Earlier in September, the Peace Corps announced it would withdraw from Turkmenistan. Few were surprised at the news, which follows the sudden suspensions of programs in Uzbekistan in 2005 (following US criticism of the Andijan massacre) and in Kazakhstan last year.
In our original coverage of the Turkmenistan announcement, we said the Peace Corps had been “kicked out” of Kazakhstan.
A State Department spokesperson disputed our characterization, calling on EurasiaNet.org to substantiate the claim. Technically, the State Department representative is right – we can’t produce conclusive evidence the program was “kicked out” of Kazakhstan. But the known circumstances surrounding the abrupt cessation of Peace Corps’ activities in Kazakhstan in November 2011 raise plenty of questions that officials don’t seem eager to answer.
When we queried the State Department representative for additional details about the Kazakhstan closure, she mentioned “operational considerations” and suggested we talk to a Peace Corps official. We duly tried, specifically asking the Peace Corps to shed light on those “operational considerations.” A representative in Washington referred us back to the vague, original press release, and declined to answer questions.
One problem for anyone seeking to foster regional integration in Central Asia (“New Silk Road” or otherwise) is the frequent border disputes between the countries involved. Uzbekistan, which abuts all the other Central Asia states, has been particularly uncooperative, often closing its border posts without notice, hampering trade and hurting economies around the region.
The Asian Development Bank (ADB), a multilateral lender, has announced it will grant $100 million to help people and goods cross one of those tricky borders. Much of the money will be used to repave a 113-kilometer stretch of road in Tajikistan connecting a major highway with an isolated valley leading to the border with Uzbekistan.
“Improvements to this road will increase regional connectivity, reduce transport costs, and strengthen competitiveness,” said Zheng Wu, a transport specialist at ADB’s Central and West Asia Department, in a September 13 press release. Part of the money will also be spent on upgrading infrastructure at the Sarazm border post on the Uzbekistan-Tajikistan frontier.
But that post has been closed for almost two years. Uzbekistan sealed it in late 2010, cutting Panjakent – a Tajik town in the valley, home to some 33,000 people – off from the Uzbek city of Samarkand, only 60 kilometers away.
The new road project, expected to begin later this year, will certainly help connect the isolated Zarafshan Valley with the rest of Tajikistan, and thereby with a new source for the goods and supplies local residents used to buy in Uzbekistan. At present, in winter Zarafshan’s access to the “mainland” is often restricted to irregular flights to Dushanbe.
On a recent morning in Bishkek’s 12th “microdistrict,” a neighborhood of Soviet-era housing blocks a little past their prime, a small beauty salon was overflowing with chiseled young men sporting carefully cultivated stubble and statuesque women in short shorts.
Kyrgyzstan’s parliament overwhelmingly approved a new prime minister on September 5, and with him a new government.
The new ruling coalition looks much like the old one. Save for the Respublika Party of ex-Prime Minister Omurbek Babanov, whose government collapsed last month, three of the four parties that made up the last coalition will stay: the Social Democrats, Ata-Meken and Ar-Namys. Also, few ministers will change, for now.
Those who have said President Almazbek Atambayev was looking for a servile prime minister to replace the independent-minded Babanov will not be surprised to hear it is Atambayev’s own chief of staff who has slid into the position, after a relatively calm coalition-forming process.
Zhantoro Satybaldiyev is also a member of Atambayev’s Social Democratic Party.
A former minister of transport and communications, 56-year-old Satybaldiyev has previously served as Osh city mayor and Osh Province governor. Before Atambayev became president last year, international donors knew Satybaldiyev as the head of the state agency in charge of reconstructing Osh and Jalal-Abad following the ethnic violence in 2010.
Significantly, he’s a southerner, which could help calm tensions between the north (overwhelmingly represented in the post-Bakiyev government) and the south.
Demonstrators in Bishkek, furious that Minsk is ignoring demands to extradite the brother of the former president to face murder charges, roughed up the Belarusian Embassy on August 28, local news agencies reported.
Many in Kyrgyzstan are livid that Janysh Bakiyev popped up in Belarus earlier this month a free man. A Belarusian activist said he posted photos of ex-President Kurmanbek Bakiyev's hated little brother on August 17 because he was tired of seeing his country become “a scrapheap for escaped dictators.”
The Bakiyevs were ousted in bloody street riots in April 2010, when Kurmanbek fled to Belarus. Bishkek has repeatedly requested his extradition, though the ex-autocrat is said to have scored Belarusian citizenship and a $2-million home in the capital.
Upwards of 50 people, including relatives of those who died on April 7, 2010, attacked the embassy, Radio Azattyk reported, breaking windows and destroying furniture. Janysh, his brother's security boss, is accused of giving orders to fire on the crowd as Bakiyev clung to power, resulting in about 90 dead and hundreds wounded. Bishkek is trying the brothers in absentia.
Charter 97, a Belarusian news site critical of President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime, reported that Ambassador Viktor Denisenko met protestors and made some vague promises.
Despite the violence, Minsk says it has no plans to recall its ambassador from Kyrgyzstan.
A girl cools off in Bishkek’s central Ala-Too Square on Saturday. Getting drenched in the city’s fountains is a favorite summer pastime for kids in Kyrgyzstan’s capital, though this one seems to have gotten wetter than she’d bargained for.
David Trilling is EurasiaNet's Central Asia editor.
Central Asia’s mountainous borderlands have seen their third bizarre mass murder this summer, this time in Kyrgyzstan.
Police say a border guard conscript in Kyrgyzstan’s eastern Issyk-Kul Province killed four contract border guards and a civilian before fleeing in a stolen car on August 20. Early the following morning security forces killed the suspect, identified as 19-year-old Balbai Kulbarak uulu, in a mountain gorge near the Kazakh frontier, Reuters reported.
The state border service, part of the State Committee on National Security (the GKNB, which is often still called the KGB), said Kulbarak uulu was killed after firing at authorities.
Kulbarak uulu had been hostile to his colleagues the day before the killings, said the Military Prosecutor’s office. The five dead at the Echkili-Tash outpost included the post commander and the wife of one serviceman. Three guards managed to escape.
Mass murders are uncommon in Central Asia, at least prior to this summer.
Public perceptions of corrupt deals involving the Manas air base outside Kyrgyzstan’s capital helped bring down President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in 2010. This week, Prime Minister Omurbek Babanov became the latest Kyrgyz leader to be tarnished by accusations of mischief at Manas.
On August 13, a member of Babanov’s parliamentary coalition charged the embattled premier with accepting a bribe from a Turkish company building a new air-traffic control tower at Manas. Joomart Saparbayev, a deputy with the Ata-Meken Party, told a party meeting that Babanov had accepted a racehorse valued at up to $1.3 million in exchange for a multi-million-dollar Pentagon contract.
Saparbayev’s argument: "We thought about how these events could be linked, and we have found a corrupt scheme. This horse was given to Babanov as a gift so that the Turkish company could carry out the construction work," Saparbayev said, adding that the English-bred horse, five-year-old Islander One, arrived on an Istanbul-Bishkek flight.
“I’ll be the first corpse,” says Sveta Filatova when asked about initiatives to terminate Kyrgyzstan’s methadone programs. A heroin addict for 10 years, Filatova has been taking the opioid substitute for three and says it’s changed her life, enabled her to reconnect with family, and hold a job.
Newlyweds in post-Soviet Central Asia hold some traditions especially dear. Before gathering with friends and family for the big feast, a wedding party will likely hit their city’s hot spots, stopping at scenic parks and important monuments (often including a WWII memorial) for a toast, a photo session, and maybe a quick dance. Their procession of cars, festooned with ribbons and often led by a hired limo, will race around town, usually getting no more than a wink from the sympathetic traffic police.
Saturdays are popular wedding days in Osh, with several parties descending on the same park, enjoying music piped in from a nearby café. Here, a few Saturdays ago, a bride celebrates in a park named for Alimbek Datka, a local 19th-century feudal lord.
David Trilling is EurasiaNet's Central Asia editor.