Ever a strategic crossroads, ardently pro-Western Georgia on August 25 became the site where the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, billed as the Chinese counterweight to the World Bank, chose its first president.
China's former deputy finance minister, Jin Liqun, got the pick at the August 24-25 meeting in Tbilisi, but it’s the longer term implications of the bank’s role that could prove more intriguing.
Initially meant as an Asia-only lending club, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) has fast expanded to attract members across Europe and is set to help China build international clout.
The US has tried to discourage allies like the United Kingdom and South Korea from embracing the bank, a financial institution that Washington reportedly fears will lower international banking standards, but did not react publicly when Georgia, its strongest ally in the strategic South Caucasus, also decided to help midwife the AIIB into existence.
Granted, Georgia, which holds a mere .05 percent share in the bank, does not have the banking or economic muscle of the UK or South Korea, but its geo-strategic location means that those with influence here tend to keep a wary eye out for potential rivals.
Five former prisoners from the notorious US-run Guantanamo prison camp who arrived in Kazakhstan at the end of last year have lodged asylum claims in the Central Asian state, the government says.
The five arrived in Kazakhstan on December 31, the Foreign Ministry said in a January 5 statement, after being freed from Guantanamo owing to “the absence of sufficient grounds to present them with charges of committing a crime.”
The ministry did not name the five, but press reports had previously provided their names and identified them as three men from Yemen and two from Tunisia. They had been in detention for over a decade, Reuters reported, but “were identified as low-risk detainees cleared long ago for transfer.”
The five have been granted the status of asylum seekers pending the hearing of their claims, the Foreign Ministry said. By law, a ruling should be made within three months.
These are the first asylum claims Kazakhstan has received from former Guantanamo prisoners, Foreign Ministry spokesman Nurzhan Aytmakhanov added in remarks quoted by Tengri News on January 5. Coming to Kazakhstan was their “personal choice,” he said.
The US government is apparently not happy that Kyrgyzstan is due to release an alleged criminal kingpin next month after he has served only a fraction of his sentence.
In a country where crime bosses and politicians enjoy cozy relations, Kamchi Kolbayev – whom President Obama identified as a “significant foreign narcotics trafficker” in June 2011 – has become synonymous with sleaze in the judiciary.
Kolbayev was jailed last year for extortion. But at some point his 5 1/2-year sentence was cut to three years “without explanation,” RFE/RL points out. Now, because he served part of his time in a pre-trial detention facility, where one day is the equivalent of two against a sentence, he’s almost free.
The US State Department seems to think Kyrgyzstan’s underfunded, mafia-ridden prisons, where criminals often call the shots, has done little to stop Kolbayev’s activities. In a May 29 statement, State offered a $1 million reward for “information leading to the disruption of the financial mechanisms of the criminal network of Kamchybek Kolbayev.”
The municipality of Almaty is suing Viktor Khrapunov, a former mayor and a foe of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, in the United States, accusing him of having “systematically looted” millions from city coffers over a decade ago.
Raising questions about why it took the municipality so long to notice the missing millions, the case was lodged in a Los Angeles federal court on May 14, a decade after Khrapunov left the post of mayor and six years after he moved out of Kazakhstan to base himself in a luxury Swiss mansion.
Adding piquancy to the scandal, Khrapunov’s daughter Madina is related by marriage to embattled oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov, Astana’s public enemy number one.
Discredited former banker Ablyazov is in jail in France battling extradition to Russia on fraud charges, and fighting moves to strip him of political asylum in the United Kingdom.
Madina Ablyazova is named as a defendant in the Khrapunov case along with Khrapunov’s wife Leila and son Ilyas, reports The Courthouse News, a Pasadena-based legal wire service.
Khrapunov – a former Nazarbayev administration insider who held a string of top posts including mayor of Almaty from 1997 to 2004 – “abused his position of trust as a public official in order to convert and sell numerous assets belonging to the City of Almaty for his own benefit and the benefit of his co-conspirators,” the report quotes the lawsuit as saying.
They carried banners advertising a virtual tweet-march through Moscow, where a real Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Pride Parade was banned in 2012 for the next 100 years, and calling on Westerners to boycott Russian vodka. But, persecuted at home, Russian speakers from the former Soviet Union reveled in the opportunity to celebrate their sexual orientation during New York’s recent Pride Parade.
“I came to be happy and to show that we can have this kind of happiness back home,” commented Anton Krasovksy, a TV journalist who has become a crusader for gay rights in Russia since coming out on national television in January – and promptly losing his job.
“I really want for people in other countries – countries of Central Asia and the former Soviet Union, in Kazakhstan and Belarus, and even in Eastern Europe, where there is discrimination – to see that things can be completely different. It could be not now, but at some point,” added Krasovsky, whose Kontr TV Channel was shut down after his coming out.
Cheered by hundreds of thousands of onlookers as they made their way down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan as part of the 44th annual New York Pride Parade on June 30, many of the 150 Russian-speakers and sympathizers who marched under the banner of RUSA LGBT, New York’s Russian-speaking gay and lesbian association, shared the sentiment.
A poster in Tashkent offers a warning about human trafficking.
The United States has given Uzbekistan the lowest possible rating in its annual report on human trafficking and forced labor.
Uzbekistan was downgraded (along with Russia and China) from Tier 2 to Tier 3 in the State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons report for failing to make sufficient efforts to combat the trade in human flesh.
The June 19 report had harsh words for Tashkent: “The Government of Uzbekistan remains one of only a handful of governments around the world that subjects its citizens to forced labor through implementation of state policy.”
The use of forced labor in the cotton harvest featured strongly in the findings: “Internal labor trafficking remains prevalent during the annual cotton harvest, in which children and adults are victims of government-organized forced labor. There were reports that working conditions in some fields during the cotton harvest included verbal and physical abuse and lack of freedom of movement.”
There was no immediate reaction from Tashkent, which has always denied state-sponsored forced labor and points to its efforts to combat people trafficking.
The US report noted that last year Tashkent enforced a decree banning child labor in the cotton fields, resulting in a “sweeping reduction” in the number of children under age 15 in the harvest, but said that older children and adults were still being forced to reap cotton.
The American Senate’s contentious confirmation hearings for Defense Secretary nominee Chuck Hagel have raised the prickly issue of foreign financing at US think tanks, with Republicans opposing his candidacy suggesting nefarious links between Hagel and Kazakhstan, among other foreign nations and companies. Republicans have asked Hagel – a former Senate Republican who is now the nominee of a Democrat president – to reveal the sources of foreign funding at several organizations for which he has served as a board member, most notably the Atlantic Council, where he is currently chairman.
Foreign money flowing to US-based think tanks is often opaque, which means countries like Kazakhstan – where opaque is the gold standard – fit right in. The extent to which foreign funding influences the policies or positions taken by these organizations, or their associates, sometimes concerns the government officials they seek to advise and influence.
Such seemed to be the motive for an unnamed aide to a Senate Republican, who asserted to the conservative Washington Free Beacon blog on February 11, “The nexus between Chuck Hagel, the government of Kazakhstan, the Atlantic Council, and Chevron is apparent. He’s clearly delivered political cover from a prominent think tank and used his board position at Chevron to encourage investments in Kazakhstan.” (Chevron was deeply invested in Kazakhstan long before Hagel joined the Atlantic Council in 2009.)
American government statements on human rights in Central Asia tend to be pretty tepid, especially when they focus on countries necessary for transit routes into and out of Afghanistan.
A December 6 speech by Hillary Rodham Clinton, the US Secretary of State, was not much different, though she did single out the region for attention as part of what she called wider backsliding on human rights in the former Soviet world.
I just met with a group of the Civil Society Solidarity Platform leaders from a number of member states. They talked to me about the growing challenges and dangers that they are facing, about new restrictions on human rights from governments, new pressures on journalists, new assaults on NGOs. And I urge all of us to pay attention to their concerns.
For example, in Belarus, the Government continues to systematically repress human rights, detain political prisoners, and intimidate journalists. In Ukraine, the elections in October were a step backwards for democracy, and we remain deeply concerned about the selective prosecution of opposition leaders. In Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan, there are examples of the restrictions of the freedom of expression online and offline as well as the freedom of religion. In the Caucasus, we see constraints on judicial independence, attacks on journalists, and elections that are not always free and fair.
Clinton was speaking at an OSCE Ministerial Council meeting in Dublin (all five Central Asian states are OSCE members). She didn’t get into details on Central Asia, so here’s a quick recap of recent events:
--In Tajikistan, authorities have been blocking websites critical of President Emomali Rakhmon and his military’s violent assault on the Gorno-Badakhshan region this summer.
Forty-two percent of Kyrgyzstanis consider the United States the biggest threat to their country, says a new study by a Bishkek polling agency.
Afghanistan is the only country feared by a greater part of the population: 54 percent.
Why the negative feeling about the US? In part it’s probably because of the Manas air base outside Bishkek, which is regularly pilloried in the local press -- often unfairly, though it has engaged in shady business deals with two deposed autocrats. Negative Russian press also leaves an impression on the population.
By contrast, Russia comes across very well in Kyrgyzstan. Perhaps because of a deep dependence on Russia for jobs and aid, 90 percent of the population thinks “Russia plays a very positive role in the region,” says the new study, conducted in late summer by M-Vector.
M-Vector’s publicly available findings also draw some interesting comparisons between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, two former Soviet republics that have taken wildly different paths since independence. Kazakhstanis tend to agree on the part played by Russia: 74 percent applaud its role in the region.
The Peace Corps, which sends thousands of Americans abroad every year to volunteer in public health, education and business development, is pulling out of Kazakhstan, according to unconfirmed reports. Volunteers say they have been ordered home within the next couple of weeks.
Peace Corps HQ did not respond to EurasiaNet.org's request for confirmation, but volunteers are adamant that – 18 years after the first contingent arrived in Kazakhstan – the program is closing.
Lisa Murray, a youth development volunteer in South Kazakhstan Region, blogged on November 17 that the Peace Corps would be leaving Kazakhstan next week.
She pointed to some possible reasons, including safety concerns over terrorism and what she said was the highest level of sexual assault and rape among the countries in which Peace Corps operates.
She says she knows of four incidents of “rape or sexual assault” of volunteers in Kazakhstan in a year – but adds that she does “not believe that Kazakhstan is an overly dangerous country” and has experienced nothing but “warmness, kindness, and hospitality.”
Not everyone in Kazakhstan welcomes the Peace Corps, however. In October the Aktobe Times, a Russian-language newspaper in the country’s west, published a vitriolic attack on volunteers on its website, which was also picked up by other media.