A long-running conflict between Latvian banker Valeri Belokon and the government of Kyrgyzstan seems to be heading toward its denouement.
In an interview with EurasiaNet.org, Belokon said an arbitration hearing was scheduled for late December in Paris to resolve his dispute with Kyrgyz authorities. The legal tussle stems from the Kyrgyz government’s takeover of Manas Bank following the 2010 ouster of former Kyrgyz president Kurmanbek Bakiyev. “There should be a decision not too long after that,” Belokon said, referring to the hearing.
Belokon was the owner of Kyrgyzstan-based Manas Bank at the time of the 2010 Kyrgyz upheaval. Kyrgyz authorities who took over from Bakiyev subsequently took control of the bank and opened a criminal case against Belokon, alleging that he assisted the former president’s son, Maxim Bakiyev, in laundering money and improperly shipping assets out of the country. Belokon countered by seeking damages via international arbitration for what he contends was the improper seizure of his bank.
The Latvian banker vigorously denies the criminal allegations against him. He acknowledges that he had business relations with Maxim Bakiyev, but insists their dealings were confined to the operations of Latvia-based Maval Aktivi AS, a holding company in which the duo were partners. “I was open with everything we did,” Belokon said. He stressed that he and the younger Bakiyev did not have any offshore dealings.
Some rare good news from the Aral Sea, Central Asia’s most infamous manmade environmental disaster: Efforts to save the northern part of the sea have notched up a success. The water is getting ever closer to the town of Aral, which once stood on the seashore but was left high and dry when the sea started steadily shrinking in the 1960s.
At one point the waters retreated 74 kilometers from the town (formerly called Aralsk) as the rivers feeding the inland sea were diverted by Soviet central planners to Central Asia's thirsty cotton and rice fields.
“This means the sea is returning,” he said in remarks quoted by Kazinform. “This data has been proven by satellite observation.”
Efforts to restore the fish population are also bearing fruit. At one point there was only one type of fish left in the waters, Kusherbayev said, but now there are 22. Salinity levels have dropped from 34 grams per liter to eight.
The recovery of the Northern Aral Sea has been brought about by a 13-kilometer dike that opened in 2005, an ambitious project that cost $86 million, of which $64.5 million came from a World Bank loan.
One of Kazakhstan’s few remaining opposition leaders has announced that he is quitting politics, a move that comes amid Astana’s ongoing crackdown on dissent and leaves a dearth of dissenting voices in the country.
Bolat Abilov said in a statement quoted by Tengri News on September 19 that he had taken the “difficult decision” to leave politics (at least for a few years) and concentrate on media, movie and book projects around Kazakhstan.
Abilov, one of the country’s most prominent opposition leaders, had been head of the Azat (Freedom) party, which was in a prickly alliance with the OSDP social democrats. That union collapsed earlier this year amid much acrimony, with OSDP leader Zharmakhan Tuyakbay falling out publicly with his deputy, Amirzhan Kosanov, leaving the party in tatters.
Abilov’s departure from politics and the collapse of the OSDP Azat alliance mean that Kazakhstan now has no genuine, functioning opposition parties to take on the difficult job of holding President Nursultan Nazarbayev to account.
The opposition has always struggled to operate in Kazakhstan’s restrictive environment, where it is shut out of the rubber-stamp parliament and has little access to mainstream media, but until a couple of years ago it was given limited room for maneuver.
All that changed after a bout of fatal unrest in December 2011, when an oil strike in the western town of Zhanaozen turned violent and 15 people died in clashes with the security forces.
Kyrgyzstan’s intelligence service has declared that it has foiled a terror plot with links reaching into Syria, which allegedly provided a training ground for three suspects now under arrest.
The State National Security Committee (known by its Russian acronym, GKNB) said in a statement on September 16 that it detained the three – two citizens of Kyrgyzstan and one of neighboring Kazakhstan – in late August in the southern city of Osh. The GKNB pointed out, with its typical dearth of detail, that the arrests happened in the run-up to a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Bishkek on September 13, but did not say why it is only now revealing the plot.
The GKNB said the three are members of Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), which is listed as a terrorist organization by the US government. The group was sent from Syria, where it had been fighting on the side of the rebels in the civil war, to Kyrgyzstan to commit “acts of sabotage and terrorism” in Bishkek and Osh, the GKNB said.
Two of the suspects were named by media as Sardor Rakhmonov and Mazhit Abdullayev, originally of Osh. The citizen of Kazakhstan – who has not been identified – has testified that the three trained in a militant camp in Syria, Tengri News reported, quoting the GKNB’s press service.
Kazakhstan's love-struck Romeos have a new way to demonstrate their affections. A romantic not content with mere flowers and chocolates can now order a mock attack that makes his loved one feel threatened – and then step in to save his damsel in distress.
“It’s a question of staged attacks during which the man, supposedly defending his girl, repels the bandits and becomes the hero,” reports Tengri News.
The Cupid behind the scenes is Almaty student Alan Temirbayev. He was inspired after impressing his girlfriend with his macho style during a real-life assault two years ago.
“We have special effects, shots, whatever you want can be done,” the brains of the operation said. “It’s essential to make it all look natural, so that the girl is frightened and the guy sees them all off.”
Temirbayev says the business is a hobby rather than a money-spinner: He charges $50-$300 to stage one of the 15 attack scenarios in his repertoire. So far he has carried out 15 mock attacks in Almaty, mostly for students. But his clients have also included schoolchildren and men over 30. He says word has spread through social networks and the “bush telegraph.”
The enterprising student puts the popularity of his scheme down to its originality. “It’s not about giving flowers or an expensive telephone – this is a real action,” Temirbayev enthused, apparently without irony.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has opened his wallet to the tune of tens of billions of dollars on his four-nation tour of Central Asia this month, didn’t run out of money before he arrived in Kyrgyzstan. Beijing has offered Bishkek a much-needed cash infusion reportedly totaling about $3 billion.
During his trip, Xi helped inaugurate the world’s second-biggest natural gas field, in Turkmenistan, which will help triple China’s imports from what is already its largest foreign supplier. In Kazakhstan, he reportedly signed energy deals worth $30 billion. In Uzbekistan, AFP reported $15 billion in vague energy and mining deals.
In resource-poor Kyrgyzstan, Economics Minister Temir Sariev said Beijing’s credits and investments would total $3 billion. About half will be used to build a 225-kilometer pipeline across the country for the Turkmen gas, from which Kyrgyzstan will eventually receive transit fees.
The package announced on September 11 includes a loan to build a new highway connecting Kyrgyzstan’s north and south, KyrTAG reports, citing Sariev, a $400 million loan to modernize the ailing Bishkek heating plant, and $400 million toward a long-delayed Chinese-built oil refinery. There’s even a promise to open a hospital specializing in Chinese medicine.
Kyrgyzstan’s largest investor has announced a tentative deal that would end months of gridlock over one of the country’s most valuable assets.
In a statement posted on its website September 9, Toronto-based Centerra Gold said
it had entered a “non-binding memorandum of understanding” with Bishkek that would see the Kyrgyz government trade its 32.7 percent interest in Centerra, plus $100 million in future profits, for a 50 percent stake in a joint venture that would own and operate the Kumtor gold mine. Kumtor, which has yielded about 270 tons of gold since 1997, is Centerra’s most productive mine.
In February, Kyrgyzstan’s parliament passed a resolution that required the government to negotiate a more lucrative deal with Centerra or unilaterally revoke the 2009 operating agreement. That resolution came on the back of efforts by some opposition figures to nationalize the mine.
This past weekend, I had the chance to host a discussion aimed at forecasting Central Asia’s geopolitical prospects in the coming years. It won’t come as a surprise to many that the consensus prognosis was generally glum with occasional periods of unrestrained pessimism.
The discussion was part of the Riga Conference 2013, an annual event in the Latvian capital that attracts political movers and shakers from OSCE member states. Given the pending withdrawal of US and NATO troops in Afghanistan, Central Asia garnered lots of attention at this year’s Riga conference.
Joining me in the discussion were Damon Wilson, the executive vice president of the Atlantic Council in Washington, and Jos Boonstra, a senior researcher at FRIDE and the head of the EUCAM program.
You can watch the 30-minute discussion here.
Editor's note: Justin Burke is the executive editor of Eurasianet.
As Chinese President Xi Jinping continued his tour of Central Asia in Kazakhstan on September 7, Beijing and Astana were set to sign a raft of lucrative business deals that will further boost China’s presence in its hydrocarbon-rich neighbor’s energy sector.
Key among them was a deal giving China’s state energy company, CNPC, a stake in the super-giant Kashagan oilfield, which is about to start commercial production. The agreement, announced in July, is a coup for CNPC, which usurped India’s ONGC Videsh to acquire a stake put up for sale by Houston-based ConocoPhillips.
Under the deal, CNPC will pay approximately $5 billion for an 8.33 percent share in the consortium developing the field, which also includes Kazakhstan’s state energy company KazMunayGaz (KMG); oil majors ExxonMobil, Shell, Total, and Eni; and Japan’s INPEX.
The agreement cements China’s grip on oil and gas resources in Kazakhstan (where it already controls around a quarter of oil output) just as Kashagan is about to come on stream after years of delays. On September 7 KMG head Sauat Mynbayev said commercial production would start in three to four weeks.
Mynbayev also unveiled what Kazakhstan stands to gain: CNPC will dig deep to finance half of KMG’s investment obligations in Kashagan, and it will also build a pipeline plant and an industrial center to produce equipment for the oil industry.
In a rare piece of good news for Central Asian labor migrants, Astana has announced that it is easing migration regulations to allow some of the thousands of workers from neighboring states toiling underground in Kazakhstan to come out of the shadows.
The government plans to simplify the procedure by which individual citizens of Kazakhstan can hire foreign workers by the end of this year, an official said on September 6.
The Interior Ministry has drawn up a bill that “substantially simplifies the recruitment of foreign workers by individuals,” Serik Sainov, head of the ministry’s Migration Policy Department, explained in remarks quoted by Tengri News.
Once the bill is passed by parliament, a Kazakh citizen and a foreign laborer can simply sign a contract, and the laborer can then apply to the migration police for a one-year work permit.
This measure will benefit the government by improving tax receipts, but it will also boost the rights of thousands of labor migrants currently working underground as they attempt to circumvent complicated migration procedures. It will apply to thousands of female migrants working as domestic help or nannies, for example, offering them the opportunity to acquire legal status.
Oil-rich Kazakhstan is a magnet for labor migrants from poorer neighbors such as Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Some work legally, some work underground, and some are trafficked against their will.