Tajik authorities have allegedly paraded University of Toronto researcher Alexander Sodiqov, who disappeared three days ago, on television in an apparent attempt to discredit him and an opposition politician. Friends and colleagues are growing increasingly concerned that Tajikistan’s heavy-handed authorities may be trying to make an example out of Sodiqov to discourage others from examining tensions between Tajikistan’s authoritarian government and minorities in the restive eastern province of Badakhshan.
Sodiqov, a 31-year-old Tajik national who lives in Canada, disappeared in Khorog on June 16 while carrying out academic fieldwork on civil society and conflict resolution in Central Asia. Tajikistan’s unaccountable and American-backed secret police service, the GKNB, initially confirmed it had detained Sodiqov and accused him of carrying out “subversion and espionage” – a charge it will be difficult for them to walk back. The GKNB has since refused to discuss Sodiqov's whereabouts.
Citing an anonymous Khorog resident, Tajikistan’s independent Asia-Plus news agency reported on June 18 that Sodiqov appeared twice on local state television looking confused, once the previous evening and once early on June 19. The resident told Asia-Plus that Sodiqov’s speech appeared to have been edited to discredit the opposition and a religious leader.
Hard-drinking Kazakhstan is moving to curb alcohol abuse by extending a ban on late-night alcohol sales.
The new bill banning retail sales between 9 p.m. and noon was signed into law by President Nursultan Nazarbayev on June 18. The rules extend an existing late-night ban on alcohol sales (including beer) and will hit retail outlets which do a roaring trade in late-night booze sales. Restaurants, bars, and nightclubs will not be affected.
The law also bans alcohol sales altogether at filling stations as well as education and health institutions, but moves by parliamentarians to ban sales at markets and stadiums as well failed.
Kazakhstan raised the legal drinking age from 18 to 21 in 2009. The new bill doubles fines for selling liquor to under 21s to a maximum of $1,200 (with the revocation of an offender’s license to sell alcohol).
The government says the bill is aimed at curbing excessive alcohol consumption, for which Kazakhstan rates 34th worldwide, according to a World Health Organization survey of 188 countries released in May.
Each person in Kazakhstan aged over 15 imbibes on average 11.3 liters of alcohol a year, almost double the global average of 6.2 liters, the report said—although the government has questioned the WHO’s methodology.
The report found the prevalence of “heavy episodic drinking” (defined as consuming at least 60 grams or more of pure alcohol on at least one occasion in the past 30 days) to be 7.8 percent in Kazakhstan. Among drinking males the prevalence stood at 30 percent. Some 8.9 percent of males and 1.9 percent of females have drinking disorders in Kazakhstan, according to the report.
The WHO singles out Kazakhstan as one of 11 countries with the “most risky patterns” of drinking.
The U.S. has substantially cut its aid for Central Asian security forces, according to newly released Pentagon data.
The report (pdf) details spending under Section 1004 of the National Defense Authorization Act, which allows the U.S. Department of Defense to train and equip foreign security forces involved in counternarcotics missions. In 2012, the Pentagon seemed to make Central Asia, in particular Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, a major focus. But according to the new data, that effort may have been abandoned.
The new data covers the first half of Fiscal Year 2014, from October 2013 through March 2014. Compared to the last full data (pdf), from 2012, there are big cuts across the board (even taking into account that the new numbers are for half a year, and the 2012 numbers for a full year):
Kazakhstan: $187,000 - from $8.7 million
Kyrgyzstan: $1.2 million - from $21.3 million
Tajikistan: $1.1 million - from $15.4 million
Uzbekistan: $156.000 - from $5.7 million
The training that took place under this program was directed less at the military and more at the security services like the GKNB; in 2012 the U.S. trained at least 350 GKNB officers from Tajikistan and 100 from Kyrgyzstan. (It was Tajikistan's GKNB, recall, which arrested political scientist Alexander Sodiqov and accused him of spying.)
South Korean President Park Geun-hye kicked off a six-day tour of Central Asia on June 16 in Uzbekistan.
Park was reportedly pushing for new joint gas-sector projects in Uzbekistan, and offering investment in a $300-million solar energy plant that is to be built in Samarkand as part of Uzbekistan’s fledgling renewable energy industry.
Two deals worth $350 million were signed on June 17, Uzbek media reported. Under the first, the Korea International Cooperation Agency will provide $250 million for investment in unspecified projects; the second involves a $100 loan agreement between the National Bank of Uzbekistan and South Korea’s Exim Bank to invest in joint projects.
Park and her Uzbek host, President Islam Karimov, issued a joint statement vowing to boost trade and investment, especially in the IT sphere, as well as road and rail construction, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported.
South Korea’s INHA University is to open a university in Tashkent specializing in IT courses in the coming academic year, it was reported in March.
With an estimated $8 billion worth of joint projects, South Korea is now one of Uzbekistan’s largest investors, along with Russia, China, and Kazakhstan. One of South Korea’s top investment spheres is energy; South Korean companies are building a gas processing plant at the Kandym gas field and a gas and chemical plant at the Surgil field. Textiles have also attracted South Korean interest, with three factories owned by Daewoo International corporation operating in Uzbekistan.
The unexplained arrest of a researcher carrying out fieldwork in Tajikistan’s troubled Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO) is sparking alarm among Central Asian academics and journalists. Reports of Alexander Sodiqov’s arrest first filtered out during the afternoon of June 16, when the researcher, a Tajik-born PhD student at the University of Toronto, was meeting with Alim Sherzamonov, regional representative of the opposition Social Democratic Party of Tajikistan, according to RFE/RL’s Tajik service.
Tajikistan’s GKNB (state security service) subsequently released a statement June 17 via state media Khovar.tj, confirming that Sodiqov had been detained for carrying out “subversion and espionage” on behalf of a foreign country, a charge they linked to a June 10 email sent from Sodiqov’s account (officials did not disclose how they obtained access to the account and whether they did so before or after Sodiqov’s arrest). GKNB operatives presumably believed the “foreign country” to have been the UK, given Sodiqov’s research was funded by the British Economic and Social Research council. A British Embassy statement expressed concern about Sodiqov’s treatment.
Sodiqov’s supervisor on the project, John Heathershaw, put out the following statement on social media on the evening of June 16:
“It is now almost 20 hours since we have heard from Alexander Sodiqov who was apparently arrested while conducting research in Tajikistan. We do not know if he has been released or remains detained.
Nationalists are renewing efforts in Kyrgyzstan to secure vague legislation to require non-profit organizations that receive money from abroad to register as foreign agents.
MP Tursunbai Bakir uulu, one of the new bill’s sponsors, told EurasiaNet.org on June 17 that he hopes parliament will consider the measure before it adjourns for its summer recess at the end of June. “NGOs need to be more transparent,” Bakir uulu said. “Society needs to know how the money sent from abroad is spent.”
Bakir uulu’s initiative marks the second attempt to pass “foreign agents” legislation targetting organizations that engage in "political activities." The first attempt stalled in parliament.
On June 16, a small protest occurred in the capital Bishkek, expressing support for the “foreign agents” bill. Jenishbek Moldokmatov, a leader of the Kalys nationalist group and one of the protests organizers, called it “just the beginning” of a campaign to place restrictions on foreign-funded NGOs. Kalys has gathered 5,000 petition signatures in favor of the “foreign agents” bill, Moldokmatov said.
Moldokmatov also organized an anti-gay protest in February outside the US Embassy in Bishkek, during which the protesters burned a portrait of local blogger Ilya Lukash, who was vilified as a “gay activist.”
In a June 17 interview with EurasiaNet.org, Lukash said he felt compelled to flee Kyrgyzstan because he “was not feeling safe and was getting constant threats via phone calls and text messages.” Lukash went on to assail Kalys and Moldokmatov for trying to stigmatize political opponents by labeling them “homosexuals” or “foreign agents.”
While most of the world's attention is now fixated on the World Cup in Brazil, the lesser-known sport of horseback wrestling has been grabbing headlines in Kazakhstan.
Asia's first horseback wrestling championships were held near Astana, Kazakhstan's glitzy capital, on June 15. A total of 35 wrestlers from Central Asia and beyond took part in fast and furious tussles: bouts can be over in less than 10 seconds. The rules of audaryspak, as the sport is called in Kazakh, are simple – there are two guys on horseback and the object is to be the first to wrestle your opponent to the ground.
Kazakhstan took gold in all three weight categories – Yermek Zhapishev prevailed in the 70 kg class, Syrym Izbasarov won the 70-90 kg class, and the 90 kg and above category was taken by Birzhan Kosaliyev. Competitors from China, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia and Uzbekistan filled the other places on the podium.
The horseback grappling-fest was organized by Kazakhstan's Association of National Sports and was sponsored by President Nursultan Nazarbayev's politcal party Nur Otan. Samruk-Kazyna, the nation's cash-rich sovereign wealth fund, was another sponsor. Kossaliyev, winner of the 90 kg and above class, took home a Toyota car and a check for a million tenge ($5,448).
Audaryspak, which originated on the Central Asian steppe in the times when the horse was king and fighting abilities were paramount, is now enjoying a contemporary renaissance, spreading its reach into Hungary, Russia, Afghanistan, Mongolia, Azerbaijan, and China, where the next championships are to be held in 2016.
Nobody much listened after separatists in Ukraine asked the world to recognize their newly declared People’s Republic of Luhansk. But the call was heard loud and clear in separatist South Ossetia.
Call it bonding between the self-proclaimed types. South Ossetia’s breakaway leadership announced on June 16 that they cannot stay indifferent to the will of the people of the so-called “People’s Republic.”
“Respecting the expression of the will of the people of the People’s Republic of Luhansk, the Republic of South Ossetia recognized the results of the [May 11] referendum [on secession from Ukraine] and is ready to make a constructive decision,” said Leonid Tibilov, the de-facto president of South Ossetia, the region’s Ossinfo agency reported.
Tibilov’s separatist counterpart in Luhansk, Valeriy Bolotov, promptly relayed the news to the Luhansk people. “Tomorrow, we will appoint an ambassador of the People’s Republic of Luhansk to the Republic of South Ossetia,” Bolotov proclaimed, reported Interfax.
But the so-called leader of the Luhansk people might want to hit the brakes here. South Ossetia’s de-facto foreign ministry told the Russian Dozhd’ (Rain) television channel that Tibilov’s statement does not mean official recognition.
South Ossetia, which relies on Russia for everything from arms to aid, is unlikely to make its decision final without consulting the big boss, Moscow.
The Canadian company operating Kyrgyzstan’s troubled Kumtor gold mine has announced that a shutdown will not happen. A last-minute agreement appears to end a period of brinksmanship between Kyrgyz officials and company representatives that could have pushed the country’s shaky economy over the edge.
Toronto-listed Centerra Gold threatened on June 2 to start implementing a shutdown plan at close of business on June 13, if it did not receive government approval for its annual work plan. Centerra executives said they had been seeking approval since late last year.
The company – Kyrgyzstan’s largest investor – said that “despite repeated submissions and discussions with senior officials,” the company remained in limbo, unable to receive the necessary permits to operate until Bishkek signed off on the work plan.
Environmental concerns were one reason for the hold-up: the State Agency for Environmental Protection had voiced misgivings that the company’s plans could damage the Davydov Glacier high up in the Tian Shan Mountains, where the mine is located.
Centerra Gold warned that “an extended shutdown […] would likely have a material adverse impact on the Kumtor mine and the Company’s operations, future cash flows, earnings, results of operations and financial condition.”
Astana is abolishing visa requirements for citizens of 10 countries with a strong track record of investing in Kazakhstan, President Nursultan Nazarbayev has announced.
The visa-free countries are France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, the Netherlands, South Korea, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and the United States, Nazarbayev told a June 12 gathering of the Foreign Investors Council at the lake resort of Burabay, to the north of Astana.
The visa-free system is expected to go into effect on July 15 and initially be in force for a pilot period of one year, Rapil Zhoshibayev, the deputy foreign minister, later explained. Citizens of 10 designated countries can stay in Kazakhstan without visas for 15 days; anyone needing to stay longer would be required to apply for business or investor visas.
Astana is also mulling simplifying the visa process with the introduction of online applications for tourists from China, India and Middle Eastern states, Aset Ishekeshev, the minister of industry and new technologies, announced on June 16.
The visa-free regime is part of a package of investment perks that Nazarbayev signed into law on June 12, which also includes tax breaks.
The perks are part of a push by Astana to attract investment, especially outside the extractive sectors. They are part of the government’s strategy to diversify the economy away from oil and gas, upon which it is heavily reliant at present.