As Western governments mull additional sanctions in response to Russia’s invasion and subsequent annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region, Washington and Brussels won’t be the only world capitals watching to see the impact: Should the new restrictions bite into Russia’s economy, they will have a painful trickle-down effect on the former Soviet republics of Central Asia.
Men in fatigues face off across a small bridge inside a gorge: On the higher ground, a dozen Kyrgyz special forces and border guards are encamped in an apricot orchard; less than 15 meters away, a handful of uniformed and unidentified Tajiks stare back through binoculars, their Kalashnikovs locked and loaded.
Tajik authorities are apparently not satisfied jailing only their opponents, but wish to silence their opponents’ counsel, too.
Fakhriddin Zokirov, who represented former Industry Minister Zaid Saidov in a controversial corruption trial last year, was arrested March 8 on charges of forging documents to receive a million-dollar bank loan, an unnamed source at Tajikistan’s anti-corruption agency told Asia-Plus today.
Saidov, the former minister, was arrested last summer shortly after announcing he was forming a new political party with several leading technocrats. After a closed trial that Human Rights Watch called “politically motivated,” he was sentenced to 26 years for fraud, corruption, statutory rape and polygamy. The charges appeared to be as much about disgracing the charming reformist as locking him away. Saidov denied the charges.
After his arrest, several of Saidov’s supporters said they received death threats. The case epitomized a chilling in Tajikistan’s political atmosphere ahead of last year’s presidential elections, which incumbent President Imomali Rakhmon went on to win in a landslide and which independent monitors said lacked meaningful competition.
Former Republican Congressman Dan Burton once famously called for American warships to patrol the coast of landlocked Bolivia. Now he’s turning his keen analytical eye on Tajikistan and promoting the Tajik strongman's dream project.
In a March 7 commentary for The Washington Times, former Indiana Republican congressman Dan Burton offers his two cents on why Tajikistan’s controversial Rogun Dam project, which would be the tallest in the world, must be completed.
A 2012 visit to Tajikistan, while he was still a congressman, “stands out” from all the international trips he made on behalf of the United States, declares Burton (after listing the international horrors he has personally witnessed). The reason: Rogun’s “potential to transform the lives of tens of millions of people—permanently and for the better.”
The Russian government has proposed legislation that would grant citizenship to anyone who speaks fluent Russian and had once lived, or who had relatives who lived, on the territory of the Soviet Union.
The draft law would apply to millions of people throughout Central Asia and the Caucasus, as well as Ukraine, Moldova and other parts of Europe. So, amid the crisis in Crimea, where one Russian justification for military intervention has been to “protect” ethnic Russians, the timing should increase anxieties in presidential palaces across the region that Moscow is also using a soft weapon in its arsenal to rebuild its empire.
In theory, ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in formerly Soviet states have long had the right to acquire Russian passports, but the process in recent years has become more difficult and protracted. Applicants must move to Russia and live there for three years, while jumping through a ruthless sequence of bureaucratic hoops. Nevertheless, since independence, according to official Kyrgyz statistics cited by Radio Azattyk, about a tenth of Kyrgyzstan’s population has received Russian citizenship.
Now, too, the process won’t be without sacrifices. Under the proposed law, applicants would have to wave their existing citizenship. But as the bill is written, it does not require the new Russian citizens to immigrate.
The Russia-Ukraine crisis is having a profoundly unsettling effect on authoritarian-minded governments in Central Asia. On the one hand, they are keen to keep the forces unleashed by the Euromaidan movement at bay; on the other, they appear unnerved by the Kremlin’s power play.
A court in Dushanbe has ordered a local journalist to pay over $6,200 in moral damages for insulting a group of state-appointed intellectuals, local media reported on February 25. The average monthly salary in Tajikistan is about $200.
The suit was in response to a commentary Asia-Plus editor Olga Tutubalina wrote last May, where she condemned the cozy relationships many writers and artists enjoy with the administration of President Imomali Rakhmon. Quoting a letter that Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin supposedly wrote, she asserted that the official creative class – which receives extensive state perks for supporting the state – is “not [the nation’s] brains but its shit.”
The Firdavsi District court ruled that Tutubalina must apologize and that Asia-Plus must publish a retraction, in addition to the crippling 30,000 somoni in damages, according to Asia-Plus’s account.
Last summer, Tutubalina told EurasiaNet.org that she did not mean to insult anyone and insisted she had nothing to apologize for. “One particular segment of the intelligentsia does not deserve respect. I meant those who speak only when they get permission from above,” she said. Asia-Plus's lawyers plan to appeal.
A global survey of 223 cities ranks some of the capitals in Central Asia and the South Caucasus the world’s worst places for foreigners to live. Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe, for example – where officials build themselves multi-million-dollar palaces and ignore basic property rights, education, and a failing healthcare system – now ranks the worst city in Asia for expatriates to make a home.
The annual ranking, released February 19 by Mercer, a New York-based human resources consultancy, measures cities based on quality of living for foreigners, not locals. The company takes into consideration 39 factors including political stability, the effectiveness of law enforcement, censorship, pollution and healthcare, electricity supplies, the quality of schools and public services, availability of consumer goods and climate. The scores are “weighted to reflect their importance to expatriates.” The ranking has been published since 1994.
A decade ago, Asia would probably have offered more competition at the lower end of the rankings. But with stunning economic growth across much of the continent, today it is post-Soviet Central Asia that sweeps the bottom of the table. Dushanbe (ranked 209 globally) was one-upped in Asia by the capital of Bangladesh, Dhaka (208), and fell two places in two years. Ashgabat came third from the bottom in Asia at 206, falling seven places since 2012. Fourth- and fifth-worst, respectively, Bishkek ranked 204 and Tashkent 202. (Almaty ranked 169 in 2012; Astana wasn’t surveyed. If you want to know where they rank this year, you’ll have to shell out $499 for the report.)
Kyrgyzstan’s government has suspended work at a brand new Chinese-built oil refinery, the prime minister has announced, after local protestors demanded the polluting plant clean up its act. A lack of coordination with the community, and suspicion about Chinese intentions, are likely to turn the dispute into another cautionary tale about doing business in the protest-prone Central Asian country.
Residents in the northern town of Kara-Balta have rallied several times in the past month, complaining of fetid smoke from the $300 million Junda facility, which opened on January 17. Initial work stopped on January 27 after a trial run, the company says, promising that future activity at the refinery will be cleaner.
The Junda refinery (sometimes written Zhongda) is designed to process crude oil imported by rail from nearby Kazakhstan. Bishkek has eagerly embraced the project, set to employ over 2,000 locals, making it one of impoverished Kyrgyzstan’s largest employers. No less significantly, it would help Kyrgyzstan break Russia’s fuel-supply monopoly by producing an estimated 600,000 tons of fuel annually, about half domestic need, thus lowering petrol prices at the pump.
But what’s happening in the once-industrial town two hours west of Bishkek seems to be following a familiar pattern.
Tajikistan has one significant industrial asset, an aluminum smelter that dates back to the Soviet era. The state-owned plant, Talco, uses so much electricity it is responsible for regular, rolling blackouts around the country. Many Tajiks would like to know where Talco’s substantial profits go; the company keeps a tight lid on earnings information.