A second hostage crisis in a week has amplified concerns about ethnic tensions in southern Kyrgyzstan.
Police in Osh Province say a fight between locals and Chinese workers in the village of Kurshab on January 8 left dozens injured. The brawl reportedly started when Chinese workers, possibly intoxicated, accused a local resident of stealing a mobile phone. A fight ensued and the Chinese reportedly took a group of Kyrgyzstanis hostage. Some reports say local police were among the 28 injured in the fracas. All Chinese from the district have been evacuated to Osh city for their safety, KyrTAG reports.
The Chinese were working on a high-profile power line that will connect parts of southern Kyrgyzstan with the north. Due to the fight, the launch of the line has been delayed, said Musazhan Makelek, head of China’s TBEA energy firm in Kyrgyzstan. Makelek told 24.kg that the fight had nothing to do with the $208 million project, which is being financed by China, and blamed both sides.
Thousands of Chinese nationals work in Kyrgyzstan, most on infrastructure projects such as high-voltage electricity lines and roads, and as traders. Beijing has promised hundreds of millions in loans and assistance in recent years. But the Chinese presence and largesse is not without controversy. Many Kyrgyz are deeply suspicious and worry the giant neighbor could swallow their tiny country.
A Ferghana Valley border clash this weekend yet again highlights the potential for violence in Central Asia’s most densely populated and ethnically diverse region.
Several hundred residents of the Uzbek enclave of Sokh reportedly attacked a Kyrgyz border post and took Kyrgyz citizens hostage on January 5 and 6, according to local news wires. Sokh (also spelled Soh) is an island of territory controlled by Uzbekistan and entirely surrounded by one of Kyrgyzstan’s poorest provinces, Batken.
Though Sokh is populated mostly by ethnic Tajiks, a minority in both countries, the episode is an unsettling reminder of the fighting between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan that left hundreds dead in 2010.
It looks like Moscow isn't interested in buying part of Kyrgyzstan’s gas infrastructure. It wants all of it.
After a week of dangerous energy shortages in Kyrgyzstan, which continued to leave thousands of customers in the capital without gas on Friday, Bishkek is finalizing a deal to sell Kyrgyzgaz to Russia’s state-run behemoth, Gazprom, officials say.
The shortages began when neighboring Kazakhstan stopped gas supplies to Kyrgyzstan on December 14, citing the need to supply its own customers. Kyrgyzstan had also constantly defaulted on payments and reportedly owed the Kazakhs tens of millions of dollars. The shut off happened to coincide with a bout of extreme cold – temperatures in Bishkek have hovered around -20 Celsius (-4 Fahrenheit) for the past week – leading some to speculate the shortage was a bargaining ploy. In any case, as more Kyrgyzstanis turned to electricity to cook and heat their homes, their country's aging infrastructure faltered, resulting in mass blackouts.
For years, observers have warned of a crisis like the one currently gripping the country, but politicians have done little more than bicker and postpone solutions – like find ways to cut rampant corruption in the sector and raise energy tariffs to cover basic maintenance.
A legal amendment that would restrict the rights of Kyrgyzstan’s minorities sailed through parliament last week with a vote of 84 to 12. Legislators must endorse the amendment to the law “On the State Language” in two more readings before it can come into force.
The draft amendment proposes to fine government officials (clerks and above) for speaking anything other than Kyrgyz in the process of performing their official duties. Moreover, all official documents, including tax returns, would need to be submitted to authorities in Kyrgyz and only Kyrgyz, Kloop.kg explains. Currently the law allows documents to be submitted either in Kyrgyz, the “state language,” or Russian, Kyrgyzstan’s “official language.”
Under the amendment, government bodies would no longer be required to provide Russian translation at official functions, parliament would no longer consider draft laws in anything but Kyrgyz, and civil servants would need to pass a rigorous Kyrgyz language test.
The amendment would thus bar from public service and civic life anyone who does not speak fluent Kyrgyz – that is, minorities and some of the best-educated Kyrgyz, who often speak Russian as a first language. According to the 2009 census, Kyrgyzstan is approximately 71 percent ethnic Kyrgyz; Russians and Uzbeks constitute another 22.3 percent of the population.
Russian’s status as Kyrgyzstan’s “official language” would become virtually meaningless, while the amendment could further isolate Kyrgyzstan internationally.
President Vladimir Putin’s state-of-the-nation address today is being parsed for details on how he proposes to protect Russia’s "national and spiritual identity," boost the economy and military, and what, if anything, he plans to do about Russia’s runaway corruption.
But two comments in particular will interest Central Asia watchers.
There will be no more crossing from former Soviet republics into Russia without an international passport, Putin declared about halfway through the speech:
We still have a practice that the citizens of CIS states enter the Russian Federation using their domestic passports. […] In such circumstances, when the citizens of other countries enter using their domestic passports, it is almost impossible to ensure effective immigration control. I believe that no later than 2015 entry to Russia should be allowed only with the use of foreign-travel [passports], not the domestic passports of other countries.
("Domestic passports" are the main form of internal ID used in most former Soviet republics.)
So, by 2015 the millions of migrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus traveling to Russia for work will have a new hurdle to jump over.
But a few minutes later, Putin flags an exception:
However, without a doubt, within the framework of the Customs Union and the Common Economic Space the ... current system will continue to apply – maximally simplified rules for crossing the border and staying on the territory of member countries of the Customs Union and the Common Economic Space.
After 11 years of negotiations, Tajikistan is set to join the World Trade Organization (WTO) within the next few months.
President Emomali Rakhmon was in Geneva on Monday to sign a package of membership agreements that commit Dushanbe to opening its markets and standardizing import tariffs. Tajikistan’s rubberstamp parliament must ratify membership by June 7, 2013. The country will become a WTO member 30 days after ratification, making it the trade body’s 159th member.
“Today constitutes a landmark in Tajikistan's history and lays solid foundations for further promotion of sustainable social and economic growth,” Rakhmon said at the signing ceremony. “Tajikistan will use its WTO membership as a means of fostering future economic growth and prosperity.”
According to the WTO, Tajikistan ranks 143 globally in exports of goods (approximately $2 billion in 2010) and 140 ($2.7 billion) in imports, and trades primarily with China, the EU, Russia, other Central Asian countries, and Turkey.
In Dushanbe, one analyst affiliated with the president’s office hailed accession. By forcing Tajikistan to modernize its legislation, membership will help attract international investors, Saifullo Safarov, deputy director of the Center for Strategic Studies under the President, told Russia’s Nezavisimaya Gazeta.
But a Russian analyst said Dushanbe has sought membership out of its desire for prestige, rather than economic interests.
Authorities in Uzbekistan have instructed television executives to keep the local version of Santa Claus off the airwaves this holiday season, the Associated Press reports.
Throughout the former Soviet Union, the robed Father Frost – Ded Moroz as he’s known in Russian – is the beloved figure who appears with gifts on New Year’s Eve, a entirely secular holiday.
Independent news website UzMetronom reported Monday that President Islam Karimov's authoritarian government imposed the informal ban on Father Frost and his snow maiden sidekick. […]
The ban is similar to the semiofficial 2005 ban on celebrating New Year's Eve.
It all looks like part of Karimov’s ongoing effort to shield his 30 million people from any foreign influences, and invent an entirely Uzbek "culture." As part of the campaign, high school students are subjected to lectures on "Uzbek national values," which demand they to submit to authorities.
In March, legislators, acting out of concern for children's “moral health,” mulled a vague ban on foreign toys that did not conform to these "national values." And earlier this year Karimov's government called off Valentine’s Day:
Uzbekistan has cancelled concerts marking the holiday and instructed young people instead to celebrate the birthday of a local hero—Moghul emperor Babur, who was born in Andijan in 1483 and conquered much of South Asia. The Associated Press recently cited an Uzbek newspaper article calling Valentine's Day the work of “forces with evil goals bent on putting an end to national values.”
Authorities in Kyrgyzstan say they have detained the country’s most-wanted criminal kingpin. But contradictory stories about his arrest are already prompting questions. A slippery figure the US government calls a “significant foreign narcotics trafficker,” Kamchybek Kolbayev has enjoyed ambiguous relations with Kyrgyz authorities for years.
Kolbayev turned himself in at 5:00 am Saturday, a Supreme Court press release said today. A Court spokesperson told EurasiaNet.org that Kolbayev has been charged with a variety of crimes, including organizing a criminal group, narcotics possession, kidnapping, and illegal possession of firearms. Yet the State Committee on National Security (GKNB), which is holding Kolbayev, told EurasiaNet.org he has not been charged and is being held in temporary confinement for one month while investigators consider their options. The Prosecutor General’s office refused to comment.
That Kolbayev, who had been living in the United Arab Emirates, would surrender is surprising. He’d been fingered in just about every conversation about organized crime since the family of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev fled during a bloody uprising in April 2010. With the family’s departure, Kolbayev was believed to have lost his cover, or krysha as they call it in Russian, his “roof.”
Last week, Kyrgyz-language newspaper Uchur reported that Kolbayev had flown back into Kyrgyzstan unmolested and had headed straight for his native Issyk-Kul region.
A prominent international think-tank says Kyrgyzstan’s security services are harassing its contacts in the ethnically divided south just for meeting with its researcher.
Over the past week, the State Committee for National Security (GKNB, still referred to colloquially as the KGB) has questioned human rights activists and other sources that had spoken with an analyst from the International Crisis Group, the think-tank said in a November 30 statement. The individuals met with ICG’s Conor Prasad, an Irish national, shortly before he was detained on November 17 in Uzgen and had his research materials, including his laptop computer and notes, seized. It appears that authorities used those materials to determine whom he had met.
Prasad left Kyrgyzstan after the GKNB said he had been trying to incite tensions and provoke public unrest. Observers in Bishkek and abroad dismiss those claims as ridiculous. ICG said the accusations were groundless.
From the ICG’s statement:
These actions represent clear harassment of human rights defenders and others who were doing nothing more than exercising their rights of expression and assembly. If such researchers are not allowed to meet with others and discuss their work, the state is undermining the core freedoms of its citizens.
A giant rainbow hovered over Istanbul for several hours on November 22, as a soft northern drizzle battled an acute winter sun. The dreamy effect, seen here over the 4th-century Valens Aqueduct in Fatih, had some witnesses worried they were hallucinating.
David Trilling is EurasiaNet's Central Asia editor.