The militant incursion from Afghanistan that Tajikistan regularly worries about appears to finally have happened. Or has it?
The State Committee for National Security released a statement on March 7 stating that a border post in the southern Khatlon region was attacked over the weekend by a nine-man armed group led by an Afghan citizen called Mirafal valadi (son of) Arbob Sherafzal. Officials said the clash at the Panj crossing occurred as the gunmen were seeking to covertly filter into Tajikistan.
One of the alleged militants, named as Mullo Fashiddin valadi Kurbon, and one border guard were killed in the shootout, the statement said.
The security services say they have identified all the attackers and are taking all measures possible to capture or neutralize them.
RFE/RL’s Tajik service, Radio Ozodi, cited the head of Afghanistan’s Imam Sahib district, where the militants are alleged to have come from, as saying the incursion was work of Taliban militants. Mirafal is a well-known local drug trafficker who has pledged allegiance to the Taliban, the official said.
The security situation in Imam Sahib indubitably appears critical. The Afghan official cited by Ozodi said 30 percent of the district is in Taliban hands and that the entire border is under their control.
That combination of details appears to suggest that the militants’ attempts to cross the Tajik border are primarily motivated by financial interests, however, and not aimed at sowing unrest inside Tajikistan as such.
A spokesman for the Tajik border service declined to comment on the attackers’ affiliations. He also would not confirm reports that they were drug traffickers.
Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev meets with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in Moscow on March 2, 2016.
Russia has thrown Kyrgyzstan a bone — albeit not a particularly large one — in the form a $30 million grant to help cover budget shortfalls.
Economic news website Tazabek cited Kyrgyzstan’s presidential administration on March 6 as saying the money would go in part toward completing construction of social housing for military and police personnel.
News of the pledged assistance followed a meeting between President Almazbek Atambayev and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in Moscow on March 2.
Atambayev’s working visit was transparently motivated by a desire on both sides to seek clarity about the state of bilateral relations, which have been tested by the failure of Russian companies to complete essential energy-related projects in Kyrgyzstan.
Putin spoke reassuringly.
“There is no need to talk about the nature of our relations,” Putin said, before going on to talk about the nature of the countries’ relations. “Kyrgyzstan is a reliable partner with which we we have truly strategic relations. Since Kyrgyzstan joined the Eurasian Economic Union, the opportunities for cooperation have increased. I think this will be reflected not only in indicators, but also in real life, and in the development of our economic and social spheres.”
Atambayev was similarly positive, while his office hinted strongly that talks touched upon the stalled hydroelectric plant projects that Kyrgyzstan sees as key to its economic survival.
(A previous version of this report incorrectly stated that the central bank had spent $464 million propping up the tenge in February.)
After a precipitous plunge over many months, Kazakhstan’s embattled currency has gained ground in recent weeks.
Now, the governor of the central bank has revealed the reason for the tenge’s sudden rally.
Speculation had been rife that the bank was propping up the currency ahead of the March 20 parliamentary election — but it has actually been maneuvering to weaken the tenge, Daniyar Akishev revealed to parliament on March 3.
The precise total spent on buying hard currency in February to bring down the tenge rate was $474 million, he said.
The main factor contributing to the tenge’s rise appears to have been the sale of dollars as the tax-reporting period approached at the end of February, when major companies have to pay their dues in tenge.
Akishev moved to quell speculation that Astana is scrambling to soothe any pre-election tensions by taking measures to pacify public anger over the devaluation of the tenge, which has hit people hard in their pockets and even sparked occasional public protests.
“This is not linked to domestic political processes within the country,” Akishev said in remarks quoted by Tengri News.
“The Kazakh system for investigating police abuses is so riddled with loop-holes and the protection of vested interests that torturers are able to act with virtual impunity,” said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty's Europe and Central Asia director.
A crucial finding was that vested interests hamper investigations into torture claims, preventing eradication of the abuse.
“The underlying factor behind the barriers to justice facing victims of torture in Kazakhstan is that it is not in the interests of the agencies and individuals who carry out investigations of torture to do so impartially and objectively,” the report stated.
Obtaining justice is an up-hill struggle as investigators play “bureaucratic ping-pong” with those who file complaints about police abuse.
Maklakov, one of 12 case studies in the report, filed his complaint in 2006.
In a surprising precedent, the trial of an independent journalist in Kazakhstan has culminated with an acquittal.
A court in Almaty ruled on February 29 to clear Yulia Kozlova of drug possession charges, bringing a close to a trial the reporter’s supporters said was politically motivated.
Kozlova’s lawyer had complained throughout proceedings that the two week-long trial was riddled with procedural irregularities.
The charges against Kozlova, who writes for an embattled website called Nakanune.kz that features regular and robust criticism of the authorities, arose from a police raid on her apartment in December. Investigators claimed that during a search for incriminating material related to a separate case involving reporting appearing on Nakanune.kz they found marijuana in a tea caddy.
Kozlova reacted with tearful surprise and delight to her acquittal, video posted on social networks showed. The verdict was unexpected in a country where innocent verdicts are rare, particularly in cases involving independent journalists.
One possibility is that the government may be seeking to mitigate the wave of international criticism that has been timed unfortunately to surge ahead of parliamentary elections on March 20.
Kozlova had staunchly denied the accusations against her.
“I link this to my work,” she told a court hearing attended by EurasiaNet.org in which she gave her testimony on February 18, pointing to her reporting as the source of her legal troubles.
Nakanune.kz was set up by journalists who used to report for Respublika, Kazakhstan’s most hard-hitting independent newspaper until it was closed down in 2012.
Kyrgyzstan may be on the verge of ditching a contentious draft bill on designating internationally funded nongovernmental groups as “foreign agents” in a development possibly related to a thaw in relations with Washington.
Members of parliament discussing the bill on February 29 seemed divided over its benefits or what the law was even supposed to be about. Meanwhile, the groups most threatened by the legislation have been lobbying hard for the proposal to be scrapped.
Asides from an undesirable label, the law would dramatically increase the amount of paperwork that NGOs would have to submit to justify their continued existence. That kind of red tape saps time, energy and resources, while increasing government control over the sector.
Commentators have commonly characterized both the foreign agents law and another proposed bill to criminalize open support for homosexuals punishable by jail time as extensions of Russian potlical and cultural influence. President Almazbek Atambayev has proven highly receptive to anti-Western rhetoric emerging from Moscow.
Among other things, the repealed treaty allowed for a tariff waiver on goods imported into Kyrgyzstan as part of US aid programs. The prospect of beneficiary nation slapping taxes on assistance caused consternation among American policymakers and donors, prompting a rethinking of aid strategy.
It is not necessary to be a member of the ruling family in Tajikistan to land a top job. Being one of their friends is also enough, to go by an interesting recent appointment.
Earlier this month, Shohruh Saidzoda, son of the chairman of the customs service, Abdufattoh Goib, and a close friend of the president’s son, Rustam Emomali, was named deputy head of the country’s criminal investigation department.
Saidzoda, 30, has no background in law enforcement, but was elevated to the rank of police mayor all the same.
The chatter around the capital, Dushanbe, is that this may presage important movements at the top. One piece of speculation is that following a May 22 referendum that will, among other things, allow President Emomali Rahmon to run for office indefinitely, Rustam Emomali may be named Interior Minister.
Saidzoda first came to prominence a couple of year back, while Emomali was heading a government department fighting customs violations and serving as president of the national soccer federation. As a regular Emomali hanger-on, Saidzoda was regularly seen at high-profile events about town.
Rumors in April 2014, linked Saidzoda to a job heading the committee for youth, sports and tourism, but that came to nothing.
Saidzoda is a member of the football federation’s executive committee and president of the Dushanbe soccer team Istiqlol, which is reviled by most soccer fans in the country for the tacit assistance they are said to receive from partial referees.
Nobody seem wholly certain about Saidzoda’s main source of income, but there is a great deal of chatter about his private life.
Following in the footsteps of her spouse, a former paramilitary commander, Humairo Mirova has reportedly fled Tajikistan with four of her children and gone to Syria, possibly to join the ranks of the Islamic State group.
If confirmed, Radio Ozodi’s report on Mirova’s apparent decision to travel to territory controlled by the radical Islamist organization would embarrassingly expose the inability of the Tajik security services to monitor even the closest relatives of their militant opponents.
Mirova’s husband, Gulmorod Halimov, served as a high-ranking officer in the OMON until his defection to the Islamic State grouip in early 2015 — decision that he explained as having been motivated by the increasing restrictions on religious freedom by Tajikistan’s government.
As was the case with her husband, Mirova’s career is remarkable for having put her in intimate proximity with the highest echelons of power.
She began working in the Interior Ministry press center in 2008, which is when she got to know Halimov. She later married him, becoming his second wife. Technically, Mirova is only Halimov’s common-law wife, as the former OMON remains married to his first wife).
Some additional details about Mirova are available from social media. Her mail.ru account indicates that she was born on December 11, 1975, and that she has five children. She divorced her first husband, with whom she had one child and later had four children with Halimov. The last one was born in March, meaning that the child was only two months old when Halimov left for Syria.
While Halimov was planning his defection in 2015, Mirova was working in the press service of the customs service, which was headed at the time by President Emomali Rahmon’s son, Rustam Emomali.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has paid a rare visit to Kazakhstan, where his host Nursultan Nazarbayev hailed the visiting Arab leader as a force for unity and stability in his troubled home country.
These themes are close to the heart of Kazakhstan’s long-ruling leader, who never misses a chance to tout the benefits of unity and stability as a bulwark against political unrest and revolution.
“We are very glad that, despite the internal conflicts, bloodshed and revolution that have taken place in recent years, the people of Egypt have united and expressed their trust in the new president,” Nazarbayev said after a meeting in Astana on February 26, in remarks quoted by his office.
Sisi rose to power through the type of political upheaval that Nazarbayev — who has ruled Kazakhstan with an iron fist since independence a quarter of a century ago — views as anathema.
Egypt’s president was installed following a bloody military coup in 2013 that overthrew the elected president, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, since which time around 1,000 have since been killed in unrest stemming from opposition to Sisi’s rule. Morsi had come to power after the toppling of Hosni Mubarak during the Arab Spring in 2011.
Sisi’s visit to Kazakhstan launched an Asian tour that the Egypt Independent newspaper described as part of a foreign policy tilt eastward by Cairo.
Kazakhstan’s flagship Astana sporting project could be on the rocks after its main sponsor announced significant funding cutbacks in response to the economic crisis engulfing the country.
"Of course, it will reduce the funding of the sports project, but that does not mean that the project will be closed. But there will be a very big reduction," Darkhan Kaletayev, managing director of Kazakhstan’s Samruk-Kazyna sovereign wealth fund, which bankrolls the project, told journalists in remarks reported by Kazinform on February 25.
The Astana Presidential Sports Club was set up in 2012 as the umbrella organization for clubs in Kazakhstan's capital. Included in its ranks are soccer's FC Astana, Barys hockey club and the Astana Pro Team cyclists. It also supports individuals such as world champion boxer Gennady Golovkin and Ilya Ilyin, an Olympic gold medal-winning weightlifter.
Samruk-Kazyna has seen serious budget cuts as government cash dries up as a result of falling oil prices crimping the budget. In a sign that it is in financial straits, the wealth fund is currently engaged in a fire sale of assets worth billions of dollars.
The government has also revealed the extent of the pain being inflicted on the economy, slashing growth forecasts to 0.5 percent in 2016, down from its previous forecast of 2.1 percent.