Western and Russian companies are helping Central Asian governments build and maintain vast surveillance networks that facilitate indiscriminate monitoring of all types of communication, according to a report released November 20 by a watchdog organization. Such sales of technology appear to violate international law and obligate Western governments to take action to tighten export controls of surveillance-related trade, the report adds.
The report, titled Private Interests: Monitoring Central Asia, is the product of a year-long investigation carried out by the watchdog group Privacy International. It shows how local and foreign communications service providers, including telecoms and Internet-related companies, are complicit in helping governments carry out authoritarian-style snooping. It also provides exhaustive documentation on the types of spyware and technical assistance that firms based in the United States, United Kingdom, Germany and Israel are supplying to Central Asian states.
While focusing on the surveillance architecture of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the report also provides overviews of practices in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
"Some countries are equipped with sophisticated surveillance capabilities that allow the monitoring of communications on a mass scale,” the report stated. “These surveillance capabilities are centralized and accessed by security agencies in monitoring centers, located across the region, allowing agents to intercept, decode and analyze the private communications of thousands of people simultaneously.”
Civil society activists in Kyrgyzstan are warily eyeing a criminal case initiated by the state security service against a local non-governmental organization in the southern capital Osh. The probe is fanning concern in the non-governmental sector that authorities are gearing up for a renewed push to pass a “foreign agents” law.
In going back to the drawing board to work on fresh ways to foster democratization in Central Asia, civil society advocates need to pay more attention to property rights, a leading rights activist contends.
Yevgeniy Zhovtis, a prominent human rights advocate in Kazakhstan, gave the keynote address at the annual Central Eurasian Studies Society conference, held at Columbia University in New York on October 24-26. He painted a bleak picture of the existing social and political landscape in Central Asia. Outside of Kyrgyzstan, Zhovtis noted, authoritarianism has taken deep root in Central Asia, with governments implementing extensive measures to squash basic freedoms.
“Single-party parliaments, … special forces exercising total surveillance, law-enforcement [bodies] protecting the interests of the ruling elite at all times – this is reality in Central Asia,” Zhovtis said.
Hopes for reversing the current trend rest mainly on solving dilemmas relating to property rights in Central Asia, Zhovtis suggested. He noted that 70-plus years of communism in the former Soviet Union completely skewed the way citizens in the region understand the concept of private property, adding that the sanctity of property rights is the fundamental building bloc of any civil society.
“In modern societies, the evolution of economic and legal foundations for private property facilitated ideas of individual rights and freedoms. In post-Soviet countries, this process never took root,” he said.
It’s no secret that Turkmenistan, a modern-day hermit khanate with one of the most repressive governments on earth, has an abundance of political prisoners. But until now, few details were known about how enemies of the state spent their time behind bars.
Federal Prosecutors unsealed an indictment on May 30 charging Khairullozhon Matanov, a 23-year-old citizen of Kyrgyzstan, with four counts of obstructing justice in connection with the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.
The indictment asserts Matanov was a close acquaintance of the accused Boston Marathon bombers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and that he had repeated contact with the duo in the days following the April 15, 2013, tragedy. In particular, it outlines that Matanov had dinner with the Tsarnaev brothers just hours after two home-made bombs detonated near the marathon finish line. In addition, “in the hours and days following the bombings, Matanov contacted and attempted to contact Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev by cellphone and saw Tamerlan in person at least twice.”
Matanov is specifically charged with destroying potential evidence and making false statements that impeded the criminal investigation into the Tsarnaevs’ alleged actions. Authorities identified the Tsarnaevs as prime suspects on April 18, 2013.
The indictment notes that Matanov spoke with federal investigators several times on April 20, 2013. “Although Matanov soon dropped the pretense that he and Tamerlan Tsarnaev had not seen each other much, he continued to falsify, conceal and cover up evidence of the extent of his friendship, contact and communication with the Tsarnaevs during the week of the bombings, especially during the hours following the bombings,” the indictment states.
“One subject about which Matanov misinformed federal investigators concerned his interactions with the Tsarnaevs on April 15, 2013, the afternoon and evening of the bombings," it adds. Tamerlan Tsarnaev died during a shootout with law-enforcement officers in the early hours of April 19, 2013. Dzhokhar was taken into custody late the same day; his trial is scheduled to begin November 3 in US District Court in Boston.
Could 2018 become the new 1980? It might, if recent initiatives aiming to use a major sporting event to punish Russia for geopolitical misbehavior can gain traction.
Back in 1979, it was the Kremlin’s military occupation of Afghanistan that prompted a US-led boycott of the Moscow Summer Olympic Games the following year. The trigger today is Russia’s land grab in Crimea, an act of territorial aggression that has evoked memories of Nazi Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland back in 1938.
Russia, as readers may remember, is scheduled to host the 2018 World Cup football tournament, the world’s most watched sporting event. A couple of football fans in the United States and Europe, outraged by Russia’s incursion, have launched web-based petitions calling on FIFA, football’s governing body, to relocate the 2018 World Cup.
“International sporting bodies have an obligation to speak up when there’s injustice, and there’s a tournament being held in the country that’s perpetuating the injustice,” said Zach Lewis, a New York City resident who launched a petition drive hosted by the global activism website, Change.org.
As the reality of the Vladimir Putin’s Crimean land grab sinks in, the most alarming aspect of it all is not the ease with which Russian troops seized the peninsula, but the way the Kremlin mobilized Russian public opinion behind its agenda.
Now that Latvia has joined the euro zone, legislators in Riga can return to the delicate issue of residency permits for foreign nationals. Lenient rules have allowed thousands of über-rich Russians, Chinese and Central Asians to use Latvia as a backdoor to Europe. Critics want to tighten legal loopholes, while defenders warn that too much tinkering could have economic consequences.
A long-running conflict between Latvian banker Valeri Belokon and the government of Kyrgyzstan seems to be heading toward its denouement.
In an interview with EurasiaNet.org, Belokon said an arbitration hearing was scheduled for late December in Paris to resolve his dispute with Kyrgyz authorities. The legal tussle stems from the Kyrgyz government’s takeover of Manas Bank following the 2010 ouster of former Kyrgyz president Kurmanbek Bakiyev. “There should be a decision not too long after that,” Belokon said, referring to the hearing.
Belokon was the owner of Kyrgyzstan-based Manas Bank at the time of the 2010 Kyrgyz upheaval. Kyrgyz authorities who took over from Bakiyev subsequently took control of the bank and opened a criminal case against Belokon, alleging that he assisted the former president’s son, Maxim Bakiyev, in laundering money and improperly shipping assets out of the country. Belokon countered by seeking damages via international arbitration for what he contends was the improper seizure of his bank.
The Latvian banker vigorously denies the criminal allegations against him. He acknowledges that he had business relations with Maxim Bakiyev, but insists their dealings were confined to the operations of Latvia-based Maval Aktivi AS, a holding company in which the duo were partners. “I was open with everything we did,” Belokon said. He stressed that he and the younger Bakiyev did not have any offshore dealings.
This past weekend, I had the chance to host a discussion aimed at forecasting Central Asia’s geopolitical prospects in the coming years. It won’t come as a surprise to many that the consensus prognosis was generally glum with occasional periods of unrestrained pessimism.
The discussion was part of the Riga Conference 2013, an annual event in the Latvian capital that attracts political movers and shakers from OSCE member states. Given the pending withdrawal of US and NATO troops in Afghanistan, Central Asia garnered lots of attention at this year’s Riga conference.
Joining me in the discussion were Damon Wilson, the executive vice president of the Atlantic Council in Washington, and Jos Boonstra, a senior researcher at FRIDE and the head of the EUCAM program.
You can watch the 30-minute discussion here.
Editor's note: Justin Burke is the executive editor of Eurasianet.