Kyrgyzstan’s voters will head again to the polling stations this weekend for a constitutional referendum intended to rebalance powers between the president and the prime minister, as well as enshrine several conservative norms aimed at pacifying the country’s traditionalists.
The December 11 referendum is being pushed through in the teeth of resistance from opposition parties and nongovernmental groups, earning them contempt from President Almazbek Atambayev.
The main amendments concerning the running of the country will bolster the role of the prime minister, who will be able to hire and fire ministers and local government leaders. Proponents of the amendments say the increased authority of the prime minister will ensure continuity and put an end to the regular turnover of heads of government that has been the trademark of Kyrgyzstan’s politics.
Critics maintain, however, that this tinkering is all about Atambayev and his associates clinging onto power. Atambayev is constitutionally required to step down when his single term ends and to give way to the president elected in October 2017. The argument of the revamped constitution’s opponents is that the current elite is rearranging the furniture to ensure they remain in charge even after the presidential transition.
There are multiple other changes, however, that will have a more direct impact on citizens.
One regards a change to rules on the appointment and rotation of judges of local courts, whose position will now be determined by the president, upon advice from the Council of Judges. Critics of this change, which include Venice Commission, an advisory body to the European Council that rules on matters of constitutional law, worry about its detrimental impact on the independence of judiciary.
The small, emphatically pro-Western country of Georgia is on tenterhooks after the European Union on December 8 finally came within a fingernail of scrapping its visa-requirement for Georgian and Ukrainian citizens.
A European Parliament committee has approved the mechanism for suspending the visa-free rule for Georgia and Ukraine, and agreed to put it to general parliamentary vote next week. A green light for this mechanism, which allows the EU to halt visa-free travel if somehow overcome by immigrants from these two countries, clears the way for approval of visa-free travel to the EU for Georgians and Ukrainians.
The breakthrough put Georgia’s European-integration-seeking government and its supporters within the EU in high spirits. The “EU is delivering” on its promise of visa-free access, tweeted Manfred Weber, chairperson of the European People’s Party.
Barely a day seems to pass these days without Uzbekistan’s President-elect Shavkat Mirziyoyev circulating a fresh initiative smacking of democratization.
The latest proposal from Mirziyoyev, who was elected with a Soviet-style 88 percent of the vote in the December 4 polls, is for regional governors and mayors to be elected directly by the public.
Mirziyoyev outlined his thoughts on the matter during an official event to mark the 24th anniversary of the adoption of the constitution in a speech that was televised in full on the evening of December 7. He cast the proposed reforms as a way to reconnect with the population.
“To defend the interests of the people, you must in the first place talk to the people, and better understand their concerns, aspirations, life problems and needs,” he told his audience. “During recent campaign encounters, I became convinced of one thing: We have late forgotten how to talk to the people. Holding meetings with people, talking to them honestly, listening to their problems has, unfortunately, slipped to the bottom.”
Under the late President Islam Karimov, only the head of state was authorized to appoint and remove governors and mayors. Traditionally, Karimov would travel to attend sessions of regional assemblies to fire and hire officials.
Mirziyoyev’s initiative is theoretically forward-looking, but as the non-competitive nature of this weekend’s presidential election demonstrated, the reality may fall short of expectations.
“Of course, the concept of electiveness sounds good, but to be honest I do not know and I do not understand how it would work in conditions where there is no [political] competition or freedom of speech,” political analyst Rafael Sattarov told EurasiaNet.org.
Authorities in Kyrgyzstan have lashed out at social media and, in particular, how it is being used to say mean things about President Almazbek Atambayev.
In recent days there have been two reports of Facebook users being called in for a stern talk with the security services for things they have written — or might have written — about Atambayev. Nobody has been charged, yet.
There was a surge of hubbub on social media last week when news broke of one man being reportedly grilled over suspicions he is the mind behind Murch, an anonymously run Facebook account that serves as a repository for lowbrow political humour.
Jomart Jamgyrchiyev, a native of Issyk-Kul region, was hauled in by the State Committee for National Security, or GKNB, at the beginning of the month in Karakol along with several relatives. Investigators told him that photos that appeared on Murch, which has around 6,000 subscribers, had been linked to his computer’s IP address.
Although it is not clear that the photos concerned Atambayev directly, most of Murch’s fairly infantile jibes do. A recent post that garnered a lot of attention, for instance, featured a photoshopped image that showed Atambayev squatting on a toilet.
The ever-vigilant authorities then followed up with a similar swoop on December 7, according Temirlan Ormukov, who claims he was called into the General Prosecutor’s office to discuss a poem he wrote about Atambayev on Facebook.
A team of International Monetary Fund specialists have concluded their latest visit to Turkmenistan and returned with some sobering observations on the state of the energy-dependent nation’s economy.
One key takeaway from a statement issued on December 6 is that the government will have to adopt greater measures to compensate for the expected persistence of low prices for oil and gas.
“Hydrocarbon prices remain low and trading partner growth is muted. As a result of these external factors, Turkmenistan’s overall economic growth has slowed down,” the IMF mission said in a post-visit statement.
These confluence of developments means that Turkmenistan is spending beyond its means, and that this trend is worsening.
“The current account deficit is expected to widen significantly in 2016 as a result of lower energy revenues, and in spite of an active policy effort to substitute imports with domestic production, promote exports, and reduce public investment expenditures,” the IMF mission said.
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has advanced import substitution as a cure-all panacea to his country’s troubles. Not that any officials have admitted there is anything wrong with the economy, which may be part of the problem, as the IMF mission implies.
“Amid multiple external policy challenges and a number of domestic reforms, stepped-up communication efforts to explain policy plans, their benefits as well as the possible side effects, would be helpful,” the fund delegation said.
Areas for improvement highlighted by the IMF mission included “increasing the efficiency of public spending,” improvement to banking regulations and taking more steps toward creating a more market-based economy and financial sector.
Security forces in Kazakhstan carried out a special operation in the western city of Aktobe on December 7 to break up an alleged group of Islamist radicals stealing and reselling oil and oil products.
The National Security Committee, or KNB, said in a statement that several people have been detained and several tanker trucks confiscated following a special operation at an oil refinery in Aktobe. The raid was carried out together with officers from the anti-corruption agency.
No further information was provided about the identity of those detained or the means by which the oil goods were being resold.
Claims of collusion between criminal gangs and radical Islamists are not new for Kazakhstan. Following a series of terror blasts in 2011, authorities spoke about how criminal group operating under the guise of Islamists were siphoning oil directly from pipelines in western Kazakhstan. Likewise, the head of the anticorruption in June 2014 announced that authorities had broken up a transnational crime group led by a Salafist was stealing oil in the Aktobe region.
The repeated occurrence of such investigations highlights the extent of interdependence between regular financial crime and terrorism in Kazakhstan. While officials have on occasion tried to present one as a convenient cover for the other — underground radical Islamist groups as a good recruitment base for criminal gangs — the phenomenon appears to suggest a far more symbiotic relationship.
Photo: Landmarks in Uzbekistan by Asian Development Bank / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 bit.ly/2gZcQw1
Uzbekistan has scrapped tourist visa requirements for citizens of 27 nations in the country’s boldest opening yet to the outside world.
News website Uzreport reported that President-elect Shavkat Mirziyoyev signed a decree on December 2 allowing visa-free travel to Uzbekistan for citizens of the countries in question for a period of up to a month.
The freshly adopted rules will come into effect from April 1 and apply to Germany, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Canada, South Korea and Japan, among others. Citizens of several other countries, including the United States, France and Israel can enter Uzbekistan without visas if they are aged 55 or over. Chinese tourists traveling in a group also qualify.
The stated aim of the measure is to allow for the rapid development of Uzbekistan’s tourist industry, which has indeed been hampered by the bureaucratic procedures related to acquiring a visa.
The government also plans to introduce an e-visa system as of 2018.
UN figures show that 2 million people visited Uzbekistan in 2013. Of that total, nine-tenths were citizens of former Soviet republics, many of them visiting friends and family. And among those coming purely for tourism, the main source nations were Russia, Turkey and India, suggesting that Uzbekistan is struggling to attract high-spending visitors from advanced developed nations.
Breaking down figures and anecdotal evidence even further, one finds that tourists from countries like Israel and Japan often come in organized tours — meaning that the economic benefits of the tourism sector tend to absorbed by limited parts of the population. The relatively high cost of organized tours also deters many from wishing to travel to Uzbekistan in the first place.
The main intrigue in Uzbekistan now the presidential election is over concerns the identity of the next prime minister.
As was expected, Shavkat Mirziyoyev won the December 4 election handily by securing more than 88 percent of the vote. He will now be coronated president, but will yield the office of prime minister, which he never abandoned following the death of President Islam Karimov.
Mirziyoyev has been prime minister for 13 years and the identity of his replacement will fuel speculation about how the incoming leadership is going to run affairs and whether some elite infighting lies ahead.
Under the accepted procedure, the prime minister should be nominated by the party in the lower house of parliament with most seats or a coalition of parties able to muster a majority. Uzbekistan’s legislature is a dummy institution and such distinctions are fundamentally meaningless, but for the sake of outlining the facts, the largest party in the Oliy Majlis, with 52 out of 150 available seats, is the Uzbekistan Liberal Democratic Party, or UzLiDeP, which supported Mirziyoyev’s bid for the presidency.
While the president wields the most authority, some observers argue that it does not follow that this person is the most decisive for the country’s fate.
“Shavkat Mirziyoyev was primarily associated with perpetuation of the status quo inside the country and as the person that would continue the path of Islam Karimov. But it is the person that takes the job of prime minister on whom the economic future of the country depends,” political analyst Rafael Sattarov told EurasiaNet.org.
Turkmenistan’s routine harassment of reporters is taking on harsher and increasingly systematic qualities as authorities seek to clamp down on news of the country's economic crisis from trickling out.
In the latest example of such pressure, RFE/RL reported on December 6 that police in Turkmenistan arrested one of its contributors on suspicion of possessing dipping tobacco.
RFE/RL said Khudayberdy Allashov was detained at his home in the Dashoguz Province on December 3. Armed policemen also beat him and rounded up his mother and wife, the broadcaster said.
Nasvai, a popular and mildly intoxicating form of tobacco, is deemed illegal in Turkmenistan but is consumed widely all the same. RFE/RL quoted Allashov's wife as saying her husband had confessed under duress to possessing 11 kilograms of the tobacco, a charge reportedly punishable by up to seven years in jail.
"We believe these charges are part of a targeted campaign intended to silence our Turkmen Service and intimidate the Turkmen people," RFE/RL President Thomas Kent said in a statement.
Allegations of drug possession are one of the Turkmen government’s preferred methods for silencing independent reporters.
In July 2015, authorities arrested Saparmamed Nepeskuliev, who lived in the city of Balkanabad and also worked as a freelance reporter for RFE/RL’s Turkmen service, on suspicion of carrying pills allegedly containing narcotic substances. He was later sentenced to three years in jail.
More recently, another RFE/RL correspondent, 67-year old Soltan Achilova, was subejected to physical attacks by unknown assailants, only days after being interrogated by the police in late October.
You know it’s that time of year again when the government of a far-off, predominantly Muslim country throws a Hanukkah party in a Donald-Trump hotel in Washington, DC. Trump may have been less than inspiring for many Muslims and Jews alike, but leave it to energy-rich Azerbaijan, full of the holiday spirit, to sense an opportunity to bring everyone together, bar the skeptics.
Ever keen to put itself on the map as a diversity-embracing nation, Azerbaijan – or, rather, its US embassy – will cohost this December 14 Hanukkah reception with the 52-member Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. Washington, DC’s newly opened Trump International Hotel is the venue of choice for the pair’s celebration of “freedom and diversity," according to news agency JTA.
Freedom is one thing for which Azerbaijan is not renowned, but the ex-Soviet republic indeed serves as a rare example of a Jewish-friendly, predominantly Muslim nation. For years, Israel and Azerbaijan have been trading guns, intelligence and professions of friendship.