International tension over water in Central Asia is growing, but the United States can offer only modest help in preventing conflict, a panel of experts has told a Congressional committee.
The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats held a hearing November 18, "Water Sharing Conflicts and the Threat to International Peace."
Water conflict in Central Asia takes different forms, from the international (as seen in the dispute between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan over the latter's proposed Rogun Dam project) to the local (as seen in recurring border skirmishes between residents of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan in the Ferghana Valley).
For Kyrgyzstan observers, reports that kerosene is being stolen from a Russian airbase and illegally sold on the open market will hardly surprise. But it is still embarrassing.
Last week Kyrgyz authorities formally began investigating why a truck stopped leaving the Kant Airbase last month was found carrying 13 tons of stolen kerosene.
Details about the October 7 incident that triggered the November 11 investigation are still scarce. The driver, who appeared to have entered the Kant base without documents, has not been identified in press reports.
It seems unlikely a theft from the heavily guarded base would be possible without the connivance of Russian soldiers stationed there, Ruslan Umarov, who is heading the investigation for the State Service for the Fight Against Economic Crimes, conceded on November 12. “We have a circle of suspects. Currently we are clarifying the market channels, buyers and suppliers. It is possible that military servicemen at the Kant Airbase are involved in the case,” Umarov is quoted as saying by several Kyrgyz news outlets.
Kant receives its kerosene, which it uses it to fuel fighter planes and other aircraft, from a Kyrgyz-Russian joint-stock company partly owned by Russian energy behemoth Gazprom: Gazprom Neft Aero-Kyrgyzstan. The company has friends in high places. Sapar Isakov, President Almazbek Atambayev’s chief foreign policy advisor, was formerly chair of the company’s board.
Astana has promised to save Kyrgyzstan from near-certain energy crisis this winter, committing to supply over a billion kilowatt-hours of electricity and releasing several Kyrgyzstan-bound oil tankers stuck on the border between the two countries since April. But questions remain about the terms of the deal signed by Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev and Kyrgyzstan’s Almazbek Atambayev on November 7.
Chiefly, how will Kyrgyzstan finance the difference between the cost of the electricity it is buying from Kazakhstan and the low rates its own citizens expect to pay—lower, according to energy officials, than the cost of production?
In other words, Kyrgyzstan has agreed to pay Kazakhstan far more than it charges its citizens per kilowatt-hour. Most of the energy will be subsidized by the impoverished government, Nurbek Elebaev, director of Kyrgyzstan’s State Department for the Regulation of the Fuel and Energy Complex, told Vechernii Bishkek on October 31. (Note: $1 is about 58 soms at current rates.) He said:
It is worth noting that the cost of the imported energy is 5.13 soms for a kilowatt-hour. Accordingly, every kilowatt-hour will be subsidized [by Kyrgyzstan] by around 3 soms. Moreover, 5.13 soms is the cost of electricity up to the Kazakh border. The cost of transit from the border to the consumer will be borne by [Kyrgyzstan’s] energy company. How the company will cover the financial deficit will be decided by the government. The cabinet will need to borrow money. This tariff will apply to 1 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity. A further 400 million kilowatt-hours will be determined by an exchange in kind.
With a cold, dark winter inching closer each day in Kyrgyzstan, the government is desperately trying to strike bilateral energy-import agreements with anyone and everyone. But as policymakers go hunting around Central Asia to plug an estimated deficit of over 2 billion kilowatt-hours, prices and political differences are potent sticking points.
Any bilateral deal would require the differential in electricity costs be borne either by the insolvent government, or by ordinary Kyrgyzstanis, who are accustomed to paying $0.015 per kilowatt-hour. That’s far below the cost of production and substantially less than citizens pay in any other Central Asian country.
So Kazakh electricity, which costs around four times as much for Kazakhs, is expensive to most Kyrgyz, although that didn’t stop Astana and Bishkek agreeing to an import deal in principle last week. Tajik electricity is over one-and-a-half times as expensive as the Kyrgyz version and it is doubtful whether a country whose own rural residents spend a lot of time in the dark has any power to spare.
The perfect cure to a Kyrgyz winter of misery, then, could come from gas-rich Turkmenistan.
Lawmakers in Kyrgyzstan have voted overwhelmingly to adopt a tougher version of Russia’s so-called “gay propaganda” law. The Kyrgyz version mandates jail terms for gay-rights activists and others, including journalists, who create “a positive attitude toward non-traditional sexual relations.”
The vaguely worded bill passed its first reading on October 15 with a vote of 79 to 7, AKIpress reported (the 120-seat legislature is rarely full). During a meeting last week to discuss the bill, one lawmaker said the draft is not tough enough and proposed to increase sentences from up to one year to three. If it passes two more readings, the bill will go to President Almazbek Atambayev – a staunch Russia ally – for his signature.
One of the bill’s authors, Kurmanbek Dyikanbayev, often sounds as if he is repeating Kremlin talking points. Dyikanbayev told Radio Azattyk last week that he sponsored the bill to protect Kyrgyzstan’s “traditional families.” He also blames Western democracy for moral degeneracy and for encouraging homosexuality.
Bishkek-based LGBT-rights organization Labrys, whose advocacy would be outlawed by the bill, notes that the legislation contradicts numerous human-rights provisions in Kyrgyzstan’s constitution. Nika Yuryeva of Labrys said she fears the bill will encourage more violence against the LGBT community.
An Ontario court has frozen much of Kyrgyzstan’s share in its largest industrial asset, the Kumtor Gold Mine, adding an awkward new twist to the epic saga over the mine’s future.
Kumtor is fully owned by Toronto-listed Centerra Gold, which is one-third owned by Kyrgyzstan’s state-run Kyrgyzaltyn gold company. Since early 2012, Kyrgyzstan has been trying to increase its share in the high-altitude mine, which accounts for over 50 percent of the impoverished country’s industrial output and 10 percent of GDP in a good year. Early this year, the government and Centerra were moving toward an agreement that would increase Kyrgyzstan’s share in Kumtor to 50 percent, but negotiations have stalled as some lawmakers continue to demand the mine be nationalized.
The Ontario Superior Court of Justice ruling favors another investor with no role in the Kumtor dispute: Stans Energy, which says Kyrgyzstan has failed to pay the $118 million in damages awarded in Moscow this summer related to a different mine site, Kutessay II. In July, the Arbitration Court at the Moscow Chamber of Commerce and Industry ordered the Kyrgyz government to pay Stans in compensation for seizing the company’s license to Kutessay II, a heavy rare earths deposit.
Stans Energy announced on October 14 that the court order “prohibits the Kyrgyz Republic and Kyrgyzaltyn JSC ("KJSC") from selling, disposing, exchanging, assigning, transferring, pledging or encumbering 47,000,000 shares in the capital of Centerra Gold Inc. registered in the name of KJSC.”
“What is Putin’s favorite female name?” roars the announcer of a Vladimir Putin-themed quiz at the opening of Putin Pub in Bishkek on Saturday October 11. “Alina!” the crowd chants back in unison, referring to the former Olympic gymnast, Alina Kabaeva, long rumored to be the Russian president’s lover. “Not Lyudmila?” the announcer goads, name-checking Putin’s ex-wife. “No way!” comes the decisive reply.
Aside from the quiz, ubiquitous Putin paraphernalia, and alcoholic drinks named after both Kabaeva and Putin’s political patron-turned-rival, the late Boris Berezovsky, the Putin Pub, located in a southern suburb of Bishkek, has a strangely familiar feel. The pub’s smart phone-wielding administrator, a stout man with a mane of black hair and a pencil-thin beard, seems to have been in charge of every newly opened Bishkek restaurant-pub in recent memory, for instance.
In a nod to the stealth military operation that laid the foundations for Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, wait staff wear the word “#вежливыелюди” (Polite People) stenciled on the reverse of their uniforms. Thankfully these waiters are far more communicative than the unexplained army types who mysteriously surfaced on the Crimean Peninsula in February before calls for a referendum to join Russia. But bringing the onion rings while they’re still warm seems to be a challenge, as it is for waiters in almost every Bishkek gastro-pub.
With elections to Kyrgyzstan’s ever-volatile parliament just a year away, it is an uneasy time to be a private businessman in the Central Asian country. According to managers at one of the country’s most popular media outlets, the pre-election shakedown has begun.
As politicians prepare for the 2015 ballot, the competition over votes and the resources necessary to secure them is expected to be intense. One way of fundraising is to turn to the time-honored tradition of corporate raids – raiderstvo in Russian – at key moments in the political calendar. Now Vechernii Bishkek, a profitable media outlet whose Russian-language newspaper has a weekly circulation of over 50,000 copies, is claiming that it has fallen victim to a raid from “people close to President [Almazbek] Atambayev.”
Vechernii Bishkek’s ownership structure is complicated. In 2000, the paper – and, significantly, its wholly owned print house – fell into the hands of Adil Toygonbaev, the son-in-law of then-President Askar Akayev. Toygonbaev secured a 50-percent stake in the holding company from one of its two owners before reportedly expropriating it entirely in a move that simultaneously relieved his family’s regime of the paper’s critical reporting and added the country's best-selling Russian-language newspaper to the family's list of assets.
At PEN International there is a tradition: During the organization’s general assemblies, empty chairs are left prominently vacant as a reminder of imprisoned writers and journalists around the world.
This year, for the free expression watchdog’s 80th anniversary – marked this week in Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek – three empty chairs reminded the assembly of three Central Asian men imprisoned for their writings and activism: Azimjon Askarov from Kyrgyzstan, Ilham Tohti from China and Vladimir Kozlov from Kazakhstan.
PEN President John Ralston Saul noted that Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev extended a personal invitation to the organization. During a private meeting, Atambayev himself raised the case of Askarov, an Uzbek journalist and rights activist serving a life sentence for complicity in murder and other crimes connected to the June 2010 ethnic violence. Human rights groups have pointed to glaring irregularities during his trial and say Askarov was framed to stop him from documenting police abuse. While PEN and the president “disagreed” over the continuing imprisonment of Askarov, the fact that the president invited PEN to discuss the issue with him was itself “significant,” Saul said.
U.S. troops board an aircraft headed to Afghanistan at the Mihail Kogalniceanu air base in Romania, which this year replaced the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan. (photo: U.S. Army Europe)
Kyrgyzstan's truck drivers say they are suffering because the U.S. military has shifted traffic to Uzbekistan in the wake of the closure of the Manas air base, which operated in Kyrgyzstan until earlier this year. But the U.S. military denies that any decrease in traffic is connected to the base closure.
The director of Kyrgyzstan's Truck Drivers' Association, Temirbek Shabdanaliyev, told website KNews that as a result of the Manas closure, 2,000 truckers are now out of a job:
"After the departure of the Manas Transit Center our truck drivers were left without work. Shipments through our territory to and from Afghanistan immediately stopped, for some reason traffic now goes through Uzbekistan. Before, every week our drivers carried out 300-400 trips to Afghanistan and back, now they sit idle."
"Now these 2,000 drivers are left without work, unemployment increased. Very many drivers are parked without work, and tension and dissatisfaction among the drivers is growing."