An Afghan airline is using passenger flights to deliver “bulk quantities of opium” to Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe, according to U.S. officials cited in a January 24 Wall Street Journal report.
The Pentagon, which has blacklisted Kam Air from receiving military contracts, opened an investigation when the airline bid on a contract to service the U.S.-led coalition. "An organization such as Kam Air exposes itself when it bids on a U.S. contract," U.S. Army Maj.-Gen. Richard Longo, the commander of Task Force 2010, a coalition anticorruption unit, told the Wall Street Journal. "They are subject to scrutiny."
Kam Air, which is in talks to merge with state-run Ariana Afghan Airlines, denies the charges. The private airline operates four weekly flights between Kabul and Dushanbe.
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime says approximately 30 percent of Afghan narcotics, including 90 tons of heroin, exit Afghanistan through Central Asia each year, mostly through Tajikistan. Tajik officials either lack the capacity to interdict the narcotics, or are complicit in the trade, according to Western officials in Dushanbe.
Those Western officials suspect the bulk of the onward trafficking begins at Tajikistan’s airports, usually on flights to Russia. The inbound smuggling, according to the Wall Street Journal report, is apparently happening right under the nose of airport officials, too.
Kam Air operates a fleet of some 16 planes, including Boeing 767 and 747 aircraft and Antonov cargo planes. The task force believes that domestic passenger routes have been used to ferry opium around the country, according to a U.S. official in Kabul. But the investigation is focused on Central Asia, the official said. "Kam Air is flying out bulk quantities of opium," the official said.
Marking a year this week since the start of a political crackdown, Kazakhstan has entered 2013 with a transformed political landscape, the opposition effectively decimated and independent media muzzled.
Under the strongman reign of 72-year-old President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has been in power for over two decades, Kazakhstan has never willingly opened its arms to criticism. But critics say last year witnessed an unprecedented attack on dissenting voices, leaving the political scene bereft of any meaningful platform from which to hold the administration accountable.
The crackdown began on January 23, 2012, with the rounding up of opposition figures and journalists a month after fatal unrest in Zhanaozen, a western oil town.
The anti-dissent campaign culminated in December court rulings that shut down approximately 40 independent media outlets (including outspoken newspapers Respublika and Vzglyad) and Kazakhstan’s most vocal opposition party, Alga! (whose leader Vladimir Kozlov is serving a jail term on charges of fomenting the Zhanaozen violence and plotting to overthrow the state).
Alga! and the media outlets were declared extremist and accused of inciting the Zhanaozen violence, which spiraled out of a protracted oil strike that the government acknowledges was mismanaged.
Kyrgyz villagers in a troubled border region are experiencing food, fuel and medicine shortages, local media reported today, as a state of emergency in southern Kyrgyzstan continues. In Bishkek, officials say they have made no progress getting their Uzbek counterparts to reopen the frontier after Tashkent unilaterally closed most checkpoints on January 17.
The latest tensions date to January 5, when residents of Sokh, an Uzbek enclave surrounded by Kyrgyz territory, reportedly attacked Kyrgyz border guards who were installing electrical wires on a contested piece of territory. The next day locals took several dozen Kyrgyz hostage and destroyed their vehicles.
Though the hostages were quickly released and the Kyrgyz received compensation for their damaged property (reportedly collected from Sokh’s residents, who are mostly ethnic Tajiks), troubles remain in this Ferghana Valley flashpoint.
Sokh is a strategic parcel of land. A 350-square-kilometer valley blessed with water in a parched agricultural region, it basically cuts Kyrgyzstan’s Batken Province in half. The only all-weather Kyrgyz road passes through this Uzbek territory, meaning Kyrgyz traveling between Batken, perhaps Kyrgyzstan’s poorest province, and Osh must stop at Uzbek checkpoints. As the population grows, and land and water become scarcer, the region seethes and occasionally erupts in violence.
Kazakhstan’s capital has the reputation of a conformist city of bureaucrats, loyal to the man who made it the seat of government and micromanaged its construction, President Nursultan Nazarbayev – but it seems that not everyone is banging the drum for the Leader of the Nation.
Some of the less fortunate inhabitants of the glitzy city took to the streets one freezing evening this week to complain about their lot and demand social justice, reports KTK TV.
“Who are the rulers?” footage broadcast from a dark Astana street showed a man with a megaphone yelling at a small crowd.
“Dozens” of people gathered on January 16, KTK reported – hardly the type of large, unruly street protest that has twice helped overthrow presidents in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, but still revolutionary stuff for this most conformist of capitals.
The main organizers were residents of a hostel on Astana's outskirts that is slated for demolition to make way for a power station. Some inhabitants have refused the compensation package offered by the authorities and say they will be left without affordable housing – a major bone of contention in Astana, where Zauresh Battalova, a former senator and now prominent campaigner, spearheads the For Decent Housing movement to fight for accommodation for the underprivileged and low paid.
The rally gathered protestors with wide-ranging demands, some urging timely payments of salaries and others calling on the local authorities to do a better job of clearing the snow that blankets Astana in winter.
Numbers released this week by Kyrgyzstan’s National Statistics Agency suggest a strike at the crucial Kumtor Gold Mine last winter played a major role in shrinking the country’s economic growth from 5.7 percent in 2011 to minus 0.9 percent in 2012.
Workers at Kumtor laid down their tools last February to demand parent company Centerra Gold cover their social security taxes. The walkout was resolved after 10 days, with Toronto-listed Centerra – which is one-third owned by the Kyrgyz government – agreeing to make the payments, even though it said the strike was illegal because it violated a collective agreement with workers.
By then the damage was done. Centerra later reported that while workers were neglecting the high-altitude open-pit mine, ice had formed there, and the company decreased its production forecast by one-third. It had previously predicted it would mine 575,000 to 625,000 ounces of gold in 2012; it eventually pulled 315,238 ounces from the ground.
The mine’s fundamental role in the delicate Kyrgyz economy is well documented. In 2011, Kumtor’s output accounted for 12 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s GDP, and over 50 percent of industrial production, according to official figures. That year, GDP was hurt by another incident: In November, villagers blocked the road leading to the mine. Their weeklong protest drove down the country's year-on-year GDP growth from 8.5 percent for the first 11 months of the year to 5.7 percent by year's end.
The German news weekly Der Spiegel has a provocative analysis piece in its January 14 issue that takes a crowbar to Kazakhstan, denting the Central Asian state’s image for political and social stability.
The piece – titled “Corrupt-i-stan: Kazakh Massacre Fuels Rising Mistrust” – is an in-depth look at the trial of Vladislav Chelakh, who was convicted this past December of murdering 14 fellow border guards and a bystander in May of 2012. It dwells on inconsistencies in the state’s version of events, and notes that Chelakh’s attorney faced daunting obstacles in trying to mount a defense. ”The court had no evidence, no motive and no witnesses,” the article adds.
What is perhaps the most damning aspect of the article, in terms of its portrayal of Kazakhstani authorities, is reporting about how many Kazakhstani citizens no longer believe what the government is telling them. The consensus on the street, the article implies, is that high-level corruption played a role in the border post massacre, and Chelakh is merely the fall guy.
The article can be found in both German and English. It’s worth the time to read it through.
Authorities in Tajikistan have ordered Internet service providers, again, to block access to Facebook, local news agencies report. The blocking orders (which this time also target the local service of Radio Liberty) have become so familiar in the past year that there’s little new to say. So let’s look at how the man in charge of Internet access has explained his thinking in recent months.
Last March, the head of the communications service, Beg Zukhurov, after denying any order to block Facebook, said his office had actually blocked the site for “prophylactic maintenance.”
Internet service providers have said they were ordered to block Facebook last weekend, along with three or four news portals, by the state communications service, after one of the portals published an article severely criticizing [President Emomali] Rakhmon and his government. When queried by news agency Asia-Plus, the head of the service, Beg Zukhurov, denied any order to block Facebook, but said the authors of offensive online content “defaming the honor and dignity of the Tajik authorities” should be made “answerable.” Tajikistan frequently uses libel cases and extremism charges to silence critical journalists.
In November, Zukhurov again flipped the switch and memorably called Facebook a “hotbed of slander” when he sought a meeting with the social network’s founder and chairman, Mark Zuckerberg.
"Does Facebook have an owner? Can he come to Tajikistan? I'd meet him during visiting hours. If he does not have time, I'd talk to his assistants,” the BBC’s Russian service quoted Zukhurov as saying. (Zukhurov's visiting hours are Saturday's from 10am to noon.)
One of Central Asia's favorite sporting pastimes, kokpar, is set to go mainstream in Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan's Association for National Sports has floated plans to professionalize the rough-and-tumble sport and establish purpose-built stadiums across the country.
In a game of kokpar, a distant cousin of polo, two teams of mounted players struggle to take a headless goat carcass into the opposing team’s goal. Kokpar – which often translates as “goat-grabbing” – is better known as “buzkashi” in Afghanistan and Tajikistan.
Sadybek Tugel, the Association’s vice president, told KazTAG on January 15 that the aim is to move kokpar to a professional club system with 16 centers across the country. Tugel also envisages setting up a National Sports Center and training college in the capital, Astana, to promote indigenous sports such as kokpar. Affiliated schools will open in Almaty and in Kazakhstan's 14 regional centers.
Kokpar games have been known to last for hours. To make the sport more television-friendly, the Kazakhs might think about adopting the Afghan Olympic Committee's rules for championship buzkashi: They limit the game to two 45-minute halves, like in soccer.
Tradition or not, kokpar still courts controversy. As EurasiaNet.org reported last year, animal-rights activists are pushing to introduce plastic dummy goats to replace the bloody carcasses. Some, though, might find the game a tad pedestrian without the pre-match slaughter.
Officials in northern Kazakhstan have taken President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s zero-tolerance policy toward anti-social behavior to heart, jailing a man for making a rude gesture at an official motorcade.
The unidentified 22-year-old resident of Pavlodar was thrown behind bars for giving the middle finger to the cortege of Kayrat Mami, speaker of the Senate (the upper house of parliament), Tengri News reported on January 14.
The man pleaded guilty on hooliganism charges and was given a five-day jail sentence for “insulting the human dignity of a public figure, thus allowing disrespect for those around and violating public order and the peace of individuals,” court spokeswoman Umut Zhumatayeva said.
The jailing is in line with a policy Nazarbayev announced last fall, when he used a parliamentary address to rail against graffiti, garbage and public drunkenness, surprising observers who thought Kazakhstan had more pressing problems to tackle. Nazarbayev also has a Singapore-style fixation with chewing gum and dirty cars in his model capital city, Astana.
The news of the harsh treatment meted out to the Pavlodar man sparked vituperative reactions on the Tengri News site, suggesting that many of Nazarbayev’s fellow citizens do not share his concerns. “Where the hell is democracy?” asked user West. “He was only expressing his opinion.”
Investors operating in three post-Soviet Central Asian republics face an “extreme risk” of having their businesses expropriated, according to a survey released last week in the UK.
Maplecroft, a Bath-based political risk consultancy, said on January 9 that it had found plenty of reasons to be wary of the business climate in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan after “evaluating the risk to business from discriminatory acts by the government that reduces ownership, control or rights of private investments either gradually or as a result of a single action.” Recent fits of resource nationalism in Kyrgyzstan -- where the Kumtor gold mine, operated by Toronto-based Centerra Gold, accounted for 12 percent of GDP in 2011 and more than half the country’s industrial output – and rampant authoritarianism in places like Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have led Maplecroft to rank these countries among the most risky in the world. Not far behind, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan both fall in the “high risk” category.