Rayimbek Matrayimov, the deputy director of the State Customs Service, shown in a screen grab of the Radio Azattyk's investigative report.
An in-depth investigative report by RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz service into the suspicious wealth of a high-ranking customs official is a stark reminder of the hardiness of old habits.
While the investigation by the broadcaster, which is known locally as Radio Azattyk, has set tongues wagging, it is far from clear so far if it will have any repercussions for the people involved.
The video report focuses on Rayimbek Matrayimov, the deputy director of the State Customs Service, who is revealed in the report to be the owner, among other things, of a luxurious villa in Osh.
Azattyk used a simple but ingenious approach in trying to work out the yawning discrepancy between the amount of goods apparently coming into the country and the quantity of import tariffs paid into the state budget.
Doing some back of a napkin math, Azattyk reasoned that since around 20,000 trucks come into Kyrgyzstan from China every year, and each truck carries roughly 25 tons of goods, and import duties are levied at 100 som ($1.5) per kilo, the income accruing annually to the state should be more than 49 billion som ($700 million). And yet the amount of import tariff revenue being declared is closer to 30 billion som, which raises questions about where that money might be going, Azattyk said.
Then there is another curious set of figures. Chinese customs authorities have said that in 2015, around $4.3 billion of goods were exported to Kyrgyzstan. But their Kyrgyz counterparts, meanwhile, have offered the much smaller figure of $920 million for that same period.
Speaking at his presidential inauguration after winning a galactic 97.7 percent of the vote in an election over the weekend, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov announced that Turkmenistan will embark on further exploration of space.
The state news agency cited the president as saying on February 17 that Turkmenistan will build a world-class observatory from which to study the skies. But there is also a more explicitly commercial intent behind this sudden interest in space.
“Huge attention will be devoted to developing the communications sector,” he said. “We will continue to exploit outer space by launching new satellites that will enable us to optimize telecommunications networks and the national economy and raise the Great Silk Road linking the continents to a whole new level.”
Turkmenistan has already secured a perch in the space. In 2015, a Turkmen satellite was blasted into orbit onboard a SpaceX craft. The 4.5 ton satellite was built on order by France’s Thales Alenia Space and is operated by the Communications Ministry to provide telecommunications services across Europe, Central Asia and Africa.
Berdymukhamedov said at a government meeting in mid-January that one priority for 2017 was to continue developing mobile, broadcasting and internet communications, and that satellites would be key to that goal.
Olim Sulaimanov, an Uzbek businessman who came to prominence last year after posting a video online alleging he had been harassed for bribes by tax officials. (Olim Sulaimanov Facebook account)
Things are going from bad to worse for Uzbekistan’s anticorruption whistleblower with a court ordering his confinement to a pretrial detention facility pending criminal hearings into corruption.
Olim Sulaimanov, who came to prominence last year after posting a video online alleging he had been harassed for bribes by tax officials, appeared in Mirzo Ulugbek district court in Tashkent on February 15 following a surprise summons from investigators earlier this month.
Sulaimanov had said hearings were due to take place last week, but that his lawyer, Amriddin Abdullayev, could not be reached, possibly as a result of pressure from the authorities. The businessman arrived in court with Abdullayev and his 17-year old son Egamberdy Sulaimanov in the middle of the afternoon. Two representatives from the US Embassy also came to the court building but were denied entry to the hearing.
The judge made no ruling during the preliminary hearing, postponing arguments until February 20, but nonetheless appears to have ordered that Sulaimanov be placed in custody at a Tashkent city police precinct holding facility, Egamberdy Sulaimanov told EurasiaNet.org.
“I was not allowed to enter the courtroom and neither were employees of the US Embassy. When the hearing ended, only the lawyer, Abdullayev, emerged and he told me that my father had been temporarily detained and was being transferred to the Tashkent city police pretrial detention facility,” the son said.
Kazakhstan’s National Security Committee, or KNB, is set to receive more powers.
Under a government-initiated draft bill now under consideration, the KNB could be authorized to investigate suspected cases of corruption by certain government departments, including the anti-corruption services and the military.
First deputy Prosecutor General Johann Merkel on February 15 described this provision as laying the ground for greater balance among investigative organs, although the KNB appear to be gaining the upper hand in this arrangement.
The evolution of the KNB into the battering ram of the government’s stated goal to stamp out corruption has been taking place for some weeks already. Placing the anticorruption agency under the KNB’s watch, therefore, represents a formal confirmation of an already existing situation.
Another contentious section of the same legislative package envisions a stiff increase in fines for people found guilty of harassing — even if not physically molesting — law enforcement officers — up to 11 million tenge ($34,000).
Even the speaker of the Majlis, the lower house of parliament, Nurlan Nigmatulin, was moved to describe the proposed fine as “mind-numbing” and suggested that it perhaps be revised downward.
Despite this unusual grumbling, MPs waved the bill through its first reading, thereby readily confirming the reputation of the Majlis as a rubber-stamping adjunct of the government. A review on the size of the fines is expected during the second reading.
The founder of Uzbekistan’s first privately run bank has been released from jail after 19 years of a sentence that was, rights advocates say, arbitrarily extended.
RFE/RL’s Uzbek service, Ozodlik, cited a relative of Rustam Usmanov as saying he was released on February 13.
“We met him at Zhaslyk prison and brought him to Tashkent. His state of health is poor and he is now receiving treatment. But he is in good spirit and he thanks [President Shavkat] Mirziyoyev,” the family member told Ozodlik.
Usmanov, 69, was convicted of fraud in 1998 and sentenced to 14 years in jail. His sentence was due to expire in 2012, but was extended by another five years.
He is best known for setting up Rustambank in the early 1990s, but earlier, in 1987, he set up a cooperative company producing honey. Usmanov then branched out into breeding and selling earthworms. Those enterprises turned him into a dollar millionaire and so, in 1992, he opened the country’s first private lender with a registered capital of $1.2 million.
The business success put him in close proximity with the country’s ruling elite, from President Islam Karimov himself to erstwhile Interior Minister Zokir Almatov.
But Usmanov distinguished himself for his lack of deference to authority, as he detailed in his 1995 book “Interrupted Flight.” Opposition news website eltuz.com published extracts from the book in December 2015 that outlined his philosophy.
Screengrab from a promotional film produced by Tajikistan's aluminum giant Talco.
It is virtually axiomatic in Tajikistan that any major investor should, metaphorically speaking, expect to get their fingers burnt and then be forced to pay for a taxi to the hospital afterward.
Consider the long-running saga with Russian metals giant Rusal, which has after years of trials and tribulations finally left Tajikistan and with losses likely running into the dozens of millions of dollars.
Under a recently thrashed out deal, Tajikistan’s heavily indebted aluminum producer Talco has relieved Rusal of its two remaining assets in the country — the Sozidanie business center and the Hyatt Regency Hotel.
Talco will pay Rusal around $150 million over a 10-year period, RFE/RL’s Tajik service, Radio Ozodi, reported on February 14. A source familiar with the deal has told EurasiaNet.org that the foreign staff managing both facilities will leave the country, leaving Tajik personnel to take over.
Talks about the transfer of property had been going on for some time and likely turned a final corner in the last week of December, when Rusal chief executive Vladislav Soloviev traveled to the Tajik capital, Dushanbe.
Talco is controlled by Hasan Asadullozoda, brother-in-law of President Emomali Rahmon, so this is yet more of the country’s wealth falling into the hands of the ruling family. (That said, Asadullozoda is going through his own troubles with the rest of the family, so this is not quite as cozy as it may initially appear).
The transaction appears to put a definitive end to the long-standing row between Tajikistan and Rusal, which is owned by Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska.
The USS Porter transits the Bosphorus out of the Black Sea on February 13 after conducting exercises and, its commander said, being buzzed by Russian planes. (photo: U.S. Navy Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Ford Williams)
Russian planes buzzed a United States warship in the Black Sea as it was conducting NATO exercises, American officials said. Russian officials denied that they had done anything aggressive but still criticized the presence of U.S. ships in the sea, indicating that U.S.-Russia military tension is continuing even under the U.S.'s new, ostensibly Russia-friendly, leadership.
The incident took place on February 10, the last day of Romania-led naval exercises in the Black Sea. Four separate Russian planes made low passes over the USS Porter, which was participating in the exercise. The ship's commander described the actions as "unsafe and unprofessional," a U.S. military spokesman said.
Russia denied the charges. "All of our flights were conducted and are being conducted over the neutral waters of the Black Sea in accordance with international rules and safety requirements,” Major General Igor Konashenkov said in a statement.
But Konashenkov dropped a little shade on the U.S., as well. “If the U.S. destroyer, as the Pentagon official claims, conducted a 'regular' patrol mission in the vicinity of Russia, tens of thousands miles away from their own shores, it is strange to be surprised about the no less regular flights of our aircraft over the Black Sea,” he said.
In the wake of the mayor of Tajikistan’s capital getting sidelined, his allies are now systematically being cleared out of jobs in and near the government.
On February 13, the executive committee of President Emomali Rahmon’s People’s Democratic Party assembled and decided to remove six leading party apparatchiks.
The changes were effected at Rahmon’s behest.
Tajikistan-focused news website Akhbor cited an unnamed source in the party as saying the process is intended to rid the city hall of ex-mayor Mahmadsaid Ubaidulloev’s cronies. New appointees will reportedly instead be the cronies of the new mayor, who also happens to be son of President Rahmon — Rustam Emomali. (Tajik sons take the first name of their father as a second name).
The authorities are trying to cast Emomali’s ascendancy to the mayor’s job as a much-needed injection of energy. Rahmon in December declared 2017 the year of youth and in that spirit gave his 29-year old scion a job for which he has little obvious background.
Acting quickly, Emomali dumped the sitting mayoral press secretary and the head of the city television station, Poytakht. Then on January 16, he fired the head of Dushanbe’s public records department, Saidhomid Mahmudov, who is Ubaidulloev’s cousin.
On February 7, less than a month after losing his mayoral post, Ubaidulloev resigned his seat on the Dushanbe city council, as did his ex-city hall chief of staff, Firuz Ulmasov.
A third heavyweight has entered the running in Kyrgyzstan’s presidential election, setting the stage for what could become Central Asia’s most eagerly ever contested democratic battle.
The parliamentary faction of the Respublika-Ata Jurt party tandem on February 14 unanimously nominated wealthy businessman and former prime minister Omurbek Babanov to stand in October’s vote.
Babanov has been active in politics since 2005 and proven a canny and cynical operator ever since. Early on, he was a member of the now-ruling Social Democratic Party (SDPK) and accordingly a leading figure among the opposition to former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s rule before he was successfully co-opted and named deputy prime minister in January 2009.
That stint under Bakiyev did not last very long, however, and Babanov was duly released from his duties in October 2009. Babanov was adamant at the time that “there is no talk of my return to the opposition.” The timing of the departure from government was fortuitous since Bakiyev was overthrown in a bloody revolt in April 2010.
Despite his sniffy stance toward his erstwhile SDPK allies in the latter days of the Bakiyev regime, Babanov was named prime minister in 2011 only to be forced out of the job in 2012 by a scandal involving the suspicious gift of an English-bred horse.
Babanov has remained an ever-present if relatively low-key presence on the political scene, occasionally criticizing the government but largely refraining from the type of flamboyant antics favored by the nationalist Ata-Jurt component of his political current.
The former NATO Central Asia liaison office in Tashkent. (photo: NATO)
Central Asians are more likely to see NATO as a threat rather than as a source of protection, according to a new survey.
The survey, by the American firm Gallup, polled residents of all the ex-Soviet republics except for Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. All of the Central Asian states saw NATO as more of a threat than as protection. Tajikistan was the most anti-NATO state, with 34 percent seeing it as a threat and eight percent as protection. Next is Kyrgyzstan, at 19 percent protection and 30 percent threat; then Kazakhstan, 25 percent protection and 31 percent threat.
It's hard to imagine what NATO would possibly threaten in Central Asia. And while it's tempting to attribute this to exposure to Russian narratives about NATO, Tajikistan is the least Russian-speaking of all these countries, and Kazakhstan the most Russian-speaking, so that explanation isn't satisfying. (The Bug Pit is unable to come up with a better one, though.)
Note that NATO closed down its Central Asia liaison office in Tashkent last year, deciding that it would henceforth operate all of its modest cooperation programs in the region from Brussels.
Armenia also had a mostly negative response, with 20 percent saying NATO is a threat and only eight percent as a protection. Armenia's government makes not-insignificant efforts to maintain real cooperation with NATO, in spite of being a member of the NATO rival Collective Security Treaty Organization. But the fact that the only NATO country on Armenia's border is Turkey no doubt colors public opinion on the alliance.