Tuesday, May 24, 2016


Video The Reasons Kazakhs Are Protesting

Kazakh Security Forces Crack Down On Land Code Protestsi
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May 21, 2016
Kazakh security forces detained hundreds of journalists, activists, and demonstrators in a number of cities amid a call by the opposition for nationwide demonstrations against changes to Kazakhstan's Land Code. Crowds scattered in Almaty as police moved in to make arrests. (RFE/RL's Current Time TV)
WATCH: Kazakh security forces detained hundreds of journalists, activists, and demonstrators in a number of cities amid a call by the opposition for nationwide demonstrations against changes to Kazakhstan's Land Code. Crowds scattered in Almaty as police moved in to make arrests. (RFE/RL's Current Time TV)
Bruce Pannier

We have entered unknown territory in Kazakhstan and there's a fork in the road ahead. One way leads to serious and sincere social and domestic political reform and the other way to greater authoritarian rule.

It appears hundreds of people were taken into custody on May 21 as police moved to prevent demonstrations in many of Kazakhstan's major cities. The authorities had already detained dozens of activists and opposition figures in the days leading up to the planned May 21 rallies. It has already been the most visible sign of public discontent in Kazakhstan in some two decades.

How did it come to this? How did we end up seeing images of young and old, across Central Asia's most prosperous country, being led away to vans by police?

Officials in Kazakhstan take the line publicly that this sudden wave of popular dissatisfaction is the result of the land-privatization plan announced a couple of months ago. It proved extremely unpopular and sparked protests at the end of April. Kazakh authorities would prefer to keep tensions focused on this single issue, one that they've already worked to defuse by postponing the land-privatization plan.

But there always was more at stake than just land privatization.

Kazakhstan has done well in the 21st century, mainly because of revenues from oil, the country's biggest export. Those revenues helped raise the standard of living in the country.

That has of course been eroded with the drop in the price of oil on world markets and caused Kazakhstan's national currency, the tenge, to lose almost half its value since July 2015.

Many Reasons For Discontent

Encouraged during the good economic times, many people in Kazakhstan took out dollar-based loans. Many of them were part of an emerging middle class in Kazakhstan. These people, numbering in the tens of thousands at least but by some estimates approaching 1 million, are now facing extremely difficult times making payments on those loans. Factor in the family members of these debt holders and there could be well over 1 million people affected by the current mortgage crisis.

Kazakhstan's population is some 17.67 million, according to February 2016 data from the Ministry of National Economy.

The authorities did move to head off employment problems. Wage arrears were the most common reason for protests in Kazakhstan in the mid-1990s. There have not been many reports about wage arrears in Kazakhstan lately. But in an effort to prevent salaries going unpaid and at the same time avoid mass unemployment, many enterprises have moved workers from full-time to part-time employment. This has been especially true in the oil sector but for all those affected the result is smaller paychecks.

There are also the "Oralmans," ethnic Kazakhs who were invited to come back to Kazakhstan in the wake of 1991 independence in order to boost the number of ethnic Kazakhs in the country. As of February 2016, there were 957,772 Oralmans in Kazakhstan.

Part of the deal was that the Oralmans were supposed to receive land. Most have but not all and there have been reports over the years, particularly in Almaty Province, of Oralmans being evicted from land they had settled and built homes on, without any official documentation.

The Oralmans have also been moved around as Kazakhstan's government tries to balance the ethnic composition of the country's regions. Many Oralmans settled in southern Kazakhstan in areas near the border with Uzbekistan, where they boosted the ratio of ethnic Kazakhs to ethnic Uzbeks.

Since the events in eastern Ukraine involving Russia-backed separatists started, Kazakh authorities have been attempting to move Oralmans from the south to the far northern areas of Kazakhstan, along the Russian border, to boost the ethnic ratio of Kazakhs to Russians. The climate along the border with Russian Siberia is a big change from the moderate temperatures of southern Kazakhstan.

Kazakhstan's western provinces are where the oil comes from, where most of Kazakhstan's money comes from. But the area is neglected, while most of the money generated from the region's hydrocarbon riches is spent in eastern Kazakhstan, in Almaty or Astana, or places outside Kazakhstan. Western Kazakhstan is sparsely inhabited and so has little representation in the government.

Media in Kazakhstan regularly report on the opposition figures, independent journalists, bloggers, and civil activists who are taken into custody and put on trial. Even if people do not agree with what these perceived government opponents are espousing, they can still see the process and the government's attempts to silence these people. No one knows the injustices of Kazakhstan's system better than the people living there.

Media also report on the members of Nazarbaev's family and the president's close friends regularly making their way onto lists of the world's richest people. When you're getting poorer this becomes a much bigger issue.

It has become easier to question government policies recently as well.

Kazakhstan is a member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) together with Russia, Belarus, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan. Kazakh officials, particularly President Nursultan Nazarbaev, have said and continue to say the EEU is a guarantee for Kazakhstan's economic future. But trade with other EEU member countries has dropped by about one-third since the organization was created in 2015. Kazakhstan's trade with Russia and Belarus was already falling when those three formed the EEU predecessor organization, the CIS Customs Union.

Media in Kazakhstan report on this falling trade, and government officials repeating the EEU is vital for the country's future.

EXPO-2017 in Astana is supposed to be a showcase for Kazakhstan but multimillion-dollar corruption scandals have plagued the project in recent months. As a consequence, money that was originally saved to ease the sort of hard economic times Kazakhstan is now experiencing has been siphoned off to pay for EXPO.

There is also President Nazarbaev's admission in August 2015 that the National Bank had "burned" through some $28 billion to defend the tenge rate in 2014 and 2015. Nazarbaev's comments preceded the decline in the tenge rate, which, despite the government spending such a huge sum of money, fell precipitously.

No One Else To Blame

Those are just some of the elements likely playing a role in the current situation in Kazakhstan. There is one more thing worth mentioning. Inevitably there are comparisons of Kazakhstan's situation to similar situations in other countries, notably Russia and the neighboring Central Asian states. There is at least one large difference.

Russia blames "the West" for many of its current problems and many people in Russia are willing to accept this. They've heard it before and many continue to readily believe it.

Central Asian countries like Uzbekistan, or Tajikistan would blame banned Islamic groups for causing trouble and the authorities would find members of some group, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, or individual local Islamic leaders known for eschewing state-sponsored Islam and blame them, which in turn would be cause for harsh crackdowns.

Despite the attempts of some Kazakh media to cast blame on "outside forces," there really are not any outside forces interested in seeing instability in Kazakhstan. That is unless one is willing to believe Russia could stage a scenario like eastern Ukraine in Kazakhstan. That certainly would not be a theory Kazakhstan's state media would report.

So Kazakhstan's problems were created in Kazakhstan and most people there seem to appreciate this.

That said, it is extremely unlikely Kazakhstan is on the edge of a revolution. Giant neighbors Russia and China have a huge interest in ensuring Kazakhstan's government is not ousted.

All the same, is also seems unlikely that the Kazakhstan that has existed with little change for the last approximately 15 years can survive this upheaval. Something has to change for the government to maintain control.


The Central Asian Referendum

Tajikistan's May 22 referendum concerns 41 proposed amendments to the constitution. The two most important would eliminate the term limit for incumbent President Emomali Rahmon and lower the age of eligibility to become president.

Bruce Pannier

Tajikistan is conducting a referendum on amendments to the constitution on May 22. As is typical of Central Asian referendums, the May 22 poll is mainly about the executive branch of power. Almost every referendum in Central Asia has been about the executive branch of power and with one very notable exception, these referendums are usually about giving the executive branch more power.

Tajikistan's May 22 referendum concerns 41 proposed amendments to the constitution. The two most important would eliminate the term limit for incumbent President Emomali Rahmon and lower the age of eligibility to become president.

By my count, there have been 15 referendums in Central Asia, excluding the first referendum all five countries conducted in 1991 to approve sovereignty as the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Turkmenistan held the first referendum, in January 1994. The purpose was to approve a measure that extended President Saparmurat Niyazov's term in office until 2002. Niyazov won the 1992 presidential election. It would be the only election he ever ran in. In 1999 Niyazov was named leader for life and he stayed in office until he died in December 2006.

His successor, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, is currently working on constitutional amendments that would strike the maximum age for being president (70 years old). There is no presidential term limit in Turkmenistan's constitution. It is unclear if the impending constitutional amendments will be put to a referendum or simply approved by the compliant government.

After Turkmenistan's referendum, Uzbekistan conducted a referendum in March 1995 that prolonged President Islam Karimov's term in office until 2000. Next up -- Kazakhstan, where President Nursultan Nazarbaev had dissolved parliament in March 1995. In late April 1995, Kazakhstan conducted a referendum to prolong Nazarbaev's term in office until the end of 2000 (though he called a snap election for early 1999). A subsequent referendum in Kazakhstan in August 1995 removed some of parliament's powers and gave more power to the presidency.

Kyrgyzstan conducted the first of its referendums in January 1994. The purpose was to bolster President Askar Akaev, who was facing fierce resistance from the country's parliament. The simple question people voted on was "Do you confirm that the president of Kyrgyzstan who was democratically elected on October 12, 1991, for five years is the president of the Kyrgyz Republic with the right to act as head of state during his term in office?"

A referendum in October that same year made the unicameral parliament into a bicameral body and transferred some of parliament's powers to the executive branch. Referendums in February 1996, October 1998, and February 2003 served to further strengthen the office of the presidency and in the process so changed the constitution that it was decided Akaev's first two terms in office under the "old" constitution did not count and he was free to run for two more terms.

Tajikistan took this same path. President Rahmon was selected at a very small event in northern Tajikistan in November 1992 to be speaker of parliament. The country was falling into civil war at the time and, after it had gone through several presidents in just a few months, the office of the presidency had been abolished. Speaker of parliament was therefore the highest post in Tajikistan.

Rahmon was elected president on November 6, 1994. There were two votes that day -- one the presidential election, the other to approve a new constitution that reinstated the office of president.

I've always wondered what would have happened if Rahmon won the election but the constitution was rejected and there was no office of president. Quite impossible of course, but it pointed to the orchestration of elections to come.

Tajikistan's next referendum was in September 1999 and it was probably the most important referendum Tajikistan ever held. That one approved the legalization of religious political parties. It was necessary because the peace deal that ended Tajikistan's 1992-97 civil war stipulated that members of the opposition, the bulk of whom were from the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, would receive places in government.

That referendum also approved lengthening the presidential term in office from five to seven years and later, on that basis, President Rahmon did the same thing Kyrgyz President Akaev did -- declare that the first two presidential elections did not count as part of the two-term limit.

The last referendum in Tajikistan took place in June 2003 and changed a clause written into the constitution in 1999 that specified a one-term limit for the president, transforming that to a two-term limit. And on May 22 term limits for the "Leader of the Nation" (Rahmon) will be removed entirely. The minimum age of eligibility to be elected president will also drop from 35 to 30, which many interpret as a means for Rahmon to see his son Rustam Emomali, currently 29, become the next president.

Uzbekistan conducted one more referendum in 2002 to prolong Karimov's term and change the length of a presidential term from five years to seven, as well as introducing a bicameral parliament.

Karimov was, and technically still is, constitutionally bound to two terms in office. But when his second term expired in 2007 he simply ran again and Uzbek officials did not raise any objections. Uzbek officials remained quiet when Karimov was again reelected in 2015.

Kyrgyzstan's referendum in June 2010 is the sole exception to the trend established by these previous referendums. That referendum approved a new constitution that transformed Kyrgyzstan from a presidential system of government to a parliamentary system. It also reversed some of the changes made in Kyrgyzstan's referendum of October 2007, which had further concentrated power in the hands of then-President Kurmanbek Bakiev.

However, Tajikistan is taking the image of the Central Asian referendum back to its more traditional use on May 22.


Audio Why Does Tajikistan Need A Referendum?

If a new constitutional referendum in Tajikistan is approved, it could pave the way for President Emomali Rahmon (left) to pass on the reins of power to his son Rustam (right).

Bruce Pannier

Tajikistan is holding a national referendum on May 22 on changes to the constitution. There are 41 proposed amendments presented as a package. Voters can either vote "yes" or "no" to the package. It is not possible to vote on individual amendments.

Among the amendments, there are three significant changes. One would lift presidential term limits; another lowers the eligible age to run for president; and a third outlaws the creation of faith-based political parties.

It is hardly an unprecedented step in Central Asia, but the timing is interesting.

To take a closer look at what is at stake in the May 22 referendum, RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, assembled a Majlis, one of our panel-discussion podcasts.

Moderating the panel was Azatlyk director Muhammad Tahir. Joining the discussion was Dr. Helene Thibault, professor at the Center for International Studies at Montreal University and author of many articles about Central Asia, and Tajikistan in particular. In the studio in Prague, Tohir Safarov of RFE/RL's Tajik Service, known locally as Ozodi, participated. And since Mr. Safarov does more TV than radio lately, I sat in to see if he still does radio -- and since I was there I tossed in a few remarks.

Safarov started by naming the most significant changes in the package of amendments. "The first would give [Tajik President Emomali] Rahmon a lifetime presidency." Safarov also listed lowering the eligibility age to become president from 35 to 30 and commented that this meant Rahmon's son Rustam Emomali could run for president in the next election. "A third amendment is about political parties. If this amendment will be approved, Tajikistan will ban religious parties," he said.

Emomali Rahmon was first elected president in November 1994.* He was elected again in 1999, but an amendment to the constitution changed the term length from five to seven years and Rahmon was able to be elected again in 2006 and 2013. There is a two-term limit for Tajik presidents, so under the current constitution Rahmon should step down in 2020.**

Lowering the age of eligibility to be president might be the most interesting of the proposed changes. It has led to much speculation that this opens the path for Rustam Emomali, aged 29, to become president in 2020. At the same time, few believe Rahmon will leave office in 2020.

'Leader Of The Nation'

The panel noted that, even if Rahmon stepped down, a law passed in late 2015 named the incumbent president "Leader of the Nation." Thibault pointed out, "It gives Rahmon the right to oversee the activities of the government even after he retires, and also gives him lifelong immunity from judicial and criminal prosecutions for him and his family."

So Rahmon, even in retirement, would effectively be leading the country no matter who is president.

The third major change is the banning of faith-based political parties. The other Central Asian states already have this prohibition. But in Tajikistan, part of the 1997 peace accord called for the 1992-97 civil-war opposition to receive places in government. That included the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT). A referendum in 1999 legalized faith-based parties to accommodate the terms of the peace deal.

The IRPT's participation in government dwindled over the years, and in the March 2015 parliamentary elections the party lost its last seats in parliament and all its roles in government. A few months later the party lost its registration, then was banned, and shortly thereafter declared an extremist organization. Many of its leaders fled Tajikistan, some of those who stayed are now on trial facing serious charges.

That leaves very few genuine opposition figures in Tajikistan who can pursue their activities legally.

Part of the reason for the crackdown on the opposition is probably the deteriorating economic situation in Tajikistan. Tajikistan has been donor-dependent throughout its nearly 25-year history. A lack of employment opportunities has led more than 10 percent of the population to seek work elsewhere, usually in Russia. A ripple effect of Russia's recent economic woes is that the money Tajikistan's migrant laborers in Russia send home has been cut in half.

Thibault said that is probably a large part of the reason for conducting this referendum now. "I would say again that it's a consolidation of rule at a moment where there's an economic crisis."

Safarov said this referendum stands apart from earlier referendums in Tajikistan in that authorities are more active in getting the word out to the public. "There are a lot of reports, and every day you can see reports on Tajik TV about these amendments, and they are calling people to vote in the referendum. And there are a lot of demonstrations that are organized by local officials," Safarov said.

However, that does not mean voters understand all of what they are voting on.

Safarov recalled, "Recently our correspondent was in [the northern] Soghd region, there were about 10,000 young people gathering and supporting the constitutional amendments ,and he asked one of them, 'Why are you here?' and he said, 'We support the referendum, we are going to vote.'" Safarov said the Ozodi correspondent "asked, 'Do you know what amendments are there?' and he said, 'I don't know,' and he turned to ask his teacher and he [the teacher] said, 'I also don't know anything about the amendments.'"

Despite the lack of knowledge, the outcome is certain. "I have no doubt that it will be positive outcome in terms of approving the new constitutional amendments," Thibault said.

What comes afterward was among the topics discussed during the Majlis podcast. An audio recording of the discussion can be heard here:

Majlis Podcast: The Tajik Referendum
Majlis Podcast: The Tajik Referendumi
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*He was head of state since November 1992, but his official position was speaker of parliament

**As interpreted by Tajik authorities, the change of term length meant the two five-year terms Rahmon was elected to did not count under the amended constitution.
 


Kazakhstan's Pro-Government TV Channel With A Slight Russian Accent

A screen-grab of Aymira Shaukentaeva, the host of Kazakhstan's Analitika program

Bruce Pannier

Faced with growing public discontent, Kazakhstan's government has shifted into high gear to head off antigovernment protests planned for May 21. Since May 16, authorities have been moving to detain people who could inspire or facilitate the planned nationwide demonstrations.
 
The issue of land privatization, or more specifically the fear that Kazakh land might be leased to foreigners for up to a quarter of a century, sparked rallies and demonstrations across Kazakhstan in late April. On May 5, President Nursultan Nazarbaev postponed implementation of the land-privatization plan until 2017.
 
Kazakh authorities seem reluctant to concede that land privatization was a catalyst for members of the public to air many pent-up grievances about the situation in Kazakhstan, where the economy has seen its worst downturn in some 20 years.
 
Some officials have been dismissed as Kazakhstan's economic woes deepened and protests started, but Nazarbaev and his government have refused to acknowledge any fault for the current problems.
 
And it's not their fault there have been protests recently, at least according to Kazakhstan's First Channel Eurasia. The host of the channel's Analitika program, Aymira Shaukentaeva, has it all figured out: it's a foreign plot.
 
Before continuing, it is necessary to reveal the owners of First Channel Eurasia.Eurasia+ORT owns the channel. Eurasia+ORT is a joint venture between Kazakh companies [80 percent] and Russia's First Channel [20 percent], the result of a 1996 agreement to retransmit Russian programming to Kazakhstan.
 
Shaukentaeva and Analitika have been leading the charge since late April, accusing demonstration organizers of paying people $50 to $150 to attend protests. She also accused foreign forces creating a "fifth column," once mentioning these problems were being created by someone "across the ocean." Shaukentaeva has not offered much in the way of proof.
 
However, on May 14, Shaukentaeva and fellow newscasters Alua Ketegenova and Ruslan Smykov, who has his own talk show on the Eurasia Channel, aired what they said was confirmation that people were being paid to attend protests.
 
The program showed a roughly 25-second video four times in five and a half minutes. Apparently taken with a mobile phone, the video shows a group of five or six people whose faces are never seen -- only their arms and legs. It is unclear where these people are. There are images of the assumed paymaster with a stack of dollars hanging out the top of his back pocket and shots of him holding some $100 bills, clearly displayed so that the person holding the phone camera just centimeters from the paymaster's hand gets a clear picture of the money.

'Sensational, A Bomb'

For the benefit of those who don't speak Russian, and just because I personally found this to be comical and ridiculous, I'll provide some of what Shaukentaeva, Ketegenova, and Smykov said.
 
After showing the video the first time and urging bloggers and people on social networks to disseminate the video as widely as possible, Ketegenova says, "Let's see it again." Smykov quickly agrees and says, "Let's look at this again, watch closely this video that we just received from 'closed sources,' actually we received it a while ago but we're showing it right now."
 
The video runs for a second time and as it ends Smykov says, "That's how they are selling us and it's interesting that they are selling not for Kazakh tenge, not in the national currency, but in dollars. We can understand who the organizer is."
 
The video is shown for a third time and Shaukentaeva says, "This is how these people sell the motherland." After more calls to viewers to post this video on their social network sites, the video is shown for a fourth time, this time with Smykov providing commentary.
 
"Pay attention, an illegal gathering… haggling is going on," then Shaukentaeva jumps in saying, "And there's the money."
 
Clear proof.
 
Ketegenova -- mercifully -- wraps the program up saying, "That was sensational, a bomb."
 
It certainly was a bomb and people in Kazakhstan took to social networks to denounce the pathetic attempt to pass the video off as clear proof of protesters being paid or the involvement of a foreign country. EurasiaNet did a good job covering this.
 
On an earlier Analitika program, Shaukentaeva speaks about "certain third countries that have left their tracks in Muslim states." As she derides the systems she says have been left in place in Muslim countries by these "third countries," videos behind Shaukentaeva show a bloodied and beaten former Libyan President Muammar Qaddafi during the last minutes of his life and former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein being led to the gallows.
 
"This is democracy," Saukentaeva tells the audience. She follows up not long after by pointing to the recent Syrian parliamentary elections, "a huge victory for the country" that the West disregarded. The program continues with brief segments of U.S. President Barack Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton giving interviews about mistakes in U.S foreign policy mixed with local political analysts commenting on what they say have been failed U.S. moves on the world stage.
 
First Channel Eurasia is very similar in its style and approach to programming on Russian channels, playing on threats to the nation, pride and unity in the country, and portraying activists and demonstrators as malcontents and paid-off pawns.
 
The channel is fairly popular and some of the more outrageous claims and remarks during programs have become a topic of conversation around Kazakhstan.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, known locally as Azattyq
 

Information Blackout In Turkmenistan’s Hinterland

Officially, satellite dishes are being removed from Turkmen cities because they are considered an eyesore, but many suspect authorities of using this as an excuse to restrict access to information from nonstate media. (file photo)

Bruce Pannier

The dismantling and removal of satellite dishes in Turkmenistan continues. That is not news; it’s been happening in the capital, Ashgabat, and surrounding areas for years now.

Many suspect the reason is the desire of the authorities to prevent the country's people from accessing outside information.

Officially, the satellite dishes were considered pockmarks, eyesores in the great white marble city.

But RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, has learned that the campaign has picked up pace lately and been extended to areas far from Ashgabat, making it difficult to believe the removal of satellite dishes and antennas is anything other than an attempt to cut off Turkmenistan's people from contact with the outside world.

In April, Azatlyk correspondent Amanmyrat Bugaev went to the northern city of Dashoguz, where authorities made some half-hearted efforts to get rid of satellite dishes a couple of years ago. Bugaev said a new order went out recently to remove satellite dishes. The reason was the same as in Ashgabat -- beautification of the city -- and it is necessary in Dashoguz now, because that city was designated as the Commonwealth of Independent States' cultural capital for 2016.

Bugaev said the same thing was happening in the cities of Mary, in the southern Mary Province, and in Turkmenabat, in the eastern Lebap Province. "It's going on in all major cities," the Azatlyk correspondent said.

Bugaev also traveled to the western Balkan Province and said authorities were taking down satellite dishes in Balkanabat city. Bugaev said the removals were not confined to Balkanabat but extended to villages all around the city.

"Employees of the municipality who are removing antennas don't give any reason," he said. "Local people confronted the municipality workers and were told the antennas are ruining the beauty of the city and people were given a few days to take them down or else the municipality would do it."

In Ashgabat, some of those who lost their satellite dishes were offered the chance to subscribe to government cable packages. In some places there is a central antenna and people can connect to that. In both cases the selection of channels is limited.

Azatlyk has already received complaints from listeners in the Ashgabat area that access to some programs, including Azatlyk's, is impossible via government-owned antennas. Satellite connections have been one of the main means of receiving Azatlyk's broadcasts.

People in smaller cities of Turkmenistan are apparently not being offered any options. They are simply losing their satellite television links and are now confined to receiving Turkmen state television, which even the president has on occasion described as lacking in entertainment.

This latest wave of "beautification" does seem to show, however, that the intent of Turkmen authorities is, and always has been, to restrict the population to accessing information solely from state sources.

Muhammad Tahir, the director of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, contributed to this report
 

Kazakhstan's Privatization Hits A Snag

Kazakhstan's state oil and gas company KMG has been earmarked for privatization as Astana seeks to raise some much-needed cash amid an economic downturn. (file photo)

Bruce Pannier

Kazakhstan is off to a rough start in its privatization drive. China appeared to be on the verge of a bargain for shares of a prized Kazakh company, but Romania disrupted the process, raising doubts about investing in other Kazakh companies on the privatization block.

Sounds complicated, and it is, but it's an interesting story.

Faced with its worst economic downturn in some 20 years, Kazakhstan's government announced in late 2015 that it would privatize many of the country's key enterprises. Among the major companies were state oil and gas company KazMunaiGaz (KMG) and its subsidiaries.

On April 29, KMG announced it had sold a 51-percent stake of subsidiary KMG International to CEFC China Energy Company Limited for, according to CEFC, $680 million.

KMG International, formerly Rompetrol Group, owns two refineries and a petrochemical plant in Romania as well as nearly 1,000 filling stations in Romania, France, Spain, Bulgaria, Moldova, and Georgia as well as other assorted assets. It was something KMG bought in better financial days of almost a decade ago.

About the same time, another KMG subsidiary, KazTransOil, bought terminals on Georgia's Black Sea coast to ship oil, pumped through pipelines or brought by rail from Azerbaijan, to KMG's refineries in Romania for processing and sale in Europe.

KMG in 2007 purchased a 75-percent stake in Rompetrol and eventually bought all of the company for some $3.6 billion. KMG upgraded the oil refineries and bought the Midia Marine Terminal on Romania's Black Sea coast, which received some 23 million tons of oil in 2015.

The sale of just over half of KGM International for less than 25 percent of the original purchase price has not been widely reported by media in Kazakhstan. The fact that the sale was to a Chinese company would only make the news worse, given current popular sentiment in Kazakhstan.

A Foothold in Europe

CEFC was set to gain a new foothold in southern Europe. A CEFC statement noted that KMG International "occupies a strategically important position in Europe" and "owns two refinery plants in Europe with 5.5 million tons of processing capability and is qualified to trade and transport 14 million tons of crude oil."

But on May 9, Romanian prosecutors seized the Petromidia refinery, the filling stations on Romanian territory and other assets in connection with an investigation into tax evasion, money laundering, and fraud.

The case actually originates with the privatization of Rompetrol Rifinare in 2000 and agreements to pay off the company's debt. KMG took on "some" of the debt when the Kazakh company bought its initial controlling stake in Rompetrol.

The total value of the property seized is some $752 million, roughly the amount Romanian authorities claim KMG International owes for "damages." Some of those damages involve several lawsuits that KMG International has been in with Romanian authorities since acquiring Rompetrol's assets.

KMG posted a statement on its website on May 11 that said the Romanian investigation centered on Rompetrol's activities from 1998 to 2003, well before KMG acquired shares in the company in 2007, and that KMG had not been informed of any ongoing investigations into Rompetrol at that time.

The statement mentioned prosecutors wanted to question 14 KMG International managers in Romania.

The statement also expressed the hope that Romanian authorities would complete the "investigation in the shortest time and with maximum transparency" and vowed to use all legal means to protect its interests in Romania.

CEFC has not commented on the case.

Still open to investors are Kazakhstan's state railway company and airline, the nuclear power company, Kazakhstan's three oil refineries, the national maritime shipping company, the country's largest telecom company, and scores of other enterprises.

Yerzhan Karabek of the RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, known locally as Azattyq, and Eugene Tomiuc of RFE/RL's Central Newsroom contributed to this report
 

Audio Podcast: Who Will Defend Tajikistan’s Defenders?

Tajik lawyer Buzurgmehr Yorov was reportedly arrested the day that he told the public that one of his clients was being tortured in prison.

Bruce Pannier

Authorities in Tajikistan have been cracking down on perceived political opponents for several years now. The fate of such people often seems a foregone conclusion before their cases even come to trial. But once in the courtroom, these defendants often had competent legal representation from a handful of lawyers who were always willing to take up their cases and use every opportunity to show to the court -- and to the world, when it listened -- the absurdity of the charges against their clients.

But lately it is those attorneys who are on trial.

To get a clearer picture of what is happening with the people who defend those whom the government has branded as criminals, RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, assembled a majlis, a panel, to discuss why lawyers now find themselves on trial.

Azatlyk Director Muhammad Tahir moderated the session. He brought in two people who know very well what has been happening in Tajikistan lately: the Central Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW), Steve Swerdlow, and Marius Fossum, the regional representative for Central Asia from the Norwegian Helsinki Committee.

I know them both personally, and it is an important issue, so I was happy to join in the conversation also.

“We often talk about the crackdown on the opposition and on NGOs, but it's really impossible for civil society in any of these countries in Central Asia, or in general, to function without lawyers -- without lawyers that can fulfill their profession,” Swerdlow said at the start of the discussion.

Four lawyers in Tajikistan have been taken into custody; one of them is already in prison.

Fossum said, “The common thing is that all the charges [against them] appear trumped up and in retaliation for these attorneys representing the opposition.”

Buzurgmehr Yorov is one of those attorneys. He was defending members of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), a group that held places in the government from the end of the 1990s until March 2015, when the party lost the last two seats it had in parliament. Tajik authorities then moved quickly to cancel the IRPT’s registration. Leading members of the party were detained after being connected to an alleged mutiny by a deputy defense minister, although the IRPT’s connections to the deputy minister were tenuous at best.

Yorov and his law firm Sipar agreed to defend them. As Swerdlow recalled, Yorov himself was soon taken into custody on fraud charges.

“[Yorov] was actually arrested the day that he told the public that one of his clients -- Saydumar Husaynov, the first deputy chairman of the IRPT -- was being tortured...in prison.”

That was on September 28. The next day, the IRPT was officially declared an extremist group.

Another lawyer on trial with Yorov is Nuriddin Makhkamov, also from the Sipar law firm and also facing charges of fraud. Dilbar Dodojonova of the Sipar law firm is currently under house arrest while she awaits her trial on defamation charges.

The trial of Yorov and Makhkamov opened on May 10. Yorov wanted to appear in court wearing the standard ornate robe that lawyers in Tajikistan wear when they are in courtrooms. The court told him he could not, so Yorov has been coming to his trial dressed in an undershirt.

Other attorneys willing to take on cases for opposition figures are facing similar obstacles. Two sons of attorney Iskhok Tabarov have been jailed, though Tabarov himself is not currently facing any charges.

Tajik authorities are moving to ensure that, in the future, perceived government opponents will never have access to legal defense from people such as Yorov, Makhkamov, Dodojonova, and others.

As Swerdlow noted, a new regulation requires “all lawyers in Tajikistan to retake the bar exam, so that means people who have been practicing 15 years, 20 years.”

Fossum added that the test sometimes has little to do with knowledge of the law and seems designed to remove lawyers who authorities might consider undesirable -- or, put differently, those who are competent and could slow judicial processes that aim to put critics and other potential opponents behind bars.

“Reports have reached us that you have to answer questions about history, culture, about Tajikistan. EurasiaNet reported that one of the questions was: When did the first train run in Tajikistan?” Fossum said.

Representatives of the U.S. Embassy and the office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in Tajikistan are attending the Yorov and Makhkamov trials. Journalists have been permitted to attend also under the condition they do not make any audio or video recordings of the proceedings.

It was noted during the discussion that the trials of IRPT members and the attorneys who would defend them come as Tajikistan enters difficult economic times and prepares to hold a referendum on May 22 that would change the constitution to allow President Emomali Rahmon to stay in power indefinitely. Another change would lower the age of eligibility to be elected president from 35 to 30. President Rahmon’s son Rustam Emomali will turn 30 in 2017. The next presidential election is set for 2020.

HRW and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee released a report about the trials, detentions, and imprisonment of lawyers in Tajikistan. It can be found here.

The majlis discussion looked more closely at the cases of the lawyers mentioned in this text and others who are either on trial or already in prison, as well as the situation with opposition members. There was also talk about what international organizations and individual governments are doing or could do to stem the Tajikistan government’s campaign against what authorities see as potential troublemakers.

An audio recording of the Majlis session can be heard here:

Majlis Podcast: Who Will Defend Tajikistan’s Defenders?
Majlis Podcast: Who Will Defend Tajikistan’s Defenders?i
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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change. Content will draw on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad. The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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