Kyrgyzstan’s parliament has passed a second reading of draft bill on holding a referendum in December on making changes to the constitution.
With the MPs vote on September 22, the likelihood of a plebiscite going ahead on December 4, as planned, has become a virtual certainty. Third readings are typically a formality and President Almazbek Atambayev has already thrown his weight behind amendments that have sown political turmoil in the country.
Of the 104 deputies that voted, 98 were in support of the referendum initiative, while six opposed.
Proposals to tinker with the constitution have come in for strong criticism from civil society as well as from international bodies like the Venice Commission, an advisory body to the European Council that rules on matters of constitutional law.
One key provision of the reform would see the role of prime minister being bolstered at the expense of the parliament. This has raised suspicions that Atambayev, who is limited constitutionally to one presidential term ending in 2017, may be laying the grounds for his immediate entourage to retain a dominant grip over power.
Another fix seen as insidious is one envisioning the introduction of loosely conceived “supreme state values” that would encompass individual human rights but also tag on concepts like “love of the Motherland,” “respect for the elderly” and “the accommodation of tradition and progress.” The ultimate goal of this aspect of the reform appears intended at chipping away at the individual human rights agenda that many governments in the post-Soviet space see as inimical to their model of authoritarian political development.
Authorities in Kazakhstan have declared that Almaty, which was the capital until 1998, is one millennium old.
To celebrate this purported landmark, the city held celebrations capped off with a firework display on September 18.
Kazakhstan, like other Central Asian nations, has something of a dubious fondness for round dates. The people of Almaty were certainly quite surprised. Schoolchildren have long been told that Almaty first appeared on the map in 1854, when Fort Verniy was erected along the Malaya Almatinka river. That outpost grew in the following decade into a town known as Almatinsk, and then subsequently Verniy.
So how did Almaty suddenly grow more than 800 years older all of a sudden is a mystery to many residents. The date has been greeted with a fair dose of scorn online.
News website Kazday put together some of the most acid responses.
Sergei Kovalenko, writing under the handle Fizik, remarked: “In 2000, the people of Almaty marked the 150th anniversary of their city. Today, Almaty is already knocking on 1,000 years.”
And @altrbgdt was even more sarcastic: “This business about Almaty’s 1,000th anniversary reminds me of the novel 1984, in which people were told that two times two is five and everybody worshipped lies.”
Popular blogger Alisher Yelikbayev (@yelikbayev) quipped: “Because of a trip to Astana I missed the 1,000th anniversary of Almaty. Hopefully I won’t miss the 1,200th anniversary. According to our historians, that will pass in seven years time.”
And then @normkorm: “Next year our officials will show us some stone age tools they found and we will celebrate Almaty’s one millionth anniversary!”
Mortgage holders picket a bank in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in a demand for their loans to be refinanced following the dramatic fall in value of the national currency, the tenge.
In a reprisal of impromptu rallies seen earlier this year, around 30 mortgage holders in Kazakhstan’s business capital picketed banks on September 19 demanding their loans be refinanced.
Frustration is mounting among many debtors that a program ordered by President Nursultan Nazarbayev for the central bank to provide commercial lenders with 130 billion tenge ($380 million) to refinance loans is failing to take full effect.
The rallying mortgage holders, who complained that their debts had not been refinanced, called during their picket for them to be granted 1 percent interest rates and five-year repayment periods.
But Zhanna Sadykova, a member of the Let's Leave Housing for the People, claimed in remarks to EurasiaNet.org that banks are refusing to grant those terms.
Those suffering the most are people like 64-year old pensioner Tatyana Alenkina, who obtained a dollar mortgage worth $35,000 in 2008 to buy an apartment. She repaid $27,000, but a paltry monthly pension worth 35,000 tenge (devalued to $89 by the collapse of the national currency) means she can no longer keep up with payments.
“They kicked me out of my apartment in the evening, they won’t let me into my apartment any longer. I cannot find my things. I am going hungry. Now I’m living in a basement,” Alenkina told EurasiaNet.org.
The National Bank has said that as of September 1, almost 18,000 refinancing requests out of a total of more than 24,200 have been fulfilled. Protesters blamed banks for disruptions to the refinancing program.
A former presidential chief of staff in Kyrgyzstan has said he anticipates being arrested following a report alleging he is being targeted by a set-up orchestrated by the security forces.
Speaking in Bishkek on September 19, Edil Baisalov, who served as chief of staff for interim President Roza Otunbayeva in 2010, claims to have heard from “verified sources” that current President Almazbek Atambayev is seeking “any basis” to imprison him. The president is exploiting inter-ethnic tensions to that end, Baisalov said.
Baisalov’s press conference follows the publication of an article on Moscow-based ferghana.ru claiming knowledge of a plot by Kyrgyz security services to dig up dirt on members of the 2010 post-revolution interim government, of which Atambayev was a leading figure.
The article article alleged, citing a single anonymous source, that employees of the Kyrgyz security services, known as GKNB, were talking to relatives of ethnic Uzbeks that emigrated from Kyrgyzstan following bloody ethnic violence in 2010 and Uzbeks that have taken up residence in Uzbekistan after being convicted of participation in the violence into giving “incriminating testimony against Roza Otunbayeva and some of her colleagues.”
“Disgraced Uzbek community representatives were invited to make an official video message that they ‘organized the inter-ethnic conflict in June 2010 on the say so of Roza Otunbayeva.’” according to the report.
In recent weeks, the president has been engaged in a rapidly escalating conflict with numerous allies-turned-rivals, who have publicly stated their opposition to constitutional changes being pursued by Atmbayev.
The meetings alluded to in the ferghana.ru report reportedly took place in Osh and Tashkent.
In yet another fatal motor accident in Tajikistan involving the relative of a top official, the 23-year old son of the deputy prime minister this week crashed his Toyota Camry into a public utilities vehicle, killing two people.
Asia-Plus news website cited an unnamed security source as saying that one of the people killed was Faromuz Saidov’s passenger, a 25-year old woman, and that the other was a city worker. RFE/RL’s Tajik service, Radio Ozodi, reported that the Toyota was being driven at a high speed when it collided.
Saidov, who is the son of first deputy premier Davlati Saidov, was treated for his injuries at a hospital in Dushanbe.
The sight of expensive cars speeding unimpeded along the main thoroughfares of the capital is not an uncommon one. It is widely whispered that the drivers are more often than not the monied offspring of rich government officials.
Previously, Davlati Saidov served as head of the youth, sport and tourism committee, then was Tajikistan’s ambassador to Japan, later the head of the investment committee and, since 2013, has been first deputy prime minister. Unconfirmed media reports have suggested he is related somehow to President Emomali Rahmon.
The Interior Ministry has promised a fair investigation into the accident, but there are grounds to be skeptical. Similar things have happened before, only for those guilty to walk away scot free.
Kyrgyzstan’s five-party ruling coalition appears to have seen better days as quarrels over constitutional changes dominate parliamentary sessions and supporters of President Almazbek Atambayev continue to harangue opponents of an upcoming referendum.
The nominally socialist Ata-Meken faction and the pro-agrarian Onuguu-Progress party have expressed doubts about the changes. The former was invited to leave the ruling alliance by Isa Omurkulov, who leads Atambayev’s Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan in parliament.
Onuguu-Progres leader Bakyt Torobayev said at a September 14 session of parliament that the coalition was in “intensive care” and, warming to his theme, on “artificial respiration.”
He also cited a conversation with a citizen from a rural area who “hadn’t read the [proposed] constitutional changes but was concerned that they are being done to usurp power.”
Even if both Onuguu-Progress and Ata-Meken walked out of government, the three remaining parties (SDPK, Bir Bol and the Kyrgyzstan party) would still have enough seats to form a majority. For what it’s worth, Ata-Meken leader Omurbek Tekebayev has stated he has no imminent plans to ditch the coalition.
But suspicions over the constitutional fiddle, which is being pushed by Atambayev as he nears the end of his single term six-year presidency, are growing.
The most significant changes involve a recasting of the state’s obligations toward upholding human rights and enhancing the office of the prime minister against that of the presidency.
The language on rights issues signals a marked lurch toward nationalist conservatism.
Uzbekistan has released four citizens of Kyrgyzstan it detained last month during an ongoing border dispute standoff, ratcheting down the tension between the countries.
Kyrgyzstan’s border service said on September 9 that that men were released by the Uzbek police following negotiations.
The four were reportedly in good health.
“Our health is fine. We are experiencing no problems and they looked after us well. Everything is good,” one of the released men, Zhenish Tashmatov, told RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz service.
While that takes the sting out of the situation, the dispute that precipitated the men’s detention continues to rumble on.
Kyrgyz border guards have said around 20 Uzbek police officers are still occupying the telecommunications relay tower on Ungar-Too mountain where the four Kyrgyz men were detained. An Mi-8 helicopter carrying seven Uzbek policemen landed on Ungar-Too on August 22.
Ungar-Too is nominally one of the disputed chunks of territory, although the real prize for Tashkent is the Kasan-Sai reservoir, which is operated and de facto controlled by Uzbekistan, despite being several kilometers inside Kyrgyzstan.
Access to Kasan-Sai is currently blocked by Kyrgyz police checkpoints and another line of Uzbek defenses at the facility itself. At the site, there are numerous houses inhabited by Uzbek technicians and their families. Uzbekistan is aggrieved that it is not being given free and unfettered access to the reservoir, to which it holds territorial claims, by Kyrgyzstan.
Other than Uzbekistan, few are eager to see the formation of yet another enclave on the fringes of the Fergana Valley, which is what Tashkent’s desired outcome would entail.
A winner has been declared in Uzbekistan’s succession sweepstakes: a joint session of the Uzbek parliament on September 8 confirmed Shavkat Mirziyoyev as the country’s interim president.
Mirziyoyev, the incumbent prime minister, had been a front runner to take power after it was announced on September 2 that long-time leader Islam Karimov had died from an apparent stroke. Technically, a special presidential election must be held within three months according to Uzbekistan’s constitution, but Mirziyoyev’s victory seems all but assured now that he can wield all the levers of executive authority and tilt the playing field in his favor.
A government statement issued September 8 noted that lawmakers endorsed Mirziyoyev’s succession because he is seen as someone who can ensure “the provision of public security and law and order, and the effective resolution of highly important issues in the ... political and socioeconomic development of the country.”
That the announcement of Mirziyoyev’s appointment came six days after the news of Karimov’s death was released suggests that the political transition was far from smooth, and that there still may be substantial opposition to his rule from within Uzbekistan’s political elites.
The parliamentary endorsement of Mirziyoyev as interim president put an end to the brief tenure of Senate Chairman Nigmatilla Yuldashev as acting chief executive. Although never formally appointed, Yuldashev, in his legislative capacity, was, according to the constitution, the rightful interim president until a special election could determine Karimov’s successor. Yuldashev during the power vacuum fulfilled some formal executive functions.
In a surprising shakeup of Kazakhstan’s leadership, prime minister Karimov Masimov was on September 8 moved sideways and appointed head of the security services.
In a decree confirming that appointment, President Nursultan Nazarbayev named the up-and-coming Bakytzhan Sagintayev to head up the government, albeit only in an interim capacity for now.
It is not immediately obvious what motivated the personnel shuffle, but the position of Vladimir Zhumakanov, the outgoing head of the National Security Committee, or KNB, has been in question since a spate of fatal shootings in the western city of Aktobe in June.
This spells the end of Masimov’s second stint as prime minister. He served as head of government in 2007 and fill that post until 2012, after which he headed the presidential administration. He was again named prime minister in April 2014.
His removal as head of the Cabinet has been predicted for months, but that he would be appointed head of the security services is something few can have expected. It has long been rumored, although never officially confirmed, that Masimov had a background in the secret services in the Soviet era, so the transition may not be as surprising as it seems.
Political commentator Marat Shibutov told news and analysis website 365info.kz that he believed the move was only temporary.
“He will remain one of the most influential people in the country and close to the president. So you cannot write him off. This is just a temporary disappearance into the shadows,” Shibutov said.
Shibutov estimated that Masimov would occupy his KNB post for around one year.