Welcome to Kazakhstan! But not all of it, unless you want to pay a fine.
That’s the mixed message emerging as enthusiasm about moves to open up visa-free travel to a growing list of nationalities is dampened by the introduction of special access permits for some of the country’s prime tourist spots.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs unveiled legislation on June 26 making it easier for citizens of 19 countries to visit the country for stays of up to 15 days by waiving visa requirements. The full list can be found here. The law will remain in force through to the end of 2017.
But while it will become easier for many to get into Kazakhstan, it will now be illegal to visit some of the country’s top tourist draws without written permission obtained seven days in advance.
Under legislation that came into force on June 15, special documentation is needed to visit sights located within a 25-kilometer radius of the border. That would include Medeu ice skating rink and the Shymbluak ski resort, both located only a short drive from the country’s largest city, Almaty. Other places effectively off-limits to visitors include Lake Alakol and the Kolsai lakes.
Anybody visiting these places without the proper paperwork now risks incurring a fine.
According to tour guide Karlygash Makatova, a foreign diplomat was recently fined for visiting Big Almaty Lake without permission, Tengrinews website reported. Makatova mentioned another occasion when tourists were detained and fined while visiting Sharyn Canyon, one of Almaty region's landmark attractions.
In an episode that is going to sow fears of an imminent surge of terrorist activity in Central Asia, authorities in Kyrgyzstan said July 16 that they killed four gunmen who they said were planning attacks in the capital, Bishkek.
A spokesman for the security services at the scene of the shootout said special forces were forced to open fire after the armed group resisted arrest.
“During the special operation, four security service special unit officers were wounded and later hospitalized,” the State Committee for National Security said in a statement.
Officials were unable to provide more than a few cursory details in the wake of the shootout, but the security services spokesman described the men as belonging to an international group. Local media reported that the group was comprised of citizens of Kazakhstan and that they were militants with the Islamic State group, but officials declined to confirm either of those claims.
Plumes of black smoke could be seen rising in the early evening above the central neighborhood where the shootout took place. Police cordoned off the street where the fighting occured, but crowds of local residents stood and watched from the distance for hours after the worst of the unrest had subsided.
Sustained gunfire and blasts can be heard in footage of the clash uploaded to the Internet. Onlookers at the scene shared video footage of one person with his hands behind his back being marched away from the area. It was not immediately clear if the man was involved in the unrest.
Tajikistan has coupled one of its habitual Internet blocking sprees with an alarming show of police strength in central Dushanbe. The two cautious moves together appear designed to persuade a cowed population that heeding online calls for revolution is a bad idea.
Losing access to several websites simultaneously – typically social media and news sites – has become a regular fact of life for Internet users in Tajikistan. The latest filtering, which the government has denied imposing and Internet Service Providers have refused to admit on record, is unusual only in that Amazon.com, rarely cited as an agent of revolution, has been included on the blacklist. Northern Sughd Oblast, home to Tajikistan’s second-largest city, Khujand, has been almost completely offline since October 4.
Truth is no longer something expected from the government’s hated telecoms regulator, which consistently denies it blocks websites. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have a strong incentive to follow suit by attributing the bans to “technical problems,” or face the possibility of losing their licenses. But one provider speaking anonymously to Russian news agency Interfax was reported as saying October 6: "We have received an order from the communications service [to block] a list of websites: Facebook, vk.com, lenta.ru, youtube.com, mk.ru, amazon.com, ru.wikipedia.org and dozens of web anonymizers that allow bypassing these blockings."
Security and energy topped the agenda on the first day of European Union foreign affairs envoy Catherine Ashton’s visit to Central Asia, disappointing campaigners hoping she would make vocal calls for improvements to what they see as the five states’ dismal human rights records.
Following the EU-Central Asia Ministerial meeting in Kyrgyzstan on November 27, Ashton cited first security (due to the region’s proximity to Afghanistan) then energy and trade as key to “the growing importance of Central Asia.”
“We face shared security challenges. We have great potential to further develop our energy, trade and economic relations,” she said, only then pointing to the EU’s desire to “support the efforts of the countries of Central Asia as you take that journey of political and economic reforms.”
She listed topics of discussion as education; the rule of law; the environment; and energy and water resources (a particular bone of regional contention). “And we talked about democratization and human rights and the development of civil society,” Ashton then added.
Human rights campaigners had been hoping for stronger language from the EU foreign policy chief, who promised ahead of her visit in an interview with Radio Free Europe to make human rights “a core part of the dialogue.”
Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s “southern capital,” has been angling for the trappings of a true, national capital. Last month, the city’s mayor unveiled his own anthem and flag. Now he wants his own police force.
Melisbek Myrzakmatov said on November 10 that his municipal police plans are in the drafting stages, but could come to fruition in the near future. According to AKIpress, the new force, including a special forces unit, would be independent of Bishkek’s Interior Ministry. The mayor complained that police currently carry out political orders, not legal ones, on behalf of Bishkek. The Interior Ministry called the move illegal.
Myrzakmatov’s latest show of nonalignment with Bishkek will pose a big test for President-Elect Almazbek Atambayev. Among Western investigators, the meaty-armed mayor, perhaps more than any other official, has been linked to the ethnic violence last year between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, which killed over 400, and is often described as part of the reason his city remains divided. The central government, almost 700 kilometers away, beyond a twisting mountain road, has been powerless to remove him. Appointed by ousted ex-President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in January 2009, Myrzakmatov won’t budge. When Bishkek tried to fire him in August 2010, shortly after the ethnic bloodletting, he brought his supporters into the streets and declared the central government has “no legal force in the south.”
Only a few days after stopping an Iranian airplane en route to Syria that was reportedly carrying weapons, Turkey is now dealing with another case of arms smuggling, this time one that originated within its own borders.
According to reports from Dubai, police officials there found some 16,000 pistols concealed inside cargo headed for Yemen from a ship which started its trip in Turkey. The weapons were hidden inside boxes marked as furniture from Turkey.
Turkish officials are investigating the shipment. More details here and here.
According to a Turkish wire service report, the crew of an Iranian cargo airplane has been arrested after weapons were found hidden on the plane, which had been forced to land in Turkey while transiting the country on its way to Syria. The airplane was the second Iranian cargo aircraft flying over Turkish airspace to be forced down for an inspection in recent days.
The arrest of the crew of the Iranian plane comes only week after Israeli commandos seized a weapons-laden ship that was traveling from a Syrian port to Alexandria, Egypt, and which had also made a stop at the Turkish harbor of Mersin. According to Israeli officials, the weapons originated in Iran and were ultimately headed for Gaza.
[UPDATE -- AFP has more on the story. A statement released by the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, meanwhile, said the airplane was stopped under the scope of UN sanctions against Iran and only that "banned items" were found during a search.]
[UPDATE II -- Reuters has details from a report Turkey filed on the incident to the UN.]
Washington is planning to construct a new military training center in Tajikistan, the strategic country located between flailing Kyrgyzstan and failed Afghanistan, AFP reports, citing US Ambassador Ken Gross.
"The plan ... is almost 10 million dollars to build this national training centre for the Tajik armed forces," Ken Gross told journalists at a briefing in the capital, Dushanbe.
Gross said the facility would be run by the Tajik national guards' service and no US troops would be based there, though he said US military personnel could be brought in to assist in training.
"If requested, we might have people come in to help in training missions," the US envoy said.
Though the deal has yet to be inked, the facility is slated to open next year.
Central Asia-watchers will be eager to see what jealous older brother Russia, which already operates three bases for its 201st Motor Rifle Division in Tajikistan, will want in exchange for America stepping further into its “sphere of interest.”
Russian state media went feral when the US proposed a training center -- for half the price of the proposed Tajik one -- in southern Kyrgyzstan this March.
The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) will send “specialist equipment” to Kyrgyzstan but is still debating what help, if any, it can provide to protect strategic sites such as the Toktogul Reservoir in the troubled state.
“It was one of the topics discussed in Moscow yesterday [June 17] and they promised to consider this question,” an assistant to the newly appointed head of the Kyrgyz security council, Alik Orozov, told EurasiaNet.org.
In the meantime, the CSTO equipment earmarked for Kyrgyzstan is likely to include helicopters without weapons and other “non-lethal” military hardware that can be used for crowd control, RIA Novosti reported on June 18.
The CSTO could also send “specialists who know how to plan and prepare operations to prevent mass disorder, identify plotters and contain gangs that provoke the situation,” a CSTO spokesperson was quoted as saying.
It’s not quite the assistance Kyrgyzstan wanted. However questions remain over what sort of quid pro quo arrangements Moscow may seek in return for small favors.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said the American base at Manas airport should not become a permanent fixture and its future should be a “question for discussion.”
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