In March, officials from Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan were at one another’s throats over a border dispute. But a month is a long time in frontier politics.
With moods now significantly calmed, representatives from both countries’ border services met on April 18 to discuss the recent discovery of an illegal cross-frontier smugglers’ tunnel.
Russian state-run news service Sputnik reported that the meeting took place at the “Uzbekistan” border crossing and organized at Tashkent’s instigation.
The underground passage discovered in March led from the village of Burbolik in Uzbekistan’s Altyaryk District to the village of Kyrgyz-Kyshtak in the Kadamzhai district in the Batken region. Sputnik cited Uzbek officials as saying they are still trying to establish who was running the smuggling operation.
Uzbek news website Podrobno.uz reported in March, that the 120-meter long tunnel was built six meters below ground and was around 70 centimeters wide and more than a meter high.
For all those relatively modest dimensions, Kyrgyz and Uzbek officials believe there is almost no limit to the evil that might have been coursing through the tunnel.
“Both sides are studying the possibility that this structure was being used to transport weapons, ammunition, explosives, unconstitutional literature, narcotics and militants,” Podrobno.uz reported.
The likelihood of “unconstitutional literature” — typically a codeword for religious pamphlets — is perhaps the most risible item on the list, since the Internet would be a far more secure way of conveying such material.
With Tajikistan now in the midst of its spring conscription drive, the country’s top defense official has given to worrying out loud about the state of discipline and morale among the armed forces.
Asia-Plus last week reported that Defense Minister Sherali Mirzo addressed senior defense personnel to discuss a series of problem areas, including the rampant and often deadly scourge of hazing. There is no reason to believe this problem will be tackled with any vigor, however.
Authorities say they have already enlisted 50 percent of the required number of conscripts this season. The techniques used to hit targets strike terror into the hearts of young Tajik men and for many they amount to little more than legalized mass kidnapping.
Pictures have appeared on social media showing young men being rounded up directly from the streets of the capital, Dushanbe. Social media has also served as a platform in the past for anonymously spreading alleged photographic evidence of hazing among conscripts. Media reported last year on four deaths in Tajikistan as a result of hazing: Firdavs Rahmatov, Abduvahhob Kayumov, Parviz Dustmatov and Azam Ubaidulloev.
In an unhappy piece of timing, a court in Dushanbe has just heard the trial of 22-year old man Umedjon Amrohon, who is accused of involvement in the fatal attack in November on a group of military mobilization personnel. Two of the officers were killed in the assault.
Prosecutors have asked that Amrohon be thrown behind bars for life.
The United States has for the first time formally designated Tajikistan as a "country of particular concern" with respect to religious freedom, while at the same time waiving any potential sanctions that could entail because the country is of "important national interest" to the U.S.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which annually reviews countries' religious freedom practices, has determined that Tajikistan violated the rights of Muslims, Protestants, and Jehovah's Witnesses. Since 2012 the commission has recommended Tajikistan be placed on the list of the worst violators of religious freedom around the globe. For the first time this year the State Department agreed, adding Tajikistan to a list that also includes Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. It's unclear what pushed the State Department to finally lose patience this year, but no doubt the dramatic crackdown on the country's only significant opposition political party, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, contributed.
By law, this designation could require the U.S. to curtail various forms of aid to Tajikistan, including military aid. But the law in question gives the president significant latitude as to exactly what sorts of sanctions to apply -- they could be limited, for example, to a "private demarche" or the "delay or cancellation of one or more cultural exchanges."
In an unprecedented move, Mihran Poghosian, a senior Armenian official named in the Panama Papers’ corruption exposé, resigned from office on April 18. His stated reason, though, was not the accusations against him, but, apparently, a more patriotic one – the dishonor of sharing press space alongside Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev.
In an explanation sent to Armenian media outlets, Poghosian described himself as “saddened that my name is being raised alongside the family of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev, who has actually privatized millions of dollars,” according to an English-language translation of his comments published by RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “I find it unacceptable that I might be the reason for any possible civilized parallel to be drawn between my country and dictatorial Azerbaijan.”
“Is this a sign that something is changing in this country?” asked Yerevan resident Naira Soghomonian, 31. “Or is this another way of distracting people from the truth? Anyway, who would have thought . . .?”
Civil activist Syuzan Simonian, founder of the Front of Armenian Women, suspects the resignation is intended to quiet potential frustration with the government.
Uzbekistan is trying to give farmers a helping hand as the country seeks to lessen its dependence on cotton-growing and find much-needed sources of revenue.
Local media reported last week that as of July 1, companies and private entrepreneurs holding the proper permits could once again begin to export fruits and vegetables by road. The government in September slapped a ban on trucks taking produce out of the country, leaving all but a select few only the costly alternative of getting their wares out by air or railway freight.
Those measures were taken to avoid Uzbek wares being re-exported onward to lucrative markets like Russia by companies in Kazakhstan. In November 2014, deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov told a government meeting that the amount of Uzbek produce being exported to Russia had fallen by 10 percent because of unfavorable tariffs barriers created by the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).
That state of affairs in turn led to the creation of various opaque and illegal schemes, Azimov said. Fruit and vegetables were first exported to Kazakhstan, where companies would label the goods as Kazakh and then sell them on to Russia and benefit from favorable tariffs for produce cultivated with the EEU, a bloc that Uzbekistan has resisted joining. That set Uzbekistan the challenge of trying to thwart middlemen in Kazakhstan and dealing directly with Russia.
Russia’s plans to keep selling guns to both Armenia and Azerbaijan, no matter if the Caucasus’ two irascible neighbors use them against each other, is feeding growing Armenian frustration with their only strategic ally.
Good news for hikers and bikers in Kazakhstan’s business hub as a local beverage company plans to build 25 kilometers of foot and cycle paths into the hills to mark its 25th anniversary.
Kazakhstan’s Raimbek Bottlers, which markets its drinks range under the Juicy, Palma and Ainalaiyn brands, is stumping the cash to build car-free access to the most popular out-of-town getaway spots. Once the path is completed, people will be able to get to the Medeu ice skating rink and Shymbulak ski resort from Kok-Tobe, a hilltop recreation area in Almaty, under their own steam.
“We want to give these paths to the city so that you don’t have to go by transport to Medeu or Shymbulak, but, for example, you can go on foot up to Kok-Tobe and then use the paths. Part of the path will be for trekking and the other for mountain bikes,” Raimbek Batalov, chairman of Raimbek Holdings, told Kapital.kz.
Kazakhstan has on paper been making bold efforts to nudge their automobile-addicted population onto their bicycles by building dedicated paths (albeit not always very good ones). And there is health to consider. Almaty is plagued by appallingly polluted air because over-reliance on cars, which also seems to be contributing to a burgeoning obesity crisis. Research by the Kazakh Academy of Nutrition has found that 30.6 percent of women and 36.8 percent of men in Kazakhstan are overweight.
So Batalov’s cycle and trekking path could not have come at a more apposite time.
Kazakhstan’s parliament startled a generally unflappable public this week with the announcement it was looking to stock its cellar with 11,000 bottles of wine, vodka, cognac, champagne and whisky.
The administration at the legislature has now hastily rowed back on the news, however, explaining away the figure as a human error.
News website Informburo.kz reported April 13 that the office managing parliament’s affairs had published a statement saying it was “studying the market of alcoholic products” and inviting companies producing strong spirits to get in touch.
The statement elaborated further, listing in detail the alcohol apparently required: 5,000 bottles of vodka, 200 bottles of wine (red and white), 2,550 bottles of cognac, 3,550 bottles of whisky and a paltry 100 bottles of champagne.
In evident mischievous mood, Informburo.kz reminded its readers of another recent scandal involving the country’s hardworking lawmakers. Several local media outlets reported that newly elected deputies in the process of finding apartments to live in had allegedly been been up in hotel rooms costing 120,000 tenge ($350) nightly. Parliament administrators also scotched that tittle-tattle, insisting that the deputies were in fact staying in 29,000 tenge a night rooms.
To be fair to the MPs, a scan through prices on booking.com suggests the economic crisis gripping Kazakhstan has taken its toll on Astana’s hotel sector. Premium double rooms at the swanky Rixos President Hotel Astana, for example, have been slashed this week from more than $340 to a mere $120 or so.
U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Carpenter meets with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in Minsk. (photo: president.gov.by)
The United States and Belarus are intensifying their military cooperation, as Minsk -- nominally a close ally of Russia -- seems to be trying to diversify its options.
U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Carpenter visited Minsk at the end of last month, where he said Washington "hope[s] to build a foundation for improving our bilateral relations, including in the security and defense arena." Carpenter also mentioned "progress that we have seen over the past six months," apparently referring to the release of some political prisoners. That was the pretext for the U.S. and the European Union loosening some sanctions on the country, though it appears that the West's increasing attentions to Minsk may be more motivated by geopolitical considerations vis-a-vis Russia.
Carpenter met with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, a surprisingly high-level reception for someone of his rank in the Pentagon bureaucracy. The main result of the visit appears to have been an agreement to exchange military attaches. (The U.S. embassy in Minsk has been operating on a skeleton crew since 2008 when the Belarusian government forced them to downsize.) During the visit it also emerged that defense talks between the two sides began last year, with the previously unreported visit of a Belarusian defense ministry official to Washington.
A rally held this week in front of the mayor’s office in Almaty is a fresh reminder of how property continues to be a generator of public discontent in Kazakhstan.
Complaints this time revolved around a case of realty fraud perpetrated by a woman called Firuza Ordabayeva, who posed as an Almaty city hall employee offering citizens cheap apartments as part of a purported government program.
Ordabayeva was sentenced to six and a half years in jail last week for the scheme, which prosecutors say saw her swindling unsuspecting hopeful home-buyers of $5 million. The 20 or so families that mustered outside the Mayor Baurzhan Baybek’s offices on April 12 are now fearful they will be evicted and left on the streets.
News website Ratel.kz explained in its account of Ordabayeva’s scheme that people were defrauded in a number of ways. The schemes involved committing buyers to paying down deposits against the promise of preferential terms further down the line, only for monthly repayment bills to be steeply hiked without warning.
And since people typically moved into the apartments after transferring their deposits, they tried to continue keeping up payments to avoid eviction.
“We gave money and immediately we were given keys from the apartment, did some repairs [in the apartment] and lived there,” one home-buyer, Dilnar Insenova, told Ratel.kz.
The victims of the fraud are now appealing to the Almaty mayor to intervene and make sure they are not evicted.