Something must be going right in the rickety relationship between Dushanbe and Moscow.
In late March, Moscow increased fuel export duties on petroleum products destined for Tajikistan, the poorest country to emerge from the former Soviet Union. This blog speculated on possible causes: Could it have been pressure to allow Russian troops to reassume control over the Tajiks’ wide-open border with Afghanistan, which Moscow says is a conduit for millions of dollars of heroin blighting Russian youth? Or something thornier, such as whether Moscow should pay to station its troops on Tajik soil?
Certainly, Russian primo Vladimir Putin isn’t the kind of leader who responds to irritations with charity. In May, prices for gasoline in Tajikistan jumped 44 percent thanks to his tariffs. But in a sudden about-face, the all-powerful Putin has signed a decree actually lowering – slightly, immediately, even retroactively – those fuel duties. Light crude prices will decrease by a modest 3.7 percent as of July 1, CA-News reported on July 5.
Putin is no doubt concerned by what the US Embassy, in a WikiLeaked cable, described last year as a “poorly trained, poorly paid, underequipped and often under-fed” Tajik border force that allows 40 tons of opiates to enter Russia each year.
Since April, Internet users everywhere have been gripped by a bandwidth-hogging phenomenon: the bizarre Nyan Cat meme. And why not? Surely everybody (especially pre-teens and weary Central Asia correspondents) loves the idea of a flying digital cat ensconced in a giant pop tart radiating a space rainbow in its wake. All to the accompaniment of a cute ditty on a ten-hour loop, of course. (Warning: You will have to watch to the end for your "view" to be counted; over 740,000 others already have.)
Now, somebody has created an Uzbek variant complete with the cat wearing a puss-sized Uzbek traditional hat and wrapped inside a lepyoshka, the flat bread beloved of Central Asians. Also, the cat is patriotically emitting the colors of the national flag and flying over recognizable historical landmarks of Uzbekistan. The video is mercifully shorter that the original, and irritation levels will depend largely on how much Uzbek pop appeals.
There are already US- and Russian-themed versions out there, so will other Central Asian copycats follow? An Akhal-Teke horse with a watermelon for a body flying on a Turkmen carpet, repeating verses from Turkmenbashi’s Rukhnama for 15 hours, perhaps?
Just what is going on in western Kazakhstan? Two police officers slaughtered in a village on June 30, an elite task unit officer killed trying to hunt down the killers, and the relative of one suspect shot dead while fleeing from the security forces – it sounds more like troubled Afghanistan than usually tranquil Kazakhstan.
Adding to the intrigue, this bout of violence comes in the wake of a May suicide bomb attack in the western oil city of Aktobe that authorities dismissed as the work of the mafia.
This time, police “do not rule out the involvement of religious extremists in the murder of the police officers,” Kazakhstan Today reported as security forces continue to hunt the killers.
The two officers were killed in the village of Shubarshi, 250 kilometers from Aktobe, when attackers set upon their checkpoint, shot them, and fled the scene.
Investigators have named six men as suspects -- four from Shubarshi and two from the nearby villages of Kenkiyak and Sarykol. Five are men in their twenties; one is over 40.
One member of the security forces from the elite Arlan task force has already been killed in the ongoing operation to capture the suspects, Kazakhstan Today reports.
With President Nursultan Nazarbayev ensconced in power for another five years following his April reelection, attention in Kazakhstan is turning to parliamentary politics.
Elections aren’t due until August 2012, but the political scene is already getting a shake-up as Kazakhstan – which has a single-party parliament – contemplates the novel prospect of embracing a multiparty legislature.
What party could be more fit for the role of “parliamentary opposition” than one headed by a man who was a member of the Nur Otan party (led by Nazarbayev, the only party in parliament) until the day before he was elected leader of an “opposition” party?
Step forward Ak Zhol and new leader Azat Peruashev, who quit Nur Otan on July 1 and became Ak Zhol leader the very next day.
Peruashev certainly has good connections: He works with Nazarbayev’s powerful son-in-law Timur Kulibayev at the Atameken Union, a business lobby. Peruashev is chairman; Kulibayev chairs Atameken's presidium.
Pop star Sting has been stung yet again by his musical machinations in the Stans.
After agreeing to wow an audience in the Kazakh capital on July 4 as part of Astana’s annual city day celebrations, which just happen to coincide with the birthday of strongman President Nursultan Nazarbayev on July 6, he abruptly announced the day before the concert that he’s pulling out. It seems Sting has had an attack of conscience over the treatment of protesting oil workers in western Kazakhstan, which he said was brought to his attention by Amnesty International.
“Hunger strikes, imprisoned workers and tens of thousands on strike represents a virtual picket line which I have no intention of crossing,” Sting said in a sanctimonious statement. “The Kazakh gas and oil workers and their families need our support and the spotlight of the international media on their situation in the hope of bringing about positive change.”
Astana's Republican Velodrome: Could this become Sting's hornet nest? (Photo: Paul Bartlett)
Last year, Sting found himself embroiled in a media controversy for reportedly accepting over $1 million from “dictator’s [other] daughter” Gulnara Karimova to perform at a $1,000-plus-per-head event in Tashkent. Though he later repudiated the regime of “medieval, tyrannical” Islam Karimov, the former Police front man is now heading back to Central Asia for what’s certain to be another lavish affair.
This time, the destination is Astana, where Sting will perform July 4 to celebrate the anniversary of Kazakhstan’s nouveau capital. Astana goes into party mode around this time of year with three days of public holidays culminating in the July 6 anniversary of the city becoming the seat of government in 1998. And by a remarkable coincidence, July 6 also happens to be President Nursultan Nazarbayev's birthday.
Nazarbayev loves to throw a big birthday/anniversary party with headliner concerts. Artists who have performed for the Leader of the Nation in the past include Placido Domingo, Julio Iglesias, and Whitney Houston, who gave an unforgettably awful performance in 2008. Sting will perform in Astana's Republican Velodrome, a futuristic building shaped like a pro-cyclist's helmet.
The concert is part of Sting's ongoing Symphonicity world tour, which has been on the road since 2009. Sting will be performing a selection of his old favorites, rehashed with a symphony.
As 2012 fast approaches, it is not the smell of Mayan doomsday, but electioneering, that is once again taking hold of Kazakhstan.
On one side, the government is mobilizing for an orderly political season by dripping out a few sweeteners aimed at fostering public confidence in the status quo.
Prime Minister Karim Masimov announced on Twitter (where else?) on June 30 that salaries for public sector employees will be hiked by 30 percent starting from July. This follows a trend of similarly generous pay rises over the past couple of years.
In another gesture aimed at containing gas and food prices, the government is also extending its ban on fuel exports to next year.
Similar woolly welfare pronouncements should be expected on a fairly regular basis as we head toward 2012, when parliamentary elections are expected.
The main problem undermining Kazakhstan's nominally democratic parliamentary system is that only one party is currently represented in the lower house: President Nursultan Nazarbayev's Nur Otan, whose monolithic presence on Kazakhstan's political scene is ever reminiscent of the Soviet-era Communist Party.
Here’s some rare – if tentative – positive news for a detained journalist in Tajikistan. Authorities appear ready to drop the most serious charges against BBC reporter Urinboy Usmonov – membership in a banned Islamic extremist group. But he still faces accusations that could test Tajik law and further erode media freedoms.
Usmonov was nabbed on June 13 and later charged with belonging to Hizb-ut-Tahrir. The arrest, concerns he may have been beaten in custody, and authorities’ apparent unwillingness to allow Usmonov access to counsel prompted an international outcry and demands for his immediate release. The Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based watchdog, said the “trumped-up charges” were designed to silence a government critic.
The BBC’s Russian Service reports that Usmonov, 59, still faces charges of contacting members of the radical group – which has never been linked to violence and is legal in some western countries, such as the UK – and reporting their statements without alerting authorities. Yet his lawyer says Tajik law guarantees the right for journalists to protect their sources, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
Hot on the heels of a silver screen version of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s early life, The Sky of My Childhood, comes a stage version about the dramatic rise of the man officially known as Leader of the Nation.
Deep Roots (in Kazakh Teren Tamyrlar), written by Yerkin Zhuasbek and directed by Nurlan Zhumaniyazov, premieres at Astana’s Bayseitova Opera and Ballet Theater on July 2 and promises to offer a whimsical view of the life of Nazarbayev, who rose from a poor rural background and an early career as a steelworker to become the strongman president of Kazakhstan, which incidentally marks its 20th anniversary of independence this year.
The play takes place in a forest near Astana – the new capital that is Nazarbayev’s brainchild – and takes the form of an allegory, Zhuasbek said in the run-up to the premiere in remarks quoted by Kazakhstan Today.
The president goes there to admire the view and meets Zhaynak, an elderly man of the forest. Zhaynak, who “believes that ‘a forest is also like a man,’ and to learn its secrets you have to be in the forest at night,” urges Nazarbayev to return after dark, which – of course – he does.
Wherever Kamchybek Tashiev goes, mischief seems to follow.
The prominent deputy from the nationalist Ata-Jurt party is widely considered a contender in presidential elections this fall. Now, a criminal suit that he calls politically motivated may test Tashiev’s presidential mettle. Will his crowds of supporters be deterred? Or does their loyalty have little to do with his public image?
Tashiev is charged with "premeditated infliction of significant damage to a person's health,” after allegedly beating up a deputy from his own party. Bakhadyr Suleimanov says he spent several days in a Bishkek hospital with a concussion after Tashiev attacked him late on March 31.
The head of Kyrgyzstan’s boxing federation, Tashiev denies he ever laid a finger on his party-mate. He also insists the charges, including hooliganism, are part of a government conspiracy "to prevent my participation in the presidential elections" scheduled for the fall, he told RFE/RL. Even so, Tashiev has gallantly waived his parliamentary immunity so the investigation can proceed.