Kazakhstan is joining an illustrious bunch by avoiding the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony today in Oslo. This year the award goes to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. But despite their invitations, the likes of Kazakhstan, China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Cuba and Sudan will not attend.
Mr Liu will also not attend, as he is serving an 11-year prison term for his human rights activism.
When pressed about the visible absence, Kazakhstan Foreign Ministry spokesman Ilyas Omarov said that the diplomatic representative accredited in Oslo was unable to attend the ceremony due to a previously arranged business trip.
The awarding of the prize to Liu Xiaobo for co-authoring a document calling for political reforms, has caused widespread controversy, with China accused of behind the scenes arm-twisting to encourage countries to boycott the event. Of the 65 diplomatic outposts invited to send representatives, 44 have agreed, 19 have declined and two have abstained.
China, which shares a land border with Kazakhstan, has significant investments in the country's oil and gas sphere. Astana, in turn, is a staunch supporter of Chinese foreign policy. Democratic reforms are also a touchy subject in Kazakhstan, which has a one-party parliament and a long-serving president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who can stay in the job for as long as he likes while reveling in his official title, Leader of the Nation.
Moscow is making no secret of its desire to return troops to the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border, perhaps the most porous frontier between the failed state and post-Soviet Central Asia.
Visiting Dushanbe on December 9, Foreign Ministry official Maxim Peshkov said the two sides had been actively discussing the topic, Ferghana.ru reports.
"Given the situation in Afghanistan and the growing threat of terrorism, Russia is ready to return to the Tajik-Afghan border," said the representative of the Russian Foreign Ministry.
Peshkov said that the question of the return of Russian border guards to Tajikistan is one of the constant themes of talks between Dushanbe and Moscow. He stressed that this issue is still pending. "If the Tajik side offers us the protection of their borders, then we have no reason to deny them this,” explained Peshkov.
Just two weeks ago, Peshkov -- a former ambassador to Dushanbe -- was in town negotiating an end to the tariffs imposed earlier this year on Russian oil products destined for Tajikistan. (Yes, they're talking about dropping the taxes, which pushed the price of petrol up by 30 percent overnight, entirely.)
Could the Kremlin be bribing its way back? Moscow is clearly interested in resuming oversight of the border, which Russian troops patrolled until July 2005 when President Emomali Rakhmon asked them to leave. Drug trafficking has boomed since then, making some people in Tajikistan very rich.
Numerous Russian news outlets reported on December 8 that authorities had arrested internationally wanted Tajikistani terrorist Abdulvosit Latipov in the Urals town of Chelyabinsk.
The Russian Federal Security Service’s (FSB) charge sheet is breathtaking.
It claims that along with a number of associates, Latipov was responsible for 43 killings, including 19 Russian servicemen, a Tajikistani prosecutor-general, an industry minister, and four investigators of the Interior Directorate in the town of Vakhdat.
Curiously, the very sparse Interpol wanted notice, issued at Dushanbe’s behest, lists his offences as just kidnapping and theft. Russian daily Komsomolskaya Pravda says that after training at militant Islamist camps in Iran and Afghanistan in the 1990s, he served as protection for drug traffickers supplying heroin to St. Petersburg in 1996-97. In 1998, his gang kidnapped the deputy chairman of Tajikistan’s National Bank and kept him hostage in Dushanbe for 40 days before releasing him in exchange for $800,000.
Since 2004, he has been living in Chelyabinsk working as a vegetable trader under an assumed identity, the paper says.
That life history is almost certainly identical to any number of Tajik former fighters, but for one detail. From 1997 to 2001, Latipov worked as the bodyguard to United Tajik Opposition leader Hoji Akbar Turajonzoda when he served as deputy prime minister.
At the main border crossing heading from Kyrgyzstan to Kazakhstan, freight trucks line the road for hundreds of meters for a days-long wait. Cars, taxis and minibuses jostle for the remaining road. The modest bridge spanning the Chui River has been largely gridlocked throughout 2010.
Cross into Kazakhstan, and there are no queues. A crowd loiters around the gates, looking for passengers, family members, business partners. The whole scene is reminiscent more of a prison gate than an international border crossing.
Just twenty years ago, the Chui River was the trivial line between two brotherly republics of the Soviet Union. Now, a new Customs Union of Belarus-Kazakhstan and Russia (CU) intends to secure those countries from cheap transit goods, criminal activity, smuggling, and even anti-government unrest perceived, across this newly strengthened frontier, as emanating from Kyrgyzstan.
Of the 11 border crossings between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, six are currently closed, Kyrgyz customs agents say, and Kazakhstan has imposed tightened restrictions at two more.
Fifteen kilometers east at Ak-Tilek, a simple printed sign taped to a shuttered gate indicates that this key freight crossing is closed. In addition to locally produced goods, huge amounts of consumer products transiting Kyrgyzstan from China were once transited here, feeding local economies on both sides of the border.
“All that traffic is now diverted to Kordai and is completely backed up,” reports the lone Kyrgyz customs officer at Ak-Tilek. Relief probably will not come soon. “The Kazakhs say they are reconstructing their facilities, and they say they won’t open again for a long time. Probably a year.”
"[The film] has left a negative stain on our country, and our students abroad are hurting in their hearts and they are opposed to the fact that their country is shown in a bad light -- I ask that measures be taken."
That was a clear reference to news last month of a Kazakhstani citizen in the United Kingdom getting into trouble. He thrashed the living daylights out of some fellow students for impugning his national pride by derisively referring to his fictional countryman.
The 20-year-old Exeter University student Almat Samirov's sustained assault will have done nothing to improve his country's international image, but it may do more than Tleukhan could hope for to discourage people from ever bringing up the name of Borat in front of a Kazakh. As local British media reported:
According to a fresh trickle of news from WikiLeaks, Maxim Bakiyev told a US diplomat that Washington had him to thank for keeping open the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan after his father, then-President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, declared he would close it.
The cable -- allegedly sent a day after the announcement that the base would be renamed a “transit center” -- details a dinner date between the former US Charge d’Affaires, Lee Litzenberger, ex-Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Kadyrbek Sarbayev and Maxim in July 2009.
Litzenberger notes that the “slightly spoiled” Maxim is a casual dresser, unshaven, slightly overweight and balding, with a penchant for personalized cigars and scotch.
At the dinner, held in an “almost tastefully decorated” annex to a plush Bishkek restaurant, Sarbayev reportedly told Litzenberger that Maxim had used his influence to convince Bakiyev Snr to keep the base open after he promised Moscow he would close it in return for a wad of cash.
We journalists working in the countries of the former Soviet Union confront a constant menace: the risk of annoying repressive governments and subsequent deportation. But worse than deportation from a single state is the threat of being blacklisted -- or PNG’d -- from them all.
A new report by the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, “Persona Non Grata: The CIS ban system for human rights defenders and journalists,” catalogues the practice of at least six Commonwealth of Independent States countries (Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan), which have an agreement “where individuals who are denied entry to one of the six member states automatically are denied entry to the others.”
The topic has received little international attention in the past.
Paradoxically comparing the system to Europe’s Schengen visa agreement -- whereby an entry visa to one country facilitates cross-border travel in all -- the report describes how the six states share their “blacklists” of human rights activists and journalists. “Such decisions are usually made by the security services of the country in question, and those who are barred in this manner are neither provided with a reason for the ban, nor given any means of appeal,” the report says.
The fad for dismantling Lenin statues across Central Asia is continuing apace.
Privately owned Kazakh television station KTK reported this week that authorities in the central town of Karaganda have begun work on "overthrowing" the hulking 270-ton granite leader, the largest monument of its kind in the country.
Removing Vladimir Ilyich is proving as hard as expunging the legacy of his ideologies, however. Ironically, it is from Switzerland, Lenin's home-in-exile in the years ahead of the Russian Revolution, that Karaganda authorities have turned to buy the equipment needed to cut the 12-meter statue into more easily transportable sections.
Lenin will be re-erected just a few streets away from his current location -- on Lenin Street, fittingly enough. Attempts to remove these enduring reminders of Central Asia's Soviet past invariably meet resistance from the old guard of adherents, such as retiree Gani Isakakova, who charged in decidedly seditious tones in an interview with KTK that "what we learned from Lenin was: 'Learn, learn, learn,' and all you learn today is to steal."
RFE/RL's Kazakh-language service Azattyk offers details of even more concerted efforts to halt the perceived desecration. According to local journalist Ainur Aldanysheva:
"A group of Communists shouted 'Hands Off Lenin' and painted the slogan 'Do Not Destroy History' on the metal fence erected around the monument. They were taken to a police station for disrupting the peace."
Following in the footsteps of other prominent world leaders, Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev has hit the lecture circuit. It would a noble development for the “Leader of the Nation, but for the fact that his foray into academic instruction was performed at the immodestly named Nazarbayev University in Astana.
In a display of somewhat touching denial, Nazarbayev is pushing the argument that the largely inconclusive OSCE summit held in the Kazakh capital last week was nothing short of a epoch-defining moment.
State-run Kazinform news agency cites Nazarbayev as saying that the Astana summit was a landmark event not only for Kazakhstan, but the international community as a whole. The summit, which will be remembered at best as an anticlimactic disappointment, will henceforth be brandished by the country's leadership as evidence of Kazakhstan's undisputed role in global diplomacy.
Adopting the mantle of a latter-day Woodrow Wilson, Nazarbayev explains to eagerly listening students that Kazakhstan has "always" been a cradle of initiatives aimed at boosting integration, convergence, friendship and brotherhood among all the nations of the world. Warming to his theme, Nazarbayev maintains that the adoption of the Astana Declaration may come to constitute "the formation of a single undivided community of Euro-Atlantic and Eurasian security," even though there is nothing in the language of the document that signals any distinctive departure from things as they currently stand -- dysfunction as the norm.
As we reported yesterday, Kyrgyz authorities have said that two violent incidents this week were the work of Islamic militants. But authorities quickly arrived at this conclusion, without providing evidence, after presenting some odd accounts of the November 29 shootout in Osh and the November 30 bomb explosion in Bishkek. For the record: