Kyrgyzstan’s government has suspended work at a brand new Chinese-built oil refinery, the prime minister has announced, after local protestors demanded the polluting plant clean up its act. A lack of coordination with the community, and suspicion about Chinese intentions, are likely to turn the dispute into another cautionary tale about doing business in the protest-prone Central Asian country.
Residents in the northern town of Kara-Balta have rallied several times in the past month, complaining of fetid smoke from the $300 million Junda facility, which opened on January 17. Initial work stopped on January 27 after a trial run, the company says, promising that future activity at the refinery will be cleaner.
The Junda refinery (sometimes written Zhongda) is designed to process crude oil imported by rail from nearby Kazakhstan. Bishkek has eagerly embraced the project, set to employ over 2,000 locals, making it one of impoverished Kyrgyzstan’s largest employers. No less significantly, it would help Kyrgyzstan break Russia’s fuel-supply monopoly by producing an estimated 600,000 tons of fuel annually, about half domestic need, thus lowering petrol prices at the pump.
But what’s happening in the once-industrial town two hours west of Bishkek seems to be following a familiar pattern.
Kazakhstan’s central bank is appealing for calm as rumors that some financial institutions are in trouble following last week’s currency devaluation have provoked a run on three banks.
On February 19 the National Bank sent text messages to the public urging people to disregard the “false information” and not succumb to panic.
“All Kazakhstani banks have sufficient funds in national and foreign currency,” the messages read; people should not submit to “provocations” and “keep calm.”
Large queues formed at some banks in the financial capital, Almaty, for a second day on February 19 as customers rush to withdraw funds, fearing a bank collapse.
A EurasiaNet.org correspondent witnessed a line spilling out onto the street at a downtown branch of Kaspi Bank, where around 30 people were waiting to enter and more were lining up inside – underlining that, as rumors circulate fast on social networks, they risk becoming self-fulfilling.
Kaspi Bank – which has offered a 100 million tenge ($540,000) reward for information on the origin of the rumors – issued a statement around lunchtime on February 19 saying that sums five times greater than usual had been withdrawn in cash on that day alone, but that the bank was meeting all its obligations.
Three women arrested for wearing panties on their heads were among nearly three dozen protesters hauled through the courts in Almaty this weekend, as last week’s devaluation of the tenge brought demonstrators out onto the streets of Kazakhstan’s commercial capital.
Zhanna Baytelova, Yevgeniya Plakhina, and Valeriya Ibrayeva were arrested at an anti-devaluation protest on February 16 after putting lace panties on their heads and trying to place them on a monument to Kazakhstan’s independence.
They were immediately tried on hooliganism charges and fined around $100 each. Their quirky protest was inspired by obscure regulations, due to come into force in July, that will govern the level of moisture absorption in underwear sold in Customs Union member states Kazakhstan, Russia and Belarus.
The action, Plakhina told EurasiaNet.org “is a symbol of the absurdity which is taking place in our country, including the recent tenge devaluation.”
“In Russian we have a saying, ‘giving one’s last underpants,’ which literally means becoming poor,” she explained. “This was a symbolic action.”
The three women were among five people arrested at the small anti-devaluation rally that drew around 30 people on Republic Square. That followed a larger rally the previous day, which riot police broke up after some 200 protesters marched to Republic Square.
Up to several dozen protesters demonstrating against Kazakhstan’s recent devaluation of the national currency were arrested on February 15 in the commercial capital, Almaty.
Riot police swooped down on as many as 200 protesters as they marched to city hall from their original venue nearby, where they had held a small unsanctioned rally against this week’s 19-percent devaluation of the tenge. Demonstrators urged government action over mounting socioeconomic problems and inflation.
Kanagat Takeyeva, who was designated spokeswoman among protesters who besieged the National Bank headquarters on February 12, was among the detained. “They’re taking me away,” she shouted into her telephone, as riot police grabbed her arms and marched her to a police truck amid what appeared to be targeted arrests of specific protesters.
It was not immediately clear how many arrests were made; EurasiaNet.org witnessed six, but witnesses spoke of up to 30. Three trucks containing detainees drove off.
The security forces moved in as the protesters attempted to reach Republic Square in front of Almaty’s city hall. Police formed a cordon to enclose protesters and chased down some who had escaped.
A prosecutor speaking through a megaphone warned the demonstrators to disperse and cautioned them that they were breaking Kazakhstan’s strict law on public assembly, which requires protesters to obtain official permission 10 days before a rally. Demonstrators breaching that law face fines or up to 15 days in jail.
A non-profit alliance co-founded by organizations including the Agha Khan Foundation, USAID and Ashoka, is aiming to promote social entrepreneurship in Central Asia.
On February 11, the Alliance for Social Entrepreneurship presented its initial report, “Mapping Social Entrepreneurship in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan,” in New York. A second presentation, featuring the report’s author, Myrza Karimov, will take place February 12 in Washington, DC.
“There is no incentive from the government [to promote social entrepreneurship], that’s our biggest problem,” stated Karimov in New York, a pair of felt dolls made by women in Kyrgyzstan's Naryn province resting in front of him. “There is a lack of legislation. If you want to do this kind of work, you pay the same taxes as a for-profit company.”
The project defines “social entrepreneurship” as any venture, whether it is for- or non-profit, that prioritizes social change above earnings. One problem with adopting the model in Central Asia, Karimov said, is the region's lack of experience and understanding of this kind of hybrid thinking.
“People say they are an NGO, or they say they are in small business, even if part of what they are doing is social entrepreneurship,” said George Khalaf, director of Synergos, an organization coordinating the initiative.
As a first step, the alliance is focusing on Kyrgystan and Tajikistan, examining practices and problems in what are Central Asia’s two poorest states. In Kyrgyzstan’s case, the country’s dependence on foreign aid constitutes a hurdle for social entrepreneurship, said Karimov, a former employee of USAID. He cited 15,000 NGO's registered in his home country, with only some 150 still operating, and only a dozen or so operating in a self-sustainable manner.
Protesters in Kazakhstan’s commercial capital, Almaty, forced their way into the National Bank on February 12 to confront the country’s top financial officials over the sudden devaluation of the tenge, which wiped a fifth off the value of the currency in one fell swoop the previous day.
A group of around 50 people – including low-paid workers, worried mortgage holders, and pensioners – gathered outside the bank in freezing temperatures, demanding a meeting with National Bank chief Kayrat Kelimbetov to address concerns about spiraling inflation that analysts say is certain to result from the devaluation.
“What are the people to do? How should they act in this situation? What is the way out? We want to know this!” Zhasaral Kuanyshalin, a prominent activist who was taking part in the protest, told EurasiaNet.org.
Police stood by as irate protesters barged into the National Bank’s lobby. Riot police reinforcements were summoned, but management moved to deflate tension by inviting the demonstrators inside.
At a turbulent meeting with National Bank Deputy Chairman Kuat Kozhakmetov, Kanagat Takeyeva, a designated spokeswoman for the protesters, put forward demands ranging from a meeting with Kelimbetov (who is in Astana, the capital) to jobs and tackling the rising cost of housing and mortgages.
Kozhakmetov’s explanations that the government had pledged to rein in inflation (which is inevitable as the price of hard currency-denominated imports rockets in the wake of the devaluation) were met with cries of “Lies, lies!” “Why do you deceive us?” and “Kelimbetov, resign!” The meeting broke up inconclusively, with Kozhakmetov promising to consider the demands.
Kazakhstan allowed a rapid-fire devaluation of the tenge on February 11, causing the currency to lose a fifth of its value.
The National Bank announced the devaluation without notice to forestall panic buying and currency speculation. In a statement the bank said it had decided to stop its costly policy of propping up the tenge and let it slide to a new currency corridor of 185 tenge to the dollar, plus or minus 3 tenge. That is 19 percent lower than the official National Bank rate of 155.5 tenge early on February 11.
The news caused public outrage, particularly since the devaluation comes just a month after National Bank Chairman Kairat Kelimbetov denied – again – that Kazakhstan would be forced to stop pouring reserves into propping up the currency.
Social networks were abuzz with consternation about the devaluation, with users incensed that their tenge-denominated salaries and savings will be worth around a fifth less in dollar terms, and that sharp rises in the prices of imports (on which Kazakhstan is heavily dependent for everything from food to consumer goods) will follow.
“The government of my country just broke my heart,” commented one user, Zauresh Amanzholova.
At a stormy press conference, Kelimbetov fought off resignation calls, defended the devaluation, and said Astana would strive to keep inflation within the now ambitious target of 6-8 percent this year.
Dina Baidildayeva's one-woman show of support for other bloggers got her arrested.
Kazakhstan has never been a bastion of press freedom, but the arrests of four Almaty bloggers in the past week have put Internet commentators in the country’s cultural capital on high alert.
In the latest case Dina Baidildayeva was detained by police on February 8 after staging a one-woman show of solidarity with three jailed bloggers, who were imprisoned on February 5 on hooliganism charges that they denied.
Nurali Aytelenov, Rinat Kibrayev, and Dmitriy Shelokov each received a 10-day prison sentence after protesting outside a restaurant where the mayor, Akhmetzhan Yesimov, was lunching with selected bloggers. The protesters, who had not been invited, accused the mayor of only wanting to hold a dialogue with “tame” bloggers.
In response, Baidildayeva, who is a blogger and also a social networks editor at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, took to Republic Square opposite Almaty city hall waving a poster reading: “Freedom to bloggers – Shame on Yesimov.”
“Mr Yesimov, resign! Freedom to bloggers who were jailed just because they wanted to ask questions to Mayor Yesimov, because they are not satisfied with his work!” she said. “He only gathered bloggers that he liked and who were loyal to him, and that’s not what an intelligent government does!”
Police watched the five-minute protest before moving in to detain Baidildayeva at the scene after she had finished speaking and packed away her poster. She complained that they did not specify what crime she had committed.
Authorities in northern Kazakhstan are disbanding a community of Muslims, believed to be the last independent Muslim congregation in the country.
Officials from a court-appointed Liquidation Commission arrived at the Din-Muhammad Tatar-Bashkir Mosque in the city of Petropavl on February 4, Oslo-based religious freedoms watchdog Forum 18 reports.
The mosque “is to be handed over to another [unspecified] religious organization,” Forum 18 quoted Marat Zhamaliyev, the deputy head of North Kazakhstan Region’s Finance Department, as saying.
The closure comes after the community that worships at the mosque failed to gain the official registration required under a controversial law on religion passed in 2011, which critics have called over-restrictive. The legislation controversially prohibits prayer in state buildings (including government offices, educational establishments, and military facilities), sets strict registration requirements for religious groups, and allows authorities to vet religious literature.
Forum 18 believes the 162-year-old mosque “may possibly be the last remaining publicly accessible mosque independent of the state-backed Muslim Board,” which is responsible for licensing mosques and regulating their activity.
The watchdog says that a community still exists at the mosque, regularly holds prayers there, “and intends to continue to exist.”
“We're not liquidating the mosque, we're liquidating the community,” Zhamaliyev said in response.
“No one is banning people from praying,” he added. “People can go to pray in the new community.”
As country rebranding goes it’s quite radical: President Nursultan Nazarbayev has suggested changing the name of Kazakhstan and calling it Kazak Yeli (Kazakh Country) instead.
Offering a clue to his thinking, Nazarbayev singled out the ‘stan’ part of the name – and held up neighboring Mongolia as an example of a country without the Persian suffix, which means “land of.”
“The name of our country has the ending ‘stan,’ as do the other states of Central Asia,” he said in remarks quoted by his press service on February 6.
“At the same time, foreigners show interest in Mongolia, whose population is just two million people, and its name lacks the suffix ‘stan.’ Perhaps with time the question of changing the name of our country to Kazak Yeli should be examined, but first this should definitely be discussed with the people.”
The people were quick to react, taking to Twitter to vent—some firmly for and others as staunchly against.
“I support Kazak Yeli!” tweeted one user named Ruslan Zhangazy, in Kazakh. “And you?”
“Perhaps now the Twitterati will think how to stand up for the name of our country together,” remarked another, Nikita Shabayev, in Russian.
Nazarbayev was speaking at a meeting with intellectuals during a trip to the western oil town of Atyrau on February 6. The nature of the venue suggests that these may have been off-the-cuff remarks rather than a firm policy statement, but the proposal does suggest that a country name change is on the president’s mind.