News that Kazakhstan’s parliamentarians have been given bumper pay rises of up to 50 percent of their salary is causing a stink.
The information leaked out to the media through deputies themselves. Bahytbek Smagul and Yekaterina Nikitinskaya told news outlets that the salary increases had taken effect as of March 1 and that MPs will now be earning around 600-700,000 tenge (around $2,000 to $2,200) per month.
While the amounts are hardly enormous, the outcry illustrates creeping frustration at stagnant improvement to the general economic wellbeing of the population.
The deputy speaker of the lower house of parliament, Vladimir Bozhko, said there was no grounds for clamor.
“We were the last among the civil servants to get a bump in our salary. This decision was taken four years ago. First the ministries [got the pay rise] and now, four years later, it is our turn,” he told reporters.
One MP, Nurlan Zhazylbekov, said he only gets around 500,000 tenge, which he said was not much when compared to the amount made by members of the government or some workers at state companies.
That only added fuel to the fire, since the divide between the average salaries of officials and those of the population at large is indeed not indifferent. According to official figures for 2016, average salaries in Kazakhstan stood at around 150,000 tenge ($480), although many online commentators argued that estimate too might be on the high side.
One of the youngest and most active members of Kyrgyzstan’s parliament has been expelled from the pro-presidential Social-Democratic Party (SDPK).
The SDPK’s political council explained on March 24 that the views of Zhanar Akayev, 31, had drifted too far from its official platform.
The speculation is that the decision was taken following Akayev’s decision to participate in a march last weekend in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, in defense of media outlets being sued by the General Prosecutor’s Office on behalf of President Almazbek Atamabayev.
Akayev has said that he is not taking the expulsion to heart and that his colleagues were most likely “fulfilling an order” — implying the instruction was handed down by the president’s office.
“A person that tells the truth but who finds himself among liars and sycophants will always be considered an extremist,” he said.
In a previous life, Akayev worked for RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz service, Radio Azattyk, which is one of the outlets facing the libel lawsuits. He has regularly spoken in defense of his old employer despite Atambayev’s recurring criticism.
Commenting on the situation, Atambayev questioned how it was that Akayev even got into parliament in the first place.
“At the next parliamentary elections we will find out whether it was the people that picked him or whether he got in thanks to SDPK,” Atambayev said.
Akayev will remain in parliament and has said that he has no immediate intention to join the ranks of any of the opposition parties.
Atambayev’s brand is indelibly associated with that of the SDPK, although as president he is in theory not permitted to be involved in party political activity. Occasional remarks, like those on Akayev, however, appear to give lie to his claims that he no longer retains operation influence over the party.
Kyrgyzstan’s parliament endorsed the composition of a tweaked cabinet on November 9 that will be backed by a new, slimmed-down coalition and led by an unchanged prime minister firmly allied to single-term President Almazbek Atambayev.
MPs voted 114 to 4 to endorse Jeenbekov’s reshaped cabinet wherein the most eyebrow-raising appointment was that of Ulan Israilov, Atambayev's former bodyguard and the ex-head of the government's main anti-corruption inspectorate, as Interior Minister.
Among other additions, Cholpon Sultanbekova, a member of the pro-Atambayev Kyrgyzstan party and most famous as the widow of a former mob boss from the south of the country, took up the position of deputy prime minister for social affairs.
Jamshitbek Kalilov became the new transport minister with predecessor Zamirbek Aidarov presently under investigation by Israilov's former unit for corruption in a road tender won by a Chinese company.
The overwhelming parliamentary backing for the new government has become a tradition in Kyrgyzstan's mixed political system and does not mean that all is well in the legislature.
Two parties previously in the ruling coalition, Onuguu Progress and Ata-Meken are no longer part of the alliance that collapsed last month following their opposition to a controversial, Atambayev-driven referendum set to take place on December 11.
That leaves Atambayev's Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK) governing along with the Kyrgyzstan party that survived the collapse and new entrants Bir Bol.
The government in Kyrgyzstan has collapsed after weeks of sniping between coalition members over contentious constitutional reform plans.
The Social Democratic Party (SDPK) declared in a statement on October 24 that it is leaving the four-party coalition.
Objections to amending the 2010 constitution had been voiced most strongly by the left-leaning Ata-Meken party, which all the while resisted pressure for it to initiate the breakup of the ruling coalition.
In an illustration of the seriousness of its disagreement with Ata-Meken, SPDK accused the party of being in cahoots with the deposed leaders of Kyrgyzstan, Askar Akayev and Kurmanbek Bakiyev.
“We cannot be in one coalition with those that, as it turns out, share common interests with the Akayevs and Bakiyevs, and who follow their instructions. With those who oppose the interests of the country. It became especially obvious during the constitutional reform,” the party claimed in official statement.
There is no immediate evidence that Ata-Meken have engaged in any dialogue with either of the country’s former leaders.
The outgoing coalition was formed by four political parties soon after the parliamentary elections in October. It constituent parties included the SPDK party of President Almazbek Atambayev, the mostly pro-government Kyrgyzstan Party, the agrarian issues-dominated Onuguu-Progress and Ata Meken. Two other parties, Bir Bol and Respublika-Ata Zhurt, remain in the opposition’s ranks.
The initiative to tinker with the current constitution has been steadily gathering pace since July. Backers of the fix have proposed around 30 amendments, which are due to be put to the population in a referendum in December.
Lawmakers in Kyrgyzstan narrowly passed a draft law on October 5 to criminalize the religious consecration of marriage rites for minors.
If the legislation is approved by President Almazbek Atambayev, clerics officiating such ceremonies could face jail terms of between three and five years, as could parents of the couple.
The vote in parliament marks a volte-face by MPs, who had provoked outrage in May when they rejected proposals to criminalize a ritual known as ‘nikah.’ The changes to the law specifically relate to religious marriage rites, as opposed to nuptials registered with the state. The legal age of marriage in Kyrgyzstan is 18, although that can be lowered by special dispensation.
Supporters of the new law in parliament did not mince their words.
“Let’s call things by their names and not hide behind nice words about national traditions and rites. People under the age of 18 are considered children according to our legislation, so forcing them into marriage or other actions is pedophilia. I ask each man in this room to imagine their daughters while voting. But while you can defend [your daughters] from early marriages, many of our children from poor families don’t have such an opportunity,” Natalia Nikitenko, a member of parliament with the Ata-Meken party, said during a discussion of the bill.
But some MPs resisted the bill on the grounds that it is against what they say is the spirit of Kyrgyz traditions, others questioned whether the law would help bring offending clerics to heel. Social-Democratic Party MP Dastan Bekeshev argued that it would be impossible to find evidence of the illegal rite taking place.
Kyrgyzstan’s five-party ruling coalition appears to have seen better days as quarrels over constitutional changes dominate parliamentary sessions and supporters of President Almazbek Atambayev continue to harangue opponents of an upcoming referendum.
The nominally socialist Ata-Meken faction and the pro-agrarian Onuguu-Progress party have expressed doubts about the changes. The former was invited to leave the ruling alliance by Isa Omurkulov, who leads Atambayev’s Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan in parliament.
Onuguu-Progres leader Bakyt Torobayev said at a September 14 session of parliament that the coalition was in “intensive care” and, warming to his theme, on “artificial respiration.”
He also cited a conversation with a citizen from a rural area who “hadn’t read the [proposed] constitutional changes but was concerned that they are being done to usurp power.”
Even if both Onuguu-Progress and Ata-Meken walked out of government, the three remaining parties (SDPK, Bir Bol and the Kyrgyzstan party) would still have enough seats to form a majority. For what it’s worth, Ata-Meken leader Omurbek Tekebayev has stated he has no imminent plans to ditch the coalition.
But suspicions over the constitutional fiddle, which is being pushed by Atambayev as he nears the end of his single term six-year presidency, are growing.
The most significant changes involve a recasting of the state’s obligations toward upholding human rights and enhancing the office of the prime minister against that of the presidency.
The language on rights issues signals a marked lurch toward nationalist conservatism.
Lawmakers in Kyrgyzstan have provoked outrage in some quarters by rejecting proposals to change the criminal code that would have outlawed the religious consecration of marriage rites for minors.
The phenomenon of the very young entering into marriages in Kyrgyzstan is not unusual. The National Statistics Commission estimates that 15 percent of married women between the ages of 25 and 49 sealed their nuptials before turning 18 — 1 percent did it under the age of 15.
The changes to the law rejected by parliament on May 26 specifically related to religious marriage rites (nikah), as opposed to nuptials registered with the state. The legal age of marriage in Kyrgyzstan is 18, although that can be lowered by special dispensation.
The broader ambition of the amendments proposed by Ata-Meken party deputy Aida Salyanova were to criminalize the forcible imposition of religious marriage rites before their official registration.
“The religious consecration of marriages before registration with authorized bodies is a crude violation of human rights. It is inimical to development and substantially increases the likelihood of a woman becoming a victim of (domestic) violence,” Salyanova was cited as saying by Zanoza.kg in a report on parliament’s vote.
By way of a regional comparison, Islamic authorities in neighboring Kazakhstan have as recently as last year issued orders for mosques to desist from performing religious marriage rites without a state-issued marriage certificate, but many have reportedly flouted that edict.
After two years of tortuous debates in parliament, civil society in Kyrgyzstan has cause for celebration.
A contentious bill, modeled on a similar piece of legislation in Russia, that would in an earlier form have seen internationally funded nongovernment group designated as “foreign agents” was rejected by Kyrgyz deputies on May 12.
Out of the 111 members of parliament present, 65 voted against the bill, which was undergoing its third and final reading.
The legislation was first presented in 2014 by Tursunbai Bakir Uulu and Nurkamil Madaliev, two deputies that have since left parliament, and has proceeded in fits and starts ever since.
In the days preceding parliament’s final decision on the bill, rights groups mounted a lively campaign of opposition. On May 11, around a dozen activists rallied in front of parliament, urging deputies to reject the bill.
Tolekan Ismailova, head of the Bir Duino human rights organization, which gathers information on cases of torture and corruption, said at the protest that the bill was “discriminatory and inhumane”.
“A group of MPs started promoting this bill and we could see that the hand of the Kremlin was behind this,” Ismailova told Kloop.kg. “The discrimination concerns those NGOs that monitor corruption and the activities of parliament.”
But on May 12, some deputies came out in their strongest opposition yet to the legislation. Janar Akayev, a member of the ruling Social Democratic Party (SDPK), suggested the bill would dent Kyrgyzstan’s democratic credentials.
A member of parliament in Kazakhstan has struck a populist note by thundering about the reportedly massive wages being paid to a Russian soccer star recently signed by Almaty’s FC Kairat.
In an intemperate address before parliament on April 18, Muhtar Tinkeyev spoke of the need to develop a sporting culture in Kazakhstan and not to waste money bringing foreign stars to the country. By way of an example, he pointed to FC Kairat’s recent, high-profile signing of Andrei Arshavin.
“Look at Arshavin, they have given him a $1 million contract. Just think, more than $1 million a year. There are foreign players making $30,000 a month. Is this the kind of football we need?” Tinkeyev said in remarks carried in detail by Tengri News. “Why isn’t this money spent on children’s sport? On building courtyard playgrounds?”
Tinkeyev was no more sparing of what he described as the wasteful expense on basketball and hockey.
“Look at the situation with the Barys Atsana hockey team. You have this one Kazakh there, Damir Ryspayev, who only goes onto the ice to get into fights,” he said.
Tinkeyev instead lavished praise on recent sporting events like the Nomad Mixed Martial Arts competition, which wrapped up last week in the city of Karaganda at what Tinkeyev said was of no cost to the state budget.
And the deputy was no less critical of the slovenly behavior he claimed to have seen among overpaid sports stars.
Kazakhstan’s parliament startled a generally unflappable public this week with the announcement it was looking to stock its cellar with 11,000 bottles of wine, vodka, cognac, champagne and whisky.
The administration at the legislature has now hastily rowed back on the news, however, explaining away the figure as a human error.
News website Informburo.kz reported April 13 that the office managing parliament’s affairs had published a statement saying it was “studying the market of alcoholic products” and inviting companies producing strong spirits to get in touch.
The statement elaborated further, listing in detail the alcohol apparently required: 5,000 bottles of vodka, 200 bottles of wine (red and white), 2,550 bottles of cognac, 3,550 bottles of whisky and a paltry 100 bottles of champagne.
In evident mischievous mood, Informburo.kz reminded its readers of another recent scandal involving the country’s hardworking lawmakers. Several local media outlets reported that newly elected deputies in the process of finding apartments to live in had allegedly been been up in hotel rooms costing 120,000 tenge ($350) nightly. Parliament administrators also scotched that tittle-tattle, insisting that the deputies were in fact staying in 29,000 tenge a night rooms.
To be fair to the MPs, a scan through prices on booking.com suggests the economic crisis gripping Kazakhstan has taken its toll on Astana’s hotel sector. Premium double rooms at the swanky Rixos President Hotel Astana, for example, have been slashed this week from more than $340 to a mere $120 or so.