Russia's Defense Ministry has announced plans to hold large-scale military maneuvers near the border with Kazakhstan. The announcement comes as relations between Moscow and Astana sink to their lowest level since the collapse of the Soviet Union, amid heightened regional tensions over the war in Ukraine.
Military exercises involving 4,000 troops and 400 pieces of military hardware will take place in the southern region of Altay in mid-September, Major Dmitriy Andreyev of Russia’s Strategic Missile Troops said on September 3, as quoted by RIA Novosti.
Andreyev described the maneuvers – in which troops will practice repelling strikes by precision weapons and counteracting saboteurs – as part of the Strategic Missile Troops’ “training plan.” However, Kremlin-controlled RIA Novosti did not miss the chance to note that recent military maneuvers in other parts of Russia “have aroused the concern of Western countries in the context of the situation in Ukraine.”
The announcement came amid a chill in the usually warm Russo-Kazakh relationship. Kazakhstan is a close ally of Russia and a fellow member of the Customs Union free trade zone, which is set to become the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) in January. The two presidents, Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, generally enjoy an affable personal relationship, too.
However, Astana’s loyalty has been tested to the limits by Russian policy in Ukraine, and by Moscow’s heavy-handed attempts to dictate its own vision of the EEU on other members.
Alexander Sodiqov, the Tajikistan-born academic arrested on espionage charges in June, still does not know if or when he will be free to leave his native country and resume his studies abroad.
After holding him for over a month, the secret police (GKNB) released Sodiqov on his own recognizance on July 22 and forbid him from traveling. The initial criminal investigation then expired August 19, but because Sodiqov and his lawyer were not informed that the case was formally closed, sources close to Sodiqov believe that by default it has been extended. Under Tajik law, prosecutors can extend a criminal investigation for up to a year without a court hearing.
Sodiqov is eager to return to his PhD program in Canada.
“I am hoping that the investigation will end soon because classes at the University of Toronto start on September 8 and I need to be there to teach,” Sodiqov told EurasiaNet.org, explaining that the terms of his release precluded him from providing detailed comment to journalists.
Tajik authorities have not provided any indication when the investigation may conclude. Currently the GKNB and other security agencies are believed to be operating overtime as Dushanbe prepares to host a Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit this month.
A few days after President Nursultan Nazarbayev said Kazakhstan could withdraw from the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union, Russia’s president appeared to threaten Kazakhstan, stressing publicly that Kazakhstan benefits by casting its lot with Russia and fanning suspicions that all is not well between the two leaders.
Speaking at an annual, town-hall style meeting with university students and young professors on August 29, Vladimir Putin fielded a question about Kazakhstan’s post-Nazarbayev future and the likelihood of a “Ukraine scenario”—presumably, a power vacuum and civil conflict.
Because it is widely assumed that the questions are either vetted or planted, the exchange has invited plenty of scrutiny. While Putin’s answer was full of seeming praise for Nazarbayev, it also cast doubt on Kazakhstan’s durability as an independent state—a sensitive issue in Kazakhstan after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula.
Events in Ukraine, including Russia’s support for rebels in the east, have already set many Kazakhstanis on edge – sparking fears that by joining the EEU Kazakhstan is tying the knot with an international pariah. They understand the obvious parallels: If Russia can seize Crimea under the pretext of protecting Russians, can it not seize northern Kazakhstan, home to large ethnic Russian communities? And if Russia can support insurgents against Kiev (a charge Moscow denies), can it not do the same against Astana? The propositions will sound even more ominous once Nazarbayev, a strongman who has established few mechanisms for a smooth transition of power, is out of the picture.
Even in one of the most liberal Central Asian cities, a little light homoerotica that would barely turn heads in New York or London can still spark furious debate, threats of lawsuits, and calls to the police.
The dispute is about an advertisement for an Almaty gay club that features two prominent 19th century cultural figures, Russian poet Alexander Pushkin and Kazakh composer Kurmangazy Sagyrbayuly, enjoying a passionate kiss (pictured). The club, Studio 69, happens to sit at the corner of streets named for Pushkin and Kurmangazy.
According to zakon.kz, the reaction was mostly negative on social media, as people found irreverence toward their cultural heroes too difficult to swallow. "There is no limit to [my] outrage. How could [they] come up with something like this?” one user wrote.
Police told TengriNews they had registered an official complaint. And a descendant of Kurmangazy has threatened to sue for moral damages.
But some defended the poster (which riffs off of the famous image of East German leader Erich Honecker and the Soviet Union’s Leonid Brezhnev locking lips in East Berlin in 1979). "At least [there is] some creativity in the barren steppe of domestic works,” TengriNews quoted a local social media user as saying.
Kyrgyz and Tajik soldiers have again exchanged fire on their disputed border, injuring and possibly killing civilians. This is their third shootout this year. But ominously, this time the fighting has spread to a new location, suggesting that the authorities’ halting efforts to end the long-festering dispute risk being overtaken by events on the ground.
As usual, both sides offer conflicting accounts of the August 25 violence. According to Kyrgyz officials, Tajik border guards attempted to establish a border post in a disputed area. Tajik civilians then tried to destroy a bridge used by Kyrgyz citizens. The Tajiks opened fire first and used mortars, say the Kyrgyz officials.
According to Tajik media citing an unnamed local official, five Tajik civilians received gunshot wounds in the skirmish, which began when the Kyrgyz started repair work on a bridge in disputed territory. Avesta reports two dead, a soldier and a civilian, in addition to the five injured. Kyrgyz troops fired first, according to this version, and the Tajiks did not return fire.
The shootout occurred in the extreme western district of Kyrgyzstan’s Batken Province, in Leilek District, an area corresponding to the Bobojon Gafur District of Tajikistan’s Sughd Province. That is several hours’ drive from the site of recent violence.
A lawsuit brought against an independent journalist by Kyrgyzstan’s secret police suggests the country’s democratic gains are backsliding, a prominent human rights group says.
The State Committee for National Security (GKNB) has demanded 1 million soms (over $19,000) in damages from journalist Shorukh Saipov. The GKNB says its reputation was marred by an article the journalist wrote for Fergana News in May in which he quoted an unnamed source complaining that the secret police extort money from Muslims with threats to prosecute them for religious extremism. It is this type of claim that has led young Muslims to flee Kyrgyzstan to join Islamic extremists fighting in the Middle East, EurasiaNet.org reported recently.
Fergana News says the charges are “unfounded” and characterizes them as “harassment.” The outlet quotes a GKNB official as saying that Saipov’s article is “unfounded” and “directly undermines the credibility [and] authority of our body in the eyes of the public.”
The Norwegian Helsinki Committee said on August 25 that the case is a reminder of the tactics President Kurmanbek Bakiyev used to silence his critics before he was ousted in bloody street riots in 2010.
The NHC is concerned that the libel suit could mark the beginning of a return to practices associated with the period preceding the April 2010 revolution in Kyrgyzstan, when harassment and libel suits against journalists were commonplace. In the time since, Kyrgyzstan’s media freedom record has improved markedly, setting it apart from practices in several neighboring Central Asian states. […]
Not long ago, Russia was one of the primary markets for Kyrgyzstan’s agricultural goods. Then came the Eurasian Customs Union of Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan, which removed customs checkpoints between the three in 2011. Kyrgyz produce was suddenly on the other side of a wall and exports to Russia plummeted from 195,000 tons in 2008 to 7,500 tons last year, according Kyrgyzstan’s Agriculture Ministry.
Now Russia, having banned produce from the West in response to sanctions over its support for rebels in Ukraine, needs Kyrgyzstan again. Kyrgyz officials are eager to help fill Russian stomachs, but unsure just how much they can abruptly increase exports.
On August 19 local news agency KyrTAG.kg quoted Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov telling a meeting of the Eurasian Economic Commission, the Customs Union’s regulatory body, “We are lifting all restrictions on the supply of Kyrgyz fruits and vegetables. In case of unjustified barriers, contact me – we will assist.” Kyrgyz authorities also hope that Russia will terminate restrictions on meat imports.
While some locals fear Russia will export its inflation and shortages to Kyrgyzstan, officials are losing no time pointing out the benefits of closer cooperation with Russia to a reluctant population.
The Agriculture Ministry hopes to restore exports to Russia to the their pre-Customs Union peak (an increase of 2,500 percent), Zhumabek Asylbekov, head of the ministry’s Food Supply and Marketing Department, told local news agency Vechernii Bishkek on August 20.
Kyrgyzstan’s local government councils are infested with gangsters, according to the Interior Ministry.
Speaking at a meeting of parliament’s Ata-Meken faction on August 20, Interior Minister Abdulla Suranchiev named over 20 figures in local governments across Kyrgyzstan that he alleges have ties to organized crime.
Not all of the councilors Suranchiev named have criminal records. Details on the accused, later relayed by 24.kg, were limited to names, dates of birth and presumed association with alleged criminal leaders such as Kamchybek Kolbayev, Maksat Abakirov and Almas Bokushev.
Cynics believe Ata-Meken party leader Omurbek Tekebayev engineered the expose as a PR stunt ahead of next year’s parliamentary elections. Ata-Meken has suffered serious brand damage since scraping into the legislature in 2010. Political rivals have accused three of its members, including Tekebayev, of looting during the 2010 revolution. Another scandal struck the party in 2012 when it emerged that one of its candidates for a municipal seat in Jalal-Abad Province was a seasoned criminal with the record to prove it.
At first blush, it seems Kazakhstan's strongman President Nursultan Nazarbayev likes to keep business in the family. A daughter heads his party in the rubber-stamp parliament; his sons-in-law held various official positions and became fabulously wealthy. So why is it not surprising that Kazakhstan is paying the wife of Nazarbayev’s most distinguished advisor, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, hundreds of thousands of pounds for her legal services?
Citing an anonymous source, The Telegraph broke the story today. The paper describes Cherie Blair as known for her “ardent” defense of civil liberties and human rights. Kazakhstan is known for muzzling free speech and locking up critics. The contract with Mrs Blair’s law firm Omnia Strategy doesn’t concern those sensitive issues, however. Instead, the paper reports, Mrs Blair will review Kazakhstan’s “bilateral investment treaties.”
The first stage of the review, which was expected to take as little as three months, is worth £120,000 [$200,000], sources have told The Sunday Telegraph.
A second phase of the project is worth a further £200,000 to £250,000 for another three to four months’ work, it is understood. Omnia Strategy, which Mrs Blair set up in 2011, also has an option to complete a third stage of the legal project for the Ministry of Justice at a fee to be decided, according to the source.
Mrs Blair is understood normally to charge clients £1,150 an hour but will bill the Kazakh taxpayer at a reduced rate of £975 an hour if the Ministry of Justice, based in the capital Astana, continues to employ Omnia on the legal review into its third stage.
When Russia banned many Western agricultural products last week in response to Western sanctions, it created a $9.5 billion hole for other countries to fill. Immediately, officials across Central Asia optimistically announced plans to help plug the gap.
But sudden shortages created by the ban have all but guaranteed to increase inflation in Russia, a major food importer. And Central Asians will suffer likewise because their expected jump in exports will leave fewer products available to local consumers, thus driving up prices at home.
All this highlights a paradoxical mix of opportunities and risks for Kazakhstan, a member of the Moscow-led Customs Union whose economy often feels ripple effects from Russia. Aside from the immediate pros and cons of the food ban, Kazakhstan is clearly spooked by Russia’s deepening confrontation with the West over its support for rebels in Ukraine, concerned about the fallout from a slowing Russian economy.
Kazakhstan’s response to the food ban paints a picture of a junior partner struggling to navigate the shoals between an increasingly isolationist Kremlin and its own ambitions of greater global integration.