An international human rights watchdog has urged Kazakhstan to repeal controversial new legislation allowing the government to impose tight restrictions on journalists during emergencies.
The “blanket emergency restrictions” that came into force on April 12 are “unjustified and overreaching,” Hugh Williamson of Human Rights Watch said in an April 15 statement.
The new controls “expose just how far the authorities are willing to go to muzzle the media outlets and independent society groups they deem threatening,” Williamson added.
The decree governing “additional measures and temporary restrictions” obliges editors to seek prior government approval for anything they wish to publish during emergencies (which could include anything from political, social, or industrial unrest to natural disasters). It also gives the authorities the right to suspend or close media outlets and suspend political parties.
The restrictions are “barefaced government censorship,” Williamson said, and “extend far beyond any reasonable and proportional restrictions and violate Kazakhstan’s international commitments.”
The legislation comes into force as Astana watches the escalating crisis in Ukraine and seeks to keep a lid on any manifestations of discontent at home.
As Ukraine battles pro-Russia separatists in its east, Kazakhstan is holding nationwide security drills to check the ability of its law enforcement forces to maintain public order. Some of the exercises are being held in areas abutting Kazakhstan’s long border with Russia.
The drills are designed to coordinate responses of the police, army, and emergency services if “crisis situations” arise, Kazinform reports. Underlining their significance, Security Council head Kayrat Kozhamzharov is personally overseeing the maneuvers and Prime Minister Karim Masimov is observing.
Astana has supported the Kremlin’s position on Ukraine, including Moscow’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula last month. Yet the pro-Russian activists making trouble in eastern Ukrainian cities like Donetsk and Luhansk cannot fail to arouse consternation within the administration of President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Like Ukraine, Kazakhstan is home to a large ethnic Russian minority, which forms 22 percent of the overall population, but a far higher proportion in northern areas along the 7,000-kilometer border with Russia.
On April 9 EurasiaNet.org witnessed riot police in the sleepy Altay mountain town of Ridder, where ethnic Russians make up 85 percent of the population, marching out of the city police precinct. The security forces, helmets donned and sporting riot shields, batons and assault rifles, were headed out for “training,” one officer said.
As leaders across the former Soviet Union watch another predominantly Russian-speaking region of Ukraine demand independence this week, Astana is mulling legislation that would jail anyone who calls for separatism in Kazakhstan.
Under a proposed amendment to the criminal code, Kazakhstanis could get 10 years in prison for making "illegal and unconstitutional calls for changes to the territorial integrity of the Republic of Kazakhstan,” Arman Ayaganov of Kazakhstan's Prosecutor General's office told journalists April 8, Tengrinews reports.
"The article refers to serious [offenses] and the first part provides a maximum penalty of imprisonment for up to seven years. If these same actions would be performed by a person using his official position, up to 10 years," Ayaganov added.
The amendment would cover calls for separatism or independence made in the media, including the Internet – and thus, it seems, on social media platforms like Facebook.
In February, Russian nationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky sparked outrage in Astana by suggesting Russia should reabsorb Central Asia.
While Tajiks were suffering through daily electricity blackouts this winter, their government was exporting electricity to Afghanistan, official statistics show.
Electricity exports are a hot topic in Central Asia lately. Only last week the World Bank announced it had earmarked $526.5 million in credit and grants for an ambitious project to help Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan export electricity to South Asia starting in 2018: CASA-1000. But that project is designed, World Bank officials insist, to export “surplus” electricity in the summer months only.
In a region where it’s hard to take officials at their word, could CASA-1000 be abused?
Extended, rolling blackouts are standard in mountainous Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan each winter, when reservoirs are exhausted and waiting for the spring thaw to refill. In recent weeks, the problem became acute in Tajikistan, with some areas only receiving 30 minutes of electricity per day, or even none at all, RFE/RL reported on March 27. Widespread outages started last October and normally continue until March. But this year blackouts are expected to continue a month longer than normal.
Protestors in Kyrgyzstan’s northwest have clashed with police and blocked a major road, alleging a Kazakh project to survey for gold is polluting the local environment. It’s the latest in a string of violent, mining-related clashes in the Central Asian state. Once again, mining experts in Bishkek are skeptical about the protestors’ motivations.
Early on April 3, several hundred protestors blocked the road leading from Talas, the largest town in Kyrgyzstan’s northwestern Talas Province, to Taraz, in Kazakhstan. By evening, the number had swollen to 500 and some reports circulated that two officials had been kidnapped. At least 19 police were wounded in a confrontation with stone-throwing residents, 24.kg reported, citing an Interior Ministry official.
The protestors are demanding Kazakh mining concern Altyn Kumushtak, which has been exploring the Shiraldjin gold deposit since 2005, stop. In an interview with Radio Liberty’s Kyrgyz Service, a self-identified participant in the riots, Nurlan Muzurov, said he and others “don’t want deformed children, pollution of the water and the air.”
In 2009, Altyn Kumushtak’s license had been annulled and given to a Chinese company in one of many murky exchanges during the presidency of Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was ousted amid bloody street protests in 2010. In 2013 the Kazakh company successfully appealed and won back the rights to the deposit.
Following the admission by embattled Nordic telecoms giant TeliaSonera this week that its operations in Kazakhstan and four other countries had breached the company’s own ethical requirements and may have broken the law, the firm is bracing itself for a new round of scrutiny.
TeliaSonera's dealings with the rich and powerful in Uzbekistan, where its payments of millions of dollars to an intermediary of Gulnara Karimova’s, the president’s daughter, have already put the company in the crosshairs of investigators in Sweden, The Netherlands and the United States. TeliaSonera is also linked to a money-laundering probe in Switzerland in which Karimova is a suspect.
Now questions are being asked about TeliaSonera’s dealings in neighboring Kazakhstan, where it owns the Kcell brand (with 14.1 million subscribers in a country with a population of 17 million). Kazakhstan’s media has previously noted some striking similarities between TeliaSonera’s modus operandi in the two countries—namely its dealings with business people well connected to the powers-that-be and with links to rival companies.
Nordic telecoms giant TeliaSonera is at the heart of several international corruption probes involving its activities in Uzbekistan. Now it says it may have broken the law in neighboring Kazakhstan and other countries, as well.
An external review of TeliaSonera's dealings in five countries has found that “several transactions, and actions during [2007-2013] have been conducted in a manner inconsistent with sound business practice and TeliaSonera’s ethical requirements,” board chair Marie Ehrling told an Annual General Meeting on April 2.
“It cannot even be ruled out that certain conduct has been in violation of the law,” she said.
The review, commissioned last April and conducted by international law firm Norton Rose Fulbright, covered Nepal, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Georgia but focused mainly on the first three countries.
Ehrling did not specify which transactions may have been unethical or illegal, but said the review mainly concerned the “establishing of operations and acquisitions of companies and licenses.”
Areas of concern included “substantial payments to advisors and intermediaries for, among other things, lobbying activities; lack of control of business partners; and inadequate handling of warning signs.”
“One area singled out is the inadequate governance of the Eurasian operations,” Ehrling said.
A reshuffle in Kazakhstan has brought a veteran insider back to lead the government amid fears of trouble on the domestic and international fronts.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev reappointed former Prime Minister Karim Masimov late on April 2. In a swift sequence of events, Prime Minister Serik Akhmetov resigned, Nazarbayev nominated Masimov, and Kazakhstan’s rubber-stamp parliament unanimously approved the move.
The affable and charismatic Masimov previously served as head of government for nearly six years, making him Kazakhstan's longest-serving prime minister since independence. Nazarbayev replaced Masimov in fall 2012 with the colorless technocrat Akhmetov.
The reshuffle comes as no surprise: Nazarbayev had hinted on several occasions that he was not happy with Akhmetov and in February, after a currency devaluation that caused an economic shock to many in the country, he threatened to sack the entire government.
Presenting Masimov as his candidate to parliament, Nazarbayev thanked the outgoing Akhmetov but also damned him with faint praise, noting that his government had not “permitted any particular failure” and had “worked in the measure of its experience and possibilities.”
Officials have raided the editorial office of one of Kazakhstan’s last independent newspapers, as it emerged that a court has ruled in secret to close it down.
Bailiffs “burst into the office” of the Assandi-Times in Almaty on April 2 and announced that they planned to seal the premises, the newspaper reported on its Facebook page. The bailiffs cited a court order that the newspaper’s staff said they knew nothing about.
A court had ruled to shut the newspaper down on April 1, the Adil Soz (Free Speech) media freedom NGO said in an April 2 statement, although “none of the newspaper’s staff had been informed about the trial or about the legal claim.”
The court ruled after deeming the Assandi-Times to be part of a banned group of media outlets under the “Respublika” brand. Prosecutors closed the investigative Respublika newspaper and associated outlets in 2012 after alleging that their coverage of fatal riots in the western town of Zhanaozen the previous year was “extremist” and contained calls to overthrow the state.
The ruling coalition in Kyrgyzstan’s five-party parliament that collapsed on March 18 has reunited, comprising the same three parties.
“Unity Before Happiness,” as the last coalition was known, fell apart when Ata-Meken party leader Omurbek Tekebayev led his party out of the alliance after fighting for months with Prime Minister Jantoro Satybaldiyev over the fate of a Canadian-owned gold mine. Satybaldiyev spent much of his time in office battling accusations of corruption. But such recriminations are so frequently leveled within Kyrgyzstan’s parliament that its members are widely seen as more concerned with personal enrichment than tackling Kyrgyzstan’s urgent economic problems. (A poll of 1,500 Kyrgyz conducted in February found 75 percent believed parliament was either “very corrupt” or “somewhat corrupt.”)
Nevertheless, on March 31 the Social Democrats, members of Ata-Meken and Ar-Namys came together to form the lofty-sounding “For Strengthening Statehood” coalition.