Kyrgyzstan’s government may with one arrest have contrived to revive the phenomenon of street politics — an increasingly rare sight in a nation exhausted by years of turmoil.
Hundreds of people turned out in the capital, Bishkek, on February 26 in rowdy protest at the overnight arrest of Ata-Meken party leader Omurbek Tekebayev on fraud and corruption charges. Tekebayev has denied the accusations, which his allies have described as politically motivated.
A large crowd concentrated around the headquarters of the State Committee for National Security, or GKNB, where Tekebayev was taken after disembarking from an international flight in the early hours of the morning. While there was much shoving between protesters and police, and the crowd reportedly tried to barge its way into the building on two occasions, no violence appears to have ensued. Tekebayev supporters holding a megaphone delivered speeches and were at one stage joined by Roza Otunbayeva, who served as interim president following the April 2010 revolution that culminated in the current president, Almazbek Atambayev, coming to power.
Otunbayeva spoke in defense of Tekebayev, arguing that he had made important contributions to the country’s wellbeing.
“He is a person who always fought for the truth,” she was quoted as saying by Kloop.kg news website.
Tekebayev was a central figure in the anti-government protest movement that led to the 2010 revolution and later played an important part in drafting a revised constitution that on paper was intended to water down the powers of the presidency and usher in a parliamentary system.
Attendance at the protest outside the GKNB gradually dwindled as evening approached.
Ata-Meken leader Omurbek Tekebayev at a march to commemorate the first anniversary of the April 7, 2010, revolution. (Photo: David Trilling)
Authorities in Kyrgyzstan are threatening to spark a political crisis with their shock arrest of a prominent opposition leader.
Ata-Meken party leader Omurbek Tekebayev was held by police as soon as he flew into the capital, Bishkek, in the early hours of February 26. Dozens of his supporters demonstrated outside Manas airport and some were later detained.
Large numbers of police with riot gear were deployed to the terminal to contain any possible outbtreaks of protest. As well as Tekebayev supporters, police at one stage also detained a reporter with RFE/RL's Kyrgyz service, Ulanbek Egizbaev, and a member of parliament with Ata-Meken, Kanybek Imanaliyev.
The detention of the Ata-Meken leader followed an announcment by the General Prosecutor’s Office on February 25 that it was initiating a criminal investigation into the politician on suspicion of corruption and fraud.
Prosecutors say the case is based on materials provided by the State Committee for National Security, or GKNB, and involve an instance of alleged bribe-taking in 2010 in exchange for granting a Russian businessman preferential access during the sale of a part-nationalized mobile phone company.
Tekebayev was in Vienna, Austria, when prosecutors made their statement, but was due to return to Kyrgyzstan overnight. He vehemently denied the allegations.
A number of Ata-Meken deputies have been target of a sustained barrage of criminal investigations, all initiated by the security services, that political observers have argued are politically motivated.
The sight of large, angry crowds outside government buildings has become relatively rare in Kyrgyzstan of late, so the rally outside the headquarters of the security services on February 24 brought back some unnerving memories.
Dozens of people rowdily mustered outside the State Committee for National Security, or GKNB, in protest at the marathon interrogation of a prominent opposition politician Almanbet Shykmamatov. The former justice minister, a leading member of the Ata-Meken party, is ostensibly suspected of corruption, although his supporters have little doubt the investigations are politically motivated.
Fellow Ata-Meken member Aida Salyanova, best known for her stint as the general prosecutor, said the GKNB questioning of Shykmamatov over a nine-hour stretch was tantamount to torture.
At one stage, a group of protesters appeared to crush up against the police cordon protecting the building, eliciting memories of similar standoffs ahead of the bloody 2010 revolution. More police were reportedly brought in as the day wore on, although significant scuffles were avoided and no protesters were detained.
Pro-government media portrayed the demonstrators as lackeys in the pay of pro-Western nongovernmental organizations — a recurrent theme in Central Asian loyalist press. Vecherny Bishkek, which was a lively independent outlet before being expropriated in a murky court case in 2015, unblinkingly relayed the GKNB position.
Police in Kazakhstan have acted quickly to prevent any public gestures of solidarity with the jailed editor of an independent newspaper, whose supporters fear is being subjected to ill-treatment in prison.
On February 23, political activist Yerlan Kaliyev announced his intent to hold a one-man picket in support of Zhanbolat Mamay, who is facing accusations of laundering the proceeds of corruption through his Tribuna newspaper. But before Kaliyev could reach the headquarters of the Security Services Committee, or KNB, in the city of Almaty, he was detained by police.
Other activists, Galym Ageleuov and Askhat Bersalimov, later made it to the same building to report on Kaliyev’s fate, only to also find themselves being detained, according to RFE/RL’s Kazakh service, Radio Azattyq. Kaliyev and Ageleuov were later released, but Bersalimov has been ordered to served a 15-day jail term for summoning an unsanctioned protest.
Concern has been mounting about Mamay’s wellbeing over reports he has been physically maltreated since being taken into custody on February 10.
A independent committee known as the national mechanism for the prevention of torture stated on February 23 that it had visited the detention facility where Mamay is being held and found that there was indeed apparent evidence of abuse in the prison.
“It has been established that the safety of the detainee was indeed not observed as required,” the committee said in a statement after meeting with Mamay and his lawyer. “In part, he faced psychological and physical intimidation by those with him in the same cell, who were people with multiple convictions.”
Rights activists argue that investigators habitually place suspects in cells with other dangerous prisoners as a form of intimidation.
When top officials are fired in Tajikistan, it is usually with reassuring formulations about the person in question being moved to another job or retiring. The absence of such language typically suggests a fall from grace that in some instances serves as a prelude to a criminal prosecution.
So eyebrows were raised this week when President Emomali Rahmon on February 21 abruptly ordered the dismissal of US-educated deputy finance minister Umed Latifov without indicating what his fate is to be. The development had been linked with the much whispered-about elite infighting believed to be taking place over the country’s largest industrial asset — Talco aluminum manufacturer.
Latifov had not been in the job for long and was appointed only in July 2016. Before that, he was deputy head of the National Bank, a post he filled in May 2015.
His presumably lucrative background of working in US investment vehicles made his decision to return to his home country something of a surprise at the time. According to his LinkedIn profile, he completed a finance degree at Arizona State University and later obtained an MBA from Stanford University. He later dabbled in online startups and worked in various capacities at several investment firms.
Former Interior MInister Zokir Almatov shown in screengrab from documentary produced by former BBC Central Asia correspondent Monical Whitlock on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of Andijan events.
State media in Uzbekistan tends as a rule to avoid the thorny issue of the events of May 2005 in Andijan, so it was unusual to see a documentary revisiting the episode broadcast earlier this week.
The half-hour documentary, titled “The Day That Shook the Golden Valley,” was shown on state television on the evening of February 19, but was also available for viewing online some weeks before.
Much of the narrative is a reprise of earlier state accounts, albeit with some small and telling additions: Insurgents seized weapons from a local police precinct and a military base. They then attacked the prison and liberated 23 members of the so-called Akromiya Islamist group, which is said to have been founded by influential local businessman Akram Yuldashev, along with hundreds of other prisoners.
What the documentary does not dwell upon, however, was the massive rally that was unfolding in a central square in Andijan on that May 13. Many of those killed in the unrest as troops sought to quell the unrest were unarmed civilians.
Versions vary wildly as to the scale and nature of the crackdown that ensued. In its report on events, the Organization for Security and Cooperation’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights hypothesized on the basis of dozens of witness interviews that between 300 and 500 people had died. The government, however, has always rejected this figure and claimed the true number was 187, including dozens of police officers and soldiers.
In the film, the late President Islam Karimov is shown arriving in Andijan on May 13, 2005, and meeting with community leaders.
“If even 1,000 soldiers come to Andijan, they would not be able to restore order without the support of mahallah (neighborhood) leaders and veterans,” the president is quoted as having said at the time.
An S-400 missile defense system in use by Russian armed forces. (photo: mil.ru)
Senior Turkish officials say that Russia is now the leading contender in its seemingly never-ending competition to pick a multi-billion-dollar air defense system. The news will surely come as an annoyance to Turkey's NATO partners, which may be precisely the point, some analysts say.
To review: in 2013, Turkey surprised everyone by choosing a Chinese system for its multibillion dollar T-LORAMIDS air defense program, but after its NATO partners strongly objected, Ankara eventually abandoned the procurement and in 2015 announced that it would instead work on building the system in Turkey.
The crux of the NATO objection to the Chinese pick was that it would expose sensitive alliance data to Beijing. Turkey countered that only China was willing to give Turkey the production information with which it would eventually be able to manufacture the system on its own -- a key demand in Ankara's tender -- and at a much lower cost than western offers, to boot. Analysts generally saw Turkey's gambit as a means of bargaining with its American and European partners so that the latter might sweeten their deals.
Now that story seems set to repeat all over again, this time with Russia instead of China.
"It seems as though Russia is the most suitable candidate for fulfilling the country's need at the moment,'' Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Işık said on February 22.
The issue will likely be discussed, if not finally decided, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visits his counterpart Vladimir Putin in Russia next month.
"The talks are continuing on the S-400," Erdogan's spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin,
A February 21 meeting of Azerbaijan's Security Council at which Azerbaijan's first vice president, first lady Mehriban Aliyeva, was introduced. (photo: president.az)
President Ilham Aliyev’s February 21 announcement that from now on his wife Mehriban Aliyeva will be the country’s first vice-president elicited a good deal of mockery, including the inevitable comparisons to the plotline of the TV series House of Cards.
But beyond the jokes, the move appears to be the result of a deadly serious tussle for power and influence within the ruling regime. While intra-government cleavages have existed since Aliyev succeeded his father in 2003, these tensions have intensified in recent years amid an economic crisis and a substantial drop in Azerbaijan’s energy revenues.
Aliyev first announced the plans to introduce the posts of multiple vice presidents last summer and they were duly approved in a referendum in September. The provision is an unusual one. Worldwide only half a dozen states have multiple vice presidents, Azerbaijan’s southern neighbor Iran among them, and the structure typically represents an effort to balance out various regime influences.
While it's not clear what inspired Aliyev to adopt the reform, the constitutional change was proposed in the aftermath of two dramatic events in the Azerbaijani regime’s internal affairs.
In the teeth of opposition from the public, the government in Kazakhstan has revived costly plans to build what it is billing as a “national pantheon” — a mausoleum to house the remains of the country’s great and good and dead.
Finance Minister Bakhyt Sultanov announced on February 21 that just one phase of the project alone will set the state coffers back $5.3 million. The final cost will likely be much greater, possibly running into the hundreds of millions, if the earlier blueprint was anything to go by.
A spot has been allocated for the mausoleum in a location around 20 kilometers outside the capital, Astana, next to an existing building housing the tomb of 18th-century Kazakh warrior prince Kabanbai Batyr. Sultanov was unable to offer more specifics, inviting reporters instead to put their questions to the mayor’s office.
Decisions of who is to be buried at the national pantheon are to be taken by President Nursultan Nazarbayev himself. The intended site for the mausoleum is already the resting place to numerous departed public figures whose importance was acknowledged by the president.
In 2013, Nazarbayev decreed that the first person to be buried there should be the late member of parliament Oral Muhamedjanov — “for his massive contribution to the development of the state.” Kazakhstani poetess Fariza Ongarsynova; Sayahat Konakai, the younger brother of Nazarbayev’s wife; former Supreme Court chairman Maksut Narikbayev; and writer and scholar Abish Kekilbayev are among others buried there. The site also allows for Christian burials, like that of Sergei Dyachenko, a former deputy speaker of the lower house, who died last year.
A political journalist in Uzbekistan who has languished behind bars for 18 years has been released in a development that has elicited elated responses from rights activists.
Muhammad Bekjanov, the 63-year old brother of prominent exiled opposition leader Muhammad Solih, was abducted from his home in Ukraine in 1999 and jailed for 15 years on what his supporters say were trumped-up charges of threatening the constitutional order. His sentence was extended by five years in 2012 on the grounds that he had violated unspecified prison rules.
News of Bekjanov’s release was broken by his relatives and Umida Niyazova, head of the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights.
“I am sure that this decision was made at the very top of the Uzbek leadership, and it was the right one,” Niyazova wrote on her Facebook account.
New York-based Human Rights Watch researcher Steve Swerdlow welcomed Bekjanov’s release, while noting that much more remained to be done by Uzbek authorities to address the country’s blemished rights record.
“This is a husband and a father who was literally ripped out of the arms of his family, kidnapped from another country, tortured in the most horrific ways, including psychological, and kept locked away for 18 years simply for doing his job as a journalist,” Swerdlow said in a statement.
Bekjanov was not released by virtue of any reprieve but rather because he had served his original sentence in full, and then some.
“We welcome his release, although it is important to note that he was only released following the arbitrary extension of his prison term in 2012 on wholly absurd grounds and fully served out his extended term. In this case Bekjanov left prison at the end of his term,” Swerdlow said.