has systematically crushed all opposition – is more than a president: “The leader of our nation is the guarantor of justice, law and order; he protects our citizens from arbitrary bureaucracy and defends their rights and freedoms. He creates a climate of law and order.”
It is safe to say the article exaggerates Rahmon’s achievements, crediting him with building a democratic government, fighting drug trafficking and reducing poverty. The authors place a special emphasis on Rahmon as peacemaker. “Today, without exception, all members of society recognize it was our leader who was responsible for the restoration of peace, stability and national reconciliation,” they state, suggesting that Rahmon alone ended the 1990s civil war.
The academics liken Rahmon to Charles de Gaulle, Mahatma Gandhi and the late Singaporean autocrat Lee Kuan Yew. Like them, Rahmon has built a nation, bringing “success and progress for the people,” they say.
“Perhaps leaders do not need to be given such titles,” the academics conclude. But “nations experiencing the clash of civilizations and impact of globalization need to acknowledge their leaders.”
A worker from Tajikistan has dropped dead while standing in line to apply for a Russian work permit at a new migrant-processing center near Moscow. His death comes after a barrage of reports about poor conditions at the Multifunctional Migration Center, in Sakharovo.
Komiljon Esanov, 48, had been waiting in line for two days when he became ill, according to Fergana News. By the time an ambulance arrived an hour later he was already dead.
"I think my father died of hunger and thirst while standing in the crowd. We have been queuing for work permits here for several days, and there is no order or system," Esanov’s son Dilshod, who was waiting with his father in line, was quoted as saying by the Dushanbe-based Ozodagon news agency.
The Russian authorities have promised to investigate the cause of death.
When the Sakharovo center opened in January, many migrants viewed it as a positive change. Previously they had to go to at least five different sites to have their fingerprints taken, sit mandatory Russian-language test, purchase health insurance, and collect necessary stamps. Now they can take care of all that paperwork at once.
But the Federal Migration Service’s attempt to streamline the process seems to have failed. With over a million Central Asian migrants working in Moscow alone, the center quickly suffered from overcrowding.
The center can only serve 2,000 people per day, but often up to 5,000 migrants wait in line to get their documents sorted. Many arrive as early as 5 a.m. to start queuing.
What a difference a month can make. In the final days of February, Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev was engaged in an emotional and unseemly spat with Belarus over the death of a Kyrgyz gangster.
By the end of his 10-day European tour this week, Atambayev was positioning himself as a peacemaker between Brussels and Moscow – one eager to continue receiving Western aid. Kyrgyzstan is due to join the Russia-led Eurasia Economic Union next month.
Atambayev made some revealing comments during an April 1 interview with Euronews – an outlet notorious for softball questions and sympathetic interviews with regional leaders. He used the opportunity to praise Russia’s leadership, present himself as a wise leader dabbling in international diplomacy, and remind Western donors that their assistance hasn’t been enough.
Euronews: “Mr. President, welcome to Euronews. Can we regard your visit to Brussels as something of a farewell before Kyrgyzstan joins the Eurasian Economic Union in May and when you will stop getting closer to the European Union?”
Atambayev: “On the contrary. I think, as a part of the Eurasian Union, Kyrgyzstan will be pushing it towards tight engagement with the European Union. Europe should extend from Lisbon and Brussels – to Vladivostok, and of course, I think, to Bishkek.”
The key to massaging your own Wikipedia profile is not getting caught. But Kazakhstan’s efforts to turn the freely editable online encyclopedia into free advertising are yet again in the spotlight.
On March 20, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales hosted an Ask Me Anything conversation (AMA) on Reddit, a social-networking platform. Before long the audience was questioning Wales’s and Wikipedia’s roles in helping to improve Kazakhstan’s image. Back in 2011, Wales awarded a once-and-future Kazakh government employee, Rauan Kenzhekhanuly, the inaugural “Wikipedian of the Year” for his work with WikiBilim, a Kazakh-language platform criticized both for receiving state funds and for publishing multiple articles toeing the authoritarian government’s line. At the time, Wales told EurasiaNet.org, “As far as I know, the WikiBilim organization is not politicized.”
But during the AMA, Wales backpedaled on his decision to name Kenzhekhanuly the first Wikipedian of the Year.
Wales was on the receiving end of a fresh round of criticism last year when Kenzhekhanuly was named deputy governor of Kazakhstan’s Kyzylorda region. During the AMA, a commenter asked Wales if he would have bestowed the award had he known Kenzhekhanuly would go on to serve as deputy governor. “If I had known in 2011 that someone would get a job that I disapprove of in 2014, would I refuse to give them an award in 2011?” Wales responded. “Yes, I would have refused to give that award.”