Tajikistan’s hasty decision to revoke accreditation for six journalists working for RFE/RL’s local affiliate, Radio Ozodi, has sparked broad dismay, including from the US government.
The cancellation of the reporters’ accreditation followed publication on Radio Ozodi’s website of a story about one of President Emomali Rahmon’s daughters, Rukhshona Rahmonova, being nominated to a plum post in the Foreign Ministry.
In customary fashion, the Foreign Ministry called Radio Ozodi warning them to pull the article, but the broadcaster refused, precipitating the reprisal.
RFE/RL President Thomas Kent described the Tajik government’s action as a “blatant attack on our ability to do our jobs as journalists.”
“This is an abuse of an administrative procedure for political purposes that we expect to be reversed without delay,” Kent said in a statement on the RFE/RL website
RFE/RL has said this is not the only recent instance of Tajik authorities trying to force content off its website. Earlier in November, the authorities demanded the broadcaster pull a news item about a statement posted on the US Embassy website warning of a possible imminent terrorist attack on the border with Afghanistan.
This pressure forms part of a systematic campaign of intimidation against Radio Ozodi.
“The Service’s website has been blocked since September, 2015, requiring users to employ alternative means to access it. Radio Ozodi journalists have been portrayed as being ‘unpatriotic’ and damaging the country’s image in official media, interrogated by security service agents, and proffered ‘friendly advice’ by authorities to avoid problems,” RFE/RL said.
“We have a great show tonight!” (Applause and cheers). “And our first guest tonight is Kazakhstan’s president and leader of the nation, Nursultan Nazarbayev!” (Wild applause and cheers).
No, this is not the opening to a recent edition of the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, but it is pretty much what was said over at his Kazakhstani imitators on Late Night in the Nurlan Koyanbayev Studio.
A trailer posted on the Koyanbayev show Facebook page on November 29 has offered a glimpse of what appears to be the latest wheeze by the Nazarbayev entourage to make the ageing authoritarian leader seem to more relatable and down-to-earth.
Such populist antics are, of course, old hat for television viewers in the West, who have become used to seeing their presidents and prime ministers pop up in popular shows for some light banter.
Even before he ascended to the US presidency, Barack Obama energetically courted the housewife vote by appearing on The Ellen Degeneres Show and performing a dance. Ever since taking office, Obama has routinely cropped up in comedic talk shows, drawing criticism from some quarters that he was demeaning the office of the president.
Politicians tend as a rule to keep away from comedy shows for fear of falling prey to mockery, but Obama has done the circuit in relatively certain knowledge he would likely face only gentle ribbing at most.
A railroad linking Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, part of a regional project called the Lapis Lazuli Corridor, was inaugurated in an official ceremony on November 28 overseen by the leaders of both nations.
Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov described developing transportation infrastructure as a top priority for his government and that railway and highway bridges traversing the Amudarya River are also to be put into commission in the coming days.
The goal of the Lapis Lazuli Corridor is to see Afghanistan connected to Turkey, and consequently Europe, through transit nations Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Georgia as part of a vision to relieve the country’s remoteness from lucrative trading routes.
Turkmenistan’s government portal cited Afghan President Ashraf Ghani as hailing the importance of the railway for international cooperation.
After a symbolic golden rail clamp was fixed into a place, a maiden consignment of 46 carriages crossed from Turkmenistan into Afghanistan.
The segment of newly inaugurated railroad stretches 88 kilometers from Atmyrat (formerly Kerki) in Turkmenistan to the Ymamnazar border crossing and ends in the Afghan settlement of Akina, the Turkmen state news agency reported. (Spelling for each of these locations vary wildly depending on transliteration or rendering). Two stations — Gulistan and Ymamnazar — have also been built from scratch along the route, the agency said.
A court in the the city of Aktobe on November 28 sentenced seven men to life in jail for their role in a group shooting spree earlier this year. Another two men accused in direct involvement in the violence of June 5, when eight people, including three soldiers, were shot dead by a group of attackers that had seized weapons from shops stocking hunting supplies.
Eighteen people charged with abetting the attackers received jail terms of between two and five years.
Investigators have said the group were Islamic extremists and followers of the Salafist current.
According to the Aktobe regional court service, the defendants were given the last chance to speak on November 21, when they appealed for clemency and not to be given life sentence, so that they could one day return to their families.
The fullest account of the state’s case provided to date has become from Aktobe-based newspaper Evrika, which obtained and published a copy of the prosecution indictment in October. The indictment describes a man called Dmitry Tanatarov, who was killed on the day, as the main organizer of the bloodshed. It states Tanatarov converted to Islam in 2009 and fell under the sway of “extremist religious ideologues.” It said Tanatarov had aspired to go fight in Syria, but lacked the funds and decided instead to create his own militant group in Aktobe. He is said to have shared his thoughts about his ambitions to embark on a violent jihad with a friend, Arman Aituganov.
Walking down a Tbilisi sidewalk can be akin to taking on an obstacle course, with pedestrians forced to circumnavigate both parked and moving cars.
Last week, several car owners in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, found large stickers emblazed with the message “I don’t care for the law. I park where I want,” attached to their vehicles’ windscreens. These stamps of shame were signed off by Stopxam, a Moscow-born movement of self-styled traffic cops that is spreading throughout Russia’s post-Soviet neighborhood. It has reached Tbilisi just as pedestrians begin to strike back against the cars which have long claimed the right of way here.
Drumming their fingers on their steering wheels and muttering an occasional curse, drivers trapped in Tbilisi’s increasingly congested district of Saburtalo often see a car speed past them on a sidewalk and then weasel its way into a lane. Many of the sidewalks in this city of some 1.1 million people and 400,000 cars now serve as a de-facto two-lane vehicular zone, with one lane used for parking and the other for getting in and out of traffic.
That can make walking on sidewalks a veritable obstacle course.
“I’ve got to learn pole vaulting,” bristled Elene Abuladze, a stay-at-home mom, as she tried to negotiate her stroller through cars on a sidewalk lining Chavchavadze Avenue, a main thoroughfare in the posh district of Vake. “I might as well take my son for a stroll in a junkyard. I swear, cars have more rights than humans in this city.”
Obnoxious driving and parking plague much of the post-Soviet world, but Georgia appears to be in a class by itself.
Two activists accused of organizing land protests in Kazakhstan have been sentenced to five years in jail.
At the culmination of a trial lasting one and half months, Max Bokayev and Talgat Ayan were found guilty of inciting social unrest, spreading false information and disrupting public order and will, in addition to serving prison time, be banned from public activities for three years.
Judge Gulnar Dauleshova also said the defendants had to pay 259,000 tenge ($750) to cover the costs of expert witnesses and would have their mobile phones confiscated.
Authorities will hope this verdict puts a definitive end to the season of political unrest that began when thousands of citizens hit the streets in the spring in protest at legislation to privatize swathes of public land. In the absence of adequate information campaigns, speculation circulated that much of the land would be bought by foreign investors, primarily from China — a taboo suggestion in a country where land is popularly deemed a natural birthright and where suspicions toward China run high.
Lawyers for the activists, both from the city of Atyrau, where the trial took place, have said they will appeal the sentence.
A journalist for RFE/RL’s Kazakh service, Radio Azattyq, present in the courtroom reported that the pair reacted calmly to the verdict and thanked their supporters as they were escorted out of the building.
As supporters left the courtroom, dozens of them broke out into renditions of the national anthem and shouted “Freedom” as the paddy wagon carrying Bokayev and Ayan drove past, Radio Azattyq reported.
Starting from next year, international television stations wishing to broadcast in Kazakhstan will have to register a representative inside the country, under new rules announced this week by Information and Communications Minister Dauren Abayev.
The rules are being introduced to even the playing field for local broadcasters, who complain at having to compete with foreign rivals unbridled by domestic legislation.
Kazakhstan’s authorities have long been waging a rearguard battle against popular international television broadcasters available to local viewers through cable packages. In July, laws came into force requiring foreign television stations to black out their advertising output — a measure intended to protect local broadcasters’ ad revenue. That law had been adopted in October 2015 and was due to take effect the following January, but its implementation was delayed amid protests from cable operators, who complained they lacked the technical wherewithal to enforce the rule.
Foreign content dominates the airwaves in Kazakhstan. As Abayev has pointed out, cable companies currently air up to 150 channels each, of which around 70 percent are foreign. They are, however, necessarily exempt from multiple domestic restrictions, such as those requiring a certain amount of content to be in the Kazakh language and on what constitutes suitable advertising material. Many channels advertise goods and services not registered and licensed in Kazakhstan, and some of the advertisements, such as those for alcohol, are in outright breach of broadcasting regulations.
Uzbekistan has in a long-awaited move freed a political activist who has languished behind bars since 1992, when he was jailed on corruption charges that rights groups say were politically motivated.
Moscow-based news website ferghana.rureported on November 23 that 72-year-old Samandar Kukanov was met outside prison by his son, Sardor.
Kukanov will remain under supervision for a year after his release, ferghana.ru reported.
Freeing Kukanov represents a notable about-face by the Uzbek authorities.
New York-based Human Rights Watch had issued a statement earlier this month demanding Kukanov’s release and protesting a decision by prison authorities in October to extend his sentence by three years.
Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, said at the time that the extension of the prison sentence indicated that acting President Shavkat Mirziyoyev appeared intent on continuing the repressive policies of his late predecessor, Islam Karimov.
As HRW has documented, Uzbek prison authorities have routinely resorted to extending the sentences of political prisoners on spurious grounds.
“The action is often taken just days before the person is to be released, on bogus grounds such as possessing ‘unauthorized’ nail clippers, saying prayers, or wearing a white shirt, and may result in years of additional imprisonment,” the group noted in its recent statement.
Kazakhstan is flouting the rights of its workers to organize in trade unions and assert their labor rights, a damning new report published by an international human rights watchdog alleges.
The study, “We Are Not The Enemy: Violations of Workers’ Rights in Kazakhstan”, was published by Human Rights Watch on November 24, shortly ahead of the fifth anniversary of a bout of fatal violence that spiraled out of an oil strike in the town of Zhanaozen.
The report documents “harassment, surveillance, and, in some cases, spurious legal prosecution or dismissals in apparent retaliation for labor activism.”
Based on interviews with 55 union leaders, labor activists and workers in nine cities—including in the oil and gas sector in western Kazakhstan and the industrial heartland in the center and northeast—the study reveals cases of harassment and intimidation of workers by the authorities and employers to deter them from joining independent trade unions.
It cites cases of workers fired for taking industrial action — a ‘disproportionate disciplinary sanction,’ HRW says — and instances of surveillance of independent union leaders and activists by the security services.
Larisa Kharkova, president of the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions, recalled how on a trip to western Kazakhstan in March this year she was “surrounded in Aktau — day and night” by intelligence agents, and during her meetings with union members “we were sitting there, talking, and we could see how [the security agents] drove up and photographed us.”
Kharkova also explained how a new trade union law enacted in 2014 had “paralyzed” the work of her confederation’s members, independent labor unions which were denied re-registration under burdensome new requirements.
Only a week after Kazakhstan celebrated the 23rd anniversary of its national currency by sticking the face of President Nursultan Nazarbayev on banknotes, talk is afoot of renaming the capital after the leader.
Nazarbayev is already object of a vigorous campaign of state-engineered adulation that often tips into a full-on cult of personality, but this is taking things to a new level.
The proposal to rename Astana to somehow reflect the name of Nazarbayev — who is also known by the Sultanate-style honorific of Elbasy, or leader of the nation — was aired in the hyper-loyalist rubber stamp lower house of parliament, the Majlis, on November 23.
“We suggest placing a note in the country’s constitution observing the leading role played in the creation of our state by the first president, the leader of the nation, Nursultan Abishevich Nazarbayev. And to reflect the name of Elbasy in the name of the capital and other important sites,” said Kuanysh Sultanov, a member of parliament with the ruling Nur Otan party.
Sultanov’s suggestion on how to rename Astana was for either Nursultan or Nazarbayev. Another MP, Pavel Kazantsev, said the decision could be made in just a single month and that “there is no need to drag out the issue.” Kazantsev’s notion was to change the name by independence day, which falls on December 16.
“By the end of the year, we can already choose a new name. It all depends on how discussions go and on what the people say. It just remains for parliament to formalize the decision of the Kazakhstani people,” Kazantsev said.
A referendum could be held to approve the decision, he said.