At first blush, it seems Kazakhstan's strongman President Nursultan Nazarbayev likes to keep business in the family. A daughter heads his party in the rubber-stamp parliament; his sons-in-law held various official positions and became fabulously wealthy. So why is it not surprising that Kazakhstan is paying the wife of Nazarbayev’s most distinguished advisor, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, hundreds of thousands of pounds for her legal services?
Citing an anonymous source, The Telegraph broke the story today. The paper describes Cherie Blair as known for her “ardent” defense of civil liberties and human rights. Kazakhstan is known for muzzling free speech and locking up critics. The contract with Mrs Blair’s law firm Omnia Strategy doesn’t concern those sensitive issues, however. Instead, the paper reports, Mrs Blair will review Kazakhstan’s “bilateral investment treaties.”
The first stage of the review, which was expected to take as little as three months, is worth £120,000 [$200,000], sources have told The Sunday Telegraph.
A second phase of the project is worth a further £200,000 to £250,000 for another three to four months’ work, it is understood. Omnia Strategy, which Mrs Blair set up in 2011, also has an option to complete a third stage of the legal project for the Ministry of Justice at a fee to be decided, according to the source.
Mrs Blair is understood normally to charge clients £1,150 an hour but will bill the Kazakh taxpayer at a reduced rate of £975 an hour if the Ministry of Justice, based in the capital Astana, continues to employ Omnia on the legal review into its third stage.
When Russia banned many Western agricultural products last week in response to Western sanctions, it created a $9.5 billion hole for other countries to fill. Immediately, officials across Central Asia optimistically announced plans to help plug the gap.
But sudden shortages created by the ban have all but guaranteed to increase inflation in Russia, a major food importer. And Central Asians will suffer likewise because their expected jump in exports will leave fewer products available to local consumers, thus driving up prices at home.
All this highlights a paradoxical mix of opportunities and risks for Kazakhstan, a member of the Moscow-led Customs Union whose economy often feels ripple effects from Russia. Aside from the immediate pros and cons of the food ban, Kazakhstan is clearly spooked by Russia’s deepening confrontation with the West over its support for rebels in Ukraine, concerned about the fallout from a slowing Russian economy.
Kazakhstan’s response to the food ban paints a picture of a junior partner struggling to navigate the shoals between an increasingly isolationist Kremlin and its own ambitions of greater global integration.
Vladimir Putin is riding a wave of popularity in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan that mirrors his approval rating at home in Russia, a new poll has found. Most residents of these impoverished post-Soviet states wish to join his Eurasian Union. America and Barack Obama, on the other hand, fare poorly in the region.
In Kyrgyzstan, 90 percent of respondents express either a “great deal” or “fair amount” of confidence in the Russian president. Fewer than 60 percent say the same about their own president, Almazbek Atambayev; 26 percent voice confidence in Barack Obama, according to the poll, released last week by Toronto-based M-Vector Consulting, and 35.3 percent in Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
In Tajikistan, 85 percent proclaim confidence in Putin, 26.5 percent in Obama, and 31.1 in Xi. (By comparison, in July 85 percent of Russians said they approve of Putin, according to the Levada Center in Moscow.) M-Vector did not undertake the politically sensitive task of measuring support for Tajikistan’s authoritarian strongman, Emomali Rakhmon.
M-Vector interviewed 1,021 adults in Kyrgyzstan and 1,077 in Tajikistan by telephone in late June and early July for the poll, part of its Central Asia Barometer series. The poll has a margin of error of 3.2 points and a confidence level of 95 percent. (The pollster shared the results with EurasiaNet.org by email.)
Putin’s Eurasian Union is almost as popular as he is, the poll found. In Kyrgyzstan, 71.2 percent say their country should join; 8 percent say they are not sure. In Tajikistan, 80.3 percent favor joining; 13.5 percent cannot say.
A graduate student detained by Tajikistan’s security services over five weeks ago and accused of treason has been released on his own recognizance. Alexander Sodiqov confirmed to the BBC’s Russian Service late on July 22, "I'm home. I'm happy. I'm with my family. I'm doing well. I've been treated well.” He is reportedly not allowed to leave the country.
Sodiqov, 31, was arrested on June 16 while interviewing an opposition leader in Badakhshan province, scene of fighting between militants and government troops in 2012 and renewed upheaval in May. A political science PhD student at the University of Toronto, Sodiqov was home in his native Tajikistan carrying out research for the University of Exeter when he was detained.
The State Committee for National Security (GKNB) accused Sodiqov of carrying out “subversion and espionage” for an unnamed foreign country. As EurasiaNet reported:
Friends and colleagues are growing increasingly concerned that Tajikistan’s heavy-handed authorities may be trying to make an example out of Sodiqov to discourage others from examining tensions between Tajikistan’s authoritarian government and minorities in the restive eastern province of Badakhshan. […]
Tajik authorities are notoriously thin-skinned about anyone prying into their fraught relations with ethnic minorities in Badakhshan, which happens to be a key weigh station on the drug trafficking route between Afghanistan and Russia.
A popular Russian social networking site appears to have become the latest target of Tajikistan’s Internet sentinels.
Odnoklassniki.ru became inaccessible in Tajikistan this weekend, users say.
Tajik officials often block websites that carry material critical of the government. As usual, the communications agency has said little, today even denying it knows of the problem. But a representative of one leading Internet Service Provider (ISP) said he had received an oral order to block the site.
Odnoklassniki is popular among the million-plus Tajik migrant workers abroad who use it to communicate with their families back home.
Some users told Radio Ozodi that the site may have been blocked because some Tajiks fighting alongside jihadists in Syria have used it to post extremist content. Others point out that, like Facebook – which also has been blocked at times – Odnoklassniki is frequently used to spread material critical of the government and its strongman president.
YouTube also has been unavailable for a few weeks though authorities deny they are responsible. In June, when YouTube was also blocked, all other Google products were unavailable as well for a few days, though that appeared to be a technical side effect of the YouTube block (Google owns YouTube).
As such obstructions have become common in recent years, many Internet users have turned to proxy services. But the authorities are catching up and appear to be hindering access to those, too.
Kyrgyzstan's massive loss at an arbitration court this month has encouraged speculation that the country's only significant foreign asset – its stake in a Canadian gold mining company – is up for grabs.
On July 2, a tribunal in Moscow awarded Toronto-listed Stans Energy Corp $118.2 million in damages in a dispute over the Kutessay-II heavy rare earth elements mine in Kyrgyzstan’s Talas Province. Stans acquired a 20-year license to the mine in 2009, which the Kyrgyz parliament recommended the government annul in 2012. (Stans has alleged that powerful Chinese interests in Kyrgyzstan bribed parliamentarians to revoke the license in order to help Beijing maintain control over the lucrative rare earths market.)
Canada’s National Post reports that Stans has few options because Kyrgyzstan, one of the poorest countries in Asia, does not have that kind of cash lying about. So Stans could seek to seize Kyrgyzstan’s shares in Toronto-listed Centerra Gold, which, in turn, owns Kyrgyzstan’s largest industrial asset, the Kumtor Gold Mine. From the National Post’s financial pages:
It is highly unlikely that Kyrgyzstan will respect the ruling and pay out any cash. That leaves Stans the option of securing verdicts against one or more of the state’s foreign assets. And a logical one to go after would be Kyrgyzstan’s 32.7% stake in Centerra, currently worth almost $500 million.
An exchange of fire between troops on a disputed section of the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border reportedly left at least one dead and several injured on July 10. Tensions have risen sharply again in this volatile part of the Fergana Valley after negotiations over a controversial road construction project fell apart earlier this week.
According to the Kyrgyz Border Service, about 30 Tajik citizens were trying to build a water pipeline from Kyrgyz territory to the Vorukh exclave, a parcel of Tajik territory surrounded entirely by Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyz border guards demanded they stop, the Tajiks threw stones and eventually troops from the two sides exchanged fire.
According to the Tajik-language service of Radio Liberty, citing a local doctor in Vorukh, one Tajik national (apparently a civilian) died and five were injured in the exchange of fire. Dushanbe’s Asia-Plus news agency reports seven wounded. Tajikistan's Foreign Ministry says the Kyrgyz border guards picked a fight, shot without warning, and that the Tajik border guards did not fire a single shot.
Later in the day, the Kyrgyz Border Service said Tajik border guards had opened fire on another Kyrgyz checkpoint, this time with mortars and grenades.
Tajik Foreign Minister Sirodjidin Aslov faces an awkward audience with his British counterpart, William Hague, in London today. Campaigners have pressed Hague to demand Tajikistan release a scholar working for a British university amid a sharp rise in anti-British sentiment in the Central Asian country.
It has been over two weeks since Tajikistan’s secret police, the GKNB, detained graduate student Alexander Sodiqov while he was conducting fieldwork on conflict resolution for Exeter University. Sodiqov reportedly faces up to 20 years in jail on treason charges, charges his colleagues call farcical. They and a number of MPs have pressed Hague to link Sodiqov’s freedom to any promises of British support for Tajikistan’s high-profile energy projects, such as the Rogun dam and the CASA-1000 electricity export line to South Asia.
“We hope that there will be a clear statement that British support for Tajikistan – including Rogun and CASA – is conditional on maintaining basic human rights and, specifically, releasing Alex,” said Nick Megoran, a lecturer at Newcastle University who is working with Sodiqov on the British-funded project.
Officials have said little about what they plan to do with Sodiqov. Amnesty International has labeled him a “prisoner of conscience.”
Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon has staked his legacy on the Rogun dam. From the National Museum of Tajikistan.
Two new reports should interest anyone following progress building the world’s tallest dam—Tajikistan’s 3,600-MW dream, Rogun.
The World Bank has released drafts of its long-awaited Rogun feasibility studies. They appear to give Tajikistan the green light to build Rogun, saying the dam is the best way to end the country’s crippling energy shortages. However, the economic model used to make the recommendation seems to assume a set of unlikely conditions, from financial reforms and improvements in Tajikistan’s insolvent electricity industry to a major breakthrough in relations with a prickly neighbor.
Meanwhile, in a second report, Human Rights Watch says the resettlement of 42,000 people whose homes will be destroyed or flooded by Rogun is not going as smoothly as the government has promised.
The World Bank studies look at technical, economic, environmental and social considerations for three potential heights. Overall, the Bank found the tallest Rogun option – 335 meters, the only one Tajik officials talk about – the most economical: “building a dam at the Rogun site is a lower cost solution to meeting Tajikistan’s energy needs than any of the alternatives.”
Early this year, Tajikistan’s largest industrial enterprise sent home about a fifth of its workforce and cut wages by 30 percent for the rest. According to its own figures, the state-owned aluminum plant, Talco, lost over $40 million last year and hasn’t turned a profit since 2010.