Whether or not Vladimir Putin bribed Uzbekistan, as a Bishkek newspaper claims, it is welcome news all around that Uzbek gas is once again flowing into southern Kyrgyzstan.
Kyrgyzstan is happy because 60,000 customers in a potentially restive part of the country aren’t relying on dung to heat their homes; Uzbekistan again has revenue from the cross-border gas trade; and Russia, whose energy giant Gazprom promised a constant supply of gas when it bought Kyrgyzstan’s gas distribution network last year, gets to save face.
But the sudden resumption of gas deliveries from Uzbekistan to Kyrgyzstan on December 30 begs two related questions: Why wasn’t a deal reached earlier, after Uzbekistan abruptly cut supplies last April? And what made the recalcitrant Uzbeks change their mind?
Kyrgyz newspaper Vechernii Bishkek, citing an unidentified Kyrgyz government source, claims it knows the answer to the second question.
The source told Vechernii Bishkek today that no less a figure than Russian President Vladimir Putin negotiated the gas deal during a December 10 meeting with his counterpart Islam Karimov in Tashkent. Karimov, according to this account, pushed Moscow to forgive $3 billion of Uzbek debt (oddly, that’s much more than the $890 million other media reported Uzbekistan as owing). In the end the Kremlin agreed to write off $865 million.
Kyrgyzstan’s problems probably featured pretty low on Vladimir Putin’s to-do list when he traveled to Tashkent this week.
Some in Kyrgyzstan believe the Russian president, and only he, can end their country’s intractable disputes with its neighbor. There was hope, for example, that Putin could get Karimov to resume gas supplies to southern Kyrgyzstan.
Though Putin had a nice package of goodies for his Uzbek counterpart on December 10 – he wrote off most of Tashkent’s debt and showed support only a few months before Karimov is expected to stand for reelection – it is unclear what he got for Russia.
Per usual, Karimov ducked a press conference. And he did not publically opine on the elephant in the room: Tashkent’s future role, if any, in relation to Putin's Eurasian Economic Union.
One of the items supposedly on the agenda, however, was gas.
The standoff in the Fergana Valley directly involves Russia. Russia’s Gazprom had just taken control of Kyrgyzgaz in April when UzTransGaz said it had no obligation to supply Gazprom. Kyrgyzstan’s second-largest city has been without gas ever since.
The meeting failed to produce a breakthrough, Kyrgyz media reported.
Many analysts assume Uzbekistan is using gas to gain leverage over its poverty-stricken upstream neighbor as well as that neighbor's benefactor—Russia.
Regional security and domestic politics featured high on the agenda as Russian President Vladimir Putin jetted into Tashkent on December 10 for a meeting with Uzbekistan’s strongman leader, Islam Karimov.
Putin appeared both to be wooing Karimov for backing in his confrontation with Ukraine, and offering a show of support for the incumbent ahead of upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections in Uzbekistan.
It “goes without saying” that Tashkent is “one of [Russia’s] priority partners in the region,” Putin said, according to a Kremlin transcript. That he bypassed other Central Asian allies like Kazakhstan to pay a visit to Uzbekistan lent weight to his remarks.
Karimov responded with boilerplate compliments about how Moscow has “always been present in Central Asia, and that position has always been a stabilizing factor.” Notwithstanding isolationist Tashkent’s habit of holding Moscow at arm’s length, he added that “Uzbekistan has always been open to Russia and is open today.”
Karimov repeated his oft-voiced concerns about regional security threats emanating from Afghanistan following the drawdown of NATO troops this year, but the Ukraine conflict was the elephant in the room. In the Kremlin transcript, neither side mentioned it by name, but Karimov referred obliquely to the need to respond to “challenges” in the face of a “known confrontation,” while Putin noted laconically that neither Russia nor Uzbekistan was “indifferent to how the situation in the region as a whole develops.”
Putin took more interest in upcoming elections in Uzbekistan—the vote to the rubberstamp parliament on December 21, and the far more significant presidential election due in spring (in which Karimov has not stated if he intends to stand).
“What is Putin’s favorite female name?” roars the announcer of a Vladimir Putin-themed quiz at the opening of Putin Pub in Bishkek on Saturday October 11. “Alina!” the crowd chants back in unison, referring to the former Olympic gymnast, Alina Kabaeva, long rumored to be the Russian president’s lover. “Not Lyudmila?” the announcer goads, name-checking Putin’s ex-wife. “No way!” comes the decisive reply.
Aside from the quiz, ubiquitous Putin paraphernalia, and alcoholic drinks named after both Kabaeva and Putin’s political patron-turned-rival, the late Boris Berezovsky, the Putin Pub, located in a southern suburb of Bishkek, has a strangely familiar feel. The pub’s smart phone-wielding administrator, a stout man with a mane of black hair and a pencil-thin beard, seems to have been in charge of every newly opened Bishkek restaurant-pub in recent memory, for instance.
In a nod to the stealth military operation that laid the foundations for Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, wait staff wear the word “#вежливыелюди” (Polite People) stenciled on the reverse of their uniforms. Thankfully these waiters are far more communicative than the unexplained army types who mysteriously surfaced on the Crimean Peninsula in February before calls for a referendum to join Russia. But bringing the onion rings while they’re still warm seems to be a challenge, as it is for waiters in almost every Bishkek gastro-pub.
Three years after Kyrgyzstan slapped Vladimir Putin’s name on a mountain, some intrepid local businessmen are aiming to cash in on the name of Russia’s strongman president—recently found to be the most popular politician among Kyrgyzstanis.
Since early this month a black billboard promising a “Putin Pub” coming “soon” has loomed over the intersection of two central thoroughfares in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek. Cast in white, the Russian leader’s visage emerges out of the darkness in a style reminiscent of Marlon Brando on “The Godfather” film posters.
The backers of the “pub/sports bar/karaoke” joint are shrouded in mystery. That is not uncommon in Bishkek, where locals spend hours debating which parliamentarian owns what. But Artem Kolosov, who has been promoting the bar actively on social media, confirmed to EurasiaNet.org that the billboard is no hoax.
Thailand-based Kolosov, who describes himself as the pub’s “PR Director and Art Director” wrote to EurasiaNet.org in English: “I am sorry I cannot say where and when it will open. In mid-September opening [sic]. That's all I can say.”
As with Bishkek’s popular Obama Bar, with which Putin will soon compete, few in Bishkek seem concerned about naming rights. There is already the Guinness Pub, Kyrgyz Fried Chicken, Burger Kiиg and a number of other rip-offs.
But one commenter writing on the website of Kyrgyz news service AKIpress thought differently, musing: “Maybe Putin is opening the bar himself? Now that [Western] sanctions have hit Russia, his profits have fallen. So, he has decided to open a pub in a friendly country to create a new stream of income.”
Vladimir Putin is riding a wave of popularity in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan that mirrors his approval rating at home in Russia, a new poll has found. Most residents of these impoverished post-Soviet states wish to join his Eurasian Union. America and Barack Obama, on the other hand, fare poorly in the region.
In Kyrgyzstan, 90 percent of respondents express either a “great deal” or “fair amount” of confidence in the Russian president. Fewer than 60 percent say the same about their own president, Almazbek Atambayev; 26 percent voice confidence in Barack Obama, according to the poll, released last week by Toronto-based M-Vector Consulting, and 35.3 percent in Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
In Tajikistan, 85 percent proclaim confidence in Putin, 26.5 percent in Obama, and 31.1 in Xi. (By comparison, in July 85 percent of Russians said they approve of Putin, according to the Levada Center in Moscow.) M-Vector did not undertake the politically sensitive task of measuring support for Tajikistan’s authoritarian strongman, Emomali Rakhmon.
M-Vector interviewed 1,021 adults in Kyrgyzstan and 1,077 in Tajikistan by telephone in late June and early July for the poll, part of its Central Asia Barometer series. The poll has a margin of error of 3.2 points and a confidence level of 95 percent. (The pollster shared the results with EurasiaNet.org by email.)
Putin’s Eurasian Union is almost as popular as he is, the poll found. In Kyrgyzstan, 71.2 percent say their country should join; 8 percent say they are not sure. In Tajikistan, 80.3 percent favor joining; 13.5 percent cannot say.
Angry veterans in Almaty have burned a Kazakhstani magazine featuring a profile of Adolf Hitler, accusing the editor of glorifying the Nazi leader. The controversy has sparked a diplomatic row between Kazakhstan and Russia, with tensions heightened by the magazine’s overt comparison of Hitler to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
War veterans gathered beside the imposing memorial to World War II in Almaty’s Panfilov Park on April 21 and burned issues of the Kazakh-language Anyz Adam (Legendary Person) magazine, which displays a large photo of Hitler on the cover.
“We are deeply concerned by a publication which glorifies Hitler,” said Aygul Baykamadamova, the granddaughter of Soviet war hero General Ivan Panfilov, calling for the magazine to be closed down and editor Zharylkap Kalybay to be prosecuted.
Kalybay, who is under investigation on charges of inciting ethnic, social, or religious enmity (a crime carrying a maximum 12-year sentence in Kazakhstan), defended the magazine at a stormy press conference in Almaty later that day.
“Publishing an article about him, we wanted to demonstrate his evilness,” Kalybay said, pointing out that few of those who had criticized the magazine had actually read it.
Each issue of Anyz Adam profiles a famous person who has changed the course of history, and previous issues have featured an eclectic mix of personalities including Joseph Stalin (the architect of the Soviet’s Union’s murderous political terror in the 1930s and 1940s); Mongolian warlord Genghis Khan; and Kazakhstan’s own president, Nursultan Nazarbayev.
These days, most discussions of Islam Karimov’s age end up drifting to a logical end: Who, oh who will next mount the throne in Tashkent? Many fear a power struggle when the oldest leader in the former Soviet Union inevitably exits. And yet, at least publicly, Karimov goes on ignoring the obvious.
On his 75th birthday, we’ll leave thoughts of mortality to the president himself. Journalists, perhaps eagerly practicing for his obituary, are using the occasion to reflect on the strongman’s living legacy – his 24 years in power, which make him the second longest-serving head of state in the former Soviet Union. (The other Soviet relic is Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazarbayev, 72, whom Moscow appointed one day before Karimov, in June 1989.)
To mark the birthday, Daniil Kislov, the respected Uzbekistan-born, Moscow-based editor of Fergananews, posed a question in an op-ed for the Russian daily Moskovskiy Komsomolets: "On his 75th birthday, I don't understand one thing: Is he indeed the most brutal dictator of modern times, or just a sham and useless persona on which nothing in the country depends anymore?" Kislov's conclusion: "The time of his rule will go down in the history of the [Central] Asian republic as a time of the rosiest hopes and most bitter disappointments."
Karimov understood early on, Kislov writes, that in order to stay in power he had to stifle freedom of speech and destroy his political opponents.
Result: Uzbekistan hasn't had opposition leaders for 15 years – all of them are either in prison or in exile. [...]
Uzbek censorship is total, as the country has not a single independent media outlet, hundreds of news sites are blocked, tens of journalists have had to leave the country, while those who used to open their mouths too wide are either in prison or mental institutions. [...]
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s September 20 visit to Kyrgyzstan ended with half a dozen bilateral agreements and some anachronistic-sounding rhetoric about Moscow’s benevolent role in Central Asia. On the face of it, Russia won an extension of military basing rights for another generation, while Kyrgyzstan got millions of dollars in debt forgiveness and promises of investment in the construction of two major hydropower projects. But all the deals have yet to be finalized and some won’t kick in for years, with multiple strings attached.
The visit was Putin’s first to Kyrgyzstan since an April 2010 uprising toppled the former president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who had angered the Kremlin by effectively misappropriating a $300 million Russian loan and backtracking on some of his promises. Moscow has been slow to warm to the post-Bakiyev leadership, expressing frustration earlier this year, for example, with Bishkek’s constant attempts to get aid while maintaining a so-called multi-vector foreign policy.
Publicly, Putin’s host, President Almazbek Atambayev, did everything he could to assure the Russian president that Kyrgyzstan is a firm friend. At a cheerful midday press conference, Atambayev suggested the two had stayed up together until 5 a.m. – Putin had arrived in Bishkek late September 19 – and expressed wishes for everlasting friendship. "Russia is our main strategic partner. With Russia, we share a common history and a common destiny. […] Our future will be in partnership with the great Russia,” Atambayev said in comments broadcast by local media.