When 18-year-old Fatima Musabayeva from southern Kazakhstan was offered a job at a Moscow supermarket, she jumped at the chance. Her mother had died when she was 10, and when her father passed away in 2006, Fatima and her 17-year-old sister were left to fend for themselves.
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You might not think that money from oil would be a problem for Azerbaijan, one of the former Soviet Union’s largest energy producers. But when oil production drops, and election-year demands for money increase, the picture changes.
“One Fatherland, one Fate, one Leader of the Nation” – so says the slogan beside the smiling face of President Nursultan Nazarbayev on giant billboards looming over the streets in Kazakhstan. They are promoting a new holiday on December 1: First President’s Day, when Kazakhstan will fete its longtime leader.
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton has wound up a four-day trip to Central Asia, where she focused on security, energy and trade. The visit disappointed campaigners who hoped for stronger public statements about what they say are serious human rights abuses in the region.
New York-based Human Rights Watch had urged Ashton to “publicly call for the release of wrongfully imprisoned activists” across Central Asia, where “numerous human rights defenders, civil society groups, and opposition activists languish in prison for their peaceful work and activism.”
There was no public mention of prisoners during the visit, which ended in Astana on November 30. After meeting President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Ashton said talks had “not surprisingly, focused on economic and trade issues” and mentioned the “security dialogue.”
“I also want to say that it is important that the country moves forward with economic liberalization and in support of civil society and human rights,” Ashton said. She did not publicly mention the case of opposition leader Vladimir Kozlov, controversially jailed last month on charges of inciting unrest and attempting to overthrow the state.
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.”
Kyrgyzstan, the closest thing Central Asia has to a working democracy, just held municipal elections. The results are generating tension within the national governing coalition, fueling complaints that new voices are being stifled and causing some observers to raise the specter of a possible repeat of recent history.
Six years ago, Armenia pledged that thousands of children institutionalized in state-run orphanages for reasons of poverty would be returned to their biological families, or placed with foster families. But, today, little has changed for most of these children.