Tajik authorities have allegedly paraded University of Toronto researcher Alexander Sodiqov, who disappeared three days ago, on television in an apparent attempt to discredit him and an opposition politician. Friends and colleagues are growing increasingly concerned that Tajikistan’s heavy-handed authorities may be trying to make an example out of Sodiqov to discourage others from examining tensions between Tajikistan’s authoritarian government and minorities in the restive eastern province of Badakhshan.
Sodiqov, a 31-year-old Tajik national who lives in Canada, disappeared in Khorog on June 16 while carrying out academic fieldwork on civil society and conflict resolution in Central Asia. Tajikistan’s unaccountable and American-backed secret police service, the GKNB, initially confirmed it had detained Sodiqov and accused him of carrying out “subversion and espionage” – a charge it will be difficult for them to walk back. The GKNB has since refused to discuss Sodiqov's whereabouts.
Citing an anonymous Khorog resident, Tajikistan’s independent Asia-Plus news agency reported on June 18 that Sodiqov appeared twice on local state television looking confused, once the previous evening and once early on June 19. The resident told Asia-Plus that Sodiqov’s speech appeared to have been edited to discredit the opposition and a religious leader.
Hard-drinking Kazakhstan is moving to curb alcohol abuse by extending a ban on late-night alcohol sales.
The new bill banning retail sales between 9 p.m. and noon was signed into law by President Nursultan Nazarbayev on June 18. The rules extend an existing late-night ban on alcohol sales (including beer) and will hit retail outlets which do a roaring trade in late-night booze sales. Restaurants, bars, and nightclubs will not be affected.
The law also bans alcohol sales altogether at filling stations as well as education and health institutions, but moves by parliamentarians to ban sales at markets and stadiums as well failed.
Kazakhstan raised the legal drinking age from 18 to 21 in 2009. The new bill doubles fines for selling liquor to under 21s to a maximum of $1,200 (with the revocation of an offender’s license to sell alcohol).
The government says the bill is aimed at curbing excessive alcohol consumption, for which Kazakhstan rates 34th worldwide, according to a World Health Organization survey of 188 countries released in May.
Each person in Kazakhstan aged over 15 imbibes on average 11.3 liters of alcohol a year, almost double the global average of 6.2 liters, the report said—although the government has questioned the WHO’s methodology.
The report found the prevalence of “heavy episodic drinking” (defined as consuming at least 60 grams or more of pure alcohol on at least one occasion in the past 30 days) to be 7.8 percent in Kazakhstan. Among drinking males the prevalence stood at 30 percent. Some 8.9 percent of males and 1.9 percent of females have drinking disorders in Kazakhstan, according to the report.
The WHO singles out Kazakhstan as one of 11 countries with the “most risky patterns” of drinking.
The unexplained arrest of a researcher carrying out fieldwork in Tajikistan’s troubled Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO) is sparking alarm among Central Asian academics and journalists. Reports of Alexander Sodiqov’s arrest first filtered out during the afternoon of June 16, when the researcher, a Tajik-born PhD student at the University of Toronto, was meeting with Alim Sherzamonov, regional representative of the opposition Social Democratic Party of Tajikistan, according to RFE/RL’s Tajik service.
Tajikistan’s GKNB (state security service) subsequently released a statement June 17 via state media Khovar.tj, confirming that Sodiqov had been detained for carrying out “subversion and espionage” on behalf of a foreign country, a charge they linked to a June 10 email sent from Sodiqov’s account (officials did not disclose how they obtained access to the account and whether they did so before or after Sodiqov’s arrest). GKNB operatives presumably believed the “foreign country” to have been the UK, given Sodiqov’s research was funded by the British Economic and Social Research council. A British Embassy statement expressed concern about Sodiqov’s treatment.
Sodiqov’s supervisor on the project, John Heathershaw, put out the following statement on social media on the evening of June 16:
“It is now almost 20 hours since we have heard from Alexander Sodiqov who was apparently arrested while conducting research in Tajikistan. We do not know if he has been released or remains detained.
Nationalists are renewing efforts in Kyrgyzstan to secure vague legislation to require non-profit organizations that receive money from abroad to register as foreign agents.
MP Tursunbai Bakir uulu, one of the new bill’s sponsors, told EurasiaNet.org on June 17 that he hopes parliament will consider the measure before it adjourns for its summer recess at the end of June. “NGOs need to be more transparent,” Bakir uulu said. “Society needs to know how the money sent from abroad is spent.”
Bakir uulu’s initiative marks the second attempt to pass “foreign agents” legislation targetting organizations that engage in "political activities." The first attempt stalled in parliament.
On June 16, a small protest occurred in the capital Bishkek, expressing support for the “foreign agents” bill. Jenishbek Moldokmatov, a leader of the Kalys nationalist group and one of the protests organizers, called it “just the beginning” of a campaign to place restrictions on foreign-funded NGOs. Kalys has gathered 5,000 petition signatures in favor of the “foreign agents” bill, Moldokmatov said.
Moldokmatov also organized an anti-gay protest in February outside the US Embassy in Bishkek, during which the protesters burned a portrait of local blogger Ilya Lukash, who was vilified as a “gay activist.”
In a June 17 interview with EurasiaNet.org, Lukash said he felt compelled to flee Kyrgyzstan because he “was not feeling safe and was getting constant threats via phone calls and text messages.” Lukash went on to assail Kalys and Moldokmatov for trying to stigmatize political opponents by labeling them “homosexuals” or “foreign agents.”
While most of the world's attention is now fixated on the World Cup in Brazil, the lesser-known sport of horseback wrestling has been grabbing headlines in Kazakhstan.
Asia's first horseback wrestling championships were held near Astana, Kazakhstan's glitzy capital, on June 15. A total of 35 wrestlers from Central Asia and beyond took part in fast and furious tussles: bouts can be over in less than 10 seconds. The rules of audaryspak, as the sport is called in Kazakh, are simple – there are two guys on horseback and the object is to be the first to wrestle your opponent to the ground.
Kazakhstan took gold in all three weight categories – Yermek Zhapishev prevailed in the 70 kg class, Syrym Izbasarov won the 70-90 kg class, and the 90 kg and above category was taken by Birzhan Kosaliyev. Competitors from China, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia and Uzbekistan filled the other places on the podium.
The horseback grappling-fest was organized by Kazakhstan's Association of National Sports and was sponsored by President Nursultan Nazarbayev's politcal party Nur Otan. Samruk-Kazyna, the nation's cash-rich sovereign wealth fund, was another sponsor. Kossaliyev, winner of the 90 kg and above class, took home a Toyota car and a check for a million tenge ($5,448).
Audaryspak, which originated on the Central Asian steppe in the times when the horse was king and fighting abilities were paramount, is now enjoying a contemporary renaissance, spreading its reach into Hungary, Russia, Afghanistan, Mongolia, Azerbaijan, and China, where the next championships are to be held in 2016.
The Canadian company operating Kyrgyzstan’s troubled Kumtor gold mine has announced that a shutdown will not happen. A last-minute agreement appears to end a period of brinksmanship between Kyrgyz officials and company representatives that could have pushed the country’s shaky economy over the edge.
Toronto-listed Centerra Gold threatened on June 2 to start implementing a shutdown plan at close of business on June 13, if it did not receive government approval for its annual work plan. Centerra executives said they had been seeking approval since late last year.
The company – Kyrgyzstan’s largest investor – said that “despite repeated submissions and discussions with senior officials,” the company remained in limbo, unable to receive the necessary permits to operate until Bishkek signed off on the work plan.
Environmental concerns were one reason for the hold-up: the State Agency for Environmental Protection had voiced misgivings that the company’s plans could damage the Davydov Glacier high up in the Tian Shan Mountains, where the mine is located.
Centerra Gold warned that “an extended shutdown […] would likely have a material adverse impact on the Kumtor mine and the Company’s operations, future cash flows, earnings, results of operations and financial condition.”
Astana is abolishing visa requirements for citizens of 10 countries with a strong track record of investing in Kazakhstan, President Nursultan Nazarbayev has announced.
The visa-free countries are France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, the Netherlands, South Korea, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and the United States, Nazarbayev told a June 12 gathering of the Foreign Investors Council at the lake resort of Burabay, to the north of Astana.
The visa-free system is expected to go into effect on July 15 and initially be in force for a pilot period of one year, Rapil Zhoshibayev, the deputy foreign minister, later explained. Citizens of 10 designated countries can stay in Kazakhstan without visas for 15 days; anyone needing to stay longer would be required to apply for business or investor visas.
Astana is also mulling simplifying the visa process with the introduction of online applications for tourists from China, India and Middle Eastern states, Aset Ishekeshev, the minister of industry and new technologies, announced on June 16.
The visa-free regime is part of a package of investment perks that Nazarbayev signed into law on June 12, which also includes tax breaks.
The perks are part of a push by Astana to attract investment, especially outside the extractive sectors. They are part of the government’s strategy to diversify the economy away from oil and gas, upon which it is heavily reliant at present.
With no teams from Central Asia making it to the 2014 World Cup finals, set to kick off tomorrow in Brazil, local interest again will focus on the man in the middle, Uzbekistan's top referee Ravshan Irmatov.
Tashkent-based Irmatov, 36, won plaudits for his smooth handling of five high-pressure matches in South Africa in 2010, including the opening game and the semi-final between The Netherlands and Uruguay. He returned home a hero and was anointed the Pride Of Uzbekistan, the state's highest honor.
Irmatov will be joined in Brazil by two assistant referees from Central Asia—Bakhadyr Kochkarov, 44, another South Africa veteran who hails from Osh, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan's Abdukhamidullo Rasulov, 38, who is making his first World Cup appearance. The three work as football instructors at home and are the only officials from the former Soviet Union presiding in Brazil (Russia’s team is competing).
The Central Asian troika will need to be on the ball to avoid repeating gaffes the group made at last year's Confederations Cup tournament also in Brazil. There, Irmatov allowed Italy a controversial goal in its match with Brazil. He initially blew for a foul and was seen pointing at the penalty spot but then allowed play to continue and Giorgio Chiellini scored for the Italians.
Irmatov accepted the goal but later admitted it should not have been allowed, that he should have stuck with the decision to give a penalty. In the same match, Rasulov and Kochkarov were both faulted for failing to spot offside goals scored by Brazil.
Gazprom was supposed to end Kyrgyzstan’s gas shortages and contract disputes with its neighbors. Instead, since the Russian energy giant took control of Kyrgyzstan’s bankrupt gas company almost two months ago, the country has faced one of its worst gas crises in memory.
The immediate cause of the shortage is Uzbekistan. The Uzbek state gas supplier, Uztransgaz, closed the taps on April 14, leaving an estimated 60,000 households in southern Kyrgyzstan without gas. Kyrgyz leaders are now proposing solutions that are likely to get Uzbekistan’s attention, but could prove risky.
The problem appears to have started on a technicality: Shortly before Kyrgyzgaz handed control of its debt-ridden gas network to Gazprom, its supply contract with Uzbekistan ran out. Uztransgaz agreed to add two more weeks, to April 15, but who were they supposed to negotiate with? The now-defunct Kyrgyzgaz? Gazprom? Gazprom’s new local subsidiary Kyrgyzgazprom?
That question lingers, but after almost two months it sounds like the Uzbeks are not keen to talk.
Deputy Prime Minister Valery Dil says he has tried multiple times to reach his Uzbek counterparts, yet they ignore him. Prime Minister Djoomart Otorbaev has also complained he can't get anyone in Tashkent to take his calls.
Rakhat Aliyev, the former son-in-law of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, has been arrested in Vienna seven years after fleeing Kazakhstan following a spectacular fall-out with his father-in-law.
The arrest of Aliyev, who has been convictedin absentia in Kazakhstan on charges ranging from kidnapping and embezzlement to plotting a coup d’etat against Nazarbayev, was reported by Austria’s APA news agency on June 6.
The report did not specify on what charges Aliyev – the former husband of Nazarbayev’s eldest daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva – had been detained, but noted that Austria opened a murder investigation against him in July 2011.
That came a month after Kazakhstan announced that Aliyev was facing a murder rap in absentia after evidence emerged “irrefutably proving” he had killed two bankers who disappeared in 2007.
Prosecutors said after finding the bodies of Zholdas Timraliyev and Aybar Khasenov four years after their disappearance that the men had been tortured, suffocated, put in barrels and hidden in a gorge outside Almaty, Kazakhstan’s commercial capital.
Aliyev – who held a string of high-powered posts in Nazarbayev’s administration and controlled a vast business empire – was serving as ambassador to Austria when the scandal over the bankers’ disappearance broke. He never returned to Kazakhstan.
He was later convicted in absentia of kidnapping the bankers, among other charges, and sentenced to 40 years in jail.