With the first day of campaigning over, candidates in Kazakhstan's April 3 presidential election are already pleading poverty and complaining that they may be unable to get their messages out.
Environmental activist Mels Eleusizov, one of the four candidates in the running, says that although he has more than enough electioneering experience, he is still sorely lacking in materials: "I am not quite prepared yet, I need all kinds of things: advertising videos, newspaper articles, photographs. I just haven't been able to get it all ready in such a short time."
The campaign spending limit is around half a billion Kazakh tenge ($3.4 million). "If someone wants to help, I have opened a bank account, now I'm going to deal with this,” he says suggestively.
Eleusizov says he is losing sleep over how little time he has left, but then tries to reassure supporters by saying it would be no disaster if he only began election activities halfway into the campaign period. In any case, since he freely acknowledges that he only aspires to 5 percent of the vote, he can get working at his leisure.
Violins are also playing over in the Communist People's Party of Kazakhstan camp, which has nominated Zhambyl Akhmetbekov. Akhmetbekov is pinning his hopes on party supporters volunteering their services free-of-charge and says his campaign has got just about enough money to produce campaign posters.
As campaigning begins today for Kazakhstan’s presidential election, incumbent Nursultan Nazarbayev faces only three weak challengers and is guaranteed a landslide victory. That’s going to make for a drab campaign season, especially since Nazarbayev himself is so sure of victory that he’s not campaigning. But activists are taking advantage of social media outlets to try and liven up the campaign.
The We Need Change! Facebook group, which was set up only two days ago, already has 232 members who are vigorously debating whether or not to boycott a vote that has a foregone conclusion.
Amid an opposition boycott of the election, Nazarbayev’s challengers are viewed mainly as stalking horses – as in the case of Senator Gani Kasymov, leader of the Party of Patriots, and Zhambyl Akhmetbekov, leader of the Communist People’s Party of Kazakhstan. The fourth candidate, Mels Eleusizov, heads the Tabigat environmental movement and is standing to put green issues on the agenda. Four other candidates failed to pass the registration process, and three stepped down of their own accord.
That narrow field may please some satirists who posted an ironic video on YouTube last month. Set to the Russian children’s song Antoshka, the video calls for tighter requirements for presidential candidates in order to reduce their numbers.
Uzbek-Kyrgyz babies: What could be a better way to build peace in pogrom-torn southern Kyrgyzstan?
The Soviets gave women “hero mother” awards for having lots of children. Vladimir Putin organizes camps where young Russians learn to be healthy, sexually active patriots.
Now, with a nod toward a Benetton commercial, amateur eugenicists in Osh Province -- actually, a handful of local officials -- have proposed a new technique to make Uzbeks and Kyrgyz friends again: inter-ethnic marriages. And with the marriages, we can assume, should arrive a generation of children a little more tolerant than their parents’.
Of course, mixed marriages aren’t new in the region. But many took a blow during the ethnic unrest last summer, when 400 people died and hundreds of thousands fled. Resentments still abound and it seems the tensions could explode into more bloodletting at any moment.
That’s what makes this initiative, however small and quixotic, special. Framed as a means to get any teachers to marry, officials promise to pay 20,000 som (about $420) to newlyweds from the poverty-racked profession and a whopping 100,000 som for every union between Uzbek and Kyrgyz teachers.
Baby steps, perhaps, but hopefully toward a lasting peace.
The inevitability of Kyrgyzstan caving in and joining the Russia-dominated Customs Union is looming ever larger on the horizon.
Speaking in Brussels this week, President Roza Otunbayeva may have issued her most explicit position on the issue to date.
Joining the Customs Union “is highly important to us. Or rather, you could say that they are pulling us in, because everything produced in Kyrgyzstan is aimed at the markets of Kazakhstan and Russia. Moreover, our labor and capital is oriented in exactly that direction.”
Kyrgyzstan has until now thrived on being a transit nation through which cheap Chinese goods could be re-exported. Since both Kyrgyzstan and China are members of the World Trade Organization, the former benefitted to an extent, according to Otunbayeva.
As she then ruefully notes, with the appearance of the fenced-off Customs Union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, there is no longer anywhere to send these goods:
“With the existence of the Customs Union, the door to Kazakhstan is closing firmly and so membership for us has become an issue. It would be good if Russia could also join the WTO as soon as possible.”
Curiously, this puts opponents to Russia’s WTO membership in a key position to affect the fate of struggling nations, like Kyrgyzstan and another potential Customs Union aspirant, Tajikistan.
The consensus that joining the Customs Union is a must has become common among Kyrgyz politicians, although some experts have warned against it.
Kazakhstan’s presidential election on April 3 is set to be a non-event as incumbent leader Nursultan Nazarbayev breezes back into office. Analysts predict he’ll get well over 90 percent of the vote. Campaigning, which begins on March 3, also looks set to be a dull affair in the absence of any real opposition challengers.
Most of those standing against Nazarbayev are stalking horses, but one of them has decided to liven up the proceedings by first demanding that the president give him $100 million, and then dropping out of the race in a huff – or at least the pretense of one.
Zhaksybay Bazilbayev, a little-known anti-corruption campaigner, is most famous for standing against Nazarbayev in elections in 1999 and 2005 but dropping out ahead of the vote to call on his supporters to back the incumbent. In this election, however, he decided Nazarbayev owed him a favor in return – in fact, Bazilbayev claimed the president owed him $100 million for giving Nazarbayev a clear run for the top job on two previous occasions, the Gazeta.kz media portal reported.
The presidential administration, Akorda, failed to respond to Bazilbayev’s appeals, so on March 1 he went public, asking for his money back – and threatening to step down from the race unless Nazarbayev did.
Justice is relative in southern Kyrgyzstan. But blame seems to be absolute.
The murder of a tax official has set off a protest with frightening parallels to events preceding ethnic violence last summer.
Sagynbek Alimbayev, the deputy head of the regional tax service, was found dead February 23 in a brand-new Lexus sedan with a gunshot wound to the chest. Two days later, local authorities said they had arrested the culprits, three ethnic Uzbeks, who had allegedly acted on orders from a businessman in Uzbekistan.
Employing the kind of mob justice that has replaced courts here, several hundred Kyrgyz rioted in the southern town of Nookat on March 1 and burned down a house or three that, they say, belong to the killers.
As police dispersed the rioters, taxman Alimbayev’s son Nurbek did his part to keep hostilities ablaze. He announced, improbably, that the murder was carried out on order of the elusive, exiled enemy number one: Kadyrjan Batyrov. A wealthy businessman from Jalal-Abad, Batyrov had called last spring for Uzbeks to have greater representation in government, but not, independent investigators have found, much more. Yet he is constantly blamed for sparking the ethnic violence that left at least 400 dead.
Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon's busy son has been given yet another job.
According to a report on Russian news wire Regnum (via TojNews), Rustam Emomali will head a government department fighting customs violations as part of an ongoing effort to combat smuggling.
Emomali, who turned 23 in December, already leads a government entrepreneurship promotion agency, sits on the political council of the ruling People's Democratic Party, and is deputy chairman of the Youth Union of Tajikistan, a successor to the Soviet-era Komsomol youth league.
And he's a Dushanbe city parliament deputy and the vice president of the football federation. That just about leaves him time to play as an attacker for the league-winning, Dushanbe-based Istiqol (“Independence”) football club.
Some in Tajikistan may cynically suggest that the government's sudden enthusiasm for stamping out smuggling may be part of the Rakhmon family's desire to ensure their reputedly monopolistic grip on many areas of the country's economy.
Working in government is a family business in Tajikistan. Rakhmon's daughter, Ozoda, is currently serving as deputy foreign minister. Her husband, Dzhamoliddin Nuraliyev, works down the road as deputy minister in the Finance Ministry.
While he is positioning Rustam as a possible successor, the president may want to ask Hosni and Muammar if they have any regrets.
By shutting its border with Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan has imposed a “catastrophic” de facto embargo, stimulating a shadow economy in the beleaguered Central Asian state, say researchers at a Bishkek-based think tank.
The Central Asian Free Market Institute (CAFMI) found a 75 percent drop in trade at southern Kyrgyzstan’s largest market since Tashkent unilaterally closed the border following the upheaval that unseated the Kyrgyz president last April.
The closure has also pushed up food prices -- which have risen more in Kyrgyzstan this year than anywhere else according to the World Bank -- since Uzbekistan traditionally was a major supplier of fruits and vegetables to Kyrgyzstan.
But the 1100-kilometer border is open for smuggling, entrenching corruption as the arbiter of economic activity. In interviews with 109 illegal smugglers, the researchers found that many of them ferry cheap Chinese consumer goods to Uzbekistan and fruits and vegetables back to Kyrgyzstan, paying border officials bribes along the way. (At the prices they found, it’s not a stretch to imagine drugs, weapons and even militants are also getting across.)
Along the entire […] border there are illegal paths by which goods transit from Kyrgyzstan into Uzbekistan and vice versa. At the moment, traders are forced to pay bribes to border guards along paths that bypass the border. Payment to the border guards is 200 som [$4] for every person crossing and 300 som [$6] for goods weighing up to 80 kg. […]
Lately it seems everyone in Kyrgyzstan has become a political forecaster, each with an opinion on when, and how, the dreaded “third revolution” will commence.
To help steer the country through volatile times ahead, the losers in last October’s parliamentary elections have appointed themselves in charge of a “shadow government,” which they claim, though those elections were hailed as the freest and fairest in Central Asian history less than five months ago, represents the true will of the people.
Promising a government of “professionals, people with a spotless reputation, youth,” (without specifying whence such saviors will hail) former Foreign Minister Alikbek Jekshenkulov declared himself prime minister of this “shadow government” on February 24.
“You know that, after the parliamentary elections, people’s expectations are not yet being met. Future successes are declared. And in order not to be passive observers, we have decided to switch to active political actions. During the last week of February we came to the decision to establish an alternative government and parliament. It’s a bold and rather daring step,” Jekshenkulov said.
It’s kind of him to offer, but voters already declined his help. Jekshenkulov’s Akyikat (Justice) Party came in twelfth place in the October polls with 0.8 percent of eligible votes nationwide.
“It is mandatory that we ensure the health of our citizens and the first thing we should do is carry out tests and prove that these drinks actually pose a health hazard,” MP Berik Bekzhanov told parliament on February 23.
Bekzhanov also suggests banning adverts for the drinks and strictly monitoring the import of beverages containing preservatives. He has singled out American Coca-Cola and Pepsi for particular opprobrium, describing them as “gradual destroyers of the body”:
“These dark brown blends of carcinogens, they are utterly unnatural, and can trigger cancer and lead to leukemia.”
On a more helpful note, Bekzhanov suggested making it obligatory for beverage producers to inform consumers about the presence of potentially harmful artificial sweeteners in their drinks.
By picking on well-known American brands, while failing to mention hugely popular and lower-priced, Soviet-era favorites such as Dyushes and Buratino -- or the many brands of beer available on the local market for that matter -- Bekzhanov could be leaving himself open to charges of tawdry populism.
He certainly has some experience on that front. As one of the leading cheerleaders of efforts in 2010 to have President Nursultan Nazarbayev appointed “leader of the nation,” Bekzhanov spared no energy in hailing the head of state’s achievements. This is what he had to say about Nazarbayev in a state-run Khabar news broadcast in October 2009 (via BBC Monitoring):