Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev has had two big wins to celebrate in recent times in a part of the country where his popularity is debatable.
Still, he has much to occupy his mind, as the increasing number of arrests of no-name, non-parliamentary opposition figures appears to indicate.
Last week brought good news for the government, dominated by Atambayev’s Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK), as a week-long border standoff with Uzbekistan came to a conclusion on March 26 with no shots fired.
The following day, SDPK edged out rival parties to claim most of the seats in the the council of the southern city of Osh, the most important of several municipal councils elected Sunday. The party can expect to form a majority with one or more parties.
Both victories should taste sweet. Regarding Uzbekistan, the executive can claim it turned a precarious situation into a diplomatic triumph without publicly losing face. Authorities have noted that the negotiations that led to the drawdown of forces reportedly came at Tashkent’s request and Uzbekistan pulled back its military first.
In the local politics of the country's second-largest city, which saw major ethnic conflict just six years ago, SDPK can be confident of calling the shots. It polled twice as much as any of the other parties, with 30 percent of the vote, while the stalking horse pro-government Kyrgyzstan Party finished second.
But beyond the formalities of border negotiations and local elections, the security services, which are directly controlled by the the president, have been inexplicably busy.
While the likelihood of an imminent border conflict between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan may be dimming, the tension has been ably exploited by Bishkek to head off opposition forces in the act of gathering their strengths.
On March 24, the State Committee for National Security (GKNB) announced that it had detained two individuals on suspicion of plotting to overthrow the government. No full names were provided, but the initials of the suspects, B.A. and K.K., have been reported as being those of Bektur Asanov and Kubanychbek Kadyrov, both figures associated with the emergent southern-based opposition.
Moves against the pair followed the leak of recorded phone conversations — allegedly among Asanov, Kadyrov, another prominent and veteran opposition figure and seasoned rabble-rouser, Azimbek Beknazarov, and a former top government official, Duulatbek Turdunaliev — about purported plans to sow instability and seize power.
Kadyrov, for one, has called the recording a crude edit and complained that his constitutional rights were violated when his phone conversations were recorded.
Whether the recording is indeed fake or not, Kadyrov may be onto something.
The GKNB has claimed that the recordings were obtained through a court order related to a criminal investigation. The security services have not been forthcoming about the nature of that investigation, however, and the sudden timely appearance of the recording online suggests this intercept was part of an orchestrated effort to discredit the opposition.
Kyrgyzstan’s opposition has reportedly nixed plans to hold a large rally in the southern city of Osh amid stewing tensions on the border with Uzbekistan and an escalating public relations war with the government.
One opposition figure, former Jalal-Abad governor Bektur Asanov, told local media the decision to call off the Kurultai, or people’s assembly, on March 24 was taken amid fears of a government “provocation.”
Prior to the announcement, the government had announced plans to bolster security in Osh for the event with a deployment of 3,000 police and 2,000 volunteers.
The show of force indicated Bishkek was taking the opposition more seriously in light of the standoff between Kyrgyz and Uzbek troops at a disputed section of the border.
That is understandable following a March 22 rally in Kerben, a Kyrgyz settlement very close to the elevated territory where both Tashkent and Bishkek have stationed troops and armored vehicles.
The rally organized by regional opposition figures targeted perceived government negligence over the border issue and gathered 700 people according to the Interior Ministry. The opposition claimed the crowd was as large as 2,500 people.
Prime Minister Temir Sariyev flew down to address the Kerben gathering, while nationalist opposition leader and all-round troublemaker Kamchibek Tashiyev, who donned military fatigues for the event, was warmly welcomed by the crowd after issuing calls to resolve the standoff with Tashkent through “people’s diplomacy.”
As explained by news website Zanoza.kg, government and opposition offered competing narratives vis-a-vis the mood at the Kerben rally. One painted Sariyev as a timely pacifier, the other as a sore loser who escaped with the microphone in his hand having been poorly received by angry locals.
Spring has come early in Kyrgyzstan and so the ragtag, non-parliamentary opposition is clamoring for attention. The government does not look like it is going to lose much sleep.
Since early March, southern politicos have been staging rallies demanding the resignation of the northern-dominated government. Issuing such ultimatums at political rallies has been a recurrent feature of Kyrgyz politics for more than a decade.
A March 14 meeting in Jalalabad city hinted these meetings were merely the rehearsal for a bigger March 24 demonstration in the southern city of Osh backed by the recently formed United Opposition Force (UOF).
Speaking at the Jalalabad event, opposition figure Bektur Asanov issued vague ultimatums.
“In ten days in Osh a national Kurultai [people’s gathering] will be held. Atambayev has ten days to resign. Otherwise, he will be removed, in a legal way,” blasted Asanov, a former governor of the Jalal-Abad province.
The timing of the March 24 event is no accident. The date marks the 11th anniversary of a northern-led government's overthrow in what was Kyrgyzstan's first post-Soviet revolution in 2005. Elections for the Osh city council are set to take place three days later, on March 27.
The UOF’s seven-point demands include an appeal for the elections to proceed “without the use of administrative resources.” They are also calling for the formation of a new Cabinet and a freeze on electricity tariffs.
The exiled opposition to President Emomali Rahmon’s rule in Tajikistan has enjoyed a rare reprieve with the news that Belarusian authorities have refused to extradite activist Shabnam Khudoydodova back to her home country.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Tajik service, Radio Ozodi, reported that Khudoydodova was released from custody on February 22.
Authorities in Tajikistan has successfully obliterated most political opposition to the government inside the country, but have latterly been attempting to silence critics based abroad.
Khudoydodova was living in St. Petersburg, in Russia, when she learned in July that her government might seek her extradition in reprisal for her online posts calling for democratic reforms. She fled into Belarus on the way to Poland, hoping to obtain asylum there. Instead, she was turned back by Polish border guards and was detained on July 15 by Belarusian police, who were acting on an international request for arrest filed by Tajikistan.
As Human Rights Watch researcher Steve Swerdlow told EurasiaNet.org in a recent interview, Khudoydodova “dabbled in what any normal young person who operates on social media does, which is vent about reflections about their own society, and not necessarily engage in any systematic platform.”
“That is enough in the current environment to incur the wrath of the authorities,” Swerdlow said.
Opponents of the government appear undeterred, however, and continue to organize protest rallies outside Tajik embassies in several countries.
A political activist recently jailed on charges of inciting ethnic strife has been released pending appeal after issuing a grovelling public recantation for his purported offense.
Serikzhan Mambetalin was freed on January 31 after serving just over a week of his two-year sentence.
“I am at home… How happy I am!” he wrote on his Facebook page on February 1.
Mambetalin’s Facebook page was regularly updated, presumably by his supporters, throughout his trial and incarceration, which began in October.
A court ordered Mambetalin’s release until the appeal is heard, but the activist has been made to sign a written undertaking not to leave his hometown, Almaty.
Mambetalin’s release came after he posted a contrite statement of repentance on his Facebook page on January 29 — a week after he was jailed along with another political activist, Yermek Narymbayev, who remains behind bars.
“The investigation gathered exhaustive evidence of my guilt,” the statement said. “Therefore I fully admit my guilt over the proof presented to me and actively repent.”
Mambetalin has changed his tune since his trial, when he strenuously denied any guilt and denounced the trial — which was condemned by international human rights watchdogs — as a “political order” motivated by his activism and his opposition to President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Serikhzhan Mambetalin's mother, Anastasia, sobbing after the Almaty court verdict on Friday, January 22, 2016.
Two political activists have been jailed in Kazakhstan on charges of inciting racial hatred at the close of a trial that their supporters believe was politically motivated.
The trial in Almaty ended two days after President Nursultan Nazarbayev called a snap parliamentary election for March 20, a move he said was aimed at consolidating the nation as the country battles an economic crisis.
Yermek Narymbayev – who has been in ill health throughout the trial – received a three-year prison term and Serikzhan Mambetalin was jailed for two years at the end of a six-week trial, to cries of “shame!” from supporters as Mambetalin’s elderly mother was led away from the courtroom in tears.
During the summing up of legal arguments on January 22, Mambetalin denounced the proceedings as “a political order” and Narymbayev dismissed them as “illegal.”
The two were tried on the charge of incitement to ethnic, religious, tribal or social strife, which civil society campaigners recently urged the authorities to abolish, claiming it is used to muzzle critics. The government denies that any politically motivated trials take place in Kazakhstan.
The charges against Narymbayev and Mambetalin stem from their Facebook postings about an unpublished book written some two decades ago by another anti-government activist, Murat Telibekov, who is under investigation on the same charge.
In their postings, the two “incited ethnic strife and insulted the honor and dignity of the Kazakh nation,” a prosecutor claimed – arguments the defendants, known for their mildly nationalist stances promoting ethnic Kazakh interests, dismissed as nonsense.
A jailed opposition leader in Kazakhstan whose case has drawn expressions of concern from Washington and Europe is to remain behind bars after his parole bid was rejected.
Vladimir Kozlov’s application for release from custody was rejected on December 8 at a hearing in the jail outside Almaty where he is being held, his lawyer Aiman Umarova said in postings on her Facebook page. Umarova complained in her post of the judge’s “negative attitude” to Kozlov during the hearing.
Kozlov had exercised his legal right to file for parole after serving half of his seven-and-a-half-year jail term on charges of inciting violence in the western oil town of Zhanaozen in 2011.
He was also found guilty of seeking to use the unrest in Zhanaozen to overthrow President Nursultan Nazarbayev in the capital, Astana, some 2,600 kilometers away.
Speaking at the parole hearing, to which journalists and human rights campaigners were not admitted, Kozlov denied committing any crimes.
He argued, as he always has, that his only link to the Zhanaozen violence — which spiraled out of an oil-sector strike that the government acknowledged mishandling — was his legitimate political activity.
“I have not committed any crimes,” he said in a speech posted by his lawyer on Facebook. “I headed a political party, and when the oil workers of Zhanaozen came and asked for support in their economic and social dispute with employers, we decided to offer them informational, legal and consultative support.”
A group of students from Tajikistan’s universities — not known to be hotbeds of political activity — are purportedly up in arms that Western governments will not deport wanted members of the opposition.
For all the claimed wide-scale anger, however, demonstrations in front of the U.S. and German embassies on November 19 managed to draw only a handful of young people.
In October, a petition was started up at the Tajik National University demanding the extradition of prominent critics of the government currently based abroad. Backers of the petition, which has called for countries hosting Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) leader Mukhiddin Kabiri, the head of the Vatandor opposition movement, Dodojon Atovulloyev, and former Prime Minister Abdumalik Abdullajanov to be handed over, say they have got signatures of support from 400 students across multiple universities.
That enthusiasm was decidedly absent at the pickets, to which nobody thought to bring banners or placards.
The appeals were submitted to legislators in the United States, Germany, and the European Union, and, on somewhat spurious grounds, to the University of Heidelberg in Germany, according to organizers of the initiative.
“Kabiri spoke at Heidelberg University and criticized the policies of Tajikistan’s government,” explained picket organizer Asliddin Khushvakhtov.
The IRPT was a vaguely tolerated nominal opposition force until this summer, but authorities seized on the opportunity of what it claimed was an uprising by disaffected former defense minister Abduhalim Nazarzoda to finally crush the party. Prosecutors claimed the party was involved in the alleged revolt and designated it a terrorist organization.
Khushvakhtov was eager to recite the government’s line on the IRPT.
Police in Kazakhstan have thrown two activists behind bars on suspicion of fomenting ethnic strife through postings on social networks in which they quoted from an old, unpublished book.
The arrests of Serikzhan Mambetalin and Yermek Narymbayev – who are vocal online critics of President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s rule, but wield little on-the-ground influence to rally support against it – are symptomatic of the extent to which the authorities in Kazakhstan go to crush even limited, or virtual, dissent.
The two were arrested on October 12 on the basis of allegations of “their dissemination on social networks of information containing clear signs of fomenting ethnic strife, [and] insults against ethnic honor and dignity,” the Almaty police department said in a statement put out the following day.
They are being investigated under a broad charge covering incitement to social, ethnic, tribal or religious strife. The offense is punishable with a fine or up to 12 years in jail.
This is one of the charges under which opposition leader Vladimir Kozlov was jailed in 2012 for seven and a half years after being found guilty of fomenting social strife that prosecutors argued led to fatal unrest in the town of Zhanaozen.
Police did not further specify the nature of the suspicions against the two activists, but Mambetalin offered a clue before his arrest. Writing on his Facebook page two days earlier, he said they were under attack for citing the writings of Murat Telibekov, another activist who is known for his anti-regime views.