Thousands of men from Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and Russia’s Muslim republics gathered in central Moscow on August 8 to mark the closing of Ramadan.
The Eid al-Fitr prayers, which celebrate the end of the month-long fast, gave Moscow’s estimated million-plus population of Muslims, many of them migrant laborers, a chance to put aside, for a few minutes, growing concerns about the nationalist rhetoric, police roundups, and migrant detention centers that have become a feature of the city’s ongoing mayoral campaign and Russian politics in general.
Some knelt on carpets, some on newspapers. Radio Ekho Moskvy said more than 3,000 police and tens of thousands of worshipers gathered outside Moscow’s four mosques for the 8:00 a.m. prayer. Others estimated well over 100,000 faithful.
Outside the Sobornaya Mechet, Russia’s Chief Mufti, Ravil Gainutdin, relayed messages of peace from President Vladimir Putin, Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin, and Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, among others. Blessings in several languages including Uzbek and Tajik were broadcast to the men kneeling in the streets before the main prayer.
A circling police helicopter often drowned out the announcements. For several construction workers from Tajikistan, however, that didn’t matter. As the mufti spoke and they waited for the moment to pray in silence, they were absorbed with a mobile phone video of a tracksuited woman in black leather boots dancing on top of a car.
Tajikistan likes to brand itself as the last Central Asian Eldorado, a place that (once the deep-pocketed foreigners get over their corruption concerns) will be swimming in hydrocarbon and mineral wealth – or at least look something like Kazakhstan.
So far though, in its 20-plus years of independence, Tajikistan has enjoyed little foreign investment, even though it boasts over 600 documented mineral stores, including what’s believed to be one of the largest silver deposits in the world.
A new poll has found that nearly half of Tajiks would welcome foreign investment in their mining sector, while more than a fifth were against it. These figures are almost the mirror opposite of sentiments in neighboring Kyrgyzstan. Asked how they “feel about foreign companies developing mineral resources,” 45 percent of Tajiks said they were in favor, while 21 percent said they were opposed. In Kyrgyzstan, only 25 percent responded positively, with 43 percent opposed. (The poll was released on August 5 by regional pollster M-Vector, covering 1,008 respondents across Tajikistan and 2,656 in Kyrgyzstan.)
The pollsters offer no hypotheses about the difference, but why not bounce around some unscientific ideas about the possible reasons that people in two desperately poor, mountainous post-Soviet states bordering China have such different views on outsiders extracting their natural wealth for a fee?
A football club from Karaganda in central Kazakhstan has made history by becoming the first Kazakh team to enter an elite European competition.
The 5-3 aggregate victory over Albanian champions KF Skënderbeu on August 6 guarantees Shakhter Karagandy, champions of Kazakhstan's Premier League for the past two seasons, a place in the group stages of UEFA’s Europa League. If Shakhter makes it through the playoff round at the end of August, it could even advance to the exclusive Champions League.
Shakhter travelled to Albania with a three-goal lead from the first of two games. Within the first 30 minutes of the second game, the Albanians were back on level terms, but Shakhter struck back, winning 3-2, and advancing to the playoff round, which will be drawn on August 9.
Kazakhstan is the only Central Asian country to play its soccer in Europe. It joined UEFA – the Union of European Football Associations – in 2002, after competing for 10 years in the Asian Football Confederation, where Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan play their international football.
The elevation of a Kazakh team to Europe's elite will give the country’s regularly disappointed fans a welcome boost. The national team, ranked 150th in the world, has not fared well since joining UEFA. It again failed to qualify for the FIFA World Cup, the 2014 match in Brazil. It is currently fifth in its qualifying group, having scored only one point in the last six matches.
Kazakhstan’s Supreme Court has denied jailed opposition leader Vladimir Kozlov a review of his controversial trial and imprisonment, a case widely condemned as legally flawed and politically motivated.
Kozlov was jailed in October 2012 for seven and a half years on charges of seeking to overthrow the administration of President Nursultan Nazarbayev and stoking fatal unrest in the town of Zhanaozen in December 2011, which left 15 dead when security forces fired on unarmed protestors.
“The circus is over, the judges have pronounced their decision – there are no grounds for opening a supervisory review,” Kozlov’s wife Aliya Turusbekova wrote on her Facebook page after the Supreme Court ruling on August 5, which effectively put an end to Kozlov’s legal battle. Kozlov has argued that he only engaged in legitimate political opposition and is a scapegoat for the Zhanaozen violence, while Astana rejects claims of political motivation in his case.
Fugitive oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov, who has been on the run from police in Kazakhstan and Britain, has been captured in the south of France, according to a report in the Financial Times.
Ablyazov was arrested on July 31 by French special forces near the billionaires’ playground of Cannes, the FT quoted an unnamed family lawyer as saying. It did not specify on what charges Ablyazov had been detained: Kazakhstan has been pursuing him for alleged financial crimes that Ablyazov denies, and he also has a case to answer in Britain, where he escaped a jail sentence for contempt of court last year by going underground.
Ablyazov formerly chaired Kazakhstan’s BTA Bank, which he also owned through an undeclared holding until it was forcibly nationalized in 2009. Ablyazov fled to London, where he was sued by his former bank for allegedly defrauding it of some $6 billion.
After years of legal wrangling, Ablyazov – who accuses Astana of pursuing him for political reasons and has asylum in the United Kingdom – fled to an unknown destination when the London High Court ordered him jailed for “deliberate and brazen” deception (concealing assets he had been ordered to disclose in the fraud case). Ablyazov was later debarred from fighting the case and the courts ordered his assets sold to compensate BTA Bank.
Kazakhstan’s troubled BTA Bank, formerly run by fugitive oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov, is still crippled by bad loans more than four years after Astana grabbed the financial institution and sent Ablyazov fleeing abroad, a new study shows.
A staggering 81 percent of BTA Bank’s credit portfolio is made up of non-performing loans (those on which payments are 90 days late or more), according to research by Kazakhstan’s Kursiv business newspaper.
As the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has pointed out over and over again, bad loans are the plague of Kazakhstan’s financial system: The IMF said in June that non-performing loans make up around 30 percent of the total in Kazakhstan’s financial system.
But BTA Bank has by far the highest total, not only in terms of ratio to its credit portfolio but also in monetary terms: Its non-performing loans total 1.7 trillion tenge (around $11 billion), Kursiv’s study, based on data from June 1, shows.
Alliance Bank had the second-largest ratio of bad loans in its credit portfolio (47 percent), followed by ATF Bank (46 percent). Kazkommertsbank had the second largest in monetary terms: 660 billion tenge ($4.3 billion), or 28 percent of its loan portfolio.
BTA Bank was forcibly nationalized in 2009 and Ablyazov, who chaired it and owned it through an undeclared holding, fled to London. There he was sued by his former bank for allegedly defrauding it of some $6 billion.
Kazakhstan has found a novel way to combine two of its passions du jour, green energy and cycling. Astana is hosting a group of intrepid cyclists who have spent the last seven weeks or so racing from France to Central Asia on vehicles fueled by pedal power, with a little help from the sun.
The race, known as “The Sun Trip,” is the brainchild of Florian Bailly. The pioneer of solar-assisted cycling made his own way from France to Japan in 2010, a 10,000-kilometer trip relying solely on pedal and solar power. For Astana, the Sun Trip is a way of publicizing EXPO 2017, which it promises will focus on renewable energy.
Solar bikes, which use a combination of a pedal-powered machine with a solar-fueled battery, allow riders to travel long distances at greater speeds than on conventional bicycles.
Thirty-three competitors set off from Savoy on June 15 on a variety of machines – including conventional bicycles with trailers transporting the solar gear, along with a tandem or two and a tricycle.
On July 23, Raf van Hulle wheeled into Kazakhstan's capital first, 37 days after leaving Savoy, France. The Belgian’s grueling 7,500-kilometer journey took him through Italy, Croatia, Hungary, Romania, Moldova, Ukraine, Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.
A simmering water dispute between Astana and Bishkek is heating up, with Kyrgyzstan threatening to cut electricity to its neighbor and reportedly accusing Kazakh officials of attempted extortion – then denying it.
The dispute escalated on July 29 when Kyrgyzstan’s energy minister alleged, according to both Kyrgyz and Kazakh media reports, that unnamed Kazakh officials had attempted to bribe him during water and energy negotiations.
“They openly offered a bribe for the sale of energy at a low price to Kazakhstani consumers,” Osmonbek Artykbayev said in remarks quoted by CA-News.org. Kyrgyz negotiators “managed to hold out,” he was reported to have said.
On July 30, Artykbayev denied ever making such an accusation, using the time-honored explanation that reporters had distorted his words. He said he had been explaining how his ministry had stepped up the fight against corruption in the energy sector. “Unfortunately my words about the fight against corruption were incorrectly interpreted in individual media outlets,” Artykbayev said in remarks quoted by Tengri News.
Last month Artykbayev threatened to halt electric power exports to Kazakhstan, citing a water shortage. “It’s a difficult question, but there is not enough water in the Toktogul Reservoir, and we are faced with the question of supplying our own population,” Tengri News quoted him as saying on June 27. Kyrgyzstan generates over 90 percent of its electricity from hydropower.
Tajikistan, the country more dependent than any other on labor migrant remittances, will no longer release cash transfer data because the information could be “politicized,” the head of the National Bank says.
The government stopped publishing information on the volume of remittances sent to Tajikistan in May, the Asia-Plus news agency reported this week, citing the head of the National Bank of Tajikistan. "I'd rather not talk about migrants' funds because this issue may be politicized," Abdujabbor Shirinov said.
Tajikistan boasts the world’s most remittance-dependent economy. According to the World Bank, labor migrants abroad, mostly in Russia, transferred the equivalent of 47 percent of GDP back to Tajikistan last year. The Bank expects the amount to rise again this year. And the transfers the Bank measures do not include cash that individuals carry home, so the number in reality is likely higher.
Shirinov insisted that not all cash transfers from individuals are labor migrant remittances, noting that some of the money could be returns from small businesses. Certainly that is also possible, but it doesn’t change the fact that Tajikistan is utterly dependent on Russia.
At least one Uzbek border guard was killed in a clash with his Kyrgyz counterparts on July 23. But that’s about all the local media on both sides of the frontier agree on. Officials from the hostile neighbors are presenting differing accounts of the skirmish, including where it occurred.
Tashkent’s 12news.uz website describes a “provocation” on a farm in Namangan Region at around 9:30 a.m. Uzbek time (10:30 a.m. in Kyrgyzstan), when two Uzbek patrolmen tried to stop several “drunk” Kyrgyz guards armed with machine guns who had "intruded" onto Uzbekistan's territory. When the Uzbek guards tried to approach their Kyrgyz colleagues to "explain the seriousness of the situation," the latter opened fire without warning, killing one on the spot and seriously wounding the other in the chest. "Having finished their dirty job, the Kyrgyz bandits left our country," 12news.uz said.
The Uzbek Border Service found spent shells about 100 meters into Uzbek territory, the website said, adding that the second guard died in hospital.