Kazakhstan has deployed sport in multiple ways over recent years to promote its image on the international stage, so a doping scandal affecting some of most famous athletes is hitting hard.
On June 21, evidence reportedly emerged that much-loved weightlifter Ilya Ilin appears to violated anti-doping rules during the 2008 Olympic Games, when he won a gold medal. That was on top of apparent proof that Ilin had failed doping tests from the 2012 Games in London. Last week, doping tests revealed that another three Kazakhstani weightlifters — Svetlana Podobedova, Maia Maneza, Zulfiya Chinshanlo — had also fallen foul of doping rules in 2012.
Top officials and the public in Kazakhstan have concertedly rallied to Ilin’s side.
Senate chairman Kassym Jomart-Tokayev registed his support on Twitter.
“Regardless of the decision taken on the athlete Ilya Ilin, he has earned our support as a leading sportsman and patriot of Kazakhstan,” he wrote.
Former member of parliament, Murat Abenov, said he was doubtful of the reliability of the new tests.
“Ilya grew up before our eyes, I have known him since he was a little boy. He is a very talented man and athlete. He has progressed toward his goals with determination,” told to state newspaper Kazakhstanskaya Pravda.
Prime Minister Karim Masimov suggesting avoiding similar scandals in future by investing in a domestic, high-tech laboratory.
One of the most notorious figures in Tajikistan’s post-independence history and a once-indispensable ally of President Emomali Rahmon was released from jail on June 21.
Yakub Salimov, whose storied life includes stints as a racketeer, pogrom organizer, warlord and Interior Minister, was sentenced to 15 years in jail in 2005 on charges of treason for attempting to mount an attempted coup in the late 1990s. Unusually for Tajikistan, the charges were almost certainly justified. The sentence was subsequently shortened by amnesty.
Salimov’s release has long been trailed but remains no less surprising considering the extent of the bad blood between him and Rahmon.
The coup charges against Salimov were filed in 1998, but he managed to evade arrest for several years before finally being deported from Russia in 2003.
His rise to the post of Interior Minister came in April 1992, when the exiled Supreme Soviet, based in the northern city of Khujand, appointed a Cabinet composed almost entirely of natives of Kulyab — Rahmon’s primary power base — and Khujand, where most of the Soviet-era Tajik elite emerged. Dushanbe was under armed opposition control at the time.
With his experience as a feared gangster, Salimov became one of the tough men of the hour. Still, notwithstanding the unfolding war of the time, that a man with his past should have been picked to become head of the police provoked much disbelief.
American singer Pharrell Williams became the only visiting celebrity to call for freedom in Azerbaijan during Baku's June 16-19 Formula One race, an event criticized for “sports-washing” the country’s authoritarian ways. Activists say it has been a struggle to coax world celebrities performing in Baku on its rich government’s tab to put human rights first.
The Sport for Rights coalition of international rights groups said most singers, who visited Baku to provide musical acts for the European Grand Prix, snubbed calls to push for change in the repressive ex-Soviet republic. “It has historically been very difficult to engage celebrities on human rights issues in Azerbaijan,” Rebecca Vincent, the coordinator of the Sport for Rights campaign, told EurasiaNet.org.
“Chris Brown and Enrique Iglesias completely ignored our calls,” Vincent said of two other star singers who performed in Baku during Formula One. “We received no response from their managers or publicists, and they have performed without uttering a single word about the situation in the country – [a] real shame, as they have become part of the Azerbaijani regime’s propaganda machine.”
F1 managers did not prove cooperative, either. Williams, who capped the entertainment program, was the only exception. “Make some noise for the youth of Azerbaijan!” he said at his June 19 performance. “Those beautiful children: they are the future! When they grow up they will change things not only here, but around the world and no one can stop them.”
Authorities in Tajikistan have said they have all but contained a breakout from a jail in the northern city of Khujand, while at least one media outlet has reported that numerous prisoners have escaped.
The Interior Ministry said in a statement that one man was shot dead while trying to flee the prison in a breakout that occurred at 8:45 p.m on June 17. Another prisoner was wounded and captured during the breakout, while a third managed to escape, despite sustaining injuries, the statement said.
Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported that a prison guard, 52-year-old Ermamad Alimamadov, was stabbed to death during the escape.
Officials have variously speculated to the media that the fugitives were plotting to cross over to Afghanistan and possibly attempt to join the ranks of the Islamic State group.
The escapees were named as Ramzullohon Dodohonov, Habibjon Yusupov, Mirzozarif Kayumov. Dodohonov was sentenced to 20 years in jail in 2013 for allegedly participating in militant activities in Pakistan’s tribal region of Waziristan. Kayumov was serving a 14-year jail sentence handed down in December for fighting alongside Islamist radicals in Iraq. The standout figure in the trio was Yusupov, who was also sentenced to 20 years in jail in 2014, but over a non-religious extremism-related case. He took part in the robbery of a money exchange point that culminated with the death of an employee.
Kayumov was shot dead by guards as he was trying to flee. Yusupov was wounded and detained. Dodohonov incurred injuries too, but managed to escape.
A Bulgarian minesweeper takes part in NATO exercises in 2014. (photo: NATO)
Bulgaria's prime minister has said the country will not participate in a proposed joint NATO naval fleet in the Black Sea, slowing the momentum of a project that had thus far received broad support from NATO members and partners.
The move would “turn the Black Sea into a territory of war,” Prime Minister Boyko Borissov said on Thursday, adding that he “wants to see cruising yachts, and tourists, rather than warships.”
“To send warships as a fleet against the Russian ships exceeds the limit of what I can allow,” Borissov told reporters in Sofia on Thursday, as quoted by Bloomberg. “To deploy destroyers, aircraft carriers near Bourgas or Varna during the tourist season is unacceptable.”
The Romanian-led proposal to create a sort of joint NATO Black Sea naval force has the support of Turkey, the United States, NATO headquarters, as well as non-NATO members Georgia and Ukraine.
Bulgaria's refusal could have several causes. For one, presidential elections are coming up and Borissov may be concerned that rival, more pro-Russia parties could use the move against him, said Dimitar Bechev, a Bulgarian political scientist and fellow at Harvard's Center for European Studies. "Most of all, I think he's concerned about domestic repurcussions," Bechev said in an interview with The Bug Pit. He added that Bulgaria could likely eventually join whatever NATO naval force emerges in an "under the radar" fashion
Earlier this week, the recently appointed acting head of police in Kyrgyzstan’s capital pledged to clear the city of sex workers within a matter of days.
Samat Kurmankulov’s department went a step further on June 16 by suggesting city residents organize their own raids on brothels and take photographs of prostitutes and hand them in to the police. The police described its proposal as being a form of “public control.”
Bishkek police spokesman Olzhobai Kazabayev did not specify how the public should identify the prostitutes.
Prostitution is not technically a criminal offense in Kyrgyzstan, but sex workers are nonetheless habitually targeted for harassment by police and self-appointed moral guardians. Kurmankulov said there was still grounds for pursuing prostitutes through the law, however.
“We have to detain and punish them under the hooliganism statute. We have had some results in this. In the space of one day, 25 people providing paid sexual services were brought in to police station entered into police records,” he told news website Zanoza.kg.
In December 2014, a group of traditional felt hat-wearing men with the nationalist-patriotic Kyrk Choro movement raided a karaoke club and made women working there file out, accusing them of prostitution. Filming them on camera, they also grabbed few Chinese men in the establishment and accused them of corrupting the morals of young Kyrgyz women.
Kazakhstan has announced that it intends to buy new military transport aircraft in response to the militant attack in the western city of Aktobe last week.
Kazakhstan Prime Minister Karim Massimov announced the planned aircraft purchase as part of a series of measures including improving security in airports and train stations and creating an interagency working group on countering extremism and terrorism.
"The prime minister has ordered the Ministry of Defence together with the State Security Committee, the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Finance to submit a proposal within a week on the acquisition of heavy-lift military transport aircraft," according to a statement on the government website. The statement didn't provide any more details.
This is a relatively unusual move for Kazakhstan, to announce a military procurement program so clearly in response to a single event, and it underscores the level of concern that Astana is clearly feeling about its ability to deal with these sorts of situations. The Aktobe attacks on June 5 (whose targets included a National Guard base) clearly caught the authorities wrongfooted, and the security services' response has been found wanting.
Security services in a region of Kazakhstan hit recently by a spate of deadly shootouts have claimed that they dismantled 14 radical groups operating locally over the past year.
State news agency Kazinform on June 15 cited Nurlan Kydyrbayev, head of the National Security Committee in Aktobe region, as saying that 36 people plotting violent acts in Kazakhstan and abroad were arrested since 2015.
“When it comes to people that do not accept preventative measures and that harbor violent intentions against society, we are forced to adopt robust measures,” Kydyrbayev said.
It was not immediately clear why this information has been made public now, rather than before the events in Aktobe on June 5.
Kydyrbayev, who was speaking at a meeting of security officials on antiterrorism measures, said that there were an estimated 1,565 people that he termed Salafists living in the Aktobe region. Of that overall number, around 90 are potential jihadists, Kydyrbayev said.
Salafism is held up by its followers as an adherence to the pure, original and untainted form of Islam. While ostensibly rejecting the established doctrinal schools, they arguably relate most closely to the Hanbali system that prevails in Saudi Arabia, as opposed to the more moderate Hanafi recognized by most Muslims in Central Asia.
Various theories circulate about how this particular current came to gain prominence in countries like Kazakhstan.
One particularly contentious account reproduced by political analysis website Exclusive.kz suggested that Salafism was initially brought into the country by the security services.
Uzbekistan is reportedly closing its borders to all citizens from neighboring Central Asian countries in the most drastic measure adopted to date to enhance security for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit this month.
The plan was reported in local media on June 15 and partly confirmed by authorities in Tashkent.
“From June 15 to June 25, Uzbekistan will be halting the passage of people, transportation and cargo entering the country from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan,” KyrTAG news agency reported.
KyrTAG reported that an exception is being made for residents of the Kyrgyz enclave of Barak, which lies fully within Uzbek territory.
Closing borders has long become a customary practice in Uzbekistan ahead of major public events, such as the Nowruz holidays.
There had been rumors earlier this week that authorities in Tashkent would close the city off to all public transport from outside the capital from June 16 onward. Law enforcement officials denied that claim, however. (A report about the claimed transport ban on Nuz.uz has since been pulled).
Police in Kyrgyzstan have said that they have identified 4,000 people as being “adherents of extremists views,” a big jump from the figure reported last year.
The Interior Minister said on June 14 that in the first five months of the year, police registered 215 “expressions of religious of extremism” and that 63 related criminal cases have been opened.
In September, however, police officials were stating that their database of suspected extremist sympathizers numbered around 1,800.
Raim Salimov, the deputy head of the Interior Ministry’s 10th department, which is responsible for combating terrorism, said at the time that the bulk of that cohort, around 1,360 people, were members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a banned Islamic party whose goal is to see an Islamic caliphate created across the region. The group has always professed to eschew violent methods. Salimov also said last year that 74 percent of reported incidents of extremist behavior were recorded in the south.
There is an implied but unspoken inference in that particular data point insofar as it is ethnic Uzbeks, who mainly live in the south, that are the predominant targets of extremism-related prosecutions. That said, research over the years has shown that Hizb ut-Tahrir has in the south been able on occasion to overcome the ethnic divide, so the picture is not always so cut and dry.
Still, it is not immediately apparent how the sudden and drastic increase in identified extremists can be be explained.
There is some indication that the net is being cast wider and more indiscriminately.