Not long ago, Russia was one of the primary markets for Kyrgyzstan’s agricultural goods. Then came the Eurasian Customs Union of Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan, which removed customs checkpoints between the three in 2011. Kyrgyz produce was suddenly on the other side of a wall and exports to Russia plummeted from 195,000 tons in 2008 to 7,500 tons last year, according Kyrgyzstan’s Agriculture Ministry.
Now Russia, having banned produce from the West in response to sanctions over its support for rebels in Ukraine, needs Kyrgyzstan again. Kyrgyz officials are eager to help fill Russian stomachs, but unsure just how much they can abruptly increase exports.
On August 19 local news agency KyrTAG.kg quoted Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov telling a meeting of the Eurasian Economic Commission, the Customs Union’s regulatory body, “We are lifting all restrictions on the supply of Kyrgyz fruits and vegetables. In case of unjustified barriers, contact me – we will assist.” Kyrgyz authorities also hope that Russia will terminate restrictions on meat imports.
While some locals fear Russia will export its inflation and shortages to Kyrgyzstan, officials are losing no time pointing out the benefits of closer cooperation with Russia to a reluctant population.
The Agriculture Ministry hopes to restore exports to Russia to the their pre-Customs Union peak (an increase of 2,500 percent), Zhumabek Asylbekov, head of the ministry’s Food Supply and Marketing Department, told local news agency Vechernii Bishkek on August 20.
When I knock on the door of yet another Kyrgyz politician, civil servant or businessman, I have many questions. That’s my job as a journalist. But the most nerve-racking question is not in my notebook: Will he hit on me?
The first time I interviewed an official in Bishkek, he tried to hold my hand while we were alone in his office. I left, humiliated, thinking this would never happen again. I was wrong.
The idea that women are no more than pieces of meat is deeply engrained here. Indeed, until recently, Kyrgyz law called sheep rustling a more serious crime than bride kidnapping.
Women are taught to blame themselves. A study of 8,000 Kyrgyz women released in January found that 6 percent believe a woman deserves to be beaten if she burns dinner, 23 percent if she leaves the house without telling her husband. Last summer, a female member of parliament lobbied to ban girls under age 22 from traveling abroad. She said she wished to “preserve the gene pool.”
At first, I thought the advances were my fault, that I had dressed or acted inappropriately. I changed my makeup and started wearing glasses to look older. But they haven’t stopped. Men regularly call me after interviews, suggesting we have a coffee to “get to know each other better.” Professionally, it is challenging to tell a member of parliament or a minister that I’m not interested while leaving the door open for future interviews.
Summer is supposed to be the one season when people in Kyrgyzstan can forget about electricity shortages. But this year, it seems, summer will bring no respite, as the government has announced it will import electricity from Tajikistan.
The Chinese Embassy in Bishkek has called on the Kyrgyz government to end a weeks-old protest that has blocked a strategic road and stranded over 300 trucks near Kyrgyzstan’s border with China. Protestors are demanding the release of a nationalist politician awaiting trial on embezzlement charges.
“Drivers don’t have enough food, the weather conditions threaten their vital security. The Chinese side is worried about the condition of its citizens and asks the Kyrgyz side to take the necessary measures to address the issue and assist in ensuring the safety of [Chinese] citizens,” Interfax quoted the Chinese Embassy as saying this week.
About a hundred protesters have been blocking the main road through southern Kyrgyzstan’s Alai region since May 27, demanding authorities move Kyrgyz parliamentarian Ahmatbek Keldibekov of the nationalist Ata-Jurt Party from pre-trial detention to house arrest. Keldibekov, who is charged with corruption dating to his time as head of Kyrgyzstan’s State Tax Committee, was arrested and stripped of parliamentary immunity last November. If found guilty, he faces more than 10 years in prison. He denies the charges, describing his arrest as politically motivated. Keldibekov had earlier lost his position as parliamentary speaker during a scandal that appeared to tie him to Kyrgyzstan’s most notorious mob boss.
Though Keldibekov’s supporters have rallied several times since his arrest, the ongoing roadblock is their most sustained effort yet to draw attention to his case.
Nationalists are renewing efforts in Kyrgyzstan to secure vague legislation to require non-profit organizations that receive money from abroad to register as foreign agents.
MP Tursunbai Bakir uulu, one of the new bill’s sponsors, told EurasiaNet.org on June 17 that he hopes parliament will consider the measure before it adjourns for its summer recess at the end of June. “NGOs need to be more transparent,” Bakir uulu said. “Society needs to know how the money sent from abroad is spent.”
Bakir uulu’s initiative marks the second attempt to pass “foreign agents” legislation targetting organizations that engage in "political activities." The first attempt stalled in parliament.
On June 16, a small protest occurred in the capital Bishkek, expressing support for the “foreign agents” bill. Jenishbek Moldokmatov, a leader of the Kalys nationalist group and one of the protests organizers, called it “just the beginning” of a campaign to place restrictions on foreign-funded NGOs. Kalys has gathered 5,000 petition signatures in favor of the “foreign agents” bill, Moldokmatov said.
Moldokmatov also organized an anti-gay protest in February outside the US Embassy in Bishkek, during which the protesters burned a portrait of local blogger Ilya Lukash, who was vilified as a “gay activist.”
In a June 17 interview with EurasiaNet.org, Lukash said he felt compelled to flee Kyrgyzstan because he “was not feeling safe and was getting constant threats via phone calls and text messages.” Lukash went on to assail Kalys and Moldokmatov for trying to stigmatize political opponents by labeling them “homosexuals” or “foreign agents.”
Activists in Kyrgyzstan say they lost another battle against creeping authoritarianism this weekend when President Almazbek Atambayev signed a so-called “False Accusation Law.” The US Embassy says the law could “suppress legitimate news stories, as well as intimidate or punish journalists reporting on matters of public interest."
The new law, which Atambayev signed on May 17, makes intentional defamation a criminal offense punishable by up to three years in prison. Kyrgyzstan decriminalized libel in 2011.
The author says the law – which passed parliament on April 16 with a vote of 85-8 – does not violate freedom of speech, but will stop the publication of slanderous reports.
“Freedom of speech [does not include] making false reports about a crime. The key word here is a crime … there is the presumption of innocence. No one can be accused of a crime unless his guilt is proven in a lawful manner,” Deputy Eristina Kochkarova told EurasiaNet.org. If a journalist has published a report incorrectly charging someone with a crime, she argues, it’s not the journalist who would be punished, but his source. “The rights of a person end where the rights of others’ begin. Freedom of speech is not the only part of democracy,” said Kochkarova.
But the law is vague enough, civil society activists fear, for it to be selectively enforced should, for example, a politician not like the work of a muckraking journalist.
Russian President Vladimir Putin signed legislation recently offering fast-track citizenship to Russian speakers anywhere within the former Soviet Union. Analysts believe the law is motivated by a desire to enhance Moscow’s influence in Ukraine and elsewhere, but it may have unintended consequences for the Kremlin in Central Asia.
Protestors in Kyrgyzstan’s northwest have clashed with police and blocked a major road, alleging a Kazakh project to survey for gold is polluting the local environment. It’s the latest in a string of violent, mining-related clashes in the Central Asian state. Once again, mining experts in Bishkek are skeptical about the protestors’ motivations.
Early on April 3, several hundred protestors blocked the road leading from Talas, the largest town in Kyrgyzstan’s northwestern Talas Province, to Taraz, in Kazakhstan. By evening, the number had swollen to 500 and some reports circulated that two officials had been kidnapped. At least 19 police were wounded in a confrontation with stone-throwing residents, 24.kg reported, citing an Interior Ministry official.
The protestors are demanding Kazakh mining concern Altyn Kumushtak, which has been exploring the Shiraldjin gold deposit since 2005, stop. In an interview with Radio Liberty’s Kyrgyz Service, a self-identified participant in the riots, Nurlan Muzurov, said he and others “don’t want deformed children, pollution of the water and the air.”
In 2009, Altyn Kumushtak’s license had been annulled and given to a Chinese company in one of many murky exchanges during the presidency of Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was ousted amid bloody street protests in 2010. In 2013 the Kazakh company successfully appealed and won back the rights to the deposit.