After two years of tortuous debates in parliament, civil society in Kyrgyzstan has cause for celebration.
A contentious bill, modeled on a similar piece of legislation in Russia, that would in an earlier form have seen internationally funded nongovernment group designated as “foreign agents” was rejected by Kyrgyz deputies on May 12.
Out of the 111 members of parliament present, 65 voted against the bill, which was undergoing its third and final reading.
The legislation was first presented in 2014 by Tursunbai Bakir Uulu and Nurkamil Madaliev, two deputies that have since left parliament, and has proceeded in fits and starts ever since.
In the days preceding parliament’s final decision on the bill, rights groups mounted a lively campaign of opposition. On May 11, around a dozen activists rallied in front of parliament, urging deputies to reject the bill.
Tolekan Ismailova, head of the Bir Duino human rights organization, which gathers information on cases of torture and corruption, said at the protest that the bill was “discriminatory and inhumane”.
“A group of MPs started promoting this bill and we could see that the hand of the Kremlin was behind this,” Ismailova told Kloop.kg. “The discrimination concerns those NGOs that monitor corruption and the activities of parliament.”
But on May 12, some deputies came out in their strongest opposition yet to the legislation. Janar Akayev, a member of the ruling Social Democratic Party (SDPK), suggested the bill would dent Kyrgyzstan’s democratic credentials.
A state prosecutor in Tajikistan has demanded life sentences for opposition figures on trial for their supposed involvement in an alleged coup in September.
The Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan’s official website, Payom.net, reported on May 11 that four of its leading members could be sentenced to life in jail, while members of the party’s political council face terms of between 16 and 30 years.
Only one person on trial, IRPT deputy chairman Zarafo Rahmoni, faces a slightly less draconian sentence of five years in prison.
IRPT stands accused of financing and organizing a purported attempt to overthrow the government that officials say was led by disaffected deputy Defense Minister Abduhalim Nazarzoda in September.
The startling severity of the proposed sentences appears to be an attempt to frighten anybody even vaguely contemplating any form of dissent in the future. The most severe term handed down to a political opponent to date was reserved for Zaid Saidov, who was in 2013 sentenced to 26 years in jail, a term later extended to 29 years.
Nazarzoda was reportedly killed in a gunfight with government forces on September 16. Senior IRPT members were arrested later that same month.
The trial was held behind closed doors, journalists were officially denied access to the hearings and informally warned to avoid even referring to the case. Even lawyers for the IRPT members were themselves jailed after taking up the case.
Earlier this month, Nazarzoda’s 28-year old son, Bahtiyor Nazarov, was sentenced to 22 years in jail, also for alleged involvement in attempts to overthrow the government.
Kyrgyzstan has become the first country in Central Asia to get Google Street View, although prospective visitors need not think this comes even close to a substitute for the real thing.
The project to extend Street View to Kyrgyzstan was unveiled at a cultural center in the town of Cholpon-Ata, which lies on Issyk-Kul lake, a regional tourist magnet.
“Now users of Google Maps all over the world can take virtual trips along Kyrgyz roads and discover tourist attractions online. Among other things, Google technicians took images of exceptional cultural and historic sights like the Burana Towers, the Maiden Tears waterfall, the holy mountain of Suleiman-Too (in Osh), Fairy Tale Valley, the petroglyphs at Cholpon-Ata and other places,” Google representative Tilik Mamutov said on his Facebook account.
While touting this as an opportunity to see Kyrgyzstan from afar, Google says this will help boost tourism.
“You’ll be able to discover where to find a gas station, check out what a place looks like. And when a foreign tourist arrives in a certain place they can find a hotel or a restaurant on their phone,” Google representative Oleg Yakymchuk said in remarks cited by TengriNews.
That might be slightly overstating the case, however. Eateries out of the main cities and off the beaten track tend to be pretty lo-fi affairs and the idea of them being listed on Google Maps is, well, a bit of a stretch. Until users start submitting that kind of information themselves, that is.
Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev has fired his most senior military official following a series of violent and deadly incidents that point to growing disorder within the armed forces.
On May 11, Zhanybek Kaparov was dismissed and replaced by Raimberdi Duishenbiyev as head of the General Staff of the Armed Forces, one day after a soldier in the southern Jalal-Abad region reportedly stabbed a comrade in a squabble over chewing tobacco.
That incident, which did not result in any fatalities, followed news that a 19-year old recruit in the northern Naryn province appeared to have hanged himself after he abandoning his post on May 5.Earlier in the month, a brawl between two soldiers, again in Jalal-Abad, culminated in the death of another 19-year-old conscript.
According to well-regarded human rights organization Kylym Shamy, there have been over 60 deaths in the armed forces in the last four years — most of them suicides.
Militaries across the Central Asian region — particularly its poorest countries Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan — are notorious for providing conscripts with dismal living conditions and paltry wages.
Hazing, or the bullying of young conscripts by older officers, is also widespread. Tajikistan is famously, if only unofficially, said to resort to “oblava,” or the kidnapping of recruits, as a method of hitting conscript quotas.
A zoo in Kazakhstan’s business capital, Almaty, is facing mounting criticism about mistreatment of its animals since the agonizing death of a six-year old tigress called Kuralai.
Almaty zoo deputy director Agibai Azhibayev announced on May 8 that the tiger had died, although pictures of the emaciated and sore-ridden animal had circulated on social media for weeks before, sparking a wave of indignation.
Azhibayev said an autopsy would be carried out to establish the exact causes of Kuralai’s demise.
Zoo director Kanat Karimov said in 2015 that the tiger had been diagnosed with pneumonia and was being treated with anti-viral and anti-fungal drugs. But the cat’s condition deteriorated sharply at the start of this year, when she stopped eating and began to lose weight. Eventually, sores broke out all over Kuralai’s body and she grew so weak that she was unable to even stand up.
This state of affairs only became public knowledge after distressed zoo staff took photos and posted them online.
At the invitation of the zoo’s board of trustees, the chief veterinarian for Moscow zoo, Mikhail Alshinetsky, was eventually summoned to carry out a medical examination. His verdict was that all treatment was proving futile and recommended euthanizing the tiger. That advice was spurned by the Almaty zoo officials, however.
"That is his personal opinion, and we are seeing improvements in Kuralai’s wellbeing and are hoping we can cure her,” Azhibayev told KTK television station.
But the treatments being adopted by the Almaty zoo have appalled many animal lovers, who have accused the zoo’s management of cruelty.
A high-profile racially motivated assault on two migrants in Moscow last week has prompted Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev to urge Russians to show more respect to their foreign guests.
Speaking at a May 9 requiem event in Bishkek to mark the 71st anniversary of victory in World War II, Atambayev reminded his listeners that hundreds of thousands of Russian evacuees were given shelter in Kyrgyzstan as that conflict was unfolding.
“Simple Kyrgyz families shared their last scraps of bread and clothes. Many evacuees remained in the country for good and became citizens of Kyrgyzstan,” Atambayev was cited as saying by K-News website. “So today I would like for this to be remembered by citizens of our brotherly nation, Russia, where modern fascists — skinheads — are raising their heads.”
The remarks were clearly inspired by a vicious group assault earlier this months on citizens of Kyrgyzstan traveling on the Moscow metro.
Russian state news agency RIA-Novosti cited the police as saying the attack was almost certainly racially motivated.
“They were all shaven-headed, wore heavy military-style boots. On their phones we found photographs of them holding up their arms in a Nazi salute and showing off weapons. Moreover, three of the four [attackers] were underage,” a police source told the agency.
A video posted on the Interior Ministry YouTube channel shows a worrying exchange between a police interrogator and one of the presumed attackers.
“What have you been detained for?” one young man, whose face has been hidden to protect his identity, is asked.
Fresh data from Kazakhstan’s National Economy Ministry has shown that the trend for ethnic Russians to leave the country is clearly on the rise.
In 2014, more than 28,000 people in total left the country. Another 30,000 left last year — of out those 25,000 were going to Russia. The number of people emigrating easily outnumbers those seeking Kazakhstani citizenship, according to recent figures cited in a report by Exclusive.kz.
The runner-up destinations for those leaving the country in 2015 were Germany (2,000 people), Belarus (605), Uzbekistan (364) and the United States (265).
Analysts see a raft of reasons for this exodus, ranging from the country’s economic prospects, the uncertain outcome of future political transition and a purported uptick in Russophobic sentiments.
Political analyst Maksim Kramarenko suggested to Exclusive.kz that migration of ethnic Russians reflects a process of communities “choosing their identity” — going to live in a country where they feel they belong.
A recently adopted initiative by the Education Ministry to introduce trilingualism into schools (Kazakh, Russian and English) has caused much upset among parents.
“Teaching in three languages can negatively affect the educational process,” Kramarenko said. “This is initiative is forcing many Russians to think about the future of their children and about how to preserve their ethnic and cultural essence, how to get a quality education in their native Russian language.”
Many of those leaving the country are well-educated and highly skilled and fear for their potential to succeed in Kazakhstan.
The government in Kazakhstan has set a rare precedent by backing down over the planned land sales that sparked off a wave of major protests across the country.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev announced on May 6 that he was imposing a moratorium on changes to the land code that were making the sales possible.
In a related development, National Economy Minister Yerbolat Dosayev, who has been tasked with explaining aspects of revised land legislation to the public, resigned his post.
Minor pickets in Astana and Almaty in April escalated into a major demonstrations in several cities all over Kazakhstan, badly spooking the authorities.
Amendments to the law approved in November extended the period for which farming land could be rented to foreigners from 10 to 25 years and set the terms for land auctions, open only to Kazakhstani citizens, to be held from July onward. Objections to these changes ranged from suspicions that long-term land leases to foreigners might in practice end up with renters becoming de facto owners to concerns that corrupt officials could pocket the proceeds of land rentals and sales.
While acknowledging defeat in this standoff against an increasingly disgruntled population, Nazarbayev sought to blame the tension on a misinformed general public.
“We should have explained to a misunderstanding people that there was no talk of selling farming land,” he said. “The people who should have been addressed didn’t understand the essence [of the land law amendment]. The mechanisms and norms of this law were not discussed with the public and the fears and concerns of the people were in many respects justified.”
With tempers fraying over the vexed issue of land in Kazakhstan, some prime plots in Almaty are to be leased to a local consortium with the aim of reviving the fortunes of the city’s iconic Aport apple.
The Agriculture Department of Almaty, Kazakhstan’s commercial capital, has allotted 400,000 square meters of agricultural land on the outskirts of the city to a group of Kazakhstani investors trading as Apple World, reports state news agency Kazinform.
The group hopes to cultivate the Aport apple, which once grew abundantly in the foothills of the Trans-Ili Alatau mountain range, on a patch of land that was home to an orchard in the 1940s. The fortunes of the Aport have suffered from encroaching development as Almaty has expanded its borders into the surrounding countryside in recent decades, destroying swaths of both cultivated and wild orchards.
This move represents a homecoming as apples are believed to have originated from these forests in the Trans-Ili Alatau’s foothills. Almaty’s name is derived from the Kazakh for apple, alma, and it translates as “place of apples.” The Aport, which has become a symbol of the city, is a large, red species of apple that can grow up to one kilogram in weight.
Kyrgyzstan has upped the stakes in its on-and-off battle against the operators of its giant Kumtor gold mine with a raid on the company’s offices that officials say is part of an alleged corruption probe.
Few doubt the April 28 raid in Bishkek was unrelated to the increasingly frayed relationship between Kyrgyzstan and Toronto-based Centerra — in which the Central Asian state’s government owns an almost one-third stake. Negotiations to revise the Kumtor concession collapsed last year, so the authorities have reverted to hardball tactics.
The state prosecutor’s office and the State Committee for National Security have said they are digging into payments made by Centerra’s local affiliate to the mother company in Canada going back as far as 2013.
It is too early to tell if government suspicions that some money may have gone astray are founded, but the sight of rifle-toting men entering the country’s largest private investor is going to do nothing to bolster Kyrgyzstan’s reputation as a promising destination for foreign money.
Mark Burton, Kumtor vice president for finance, and Leslie Louw, the vice president for procurement and logistics, both flew out of the country on the day after the raid, although Centerra insists — and on May 3 even offered proof — that both had planned holidays in advance of the event.
The company’s response to the raid itself was immediate and typically sanguine, noting the government had “expressed concerns regarding, among other things, an inter-corporate dividend paid by KGC to Centerra in 2013.”