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.
Proponents of a controversial plan to build a high-voltage electricity export line from Tajikistan to South Asia argue that the connection – known as CASA-1000 – will not be used in winter, when the country’s own citizens suffer debilitating electricity shortages.
But a senior Tajik official has undermined that promise, arguing that no matter how little it has for itself, Tajikistan must export electricity year-round lest any transmission equipment be looted.
Most regions of Tajikistan are currently receiving about 12 hours of electricity per day; some areas get less than 10 hours and, as anyone in remote areas can attest, the current is often so weak that it cannot charge a cell phone.
Despite these extended blackouts, Tajikistan increased its electricity exports to Afghanistan through existing lines from 30 million kWh in January 2014 to 55 million kWh last month, Asia-Plus reported on February 17, citing the State Statistics Agency.
Many ask the obvious question: Shouldn’t a country’s resources first serve its own people?
After years of speculation, now we have the answer. The head of the state electricity monopoly, Barki Tajik, says that the company must export in winter because it cannot risk allowing existing infrastructure to stand idle. “We keep the voltage in these lines because there is a high probability of equipment theft,” the Asia-Plus article quoted Rustam Rakhmatzoda as saying.
That confession should impact CASA-1000, which has been on the drawing board since 2007.
Talco, the company behind Tajikistan’s largest factory, is nearing a deal that would end an eight-year legal battle with the world’s largest aluminum maker, the company says.
The state-owned Talco aluminum smelter is controlled directly by Tajikistan’s strongman President Emomali Rakhmon, whose family has appeared to benefit disproportionately from the plant’s revenues.
But a history of troubled deals with Russia’s Rusal and its subsidiaries saw Talco lose in arbitration hearings in Switzerland and the British Virgin Islands in 2013 and 2014. According to Rusal, as of May 2014 the Tajik company owed $363 million, including interest. With interest accruing at nearly $45,000 per day, the total would be roughly $375 million today.
Now Talco says it has made a proposal that satisfies Rusal and that the two companies have signed off on a draft agreement, Radio Ozodi quoted Talco executive Igor Sattarov as saying on February 16. Tajikistan’s government and the Rusal board must still okay the deal, said Sattarov, who did not disclose any of the terms. Last week President Rakhmon replaced the company’s boss.
A Rusal spokesperson would not offer any details about the alleged deal, only telling EurasiaNet.org, “We can officially say that nothing has been signed yet and the agreement in question is pending approval of Rusal’s board of directors.”
Tajikistan does not mine alumina, but imports the raw materials and uses its cheap electricity to operate the smelter, which was opened in 1975 when the country was part of the Soviet Union. When the plant was functioning at capacity, it used 40 percent of Tajikistan’s electrical output, leaving much of the country in the dark.
A street sweeper cleans Moscow’s Tverskaya Ulitsa. Central Asian migrants often do the dirtiest jobs in Russia.
It’s February, so Muscovites are grumbling about their city’s slippery sidewalks. The complaint isn’t unusual in winter, but this year many say they know why everything is covered in ice: The “Tajiks” have left.
Russian media report that the collapse of the ruble and strict new rules for migrant laborers have encouraged an exodus of Central Asians. But preliminary numbers are far smaller than many Muscovites believe. Besides, new government hurdles can be overcome with a bribe.
The startling number often reported and repeated is 70 percent fewer labor migrants than last year. It dates back to January 7, from comments by the head of the Federal Migration Service (FMS), Konstantin Romodanovsky, who cited it as the decrease in arriving migrants year on year. But the comparison is of dubious statistical value, referring only to the first week of 2015, which falls amid Russia’s protracted winter holidays, and also happened to be the first week that the stringent new rules were in place. Nonetheless, even migrants quote the figure when asked for estimates of how many of their compatriots have chosen to leave.
Last week FMS offered more detailed figures. In January, compared with a year earlier, the number of Uzbek citizens in Russia fell 4.3 percent and Tajik citizens by 2.2 percent, according to the RBK business-news website. Yet the number of Kyrgyzstanis had grown by 3.8 percent. (Numbers showing departures in the second half of the year are misleading, as traditionally many migrants leave Russia each winter when seasonal work dries up.)
American taxpayers spent hundreds of thousands of dollars refurbishing a women’s shelter outside Kyrgyzstan’s capital less than five years ago. Though the Central Asian country is desperately short of such crisis centers, the shelter never functioned and, a member of parliament now says, was improperly privatized instead.
Kyrgyzstan has denied the embarrassing accusation that it is a delinquent member of the United Nations without the right to vote in the General Assembly.
On January 29, the UN’s website listed Kyrgyzstan and five other countries (Grenada, Marshall Islands, Tonga, Vanuatu, Yemen) as having failed to pay membership dues for two years. Members in arrears for two years automatically lose their right to vote, according to the UN Charter (extreme cases, failed states like Somalia, get an exception).
But on January 30 Kyrgyzstan’s Finance Ministry announced it had fully paid its dues—$40,000 in 2013 and $63,500 last year. That latter amount included some outstanding debt from previous years.
The ministry also says that on January 29 it initiated a transfer in the amount of $54,271 to meet the January 30 deadline for 2015 dues. “Thus, the Kyrgyz Republic has on time and fully complied with its obligations to the United Nations regular budget to pay membership fees for 2015,” the statement says.
What is less clear is whether the country has made contributions for peacekeeping operations and international tribunals, also required under the charter, but under different budgets. Back in 2000, Kyrgyzstan owed almost $800,000 for peacekeeping and tribunals (in that year, all the Central Asian countries save Kazakhstan were delinquent). The recent Finance Ministry statement says only that these two types of payments are not covered by a July 2014 government decree on dues to international organizations and that state agencies obligated to make any payments not listed in the decree must do so using their “budgetary assignations or … special funds.”
The International Monetary Fund has revised downward its forecast for growth in Central Asia and the former Soviet Union to account for dramatically lower oil prices and the shriveling Russian economy. The region’s poorest countries can expect sharply higher inflation.
The assessments are part of an economic update released January 21 in Washington.
For energy importers like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the IMF says, any gains from lower oil prices are overshadowed by weakness in Russia, Central Asia’s largest trade partner and the destination for millions of Central Asian labor migrants. The IMF projects Russia’s economy to shrink 3 percent this year due to “geopolitical tensions” (the Kremlin’s adventure in Ukraine) and sharply lower prices for its chief export, oil.
Already the Central Asian countries are reeling from the 45 percent drop in the value of the ruble against the dollar last year. Kyrgyzstan’s currency, the som, lost 17 percent against the dollar, even as the National Bank spent hundreds of millions of dollars defending it. Oil-exporter Kazakhstan devalued the tenge by 19 percent last February and another downward adjustment appears imminent. Turkmenistan’s manat dropped 19 percent on January 1.
Tajikistan spent over half its hard-currency reserves in 2014 defending the somoni, the Central Bank said this week. Yet the rumpled somoni still fell 11 percent and is bound to plunge further as remittances – which make up the equivalent of half of Tajikistan’s GDP – shrink.
Three shootings took place on three different sections of Central Asian frontier over the weekend, highlighting how violence-prone the region’s porous borders have become.
The first incident, at a Kyrgyz border post near Tajikistan, left one border guard dead and two wounded. A private has now allegedly confessed to killing his superior in the January 16 shooting, Kloop.kg reports.
Conditions for junior soldiers in Central Asia’s militaries are notoriously abysmal, with senior officers meting out physical abuse and sometimes requiring their underlings to perform in slave-like conditions. So fragging is not inconceivable.
Two days later, Kyrgyz border guards shot a man they describe as an Uzbek hunter who crossed the border illegally, with two others, and opened fire. The Kyrgyz Border Service says it has handed over the wounded man to the Uzbek authorities, which apprehended the other two when they retreated back home. (Update: An Uzbek official later said Kyrgyz border guards had illegally crossed into Uzbekistan and illegally seized the hunters' rifles before retreating.)
Also on January 18, on the drug-saturated Tajik-Afghan border where shootings are common, a Tajik conscript was shot by drug smugglers, Tajik authorities say.
Tajikistan has sent an award-winning human rights lawyer to prison on charges his supporters say are meant as a warning to critics of the authoritarian regime.
A court in Dushanbe sentenced Shukhrat Kudratov to nine years in a penal colony for bribery and fraud on January 13, Asia-Plus reported.
Kudratov’s real crime, it appears, was defending opposition activist Zaid Saidov in 2013. That year, Saidov, a local businessman and former official, was swiftly arrested after starting a political party and charged with, among other things, polygamy. He received 26 years in prison. The politician’s supporters said they had received death threats.
Last year, another one of Saidov’s lawyers, Fakhriddin Zokirov, was arrested on forgery charges. He was released after eight months and promised he would no longer defend Saidov.
The cases against the lawyers are widely seen as politically motivated. Steve Swerdlow of Human Rights Watch called Kudratov's jailing "a serious setback for the freedom of expression and the independent legal profession in Tajikistan."
Visit a Moscow market, or courtyard, or construction site, and it’s easy to forget you are in Russia’s largest city, not Tajikistan or Uzbekistan. Central Asian languages resound all over the Russian capital.