Protesters at a small rally in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on March 18, 2016.
A handful of civil society campaigners staged a rare picket in Almaty on March 18, demanding freedom for a political activist sentenced to jail on incitement charges.
The protest took place two days before Kazakhstan votes in a snap parliamentary election, and was the first time activists had staged any such actions during a lackluster campaign for an election certain to be won by the ruling party of President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
“Freedom for Yermek Narymbayev,” chanted the five activists who took part in the picket on a pedestrian shopping thoroughfare in downtown Almaty.
They held up banners in Kazakh, English and Russian showing demands such as “Free human rights defender Yermek Narymbayev” and calling for the abolition of Article 174 of the criminal code under which he was jailed on charges of inciting ethnic strife.
The protest lasted approximately three minutes and attracted little attention on a quiet and rainy weekday morning.
With no police in the immediate vicinity to witness it, no arrests were made. Public protest is rare in Kazakhstan and protesters are frequently detained on charges of breaching stringent public assembly laws.
Narymbayev was handed a three-year jail term in January on charges of inciting ethnic enmity following a trial in which fellow activist Serikzhan Mambetalin received a two-year term.
The two were released under house arrest shortly after their sentencing pending an appeal hearing due later this month. They spent four months in jail before their release, and will return to prison to serve out their time if the appeal fails.
Spring has come early in Kyrgyzstan and so the ragtag, non-parliamentary opposition is clamoring for attention. The government does not look like it is going to lose much sleep.
Since early March, southern politicos have been staging rallies demanding the resignation of the northern-dominated government. Issuing such ultimatums at political rallies has been a recurrent feature of Kyrgyz politics for more than a decade.
A March 14 meeting in Jalalabad city hinted these meetings were merely the rehearsal for a bigger March 24 demonstration in the southern city of Osh backed by the recently formed United Opposition Force (UOF).
Speaking at the Jalalabad event, opposition figure Bektur Asanov issued vague ultimatums.
“In ten days in Osh a national Kurultai [people’s gathering] will be held. Atambayev has ten days to resign. Otherwise, he will be removed, in a legal way,” blasted Asanov, a former governor of the Jalal-Abad province.
The timing of the March 24 event is no accident. The date marks the 11th anniversary of a northern-led government's overthrow in what was Kyrgyzstan's first post-Soviet revolution in 2005. Elections for the Osh city council are set to take place three days later, on March 27.
The UOF’s seven-point demands include an appeal for the elections to proceed “without the use of administrative resources.” They are also calling for the formation of a new Cabinet and a freeze on electricity tariffs.
A former prime minister of Kazakhstan who was jailed last year in a high-profile corruption case has had his jail sentence reduced on appeal.
The case attracted widespread attention in Kazakhstan, where corruption is rife but the arrest of political heavyweights on graft charges is rare. That has led some observers to speculate that the case is the result of infighting among the elite groups surrounding President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
The term of Serik Akhmetov, who was prime minister for 18 months until April 2014 and was subsequently defense minister for six months, was cut from 10 years to eight in a ruling handed down on March 14, the Total.kz news website reported.
Akhmetov was jailed in December after a trial in which he pleaded guilty to bribery and embezzlement during his tenure as governor of Karaganda Region, which is Kazakhstan’s industrial heartland, from 2009 to 2012.
Investigators accused the former prime minister of taking bribes worth some $2.4 million to ensure that a firm run by his brother Berik Akhmetov and his son Daniyar Akhmetov was awarded lucrative tenders in Karaganda.
Prior to his conviction, Akhmetov issued a groveling public apology to Nazarbayev, in which he begged the president’s forgiveness “for failing to live up to his trust.”
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the protection of the right to freedom of expression has concluded a tour in Tajikistan and found the situation there to be particularly dire.
Speaking at a press conference in Dushanbe on March 9, David Kaye spoke, among other things, about his concern for the jailed members of the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan.
Tajikistan is currently experiencing one of its most intense waves of state repression since the fall of the Soviet Union, a trend that reach its apex in September with the designation of the IRPT, the country’s only serious opposition force, as a terrorist group.
Kaye’s remarks echoed those of rights activists who worry that Tajikistan’s proximity to Afghanistan has provided it with the cover to freely persecute critics of the government.
“I recognize that there is a serious security problem in this part of the world, in particular in Tajikistan and in this neighborhood. But I’m afraid that the security situation has been used as a pretext, as an excuse, to crack down on freedom of expression, whether in the media or in civil society,” he said.
Kaye said that proper media coverage of events inside the country has suffered as a result.
“It is clear to me that legal protections in the constitution are being eroded and that independent journalists are facing serious forms of harassment that is leading to self-censorship and a lack of information throughout the country,” he said.
The militant incursion from Afghanistan that Tajikistan regularly worries about appears to finally have happened. Or has it?
The State Committee for National Security released a statement on March 7 stating that a border post in the southern Khatlon region was attacked over the weekend by a nine-man armed group led by an Afghan citizen called Mirafal valadi (son of) Arbob Sherafzal. Officials said the clash at the Panj crossing occurred as the gunmen were seeking to covertly filter into Tajikistan.
One of the alleged militants, named as Mullo Fashiddin valadi Kurbon, and one border guard were killed in the shootout, the statement said.
The security services say they have identified all the attackers and are taking all measures possible to capture or neutralize them.
RFE/RL’s Tajik service, Radio Ozodi, cited the head of Afghanistan’s Imam Sahib district, where the militants are alleged to have come from, as saying the incursion was work of Taliban militants. Mirafal is a well-known local drug trafficker who has pledged allegiance to the Taliban, the official said.
The security situation in Imam Sahib indubitably appears critical. The Afghan official cited by Ozodi said 30 percent of the district is in Taliban hands and that the entire border is under their control.
That combination of details appears to suggest that the militants’ attempts to cross the Tajik border are primarily motivated by financial interests, however, and not aimed at sowing unrest inside Tajikistan as such.
A spokesman for the Tajik border service declined to comment on the attackers’ affiliations. He also would not confirm reports that they were drug traffickers.
Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev meets with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in Moscow on March 2, 2016.
Russia has thrown Kyrgyzstan a bone — albeit not a particularly large one — in the form a $30 million grant to help cover budget shortfalls.
Economic news website Tazabek cited Kyrgyzstan’s presidential administration on March 6 as saying the money would go in part toward completing construction of social housing for military and police personnel.
News of the pledged assistance followed a meeting between President Almazbek Atambayev and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in Moscow on March 2.
Atambayev’s working visit was transparently motivated by a desire on both sides to seek clarity about the state of bilateral relations, which have been tested by the failure of Russian companies to complete essential energy-related projects in Kyrgyzstan.
Putin spoke reassuringly.
“There is no need to talk about the nature of our relations,” Putin said, before going on to talk about the nature of the countries’ relations. “Kyrgyzstan is a reliable partner with which we we have truly strategic relations. Since Kyrgyzstan joined the Eurasian Economic Union, the opportunities for cooperation have increased. I think this will be reflected not only in indicators, but also in real life, and in the development of our economic and social spheres.”
Atambayev was similarly positive, while his office hinted strongly that talks touched upon the stalled hydroelectric plant projects that Kyrgyzstan sees as key to its economic survival.
(A previous version of this report incorrectly stated that the central bank had spent $464 million propping up the tenge in February.)
After a precipitous plunge over many months, Kazakhstan’s embattled currency has gained ground in recent weeks.
Now, the governor of the central bank has revealed the reason for the tenge’s sudden rally.
Speculation had been rife that the bank was propping up the currency ahead of the March 20 parliamentary election — but it has actually been maneuvering to weaken the tenge, Daniyar Akishev revealed to parliament on March 3.
The precise total spent on buying hard currency in February to bring down the tenge rate was $474 million, he said.
The main factor contributing to the tenge’s rise appears to have been the sale of dollars as the tax-reporting period approached at the end of February, when major companies have to pay their dues in tenge.
Akishev moved to quell speculation that Astana is scrambling to soothe any pre-election tensions by taking measures to pacify public anger over the devaluation of the tenge, which has hit people hard in their pockets and even sparked occasional public protests.
“This is not linked to domestic political processes within the country,” Akishev said in remarks quoted by Tengri News.
“The Kazakh system for investigating police abuses is so riddled with loop-holes and the protection of vested interests that torturers are able to act with virtual impunity,” said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty's Europe and Central Asia director.
A crucial finding was that vested interests hamper investigations into torture claims, preventing eradication of the abuse.
“The underlying factor behind the barriers to justice facing victims of torture in Kazakhstan is that it is not in the interests of the agencies and individuals who carry out investigations of torture to do so impartially and objectively,” the report stated.
Obtaining justice is an up-hill struggle as investigators play “bureaucratic ping-pong” with those who file complaints about police abuse.
Maklakov, one of 12 case studies in the report, filed his complaint in 2006.
In a surprising precedent, the trial of an independent journalist in Kazakhstan has culminated with an acquittal.
A court in Almaty ruled on February 29 to clear Yulia Kozlova of drug possession charges, bringing a close to a trial the reporter’s supporters said was politically motivated.
Kozlova’s lawyer had complained throughout proceedings that the two week-long trial was riddled with procedural irregularities.
The charges against Kozlova, who writes for an embattled website called Nakanune.kz that features regular and robust criticism of the authorities, arose from a police raid on her apartment in December. Investigators claimed that during a search for incriminating material related to a separate case involving reporting appearing on Nakanune.kz they found marijuana in a tea caddy.
Kozlova reacted with tearful surprise and delight to her acquittal, video posted on social networks showed. The verdict was unexpected in a country where innocent verdicts are rare, particularly in cases involving independent journalists.
One possibility is that the government may be seeking to mitigate the wave of international criticism that has been timed unfortunately to surge ahead of parliamentary elections on March 20.
Kozlova had staunchly denied the accusations against her.
“I link this to my work,” she told a court hearing attended by EurasiaNet.org in which she gave her testimony on February 18, pointing to her reporting as the source of her legal troubles.
Nakanune.kz was set up by journalists who used to report for Respublika, Kazakhstan’s most hard-hitting independent newspaper until it was closed down in 2012.
Kyrgyzstan may be on the verge of ditching a contentious draft bill on designating internationally funded nongovernmental groups as “foreign agents” in a development possibly related to a thaw in relations with Washington.
Members of parliament discussing the bill on February 29 seemed divided over its benefits or what the law was even supposed to be about. Meanwhile, the groups most threatened by the legislation have been lobbying hard for the proposal to be scrapped.
Asides from an undesirable label, the law would dramatically increase the amount of paperwork that NGOs would have to submit to justify their continued existence. That kind of red tape saps time, energy and resources, while increasing government control over the sector.
Commentators have commonly characterized both the foreign agents law and another proposed bill to criminalize open support for homosexuals punishable by jail time as extensions of Russian potlical and cultural influence. President Almazbek Atambayev has proven highly receptive to anti-Western rhetoric emerging from Moscow.
Among other things, the repealed treaty allowed for a tariff waiver on goods imported into Kyrgyzstan as part of US aid programs. The prospect of beneficiary nation slapping taxes on assistance caused consternation among American policymakers and donors, prompting a rethinking of aid strategy.