When Russian state energy giant Gazprom took control of Kyrgyzstan’s gas network last month, the prime minister called the transfer a “historic event.” Gazprom chairman Aleksey Miller promised his company "guarantees a stable gas supply.”
Neither seems very reliable to residents of southern Kyrgyzstan today, the 24th day the region has been without gas.
Four days after the formal transfer ceremony, Uzbekistan cut gas supplies to southern Kyrgyzstan. Residents of Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second-largest city, complain they have been forced to use expensive electricity or cook over wood or dung stoves. Fortunately, the weather is warm. One resident describes a previous cut-off, during winter, when he used seven candles to boil water to make tea for his children.
Gazprom was meant to end such outages. Under the deal, which the Kyrgyz parliament approved in December, for a symbolic $1 Gazprom snapped up Kyrgyzgaz and its property and gained rent-free use of land any facilities stand on. In exchange it took on Kyrgyzgaz’s estimated $38 million debt and pledged some $600 million to improve Kyrgyzstan’s crumbling gas grid. In the long-term, the Kyrgyz hope Gazprom can streamline energy supplies and ease the dire power shortages the country experiences every winter.
Led by a flag bearer hoisting an image of Jesus, and six drummer girls in purple satin, about a thousand supporters of various nationalist causes marched for what they called “Russian May Day” in northwestern Moscow on May 1.
Young and old, men and women shouted, “Russia is for Russians,” “Glory to the Russians,” and angrier slogans, such as “get out, black dirt” – a reference to migrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus.
Indeed, it was migration that seemed to unite this broad swath of rightwing Russia.
“Russian citizenship for Russians. No to handing out citizenship,” some chanted. “Who are we? Russians! We are the power here!”
Several of the groups also yelled, “Cancel 282” – that is, Article 282 of the criminal code, which prohibits inciting ethnic hatred. Each of about 10 groups had its own flag, including a black-yellow-and-white-striped banner used briefly by Tsarist Russia in the 19th century. Other banners incorporated white power symbols. (The kolovrat, seen in several images above on a red flag, is sometimes called the Slavic swastika. Adopted by some rightwing groups, others defend it as an ancient pagan symbol for the sun.)
In many post-Soviet countries, and Kazakhstan is no exception, stories abound of students forced to bribe their professors to pass final exams. At last, Kazakhstan has an official figure: On average, students pay 50,000 tenge ($275) in unofficial fees at the end of each semester
Deputy Minister of Education and Science Takir Balykbaev told a meeting of the country's university heads in Almaty on April 29 that higher education is among the three most corrupt industries in the country. The sector’s shadow economy is worth about $100 million per year, Balykbaev said.
Endemic corruption in education has long been acknowledged in Kazakhstan, but actual figures are rare. Freedom House said in its 2013 report on Kazakhstan that “corruption in the education system is widespread, and students frequently bribe professors for passing grades.”
Salaries in Kazakhstan's universities are low, with the exception of Astana's Nazarbayev University and Almaty's KIMEP University, encouraging professors to supplement their incomes by soliciting bribes.
Balykbaev said that in the near future his ministry would establish a council on anti-corruption policy to coordinate the fight against graft in universities.
The three leaders at an intimate meeting on April 29 in Minsk.
Vladimir Putin’s project to launch a political union of former Soviet republics – which has assumed even greater significance in the eyes of the Russian president as Moscow engages in a bitter struggle to retain influence in Ukraine – has run into trouble. A summit of the three prospective founding presidents wound up inconclusively on April 29, with the leaders making it clear that the ambitious undertaking is in danger of coming off the rails.
As Putin met in Minsk with Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus and Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, the three founding members of the existing Customs Union were expected to set a date set for the signing of a landmark treaty to transform that free trade zone into the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) next month.
Instead, the summit appeared to collapse in disarray, with only one point agreed: The three disagreed on too much to be able to finalize the union treaty as hoped.
“We still have questions,” Putin said in laconic remarks quoted by ITAR-TASS. “But I’d agree with my colleagues that we can always jointly work on them to find compromise solutions.”
Nazarbayev likewise stressed his conviction that “we have always found consensus and I am sure it will be this way in the future, too.”
Angry veterans in Almaty have burned a Kazakhstani magazine featuring a profile of Adolf Hitler, accusing the editor of glorifying the Nazi leader. The controversy has sparked a diplomatic row between Kazakhstan and Russia, with tensions heightened by the magazine’s overt comparison of Hitler to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
War veterans gathered beside the imposing memorial to World War II in Almaty’s Panfilov Park on April 21 and burned issues of the Kazakh-language Anyz Adam (Legendary Person) magazine, which displays a large photo of Hitler on the cover.
“We are deeply concerned by a publication which glorifies Hitler,” said Aygul Baykamadamova, the granddaughter of Soviet war hero General Ivan Panfilov, calling for the magazine to be closed down and editor Zharylkap Kalybay to be prosecuted.
Kalybay, who is under investigation on charges of inciting ethnic, social, or religious enmity (a crime carrying a maximum 12-year sentence in Kazakhstan), defended the magazine at a stormy press conference in Almaty later that day.
“Publishing an article about him, we wanted to demonstrate his evilness,” Kalybay said, pointing out that few of those who had criticized the magazine had actually read it.
Each issue of Anyz Adam profiles a famous person who has changed the course of history, and previous issues have featured an eclectic mix of personalities including Joseph Stalin (the architect of the Soviet’s Union’s murderous political terror in the 1930s and 1940s); Mongolian warlord Genghis Khan; and Kazakhstan’s own president, Nursultan Nazarbayev.
New statistics show migrant labor remittances are now equivalent to over half Tajikistan's GDP, crossing an important psychological threshold and emphasizing the Central Asian country's vulnerability to external shocks.
The impoverished country has long been the most remittance-dependent in the world, with cash transfers accounting for approximately half of the economy. Migrant transfers totaled more than $4 billion in 2013, the equivalent of 52 percent of GDP, the World Bank said in its most recent migration and development brief. That figure was 45.5 percent in 2010 and 48 percent in 2012. In neighboring Kyrgyzstan, the second-most dependent on remittances globally, remittances stayed level at the equivalent of 31 percent of GDP.
Both formerly Soviet countries are believed to have sent over one million migrants abroad, mostly to Russia and, to a lesser extent, to Kazakhstan. Remittances are also critical in neighboring Uzbekistan, which receives about one-third of all Russian wire transfers sent to former Soviet republics, accounting for the equivalent of about 16 percent of GDP last year.
Officials in Tajikistan do not like to acknowledge migrants’ importance to their economy. Last year the National Bank said it would stop reporting remittance data, claiming the information could be “politicized.” (The World Bank’s numbers come partially from Russia’s Central Bank.) Other officials have downplayed the role and number of migrants, apparently attempting to deny Tajikistan’s utter dependence on Russia.
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.