As news trickled out of Taijkistan on July 22 that the government was releasing, albeit with some restrictions, international scholar Alexander Sodiqov after five weeks in jail, a group of scholars and activists gathered at New York University to discuss the long-term effects of his detention. The case, panelists cautioned, could signal on-going trouble for academic freedom for scholars focusing on Tajikistan.
Sodiqov, a political science doctoral student at the University of Toronto and a Tajik national, first traveled to his home country in June as part of a University of Exeter (UK) research project on conflict management strategies. He was detained in Khorog on June 16, before being brought to the intelligence agency headquarters in Dushanbe, where he remained until July 22, accused of espionage.
“Tajikistan was never a no-go area for academic research,” commented John Heathershaw, a lecturer at the University of Exeter who was working with Sodiqov at the time of his arrest. “Alex’s detention is unprecedented… and it sent a message that research is under threat in Tajikistan.”
Sodiqov and others have vehemently denied any connection to espionage, which Heathershaw called “simply untrue.” Disseminating his story and his denials, however, has proved a challenge in Tajikistan, where pro-government media dominate.
“The region thrives on conspiracy theories. Having knowledge – having data – is extremely threatening to these governments,” Alexander Cooley, a political science professor focusing on Central Asia at New York’s Barnard College, affirmed. “Alexander’s detention has had an effect: it’s going to deter research. It’s making this muddled environment even worse.”
Russian legislators are tripping over themselves to tighten rules on dual citizenship after President Vladimir Putin hinted at a need for stricter oversight.
On March 31, Russia’s State Duma agreed to consider not one, but three separate bills covering dual citizenship held by Russians. The new measures, if adopted, would impose various criminal penalties on some Russian citizens who fail to disclose that they share loyalty with another country. Two bills submitted by deputies from Vladimir Zhirinovksy’s Liberal Democratic Party of Russia would impose punishments of up to 300,000 rubles (around $8,500) and up to three years imprisonment for citizens who fail to disclose that they have adopted dual-nationality within 30 days of becoming a citizen of another state. The bill does not appear to address how to deal with those who already hold dual citizenship.
A milder bill, proposed by a deputy from the Just Russia faction in the Duma, would cover only state employees and some employees who work for state-owned entities.
The Russian constitution explicitly permits dual citizenship, while stating that “a citizen of the Russian Federation in possession of other citizenship will be considered by the Russian Federation only as a subject of the Russian Federation, with the exception of cases subject to pre-agreed international treaties of the Russian Federation or federal law.” The only two such exceptions apply to Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
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.
Aleksei Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition figure and a candidate for Moscow mayor, has reached out to the city’s migrant communities, meeting with eight migrant rights activists on August 16, according to the weekly Bolshoy Gorod (“Big City”) Magazine.
News of the meeting so far appears limited to comments by one participant, since the Navalny campaign asked participants not to disclose the contents of the discussion, promising to release a video of the event. (Those comments by Bella Shakhmirza, founder of the Face to Face lecture series on ethnic relations in Russia, give little away. She describes Navalny’s position as “frightening” and “nationalist,” while calling him “charismatic” and characterizing the atmosphere of the meeting as “very good.”)
But given Navalny’s penchant for outright ethnic slurs against people of the Caucasus and Central Asia in the past, the fact that the meeting took place at all appears to be a nod toward the potential influence of Moscow’s migrants – and their sympathizers – in the September 8 vote, which includes regional elections in eight federal entities of Russia and several mayoral races in major cities.
A former lawyer for one of the two students from Kazakhstan implicated in the Boston Marathon bombing has published an impassioned plea for leniency, arguing that the prospect of 25 years in prison for the two teens for exercising “world-class bad judgment under the worst of possible scenarios” would be too harsh a punishment.
Azamat Tazhayakov and Dias Kadyrbayev, both from Kazakhstan, allegedly took and dumped a backpack with emptied fireworks from Dzhokar Tsarnaev’s dorm room after seeing their friend named as a suspect on TV several days after the bombings. On August 13, Tazhayakov and Kadyrbayev entered a plea of “not guilty” on charges of conspiracy to obstruct justice and obstruction of justice in Boston’s Federal District Court.
In a commentary for Slate, Harlan Protass, Tazhayakov’s former lawyer, argues that locking up two 19-year-olds till they’ve reached their 30’s or 40’s is not the best way to prevent future tampering with evidence by others. That may be a bit inside baseball if you don’t live in the United States, since it plays into broader American debates about sentencing and prison reform, as well as the power of federal prosecutors.
This just in from the Uzbek Ministry of No Fun: For the remainder of the holy month of Ramadan, government employees, which in authoritarian Uzbekistan includes not only ministry and law enforcement workers, but also those toiling for government-run banks and medical clinics, shall go straight home after work and not consort with anyone.
So reports the Uzbek service of Radio Free Europe. Apparently, it is not bad enough that Ramadan, which requires Muslims to fast during the day and eat only after sundown, falls this year during the longest days and hottest part of summer in blistering Central Asia. As part of its continued crackdown on religion, the Uzbek government has decided to put the kibosh on the daily ritual celebrating the day’s end known as Iftar, which involves friends and family gathering for food and relaxation.
It’s not clear who issued the new rule, but it is leading to some predictable absurdities.
According to Radio Ozodliq, via the Russian-language Lenta.ru, for instance, employees of the state-owned Halk Bank have been asked to go straight home after work as per a special decree of the company’s human resources department. Eateries in Tashkent, the report says, have been forbidden from letting the pious break fast on their premises, despite the fact that reservation-takers find it impossible to distinguish those hoping to get a table for Iftar from those simply hoping to stop in for an evening meal.
They carried banners advertising a virtual tweet-march through Moscow, where a real Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Pride Parade was banned in 2012 for the next 100 years, and calling on Westerners to boycott Russian vodka. But, persecuted at home, Russian speakers from the former Soviet Union reveled in the opportunity to celebrate their sexual orientation during New York’s recent Pride Parade.
“I came to be happy and to show that we can have this kind of happiness back home,” commented Anton Krasovksy, a TV journalist who has become a crusader for gay rights in Russia since coming out on national television in January – and promptly losing his job.
“I really want for people in other countries – countries of Central Asia and the former Soviet Union, in Kazakhstan and Belarus, and even in Eastern Europe, where there is discrimination – to see that things can be completely different. It could be not now, but at some point,” added Krasovsky, whose Kontr TV Channel was shut down after his coming out.
Cheered by hundreds of thousands of onlookers as they made their way down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan as part of the 44th annual New York Pride Parade on June 30, many of the 150 Russian-speakers and sympathizers who marched under the banner of RUSA LGBT, New York’s Russian-speaking gay and lesbian association, shared the sentiment.
The Kremlin-aligned Vesti.ru website is reporting that a Turkmen citizen fighting with Islamic militants in Syria has been captured by pro-government forces near Aleppo. The prisoner, identified as Ravshan Gazakov, is supposedly a “commander of suicide bombers in one of the squads” operated by the Al Nursa Front, a militant group affiliated with al Qaeda, the report states.
Gazakov – also known as Abu Abdulla, according to Vesti – was reportedly taken prisoner by the Syrian army as part of “Operation Northern Storm.” In seizing his laptop, the army purportedly found footage of Gazakov instructing a suicide bomber and sending him on his way to blow up a government outpost in Aleppo.
There are lots of holes in the Vesti story: it doesn’t say, for example, exactly when or how Gazakov was taken prisoner, or offer a credible explanation as to why a supposed head of a suicide unit would allow himself to be taken alive. There is also no indication how Vesti’s Evgeniy Poddubnyy, the credited author of the report, obtained his intel. Thus, there’s always a chance that this report is mostly Kremlin disinformation.
But if it’s accurate, a quote attributed to Gazakov, in which he describes his own training, is of particular interest for those who follow Central Asian security matters.
“I went through an initial training near Ashgabat as part of Shaikh Murad’s squad, later was sent to Istanbul,” Gazakov is quoted as saying. “There, our group was met by a [operative] from al Qaeda - I don’t know his name - who sent us to a camp on the border with Syria. There we were taught to make bombs, detonators, to mount explosives. We had different instructors, many from the former USSR, Arabs from Europe, from Jordan and from Qatar. Then we crossed the border and made bombs near Aleppo.”
Four former-Soviet immigrants appear to be at the center of what federal prosecutors in the United States are calling a $6 billion money laundering operation conducted entirely on the internet, according to an indictment made public by the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York.
On May 28, the court announced the arrest of Arthur Belanchuk Budovsky, 39, Vladimir Kats, 41, Mark Marmilev, 33, and Maxim Chukharev, 27, along with a fifth suspect, Azzedine El Amine 46, on May 24 in New York, Spain, and Costa Rica, in connection with a digital money transfer site known as Liberty Reserve. The site, whose domain www.libertyreserve.com has also been seized by authorities, was used to conduct some 55 million transactions to transfer proceeds obtained largely from criminal activity such as “credit card fraud, identity theft, investment fraud, computer hacking, child pornography, and narcotics trafficking,” the indictment alleges.