Sitting in a modest, domed brick mausoleum, a bust of the partisan Nurmagambet Kokembayev smiles Buddah-like as he gazes out upon the snow-laden steppe of central Kazakhstan. It betrays nothing of the turbulent historical period he lived in, an epoch that is still a sensitive spot for the Central Asian nation’s leaders.
A spring gust whips dust across the surface of the running track at the Kazhymukan Munaitpasov Stadium in Astana, but the football team that called the ground its home for decades before the city became Kazakhstan’s capital in 1997 is unlikely to flower again.
A senior judge in Kyrgyzstan has been sacked after challenging the government’s plan to collect fingerprints and other biometric data from citizens.
Klara Sooronkulova had become a hero for civic activists who believe the top-down effort to force citizens to share their fingerprints in exchange for the right to vote is unconstitutional and at odds with their civil liberties.
Sooronkulova, a judge at the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, was drafting a document declaring the 2014 Law on Biometric Registration unconstitutional. She had attracted legal expertise from abroad to reinforce her position.
She now seems certain to lose her position after the Council of Judges (kind of a judges’ board of directors) voted unanimously on June 18 to dismiss her, citing a breach of judicial discipline.
As support builds for Sooronkulova – about 100 supporters protested outside parliament on June 24 – the president and parliament must now confirm her dismissal.
Well-known rights activist Cholpon Djakupova, director of the Adilet legal clinic, told Vechernii Bishkek that Sooronkulova had been punished “for going against the system.”
Biometric passports, otherwise known as e-passports, are identity documents containing the holder’s biometric information – usually a fingerprint. As of 2014, over a 100 countries issue them. Supporters argue that the built-in electronic identification mechanisms make travel documents less prone to identity theft.
Five years after an ethnic conflict left hundreds dead and Kyrgyzstan’s second city smoldering, the uneven application of racial hatred laws is still hindering open conversations about nationalism.
Last week, veteran journalist Ulugbek Babakulov, who is editor of the MK Asia newspaper and a member of an ethnic minority group, was questioned by Kyrgyzstan’s GKNB security service and informed that tens of people had signed a statement calling for him to be charged for spreading ethnic hatred.
Babakulov had not publicly defamed another ethnicity. His alleged offence appears to be criticizing an ethnic Kyrgyz public figure for doing so.
In a May issue of MK Asia (a local branch of the Russian daily Moskovsky Komsomolets), Babakulov highlighted comments made late last year by Abdyrakhman Alimbaev, a former head of the Writer’s Union of Kyrgyzstan, likening non-Kyrgyz ethnic groups to “jackals.”
During the December 7 broadcast of the Kyrgyz talk show Tooluktardyn – “Mountain People” – on state broadcaster OTRK, Alimbaev allegedly said: “Of course, if the child's mother is an Uzbek, an Uighur woman or a Jew, the child may become a trader. […] What do we see today? Kyrgyz women marry men of different nationalities, and Kyrgyz men also marry different women. It is like a lion marrying a jackal or a jackal marrying a lioness.”
Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are the two Central Asian countries most in need of outside support to help prop up crumbling healthcare systems. Yet amid rising evidence that officials are stealing international aid, donors are increasingly wary of extending assistance.
Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov solidified his role as the isolated country’s “protector” and leading equestrian on May 25, unveiling the first gold-plated statue of himself.
Officials say the 21-meter statue, cast in bronze and covered in 24-carat gold leaf, was built to satisfy public demand. It is named “The Protector,” for Berdymukhamedov’s adopted title, and features the strongman with his right hand outstretched and a dove perched upon it. Some have ridiculed it for bearing an uncanny resemblance to a statue of Peter the Great in Russia’s second city, St Petersburg.
Berdymukhamedov is not famous for originality. He has persistently built his own cult of personality while dismantling that of Saparmurat Niyazov, the Turkmenbashi, who died in 2006 after scattering golden busts and statues of himself across the gas-rich nation.
Notably, Berdymukhamedov has relegated to the suburbs a statue of Niyazov that rotated to face the sun. He has also gradually phased out Niyazov’s Ruhnama, or “Book of the Soul,” which was required reading in schools and government offices.
In hindsight it is clear that these moves were less about dismantling an old cult and more about making space for a new one.
In recent years Turkmenistan’s pliant and obsequious parliament has bestowed horse-mad Berdymukhamedov with titles such as “Master Jockey-Mentor of Turkmenistan” and “People’s Horse Breeder.” He has also authored a range of books, on horses among other things, and elevated his father, Myalikguli Berdymukhamedov, to the status of a living demigod. (In a nod to Central Asian patriarchy, Myalikguli got a monument before his son – though it is not covered in gold.)
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif rounded off an energy-themed jaunt across Central Asia on May 22 in Bishkek, where he spoke about electricity exports to his energy-starved nation two days after visiting Turkmenistan to discuss a troubled gas-pipeline project.
The trip demonstrated Pakistan’s limited leverage in its dealings with Central Asia and, publicly at least, did not produce much of substance.
In Ashgabat, Sharif called on partners to “intensify work” on the long-stalled Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline. In his meeting with Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov on May 20, Sharif called TAPI a “project that would bring benefits to the entire region.”
But the pipeline, which would traverse Afghanistan and has been on the drawing board since the mid-1990s, may cost over $10 billion. With no commercial investor so far, initiative rests with both Turkmenistan, the would-be-supplier, and the main export market, India. Delhi must decide if its own energy deficit warrants pushing a link that many see as risky and expensive.
Neither president mentioned either the hoped-for 2017 TAPI completion date, or the more pessimistic projection of 2020 mentioned in late April by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. (Many say both timelines are still pipedreams.)
Kyrgyzstan took another halting step toward joining the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union on May 21 when President Almazbek Atambayev signed an accession treaty into law.
The other four members must still approve the impoverished Central Asian state’s membership (a process that is largely seen as a formality), and Bishkek must finish upgrading its border checkpoints to EEU standards before Kyrgyzstan becomes a formal member. But Atambayev was in a jubilant mood.
“Today is a wonderful day for us. Today [I am] signing the law ratifying international agreements on Kyrgyzstan’s accession to the Eurasian Economic Union. In this way, we complete all the internal governmental procedures for entering one of the biggest economic unions in the world,” Atambayev said on May 21 in comments carried by his website.
Kyrgyzstan first formally applied for membership two years ago and has been speaking about joining for four. Accession has dragged for so long that confusion over whether Kyrgyzstan is yet a member has reigned in recent weeks. It is still unclear how long it will take for Kyrgyzstan to upgrade its checkpoints.
In his remarks, Atambayev celebrated a “a new phase of development” for his country, while warning that the “journey will not be easy.” For years, thousands of Kyrgyzstanis have survived by re-exporting Chinese goods to other former Soviet republics. Those goods now face higher import tariffs. Kyrgyzstan’s economy must “restructure in a very short space of time,” Atambayev acknowledged.
Entrepreneurs from Turkey have enjoyed success in Turkmenistan, a market known mostly for natural gas rents and megalomaniacal vanity projects. But for all of their past business achievements, a growing number of Turkish investors are experiencing trouble in Ashgabat’s notoriously fickle business climate.