Kazakhstan’s recently re-elected president has made a vaguely worded pledge of political reform for his new term. Nursultan Nazarbayev suggested that Kazakhstan must transition from its super-presidential system to a more balanced one with greater checks and balances.
Yet while mulling reforms to pave the way for the eventual post-Nazarbayev era, the president made no specific pledges about what form they might take or when they might be enacted, leaving skeptics wondering if his intentions are serious.
Kazakhstan’s political system has hitherto been characterized by “strong presidential rule,” Nazarbayev said on May 29 in remarks quoted by the Kazakhstanskaya Pravda government-owned daily.
Yet as a middle class emerges “this should probably be weakened and the government should be given more opportunities to work independently and more powers should be handed over to parliament.”
There has long been talk in Kazakhstan about weakening the top-down system in which Nazarbayev wields all powers, the government carries out his orders, and parliament (which contains no genuine opposition parties) rubberstamps executive decisions.
Reforms, the thinking goes, would pave the way for a time when the aging president – who has ruled Kazakhstan for a quarter century and will be 80 when his term of office ends in 2020 – will no longer be in power, allowing him to bequeath his successor a system less dependent on one personality.
Two illiberal, Russian-style bills passing through Kyrgyzstan’s legislature are moving at such a snail’s pace that civil society activists are beginning to hope they are destined to fail.
A year has passed since conservative lawmakers introduced a bill targeting foreign-funded non-profits that is copied almost word-for-word from Russia’s notorious “foreign agents” law signed by President Vladimir Putin in 2012. Like the Russian version, it would label non-profits that receive money from abroad as “foreign agents,” stigmatizing them in the eyes of many, and introduce numerous financial inspections and other burdens that critics say would deliberately hinder their work.
After parliament’s human rights committee endorsed the bill on May 19, it went to parliament for a first reading of three. There on May 27 it met some unexpected resistance from MPs who noted numerous inconsistencies and delayed a vote.
Daniyar Terbishaliev from the president’s Social Democratic Party claimed that provisions in the bill would require members of parliament to register as foreign agents because they receive support and trainings from foreign governments and organizations.
Screenshots of a man who appears to be Tajikistan's OMON Commander, Colonel Gulmurod Halimov, propagandizing for the Islamic State.
After weeks of speculation about his whereabouts, missing paramilitary police commander Gulmurod Halimov has shown up inside the so-called Islamic State. In a YouTube video released on May 27, the US-trained officer explains that he joined IS to protest increasing restrictions on religious freedom at home in Tajikistan.
The high-definition release is glossier than the usual Tajik extremist videos. IS, it appears, has wasted no time capitalizing on the propaganda potential of their most high-profile Tajik recruit to date.
In the ten-minute clip, Colonel Halimov – who spends most of his time speaking in Russian, suggesting he seeks a wide post-Soviet audience – discusses his 19-year career with Tajikistan’s paramilitary police unit (OMON). He talks about going to the United States in 2003 and 2007 to train with the U.S. Army and defense contractor Blackwater. “I came to America three times. I saw how you train people to kill Muslims. I will come with this gun to your home and kill you,” he declares.
He talks about studying Islam at school and how he started praying in 2001. His country’s repressive religious policy, he says, made him decide to join the Islamic State’s jihad. All Tajiks, including those in Russia, should join IS, Halimov declares, and fight the regime of Emomali Rahmon.
Taking aim at his former colleagues in Tajikistan’s secular security forces, he claims that Interior Minister Ramazon Rahimzoda ordered a hijab ban in Dushanbe and that the Interior Ministry paid prostitutes 10 dollars each to appear in hijabs in a recent video that state media used to discredit Islam.
Almost half of Kazakhstan’s population of rare saiga antelopes has been wiped out in recent weeks. The endangered beasts are believed to have succumbed to a lung disease that is sweeping across the steppe.
Latest figures show that the number of dead saigas has reached 120,977, the Agriculture Ministry reported on May 27. That is 40 percent of Kazakhstan’s total saiga population of 300,000 before disease started striking down the long-nosed antelopes, according to government estimates. (Astana’s figures are higher than an estimate of 265,000 released last year by the international Saiga Conservation Alliance after an aerial study of roaming grounds in Kazakhstan.)
Some 90 percent of the dead animals are females, the Agriculture Ministry said. This has enormous implications for breeding capacity to restore the population.
“Measures to monitor the state of the wild animals and establish the cause of mortality continue,” said the ministry, which has set up a working group and flown in experts from the UK, Germany, and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization to assist with the investigation.
The Saiga Conservation Alliance also has a team in the field, a representative told EurasiaNet.org, and the government says the World Organization for Animal Health is to send in specialists.
Scientists suspect the cause of death to be pasteurellosis, a disease that attacks the lungs and killed nearly 12,000 saigas in a 2010 epidemic.
Other theories floated include poisoning by rocket fuel from launches at Kazakhstan’s Baikonur spaceport (which is leased by Russia). However, Meirbek Moldabekov, the head of the government’s Aerospace Committee, has argued that the vast areas over which saigas are dying make this hypothesis unlikely.
Kazakhstan’s Constitutional Council has struck down a controversial law that would have outlawed “propaganda” of homosexuality to minors, amid signs the legislation was damaging the country’s bid to host the Winter Olympics.
The law was “not in line with the constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan” the Vlast.kz website quoted the Constitutional Council (which rules on the legality of legislation) as saying.
The law governed “the protection of children from information causing damage to their health and development." It was passed by parliament in February. The council struck down the law because of unclear wording rather than human rights concerns, the Vlast.kz report said.
The announcement came after a group of household-name sports stars urged the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to reject Kazakhstan’s bid to host the Winter Games in Almaty in 2022, arguing that the law outlawing the “propaganda” of homosexuality to minors was incompatible with Olympic principles of equality.
The World Bank has released yet another dire economic forecast for Tajikistan, predicting that the downturn in Russia and devalued ruble will push down labor migrants’ remittance transfers by 40 percent this year (in dollar terms). Unemployed young men are expected to return home in droves.
Job-poor Tajikistan is the world’s most remittance-dependent state; the migrants’ transfers account for the equivalent of 49 percent of GDP. This year and next are going to be especially hard for the millions of Tajikistanis who have been lifted out of poverty in recent years by their relatives’ transfers from Russia.
Up to half of working-age men, most of them under 30, have sought work abroad, mostly in Russia. Twenty-five percent are expected to return home this year, putting enormous social pressures on one of Central Asia’s most fragile states.
Some key takeaways from the May 25 report:
Declining remittances would significantly reduce disposable incomes in Tajikistan, forcing the poorest and the lower middle class to cut non-priority expenditures, including those on social services, such as education and health. Reintegration of returned migrants will be difficult given the limited jobs available, mismatched skills, and competition from youth entering the labor market. Returnees are likely to lack awareness of employment and business opportunities, and related legislation—employment information and services are both inadequate.
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif rounded off an energy-themed jaunt across Central Asia on May 22 in Bishkek, where he spoke about electricity exports to his energy-starved nation two days after visiting Turkmenistan to discuss a troubled gas-pipeline project.
The trip demonstrated Pakistan’s limited leverage in its dealings with Central Asia and, publicly at least, did not produce much of substance.
In Ashgabat, Sharif called on partners to “intensify work” on the long-stalled Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline. In his meeting with Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov on May 20, Sharif called TAPI a “project that would bring benefits to the entire region.”
But the pipeline, which would traverse Afghanistan and has been on the drawing board since the mid-1990s, may cost over $10 billion. With no commercial investor so far, initiative rests with both Turkmenistan, the would-be-supplier, and the main export market, India. Delhi must decide if its own energy deficit warrants pushing a link that many see as risky and expensive.
Neither president mentioned either the hoped-for 2017 TAPI completion date, or the more pessimistic projection of 2020 mentioned in late April by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. (Many say both timelines are still pipedreams.)
Kyrgyzstan took another halting step toward joining the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union on May 21 when President Almazbek Atambayev signed an accession treaty into law.
The other four members must still approve the impoverished Central Asian state’s membership (a process that is largely seen as a formality), and Bishkek must finish upgrading its border checkpoints to EEU standards before Kyrgyzstan becomes a formal member. But Atambayev was in a jubilant mood.
“Today is a wonderful day for us. Today [I am] signing the law ratifying international agreements on Kyrgyzstan’s accession to the Eurasian Economic Union. In this way, we complete all the internal governmental procedures for entering one of the biggest economic unions in the world,” Atambayev said on May 21 in comments carried by his website.
Kyrgyzstan first formally applied for membership two years ago and has been speaking about joining for four. Accession has dragged for so long that confusion over whether Kyrgyzstan is yet a member has reigned in recent weeks. It is still unclear how long it will take for Kyrgyzstan to upgrade its checkpoints.
In his remarks, Atambayev celebrated a “a new phase of development” for his country, while warning that the “journey will not be easy.” For years, thousands of Kyrgyzstanis have survived by re-exporting Chinese goods to other former Soviet republics. Those goods now face higher import tariffs. Kyrgyzstan’s economy must “restructure in a very short space of time,” Atambayev acknowledged.
The Islamic State has narrowly missed a chance to enlist its most high-profile Tajik recruit to date, according to a sensational report circulating in Tajikistan.
According to TojNews, Turkish authorities have arrested the decorated commander of Tajikistan’s Interior Ministry paramilitary squad (OMON), Gulmurod Halimov, who disappeared last month. Colonel Halimov was travelling on a fake passport with the intention of crossing into Syria, an unnamed Interior Ministry source told TojNews on May 19.
Halimov disappeared on April 23, telling his family he was leaving for a short business trip. His brother told Radio Ozodi that his phone was switched off, but that his personal items, including his passport, were left as if he departed in a hurry. Citing unnamed sources, Dushanbe’s Asia-Plus news agency reported that he flew to Russia on May 1 with ten others and was seen in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport the next day.
The colonel’s disappearance set the Tajik rumor mill into overdrive. A sensational theory emerged: Halimov had joined the Islamic State. A number of Halimov’s colleagues fuelled this speculation, describing how he had developed an unhealthy interest in the terrorist group. Halimov had “become a fanatical follower of the Islamic State and began to spread its propaganda amongst his relatives,” one unnamed friend told Asia Plus.
Central Asia faces a gloomy economic outlook for the rest of this year and into next, battered by the tanking Russian economy and low commodity prices, according to a regional outlook released by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on May 19. Several countries face double-digit inflation.
“The region has been hit by two major external shocks: the oil price and the slowdown in the Russian economy,” Juha Kahkonen, deputy director of the IMF’s Middle East and Central Asia department, told a briefing in Almaty as the forecast was released.
Growth slowed last year and is set to decrease “much more significantly” this year, he said, before recovering “only slightly” next year.
All the Central Asian states are feeling the pinch of the slump in Russia, “which has close linkages with the region through remittances, trade, and foreign direct investment,” the IMF pointed out.
Energy exporters (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) and importers (Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) alike are suffering: exporters are battling falling revenues from the drop in global oil and gas prices, while importers are feeling what Kahkonen described as “only a very small beneficial impact” from lower prices because of the long-term nature of their energy import contracts in which prices are set.
Falls in prices for other commodities (gold in the case of Kyrgyzstan and aluminum for Tajikistan, for example) are also biting.
Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are also suffering from a drop in labor remittances from Russia, as migrants lose their jobs and the dollar value of remittances falls because of the depreciation of the ruble. This is causing weaker domestic demand in remittance-dependent economies.