Girls just want to have fun, Cyndi Lauper once sang. But in totalitarian Turkmenistan, having fun can spell trouble, especially if evidence lands on the Internet.
In the days since a video clip featuring a posse of schoolgirls in national dress rocking out to California-based Far East Movement’s party song “Turn Up the Love” turned up on YouTube, authorities have launched a nationwide crackdown on mobile phones in schools, a dissident-run website claims. The video currently has over 38,000 views.
Western music is officially frowned upon in Turkmenistan, where cultural protectionism – at the cost of near total isolation from the world – is a trademark of the repressive regime.
Perhaps to challenge Turkmen society’s deeply ingrained perceptions of gender roles – or perhaps because there were no better props at hand – the sextet swung about with items associated with domestic chores. The lead singer appeared to be yelling into a mop. Two faux guitarists jammed on brooms while, provocatively, another used a mini Turkmen flag to bow a newspaper as if it were a violin.
According to the Chronicles of Turkmenistan – a news outlet run by exiles that is generally hard to fact-check – the government response has been swift:
Prosecutors in Lebap province (formerly Chardzhou region) have been touring schools in the region for the last week, checking cell phones for students that contain photos and videos.
What a difference a month can make. In the final days of February, Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev was engaged in an emotional and unseemly spat with Belarus over the death of a Kyrgyz gangster.
By the end of his 10-day European tour this week, Atambayev was positioning himself as a peacemaker between Brussels and Moscow – one eager to continue receiving Western aid. Kyrgyzstan is due to join the Russia-led Eurasia Economic Union next month.
Atambayev made some revealing comments during an April 1 interview with Euronews – an outlet notorious for softball questions and sympathetic interviews with regional leaders. He used the opportunity to praise Russia’s leadership, present himself as a wise leader dabbling in international diplomacy, and remind Western donors that their assistance hasn’t been enough.
Euronews: “Mr. President, welcome to Euronews. Can we regard your visit to Brussels as something of a farewell before Kyrgyzstan joins the Eurasian Economic Union in May and when you will stop getting closer to the European Union?”
Atambayev: “On the contrary. I think, as a part of the Eurasian Union, Kyrgyzstan will be pushing it towards tight engagement with the European Union. Europe should extend from Lisbon and Brussels – to Vladivostok, and of course, I think, to Bishkek.”
As President Almazbek Atambayev was trumpeting Kyrgyzstan’s democratization potential during a late March European tour, Kyrgyz state security agents were raiding a human rights organization best known for defending members of the embattled Uzbek minority in the southern city of Osh.
UPDATE, March 28: American journalist Umar Farooq says he has been freed and is leaving Kyrgyzstan. Meanwhile, lawyers for human rights watchdog Bir Duino have filed a complaint with the prosecutor's office for the raids on their office and several top employees’ homes.
The arrest of an American journalist on extremism charges and the subsequent raid of a prominent human rights organization, both in southern Kyrgyzstan’s largest city, Osh, suggest that Kyrgyz authorities are still cagey about independent inquiry in a region associated with growing adherence to Islam and festering inter-ethnic tensions.
Kyrgyzstan has styled itself as a bastion of democracy in an authoritarian region, but rights activists see looming Russian-style legislation that would brand NGOs “foreign agents” as impending death for the country’s once-vibrant civil society.
Umar Farooq was researching the recent arrest of a popular cleric accused of supporting Syrian radicals, said a local journalist who had met with him shortly after he arrived in Kyrgyzstan a few weeks ago. On his webpage, Farooq identifies himself as a journalist who has written for the Los Angeles Times, the Christian Science Monitor and others.
The State Committee for National Security (GKNB) released a statement late March 27 confirming Farooq’s March 25 arrest, and claiming he had been found with documents and video materials of a "religious extremist and terrorist character."
A US Embassy spokeswoman told EurasiaNet.org that American officials had been in touch with Farooq and were providing consular support.
The hated younger son of Kyrgyzstan’s former president is living the highlife in the United Kingdom, inhabiting a house bought by an opaque shell company – probably with money stolen from the Kyrgyz people – while he waits for asylum. So alleges transparency watchdog Global Witness in a March 25 report.
Maxim Bakiyev never returned to Kyrgyzstan after his father, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, was ousted in a bloody April 2010 uprising that left around 100 people dead. He has since been found guilty at home of stealing millions in government funds and attempted murder, charges he says are politically motivated.
Meanwhile, he has applied for asylum in the UK and is eligible for permanent residency in three months, according to Global Witness.
How Maxim came to live in a $5.2-million mansion, bought by a secret Belize-registered company just after his father’s regime imploded, is the focus on the Global Witness report.
The report provides strong evidence suggesting that the scion of the Bakiyev clan, if not fully identifiable as the owner of the house in a posh London suburb, at least inhabits it.
Kyrgyzstan’s obscurity has allowed Maxim to fly under the radar of the British press for the most part. Even the British football club he was rumored to have a stake in was fairly unfashionable.
Reports that Russia is uncomfortable with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) stepping into banking are nothing new. In particular, Moscow’s quiet efforts to block the creation of an SCO development bank that would funnel largely Chinese credit into Russia’s backyard have featured at the organization’s meetings in recent years.
But a thought-provoking analysis by Alexander Gabuev of the Carnegie Moscow Center, published last week by Russia in Global Affairs, suggests the Kremlin is mistaken, placing fears about appearing to be a junior partner over a sound geopolitical strategy that could give it a measure of control over China’s Central Asia policy.
The SCO – which groups China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – has tried hard to convince the world it is more than just a club for dictators. China’s push to include economic initiatives on the SCO agenda was a part of this process, Gabuev notes, and a development bank has been on the table at SCO powwows since 2009.
Vyacheslav Miroshkin’s childhood in Kyrgyzstan three decades ago was characterized by long, cold winters. “You could pour a few buckets of water on the ground and you would have an ice rink for the whole season. In recent times we have not had many like that,” said Miroshkin, head of Heli-Ski on Tien Shan, a mountain sports company based in Bishkek.
Hours before heroically coaxing Vladimir Putin out of his mysterious 11-day hibernation on March 16, Kyrgyzstan's President Almazbek made a brief stopover in Moldova.
He was flying on a private jet, reportedly provided by one of Moldova’s richest men.
The secretive mission to Chisinau, where Atambayev reportedly met controversial oligarch-politician Vladimir Plahotniuc, has baffled many in Bishkek and angered opposition leaders.
Plahotniuc, aside from being a parliamentarian from the pro-Europe Democratic Party of Moldova, has faced legal scandals related to his business activity in both Great Britain and the Netherlands. In 2012, Business New Europe called the oligarch “a kingmaker.” Others describe him as the most powerful man in Moldova.
Prompting even more questions, Atambayev did not meet Moldovan President Nicolae Timofti during the four-hour layover. Timofti’s press secretary said to local media, as a way of explanation, that Atambayev was short on time and that he “met with someone in Chisinau.”
Atambayev’s office is mostly tight-lipped about the meeting, prompting a furious reaction from opposition leader Ravshan Jeenbekov, who said such behavior – flying on a private jet and holding secret meetings – “does not honor the head of an independent state.”
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani tried to end uncertainty about Iran’s desire for Turkmenistan's gas during his first official visit to the gas-rich Central Asian country on March 11, promising an unspecified increase in imports.
Over the last few years, at least in terms of gas, Turkmenistan’s relationship with Iran has been second only to its relationship with Russia in volatility. Tehran makes occasional noises about boosting domestic production and doing away with a tiresome trade pickled with disputes.
But during his visit Rouhani confirmed that the Islamic Republic would up imports from Turkmenistan.
That must be music to Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s ears. The Turkmen economy has been struggling on the back of the sharp downturn in Russia and the slumping ruble; moreover, Moscow suddenly slashed imports of Turkmen gas last month.
Referring to increased transport links with Turkmenistan, such as the new Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran railway, Rouhani set an ambitious target for bilateral trade to grow by more than 15 times from its current $3.7 billion to $60 billion by 2020, his official president.ir website cited him as saying.
For his part, Berdymukhamedov was also effusive: “In recent years, given the growing cooperation in different fields, bilateral ties between Tehran and Ashgabat have taken on a new meaning,” said the Turkmen president, who also called Rouhani a “brother” in comments picked up by AFP.