With the Russian economy starting to creak under the weight of Western economic sanctions imposed over the Ukraine crisis, a question is being posed in Kazakhstan: will the Kremlin’s aggressive geopolitical agenda cause Astana excessive economic pain?
Photographs released by Karimova’s London-based spokesman, Locksley Ryan, on September 16 show what appears to be a tense standoff between the president’s daughter and her captors.
President Islam Karimov’s 16-year-old granddaughter is not being held against her will in Uzbekistan, prosecutors have announced, and she is free to leave the residence where her mother, Gulnara Karimova, is under house arrest.
Iman Karimova, an American citizen, “has no relation to the criminal cases under investigation” and there is no “restriction of her rights or legitimate interests, including freedom of movement,” the General Prosecutor’s Office said on September 22.
She is free to go anywhere at any time, including abroad, the prosecutor’s office said in a posting on its website which it described as a response to unspecified media queries. It also confirmed that Iman, who was born in the United States, has the right to her U.S. citizenship.
Iman has been in the Tashkent residence for six months with her mother, who was unofficially placed under house arrest in February and named a suspect in a multi-million-dollar mafia-style corruption case earlier this month.
Forty-two-year-old Gulnara Karimova, who was once seen as a potential successor to her aging father, has stated in letters and recordings leaked to the media that she is being held against her will.
“The territory of the house is basically surrounded now by hundreds of cameras and special equipment which is blocking any means of communication,” she said in recordings leaked to media, including EurasiaNet.org, earlier this month.
Karimova spoke of “tremendous pressure and stress” on herself and her “struggling sick daughter.” Both “need medical help urgently,” she added, for a heart condition in Iman’s case.
Dushanbe and Beijing have launched construction of a key gas pipeline that will turn Tajikistan into a transit country for Central Asian gas supplies to neighboring China, the world’s largest energy consumer.
The pipeline will lock Tajikistan into an energy partnership with its powerful neighbor from which the former Soviet Union’s poorest country will reap millions of dollars every year in transit fees.
The project has “immense political, economic, and historical significance,” Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon said at the groundbreaking ceremony on September 13. His visiting Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, described the pipeline as a “symbol of China-Tajikistan friendship.”
The link will supplement the existing Central Asia pipeline running from Turkmenistan to China via Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. The new section bypassing Kazakhstan and passing through Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, known as Line D, will increase the pipeline’s overall annual capacity by 30 billion cubic meters, to around 85 billion. Like the other lines, it will also pass through Uzbekistan.
Tajikistan will host the longest section of the new 1,000-kilometer spur, with 400 kilometers passing through its territory. China will pick up the $3.2 billion price tag for that leg.
Beijing is already ramping up gas supplies through the existing Central Asia pipelines. A third line known as Line C started pumping from Turkmenistan in May, almost doubling the pipeline’s overall annual capacity to 55 billion cubic meters.
Russian President Vladimir Putin failed to score any major diplomatic victories at a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Tajikistan on September 12. The Kremlin appears eager to boost the six-state security bloc as its confrontation with the West over Ukraine drags on.
Putin used the Dushanbe summit – also attended by China’s Xi Jinping and the presidents of the four Central Asian members (Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kyrgyzstan’s Almazbek Atambayev, Tajikistan’s Emomali Rakhmon, and Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov) – to court international support for his policies in Ukraine.
Speaking after the summit, Putin said that the approaches of the SCO members on Ukraine were “identical and close.”
That looked like wishful thinking, however, given the evident concerns of his Chinese and Central Asian partners over Russia’s apparent military interventions and support for separatism in Ukraine.
Contending with separatist movements at home in Tibet and Xinjiang, China has always opposed what it terms “splittism,” while the Central Asian states – which, like Ukraine, have ethnic Russian minorities – are nervous of Russia’s regional saber-rattling.
The summit ended with the signing of a joint declaration containing a pro-forma call for “restoration of peace in Ukraine” (and a declaration of opposition to “unilateral and unrestricted” deployment of anti-missile systems, in a side swipe at the United States).
Criminal charges appear to be looming for Gulnara Karimova, the once high-flying daughter of Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov. Prosecutors suspect her of involvement in an organized criminal operation that is believed to have bilked the state out of tens of millions of dollars.
Uzbekistan has introduced new no-go areas for bloggers, tightening up a media environment that is already among the most repressive in the world.
Bloggers are now banned from using online platforms for a long list of activities, the Anhor website reported: from calling for the forcible overthrow of the constitutional order to questioning Uzbekistan’s territorial integrity; and from promoting pornography and narcotics to disseminating information inciting ethnic or religious enmity.
Promoting war, violence, terrorism, extremism, separatism, and fundamentalism is also a no-no, under amendments to the law governing IT affairs which came into force on September 5. So is divulging state secrets, and publishing information that may harm someone’s reputation and violate their right to privacy (a provision likely to act as a deterrent to whistleblowers).
The ban on calling for the overthrow of the state and questioning territorial integrity come as Uzbekistan, like other states in the region, appears rattled by the conflict in Ukraine and by Russia’s aggressive expansionist rhetoric. This year has witnessed a spate of online calls for independence for Uzbekistan’s Karakalpakstan region, and – while the credibility and motives of those posting them under pseudonyms is in question – the material has no doubt raised eyebrows in Tashkent.
The legislation introduces a broad legal concept of a blogger, as an individual posting “generally accessible information of a public-political, socioeconomic, and other nature, including for discussion by users.”
There is no mention of criminal sanctions for those deemed in violation of the law, but the sites they use can be blocked.
Gas-guzzling Kazakhstan – where the jeep has long since overtaken the horse as the favored means of transport – has been urged to save fuel, as a months-long gasoline shortage continues to distress drivers across Central Asia.
On September 2 Energy Minister Vladimir Shkolnik urged the people of his oil-rich country to cut back on consumption, suggesting carpooling and downsizing to small cars from the road-hogging jeeps his compatriots favor.
Kazakhstan is entering its third month of gasoline shortages, with long queues forming in many cities at filling stations, some of which have unilaterally imposed rationing.
The minister’s remarks caused a storm of protest on social media, as Radio Azattyq reported, prompting users to question if Shkolnik would be driving his neighbors to work and wonder where all the oil their country pumps is going, if not into their tanks.
As with so many of Kazakhstan’s economic woes these days, the answers to Kazakhstan’s fuel conundrum lies over the border in Russia, where rising prices mean Kazakhstani importers can no longer afford to buy fuel to sell at home.
This is due to the devaluation of the tenge in February, which has priced importers out of the Russian wholesale market, Aset Magauov, head of the Kazenergy industry association told Bnews on August 29. With prices at the pump controlled by the state in Kazakhstan, retail prices fell lower than wholesale prices in Russia, making imports uncompetitive.
Russia's Defense Ministry has announced plans to hold large-scale military maneuvers near the border with Kazakhstan. The announcement comes as relations between Moscow and Astana sink to their lowest level since the collapse of the Soviet Union, amid heightened regional tensions over the war in Ukraine.
Military exercises involving 4,000 troops and 400 pieces of military hardware will take place in the southern region of Altay in mid-September, Major Dmitriy Andreyev of Russia’s Strategic Missile Troops said on September 3, as quoted by RIA Novosti.
Andreyev described the maneuvers – in which troops will practice repelling strikes by precision weapons and counteracting saboteurs – as part of the Strategic Missile Troops’ “training plan.” However, Kremlin-controlled RIA Novosti did not miss the chance to note that recent military maneuvers in other parts of Russia “have aroused the concern of Western countries in the context of the situation in Ukraine.”
The announcement came amid a chill in the usually warm Russo-Kazakh relationship. Kazakhstan is a close ally of Russia and a fellow member of the Customs Union free trade zone, which is set to become the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) in January. The two presidents, Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, generally enjoy an affable personal relationship, too.
However, Astana’s loyalty has been tested to the limits by Russian policy in Ukraine, and by Moscow’s heavy-handed attempts to dictate its own vision of the EEU on other members.