In a perceived nod to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Azerbaijan on June 18 shut down a school network associated with the influential Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, Erdoğan's bête noire.
Erdoğan has accused the US-based religious leader and his followers of conspiring against his government — a charge viewed by outsiders as largely entangled with the ruling Justice and Development Party’s own domestic political struggles — and earlier urged ally Azerbaijan to help him in this fight. Looks like he didn't have to ask twice.
Azerbaijan's energy giant, the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijani Republic, already had taken over 11 high schools, 13 university-exam preparation centers and a private university believed to be linked to the Gülen movement.
As in Turkey, the facilities enjoyed a good academic reputation, and had a nationwide presence. Experts earlier interviewed by EurasiaNet.org about the takeover generally saw political motivations for the takeover.
But the schools’ parent company, the Azerbaijan International Education Company, in which SOCAR holds shares, claims its eye is just on the bottom line. The schools, the company claimed, were not financially viable.
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.
A GM-400 air defense radar, recently purchased by Kazakhstan. (photo: ThalesRaytheonSystems)
During its big defense expo last month, Kazakhstan announced that it is buying air defense radars from French-American company ThalesRaytheonSystems.
Air defense radars aren't the sexiest piece of military hardware, but this was an interesting move given Kazakhstan's large dependence on Russia for air defense. Russia and Kazakhstan are in the process of setting up a joint air defense system under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organization; in May, Kazakhstan's senate ratified the deal. And as part of this arrangement, Russia gave Kazakhstan several S-300 air defense systems in January. Other CSTO partners Belarus, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are in various stages of joining the system as well. “Such cooperation greatly enhances the defense potential of Russia and its partners, and contributes to strengthening peace and stability in Eurasia,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said last year.
Tajik authorities have allegedly paraded University of Toronto researcher Alexander Sodiqov, who disappeared three days ago, on television in an apparent attempt to discredit him and an opposition politician. Friends and colleagues are growing increasingly concerned that Tajikistan’s heavy-handed authorities may be trying to make an example out of Sodiqov to discourage others from examining tensions between Tajikistan’s authoritarian government and minorities in the restive eastern province of Badakhshan.
Sodiqov, a 31-year-old Tajik national who lives in Canada, disappeared in Khorog on June 16 while carrying out academic fieldwork on civil society and conflict resolution in Central Asia. Tajikistan’s unaccountable and American-backed secret police service, the GKNB, initially confirmed it had detained Sodiqov and accused him of carrying out “subversion and espionage” – a charge it will be difficult for them to walk back. The GKNB has since refused to discuss Sodiqov's whereabouts.
Citing an anonymous Khorog resident, Tajikistan’s independent Asia-Plus news agency reported on June 18 that Sodiqov appeared twice on local state television looking confused, once the previous evening and once early on June 19. The resident told Asia-Plus that Sodiqov’s speech appeared to have been edited to discredit the opposition and a religious leader.
Hard-drinking Kazakhstan is moving to curb alcohol abuse by extending a ban on late-night alcohol sales.
The new bill banning retail sales between 9 p.m. and noon was signed into law by President Nursultan Nazarbayev on June 18. The rules extend an existing late-night ban on alcohol sales (including beer) and will hit retail outlets which do a roaring trade in late-night booze sales. Restaurants, bars, and nightclubs will not be affected.
The law also bans alcohol sales altogether at filling stations as well as education and health institutions, but moves by parliamentarians to ban sales at markets and stadiums as well failed.
Kazakhstan raised the legal drinking age from 18 to 21 in 2009. The new bill doubles fines for selling liquor to under 21s to a maximum of $1,200 (with the revocation of an offender’s license to sell alcohol).
The government says the bill is aimed at curbing excessive alcohol consumption, for which Kazakhstan rates 34th worldwide, according to a World Health Organization survey of 188 countries released in May.
Each person in Kazakhstan aged over 15 imbibes on average 11.3 liters of alcohol a year, almost double the global average of 6.2 liters, the report said—although the government has questioned the WHO’s methodology.
The report found the prevalence of “heavy episodic drinking” (defined as consuming at least 60 grams or more of pure alcohol on at least one occasion in the past 30 days) to be 7.8 percent in Kazakhstan. Among drinking males the prevalence stood at 30 percent. Some 8.9 percent of males and 1.9 percent of females have drinking disorders in Kazakhstan, according to the report.
The WHO singles out Kazakhstan as one of 11 countries with the “most risky patterns” of drinking.
The U.S. has substantially cut its aid for Central Asian security forces, according to newly released Pentagon data.
The report (pdf) details spending under Section 1004 of the National Defense Authorization Act, which allows the U.S. Department of Defense to train and equip foreign security forces involved in counternarcotics missions. In 2012, the Pentagon seemed to make Central Asia, in particular Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, a major focus. But according to the new data, that effort may have been abandoned.
The new data covers the first half of Fiscal Year 2014, from October 2013 through March 2014. Compared to the last full data (pdf), from 2012, there are big cuts across the board (even taking into account that the new numbers are for half a year, and the 2012 numbers for a full year):
Kazakhstan: $187,000 - from $8.7 million
Kyrgyzstan: $1.2 million - from $21.3 million
Tajikistan: $1.1 million - from $15.4 million
Uzbekistan: $156.000 - from $5.7 million
The training that took place under this program was directed less at the military and more at the security services like the GKNB; in 2012 the U.S. trained at least 350 GKNB officers from Tajikistan and 100 from Kyrgyzstan. (It was Tajikistan's GKNB, recall, which arrested political scientist Alexander Sodiqov and accused him of spying.)
South Korean President Park Geun-hye kicked off a six-day tour of Central Asia on June 16 in Uzbekistan.
Park was reportedly pushing for new joint gas-sector projects in Uzbekistan, and offering investment in a $300-million solar energy plant that is to be built in Samarkand as part of Uzbekistan’s fledgling renewable energy industry.
Two deals worth $350 million were signed on June 17, Uzbek media reported. Under the first, the Korea International Cooperation Agency will provide $250 million for investment in unspecified projects; the second involves a $100 loan agreement between the National Bank of Uzbekistan and South Korea’s Exim Bank to invest in joint projects.
Park and her Uzbek host, President Islam Karimov, issued a joint statement vowing to boost trade and investment, especially in the IT sphere, as well as road and rail construction, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported.
South Korea’s INHA University is to open a university in Tashkent specializing in IT courses in the coming academic year, it was reported in March.
With an estimated $8 billion worth of joint projects, South Korea is now one of Uzbekistan’s largest investors, along with Russia, China, and Kazakhstan. One of South Korea’s top investment spheres is energy; South Korean companies are building a gas processing plant at the Kandym gas field and a gas and chemical plant at the Surgil field. Textiles have also attracted South Korean interest, with three factories owned by Daewoo International corporation operating in Uzbekistan.
The unexplained arrest of a researcher carrying out fieldwork in Tajikistan’s troubled Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO) is sparking alarm among Central Asian academics and journalists. Reports of Alexander Sodiqov’s arrest first filtered out during the afternoon of June 16, when the researcher, a Tajik-born PhD student at the University of Toronto, was meeting with Alim Sherzamonov, regional representative of the opposition Social Democratic Party of Tajikistan, according to RFE/RL’s Tajik service.
Tajikistan’s GKNB (state security service) subsequently released a statement June 17 via state media Khovar.tj, confirming that Sodiqov had been detained for carrying out “subversion and espionage” on behalf of a foreign country, a charge they linked to a June 10 email sent from Sodiqov’s account (officials did not disclose how they obtained access to the account and whether they did so before or after Sodiqov’s arrest). GKNB operatives presumably believed the “foreign country” to have been the UK, given Sodiqov’s research was funded by the British Economic and Social Research council. A British Embassy statement expressed concern about Sodiqov’s treatment.
Sodiqov’s supervisor on the project, John Heathershaw, put out the following statement on social media on the evening of June 16:
“It is now almost 20 hours since we have heard from Alexander Sodiqov who was apparently arrested while conducting research in Tajikistan. We do not know if he has been released or remains detained.
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.”
While most of the world's attention is now fixated on the World Cup in Brazil, the lesser-known sport of horseback wrestling has been grabbing headlines in Kazakhstan.
Asia's first horseback wrestling championships were held near Astana, Kazakhstan's glitzy capital, on June 15. A total of 35 wrestlers from Central Asia and beyond took part in fast and furious tussles: bouts can be over in less than 10 seconds. The rules of audaryspak, as the sport is called in Kazakh, are simple – there are two guys on horseback and the object is to be the first to wrestle your opponent to the ground.
Kazakhstan took gold in all three weight categories – Yermek Zhapishev prevailed in the 70 kg class, Syrym Izbasarov won the 70-90 kg class, and the 90 kg and above category was taken by Birzhan Kosaliyev. Competitors from China, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia and Uzbekistan filled the other places on the podium.
The horseback grappling-fest was organized by Kazakhstan's Association of National Sports and was sponsored by President Nursultan Nazarbayev's politcal party Nur Otan. Samruk-Kazyna, the nation's cash-rich sovereign wealth fund, was another sponsor. Kossaliyev, winner of the 90 kg and above class, took home a Toyota car and a check for a million tenge ($5,448).
Audaryspak, which originated on the Central Asian steppe in the times when the horse was king and fighting abilities were paramount, is now enjoying a contemporary renaissance, spreading its reach into Hungary, Russia, Afghanistan, Mongolia, Azerbaijan, and China, where the next championships are to be held in 2016.