If you’re reading this blog in Central Asia, you might plug in your laptop and charge your battery-powered lamps before proceeding. You never know when the electricity will be gone for good.
"Central Asia: Decay and Decline," a bleak new report from the International Crisis Group (ICG), says Central Asia’s human and technological infrastructure is nearing collapse, threatening the region with more political instability. Not just buildings, roads and power plants are at risk of falling apart; teachers and doctors are woefully undertrained, underpaid, and neglected by donor-dependent leaders more interested in personal gain than in helping their people.
Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the region’s two poorest countries, face the “increasingly likely prospect of catastrophic systemic collapse,” the wide-ranging report says, tracing most problems to the region’s endemic and mind-boggling graft.
Corruption is so pervasive that, in one case, the family of Kyrgyzstan’s former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev actually stole money from a project to print school textbooks. As a result, less than 40 percent of students in Kyrgyzstan have textbooks.
As energy infrastructure breaks down in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the threat of more political instability is on the rise. Bakiyev, after all, was overthrown last year largely due to his personal profiteering from the decaying energy system. He left behind a thermal plant in the capital “described as fit only for scrap metal.” But it doesn’t have to be this way. “If they [the government] just quit stealing, they would have an energy sector here,” the report quotes a foreign energy expert in Bishkek as saying.
A few weeks ago, Kyrgyz Premier Almazbek Atambayev, said he would name a mountain after his Russian counterpart, ex-spy Vladimir Putin. Several days after the chuckle-worthy proposal, Atambayev returned victorious from Moscow with important economic concessions.
But now the prime minister is facing some unexpected opposition from an embarrassing source -- the law. RFE/RL reports:
Ata-Meken (Fatherland) faction member Joomart Saparbaev told RFE/RL on January 26 the proposal violates a Kyrgyz law that bans giving geographic locations the names of living politicians and prominent people.
Saparbaev said that "unfortunately, our laws are being violated on a regular basis, but we have to make sure that the government and the parliament respect the laws."
He said it was "impermissible" to make government decisions "simply to satisfy someone's political ambitions" or "dictated by the current political situation."
Christening a mountain after the Russian strongman could make Kyrgyzstan “a laughing stock,” Regnum reported Saparbayev as saying: "I don't think using the name of a famous politician will strengthen the friendship of peoples. We may instead become a laughing stock. The logic remains unclear to me. Why [use] the name of Vladimir Putin and not Russian President Dmitry Medvedev?”
Pity the fishermen. Authorities in Tajikistan have found a new way to defuse potential car bombs. Unable to open a suspicious vehicle, police in Khujand dumped the whole thing in the river, ca-news.org reports.
Two suspicious passenger cars with homemade bombs were discovered in the city of Khujand near the buildings of the Interior Affairs Directorate and the State Committee of National Security. The force of one of the explosive devices was estimated as equivalent to six kilograms of TNT. The second car proved impossible to open, so a decision was made to sink it in the Syr Darya.
Submerging the vehicle, which was retrieved January 24, just happens to destroy evidence, an unidentified official said without providing details: “We cannot say what the exact volume was of the explosives found in the car because they became waterlogged.”
Tajikistan faces small car bomb attacks from time to time. They often coincide with crackdowns on alleged Islamic militants. But let’s be gracious: The authorities in Khujand probably had no other way to deal with the potential threat. Maybe Uzbekistan, which lies downstream from its neighbor and regularly throws fits about any activities upstream, would be interested in providing some bomb-disposal training.
Now, taking his cue from Central Asia’s despot playbook, MP Ismail Isakov, the interim government’s defense minister during ethnic violence last summer, says a legally non-binding report has insulted him. Therefore, he will sue.
General Ismail Isakov, who was President Roza Otunbaeva's defense minister and special representative in the south during the unrest, said in Bishkek that the National Commission's conclusions -- in which he was cited as one of the government leaders responsible for allowing the clashes to take place -- are "superficial and groundless."
Isakov -- who is a parliament deputy -- said the commission's conclusions have impacted negatively on his "personal dignity and honor" and so he will defend himself in court.
For a country with the world’s fourth-largest gas reserves, Turkmenistan has a predictably glitzy capital, Ashgabat. And it would stand to reason that the prized Caspian port city an hour’s flight away, at the heart of the nation’s oil and gas industry, would be just as grand.
The land in question may only be a thousand square kilometers of arid, high mountains, but its acquisition by China from Tajikistan has been carried out with the same opaqueness as much of Beijing’s quickly growing business activity in Central Asia.
Tajikistan's parliament gave the territory away, it’s true. Voting on January 12, lawmakers decided to put to bed over a century of mistrust -- and recent decades of pressure -- by ceding the territory in the high peaks of the Pamirs.
A similar agreement between Kyrgyzstan and China in the 1990s contributed to then-Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev’s steadily declining popularity in the years before he was overthrown in street protests.
Tajik Foreign Minister Khamrokon Zarifi claimed the deal is a “victory,” adding that China had originally laid claim to 28,000 square kilometers. Yet it’s unclear how many people live in the ceded area, exactly where it is, or what Dushanbe's ruling elite is getting in return.
A commentary published today by RFE/RL chronicles China’s rising economic influence in the region. Unlike the West, “China never makes political demands and never criticizes the authoritarian regimes of the region. Beijing never discloses its political goals or positions. … It is all about money, not democracy or development or transparency.”
In the hunt for Kurmanbek Bakiyev and his hated brother, Kyrgyzstan is now officially on its own, 24.kg reports.
Several times, Bishkek has turned to Interpol to help apprehend and extradite former president Bakiyev, his security chief brother Janysh, and a few others. They are accused of abusing office and shooting protesters during their bloody ouster last April. As they clung to power, over 80 people died in Bishkek’s main square. Kurmanbek has since taken up residence in Belarus, where the government of Alexander Lukashenko has refused Bishkek’s repeated extradition requests.
In a letter to the Kyrgyz prosecutor general, Interpol officials suggest the Bakiyev pursuit is politically motivated and said they would not interfere in a country’s internal political affairs.
It is unclear how 24.kg obtained the letter.
Interpol does want Kurmanbek’s notorious son, Maxim, however. Maxim is thought to be hiding in Britain, where he has reportedly applied for asylum.
Back in Bishkek, the Bakiyevs are being prosecuted in absentia for the April 7 bloodshed. Plagued by irregularities, the emotional -- and at times violent -- trial has led legal observers and human rights activists to conclude that no country which respects due process would extradite the clan back to their homeland.
Mountain, mountain standing tall, who’s the fairest of them all?
In one of his first legislative directives, Kyrgyzstan’s new Prime Minister Almazbek Atambayev has sponsored a bill to designate one of his country’s myriad unnamed mountains Vladimir Putin Peak after the Russian prime minister.
Atambayev submitted the bill to parliament on the eve of his trip to Moscow. Perhaps he was worried he had nothing to offer the Russian strongman. But it makes you wonder: What else did the two men give each other?
The 4,446-meter (14,586-foot) summit is by no means among Kyrgyzstan’s tallest, but the honor is relative: It is 1,000 meters taller than Mt. Yeltsin, named after Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, in 2002. Still, Putin’s pinnacle is way shorter than the 7,134-meter (23,406-foot) Lenin Peak on the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border.
Russian officials often suggest that Central Asia’s poorest statelets -- Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan -- should join their new Customs Union. But is Moscow really interested in letting this troublesome pair into its elite new club?
An analysis by a member of the Russian State Duma’s CIS affairs committee and printed by state-owned RIA Novosti bluntly says what trade experts in Bishkek have been telling me all year: Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are way too unstable, and their borders too unguarded, to join.
The potential new members, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, are unlikely to add anything but economic problems and political instability to the situation. Low incomes, skyrocketing unemployment and corruption make these countries very vulnerable to extremism.
Neither produces much of export value and their purchasing power is negligible compared with the union’s Kazakhstan, Belarus and Russia, which, according to this analysis, collectively produce 80 percent of the CIS’s GDP.
Five years after Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov rejected inquiries into the shooting of hundreds of his unarmed citizens, Central Asia’s most fearsome despot made a touchingly hypocritical about-face this summer and called for an international investigation into ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan.
How’s that for resuscitating his legacy?
Now, Kyrgyzstan’s deeply distrusted “National Commission” investigating the June events has nominated Karimov for some sort of state award because he accepted up to 80,000 refugees (before quickly ushering them back home).
Never mind they still cannot present a convincing picture of what happened in June and that several of the most prominent members left the commission in disgust; the body is also mulling how to nominate Karimov -- the dictator who tried to make boiling alive his opponents chic -- for the Nobel Peace Prize.