Workers put the final touches on Almaty's new metro system just in time for Kazakhstan's 20th anniversary party.
Almaty commuters’ 23-year wait ended this week as their city’s metro finally slid open its doors, just in time for Kazakhstan’s 20th independence anniversary.
Construction began back in 1988, when Almaty was known as Alma-Ata and was capital of Soviet Kazakhstan. At that time the city’s population hit the one million mark, which gave it the right under Soviet regulations to its own underground network. Hard times after Kazakhstan’s independence in 1991 halted work. Now the country is awash with cash from its vast natural resources and construction began again in recent years.
The gleaming stations, lavishly adorned with marble, granite and ornate statuary, are worthy of comparison with Moscow's magnificent 1930s terminals. At the moment only one line with seven stops follows Almaty's Soviet-era center, but plans are underway for a second line.
When I rode the metro home on Friday there were long lines at the three windows to buy tokens and pre-paid cards. The yellow plastic jetons look to have come straight out of Soviet central planning.
Will the metro wean the good people of Almaty off their car addiction or just divert passengers from other forms of public transportation? Kazakhstan's commercial capital has undergone a rapid transformation since Soviet times and its new business districts are far from the reach of the metro, so we may have to wait, again, until a new line is completed to see any noticeable effect on the city's notorious traffic congestion.
As our sister blog The Bug Pit reported this week, speculation is mounting that a November 17 “terrorist attack” that knocked out a rail line connecting Uzbekistan with southern Tajikistan may not be all the Uzbeks say it was. One doesn’t have to look hard to find a motive for sabotage. Certainly, the episode seems to have limited archrival Tajikistan’s ability to supply NATO troops in neighboring Afghanistan.
For Uzbekistan, perhaps the most significant aspect of the rail line in question is its complete irrelevance to its own economy, and to its role as the hub of the Northern Distribution Network that is essential for supplying NATO troops. The damage occurred on a section of track after the NDN freight turns off to Afghanistan, in the desert before crossing into Tajikistan. Uzbekistan has no other use for this line and appears in no hurry to see it repaired.
Celebratory artillery boomed from the White House lawn this morning in downtown Bishkek as Roza Otunbayeva handed power to new President Almazbek Atambayev.
The ceremony, which lasted roughly an hour, was conducted almost entirely in Kyrgyz, the “state language” of this multiethnic republic that is rarely spoken by the minorities who make up 30 percent of the population. Many Kyrgyz, moreover, particularly in Bishkek, do not speak the language at all or only with difficulty.
Atambayev’s inaugural speech opened with the obligatory reference to Kyrgyz epic hero Manas, who has become a symbol fraught with nationalist implications, even as relative moderates like Atambayev present him as a hero for all ethnicities in the country.
In the brief part of the speech delivered in Russian, Kyrgyzstan’s “official language,” Atambayev made an effort to reach out to ethnic minorities.
First he described how many Russians and Uzbeks had left the country, only to find that they missed their homeland.
“This is because we can only be happy where we were born, where we grew up, where our ancestors are buried. Only together are we Kyrgyzstan!” he said, following with the kind of dog-whistle phrasing often used to slander Uzbeks after the June 2010 ethnic violence: “And those who try to divide people by nation or by region are enemies of the country!”
With banners flying and policemen guarding the city’s main avenues, Bishkek is getting ready to inaugurate its first democratically elected president, Almazbek Atambayev, on December 1. But hopes for democratic justice are fading for one of Kyrgyzstan’s most prominent human rights defenders.
On November 29, the Supreme Court appeal of Azimjan Askarov and his co-defendants was delayed until December 20 when several lawyers for the accused failed to appear in court. The lawyers say the court purposefully informed them of the hearing too late.
Askarov, once a brave critic of police brutality, was convicted in September 2010 and sentenced to life imprisonment for organizing other ethnic Uzbeks in attacks that killed a police officer in Bazar-Korgon, just outside Jalal-Abad, during the June 2010 ethnic violence.
The proceedings were punctuated by physical and verbal attacks by family members of the slain police officer on Askarov, the other defendants, and his lawyer. Throughout the extended appeals process the family has kept up the pressure, often with the overt support of local authorities. After one appeal in November 2010, local police officers reportedly joined family members in beating the defendants in a courthouse corridor.
It’s been another dispiriting week for foreign investors in Kyrgyzstan.
On November 25, the auction of the government’s 49 percent stake in Alfa Telecom failed when only one buyer came forward. The auction is the latest stumble for a privatization program that has done little but draw attention to the lack of investor confidence in Kyrgyzstan’s political and legal stability.
As anticipated, investors balked at a nearly $100 million purchase that would come encumbered with heavy political baggage – the government owns Alfa shares because the company was closely tied to the son of ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiyev – and a host of pending lawsuits over Alfa’s ownership. (Alfa is the parent company of Megacom, the country's largest mobile provider.)
Another recent event demonstrates why investors may be hesitant. After months of limbo, the Iranian investors who bought 90.9 percent of FinansKreditBank in May on the open market announced that they would seek to sell their shares.
The Iranians say they have been under pressure from the Kyrgyz government from the moment they bought the bank. Supposedly concerned about potential ties to the Iranian nuclear program, Bishkek first demanded additional information about the investors and their sources of capital.
Dariga Nazarbayeva is staging a political comeback in Kazakhstan. After four years in the wilderness, Nazarbayeva, daughter of strongman Nursultan Nazarbayev, is to stand for parliament on the ticket of her father’s ruling Nur Otan party. In Kazakhstan's micromanaged political system, it's an almost certain bet that she’ll get in.
Nur Otan unveiled its party list for the January 15 election at its party congress today. This is a remarkable comeback for the president's eldest daughter, who fell out of favor thanks to the antics of her former husband Rakhat Aliyev in 2007. Aliyev was once a powerful political and economic player in Kazakhstan, but his machinations finally became too much for Nazarbayev when he was linked to the abduction of two bankers. Criminal charges were filed against him, and Nazarbayeva divorced him.
The bankers' bodies were found this year, prompting a murder charge against Aliyev, who’s already been found guilty in absentia on charges including abduction, racketeering and plotting a coup d'etat. Aliyev, who regularly emits a stream of online vitriol against his former father-in-law, is now reported to be living in Malta under the surname of his new wife, Shoraz.
The Tokmok City court has dropped a criminal case against the son of Bishkek Mayor Isa Omurkulov for his role in a fatal August car accident. Omurkulov is a close ally of outgoing President Roza Otunbayeva and her successor, President-Elect Almazbek Atambayev.
Azamat Omurkulov was on trial for killing three young people in a late night head-on collision while speeding back from a resort at Kyrgyzstan’s Lake Issyk-Kul. The mayor’s son was reportedly driving in the wrong lane in excess of 200km (125 miles) per hour when he struck the oncoming car with his Toyota Land Cruiser.
The case, which has appeared vulnerable to political pressures from the start, was halted November 24 when the last of the victims’ families declined to press charges.
First, local media reported suspicious inconsistencies in the accident report, in particular with the younger Omurkulov’s license-plate number. Originally listed as having a number associated with the mayor’s office, the car’s plates somehow changed to a private number in the course of the investigation.
It was never going to win any awards for service, but the Hotel Turkmenistan in the center of Ashgabat was at least a small reminder of a time and style that predated the soulless marble-heavy aesthetic that has now taken over the capital.
Earlier this week, without any apparent warning, the hotel and the old mayor's office next door were ripped down. With stunning swiftness, the demolition site has been cordoned off with hoardings. What these destroyed buildings are making way for is not clear. This area of the city has undergone a radical transformation in recent years, although hardly for the more interesting. The Arch of Neutrality topped by the infamous revolving golden statue of the late President Saparmurat Niyazov -- aka Turkmenbashi -- stood less than a minute's walk from the hotel.
Now the space is occupied by a blink-and-miss-it fountain.
Nearby, on the same broad esplanade that served as a parade ground on Victory Day, the golden-domed former presidential palace still stands. Where that once represented the garish height of Turkmenbashi vulgarity, it has now been overtaken by the $250 million presidential complex unveiled earlier this year just a few hundred yards away.
It had always been possible in Niyazov's day to walk past the old presidential palace. Now, surly young conscripts carefully patrol the new complex to make sure impudent passersby do not even walk anywhere near the impeccable road running along its facade.
The saga of Uzbekistan's allegedly arrested Emergency Services Minister Tursinkhon Khudaibergenov has taken an interesting turn, with his assistant telling Radio Free Europe’s Uzbek language service, Radio Ozodlik, that no such thing has happened (via Central Asian news).
"I heard about this message on the [Uzmetronom] website. However, it doesn't represent the facts. The minister is in Angren on the instructions of the prime minister," Khudaibergenov’s assistant, Dilshod Inomov, is quoted as telling Ozodlik.
Inomov insists that Uzmetronom's information is not valid as it not an official site. This is a curious observation, since Uzbekistan’s government websites have never been too big on publicizing the jailing of acting officials.
Meanwhile, Uzmetronom is sticking to its story, insisting that although investigators have not secured an arrest warrant, Khudaibergenov has been made to sign a written undertaking to limit his movements.
"Experts believe that Khudaibergenov has avoided arrest with the influential support of backers in the presidential administration and the government, who have apparently persuaded the president that this is absolutely indispensable in his line of duty," the site says. If anything, this turns of events throws the outside observer into only more confusion about how much individual public figures in Uzbekistan are able to defy the system.
A Tajik court today released two ethnic Russian pilots whose case had paralyzed relations with Moscow and threatened to send Tajikistan’s economy into a nosedive.
On November 8, the court in Kurgan-Tyube sentenced Vladimir Sadovnichy, a Russian citizen, and Alexei Rudenko, an ethnic Russian citizen of Estonia, to 8 ½ years for illegally crossing the border and smuggling airplane engine parts. The two had landed to refuel a pair of Antonov-72 cargo planes en route from Afghanistan to Russia, on a previously scheduled stop that Tajik air-traffic controllers canceled at the last moment.
Moscow swiftly denounced the ruling, calling it “politically motivated,” and threatening an “asymmetric” response. Within days, hundreds of Tajik migrant workers were targeted for deportation. The country’s top doctor, Gennadiy Onishchenko, said Tajiks should be barred because they carry HIV and tuberculosis. Agriculture officials said they were considering a general ban on imports of Tajik produce. Russian state-controlled media went on a nationalist offensive and one official was cited as threatening to expel 10,000 Tajiks.
Up to half of Tajikistan’s GDP is produced by over a million Tajik migrant laborers abroad, mostly in Russia.