Authorities in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are each struggling to claim the moral high ground after a January 11 border clash left security forces wounded on both sides. The challenge now is for officials in the two countries to keep populist impulses at bay, experts say.
Days after an agreement that had the potential to ease tensions on the disputed border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, a shootout between the countries’ border guards left several injured on each side January 11, local media report. In what could herald a sharp escalation in the simmering conflict, a Kyrgyz official has alleged that Tajik troops used heavy weapons.
As usual, there are conflicting stories over how the violence started.
Several Kyrgyz news outlets reported that Tajik border guards shot first after an altercation over road construction on contested territory. The 24.kg news agency said at least five Kyrgyz guards were wounded and that angry local civilians were protesting in the village of Kok-Tash.
Citing a local Tajik resident, Tajikistan’s Asia-Plus news agency also reported that Tajik guards clashed with their counterparts over the construction of a road through disputed territory. But in this account, Kyrgyz border guards fired first, wounding two Tajik guards.
For the second time in two months, a company behind a foreign-operated hydropower dam in Tajikistan has said the state-controlled electricity distributor is not paying its bills. And despite the annual winter electricity shortage, this time the company – in this case Iranian rather than Russian – has shut operations until it gets its money, Radio Ozodi reports.
A source at the Iranian Embassy in Dushanbe told Radio Ozodi that the company behind Sangtuda-2, Sangob, has stopped the dam’s output until Barqi Tojik, the chronically broke state-run energy distributor, begins paying its $28 million debt (which is growing by $2 million a month). Ozodi says the company’s offices in Dushanbe are empty.
Barqi Tojik didn’t clearly answer Asia-Plus’s questions about what’s happening at the dam on the Vakhsh River. Yet whether or not it is operating, Barqi Tojik’s ongoing failure to pay its bills underscores systematic problems in Tajikistan’s troubled energy sector.
The conflict is eerily similar to an episode last month, when Tajikistan’s second-largest hydropower plant, Russian-controlled Sangtuda-1, threatened to shut down for similar reasons. That dispute was resolved when the two sides agreed on a payment installment plan.
Customs officials in Uzbekistan say they have stopped 20 luxury cars stolen in Europe from transiting to neighboring Tajikistan over the past year.
The vehicles, including BMWs and Range Rovers, are worth approximately $1.5 million, the State Customs Committee said in a January 4 statement. Tajik citizens had shipped the cars by rail from the Baltic states of Latvia and Lithuania with forged registration documents. According to the customs service, Interpol has confirmed the vehicles were stolen.
The announcement comes two weeks after German officials alleged that associates and relatives of Tajikistan’s president, Emomali Rakhmon, are driving some 200 luxury cars swiped from the streets of Germany. Investigators said they traced many of the vehicles with their built-in GPS location-tracking systems.
That purloined autos are plying Tajikistan’s roads has long been an open secret in Dushanbe, the capital. Western officials there often complain that their Tajik counterparts are unwilling to address the problem. Indeed, mounting frustration may have led officials in Berlin to leak the embarrassing accusations.
Tajik authorities deny the German accusations. A spokesman for Rakhmon called them “provocative and untrue.” The Foreign Ministry said any blame must rest with transit countries that allow the cars to pass.
A photo originally from Zanjani’s website (since removed) shows Zanjani with President Rahmon and Dushanbe Mayor Mahmadsaid Ubaydulloyev admiring a model of his bus terminal.
One of Tajikistan's most prominent businessmen was reportedly arrested this week in his native Iran, suspected of embezzling $1.9 billion in illicit oil revenues.
Babak Zanjani, whom the US Treasury Department and the European Union have blacklisted for helping Tehran launder oil money, was arrested on December 30, the BBC and local media reported. Zanjani, who denies the charges, has been under investigation since September, shortly after President Hassan Rouhani – who has called on authorities to fight "privileged figures" who have "taken advantage of economic sanctions” – assumed office.
Zanjani has admitted helping Iran earn $17.5 billion in hard currency by selling its oil through his network of companies in Dubai, Turkey and Malaysia, evading Western sanctions designed to pressure Tehran to give up its nuclear program.
But it seems Iran’s new leadership is now washing its hands of Zanjani.
In Tajikistan, Zanjani is best known for launching a sprawling business network with the blessing of President Imomali Rahmon. He estimates his net worth at $13.5 billion – roughly twice Tajikistan’s GDP. But his decision to invest in Tajikistan has raised eyebrows, since the country is so opaque and its market so small. As EurasiaNet.org reported last summer, his appearance in Tajikistan prompted concerns that the natural-resources-poor but narcotics-rich Central Asian country was becoming a mecca for money laundering.
Kyrgyzstan’s government has reached yet another possible restructuring plan with Toronto-listed Centerra Gold, which owns the country’s largest and most profitable mine. But the non-binding agreement must still be ratified by Kyrgyzstan’s self-serving parliament, which rejected a strikingly similar plan in October.
The high-altitude Kumtor gold mine is the largest industrial asset in the impoverished Central Asian nation, account for approximately 12 percent of GDP in a good year and over 50 percent of industrial output.
Restructuring negotiations, which would lead to the fourth operating agreement since Canadian miners started developing the Kumtor deposit in the mid-1990s, began after parliament voted in February to tear up a 2009 agreement, maintaining it was not in the interests of the country. Centerra countered that it has invested approximately $1 billion in the mine since signing that contract. Few believe Kyrgyzstan has the technical know-how to operate the project on its own.
Soviet map of the Fergana Valley circa 1930. Many of these borders later changed. Vorukh (Варух), for example, is now a Tajik exclave surrounded by Kyrgyzstan.
No villagers were taken hostage this time. No one got shot. But a disputed parcel of the populous Fergana Valley, where there is little government, little water, and little arable land, has seen yet another dicey ethnic standoff in recent days.
This time, after an arson attack allegedly destroyed a Kyrgyz teahouse in a disputed spot on the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan frontier, local Kyrgyz reportedly blamed an ethnic Tajik and blocked the only road to a Tajik exclave, Vorukh. Some reports said Tajiks then blocked a road connecting the Kyrgyz village, Ak-Sai, with the regional seat of government, Batken.
Vorukh, home to approximately 30,000 Tajik citizens, is surrounded entirely by Kyrgyzstan. Though the status of the exclave is not in dispute, the land surrounding it, including most of Ak-Sai, is. During the regulardisputes, Kyrgyz living in Ak-Sai – situated in a narrow valley of apricot orchards – can besiege Vorukh. They reportedly reopened the road on December 21.
When police close the roads and President Emomali Rakhmon’s fleet of black Mercedes-Benzes hightails it through Tajikistan’s capital several times each day, the ensuing traffic jams cause a fair amount of grumbling.
But the grumbling is not confined to Dushanbe. Apparently authorities in Berlin are peeved, too: They say hundreds of luxury cars in Tajikistan have been stolen off German streets and are being used by the president and his relatives, according to a German media report. And despite Berlin’s repeated requests to redress the issue, Tajik officials are ignoring the appeals.
Using GPS technology, German investigators have traced approximately 200 stolen German luxury vehicles to Tajikistan, including 93 BMWs, reports Deutsche Welle, citing the German tabloid Bild.
There have long been detailed rumors in Dushanbe’s Western diplomatic community that many of the luxury cars plying Dushanbe’s streets were stolen in Europe (and traded, somewhere along the way, for heroin), and that Tajik police officials are unwilling to address the problem.
Street crime, often the violent sort, is not unusual in Bishkek. Nor are accusations of police involvement. But complaints from the reticent Chinese Embassy are.
In a one-month period ending in late November, at least 20 Chinese citizens were robbed in Bishkek, reported The Global Times, a state-run English-language newspaper in Beijing, on December 17. One suffered a head injury. The Chinese Embassy has taken the unusual step of issuing an “emergency safety alert” warning its citizens to exercise caution and, in another statement, rebuking Kyrgyz authorities for failing to stop the attacks.
The surge in apparently targeted robberies follows the July murder of Chinese businessman Guan Joon Chan (name transliterated from the Russian), who was beaten to death shortly after reportedly arguing with local police over the protection money they demanded, Vechernii Bishkek reported at the time.
The Global Times estimates there are 80,000 Chinese citizens in Kyrgyzstan. Many work as traders in Bishkek’s Zhonghai market, part of the sprawling Dordoi complex.
Chinese businesspeople at Zhonghai told the paper that the number of actual robberies is likely much higher than is reported because victims are afraid to contact police. Some fear police are involved – a conclusion that will come as no surprise to anyone living in Bishkek, where police are known more as predators than crime fighters.
Just as Tajikistan’s annual winter energy crisis begins, the country’s second-largest hydropower dam may be forced to shut operations due to what the Russian-controlled company that owns the dam calls unfair treatment by authorities.
Tajikistan’s state electricity-distributing monopoly, Barqi Tojik, has been refusing to pay the company, Sangtuda-1, for its power. This seems to have left Sangtuda-1 short on cash to pay its taxes, so the state tax committee has frozen the company’s accounts in Tajikistan, the company says.