As Kazakhstan marked the one-year anniversary of fatal violence in Zhanaozen on December 16, opposition activists gathered in Almaty to lay wreaths to commemorate those who died at the hands of police last December.
Officials from the administration of President Nursultan Nazarbayev made no mention of the deaths that occurred when security forces opened fire on unarmed protestors during last year’s Independence Day festivities, which were intended as a triumphant celebration of 20 years of sovereignty under Nazarbayev’s leadership.
The mood in Zhanaozen, a run-down town in western Kazakhstan that was the focal point of a protracted strike in the oil sector that was the catalyst for the violence, was “quiet but angry” ahead of the anniversary, Radio Free Europe reported.
Nazarbayev’s administration has spent 2012 trying to put the violence in which at least 15 civilians were killed (most were shot; one died following torture in police custody) behind it. A series of trials this year have brought jail terms for protestors, police, former officials and a prominent opposition leader.
President Vladimir Putin’s state-of-the-nation address today is being parsed for details on how he proposes to protect Russia’s "national and spiritual identity," boost the economy and military, and what, if anything, he plans to do about Russia’s runaway corruption.
But two comments in particular will interest Central Asia watchers.
There will be no more crossing from former Soviet republics into Russia without an international passport, Putin declared about halfway through the speech:
We still have a practice that the citizens of CIS states enter the Russian Federation using their domestic passports. […] In such circumstances, when the citizens of other countries enter using their domestic passports, it is almost impossible to ensure effective immigration control. I believe that no later than 2015 entry to Russia should be allowed only with the use of foreign-travel [passports], not the domestic passports of other countries.
("Domestic passports" are the main form of internal ID used in most former Soviet republics.)
So, by 2015 the millions of migrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus traveling to Russia for work will have a new hurdle to jump over.
But a few minutes later, Putin flags an exception:
However, without a doubt, within the framework of the Customs Union and the Common Economic Space the ... current system will continue to apply – maximally simplified rules for crossing the border and staying on the territory of member countries of the Customs Union and the Common Economic Space.
Kazakhstan is closing down places of worship as a controversial law on religion takes effect.
The state is enforcing closures of religious communities through the courts, Oslo-based religious freedom watchdog Forum 18 reports: Sometimes “liquidation decisions are arbitrary and flawed, often taken amid questionable legal procedures.”
The shutdowns come after a deadline passed this October for all religious groups to reregister, established by a law governing religious affairs adopted in 2011. Forum 18 said religious communities had complained that the reregistration process was “complex,” “burdensome,” “arbitrary,” “unnecessary,” and “expensive.”
The watchdog has recorded the closures of “many Muslim and Christian religious communities.” One group, south Kazakhstan’s Light of the World Pentecostal Church, was abolished for giving “false information” in its application because one of its founders died while it was applying to reregister. Representatives of one independent mosque told Forum 18 it had been closed for “failing to give extensive information about its beliefs” during a court hearing of which it was unaware. Members of a Protestant church wishing to remain anonymous put the closure of their group down to its membership being “predominantly made up of ethnic Kazakhs.” (Most ethnic Kazakhs are Muslims.) Officials at the government Religious Affairs Agency declined to comment to Forum 18.
When the reregistration deadline passed in October, Kayrat Lama Sharif, chairman of the Religious Affairs Agency, said the number of recognized religious communities had been slashed from 4,551 to 3,088, and the number of faiths recognized by the state reduced by about 60 percent, from 46 to 17.
A military conscript accused of a massacre at a border unit near Kazakhstan’s frontier with China has been found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Vladislav Chelakh was found guilty on nine charges including murder, desertion, stealing weapons, and damaging military property on December 11, Bnews.kz reported. His conviction followed a month-long trial during which he has displayed erratic behavior.
Chelakh, now 20, was arrested following a May massacre at the Arkankergen border unit in southeastern Kazakhstan. When military officials investigated after losing contact with the remote post, they found 15 people dead, Chelakh’s fellow border guards and one national park ranger. The border unit had been set on fire in an apparent attempt to conceal the crime.
Chelakh was found hiding in the forest and confessed, saying that military hazing had made him “flip.” He later recanted his confession, saying he had been pressured, and testified at the trial that his post had been attacked by “serious people” in civilian clothes. He said he had fled in terror and burned down the border post to conceal evidence in fear that his story would not be believed.
After 11 years of negotiations, Tajikistan is set to join the World Trade Organization (WTO) within the next few months.
President Emomali Rakhmon was in Geneva on Monday to sign a package of membership agreements that commit Dushanbe to opening its markets and standardizing import tariffs. Tajikistan’s rubberstamp parliament must ratify membership by June 7, 2013. The country will become a WTO member 30 days after ratification, making it the trade body’s 159th member.
“Today constitutes a landmark in Tajikistan's history and lays solid foundations for further promotion of sustainable social and economic growth,” Rakhmon said at the signing ceremony. “Tajikistan will use its WTO membership as a means of fostering future economic growth and prosperity.”
According to the WTO, Tajikistan ranks 143 globally in exports of goods (approximately $2 billion in 2010) and 140 ($2.7 billion) in imports, and trades primarily with China, the EU, Russia, other Central Asian countries, and Turkey.
In Dushanbe, one analyst affiliated with the president’s office hailed accession. By forcing Tajikistan to modernize its legislation, membership will help attract international investors, Saifullo Safarov, deputy director of the Center for Strategic Studies under the President, told Russia’s Nezavisimaya Gazeta.
But a Russian analyst said Dushanbe has sought membership out of its desire for prestige, rather than economic interests.
Authorities in Kyrgyzstan say they have detained the country’s most-wanted criminal kingpin. But contradictory stories about his arrest are already prompting questions. A slippery figure the US government calls a “significant foreign narcotics trafficker,” Kamchybek Kolbayev has enjoyed ambiguous relations with Kyrgyz authorities for years.
Kolbayev turned himself in at 5:00 am Saturday, a Supreme Court press release said today. A Court spokesperson told EurasiaNet.org that Kolbayev has been charged with a variety of crimes, including organizing a criminal group, narcotics possession, kidnapping, and illegal possession of firearms. Yet the State Committee on National Security (GKNB), which is holding Kolbayev, told EurasiaNet.org he has not been charged and is being held in temporary confinement for one month while investigators consider their options. The Prosecutor General’s office refused to comment.
That Kolbayev, who had been living in the United Arab Emirates, would surrender is surprising. He’d been fingered in just about every conversation about organized crime since the family of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev fled during a bloody uprising in April 2010. With the family’s departure, Kolbayev was believed to have lost his cover, or krysha as they call it in Russian, his “roof.”
Last week, Kyrgyz-language newspaper Uchur reported that Kolbayev had flown back into Kyrgyzstan unmolested and had headed straight for his native Issyk-Kul region.
American government statements on human rights in Central Asia tend to be pretty tepid, especially when they focus on countries necessary for transit routes into and out of Afghanistan.
A December 6 speech by Hillary Rodham Clinton, the US Secretary of State, was not much different, though she did single out the region for attention as part of what she called wider backsliding on human rights in the former Soviet world.
I just met with a group of the Civil Society Solidarity Platform leaders from a number of member states. They talked to me about the growing challenges and dangers that they are facing, about new restrictions on human rights from governments, new pressures on journalists, new assaults on NGOs. And I urge all of us to pay attention to their concerns.
For example, in Belarus, the Government continues to systematically repress human rights, detain political prisoners, and intimidate journalists. In Ukraine, the elections in October were a step backwards for democracy, and we remain deeply concerned about the selective prosecution of opposition leaders. In Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan, there are examples of the restrictions of the freedom of expression online and offline as well as the freedom of religion. In the Caucasus, we see constraints on judicial independence, attacks on journalists, and elections that are not always free and fair.
Clinton was speaking at an OSCE Ministerial Council meeting in Dublin (all five Central Asian states are OSCE members). She didn’t get into details on Central Asia, so here’s a quick recap of recent events:
--In Tajikistan, authorities have been blocking websites critical of President Emomali Rakhmon and his military’s violent assault on the Gorno-Badakhshan region this summer.
Respublika has been suspended by the courts, but published last week under the name Azat (Freedom). Photo: EurasiaNet.org
A prominent Kazakh opposition party, Alga!, and outspoken media outlets are fighting a legal battle against a bid to shut them down. They say authorities are attempting to muzzle dissident voices in Kazakhstan.
The move to close Alga! -- whose leader Vladimir Kozlov is serving a jail term for allegedly inciting fatal unrest in Zhanaozen last December, which he denies -- has become bogged down in a legal paradox: Alga! has been arguing in court that it cannot be closed because it does not exist, since the authorities have for years refused to register it and make it legal. Alga!’s case has been adjourned to December 11.
One media outlet, the Stan TV Internet television station, has already been ordered to close by a court, which on December 4 declared its output “illegal,” Kazakhstan’s Adil Soz media watchdog reported.
Three brothers of a journalist murdered in 2007 have been attacked outside their Bishkek home, Fergananews reports. One of the suspected assailants is the nephew of a prominent member of Kyrgyzstan's parliament.
Journalist Shokhrukh Saipov and students Ozodbek and Yusuf Saipov are younger brothers of Alisher Saipov, a well-known ethnic Uzbek journalist and editor who was gunned down outside the offices of his paper, "Siyosat" (Politics), in Osh on October 24, 2007.
Saipov’s murder has never been solved, and many regional experts believe Uzbekistan's secret services played a role. Saipov, who was 26 at the time of his death, was often critical of the regime of Islam Karimov in Tashkent.
Journalists and rights activists across the region are outraged at the attack on his brothers. Shokhrukh was inspired to become a journalist when Kyrgyz authorities failed to investigate his brother’s murder. He was also attacked in Osh in August 2011.
Aziza Abdurasulova, head of Kylym Shamy, a human rights watchdog in Bishkek, said Shokhrukh and Yusuf required medical care. Shokhrukh was beaten so badly he was unable to speak. They intend to press charges, she said.
Bishkek police have arrested Azamat Tekebayev, nephew of the head of the Ata-Meken party, MP Omurbek Tekebayev, as a suspect. It’s unclear what the motive was. Azamat and an accomplice, who has also been detained, say both sides started the fight.
The blackouts usually start this time of year. As the temperature drops and the days get shorter, Central Asia’s aging energy infrastructure struggles to keep up, leaving residents cold and in the dark.
When the region was managed by Moscow and was not divided by international borders, upstream, water-rich Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan would produce hydropower in the summer, and receive gas from downstream Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in the winter. The five independent countries still trade, begrudgingly. But as they bicker, the system is falling apart.
Kazakhstan is again talking about withdrawing from the system altogether, Business New Europe reports, blaming Uzbekistan for deviously siphoning off electricity from the regional grid. Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are experiencing vast shortages. From BNE:
Uzbekistan has introduced rolling electricity blackouts across the country, with the power turned off for one or two hours a day in Tashkent and until 6pm in other cities. Rural areas are receiving no electricity at all, and many towns have no heating. In addition to the electricity shortage, a lack of gasoline has resulted in mile-long queues at petrol stations, and cutbacks to public transport.
Kyrgyzstan is also struggling to supply its population with heat and electricity, which has caused the country to cut its electricity exports to both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Kyrgyzstan cut electricity generation in September to conserve water in its reservoirs, resulting in a fall in electricity exports of over 1bn kWh to 1.5bn kWh.
The start of the heating season has put further pressure on Kyrgyzstan's energy sector, with gas imports from Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan having been cut due to the debts run up by the struggling government.