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.
Russia's ruble became worth less than a Kyrgyz som for the first time on December 12. (xe.com)
The Russian ruble crossed a psychological barrier in Kyrgyzstan on December 12, becoming worth less than the som for the first time. Across Central Asia, the ruble’s slide is pushing local currencies to new lows. But they can’t seem to fall fast enough to keep a competitive advantage.
Central Asian economies are deeply dependent on Russia as an export market. When the ruble is weak, Central Asia’s exports are relatively expensive for Russian consumers. So, weaker local currencies benefit the region’s producers. Of course falling currencies also mean inflation, as the price of imported goods from outside the region shoots up—as does the cost of servicing foreign debt. The World Bank projects inflation in Kyrgyzstan this year to top 10 percent. In Tajikistan, food prices rose 10.5 percent in November alone, according to a Deutsche Welle report.
Thanks to Kyrgyzstan’s on-again, off-again experiment with democracy, the Central Asian country has fewer journalists in jail than most of its neighbors. But over the last few months, a number of officials have signaled a cooling attitude toward the fourth estate. A theme stands out: Journalists are the reason Kyrgyzstan has a poor reputation; they must write nice things and stop criticizing.
Together with restrictive new legislation the officials’ comments paint a profile of an elite increasingly intolerant of criticism. Journalists are worried; one local editor says the attacks are encouraging self-censorship.
President Almazbek Atambayev deployed a wide brush on October 27, venting at a session of the national council on sustainable development:
“For the image of a country where corruption is a real disaster, even by comparison with African countries, we have our journalists to thank. Not in a single [other] country does the press pour dirt on officials like ours. They write that everything is bad in Kyrgyzstan, that corruption is blooming. This is disrespect for the country and for the truth. There’s this idea that the more dirt a journalist has poured on, the more freedom-loving and better he is.”
“[Journalists] get offended, because I say this very often, but this is the truth. I hope that the conscience of the majority awakens and they will start publishing impartial information.” [Sources: first paragraph Vechernii Bishkek; second paragraph BBC Monitoring translation of KyrTAG, which is paywalled.]
If Central Asia’s two poorest countries ever get around to building their massive but long-delayed hydropower dams, the facilities may be useful for a few decades. After that, they’ll be rendered obsolete by a fast-warming climate that is melting the region’s once-abundant glaciers and threatens to reduce precipitation sharply.
So suggests an alarming new World Bank report on the effects of climate change around the developing world.
“Turn Down the Heat: Confronting the New Climate Normal,” released in late November, offers just about everyone in Central Asia some bad news, especially the region’s megalomaniacal dam builders. In landlocked Eurasia, the temperatures are expected to rise “above the global mean land warming,” bringing a slew of unpleasant consequences, from decreased crop yields to contentious water shortages.
Effects like these are difficult to assess and prepare for even in places with relatively responsible and capable governments. How will they be dealt with by dysfunctional, near-sighted and volatile governments in impoverished, corrupt countries like Central Asia’s?
The 275-page report starts with the informed assumption that an increase in global average temperatures of 1.5 degrees Celsius by mid-century is unavoidable. It also looks at two more frightening, but plausible, scenarios: an increase of 2 degrees and 4 degrees. (Temperatures have already warmed by 0.8 degrees above pre-industrial levels.)
No matter which model they apply, forecasters predict a dramatic reduction in the size of Central Asia’s glaciers and amount of precipitation. That translates into a sharp decrease in the water flows the largely arid region can expect for hydropower and agriculture.
Kyrgyzstan must protect itself from Arab Islamists and gay-loving Americans; so say supporters of a sweeping draft law that could shutter many non-governmental organizations and, like a Russian bill adopted in 2012, label foreign-funded activists as “foreign agents.”
By reporting on terrorist propaganda, is a journalist propagating terrorism? Journalists often debate how to cover terrorism without doing more harm than good. But prosecutors in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have a cut and dry answer.
Earlier this week, Kloop.kg – an innovative, independent news outlet in Kyrgyzstan – published a story about an Islamic State recruiting video that purports to show Kazakh-speaking children training for jihad in Syria and threatening to slaughter infidels. In its story, Kloop included stills the Daily Mail had reproduced and a link to video embedded in the Daily Mail's story. Few Kazakhstan-based news outlets covered the story, likely fearing Kazakhstan’s anti-extremism legislation.
Indeed, the day the story started circulating, November 24, Kazakhstan’s prosecutor warned media that Kazakhstani law forbids the “propaganda and justification” of terrorism.
The Kloop story was quickly blocked in Kazakhstan, as were several other stories about the video. (EurasiaNet.org’s story, although it did not include a link to the IS recruitment video, was also blocked in Kazakhstan.)
Editors at Kloop received an email from a Kazakhstani government agency calling itself the “Computer Emergency Response Team,” which demanded Kloop remove the material. Kloop, the email said, had violated not just Kazakhstani laws on the “justification of extremism and terrorism,” but international law, too.
Security services in Kyrgyzstan have filed charges against a human rights group in a high-profile case that a leading watchdog calls “absurd.” The charges are widely seen as an excuse to implement Russian-style legislation that would sharply curtail the activities of foreign-funded non-profits.
The State Committee on National Security (GKNB) charged two staff of the Human Rights Advocacy Center, an anti-torture campaigner in Osh, on November 20 with “inciting interethnic hatred,” a source with intimate knowledge of the case told EurasiaNet.org. One was told that the former director of Freedom House’s Kyrgyzstan office would also be charged.
The GKNB had outlined its case in a September criminal complaint, stating that an opinion survey distributed by the Advocacy Center posed a threat to national security and could reignite interethnic conflict in the country’s volatile south. The Advocacy Center project was funded by Freedom House, which receives some of its funding from the US Agency for International Development (USAID).
“The case implicating Freedom House, our partner, and USAID is utterly absurd. Not only is the investigation baseless, but we are worried that it is part of a larger trend of repressive measures targeting civil society, and that this is only the beginning of a crackdown reminiscent of the rest of the region,” Robert Herman, vice president for regional programs at Freedom House, told EurasiaNet.org by email. “It is profoundly disappointing to see a country like Kyrgyzstan turn its back on its democratic promise.”