As Russia prepares to celebrate Orthodox Christmas, Russian leader Vladimir Putin has many reasons to be pleased this holiday season. Russia, after all, has received an abundance of geopolitical gifts over the past year. But for all the bounty that Putin reaped, Ded Moroz did not deliver the New Year’s present that the Russian leader really needed – a vibrant economy.
It would be prudent in the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks for the United States and Russia to find ways to overcome strategic differences and wage a joint fight against Islamic State militants. But the level of distrust is such that bilateral relations seem more likely to get frostier before any thaw can occur.
Among the sponsors of the Azerbaijan-hosted European Games, one is not like the others – the United Nations’ Children Fund, or UNICEF. The financial particulars surrounding UNICEF’s sponsorship are murky while the ostensible benefits it is providing in connection with the games are vague.
Authorities in Azerbaijan took steps December 5 to muzzle Khadija Ismayilova, an investigative journalist who is the country’s most vocal government critic. A Baku court granted a motion to hold Ismayilova in jail pending a criminal trial, while her Facebook page mysteriously went dark.
Prosecutors in Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s southern capital, have dropped a criminal case against a local non-governmental organization accused of inciting inter-ethnic conflict. The decision is being cheered by civil society activists, who had earlier expressed concern that the case was a possible harbinger of a crackdown on the non-governmental sector.
In a resolution dated November 28, the Osh prosecutor’s office halted the investigation of the Advocacy Center for Human Rights for lack of evidence of criminal wrongdoing. The criminal case was opened in late September at the instigation of the local branch of the GKNB, or Kyrgyz state security service, which alleged that a research project conducted by the NGO posed a threat to national security. The Advocacy Center, in conjunction with the US-based watchdog organization Freedom House, had been carrying out a pilot research project on the civil rights of ethnic minorities in two regions of southern Kyrgyzstan – Batken and Jalal-Abad.
“We are pleased that the prosecutor rejected the charges of inciting inter-ethnic hatred against the staff of the Human Rights Advocacy Center,” Robert Herman, Freedom House’s vice president for regional programs, said in a written statement distributed by the watchdog organization. “The allegations were baseless and the prosecutor’s decision represents a triumph of the rule of law.”
While the decision may mark a limited victory for due process in Kyrgyzstan, a convoluted provision in the prosecutor’s November 28 resolution indicates that the rule of law was probably not the sole factor in the decision to drop the case. Instead, it hints that behind-the-scenes maneuvering among various state agencies played a significant role in the outcome.
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.