Friday 30 March 2012

The West is not very happy, Mr President

If I were President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan I would be very concerned with the long expected trial, which started this week, of 37 people accused of involvement in the violence in the Western city of Zhanaozen last year. The clashes between the police and striking workers left at least 14 dead (although different sources say at least 16 or 17) and, as I have mentioned in this blog before, were something unheard of in the former Soviet republic since its independence, 20 years ago. After more than one hundred days since the violence, it was expected that things were a bit calmer by now in Kazakhstan. Nothing could be further from the truth, however. While many Kazakhs in Almaty and Astana just want to leave behind what happened in December and enjoy their lives, this is definitely not the case in the West, in the Mangistau Province, and of course in Zhanaozen. Several reports from the region clearly show that the people there are still really angry not only about the harshness of the police during the clashes, but also about the aftermath of the violence and how the authorities are dealing with it. Reading reports on the internet, it seems that West Kazakhstan is moving away from Astana. A big gap is becoming wider: a gap between where the money and the elites are and where the natural resources (that make the elites rich) are. There, workers don’t have many reasons to celebrate the country’s impressive wealth.

In total, 37 people are on trial in Aktau, the capital of Mangistau, accused of crimes like arson, attacks on police and robbery. In the first days of trial, eight of them were singled out as the ringleaders and might be sentenced to up to ten years behind bars. Of course, most locals believe the workers are innocent and there is as a lot of scepticism about the proceedings. Do you believe the workers will have a fair trial? Nazarbayev said after the clashes that the striker’s demands during the long strike were justified, but probably forgot to tell the police of his opinion before the clashes. “I don't believe him (Nazarbayev) any more. The main values proclaimed by Kazakhstan's constitution - freedom of expression, of the press and above all human life - are empty words here," complained an old man quoted by Reuters news agency, whose nephew is one of the defendants. “It is the state that should be on trial”, said bluntly a pensioner to For these people, the damage will take a lot of effort from the Kazakh president to be undone.

At first, the police didn’t even want to let relatives and friends of the defendants (held in a locked chamber in courtroom, see in the photo above) watch the trial, then, under pressure, allowed some in. They came a long way from Zhanaozen to ask for justice. As a matter of fact, there is a good question to be asked here: why is the trial taking place in Aktau and not in Zhanaozen itself, where the workers and their families live? Are the authorities afraid of the pressure? Also, the judge of the case barred the presence of the press in the courtroom. Why? What is the judge afraid of? One more question: what about an independent investigation about what happened? Why not, Mr Nazarbayev? What are you afraid of? An official investigation said some policemen were too heavy-handed, not much else. An no one knows when these policement will stand trial.

The trial is been followed keenly outside Kazakhstan as well. The NGO Human Rights Watch released a long message asking for a fair trial. In Brussels, European Lawmakers adopted a resolution on March 15 condemning the violence in Zhanaozen, asking for an independent investigation and for assurances of safety of family members of those arrested. But what is more important to Nazarbayev? To assert its dominance and show that he is still a strong leader (despite being 71 years old) or admit he completely mishandled the situation in Zhanaozen and beg his people for forgiveness? He needs to be humble now, not interfere with the trial, but I doubt this will happen. Actually (this is not a joke), the president has announced this month that he is going to write a book on how to become a leader. Perfect timing.

Apart from the 37 workers, other 11 people are being charged with a more serious crime, “fomenting social discord”, and will be tried later (no one knows exactly when). Amongst them there is at least one member of the political opposition, the leader of the illegal Alga party, Vladimir Kozlov, arrested in January. The authorities are linking Kozlov with another Nazarbayev political rival, Mukhtar Ablyazov, an oligarch based in London who, according to Kazakh investigators, channeled funds to support the unrest in Zhanaozen. Either the government became paranoid after the clashes or (more possibly) very rationally is still using the violence in the West to send a message to all opposition leaders, asking them “politely” to behave. Despite this, in the last months, the opposition has organised protests in the country, trying to exploit the feelings against the authorities. In the anniversary of 100 days since the clashes, several demonstrations took place around the country – although, apparently, not many people decided to join them. This doesn’t mean they are useless or don’t have importance. Quite the opposite, they mean a lot: they are a start, they are showing that something is wrong, they are a seed being sown. When the recent protests in Russia started, they were not considered important, but then thousands took the streets in Moscow and Putin, although elected, will definitely have to deal with a different Russia. Nazarbayev might be about to meet a different Kazakhstan.

PS. Now the Observatory in on Twitter! Please follow @CA_Observatory

Saturday 11 February 2012

Kyrgyzstan looks at its gold and sees Turkey

The hearsay about Kyrgyzstan wanting to nationalise its main gold mine, Kumtor, is not new. Last year, when current president Almazbek Atambayev was still prime-minister, residents of the Issyk-Kul province held a protest and eventually closed the road leading to the mine, responsible, on its own, for about 12% of the country’s GDP. Besides complaining that the mining operations were not leading to the development of the local economy, they pointed out at the environmental impact of the enterprise. Recent reports show what exactly the problem is. In a beautiful region, home to endangered species, the level of toxic chemicals in the water have reached levels way above normal. The locals are feeling the effects in their health. The fish are disappearing from the rivers.

An environmental liability or not, it is undeniable that Kyrgyzstan needs its gold, which represents a considerable part of its exports. For some, Kumtor is a good example in Kyrgyzstan: it produces a lot and uses more advanced techniques and technology for extraction than other mines in the country. Of course, this is due to investment from abroad: since 1992, Kumtor is operated by Centerra Gold, a Canadian company in which the Kyrgyz government has a one-third stake.

Kumtor considered a largely successful enterprise, but see what is happening now – coincidently, in the short period of two month since Atambayev took the Presidency: first, as we have seen, there are new reports on the environmental impact of the mine (echoing last year’s protests). Secondly, the country is again in turmoil, showing that the dream of stability that was a clear factor on the election of Atambayev was no more than a mirage. In the Batken province, in the south, the local governor was ousted after an ethnic conflict took place between Tajiks and Kyrgyz in December. Not far away from there, in the same region in which Uzbeks and Kyrgyz clashed in 2010, new graffiti with racist remarks against the Uzbeks has appeared. Hundreds of inmates in the country’s prisons have decided to sewn their months shut in protest against the appalling conditions in their cells. Finally, Kyrgyzstan was on the verge of a breakdown this month as it had not paid its gas debts with Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, that in turn threatened to cut the supply (and let the Kyrgyz freeze to death). So far nothing happened, but certainly the threat is to be taking seriously. All this takes us to the same conclusion, not a new one: Kyrgyzstan is a bankrupt country, needs desperately investment from abroad to survive.

Back to the nationalisation talk now. In his first trip abroad, last month, Atambayev surprised a lot of people when he decided to visit not Russia – which he himself recognises as the most important partner of the country –, but Turkey. The Turks have in the past tried to have a bigger influence in Central Asia by parading its status of “most successful” Turkic country, its links to Nato and its close relations with the EU. The “big brother” of the newly independent republics of Central Asia, however, was so far unable to have a key geopolitical importance for their Turkic counterparts in the region. In his trip to Ankara, however, Atambayev spent a lot of time complimenting the Turks, calling them an example to be followed, and throwing not subtle criticism against other countries with which Kyrgyzstan has had a closer relationship. Clearly, the main target of the attacks was Russia, but the criticism could be interpreted as being aimed at other countries, such as… Canada. “One is trying to bring Kyrgyzstan to its knees in exchange for drawing up and collection of money… But this is not absolute independence. We depend on powerful countries technically and financially… Our natural resources were exported for a trifling sum. But we never become slaves”, Atambayev said. Incidentally, in the same visit, Atambayev let it show that is not happy at all with the arrangement in the Canadian controlled goldmine, saying the in the last ten years, while the mine produced US$ 10 billion worth of gold, the Kyrgyz authorities have only received 3% of this amount. The news about its awful environment impact plays nicely into a supposed plan to adopt changes regarding Kumtor.

The trip to Ankara ended with ambitious promises of increased Turkish investment in Kyrgyzstan and a bilateral trade worth US$ 1 billion by 2015 (very hard to achieve, since all of Kyrgyzstan’s foreign trade last year was US$ 4 billion). It is clear that Kyrgyzstan is now following the steps of Uzbekistan and following a multivetorial foreign agenda. What is not clear is how successful will this strategy be. I would say that, by showing signs that is about to change the rules of the game in Kumtor, the Kyrgyz government is not starting with the right foot. In the last ten years, there have been many changes in this field – the government has increased and decreased its participation in enterprises. Investors of course don’t like to put their money in places ruled by uncertainty. No one knows exactly what Atambayev will do – will he take back Kumtor and give it to the Turks? Will he nationalise the company and hope that the Turks and other countries might be partners? Is he actually hiding something, pretending to bark at Moscow while preparing the field for more influence from Russia? By criticising other powerful countries that have a presence in Kyrgyzstan, was he only trying to appease the domestic nationalists? Does he really expect that the multivetorial approach could become the solution for the country’s woes? If so, he is really naïve, and I don’t think he is. He will probably increase links with many countries and at the same time continue to maintain strong contacts with Russia, after all, his country needs all help it can find. But what exactly he will do with his gold is unclear. Maybe nothing – and Kumtor will go on killing people, and other mines will go on producing far less than they could, and the country will go on being very poor and, sadly, a perfect stage for more violence.

Friday 27 January 2012

Berdymuhammedow's White Revolution

No one can deny: Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedow’s re-election campaign in Turkmenistan is clean. So clean it is dazzling, dazzling as the noon sunlight reflected from virgin snow, as this nice photo gallery shows. I didn’t know that he had so many talents…

Opposition enjoys some ‘political reform’ in Kazakhstan

It was easy to believe that, after all the troubles last year in Kazakhstan, the deadly clashes in Zhanaozen in December and the Parliamentary elections this month – that came together with the promise of more democracy in the Central Asian giant – things might be quiet for a while there. Then, this week, the Kazakh police raided the headquarters of an opposition party and its leader’s home. stroke the perfect tone with its headline: “Kazakhstan 'political modernisation' opens with opposition raid”. The excuse for the raids was the suspicion that the Leader of the Alga Party, Vladimir Kuzlov, was involved in fomenting the protests in Zhanaozen, in which 16 people died. Besides him, two other well-known members of the opposition were this week sent to two months behind bars – a former presidential candidate (Serik Saparghali, who is now in hunger strike) and the editor of an independent newspaper.

Of course, it would be too much even for the most faithful supporter of the Government to believe that everything that happened in December was just an evil plan of opposition forces, so one official enquiry also blamed heavy-handedness of the police for the violence – three mid-ranking officers were arrested, although most of the security forces were praised for their actions. Likewise, local authorities in Zhanaozen were accused of (surprise! Who would guess?) funnelling money bound for job creation around the city into their own pockets. This prompted Kazakhstan long-time leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, to promise (surprise! Who would guess?) a new strategy to tackle corruption. Anyway, Nazarbayev is clearly taking advantage of what happened last year to send a message to those who criticise him, so certainly the instability was politically quite useful for him. The problem here is that, more and more, there is a risk that, again, things might go out of control – and then, again, no one knows what the consequences would be. As a theatre director who was in Zhanaozen said, “they are looking for enemies…” and the more violent they are against the opposition, the more violent the opposition’s response might be. In Zhanaozen, under heavy surveillance of the security forces, there is now a tense calm (the current curfew expires at the end of the month). However, not far from there, workers started a new strike like the one which set the stage for the unrest in December. Nazarbayev troubles are far, far from over.

Friday 20 January 2012

Everything changes to remain the same (by now)

Kazakhstan has just elected a new Parliament. Turkmenistan is about to vote for a (new?) president. Although elections usually lead to some sort of change, of course this is not true at all in Former Soviet Central Asia. Recent developments, however, show interesting signs of (possible) changes afoot. Or is it just me being very naïve?

In the big steppes of the north, of course, last Sunday Kazakhs strongly supported the party Nur Otan of its long time leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev. But new rules were adopted to avoid what was happening since the 2007 elections: a Majlis (lower house of parliament) with no other party apart from the ruling party (that, incidentally, won 88% of the votes five years ago). So now any party that comes in second in an election, even those who do not clear the threshold of 7% of the votes, is guaranteed a place in the Parliament. This time, three parties were able to reach the threshold and were given seats. Even so, Nur Otan got 81% of the votes and 89% of the seats in the Majlis.

Last Sundays’s ballot, that was originally scheduled to take place later this year, was brought forward, already with the new rules, supposedly to accelerate a process of political change in the country. But this doesn’t mean there were any real changes after Sunday! Other parties that made it to the Parliament are very weak in terms of opposition – if they can be considered opposition at all. Take the second most voted, Ak Zol. This liberal party will apparently be a sidekick of Nur Otan. It was led in the elections by Azat Peruashev, a Nur Otan member until last July. There is a strategy widely used in electoral authoritarian regimes like Kazakhstan – create or fostering parties that nominally are in opposition, but in practice only exist to support the ruler’s claim that there is democracy. The only party considered real opposition and that took part in the ballot, the National Social Democratic Party, had its leader disqualified days before the vote and did not elect a single representative (read more here). To put in a nutshell: this new rules might be paving the way for real changes in the future, but, really, do you see a “pluralist” parliament now in Kazakhstan? And do you see this happening during Nazarbayev’s lifetime? The dictator commands genuine support, of course, especially in big cities that have seen the bulk of the economic bonanza of the last years. The old and battered argument that the country needs “stability” in order to advance in the economic sphere continues to be used again and again and is particularly effective when dealing with these elites. Terrorist attacks in the West and South, the bloody clashes in Zhanaozen (see my previous posts)… for the elites in Almaty and Astana, the moment is definitely wrong for any exciting moves. For now, the Majlis remains strongly in the hands of Nazarbayev; no party in the parliament represent any danger to him; the criticism of Western observers regarding irregularities in the ballot fell on the usual death ears; protests against irregularities in the vote were negligible; government agents closely monitor Zhanaozen for any further trouble. And… life goes on as normal in Nazarbayevland. The risks remain, though: Nazarbayev is old and will need to leave its throne soon; more terrorist attacks could (and most certainly will) take place sometime in the near future.

Moving south now, honestly, I was surprised when I read that the Parliament in Turkmenistan had passed a bill regulating the creation of political parties (read more here). My surprise itself is obviously not a surprise, since we are talking about the most repressive and non-democratic regime of the region, a country where there are no other parties at all apart from the ruling one. Like in Kazakhstan, however, the changes created by the new law won’t have any practical effect now – they won’t be valid for the February 12 presidential elections. Berdymukhamedow is of course the favorite; there are a couple of other candidates, but no real opposition voices were raised against the supreme leader - despite the recent success on the internet of a video that offers a rare glimpse of Berdymukhamedow’s lovely personality. If you haven’t seen you, please don’t miss it: click here. The Turkmen leader is seen not only treating their ministers like naughty children, but also making some, let’s say, controversial remarks against the Turks. Whereas in the West a video like this will destroy the career of any politician, in Turkmenistan it will certainly not affect at all the expected result of the presidential elections. It has been pointed out that Central Asians like strong leaders that are not afraid of using harsh words. That the lack of finesse is not a problem, quite the opposite, is expected of them. I, on the other hand, think the Central Asians, especially in Turkmenistan, simply don’t care – they still believe they can’t change those in power. Indeed, if they are thinking about elections, they are right. At least for the time being.

Thursday 12 January 2012

Happy New Year, Kazakhstan

It was a hell of a December for Kazakhstan. The country that until recently was known for its stability, for its pungent economy and openness for Western companies was suddenly taken by a turmoil that it was too myopic to see coming. Actually, the deadly clashes in the Western city of Zhanaozen were just the apex of a long process: oil workers had been protesting in the city since May, asking for higher wages, whereas the authorities insisted that they already had received a raise (If I were to leave in such a hellhole, in the middle of nowhere, probably I would ask for much more as well). Anyway, the clashes with the police took place exactly on the day in which Kazakhstan was celebrating its 20th Independence Anniversary. Strangely, the party was seen as an insult to those “hooligans” protesting for months. And what an unforgettable celebration it was indeed (Watch this short video), with at least 17 dead.

Regardless of the reasons for the protest itself and steering clear of the debate about the heavy-handedness of the authorities, there are many extremely concerning causes for concern in relation to what happened. First and foremost: the longtime Kazakh leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, is 71: by now he was supposed to be a wise aksakal (old man) and know how to deal with a simple strike. But, instead, he let the situation escalate to a level in which it became unbearable. What does it say about the prospect of Kazakhstan harboring a progressive, Western-style democracy anytime soon? It says that it is not going to happen. It says that Nazarbayev and the Kazakh elites behind him are definitely not open for negotiations, for reforms, for the people to have a real voice. One needs to be more civilised to be able to leave in a more open country. It is not the case, and apparently it will not be the case for a while. When time was needed to be political, Nazarbayev showed its hammer. That’s a pity, especially because Kazakhstan is holding parliamentary elections this month with the promise of changing its domestic politics. A presidential political advisor said in December that the elections will prepare the terrain to move Kazakhstan away from the “super-presidential” system of almighty Nazarbayev to some sort of parliamentary-presidential system. After what happened in Zhanaozhen? Haha, tell me another joke.

The situation in the city is still tense – the end of the curfew was postponed until the end of the month. What will happen after the curfew expires? Probably a lot of government agents will keep their eyes wide open and calm will be reestablished once more. An artificial calm, though, one that will not last until real change comes to the steppes.

Do you want another reason to be very concerned? The rise of islamist activity. Since I last wrote about the explosions in the West and the South of the country last year, new facts came to light about the islamist group called Soldiers of the Caliphate that claimed responsibility for the explosions in Atyrau (read more about the group here). The organisation apparently was formed by Kazakh people fighting in Kazakhstan on the Taliban side and has the goal of ousting Nazarbayev and creating a caliphate in the Kazakh lands – a goal remarkably similar to the one adopted by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (which, of course, as one can imagine because of its name, wants to remove Islam Karimov from power in Tashkent instead). If the islamists are able to tap the discontent generated by the recent violence in Zhanaozen, Kazakhstan certainly can expect a nightmare scenario. One more reason for Nazarbayev to abandon any silly ideas of political reform now. The well-known argument that, for historical reasons, Islam is weaker in Kazakhstan than in other countries in the region, that most people in the country are moderate Muslims and that this would keep the country away for any sort of militancy, it is now officially flawed (although in the heavily Russified north nothing has happened so far).

Add to the recipe the fact that Nazarbayev will soon have to relinquish power, and a transition period may always lead to political instability. There are those who believe that the Arab Spring will eventually reach Turkestan. Difficult to say for sure. If this happens, I believe it will not be soon (probably not even this year) and will be even more violent. One key moment to watch will be the death of Karimov and Nazarbayev. While in Kazakhstan there are already some rising names quoted as possible successors for the current leader, in Uzbekistan no one knows for sure who the heir might be. In a country were radical islamists are known to operate, anything can happen in this scenario.