A Chinese company that has had a string of bad luck in Kyrgyzstan is not getting much support from the country's investment-hungry government—or from Russia.
China’s state-controlled Junda China Petrol Company runs a troubled but potentially strategic oil refinery in northern Kyrgyzstan. The problem now is that Junda doesn’t have enough crude to fuel its $430 million plant. And the regional oil producers, Kazakhstan and Russia, are unwilling to help.
Last week Kyrgyzstan’s Vice Prime Minister Valery Dil called Junda's decision to build a refinery without planning for crude supplies “ridiculous,” in quotes picked up by 24.kg.
"To build a huge refinery and not know where to get the oil, that’s ridiculous,” Dil said.
Those are not exactly welcoming words for a large foreign benefactor already struggling to find reasons to keep investing in perennially troubled Kyrgyzstan. In its short history, Junda itself has faced environmental protests and labor disputes, which one lawmaker claims are backed by opposition politicians bent on using the facility as a weapon in a political confrontation with the government.
Dil also confirmed that Russia and Kazakhstan have refused to supply crude tax-free, though his colleague, Economy Minister Temir Sariev, recently had been hopeful that Kyrgyzstan’s membership in the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union would help solve this problem.
A prosecutor warns supporters of embattled news outlet Adam Bol on January 23 that they are breaking Kazakhstan’s stringent public assembly laws.
Kazakhstan’s authorities have taken a hard line against would-be protesters, rounding them up and throwing them in police cells to prevent them attending a public meeting in defense of a hard-hitting current affairs magazine that has been closed down.
The arrests came in the middle of a visit to Kazakhstan by a UN rapporteur to monitor how Astana upholds the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
Police arrested Guljan Yergaliyeva, the editor-in-chief of the Adam Bol outlet (who is on hunger strike in protest at the closure of her magazine), editors Ayan Sharipbayev and Miras Nurmukhanbetov, and prominent freedom of speech activist Rozlana Taukina as soon as they set off to attend the event on Almaty’s main Republic Square January 23.
“I understood [the police] were waiting for me, but I still intended to go and I went out to go and meet our readers, but our car was forcibly stopped and I was forcibly dragged out [by police officers],” Yergaliyeva said in a video address posted on Facebook after her release.
“They break the law themselves, they repress us,” added Yergaliyeva, who is on the sixth day of a hunger strike in protest at the closure of her magazine last November on the grounds that its reporting on Ukraine contained calls for war or violence.
An MRAP vehicle, of the type the U.S. is donating to Uzbekistan, undergoes testing. (photo: U.S. Marine Corps)
The United States is donating over 300 armored vehicles to Uzbekistan's military, American officials have announced. The deal, the largest ever transfer of military hardware from the U.S. to an ex-Soviet Central Asian states, comes just three years after Washington lifted a ban on weapons exports to Uzbekistan because of the country's poor record on human rights.
In an interview with the Voice of America's Uzbek service, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Central Asia Daniel Rosenblum said that the U.S. is giving Uzbekistan 308 Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, along with an additional 20 support vehicles.
The possibility of the U.S. donating MRAPs has been discussed for some time now, but it's usually been framed in terms of getting equipment the U.S. discards as it pulls out from Afghanistan. That won't be the case with these vehicles, however, they are instead being delivered from the U.S. and other American military bases abroad under the Excess Defense Articles program, the standard way that the U.S. military gives leftover equipment to allies. Uzbekistan's government is paying the cost to ship them to Uzbekistan, Rosenblum said.
The U.S. has given Central Asian states some used gear under the EDA program in the past, notably patrol ships to Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan and utility helicopters to Kazakhstan. But this dwarfs any of those transfers. It's not yet clear what variant of the MRAP Uzbekistan will be getting, but the DoD has valued most of the MRAPs it's given away lately at about $100,000 each, which would make this deal worth over $30 million.
Kazakhstan signed a cooperation agreement on January 22 with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The pact aims to make the Kazakhstani economy more efficient, and provide a boost to Astana’s ambitions of becoming a global economic player.
Meeting on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Kazakhstani Prime Minister Karim Massimov and OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria signed a memorandum of understanding to launch a Country Cooperation Program. The event signaled the start of a process that officials in Astana quietly hope will lead to Kazakhstan’s admission as a full member of the OECD.
“This agreement confirms our national intention to implement the best practice reform model developed by OECD member-nations,” Massimov was quoted as saying in a written statement. “This will help Kazakhstan achieve its long-term goal of becoming one of the world’s 30 most advanced nations by the year 2050.”
The OECD is a club of 34 prosperous nations dedicated to strengthening market mechanisms, solidifying public financing structures and practices, fostering innovation and ensuring dynamic labor markets. Member states are also expected to embrace civil society concepts. “The common thread of our work is a shared commitment to market economies backed by democratic institutions and focused on the wellbeing of all citizens,” reads the OECD’s mission statement. .
The democratization aspect of the OECD’s mission could create dilemmas for Kazakhstan, which has a moved in an authoritarian direction over the past decade. An OECD review conducted in late 2014 recommended that Kazakhstan needed to decentralize decision-making authority, implement reforms to promote transparency and improve coordinating mechanisms among governmental agencies.
Astana's ambitious plan to add a year to its school curriculum has been postponed indefinitely as lower oil prices and the recession in neighboring Russia batter Kazakhstan’s economy.
“Taking into account the situation, the question of the transition to a 12-year program must be postponed,” Education and Science Minister Aslan Sarinzhipov told journalists after a Senate session on January 22, TengriNews reports.
Sarinzhipov went on to explain how financial considerations were impacting the situation. “There are many factors, including financial possibilities. The government is now working on the head of state's instruction to prepare different scenarios for the economy. Proceeding from this situation, we have decided to put it [the program] on hold.”
The move to add a year to Kazakhstan's 11-grade system, a legacy from Soviet times, is seen as key to modernizing the education sector. The extra year would bring the country's system in line with international standards and enable external recognition of Kazakhstani secondary education qualifications.
Now as Astana slashes its growth expectations and lowers budget revenue forecasts, the 12-year program has become an early casualty of the government's belt tightening.
This is not the first time that these reforms have been shelved. In 2011 the Education Ministry put back plans to add a year to the curriculum until 2015, citing a deficit of space and trained teachers.
The ministry piloted the 12-year model in 104 schools between 2011 and 2014 using experimental textbooks and teaching materials. The 12-year program was supposed to be fully implemented by 2020.
There are no camps of terrorists gathering in northern Afghanistan near the borders of Central Asia, an Afghan security official said, in response to a series of claims recently by Russian and Central Asian officials to that effect.
The official, the border service's commander in the north Mir Naim Haydari, added that his agency intends to establish regular contacts with its Central Asian counterparts to exchange operational information about developing issues. He made the comments to Ariana-TV, reported the news agency AfTag. Haydari just returned from a visit to Tajikistan, where he also discussed the issue of the four Tajikistan border guards who were seized by militants in December and are still being held in Afghanistan.
In December, Russia's special envoy to Afghanistan gave detailed information about the supposed existence of ISIS training camps on the borders of Tajikistan and Turkmenistan and the massing of thousands of militants there. That was followed by similar statements by anonymous sources of security services of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to the Russian press, and last week, the head of Tajikistan's Interior Ministry publicly claimed that militants from the Taliban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan were massing at Tajikistan's borders.
The International Monetary Fund has revised downward its forecast for growth in Central Asia and the former Soviet Union to account for dramatically lower oil prices and the shriveling Russian economy. The region’s poorest countries can expect sharply higher inflation.
The assessments are part of an economic update released January 21 in Washington.
For energy importers like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the IMF says, any gains from lower oil prices are overshadowed by weakness in Russia, Central Asia’s largest trade partner and the destination for millions of Central Asian labor migrants. The IMF projects Russia’s economy to shrink 3 percent this year due to “geopolitical tensions” (the Kremlin’s adventure in Ukraine) and sharply lower prices for its chief export, oil.
Already the Central Asian countries are reeling from the 45 percent drop in the value of the ruble against the dollar last year. Kyrgyzstan’s currency, the som, lost 17 percent against the dollar, even as the National Bank spent hundreds of millions of dollars defending it. Oil-exporter Kazakhstan devalued the tenge by 19 percent last February and another downward adjustment appears imminent. Turkmenistan’s manat dropped 19 percent on January 1.
Tajikistan spent over half its hard-currency reserves in 2014 defending the somoni, the Central Bank said this week. Yet the rumpled somoni still fell 11 percent and is bound to plunge further as remittances – which make up the equivalent of half of Tajikistan’s GDP – shrink.
Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are among the world’s dictatorships benefiting from the services of lobbyists in Europe’s corridors of power, a new report alleges.
“Repressive regimes outsourcing their diplomacy to public relations firms, lobbyists, and front groups, is increasingly big business in Europe,” claims the study by the Corporate Europe Observatory, a campaign group that seeks to “challenge the privileged access and influence enjoyed by corporations and their lobby groups in EU policy making.”
It singles out the regimes of Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan – which uses a host of international PR firms, including that of former British prime minister Tony Blair, to buff its international image – and Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan – which benefits from the services of a powerful European trade lobby with links to the country’s controversial cotton sector – as among the beneficiaries.
Nazarbayev’s “strategic use of PR and lobbying, particularly via Tony Blair’s network of influence, has to be one of the most successful examples of a dictator whitewashing his image,” the report claims.
Tony Blair Associates says its work for Astana on a multi-million dollar contract since 2011 “focuses on supporting political, economic and social reform.” Critics say it is more about spinning the regime’s atrocious human rights record—including tips on how to handle the international fallout from the fatal shooting of protestors in 2011.
The defense ministers of Russia and Iran, Sergey Shoigu and Hossein Dehghan, sign an agreement in Tehran. (photo: MoD Iran)
Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu has made a rare visit to Tehran, where he and his Iranian counterpart promised "accelerated" military cooperation between the two countries.
Shoigu's visit was the first to Iran by a Russian defense minister in 15 years, and both sides played up the potential geopolitical import of the trip. "Iran and Russia are able to confront the expansionist intervention and greed of the United States through cooperation, synergy and activating strategic potential capacities," said Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan. "The visit to Tehran is a geopolitical movement towards an alliance between Russia and Iran," wrote Rossiya Segodnya analyst Aleksandr Khrolenko. "It's not just the development of military relations between the two countries, but a continuation of Russia's pivot to the East."
The two sides signed an agreement on defense cooperation, which called for joint exercises, port visits by naval vessels, and a joint fight against piracy in the Caspian. But those things were already going on, and it's not clear what new forms of cooperation might be in the works.
Central Asian governments are failing to address problems posed by violent radicalization, instead encouraging a growing number of Central Asians to take up arms in Syria and Iraq on behalf of the Islamic State. So says a new report by the International Crisis Group (ICG), “Syria Calling: Radicalisation in Central Asia.”
Estimates of the number of Central Asians currently living in the Islamic State (IS) vary. The ICG calls Central Asian government figures “conservative” and instead gives greater credence to Western officials’ counts, placing the number between 2,000 and 4,000—most from the “long-rebellious” Fergana Valley.
Poverty, migration, marginalization and state repression push Central Asians to join radical groups, the report says. But the Islamic State also provides “a meaningful alternative to post-Soviet life.”
The report debunks the myth, oft championed by Central Asian regimes, that it is only young, poor and uneducated men who have travelled to Syria and Iraq. Instead, the ICG documents the broad appeal that the Islamic State has in the region. Jihad appeals to rich and poor, educated and uneducated alike.
Many fighters are recruited through family networks, with as many as 20 Tajiks from one village departing together in September 2014. A commitment to holy war, the report argues, is the main reason that Central Asians are drawn to the Islamic State.
One unique aspect of the report is its focus on the growing number of women who join radical Islamic groups. Although many women travel to be with their husbands in Syria and Iraq, some go alone. ICG interviewed one woman from a group of four preparing to go to Syria. She told the researcher: “[Our husbands are] against religion, against Islam. My friends do not want to live with them anymore.”