In the teeth of opposition from the public, the government in Kazakhstan has revived costly plans to build what it is billing as a “national pantheon” — a mausoleum to house the remains of the country’s great and good and dead.
Finance Minister Bakhyt Sultanov announced on February 21 that just one phase of the project alone will set the state coffers back $5.3 million. The final cost will likely be much greater, possibly running into the hundreds of millions, if the earlier blueprint was anything to go by.
A spot has been allocated for the mausoleum in a location around 20 kilometers outside the capital, Astana, next to an existing building housing the tomb of 18th-century Kazakh warrior prince Kabanbai Batyr. Sultanov was unable to offer more specifics, inviting reporters instead to put their questions to the mayor’s office.
Decisions of who is to be buried at the national pantheon are to be taken by President Nursultan Nazarbayev himself. The intended site for the mausoleum is already the resting place to numerous departed public figures whose importance was acknowledged by the president.
In 2013, Nazarbayev decreed that the first person to be buried there should be the late member of parliament Oral Muhamedjanov — “for his massive contribution to the development of the state.” Kazakhstani poetess Fariza Ongarsynova; Sayahat Konakai, the younger brother of Nazarbayev’s wife; former Supreme Court chairman Maksut Narikbayev; and writer and scholar Abish Kekilbayev are among others buried there. The site also allows for Christian burials, like that of Sergei Dyachenko, a former deputy speaker of the lower house, who died last year.
When Uzbekistan suddenly decided this week to deny permission for an airline from Tajikistan to land in its capital, it might have been safe to expect an outcry.
Privately owned Somon Air was due to carry a couple dozen paying passengers for the February 20 flight to Tashkent — the first along this route in 25 years — when it learned permission had been revoked.
Tajikstan’s Asia-Plus reported on January 21 that Uzbek authorities fired off an incensed letter laying all the blame at the feet of the Tajiks.
The letter argued that Somon Air had filed a request to effect charter flights and not regular scheduled flights. It also claimed it only received the official paperwork authorizing the route on February 19, one day before the flight. That gave the insufficient time to adopt a decision, as the matter had to be considered by security services and air defense officials, the Uzbek letter stated.
And finally, the Uzbek authorities said Somon Air still had no branch office in Tashkent and that the sale of tickets was accordingly not possible.
This is high bunkum even by the normally lofty standards of Central Asian officialdom.
A date for the Somon Air maiden flight had been set weeks ago and widely advertised by media in both countries, which makes nonsense of the implication that Uzbek oversight bodies were somehow caught by surprise. As to the sale of tickets, Somon Air has a website through which that can be done, so even this is unconvincing grounds for rescinding permission to operate. In any event, it is unclear how Somon Air’s commercial strategy is supposed to be of any interest to Uzbek authorities.
Supporters of a jailed journalist in Kazakhstan have said he has been targeted for physical mistreatment since being detained last week.
Authorities accuse Zhanbolat Mamay, editor of Tribuna newspaper, of involvement in fraudulent schemes with fugitive banker and government foe Mukhtar Ablyazov.
Mamay’s lawyer, Zhanara Balgabayeva, said on February 21 that she filed a request to meet see her client in person and for him to be moved to a more secure pretrial detention facility but was rebuffed on both counts.
Tribuna is one of very few independent media outlets in Kazakhstan that have either not been shut down or coopted by the authorities, leading rights activists to speculate Mamay is facing politically motivated charges. Unlike most media in Kazakhstan, Tribuna is not a beneficiary of the “state order” system, whereby the government either finances outlets outright or pays for the publication of material publicizing state policies and initiatives. It focuses primarily on social issues and has a line that tends toward robust criticism of the government and provides a platform for the few opposition politicians remaining on the scene.
Balgabayeva cited a note conveyed to her by Mamay stating that he had been “subjected to beatings in his prison cell,” but added that the claim might have been “sharply worded” and that there was no way to independently verify his wellbeing for now.
Mamay’s spouse, Inga Imanbay, said in a Facebook video message that she had met with the head of pretrial detention facility No. 18, where her husband is being held, in a failed bid to see him.
Unguarded comments made by Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev in remarks to Euronews while on a visit to Brussels have been greeted with dismay in neighboring Kazakhstan.
The flare-up has once again illustrated the persisting underlying tensions within the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union trade bloc, which has to date fallen far short of the hopes of its backers.
A recurrent criticism made by EEU objectors stems from the perception that the trading bloc has been designed to serve primarily Russian interests. Asked about this point by a Euronews interviewer, Atambayev deflected the blame elsewhere.
“We have to trade with somebody, we have to work with our neighbors somehow. If we had not entered the Eurasian Economic Union we would have been at risk of a blockade. In 2010, when Kazakhstan blockaded us for one and a half months, we even had casualties,” he said. “We have six million people. What are supposed to do — shut ourselves off and survive like we’re in the jungle or something? We have to develop, we need a market.”
It is not entirely clear what casualties Atambayev was alluding to, and requests for clarification filed by reporters with the presidential administration have shed no light on the matter.
But media in Kazakhstan appear to have gone out of their way to whip up some ill-will by, for example, writing headlines about the interview such as “The president of Kyrgyzstan accuses Kazakhstan of claiming human casualties.”
The president of Tajikistan’s son has only been mayor of the capital city for a few weeks and already life is improving.
In the old days, people traveling on public transport had little by way of mental stimulation beyond possibly staring blankly out of the window or reading a newspaper.
But now Mayor Rustam Emomali has instructed taxi and minibus drivers in Dushanbe to play musical paeans of praise to the country and, of course, President Emomali Rahmon himself.
Asia-Plus news website reported that the instructions were already being carried out on February 20.
One minibus driver said that they buy flash drives carrying patriotic duties from their own employers at 35 somoni ($4.50) a pop. City officials told Asia-Plus that the practice will soon be rolled out across all public transport vehicles.
The surge of patriotic song-writing followed the adoption of the 2015 law decreeing that Rahmon be officially designated “The founder of peace and leader of the nation.” That formulation, which is even more cumbersome in the original Tajik, is now used pretty much every time the president is referenced on state television. Beyond elevating Rahmon to para-demigod status, the founder of peace and leader of the nation law also granted the president de facto rule for life, since he will retain a degree of power even after or if he should ever step down.
It is not just the middle of the road, light entertainers that have volunteered (or been enlisted) to performs songs to flatter Rahmon. Hip-hop artists have got in on the act too.
A sudden shortage of dollars in circulation in Tajikistan has led to another dip in the value of national currency, the somoni.
At the start of the year, official figures showed the greenback trading at around 7.9 somoni. This week, currency exchange points were trading at just over 8 somoni to the dollar, but the US banknote was, in fact, hard to find at all.
The black market, which has come under intensified scrutiny in the past couple of years, was reportedly trading the US currency at around 8.30 somoni on February 17.
While major banks like Agroinvestbank, Tojiksodirotbank, Oriyonbank had no dollars to speak of, some smaller lenders had small amounts to go around, according to news website Asia-Plus.
Market watchers suspect that the reason for the sudden dollar crisis is linked to the recent effort by the government to recapitalize a number of distressed banks, which then proceeded to pay out account-holders who have been unable to withdraw their savings for several months. Worried about possible devaluations to the somoni, people getting their hands on that cash have quickly sought to convert it into relatively more secure dollars.
Tajikistan has mainly resorted to “administrative resources” to keep the currency on an even keel.
In December 2015, the National Bank ordered the closure of all unauthorized currency exchange points in the city. After that, only banks were able to perform foreign exchange operations. Anybody found violating this new arrangement could face jail terms of up to nine years. Also, banks are forbidden by law from selling somoni at more then 1.5 percent the rate established by the National Bank.
Rayimbek Matrayimov, the deputy director of the State Customs Service, shown in a screen grab of the Radio Azattyk's investigative report.
An in-depth investigative report by RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz service into the suspicious wealth of a high-ranking customs official is a stark reminder of the hardiness of old habits.
While the investigation by the broadcaster, which is known locally as Radio Azattyk, has set tongues wagging, it is far from clear so far if it will have any repercussions for the people involved.
The video report focuses on Rayimbek Matrayimov, the deputy director of the State Customs Service, who is revealed in the report to be the owner, among other things, of a luxurious villa in Osh.
Azattyk used a simple but ingenious approach in trying to work out the yawning discrepancy between the amount of goods apparently coming into the country and the quantity of import tariffs paid into the state budget.
Doing some back of a napkin math, Azattyk reasoned that since around 20,000 trucks come into Kyrgyzstan from China every year, and each truck carries roughly 25 tons of goods, and import duties are levied at 100 som ($1.5) per kilo, the income accruing annually to the state should be more than 49 billion som ($700 million). And yet the amount of import tariff revenue being declared is closer to 30 billion som, which raises questions about where that money might be going, Azattyk said.
Then there is another curious set of figures. Chinese customs authorities have said that in 2015, around $4.3 billion of goods were exported to Kyrgyzstan. But their Kyrgyz counterparts, meanwhile, have offered the much smaller figure of $920 million for that same period.
Kazakhstan’s National Security Committee, or KNB, is set to receive more powers.
Under a government-initiated draft bill now under consideration, the KNB could be authorized to investigate suspected cases of corruption by certain government departments, including the anti-corruption services and the military.
First deputy Prosecutor General Johann Merkel on February 15 described this provision as laying the ground for greater balance among investigative organs, although the KNB appear to be gaining the upper hand in this arrangement.
The evolution of the KNB into the battering ram of the government’s stated goal to stamp out corruption has been taking place for some weeks already. Placing the anticorruption agency under the KNB’s watch, therefore, represents a formal confirmation of an already existing situation.
Another contentious section of the same legislative package envisions a stiff increase in fines for people found guilty of harassing — even if not physically molesting — law enforcement officers — up to 11 million tenge ($34,000).
Even the speaker of the Majlis, the lower house of parliament, Nurlan Nigmatulin, was moved to describe the proposed fine as “mind-numbing” and suggested that it perhaps be revised downward.
Despite this unusual grumbling, MPs waved the bill through its first reading, thereby readily confirming the reputation of the Majlis as a rubber-stamping adjunct of the government. A review on the size of the fines is expected during the second reading.
Screengrab from a promotional film produced by Tajikistan's aluminum giant Talco.
It is virtually axiomatic in Tajikistan that any major investor should, metaphorically speaking, expect to get their fingers burnt and then be forced to pay for a taxi to the hospital afterward.
Consider the long-running saga with Russian metals giant Rusal, which has after years of trials and tribulations finally left Tajikistan and with losses likely running into the dozens of millions of dollars.
Under a recently thrashed out deal, Tajikistan’s heavily indebted aluminum producer Talco has relieved Rusal of its two remaining assets in the country — the Sozidanie business center and the Hyatt Regency Hotel.
Talco will pay Rusal around $150 million over a 10-year period, RFE/RL’s Tajik service, Radio Ozodi, reported on February 14. A source familiar with the deal has told EurasiaNet.org that the foreign staff managing both facilities will leave the country, leaving Tajik personnel to take over.
Talks about the transfer of property had been going on for some time and likely turned a final corner in the last week of December, when Rusal chief executive Vladislav Soloviev traveled to the Tajik capital, Dushanbe.
Talco is controlled by Hasan Asadullozoda, brother-in-law of President Emomali Rahmon, so this is yet more of the country’s wealth falling into the hands of the ruling family. (That said, Asadullozoda is going through his own troubles with the rest of the family, so this is not quite as cozy as it may initially appear).
The transaction appears to put a definitive end to the long-standing row between Tajikistan and Rusal, which is owned by Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska.
In the wake of the mayor of Tajikistan’s capital getting sidelined, his allies are now systematically being cleared out of jobs in and near the government.
On February 13, the executive committee of President Emomali Rahmon’s People’s Democratic Party assembled and decided to remove six leading party apparatchiks.
The changes were effected at Rahmon’s behest.
Tajikistan-focused news website Akhbor cited an unnamed source in the party as saying the process is intended to rid the city hall of ex-mayor Mahmadsaid Ubaidulloev’s cronies. New appointees will reportedly instead be the cronies of the new mayor, who also happens to be son of President Rahmon — Rustam Emomali. (Tajik sons take the first name of their father as a second name).
The authorities are trying to cast Emomali’s ascendancy to the mayor’s job as a much-needed injection of energy. Rahmon in December declared 2017 the year of youth and in that spirit gave his 29-year old scion a job for which he has little obvious background.
Acting quickly, Emomali dumped the sitting mayoral press secretary and the head of the city television station, Poytakht. Then on January 16, he fired the head of Dushanbe’s public records department, Saidhomid Mahmudov, who is Ubaidulloev’s cousin.
On February 7, less than a month after losing his mayoral post, Ubaidulloev resigned his seat on the Dushanbe city council, as did his ex-city hall chief of staff, Firuz Ulmasov.