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.
The oldest daughter of Uzbekistan’s late president and fraud go together like a horse and carriage, as the latest online fantasy involving Gulnara Karimova has neatly illustrated.
In oddly matter-of-fact fashion, Uzbekistan-focused website centre1.com ran a piece on November 22 claiming to have received reliable evidence from a solitary would-be security services source stating that Karimova had perished, the victim of a poisoning plot. The mysterious source, which foreign-based centre1.com takes at his word, adds further that Karimova died on November 5 and was secretly buried in the Minor cemetery in an unmarked grave.
All the details were preposterous enough not to be taken seriously, one would have imagined, but many of the world’s media cannot resist the lure of the psycho-drama around Karimova and duly took the bait. Foremost among them was British tabloid The Daily Mail, which ran a breathless report about the “astonishing claims.”
The newspaper cited centre1.com editor Galima Bukharbayeva as saying she personally spoke to the source of the information.
“We got the information about a week ago and all this time we tried to cross check and verify it. I would love it not to be true because of how horrendous this is,” Bukharbayeva was cited as saying.
Dozens of websites ran similar reports, taking centre1.com largely at face value, albeit occasionally leavening their own reports with a dose of skepticism.
The leader of Kyrgyzstan’s opposition Ata-Meken party, Omurbek Tekebayev, has raised the stakes in his face-off with the president by announcing that he is laying the groundwork for impeachment proceedings.
News website K-News cited Tekebayev as saying on November 22 that Almazbek Atambayev had left himself open to the move by openly supporting his former party, the Social Democratic Party, or SDPK, in violation of the constitution.
“In February, a new political party council was formed and it included all the president’s entourage — Farid Niyazov, Albek Ibraimov, Ikramzhan Ilmiyanov, Kubanychbek Kulmatov. All of them occupy some kind of position in the presidential apparatus or are somehow dependant on him, and they don’t make a secret of it,” Tekebayev said.
Tekebayev is in effect saying what everybody already knows, since the SDPK, while not de facto led by Atambayev, is indissolubly associated with the president. To point out the emperor has no clothes is a transparent political provocation, however.
“The position of SDPK chairman is still not filled. Why? Maybe it is because he [Atambayev] still leads the party?” he said.
Tekebayev said that the influence of the SPDK extends even further. While the party only holds 38 out of the 120 seats in the Zhogorku Kenesh, or parliament, 15 out of 18 government ministries are headed by SDPK representatives, according to the leader of Ata-Meken, which holds 11 seats. Tekebayev said that of the remaining three ministers, two are from the Kyrgyzstan party — which has 18 deputies in parliament and is widely viewed as a stalking horse for the SDPK — and another is from Bir Bol, which has 12 MPs.
Prosecutors in the trial of two activists in Kazakhstan accused of whipping up anti-land reform rallies have demanded jail sentences of up to eight years and a $1.5 million fine to be slapped on the men.
Lawyers acting for the state also argued on November 21 in the Aytrau court that Max Bokayev and Talgat Ayan should be banned from engaging in public activity for three years.
If the court entertains anything near close to that request, it would send an ominous signal about the government’s willingness to tolerate any kind of public dissent, regardless of how peaceful it is.
Bokayev and Ayan staunchly deny they did anything wrong other than express their discontent at a law passed last year that would have led to the privatization of once-publicly owned land. In the absence of a public information campaign, a wave of peaceful but impassioned rallies were held in the spring, mainly in western Kazakhstan, over concerns that land might be the object of major buy-ups by foreign investors.
“What guilt am I supposed to admit? In Kazakhstan there is a law about peaceful gatherings and I took part in a rally in accordance with this law. I am not guilty and I did nothing that could raise alarm or pose a danger to people’s lives,” Bokayev told RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service, Radio Azattyq, during the break of one hearing.
Prosecutors this week once again argued that the activists were in cahoots with brewery tycoon Tohtar Tuleshov, who was sentenced to 21 years in jail on November 7 on charges of purportedly plotting a coup. According to the authorities, Tuleshov was scheming to use the political unrest provoked by the anti-land reform protests to make a grab for power.
An eyebrow-raising appointment to the higher echelons of Kazakhstan’s security services suggests greater emphasis is about to be placed on combating corruption.
The presidential administration announced in a tweet on November 21 that Daulet Yergozhin was being moved from his long-term position as chief of the tax committee to become the new deputy head of National Security Committee, or KNB, the successor agency to the KGB.
Yergozhin, 37, was in the news most recently in October over some intra-departmental sniping coming from the direction of the General Prosecutor’s Office, which accused certain government bodies of being overly aggressive in their checks on business owners.
“There is no system of risk management, no clear analysis about which business needs to be inspected and when,” Marat Akhmetzhanov, the Deputy Prosecutor General, told media in early October. “What is more, state bodies have, in their checklists, included large amounts of outdated requirements. Some of them are absurd and beyond logic.”
Akhmetzhanov did not appear to single out any particular body for criticism, but given Yergozhin’s swift reaction, it was clear that his was one of the departments in question.
Yergozhin said that he would look into the activities of his committee’s economic investigations department to see what work needed to be done.
“On the whole, we share the concerns of the main supervisory body — the General Prosecutor’s Office — about the need for running fewer checks on private businesses so as to interfere less with their affairs. We are open to this criticism,” he said.