New data show that Central Asian governments have been right to fear Russia’s economic crisis was heading their way: Remittances from migrant laborers are falling sharply, more than in any other region worldwide.
Migrant remittances are the largest single source of foreign currency in Tajikistan and an important factor in declining poverty rates throughout Central Asia in recent years. So the contracting Russian economy and stricken ruble – brought on by a sudden fall in oil prices and Western sanctions – have a direct impact on millions of the region’s laborers and their families back home.
“Overall, reduced remittances are likely to worsen standards of living in remittance-receiving countries, and the increasing number of returned migrants could put upward pressures on unemployment rates,” the World Bank said in a regular briefing on April 13.
Tajikistan – which sends approximately one-half of its working age males to labor in Russia – is the most remittance-dependent country in the world. Remittances account for the equivalent of 49 percent of GDP, according to the World Bank. In dollar terms, they fell 8 percent last year, largely in the fourth quarter, and are expected to decline another 23 percent in 2015.
Kyrgyzstan is the world’s second most remittance-dependent country, with remittances totaling the equivalent of 32 percent of GDP. Last year they fell 1 percent, but are expected to drop another 23 percent this year.
In Uzbekistan, where remittances total the equivalent of 11.9 percent of GDP, they fell 16 percent last year; they are expected to drop another 30 percent in 2015.
Tajikistan’s National Bank has ordered the immediate closure of private currency exchange offices, a move that suggests Dushanbe is concerned about the somoni’s sharp depreciation. The currency has fallen 14.5 percent against the dollar this year as remittances from Russia slow.
The National Bank cited the need to assure the “stability” of Tajikistan’s currency market and the somoni exchange rate and “the protection of the interests of clients of credit organizations,” in a terse statement issued on April 17 announcing the closures with immediate effect.
The blanket ban on private exchange offices means more than half of the country’s exchange offices – 818 out of a total 1,581 – are being shuttered, leaving 763 operating, according to National Bank figures cited by Dushanbe-based Asia-Plus news agency.
With plenty of currency offices still working, the closures sparked little panic in Dushanbe, an observer in the city told EurasiaNet.org on condition of anonymity.
In dollar terms, remittances sent to Tajikistan from Russia declined by 7.6 percent in 2014 year on year, according to data recently released by Russia’s Central Bank. Remittances are likely to continue to drop this year amid ongoing economic turmoil in Russia.
This is bad news for the world’s most remittance-dependent country. The World Bank estimates remittances total the equivalent of 42 percent of Tajikistan’s GDP. Over a million Tajiks, or roughly half of working-age males, labor in Russia.
The Russian military is handing Astana more than a million hectares of land it has been renting in Kazakhstan, which hopes to use the territory to boost its extractive industries.
During talks in Moscow on April 16, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and his Kazakhstani counterpart Imangali Tasmagambetov finalized the deal that will see 1.6 million hectares of land that is part of two military testing grounds ceded to Kazakhstan, Russian news agency TASS reported.
“Unused territories and sectors where communications routes and mineral wealth are located will be removed from the lease and handed over to Kazakhstan,” Shoigu said.
The land is part of two military facilities operated by Russia in Kazakhstan: the Saryshagan anti-ballistic missile testing ground at Lake Balkhash in the southeast and a flight testing center in Aktobe in the energy-rich west.
“We have taken into account all the desires of the Kazakhstani side in removing the land from the lease,” Shoigu added.
For Kazakhstan, the deal reasserts its sovereignty over the territory and opens up the opportunity to build infrastructure and prospect for energy and mineral resources, just as Astana launches a program to increase Kazakhstan’s proven reserves.
“This agreement is linked to the economic interests of the Republic of Kazakhstan,” the country’s Ministry of Defense said in a tight-lipped statement. The land “will be used in the interests of the oil-and-gas sector, the construction of housing, railroads, and highways, and for other needs.”
The waters of the Syr-Darya river are highly polluted and should not be used for irrigating crops, let alone for drinking, scientists from Kazakhstan have concluded.
Tests of the waters of Central Asia’s longest river – which flows for 2,200 kilometers through Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan – found dangerous concentrations of metals including chromium, copper, nickel, mercury, molybdenum, and zinc, the Nur.kz site quoted scientists from South Kazakhstan State University as saying.
“The water of the Syr-Darya is not recommended for use either for agricultural needs or for the fishing industry,” concluded Uylesbek Besterekov, one of the professors who took part in the three-year study funded by a €600,000 NATO grant.
The scientists (who tested waters flowing for around 1,000 kilometers through Kazakhstan, from the border with Uzbekistan up to the Aral Sea) could not pinpoint which industrial enterprise was the greatest polluter – or even which of the four countries through which the river flows is causing the most contamination. Even if the main polluters could be identified and stopped, it would take at least a decade for the waters to become clean, Besterekov said.
The findings – which back up 2009 data suggesting that the Syr-Darya’s waters were too dirty to drink or use in agriculture safely – are worrying for the Central Asian governments, since the river is used to irrigate crops that are then transported all over the region for public consumption. (It was the use of this river’s waters for agricultural irrigation – particularly for cotton – that led to the shrinking of the Aral Sea into which it empties.)
Being president may not be enough for Emomali Rahmon. If a band of obsequious, state-sponsored academics have their wish, he could soon become “Leader of the Nation” – a title that has been used in the region to evade pesky regulations, like term limits.
In a lengthy article published on the ruling People Democratic Party’s website, political scientists Nosirjon Salimi and Holahmad Sami of Dushanbe’s Pedagogical University insist that Rahmon – who came to power 23 years ago and has systematically crushed all opposition – is more than a president: “The leader of our nation is the guarantor of justice, law and order; he protects our citizens from arbitrary bureaucracy and defends their rights and freedoms. He creates a climate of law and order.”
It is safe to say the article exaggerates Rahmon’s achievements, crediting him with building a democratic government, fighting drug trafficking and reducing poverty. The authors place a special emphasis on Rahmon as peacemaker. “Today, without exception, all members of society recognize it was our leader who was responsible for the restoration of peace, stability and national reconciliation,” they state, suggesting that Rahmon alone ended the 1990s civil war.
The academics liken Rahmon to Charles de Gaulle, Mahatma Gandhi and the late Singaporean autocrat Lee Kuan Yew. Like them, Rahmon has built a nation, bringing “success and progress for the people,” they say.
“Perhaps leaders do not need to be given such titles,” the academics conclude. But “nations experiencing the clash of civilizations and impact of globalization need to acknowledge their leaders.”
A worker from Tajikistan has dropped dead while standing in line to apply for a Russian work permit at a new migrant-processing center near Moscow. His death comes after a barrage of reports about poor conditions at the Multifunctional Migration Center, in Sakharovo.
Komiljon Esanov, 48, had been waiting in line for two days when he became ill, according to Fergana News. By the time an ambulance arrived an hour later he was already dead.
"I think my father died of hunger and thirst while standing in the crowd. We have been queuing for work permits here for several days, and there is no order or system," Esanov’s son Dilshod, who was waiting with his father in line, was quoted as saying by the Dushanbe-based Ozodagon news agency.
The Russian authorities have promised to investigate the cause of death.
When the Sakharovo center opened in January, many migrants viewed it as a positive change. Previously they had to go to at least five different sites to have their fingerprints taken, sit mandatory Russian-language test, purchase health insurance, and collect necessary stamps. Now they can take care of all that paperwork at once.
But the Federal Migration Service’s attempt to streamline the process seems to have failed. With over a million Central Asian migrants working in Moscow alone, the center quickly suffered from overcrowding.
The center can only serve 2,000 people per day, but often up to 5,000 migrants wait in line to get their documents sorted. Many arrive as early as 5 a.m. to start queuing.
What a difference a month can make. In the final days of February, Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev was engaged in an emotional and unseemly spat with Belarus over the death of a Kyrgyz gangster.
By the end of his 10-day European tour this week, Atambayev was positioning himself as a peacemaker between Brussels and Moscow – one eager to continue receiving Western aid. Kyrgyzstan is due to join the Russia-led Eurasia Economic Union next month.
Atambayev made some revealing comments during an April 1 interview with Euronews – an outlet notorious for softball questions and sympathetic interviews with regional leaders. He used the opportunity to praise Russia’s leadership, present himself as a wise leader dabbling in international diplomacy, and remind Western donors that their assistance hasn’t been enough.
Euronews: “Mr. President, welcome to Euronews. Can we regard your visit to Brussels as something of a farewell before Kyrgyzstan joins the Eurasian Economic Union in May and when you will stop getting closer to the European Union?”
Atambayev: “On the contrary. I think, as a part of the Eurasian Union, Kyrgyzstan will be pushing it towards tight engagement with the European Union. Europe should extend from Lisbon and Brussels – to Vladivostok, and of course, I think, to Bishkek.”
The key to massaging your own Wikipedia profile is not getting caught. But Kazakhstan’s efforts to turn the freely editable online encyclopedia into free advertising are yet again in the spotlight.
On March 20, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales hosted an Ask Me Anything conversation (AMA) on Reddit, a social-networking platform. Before long the audience was questioning Wales’s and Wikipedia’s roles in helping to improve Kazakhstan’s image. Back in 2011, Wales awarded a once-and-future Kazakh government employee, Rauan Kenzhekhanuly, the inaugural “Wikipedian of the Year” for his work with WikiBilim, a Kazakh-language platform criticized both for receiving state funds and for publishing multiple articles toeing the authoritarian government’s line. At the time, Wales told EurasiaNet.org, “As far as I know, the WikiBilim organization is not politicized.”
But during the AMA, Wales backpedaled on his decision to name Kenzhekhanuly the first Wikipedian of the Year.
Wales was on the receiving end of a fresh round of criticism last year when Kenzhekhanuly was named deputy governor of Kazakhstan’s Kyzylorda region. During the AMA, a commenter asked Wales if he would have bestowed the award had he known Kenzhekhanuly would go on to serve as deputy governor. “If I had known in 2011 that someone would get a job that I disapprove of in 2014, would I refuse to give them an award in 2011?” Wales responded. “Yes, I would have refused to give that award.”
There’s apparently no end to Kazakhstan's sporting ambitions. While it waits for the International Olympic Committee to decide if it can host the 2022 Winter Games, the oil-rich Central Asian country – not exactly a soccer star – has declared its desire to host the Football World Cup finals in 2026.
“We want to hold the Winter Olympics in 2022, and then it's in the plan to compete for the World Cup in 2026,” Yerlan Kozhagapanov, president of the Kazakhstan Football Federation, told Russia's Sport Express newspaper this week. Our economy is growing rapidly, the country is developing, so why not?”
Kazakhstan – which ranks 138 in the FIFA World Ranking – is far from a soccer superpower. The country has has never qualified for the final stages of a major international tournament and is currently languishing last place in its qualification group for the Euro 2016 championships; it has earned just one point in five matches.
But Kozhagapanov hopes that with a bit of investment, this is all about to change: “We are now starting a program to develop football in Kazakhstan from 2015 to 2022, and establishing a coaching school is one of five priorities.”
In Kazakhstan there is one coach for every 347 children. This compares with one to eight in Germany and one to three in England. Other priorities include developing training infrastructure and combating match-fixing.
UPDATE, March 28: American journalist Umar Farooq says he has been freed and is leaving Kyrgyzstan. Meanwhile, lawyers for human rights watchdog Bir Duino have filed a complaint with the prosecutor's office for the raids on their office and several top employees’ homes.
The arrest of an American journalist on extremism charges and the subsequent raid of a prominent human rights organization, both in southern Kyrgyzstan’s largest city, Osh, suggest that Kyrgyz authorities are still cagey about independent inquiry in a region associated with growing adherence to Islam and festering inter-ethnic tensions.
Kyrgyzstan has styled itself as a bastion of democracy in an authoritarian region, but rights activists see looming Russian-style legislation that would brand NGOs “foreign agents” as impending death for the country’s once-vibrant civil society.
Umar Farooq was researching the recent arrest of a popular cleric accused of supporting Syrian radicals, said a local journalist who had met with him shortly after he arrived in Kyrgyzstan a few weeks ago. On his webpage, Farooq identifies himself as a journalist who has written for the Los Angeles Times, the Christian Science Monitor and others.
The State Committee for National Security (GKNB) released a statement late March 27 confirming Farooq’s March 25 arrest, and claiming he had been found with documents and video materials of a "religious extremist and terrorist character."
A US Embassy spokeswoman told EurasiaNet.org that American officials had been in touch with Farooq and were providing consular support.