In the face of widespread hopes of a last-minute change of heart, Kyrgyzstan’s government has torn up a foundational treaty in the Central Asian nation’s ties with the United States.
By signing off on the cancellation of the 1993 treaty on July 21, Prime Minister Temir Sariev stands to endanger the millions of dollars worth of assistance that Washington provides to Kyrgyzstan every year.
Bishkek has adopted the measure in response to the U.S. State Department bestowing the 2014 Human Rights Defender Award on jailed activist Azimjan Askarov.
In September 2010, Askarov, an ethnic Uzbek, was sentenced to life imprisonment for what Kyrgyz authorities say was his role in inciting the mob killing of a police officer during the ethnic unrest in June that year. Western governments and advocacy groups have regularly mounted staunch defenses of Askarov, saying that he was framed and later found guilty in a trial marred by irregularities.
The U.S. award enraged Bishkek, which has described the recognition of Askarov as an attempt to destabilize the country and sow interethnic tension.
The 1993 treaty provides for a tariff waiver on goods imported into Kyrgyzstan as part of U.S. aid programs. It also exempts non-Kyrgyz employees of U.S. government or private aid programs from income and social security taxes.
It seems unlikely that the risk-averse U.S. government will entertain the prospect of being majorly exposed to tax checks in a country where such inspections are regularly conducted by officials seeking bribes, as investors have had cause to learn to their detriment. The change, which comes into effect on Aug. 20, will also require a cumbersome layer of bureaucratic wrangling that could in any event stand to hamstring programs for an indefinite period.
A court in Tajikistan has jailed yet another top opposition figure — a member of Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan’s leadership council, Jaloliddin Mahmudov.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Tajik service said Mahmudov was sentenced on July 20 to five years in a maximum security jail by the Hissor district court for the illegal trade and possession of weapons.
Mahmudov has for several years served as IRPT’s representative on the central election commission. He was detained in February, some three weeks before the parliamentary elections.
IRPT lost the only two seats it had in parliament in that vote, which was roundly condemned by international monitors. The party described Mahmudov’s arrest at such an important juncture for its fate as a politically motivated move.
With its leader fearing to return home for fear of prosecution and another leading party light now behind bars, IRPT looks more than ever like a spent force inside Tajikistan.
Other political figures placed behind bars in Tajikistan in recent times include:
- Maqsood Ibragimov, a Russia-based opposition activist who was earlier this month sentenced to 17 years in jail on extremism charges;
- Zaid Saidov, a former minister-turned-government foe sentenced to 26 years in prison in 2013 on charges of fraud, corruption, statutory rape and polygamy;
An unnamed village in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region seen under floodwater in an undated photo. (Photo: United Nations Rapid Emergency Assessment and Coordination Team)
The wave of natural calamities hitting Tajikistan is expanding and growing deadly, with at least three people reported killed on July 21 following a landslide in the Vanj district in the Pamirs.
Asia-Plus news website has reported that another three people are still missing.
Nilufar Aslamshoev, the press secretary for the head of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region, told Asia-Plus that a landslide buried a Hyundai Starex van in the Vodhud municipality, killing three passengers onboard. Two passengers cannot be located.
Aslamshoev said that a torrential flood in the village of Lugad, in the same area, washed away an earthmover and two trucks. The driver of one of the trucks has gone missing, she said.
The Pamirs are not the only region affected.
CA-News has cited unnamed rescue officials as saying more than sixty homes have been either partially or totally destroyed in the Rasht region, which lies around 200 east of the capital, Dushanbe. One person, a 28-year old with disabilities, was reportedly killed in the Rasht region.
The spate of landslides and floods scourging Tajikistan are the result of intense heat in recent days, which have led to an unusually rapid snowmelt.
Along with homes, the floods have also destroyed schools, shops, crops, roads and power lines. A United Nations Rapid Emergency Assessment and Coordination Team estimates that more than 80 percent of communities in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region has been left without power as a result of damage to infrastructure.
After a period of estrangement, Baku has laid out its terms for getting back on friendly terms with Washington. The suggestions may have come in the form of commentaries from local news outlets, but the medium is the message in Azerbaijan, where most mainstream media is under the government's thumb.
Ultimately, Baku's demands boil down to being accepted for what it is; an increasingly authoritarian regime, by estimates of any international human rights watchdog, and that the US should quit trying to change it.
APA, for instance, in a July 14 piece, construed a meeting between the Azerbaijani armed forces’ Chief of Staff Colonel General Nejmeddin Sadikov and the unnamed US embassy defense attaché as a mutual attempt to mend fences — despite what other outlets, in a copy-and-paste brief, termed the allegedly “destructive” policies of the State Department.
“Azerbaijani Defense Ministry restores ties with Pentagon” read APA’s headline; a bit of a surprise to those not aware that they had ever been severed.
Two days later, in a long and laborious review of US-Azerbaijan relations, Azernews.az announced that "Azerbaijan says yes to the USA`s peace gesture, but . . ."
Welcome to Kazakhstan! But not all of it, unless you want to pay a fine.
That’s the mixed message emerging as enthusiasm about moves to open up visa-free travel to a growing list of nationalities is dampened by the introduction of special access permits for some of the country’s prime tourist spots.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs unveiled legislation on June 26 making it easier for citizens of 19 countries to visit the country for stays of up to 15 days by waiving visa requirements. The full list can be found here. The law will remain in force through to the end of 2017.
But while it will become easier for many to get into Kazakhstan, it will now be illegal to visit some of the country’s top tourist draws without written permission obtained seven days in advance.
Under legislation that came into force on June 15, special documentation is needed to visit sights located within a 25-kilometer radius of the border. That would include Medeu ice skating rink and the Shymbluak ski resort, both located only a short drive from the country’s largest city, Almaty. Other places effectively off-limits to visitors include Lake Alakol and the Kolsai lakes.
Anybody visiting these places without the proper paperwork now risks incurring a fine.
According to tour guide Karlygash Makatova, a foreign diplomat was recently fined for visiting Big Almaty Lake without permission, Tengrinews website reported. Makatova mentioned another occasion when tourists were detained and fined while visiting Sharyn Canyon, one of Almaty region's landmark attractions.
One of the more interesting story lines from the recent Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Russia was the addition of new "dialogue partners": Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, and Nepal.
The role of a dialogue partner is not clear, and seems to vary: Belarus had been a dialogue partner, and played an active role in the organization. President Alexander Lukashenko went to the summit earlier this month and Belarus was upgraded to an SCO observer. Turkey, meanwhile, became a dialogue partner in 2013 and since then both the SCO and Ankara, by all public appearances, seem to have completely ignored one another.
But that caveat aside, becoming part of the SCO is nevertheless a statement of some sort of geopolitical intention. Armenia's accession is not too surprising: it is Russia which is clearly interested in pushing SCO expansion in order to boost its own international status, and Yerevan is highly susceptible to Moscow's wishes.
Azerbaijan's entrance, however, is more interesting. What does Azerbaijan have to gain from being part of the SCO?
For one, the SCO's focus on weakening Western norms of human rights is clearly attractive given its accelerating feud with the United States and European countries over what Baku says is unfair criticism of its political and human rights practices.
The targets of a special forces raid in Bishkek were ISIS members planning attacks on the Russian air base in Kyrgyzstan and on a celebration in the center of Bishkek marking the end of Ramadan, Kyrgyzstani security officials announced.
"The underground terrorist group was planning terror acts at a mass gathering for Orozo Ait (Eid) on July 17, and also on the territory of the air base of the Russian Ministry of Defense located in the city of Kant," Kyrgyzstan's state security service GKNB said in a statement.
The raid, in which six alleged terrorists were killed and another seven arrested, occasioned a lot of skepticism among Kyrgyzstanis, both for the fact that it took place in a heavily populated neighborhood and that the government provided no evidence that the people it targeted were in fact terrorists. ISIS is a convenient bugaboo for post-Soviet governments, though there is little evidence that the group has any designs on the region, let alone any current presence.
And the supposed targeting of the Russian base hardly adds credibility to the authorities' version of events. Russia established the base in 2003, its first new foreign military base since the fall of the Soviet Union. It had been more or less merely a geopolitical placeholder with no apparent function, but in recent years Russia has renovated it, increased the number of aircraft deployed there, and announced plans to make it the Central Asian hub of the planned joint air forces of the Collective Security Treaty Organization.
A nasty row has broken out between the United States and Kyrgyzstan over Washington’s decision this month to bestow the 2014 Human Rights Defender Award on jailed activist Azimjan Askarov.
In September 2010, Askarov was sentenced to life imprisonment for what Kyrgyz authorities say was his role in inciting the mob killing of a police officer during the ethnic unrest in June that year.
Western governments and advocacy groups have regularly mounted staunch defenses of Askarov, saying that he was framed and later found guilty in a trial marred by irregularities.
The U.S. decision to grant Askarov with an award has enraged Kyrgyzstan, whose government reacted on July 17 with the announcement that it is to repeal a 1993 treaty between the two countries.
The statement said that the award “did not ahere to levels of cordial relations between Kyrgyzstan and the United States and could damage government efforts to strengthen interethnic harmony.” The government also argued that U.S. actions were threatening peace and social stability in Kyrgyzstan.
As to Askarov’s guilt, Kyrgyzstan says they can be no doubt: “The decision of the court was taken on the basis of undeniable evidence, Askarov’s guilt has been proven in all instances. The Kyrgyz Republic stands for the supremacy of the law. The justice system is an independent branch of power.”
A dispute among rival outlaw gold miners in Uzbekistan has ended with the death of around 25 people in a blast at an abandoned mine, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Uzbek service reported on July 17.
Radio Ozodlik reports that the explosion occurred on July 13 at a mine near the village of Kochbulak, around 90 kilometers southeast of the capital, Tashkent.
There has been no official disclosure on the incident, as is typical in Uzbekistan, which has in the past sought to quash all information about major accidents. An Emergency Services Ministry spokesman contacted on July 17 said he was unable to provide any information.
Ozodlik’s unnamed source said villagers from Kochbulak regularly went down a nearby mine in search of gold.
“There was a quarrel between two groups. The losing side set fire to the supporting columns that held up the mine. The masonry fell on top of those that remained inside, some were poisoned by the toxic smoke,” the source told Ozodlik.
A local activist from Kochbulak cited by the broadcaster said rescue workers have recovered at least five bodies.
Illegal mining is commonplace across much of Central Asia _ the result of poor employment prospects and ample disused Soviet-era industrial mining facilities.
Uzbekistan is particularly rich in gold reserves, which are estimated to stand at around 5,300 metric tons, and was ranked the world’s seventh largest producer of the metal in 2014.
The industry remains severely underdeveloped, however, and is dominated by two state-controlled companies _ Navoi Mining and Metallurgy Combinat and Almalyk Mining-Metallurgical Complex.
In an episode that is going to sow fears of an imminent surge of terrorist activity in Central Asia, authorities in Kyrgyzstan said July 16 that they killed four gunmen who they said were planning attacks in the capital, Bishkek.
A spokesman for the security services at the scene of the shootout said special forces were forced to open fire after the armed group resisted arrest.
“During the special operation, four security service special unit officers were wounded and later hospitalized,” the State Committee for National Security said in a statement.
Officials were unable to provide more than a few cursory details in the wake of the shootout, but the security services spokesman described the men as belonging to an international group. Local media reported that the group was comprised of citizens of Kazakhstan and that they were militants with the Islamic State group, but officials declined to confirm either of those claims.
Plumes of black smoke could be seen rising in the early evening above the central neighborhood where the shootout took place. Police cordoned off the street where the fighting occured, but crowds of local residents stood and watched from the distance for hours after the worst of the unrest had subsided.
Sustained gunfire and blasts can be heard in footage of the clash uploaded to the Internet. Onlookers at the scene shared video footage of one person with his hands behind his back being marched away from the area. It was not immediately clear if the man was involved in the unrest.