Kyrgyzstan’s government has reached yet another possible restructuring plan with Toronto-listed Centerra Gold, which owns the country’s largest and most profitable mine. But the non-binding agreement must still be ratified by Kyrgyzstan’s self-serving parliament, which rejected a strikingly similar plan in October.
The high-altitude Kumtor gold mine is the largest industrial asset in the impoverished Central Asian nation, account for approximately 12 percent of GDP in a good year and over 50 percent of industrial output.
Restructuring negotiations, which would lead to the fourth operating agreement since Canadian miners started developing the Kumtor deposit in the mid-1990s, began after parliament voted in February to tear up a 2009 agreement, maintaining it was not in the interests of the country. Centerra countered that it has invested approximately $1 billion in the mine since signing that contract. Few believe Kyrgyzstan has the technical know-how to operate the project on its own.
Soviet map of the Fergana Valley circa 1930. Many of these borders later changed. Vorukh (Варух), for example, is now a Tajik exclave surrounded by Kyrgyzstan.
No villagers were taken hostage this time. No one got shot. But a disputed parcel of the populous Fergana Valley, where there is little government, little water, and little arable land, has seen yet another dicey ethnic standoff in recent days.
This time, after an arson attack allegedly destroyed a Kyrgyz teahouse in a disputed spot on the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan frontier, local Kyrgyz reportedly blamed an ethnic Tajik and blocked the only road to a Tajik exclave, Vorukh. Some reports said Tajiks then blocked a road connecting the Kyrgyz village, Ak-Sai, with the regional seat of government, Batken.
Vorukh, home to approximately 30,000 Tajik citizens, is surrounded entirely by Kyrgyzstan. Though the status of the exclave is not in dispute, the land surrounding it, including most of Ak-Sai, is. During the regulardisputes, Kyrgyz living in Ak-Sai – situated in a narrow valley of apricot orchards – can besiege Vorukh. They reportedly reopened the road on December 21.
When police close the roads and President Emomali Rakhmon’s fleet of black Mercedes-Benzes hightails it through Tajikistan’s capital several times each day, the ensuing traffic jams cause a fair amount of grumbling.
But the grumbling is not confined to Dushanbe. Apparently authorities in Berlin are peeved, too: They say hundreds of luxury cars in Tajikistan have been stolen off German streets and are being used by the president and his relatives, according to a German media report. And despite Berlin’s repeated requests to redress the issue, Tajik officials are ignoring the appeals.
Using GPS technology, German investigators have traced approximately 200 stolen German luxury vehicles to Tajikistan, including 93 BMWs, reports Deutsche Welle, citing the German tabloid Bild.
There have long been detailed rumors in Dushanbe’s Western diplomatic community that many of the luxury cars plying Dushanbe’s streets were stolen in Europe (and traded, somewhere along the way, for heroin), and that Tajik police officials are unwilling to address the problem.
Street crime, often the violent sort, is not unusual in Bishkek. Nor are accusations of police involvement. But complaints from the reticent Chinese Embassy are.
In a one-month period ending in late November, at least 20 Chinese citizens were robbed in Bishkek, reported The Global Times, a state-run English-language newspaper in Beijing, on December 17. One suffered a head injury. The Chinese Embassy has taken the unusual step of issuing an “emergency safety alert” warning its citizens to exercise caution and, in another statement, rebuking Kyrgyz authorities for failing to stop the attacks.
The surge in apparently targeted robberies follows the July murder of Chinese businessman Guan Joon Chan (name transliterated from the Russian), who was beaten to death shortly after reportedly arguing with local police over the protection money they demanded, Vechernii Bishkek reported at the time.
The Global Times estimates there are 80,000 Chinese citizens in Kyrgyzstan. Many work as traders in Bishkek’s Zhonghai market, part of the sprawling Dordoi complex.
Chinese businesspeople at Zhonghai told the paper that the number of actual robberies is likely much higher than is reported because victims are afraid to contact police. Some fear police are involved – a conclusion that will come as no surprise to anyone living in Bishkek, where police are known more as predators than crime fighters.
Just as Tajikistan’s annual winter energy crisis begins, the country’s second-largest hydropower dam may be forced to shut operations due to what the Russian-controlled company that owns the dam calls unfair treatment by authorities.
Tajikistan’s state electricity-distributing monopoly, Barqi Tojik, has been refusing to pay the company, Sangtuda-1, for its power. This seems to have left Sangtuda-1 short on cash to pay its taxes, so the state tax committee has frozen the company’s accounts in Tajikistan, the company says.
Authorities in Tajikistan are taking a leaf out of Ebenezer Karimov’s book and forbidding Santa Claus – or Father Frost, as he’s known in the Russian-speaking tradition – from appearing on television this holiday season.
Last year arch-rival Uzbekistan, presided over by President Islam Karimov, banned the beloved Father Frost from New Year’s broadcasts in efforts to shield Uzbeks from foreign influences and invent a unique Uzbek “culture.”
New Year’s remains one of the most popular holidays throughout the former Soviet Union, celebrated with family meals and fireworks. The robed Father Frost (“Ded Moroz”) brings children gifts, much as Santa Claus does on Christmas Day in the West. But the New Year’s holiday is entirely secular.
The new ban in Tajikistan applies to Father Frost, his maiden sidekick Snegurochka, and Christmas trees, Radio Ozodi reported on December 5. (The ban applies to state television, but Tajikistan has no independent television stations. Many people watch Russian satellite TV.)
In recent years, some Islamic clergy have complained that the New Year holiday, with its Christian undertones, is not appropriate for a Muslim country like Tajikistan.
But the ban is not a nod to the clergy, Dilafruz Amirkulova, deputy head of Tajikistan’s Committee for Television and Radio Broadcasting, told Radio Ozodi: “Our main holiday, in general, is Navruz. Of course we respect holidays of other people, but our real holiday is Navruz,” the Persian New Year, which is celebrated on the vernal equinox in March.
Eleven citizens lost their lives as a result of the forced-labor system this year. The tragic losses included Tursunali Sadikov, a 63-year-old farmer who died of a heart attack after being beaten by a Department of Internal Affairs official, and Amirbek Rakhmatov, a six-year-old schoolboy who accompanied his mother to the cotton fields, napped in a trailer, and suffocated when cotton was loaded on top of him.
“It is the largest number of people who have died in a year, as far as I know,” Matt Fischer-Daly of the Cotton Campaign told the Toronto Star. “There have been tragedies but [I’ve] never seen a year with so many deaths.”
Though there were fewer young children mobilized than in years past, authorities “systematically” coerced high school students, university students, and adults into the fields, the reports says. They are part of an opaque chain of transactions that concludes with authorities buying cotton from farmers at artificially low prices and selling it abroad at a huge markup for hard currency. Researchers found that students were threatened with expulsion if they did not comply and adults told they would be fired if they refused.
Stories of women abandoned by migrating husbands are not hard to find in Tajikistan. It seems every family has a story about a young man who left to earn a living in Russia and never returned. The remittances trickle to a stop; the letters cease. Later the family might hear he’s remarried. Or wonder, forever fearing worse.
In conservative Tajikistan, few are eager to discuss these stories. But every month the Tajik migration service gets about 15 pleas for help from women requesting that Russia deport their sons, brothers or husbands, Radio Ozodi reports, citing an official spokesman. The women have also been appealing directly to Russian authorities.
“I heard from my sister-in-law that he [my husband] got married. [He] doesn’t send money to his kids. They should deport him. Maybe this will influence him to come back to his kids,” Mokhru Kholova, who says her husband Olim left her with their three children five years ago and doesn’t write, told Radio Ozodi.
Tochinisso Khoshimova says her brother Zokirjon has been away for eight years and only once sent their mother $50: “We want him to get kicked out of Russia,” said Khoshimova, adding that her family is simply worried about him. “Mother often cries and doubts if he’s alive.”
The million-plus Tajiks working in Russia are basically the only thing keeping Tajikistan’s economy afloat. Last year, they sent home the equivalent of 47 percent of GDP, making Tajikistan the most remittance-dependent country in the world, according to the World Bank.
A deal that would see Kyrgyzstan’s heavily indebted gas distribution company sold to Russia’s state-run energy behemoth, Gazprom, appears to be in trouble.
A vote in parliament was once considered a formality. But in recent days, parliament’s fractious parties have put the breaks on the transaction. Even members of the ruling coalition have backed away, a major Russian paper reports.
Under a July agreement between the government and Gazprom, Bishkek agreed to sell Kyrgyzgaz, the state-run entity that controls Kyrgyzstan’s gas distribution network, for a symbolic $1. In return, Gazprom agreed to invest approximately $600 million into the aging gas grid and assume Kyrgyzgaz’s debt, which was estimated at about $38 million at the time. But the deal had to be ratified by parliament.
On November 15, the legislature’s opposition parties rejected the deal.
According to a November 20 report in Russian business daily Kommersant, members of the ruling coalition are attempting to use the vote to topple Prime Minister Jantoro Satybaldiyev’s government. The paper quotes deputy Omurbek Abdrakhmanov complaining that the amount of Kyrgyzgaz’s debt is unclear, meaning the deal could be unfair. A deputy from Ar-Namys, also in the ruling coalition, said Gazprom could take control of a parcel of land and sell it to China, Kommersant reported. (The lawmaker’s statement plays on long-existing fears of Chinese domination.)