Djoomart Otorbaev during an interview with EurasiaNet.org in November 2014.
After a tumultuous year in office, Kyrgyzstan’s prime minister – the fourth since parliamentary elections in 2010 – has resigned.
Djoomart Otorbaev, an urbane, Western-oriented technocrat, announced he was stepping down on April 23 shortly after presenting his annual report to parliament. His year in office was dominated by inconclusive negotiations over the country’s largest gold mine and attempts to mitigate the fallout from Kyrgyzstan’s impending entry into the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union.
"Thank you for recognizing the work of the government as satisfactory. This is not the work of one person. In democratic country there should not be a monopoly on power. I think this branch of power needs another shake, therefore today I'm announcing that I leave my post,” Otorbaev said in comments carried by the AKIpress news agency. "I think my decision to resign will allow the majority coalition to choose a more decisive prime minister.”
Much of his time in office since April 4, 2014, had been spent negotiating with Toronto-listed Centerra Gold over the fate of the Kumtor gold mine, located high in the mountains near the Chinese border. The two sides have been locked in a dispute for over two years, since parliament demanded more of the mine’s profits stay inside Kyrgyzstan. Kumtor produces between 8 and 12 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s annual GDP, and almost half of industrial output.
In November 2014, in a Kazakhstani village near one of the world’s largest oil, gas and condensate fields, 25 schoolchildren and four adults suddenly grew ill and fell unconscious.
Residents of the village, Berezovka, had noticed flaring at the nearby Karachaganak field and had smelled gas the day before. They say they were poisoned and have demanded relocation. Though some local officials did speak publicly about the problem at the time, a watchdog says that Kazakhstan’s government and its Western partners are ignoring the illnesses and falsely accusing residents – who have complained of poisonings since 2002 – of faking.
The field is operated by Karachaganak Petroleum Operating BV (KPO), a consortium including BG Group from Britain, Italy’s ENI, Chevron from the USA, Russia’s Lukoil and Kazakhstan’s state-run KazMunayGaz. It is Kazakhstan’s largest producing gas field.
Crude Accountability, a Virginia-based watchdog focusing on hydrocarbon extraction in the Caspian Sea basin, says KPO is trying to “hush up” the tragedy.
Independent monitors have found dangerous chemicals including hydrogen sulfide in Berezovka’s air, Crude Accountability said this month. And since the initial poisonings last November, several other bouts of fainting and illness have hit the village: “Almost 50 percent of the villagers are chronically ill and 80 percent of the children suffer from respiratory diseases.”
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.
Kyrgyzstan’s prime minister has ordered a halt to the country’s two-year effort to renegotiate operating terms at its flagship gold mine, reasoning that a joint venture is no longer in the country’s best interests. Despite lawmakers’ near-constant chest thumping and promises to nationalize the Kumtor mine, the announcement seemed to catch them off guard.
Russia’s Central Bank has released new data showing drops as steep as 15 percent in the amount of money transferred by individuals to Central Asia in 2014 versus the year before. Much of that cash – no one can say exactly how much – comprises remittances from labor migrants.
Emomali Rahmon meeting with PR flacks from United World in October 2014.
Any writer who deploys the word "stable" to describe Tajikistan without half a dozen caveats has either never heard of the place or is being paid to produce puff. Or both.
“Stable and Strategic at the Crossroads of Asia” declares the headline on a eight-page supplement (presumably not produced for free) distributed March 20 with USA Today, the largest paper by circulation in America.
Full of Silk Road tropes and liberally sprinkled with words of wisdom from President Emomali Rahmon, now in his 23rd year in power, the supplement may fool readers who have never heard of the corrupt and authoritarian Central Asian country, the poorest in the former Soviet Union.
It hits all the government’s key talking points: about Tajikistan’s “multi-vector” foreign policy; cooperation with the West fighting terror and drug trafficking; the visionary leadership of its president (so paranoid he has shut out political opposition despite power-sharing agreements); efforts to tap Tajikistan’s gas reserves (too deep to be economically feasible anytime soon); and the potential for tourism in its mountains (beautiful to be sure, but lacking infrastructure and requiring tiresome extra paperwork to visit the most spectacular places).
Besides the truth-bending, outright untruths abound. A piece on the finance sector highlights a local bank that is insolvent.
But the expectation seems to be that the average American reader will stay none the wiser.
Tajikistan’s president often enthuses about leaving behind a country better than the one he took over 23 years ago. But the impoverished Central Asian nation fares poorly in many studies – from transparency and doing business to health and education – often because of the corruption that plagues the country’s weak institutions.
A new appointment promises to change all that.
On March 16, President Emomali Rahmon appointed his 27-year-old son, Rustam Emomali, to head the national anti-corruption agency – the Agency for State Financial Control and Combating Corruption – according to a decree posted on the president’s website. Emomali will report to his father and leave his post at the Customs Agency, which he has led for almost a year and a half.
The president is entrusting his son with one of the most delicate tasks in the country. In the past, the anti-corruption agency has been accused of helping some of Tajikistan’s murky criminal-political factions gain ascendency over others, of being a political tool to snuff out rivals. At the least, it has been faulted for not fulfilling its mandate. Tajikistan, after all, ranks 152 out of 175 in Transparency International’s most recent Corruption Perceptions Index.
Russian President Vladimir Putin ended a mysterious 11-day disappearance by materializing for a meeting with his Kyrgyz counterpart in St. Petersburg on March 16, Kremlin pool journalists at the meeting reported on Twitter just before 2 p.m. local time.
Kyrgyzstan’s aggressively pro-Putin president, Almazbek Atambayev, confirmed his counterpart was in good health, Russian state media reported. For his part, Putin dismissed reports on his health, saying “[life] would be boring without gossip.”
Putin had last been seen in public on March 5. There was no immediate explanation for his long absence.
The president rarely drops out of sight. So with his disappearance coming at a time of heightened anxieties in the West about Russia’s course, and rising militant nationalism at home, Russian and international media nervously speculated over his whereabouts. Pundits postulated that the president had died, was recovering from a botched Botox job, had been toppled in a place coup, or was on a secret mission to oversee the birth of a lovechild in Switzerland.
Even some of Russia’s urban liberals – no Putin lovers – became concerned that if the president had exited, who or what would come next. Had Putin been deposed in a coup by hardliners even more hardline than himself?
Putin’s spokesman tried in vain all last week to bat away the speculation, which was fueled by revelations that recent footage of presidential meetings had been pre-recorded.
In the hours before Putin appeared, as the suspense grew in St. Petersburg, some noted that Kyrgyz journalists had not been invited on the trip with Atambayev.
The fallout from Russia’s economic downturn is forcing Kyrgyzstan to spend its limited reserves to fend off speculators and ease pressure on its currency, National Bank Chairman Tolkunbek Abdygulov tells EurasiaNet.org. Abdygulov is using the crisis to try to strengthen rules for the Central Asian country’s under-regulated financial sector.
With less than three months until Kyrgyzstan joins the Kremlin’s new economic bloc, the Eurasian Economic Union, confusion over the EEU’s rules is keeping small-scale Kyrgyzstani entrepreneurs guessing.