Women in Bishkek mark Valentine's Day with a family photograph. Photographers in Kyrgyzstan often erect colorful displays to mark holidays, sometimes with rabbits, doves, or peacocks. For 50 soms (about $1) a photographer will take anyone's photo, then run across the street to a digital studio to make a quick print.
David Trilling is EurasiaNet's Central Asia editor.
It was an exciting moment last month for those wishing to put southern Kyrgyzstan’s poisonous ethnic tensions behind them.
For the first time since the mass interethnic violence that fanned out across the region in June 2010, a judge had acquitted and released an ethnic Uzbek man who had previously been found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment for murder during the riots, the Vechernii Bishkek newspaper reported. But the decision has not sat well with some locals.
At his trial last October, Shamshidin Niyazaliev’s lawyers argued he was not even in Kyrgyzstan at the time and 15 witnesses testified they had seen him in neighboring Uzbekistan on the day he is alleged to have committed the murders. Human Rights Watch called his trial unfair.
Niyazaliev was the 20th defendant in the murders of 16 people near the Sanpa cotton factory in the Suzak District of Jalal-Abad Province. Of the original 19, all had been found guilty; 18 received life sentences, one more got 25 years, according to Vechernii Bishkek.
These trials were among dozens that rights activists say were marred by blatant irregularities. Since the ethnic violence, justice in southern Kyrgyzstan has often looked more like bowing to mob rule than an attempt to find truth and punish the guilty.
Kyrgyz villagers in a troubled border region are experiencing food, fuel and medicine shortages, local media reported today, as a state of emergency in southern Kyrgyzstan continues. In Bishkek, officials say they have made no progress getting their Uzbek counterparts to reopen the frontier after Tashkent unilaterally closed most checkpoints on January 17.
The latest tensions date to January 5, when residents of Sokh, an Uzbek enclave surrounded by Kyrgyz territory, reportedly attacked Kyrgyz border guards who were installing electrical wires on a contested piece of territory. The next day locals took several dozen Kyrgyz hostage and destroyed their vehicles.
Though the hostages were quickly released and the Kyrgyz received compensation for their damaged property (reportedly collected from Sokh’s residents, who are mostly ethnic Tajiks), troubles remain in this Ferghana Valley flashpoint.
Sokh is a strategic parcel of land. A 350-square-kilometer valley blessed with water in a parched agricultural region, it basically cuts Kyrgyzstan’s Batken Province in half. The only all-weather Kyrgyz road passes through this Uzbek territory, meaning Kyrgyz traveling between Batken, perhaps Kyrgyzstan’s poorest province, and Osh must stop at Uzbek checkpoints. As the population grows, and land and water become scarcer, the region seethes and occasionally erupts in violence.
Numbers released this week by Kyrgyzstan’s National Statistics Agency suggest a strike at the crucial Kumtor Gold Mine last winter played a major role in shrinking the country’s economic growth from 5.7 percent in 2011 to minus 0.9 percent in 2012.
Workers at Kumtor laid down their tools last February to demand parent company Centerra Gold cover their social security taxes. The walkout was resolved after 10 days, with Toronto-listed Centerra – which is one-third owned by the Kyrgyz government – agreeing to make the payments, even though it said the strike was illegal because it violated a collective agreement with workers.
By then the damage was done. Centerra later reported that while workers were neglecting the high-altitude open-pit mine, ice had formed there, and the company decreased its production forecast by one-third. It had previously predicted it would mine 575,000 to 625,000 ounces of gold in 2012; it eventually pulled 315,238 ounces from the ground.
The mine’s fundamental role in the delicate Kyrgyz economy is well documented. In 2011, Kumtor’s output accounted for 12 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s GDP, and over 50 percent of industrial production, according to official figures. That year, GDP was hurt by another incident: In November, villagers blocked the road leading to the mine. Their weeklong protest drove down the country's year-on-year GDP growth from 8.5 percent for the first 11 months of the year to 5.7 percent by year's end.
Not long ago Tajik police were forcing men to shave their beards, convinced a terrorist lurked behind every whisker. Now the health minister has recommended salons stop trimming Tajikistan’s chins lest dirty razors spread HIV.
Nusratullo Salimov said barbers are not doing enough to disinfect their shaving equipment, RIA Novosti quoted him as saying on January 10. The health minister emphasized, however, that the majority of Tajikistan’s new HIV infections are transmitted via dirty needles and unprotected sex. He gave no statistics for new infections from tainted razors.
Facial hair is a popular topic of official chatter in Tajikistan. In late 2010, a number of bewhiskered men told local media outlets they were being harassed by police. Some reported being stopped and forced to shave. At the time, an Interior Ministry spokesman confirmed police were detaining “suspicious” men sporting long beards as part of their search for members of banned Islamic sects. Muslim men, moderate and radical alike, often wear beards out of reverence for the Prophet Muhammad.
More recently, in November, a new injunction sponsored by the State Committee on Religious Affairs reportedly prohibited men from wearing beards longer than their fists, though some officials later denied the existence of any rules. (Ironically, across the border in Afghanistan, the Taliban were once said to forbid men from wearing beards shorter than fist-length.)
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.