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Qishloq Ovozi

Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev (right) raised hackles in Bishkek when he met with Kyrgyz opposition presidential candidate Omurbek Babanov (left) in Almaty in September. Babanov subsequently lost the election to Sooronbai Jeenbekov the following month.

The dispute between the governments of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan is affecting many aspects of bilateral relations between the two countries, but one result that seems very likely is that Kazakhstan's government will be taking a much greater interest in Kyrgyzstan's domestic politics in the years to come.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev might have sparked the current tensions when he met with the head of Kyrgyzstan's Respublika party, Omurbek Babanov, on September 19 in the Kazakh capital, Astana.

Babanov was running for president of Kyrgyzstan at the time and his main challenger was Sooronbai Jeenbekov, who was supported by sitting President Almazbek Atambaev. Jeenbekov eventually won the October 15 election.

But since that meeting in Astana it has been Atambaev who has been dumping fuel on the fire Nazarbaev touched off.

First there were some angry statements exchanged between the two countries' foreign ministries.

At an award ceremony in Bishkek on October 7, Atambaev addressed the Nazarbaev-Babanov meeting, calling it "meddling in Kyrgyzstan's internal affairs," and adding some uncomplimentary comments about Kazakhstan's government and Nazarbaev.

Kazakhstan closed the border with Kyrgyzstan on October 10, less than one week before Kyrgyzstan's presidential election.

The 'Entourage' Strikes Back

On October 18, three days after Jeenbekov won the Kyrgyz presidential election, Atambaev made a feeble attempt at an apology by saying that Nazarbaev "is a trusting person ... [and] much like any president, [Nazarbaev] trusts his entourage, but his entourage are oligarchs who think of their own future, not about Kazakhstan and Nazarbaev."

This is a good time to move things forward a few weeks.

Nazarbaev has not publicly responded to anything Atambaev has said about Kazakhstan and its leader. But some of Nazarbaev's "entourage" has.

Mukhtar Kul-Muhammad is the deputy chairman of Kazakhstan's ruling Nur-Otan party, founded on March 1, 1999, with the intention of seeing Nazarbaev reelected president.

Kazakhstan's Tengrinews information website printed an article on November 27 titled Mukhtar Kul-Muhammad: This Is A Complete Failure For Atambaev.

Former Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev (file photo)
Former Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev (file photo)

The Nur-Otan deputy chairman questioned Atambaev's knowledge of Kyrgyz and Kazakh history, but later got right to the heart of it.

"Lately the expressions heard from the mouth of Atambaev ... (give) the impression that this is a person in prison or a hospital. (Words like) 'flunky, a**hole, mankurt [a completely Sovietized Central Asian], idiot, stinky, bastards, sh*t' have already become commonplace in the lexicon of Atambaev."

Kul-Muhammad's article came after Tengrinews carried an piece on November 20 by Nurlan Nigmatulin, the speaker of the Mazhilis, Kazakhstan's lower house of parliament.

Nigmatulin wrote: "Concerning Atambaev, it is obvious to everyone that during the years of his presidency he could not accomplish even one result in the economy, or in politics."

Atambaev had continued with his intermittent criticism of Kazakhstan through late October and into November. On November 15, Atambaev said he would not apologize to the "aged president," a clear reference to Nazarbaev. Atambaev said Kazakhstan continued to impose a "blockade" on the border with Kyrgyzstan.

"Some people seem to say that Atambaev must bend his knee in front of the rich neighbor and apologize," he continued. "It is not Atambaev but those who impertinently meddle in our affairs who must apologize."

He had more to say.

That prompted not only the responses from Nigmatulin and Kul-Muhammad, it also elicited comments from Kasymzhomart Tokaev, who as speaker of the Senate, the upper house of Kazakhstan's parliament, would constitutionally take over as president (temporarily) in the event that Nazarbaev cannot perform the duties of his office.

'Hysterical Speech'

Tokaev used Twitter to respond to Atambaev on November 15.

"The latest hysterical speech of Atambaev, with foul attacks on Kazakhstan, only work to the detriment of relations of genuine good-neighborliness," he said. "Such emotion has no place in politics. There is no talk of a blockade on Kyrgyzstan. The norms/demands of the EEU [Eurasian Economic Union] need to be fulfilled. This is a subject for negotiations."

Tokaev was not finished. On November 23, one day before Jeenbekov took the oath of the office of Kyrgyzstan's president, Tokaev posted another tweet about Atambaev.

"WikiLeaks published comments of U.S. Ambassador [Stephen] Young based on information of Turkish doctors about Atambaev's psychiatric afflictions and his dependence on alcohol that contribute to his paranoia. Everything becomes clear then! We're hoping for his recovery," he said.

Tokaev's earlier experience as Kazakhstan's foreign minister shows in the diplomatic language of his tweets, but more importantly, Tokaev is one of the most powerful figures in Kazakhstan. Nigmatulin and Kul-Muhammad are also part of the elite. They help determine policy and should Nazarbaev, who is 77, be unable to perform his presidential duties these three would have a lot of say in the succession.

Tokaev, Nigmatulin, and Kul-Muhammad, as well as other Kazakh officials, have been very careful to distinguish Kyrgyzstan's people from Atambaev in their comments.

But those three, and others in Kazakhstan's elite, probably have a different view of Kyrgyzstan now than anyone in Kazakhstan had just three months ago.

Kyrgyzstan' new president, Sooronbai Jeenbekov
Kyrgyzstan' new president, Sooronbai Jeenbekov

There were hopes that after Jeenbekov officially took over as Kyrgyzstan's president this unpleasant episode would start to wind down.

But in the first few days of Jeenbekov's presidency there have been no signs of a thaw.

Jeenbekov decided to make his first trip as Kyrgyzstan's president to Russia, not Kazakhstan.

In Jeenbekov's defense, the Kremlin invited him and he needs to travel on to Minsk on November 30 for the 15th anniversary summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Nazarbaev should be in Minsk also, but there were no reported plans for the Kazakh and Kyrgyz leaders to meet on the sidelines of the summit.

Since the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in late 1991, Kazakhstan has been a benign neighbor that worked with Kyrgyzstan but did not ever seem to interfere in internal Kyrgyz politics.

But possibilities for Kazakhstan to exert influence on Kyrgyzstan's internal dynamics exist.

Ties between groups on both sides of the border are strong.

Certainly, there is the potential for groups or individuals in Kazakhstan, many of whom have access to vast amounts of money, to finance political parties or candidates in Kyrgyzstan, though of course under Kyrgyzstan's laws this would be illegal.

One thing seems sure -- many of the elite in Kazakhstan will not want to see a repeat of this ongoing saga with Kyrgyzstan and they will be much more interested in Kyrgyzstan's domestic politics.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

Gurbanbibi Atajanova's case says much about fighting corruption in Central Asia.

You could say Gurbanbibi Atajanova was born with a set of jailer's keys in her hand.

She served as the country's prosecutor-general for an astonishing 10 years under Turkmenistan's first president, Saparmurat Niyazov, a leader known for constantly shuffling officials.

If you were accused of crimes and were brought before Atajanova, your life was about to take a serious turn for the worse.

She wore a dark-blue uniform with golden epaulettes, a blue cap with a gold badge and gold trim, and seemed to always have a sour expression on her face.

Atajanova was already an employee of the Prosecutor-General's Office when the Soviet Union collapsed in late 1991. She was promoted to assistant prosecutor-general right after Turkmenistan became independent, and was named prosecutor-general on April 3, 1995.

Atajanova spearheaded the Turkmen government's efforts to root out corruption for 10 years. She sent thousands of people to prison, among them scores of officials convicted of corruption.

Charging officials with corruption was one of the ways Niyazov perpetuated a turnstile policy when it came to officials, an approach many believe was used to prevent any one person from becoming too powerful or too popular.

State TV often showed Atajanova speaking to fallen, disgraced officials charged with crimes, usually some form of corruption. Atajanova coldly listed the state's charges against the accused or just as coldly recounted punishments already meted out to the guilty -- including confiscation of all property, prison, or internal exile to remote areas of Turkmenistan.

After the reported November 25, 2002, attempt on President Niyazov's life, Atajanova led the investigation, rounding up not only suspects but their family members as well.

Simultaneously, Atajanova went after government officials. In March 2003, Atajanova announced that 34 former government officials, including two deputy prime ministers, a defense minister, and an energy minister and his deputies were found guilty of corruption and embezzlement and sent to internal exile in remote settlements.

30,000 Buckets?

There were rumors in December 2003 that Atajanova herself had been placed under house arrest for involvement in illegal narcotics trafficking, but at the end of that month she appeared on state television attending a cabinet meeting. However, there was some truth to the rumors.

At the end of 2005, Atajanova retired at age 58. Shortly after, the tables turned.

She was taken into custody in April 2006 and charged with involvement in the illegal narcotics trade. Soon after the authorities said they had seized from Atajanova 13 homes, a brick factory, a rice mill, five cars, three tractors, a bulldozer, two construction cranes, 40 hectares of land, more than $6 million, more than 2,000 cattle, and, mysteriously, more than 30,000 buckets.

I know. That last one is really strange. Even President Niyazov made a point of mentioning the buckets when Atajanova appeared before him, weeping and begging for mercy. Niyazov asked, "For what reason did you steal 30,000 buckets?"

The reason for the buckets was never explained, but they sparked some interesting rumors about their purpose, including that they were filled with gold, or heroin.

Atajanova was taken into custody and quickly tried and convicted.

But the story was not over.

Nikolai Gavrilov was a senior employee in the National Security Committee's counternarcotics department. He is believed to be the person who discovered and reported Atajanova's involvement in the illegal trafficking of narcotics.

Gavrilov and his wife were killed in Ashgabat on November 8, 2006. The perpetrators have never been caught.

Gurbanbibi Atajanova's case says much about fighting corruption in Central Asia. She supposedly led the fight against corruption, helping to imprison scores of officials on corruption charges. But even the partial list of Atajanova's seized assets shows she accumulated her wealth over many years; some of it apparently was taken from people she helped send to prison.

It is doubtful no one noticed what Atajanova was doing.

The December 2003 rumor of Atajanova's house arrest was not true, but it appears that her brother and adopted son were apprehended at that time for drug smuggling.

When Atajanova was finally sent to prison, most of her family, including her brother and adopted son, seem to have been imprisoned also.

Atajanova was incarcerated in the women's prison in Dashoguz in 2006. That was the last credible information about Turkmenistan's Iron Lady.

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report. The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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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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