Thousands of protesters rallied in the city of Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan on December 2 to call for the release of opposition politician Akhmatbek Keldibekov, who was arrested on corruption charges on November 20.
They gave the authorities three days to free Keldibekov, a parliamentarian for the nationalist Ata-Jurt party, whose leader Kamchybek Tashiyev was recently convicted on charges of seeking to overthrow the government.
The Vecherniy Bishkek newspaper quoted police as saying that around 3,000 protesters turned out in Osh, but by evening police said most had dispersed, leaving around 100 people on Osh’s main square.
The demonstrators were mostly peaceful but some tried unsuccessfully to storm the regional administration building, Kloop reported. They also threatened to take the government’s representative in the region, Sooronbay Jeenbekov, hostage (he was whisked away by police). Sporadically over the past 10 days, Keldibekov’s supporters have blocked the highway from Osh to the Chinese border at Irkeshtam, an important trade crossing.
Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rakhmon has appointed his son to head the country’s Customs Service, the president’s website reported today. Many have long believed Rakhmon is grooming the 26-year-old Rustam Emomali to be his successor; today’s announcement will certainly cement those views.
Rakhmon held the first meeting of his new cabinet on November 30. The strongman, in his 21st year in power, dismissed the government earlier this month after winning a fourth term in a poll widely derided as farcical. Rakhmon regularly reshuffles senior leaders in a process that ensures few others gain significant power or build strong patronage networks.
For almost three years, the younger Emomali had been deputy head of the Customs Service in charge of combatting smuggling. He has also served on the capital’s city council, worked at the State Committee for Investments and State Property Management and as deputy head of the national football federation, according to Asia-Plus. He is also a founder and part owner of Dushanbe’s Istiqlol Football Club.
For Kazakhs seeking religious enlightenment, a telephone hotline is now available to guide them toward god. Twenty-four hours a day, a dedicated team of specialists is on call to answer burning questions about the divine – and to ensure authorities are kept abreast.
On the surface the hotline – 114 – serves people with genuine inquiries about religious matters. But, says one of its government backers, it will also be useful for ratting on those who deviate from Kazakhstan's myriad restrictions on religious practice.
“Information about breaches of legislation in the religious sphere and illegal and destructive religious activities […] is forwarded to the law-enforcement bodies and departments for religious affairs of the akimats [local government offices] for investigation,” Yulia Denisenko, head of the Association of Centers for Victims of Destructive Religious Organizations, the government organization behind the hotline, told a media briefing in Astana on November 28.
Kazakhstan experienced its first suicide bombing in May 2011. Since then, terror-related incidents have left at least 67 dead, mostly suspects and law-enforcement officers. This September Astana announced a new state program to fight terrorism and extremism amid fears of growing links between homegrown radicals and international terror groups. Kazakhstan's intelligence services estimate around 100 Kazakh citizens are waging jihad in foreign countries.
Kazakhstan is marking the week leading up to First President’s Day on December 1 with public displays of affection for Nursultan Nazarbayev, the leader whom this public holiday – introduced last year – celebrates.
Fueling criticism that a cult of personality surrounds the president who has ruled independent Kazakhstan for 22 years, one Astana university organized a mass display of student adoration for the man who goes by the title Leader of the Nation.
“Supporting the Leader of the Nation!” chanted some 3,000 students from the Kazakh Humanities and Law University who turned out on November 28 to sing one of the president’s favorite songs and release red and white balloons into the sky against the backdrop of a giant banner showing the word “I” with a red heart followed by the words “Kazakhstan” and “Nazarbayev.”
The university administration insisted the event had all been the students’ idea, and they certainly looked as if they were having a good time on a video Radio Azattyk posted on YouTube.
Not to be outshone, the leaders of the nominal “opposition” in Kazakhstan’s pro-presidential rubberstamp parliament joined the outpouring of affection.
The Communist leader even took the unusual step of hailing the aggressive capitalist reforms of the early 1990s – normally anathema to any communist – that Nazarbayev oversaw when he reluctantly inherited Kazakhstan as an independent state in 1991 (a fact that modern-day official history tends to gloss over, preferring to depict this former leader of Soviet Kazakhstan as at the vanguard of the independence movement).
A fresh space spat has erupted between Astana and Moscow over the cost of environmental damage from a Russian rocket crash on the territory of Kazakhstan – and who will pay for it.
After totaling the environmental damage from the July crash of a Proton-M rocket after it blasted off from the Baikonur spaceport in central Kazakhstan, Astana sent Moscow a bill for $89 million earlier this month.
At one meeting of the bilateral group investigating the crash, officials from the Russian Federal Space Agency, known as Roskosmos, “declared their readiness to discuss compensation” for any environmental damage, Kazakhstan’s Environment Ministry said on November 22.
After receiving the bill, however, Russia does not look keen to cough up. “We have received the report about the total for the damage,” Russia’s Izvestiya daily quoted Sergey Gorbunov, head of the Roskosmos press service, as saying laconically on November 27. “The space agency will be conducting its own expert evaluation on this subject. Its aim is to assess the correctness of the calculations cited. It can be a question of paying compensation only for proven damage to the environment.”
Participants at an annual gathering of Kazakhstan’s journalist community have called for authorities to ease tight restrictions on freedom of the media.
Opposition leader Amirzhan Kosanov took the floor after a panel discussion in Almaty on November 27 to demand an end to what he described as de facto “censorship” and for dissident voices to be given access to the mainstream media. Kazakhstan’s opposition has long been marginalized from the media, and the situation has deteriorated since the courts last year closed down dozens of independent media outlets in the wake of late 2011's fatal unrest in western Kazakhstan.
The panel discussion at the sixth Media Kuryltay (“council” or “assembly”) pitted a government official against a prominent journalist who survived an assassination attempt that many observers suspect was linked to his outspoken reporting. The kuryltay offers a rare opportunity for an exchange of opinions between journalists reflecting all sides of Kazakhstan’s media spectrum – from strongly pro-government to staunch opposition – and bureaucrats from Astana.
Bolat Kalyanbekov, chairman of the Ministry of Culture’s Information and Archive Committee, offered a spirited defense of state media policy, pointing out that the government channels millions of tenge to the media every year. Lukpan Akhmedyarov of the regional Uralskaya Nedelya newspaper in northwestern Kazakhstan, who was lucky to survive a vicious attempt on his life last year, pointed out that the state might be throwing money at loyal elements of the media but this did not bring about greater media freedom.
Stories of women abandoned by migrating husbands are not hard to find in Tajikistan. It seems every family has a story about a young man who left to earn a living in Russia and never returned. The remittances trickle to a stop; the letters cease. Later the family might hear he’s remarried. Or wonder, forever fearing worse.
In conservative Tajikistan, few are eager to discuss these stories. But every month the Tajik migration service gets about 15 pleas for help from women requesting that Russia deport their sons, brothers or husbands, Radio Ozodi reports, citing an official spokesman. The women have also been appealing directly to Russian authorities.
“I heard from my sister-in-law that he [my husband] got married. [He] doesn’t send money to his kids. They should deport him. Maybe this will influence him to come back to his kids,” Mokhru Kholova, who says her husband Olim left her with their three children five years ago and doesn’t write, told Radio Ozodi.
Tochinisso Khoshimova says her brother Zokirjon has been away for eight years and only once sent their mother $50: “We want him to get kicked out of Russia,” said Khoshimova, adding that her family is simply worried about him. “Mother often cries and doubts if he’s alive.”
The million-plus Tajiks working in Russia are basically the only thing keeping Tajikistan’s economy afloat. Last year, they sent home the equivalent of 47 percent of GDP, making Tajikistan the most remittance-dependent country in the world, according to the World Bank.
A deal that would see Kyrgyzstan’s heavily indebted gas distribution company sold to Russia’s state-run energy behemoth, Gazprom, appears to be in trouble.
A vote in parliament was once considered a formality. But in recent days, parliament’s fractious parties have put the breaks on the transaction. Even members of the ruling coalition have backed away, a major Russian paper reports.
Under a July agreement between the government and Gazprom, Bishkek agreed to sell Kyrgyzgaz, the state-run entity that controls Kyrgyzstan’s gas distribution network, for a symbolic $1. In return, Gazprom agreed to invest approximately $600 million into the aging gas grid and assume Kyrgyzgaz’s debt, which was estimated at about $38 million at the time. But the deal had to be ratified by parliament.
On November 15, the legislature’s opposition parties rejected the deal.
According to a November 20 report in Russian business daily Kommersant, members of the ruling coalition are attempting to use the vote to topple Prime Minister Jantoro Satybaldiyev’s government. The paper quotes deputy Omurbek Abdrakhmanov complaining that the amount of Kyrgyzgaz’s debt is unclear, meaning the deal could be unfair. A deputy from Ar-Namys, also in the ruling coalition, said Gazprom could take control of a parcel of land and sell it to China, Kommersant reported. (The lawmaker’s statement plays on long-existing fears of Chinese domination.)
The launch of commercial production at Kashagan, Kazakhstan’s supergiant Caspian Sea oilfield, has been delayed again and will not begin until 2014.
Christophe de Margerie, chief executive of France's Total, one of the consortium partners, made the unwelcome announcement that the storied project would miss its latest target of starting commercial production in 2013. He said Kashagan “will not restart before the end of the year” following the suspension of production in October to deal with a gas leak. “It's more than simply repairing pipes,” Reuters quoted him as saying this week.
The North Caspian Operating Company (NCOC) – which also includes Kazakhstan’s state energy firm KazMunayGaz; oil majors ExxonMobil, Shell, and Eni; China’s CNPC; and Japan’s INPEX – has not confirmed that production will not re-start this year, but Hans Wenck, NCOC’s external communications manager, told EurasiaNet.org that “inspections and investigations will take some weeks to conclude.”
“The Kashagan oil and gas production remains shut in until the inspections are completed and results of the expert studies are available, and restart of the facilities can be carried out safely,” he said in an emailed statement on November 12. “Until such investigations are completed it will be too early to discuss any possible remedial actions and time required to implement them.”
Reuters quoted an unidentified industry source on November 11 as saying that Kashagan exports would restart in March “in a best-case scenario.”
In Kyrgyzstan, calculated outrage over sexual-health education is a political pastime: In the late 1990's, a reactionary group organized a public burning of books printed by the government for youth on healthy lifestyles, claiming the section on sexual education was immoral. Now rhetoric is heating up over a series of sex-ed pamphlets printed by the Alliance for Reproductive Health (ARZ), funded by the German development agency, GIZ, and the UN.
In this Q&A, Gulnara Ibraeva, a prominent sociologist and expert on gender and sexuality, formerly of the American University in Central Asia, explains to EurasiaNet.org what Kyrgyzstan’s growing “generation of blank minds” means for the country. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
EurasiaNet.org: The Alliance for Reproductive Health brochures have suddenly caused a stir. Why? And are they necessary?
Gulnara Ibraeva: In the school curriculum this kind of practical education is absent. More than one generation of sexually illiterate people, people who don't understand basic aspects of sex, have been raised. There are many examples of how the absence of this sort of education negatively impacts schoolchildren. People know nothing about their bodies. They don't even understand how they function! They have medieval perceptions about the body, even now in schools – a totally medieval understanding of real adult sexual life.
EN: Is this why there are perceptions about sexual education being shameful? Or somehow antagonistic to the idea of a Kyrgyz identity or Kyrgyzchylyk [sometimes loosely defined as “Kyrgyzness”]?