Central Asia’s autocrats were no doubt watching askance as Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich fell from power this weekend. But regional media coverage of the dramatic developments in that other volatile former Soviet republic, while generally cautious, has presented a few surprises.
Of course, given the unpleasant parallels between Yanukovich’s governing style and the rule of Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan and Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov in Turkmenistan, those countries’ tightly controlled media have maintained a studied silence on popular protests that overthrew an entrenched leader.
However, one Uzbek website that sometimes takes a maverick stance did broach the topic – pooh-poohing the idea of a Ukraine-style scenario playing out in Uzbekistan.
The circumstances in the two countries do not bear comparison, argued a commentary published February 25 on Uzmetronom, a site believed to have links to the powerful SNB domestic intelligence agency. Karimov is not susceptible to Western pressure, said editor-in-chief Sergey Yezhkov, and it is more in his nature to make a last stand than to give up power.
Officials also know where their bread is buttered, Yezhkov continued, and take the view that “better a bit of bread and butter today (being in power guarantees this) than uncertainty in the future.” Finally, ordinary people have something to lose: “It is paradoxical, but [even] with serious restrictions on political and civil liberties [and] a difficult economic situation… [still] no harbingers or signs of a rebellion are observed in Uzbekistan.”
A court in Dushanbe has ordered a local journalist to pay over $6,200 in moral damages for insulting a group of state-appointed intellectuals, local media reported on February 25. The average monthly salary in Tajikistan is about $200.
The suit was in response to a commentary Asia-Plus editor Olga Tutubalina wrote last May, where she condemned the cozy relationships many writers and artists enjoy with the administration of President Imomali Rakhmon. Quoting a letter that Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin supposedly wrote, she asserted that the official creative class – which receives extensive state perks for supporting the state – is “not [the nation’s] brains but its shit.”
The Firdavsi District court ruled that Tutubalina must apologize and that Asia-Plus must publish a retraction, in addition to the crippling 30,000 somoni in damages, according to Asia-Plus’s account.
Last summer, Tutubalina told EurasiaNet.org that she did not mean to insult anyone and insisted she had nothing to apologize for. “One particular segment of the intelligentsia does not deserve respect. I meant those who speak only when they get permission from above,” she said. Asia-Plus's lawyers plan to appeal.
Amid the cut and thrust of the sporting competition in Sochi, Kazakhstan's Olympic officials have been busy schmoozing to build support for Almaty’s bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympic Games.
The Kazakh Olympic Committee has opened a hospitality center in the heart of Sochi’s Olympic Park, offering visitors the chance to try delicacies such as kazy (dried horsemeat sausage), karta (made from the animal’s large intestine) and kurt (a dried curd snack), and watch some video presentations detailing Almaty's bid.
One notable visitor was Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, who told Kazinform he is confident Almaty is a strong contender and praised Kazakhstan's athletes—although they have not performed as well as some expected, with figure skater Denis Ten's bronze thus far Kazakhstan's only medal.
Kazakhs officials played down fears of excessive costs after spending on Sochi 2014 broke record after record. “It will not be a big budget,” Andrey Kryukov, an executive board member of the Kazakh Olympic Committee told reporters in Sochi on February 20, eager to demonstrate Kazakhstan’s frugality, which Sochi has made fashionable.
Early estimates from Kazakhstan's Olympic Committee put the costs of hosting the 2022 Games at around $5 billion, a modest sum compared with Sochi 2014, which President Vladimir Putin pitched at $12 billion but ended up costing an embarrassing $51 billion—the most expensive Olympics in history and more expensive than all previous Winter Games combined.
The Kremlin wheeled out its soft power machine this week to make the pitch for Kyrgyzstan to join its Customs Union trade bloc. But if a recent talk by Kremlin evangelists at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek was anything to go by, the machine could use some grease.
The main speaker at the February 19 event was Semyon Uralov, editor of a website close to United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party. While Putin has tried to assure potential members that the Customs Union – Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia – is not a Soviet Union redux, Uralov seemed to do the opposite. Quoting Engels, Marx and Lenin during a forthright speech in which he extolled the virtues of state-sponsored industry, Uralov responded to a complaint about his tone: “I don’t hide it. I am an imperialist.”
And like Customs Union officials, he did little to address economic questions.
Moral and social degradation was a key theme in Uralov’s presentation. He described seeing people bribe a customs official at Bishkek’s airport for the privilege of flouting the building’s non-smoking policy. “Now tell me,” Uralov asked, “would it be possible to reach that kind of an agreement with a Belarusian customs official? A Russian customs official?” The assembled students murmured that it probably would be. “Well, clearly not for 20-30 soms [40 to 60 cents],” Uralov retorted. (Curiously, Belarus, with its highly inefficient command economy centered on manufacturing stood as something of a role model for the Russia-born, Ukraine-educated Uralov. In Transparency International’s latest Corruption Perceptions Index, Belarus ranks 123th, Russia 127th and Kyrgyzstan 150th out of 177 countries.)
A global survey of 223 cities ranks some of the capitals in Central Asia and the South Caucasus the world’s worst places for foreigners to live. Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe, for example – where officials build themselves multi-million-dollar palaces and ignore basic property rights, education, and a failing healthcare system – now ranks the worst city in Asia for expatriates to make a home.
The annual ranking, released February 19 by Mercer, a New York-based human resources consultancy, measures cities based on quality of living for foreigners, not locals. The company takes into consideration 39 factors including political stability, the effectiveness of law enforcement, censorship, pollution and healthcare, electricity supplies, the quality of schools and public services, availability of consumer goods and climate. The scores are “weighted to reflect their importance to expatriates.” The ranking has been published since 1994.
A decade ago, Asia would probably have offered more competition at the lower end of the rankings. But with stunning economic growth across much of the continent, today it is post-Soviet Central Asia that sweeps the bottom of the table. Dushanbe (ranked 209 globally) was one-upped in Asia by the capital of Bangladesh, Dhaka (208), and fell two places in two years. Ashgabat came third from the bottom in Asia at 206, falling seven places since 2012. Fourth- and fifth-worst, respectively, Bishkek ranked 204 and Tashkent 202. (Almaty ranked 169 in 2012; Astana wasn’t surveyed. If you want to know where they rank this year, you’ll have to shell out $499 for the report.)
Kyrgyzstan’s government has suspended work at a brand new Chinese-built oil refinery, the prime minister has announced, after local protestors demanded the polluting plant clean up its act. A lack of coordination with the community, and suspicion about Chinese intentions, are likely to turn the dispute into another cautionary tale about doing business in the protest-prone Central Asian country.
Residents in the northern town of Kara-Balta have rallied several times in the past month, complaining of fetid smoke from the $300 million Junda facility, which opened on January 17. Initial work stopped on January 27 after a trial run, the company says, promising that future activity at the refinery will be cleaner.
The Junda refinery (sometimes written Zhongda) is designed to process crude oil imported by rail from nearby Kazakhstan. Bishkek has eagerly embraced the project, set to employ over 2,000 locals, making it one of impoverished Kyrgyzstan’s largest employers. No less significantly, it would help Kyrgyzstan break Russia’s fuel-supply monopoly by producing an estimated 600,000 tons of fuel annually, about half domestic need, thus lowering petrol prices at the pump.
But what’s happening in the once-industrial town two hours west of Bishkek seems to be following a familiar pattern.
Kazakhstan’s central bank is appealing for calm as rumors that some financial institutions are in trouble following last week’s currency devaluation have provoked a run on three banks.
On February 19 the National Bank sent text messages to the public urging people to disregard the “false information” and not succumb to panic.
“All Kazakhstani banks have sufficient funds in national and foreign currency,” the messages read; people should not submit to “provocations” and “keep calm.”
Large queues formed at some banks in the financial capital, Almaty, for a second day on February 19 as customers rush to withdraw funds, fearing a bank collapse.
A EurasiaNet.org correspondent witnessed a line spilling out onto the street at a downtown branch of Kaspi Bank, where around 30 people were waiting to enter and more were lining up inside – underlining that, as rumors circulate fast on social networks, they risk becoming self-fulfilling.
Kaspi Bank – which has offered a 100 million tenge ($540,000) reward for information on the origin of the rumors – issued a statement around lunchtime on February 19 saying that sums five times greater than usual had been withdrawn in cash on that day alone, but that the bank was meeting all its obligations.
Three women arrested for wearing panties on their heads were among nearly three dozen protesters hauled through the courts in Almaty this weekend, as last week’s devaluation of the tenge brought demonstrators out onto the streets of Kazakhstan’s commercial capital.
Zhanna Baytelova, Yevgeniya Plakhina, and Valeriya Ibrayeva were arrested at an anti-devaluation protest on February 16 after putting lace panties on their heads and trying to place them on a monument to Kazakhstan’s independence.
They were immediately tried on hooliganism charges and fined around $100 each. Their quirky protest was inspired by obscure regulations, due to come into force in July, that will govern the level of moisture absorption in underwear sold in Customs Union member states Kazakhstan, Russia and Belarus.
The action, Plakhina told EurasiaNet.org “is a symbol of the absurdity which is taking place in our country, including the recent tenge devaluation.”
“In Russian we have a saying, ‘giving one’s last underpants,’ which literally means becoming poor,” she explained. “This was a symbolic action.”
The three women were among five people arrested at the small anti-devaluation rally that drew around 30 people on Republic Square. That followed a larger rally the previous day, which riot police broke up after some 200 protesters marched to Republic Square.
Up to several dozen protesters demonstrating against Kazakhstan’s recent devaluation of the national currency were arrested on February 15 in the commercial capital, Almaty.
Riot police swooped down on as many as 200 protesters as they marched to city hall from their original venue nearby, where they had held a small unsanctioned rally against this week’s 19-percent devaluation of the tenge. Demonstrators urged government action over mounting socioeconomic problems and inflation.
Kanagat Takeyeva, who was designated spokeswoman among protesters who besieged the National Bank headquarters on February 12, was among the detained. “They’re taking me away,” she shouted into her telephone, as riot police grabbed her arms and marched her to a police truck amid what appeared to be targeted arrests of specific protesters.
It was not immediately clear how many arrests were made; EurasiaNet.org witnessed six, but witnesses spoke of up to 30. Three trucks containing detainees drove off.
The security forces moved in as the protesters attempted to reach Republic Square in front of Almaty’s city hall. Police formed a cordon to enclose protesters and chased down some who had escaped.
A prosecutor speaking through a megaphone warned the demonstrators to disperse and cautioned them that they were breaking Kazakhstan’s strict law on public assembly, which requires protesters to obtain official permission 10 days before a rally. Demonstrators breaching that law face fines or up to 15 days in jail.
A non-profit alliance co-founded by organizations including the Agha Khan Foundation, USAID and Ashoka, is aiming to promote social entrepreneurship in Central Asia.
On February 11, the Alliance for Social Entrepreneurship presented its initial report, “Mapping Social Entrepreneurship in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan,” in New York. A second presentation, featuring the report’s author, Myrza Karimov, will take place February 12 in Washington, DC.
“There is no incentive from the government [to promote social entrepreneurship], that’s our biggest problem,” stated Karimov in New York, a pair of felt dolls made by women in Kyrgyzstan's Naryn province resting in front of him. “There is a lack of legislation. If you want to do this kind of work, you pay the same taxes as a for-profit company.”
The project defines “social entrepreneurship” as any venture, whether it is for- or non-profit, that prioritizes social change above earnings. One problem with adopting the model in Central Asia, Karimov said, is the region's lack of experience and understanding of this kind of hybrid thinking.
“People say they are an NGO, or they say they are in small business, even if part of what they are doing is social entrepreneurship,” said George Khalaf, director of Synergos, an organization coordinating the initiative.
As a first step, the alliance is focusing on Kyrgystan and Tajikistan, examining practices and problems in what are Central Asia’s two poorest states. In Kyrgyzstan’s case, the country’s dependence on foreign aid constitutes a hurdle for social entrepreneurship, said Karimov, a former employee of USAID. He cited 15,000 NGO's registered in his home country, with only some 150 still operating, and only a dozen or so operating in a self-sustainable manner.