Six more arrests have been made in a high-profile corruption case involving prominent media figures that has sparked fresh claims that freedom of speech is under attack in Kazakhstan.
Aset Matayev, director of the KazTAG news agency, four government officials and ex-officials and a senior official from the state Kazakhtelecom company are suspected of involvement in a conspiracy designed to defraud the state of more than $1 million dollars, the National Bureau for Counteracting Corruption said in a statement on March 28.
Aset Matayev is the son of Seytkazy Matayev, a well-respected figure on Kazakhstan’s media scene whose arrest in February on charges of embezzlement and tax evasion sparked a domestic and international outcry.
Now, Aset Matayev has, like his father, been placed under house arrest after the investigation purportedly revealed that he had “taken a direct part in the embezzlement of budget funds,” the anti-corruption bureau said.
Four current and former officials from the government’s Communications, IT and Information Committee have also been arrested: director Talgat Kazangap and former director Bolat Kalyanbekov are on bail; and Bolat Beserbayev, another ex-director, and his former deputy Bek Arpabayev are under house arrest. Also under house arrest is Batyr Makhanbetazhiyev, who is strategic management director at Kazakhtelecom.
The Matayevs categorically deny the charges against them. Aset Matayev told EurasiaNet.org in February that he believes the case is politically motivated and designed to get hold of valuable real estate owned by his father.
Uzbekistan has withdrawn its troops from a contested section of border with Kyrgyzstan, bringing a close to the uneasy tensions of the past week, according to a statement from Kyrgyzstan’s presidential administration.
The chairman of the State Border Service, Raimberdi Duishenbiev, told President Almazbek Atambayev that the Uzbek forces had pulled out their equipment and manpower from the Chalasart settlement, in the Aksy district of the Jalal-Abad region, as of 8:00 a.m. local time on March 26.
In accordance with the outcome of negotiations, which took place on March 25, border defenses will now revert to routine levels.
Uzbek troops arrived in the area on March 18 and occupied an unmarked section of road linking the Kyrgyz settlements of Kerben and Ala-Buka. Kyrgyz officials said Uzbekistan’s military deployed armored personnel carriers, two Kamaz trucks and up to 40 troops to the disputed area, which is around 50 kilometers (31 miles) north of the Ferghana city of Namangan.
That sparked a hasty mobilization of troops by the Kyrgyz army, which warned that it would not stand down before the Uzbeks gave assurances they would do the same. On the southern flank of Uzbekistan’s portion of the Ferghana Valley, Kyrgyz troops also blocked roads linking the Uzbek enclaves of Sokh and Shahimardan to the rest of the country, effectively stranding its residents. Those troops have also now been pulled back.
On March 21, both sides agreed on measures to soothe tensions in Chalasart by bringing down troop numbers to eight apiece, according to Kyrgyz officials.
While the likelihood of an imminent border conflict between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan may be dimming, the tension has been ably exploited by Bishkek to head off opposition forces in the act of gathering their strengths.
On March 24, the State Committee for National Security (GKNB) announced that it had detained two individuals on suspicion of plotting to overthrow the government. No full names were provided, but the initials of the suspects, B.A. and K.K., have been reported as being those of Bektur Asanov and Kubanychbek Kadyrov, both figures associated with the emergent southern-based opposition.
Moves against the pair followed the leak of recorded phone conversations — allegedly among Asanov, Kadyrov, another prominent and veteran opposition figure and seasoned rabble-rouser, Azimbek Beknazarov, and a former top government official, Duulatbek Turdunaliev — about purported plans to sow instability and seize power.
Kadyrov, for one, has called the recording a crude edit and complained that his constitutional rights were violated when his phone conversations were recorded.
Whether the recording is indeed fake or not, Kadyrov may be onto something.
The GKNB has claimed that the recordings were obtained through a court order related to a criminal investigation. The security services have not been forthcoming about the nature of that investigation, however, and the sudden timely appearance of the recording online suggests this intercept was part of an orchestrated effort to discredit the opposition.
When Kazakhstan’s ruling party unveiled its candidate list for the March 20 snap parliamentary election, it seemed to be summoning the spirit of that old MGM slogan, “More stars than there are in heaven.”
Alas, with the results now in, the beautiful and the young have receded into the distance and the lower house of parliament, or Mazhilis, will have to contend with the same aging countenances as before.
Only one of the high-profile celebrity candidates who was on the party list of the ruling Nur Otan party will take up a seat in the new parliament, it emerged as parties revealed the names of their MPs on March 24, four days after a lackluster election featuring no genuine opposition.
Chat show host Artur Platonov is taking up a seat in parliament, but other popular figures on the Nur Otan list, such as world champion boxer Gennady Golovkin, Olympic gold medal-winning weightlifter Ilya Ilyin and pop singer Kairat Nurtas, will not be joining the ranks of MPs.
This suggests that criticism that Nur Otan’s list was a cynical bid to shore up voter support amid political apathy given the lack of opposition in an election taking place during a serious economic crisis may not have been groundless.
Nur Otan’s parliamentary representation features 33 MPs who were in the outgoing parliament, along with a host of party apparatchiks and former officials as well as a smattering of business people, according to a list published by Tengri News.
The annual collapse in migrant laborer remittances from Russia to Tajikistan has proven just as catastrophic as expected.
Russia’s Central Bank announced last week that the amount of money transferred to Tajikistan last year has fallen almost 67 percent, from $3.8 billion in 2014 to $1.28 billion last year. The figure in 2013 was $4.16 billion.
The rout has affected all countries in the region. In Uzbekistan, remittances fell to $2.37 billion last year from $5.58 billion in 2014. In Kyrgyzstan, they dropped from $2.03 billion to $1.08 billion over the same period.
But no country will be a deeply affected as Tajikistan, where remittances account for roughly half of the gross domestic product.
The impact will be felt most strongly by communities where food security is weak and in which cash from relatives abroad constitutes a very literal lifeline. The World Food Program estimates that food security is an issue for around 20 percent of rural households.
“Fifty five percent of rural households depend on remittances as their main source of income, and a record 81 percent of remittances is spent on food expenditures,” the World Food Program noted in a recent report.
There are two obvious underlying causes for the drop in remittances. One being the fall in the value of the Russian ruble, which is hovering around 70 mark against the dollar compared to 30 before the current economic crisis began. The economic slump has also led to a 25 percent drop in the number of Tajiks going to Russia between 2014 and 2015. Around 400,000 Tajiks are currently banned from going to Russian as a result of deportation orders, according to Tajik Labor Ministry figures.
Kyrgyzstan’s opposition has reportedly nixed plans to hold a large rally in the southern city of Osh amid stewing tensions on the border with Uzbekistan and an escalating public relations war with the government.
One opposition figure, former Jalal-Abad governor Bektur Asanov, told local media the decision to call off the Kurultai, or people’s assembly, on March 24 was taken amid fears of a government “provocation.”
Prior to the announcement, the government had announced plans to bolster security in Osh for the event with a deployment of 3,000 police and 2,000 volunteers.
The show of force indicated Bishkek was taking the opposition more seriously in light of the standoff between Kyrgyz and Uzbek troops at a disputed section of the border.
That is understandable following a March 22 rally in Kerben, a Kyrgyz settlement very close to the elevated territory where both Tashkent and Bishkek have stationed troops and armored vehicles.
The rally organized by regional opposition figures targeted perceived government negligence over the border issue and gathered 700 people according to the Interior Ministry. The opposition claimed the crowd was as large as 2,500 people.
Prime Minister Temir Sariyev flew down to address the Kerben gathering, while nationalist opposition leader and all-round troublemaker Kamchibek Tashiyev, who donned military fatigues for the event, was warmly welcomed by the crowd after issuing calls to resolve the standoff with Tashkent through “people’s diplomacy.”
As explained by news website Zanoza.kg, government and opposition offered competing narratives vis-a-vis the mood at the Kerben rally. One painted Sariyev as a timely pacifier, the other as a sore loser who escaped with the microphone in his hand having been poorly received by angry locals.
Nerves on the Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan cooled somewhat on March 21 with news that both sides agreed to draw back their forces from a disputed area.
Authorities in Kyrgyzstan, who have been the only ones willing to volunteer any firm information, said that the de-escalation was the result of negotiations among border officials.
The standoff is focused around a road that links two remote Kyrgyz towns, Kerben and Ala-Buka, but passes through contested territory fringing Uzbekistan. There are many similar roads lacking demarcation across the Ferghana valley and drivers are frequently obliged to pass through neighboring territory.
Kyrgyzstan’s border service reported on March 18 that Uzbek troops had blocked an unmarked section of the Kerben-Ala-Buka road. Officials said Uzbekistan’s military deployed armored personnel carriers, two Kamaz trucks and up to 40 troops to the disputed area, which is around 50 kilometers (31 miles) north of the Ferghana city of Namangan.
The number of troops from either side has been brought down to eight apiece, according to Kyrgyz officials.
Some local media in Uzbekistan cited border service sources in Tashkent as saying that the mobilization was a routine reinforcement for Nowruz festivities on March 21.
But officials in Kyrgyzstan are pointing to another explanation.
The Kyrgyz government’s special envoy on border issues, Kurbanbai Iskandarov, told Kloop.kg news website that the Uzbek closure of the border area was linked to a water reservoir in the area that is used by Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan alike.
In his latest endeavor to gin up some or any foreign investment, Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon last week traveled to the United Arab Emirates.
The bilateral deals signed at the conclusion of the March 16 visit encompassed security, extradition agreements, education and tourism.
During his meeting with the director general of the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development, Mohamed Saif Al Suwaidi, Rahmon said that Tajikistan was laying the grounds for preferential terms to attract outside investment.
Rahmon lamented that only 14 Tajik-Emirati joint enterprises, which he said fell far short of the real potential.
The general director Abu Dhabi’s state-owned investment vehicle Mubadala Development Company, Khaldoon Khalifa Al Mubarak, said that plans were in the footing to dispatch an Emirati delegation to Tajikistan to explore possibilities.
This marks Rahmon’s second visit to the Middle East in search of economic tie-ups since the start of the year.
Eyebrows were raised when the Tajik leader cropped up in Mecca, of all places, with swathes of government officials and relatives in January.
The visit was intended to burnish his credentials as an honest-to-Allah Muslim, while also serving as an opportunity to hit up the Saudis for some credit. The timing was particularly curious given that Riyadh was at the time in the throes of an ugly war of words with Iran, which has traditionally has more developed, if not always smooth, relations with Tajikistan.
Iran irked Tajikistan in late December by laying out the red carpet for wanted opposition leader Muhiddin Kabiri. To compound the insult, Kabiri was welcomed to conference on Islamic revival and was seated on the same row as the head of Tajikistan’s semi-official Council of Ulema.
Rahmon is now assiduously trying to court his Arab friends.
Exit polls in Kazakhstan have provided a preliminary confirmation of widely expected results in the March 20 parliamentary elections, showing the ruling Nur Otan party winning around 82 percent of the vote.
The head of the Astana-based Democracy Institute, Yulia Kuchinskaya, said her organization’s date showed another two parties just passing the 7 percent threshold for entering parliament: the business-aligned Ak Zhol (7.22 percent) and the Communist People’s Party of Kazakhstan (7.17 percent).
Displaying more than modicum of partiality, Kuchinskaya was effusive in Nur Otan’s praise.
“In this way, as shown by the exit poll, it is possible to say that the citizens have made the decision, again, to confirm their desire to continue the course of modernization,” she said in remarks quoted by Informburo.kz.
If those figures are confirmed, it would mean the seats in the incoming Mazhilis, the lower house of parliament, would be distributed in almost the identical proportion as the outgoing convocation.
Kuchinskaya said her group conducted interviews at 750 polling stations with voters in all the country’s 14 regions and in the cities of Astana and Almaty. Around 75,000 out of the country’s 9.7 million registered voters were questioned.
Another exit, run by an equally pop-up organization, called Media-Consul, showed similar results: Nur Otan with 81.95 percent, Ak Zhol with 7.24 percent and Communist People’s Party of Kazakhstan with 7.22.
The stated sample size for this poll was significantly lower, however. The group said it queried 4,050 people at 225 polling stations located all over Kazakhstan
Scenes from voting in Kazakhstan's parliamentary election
Kazakhstan is voting in a snap parliamentary election expected to return a storming victory for the ruling Nur Otan party, which has run without any substantive opposition.
Speaking as he cast his ballot in Astana, President Nursultan Nazarbayev said the election was a “landmark in Kazakhstan’s most recent history” and urged incoming legislators to implement the reform program put in place last year to help fight the economic crisis gripping the country.
Voters leaving polling stations in Astana and Almaty overwhelmingly said they had cast their ballots for Nazarbayev’s Nur Otan party.
“I voted for Nur Otan. It’s the best party and it’s Nazarbayev’s party,” student Rakhimzhan Bakhytzhanov, 22, told EurasiaNet.org.
It is the party’s association with the 75-year-old former Communist party boss, who has ruled Kazakhstan for a quarter of a century, that informs the choice of many voters. Most appeared ill-informed about the content of Nur Otan’s manifesto and were also hard-pressed to name any of the five parties challenging Nur Otan’s dominance in the Mazhilis, the lower house of parliament.
“I voted for Nur Otan,” student Adilet Aliturliyev, 23, told EurasiaNet.org. “It’s the number one party in Kazakhstan, and it’s the party of the president.”
Despite having only just cast his ballot, Aliturliyev was able to name only one of the other parties standing, the Communist People’s Party of Kazakhstan, known by the acronym KNPK and led by Zhambyl Akhmetbekov.