WELCOME TO IWPR'S REPORTING CENTRAL ASIA, No. 521, December 14, 2007
KYRGYZ ELECTION REPORTS:
KYRGYZ ELECTION: GOING THROUGH THE MOTIONS In the run-up to parliamentary
polls, the presidents men are pulling out all the stops to make sure they get
the result they want. By IWPR staff in Bishkek
COUNTING THE KYRGYZ MIGRANT VOTE As the election looms, it remains unclear how
expatriates votes will be counted. By Gulnara Mambetalieva in Bishkek
OPPOSITION CLAIMS ELECTION BIAS As parties and NGOs accuse the electoral
commission of stacking the decks in favour of the presidents party, there are
warnings of protests ahead. By Aziza Amirova in Bishkek
PERSONALITY POLITICS MAY TURN OFF KYRGYZ VOTERS Failure of parties to offer
voters distinctive policies may result in a low turnout in the weekend
parliamentary election. By Yryskeldi Kadykeev in Bishkek
KARIMOV TIGHTENS HIS GRIP IN UZBEK ELECTION RUN-UP The hard-line president is
taking no chances as he prepares to secure another mandate. IWPR staff in
TURKMEN LEADER WIPES UGLY TV DISHES FROM SKYLINE Officially, satellite
dishes have to go because they are an eyesore, but the real aim may be to cut
off people from information from outside. By IWPR staff in Bishkek
UNCLEAR KYRGYZ-KAZAK BORDER MAKES LIFE TOUGH FOR VILLAGERS Border difficulties
affecting Kyrgyz villagers blamed on overzealous frontier guards and on
Kyrgyzstans failure to ratify a demarcation agreement. By Diana Iskakova in
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KYRGYZ ELECTION REPORTS
KYRGYZ ELECTION: GOING THROUGH THE MOTIONS
In the run-up to parliamentary polls, the presidents men are pulling out all
the stops to make sure they get the result they want.
By IWPR staff in Bishkek
>From her well-hidden office in a Bishkek tower block, with not even a sign on
>the door, Tolekan Ismailova is gearing up for another battle.
Veteran human rights activist Ismailova and her colleagues from the Citizens
Against Corruption group are determined to embarrass the Kyrgyz authorities
over what she describes as blatant moves to fix the outcome of the December 16
Days before the vote, most people appear resigned to an inevitable landslide
victory by Ak Jol, the political vehicle that President Kurmanbek Bakiev set up
on October 15, a few days before his revised constitution was passed by a
referendum and he called a snap election.
According to a Citizens Against Corruption statement, The Central Electoral
Commission and the courts have been using unlawful methods to restrict
political parties from participating in the parliamentary elections.
Several parties that had real support from the electorate and a clear chance
of getting into parliament have been dismissed from the race, the statement
Only 12 of the 50 parties that applied to stand in the election have been
allowed to do so by the Central Election Commission, CEC.
We are seeing major violations [of election legislation], said Ismailova
angrily. In schools, both children and teachers are being told, You will join
Ak Jol because its the presidents party.
She alleges that the CEC, tasked with impartial supervision of the poll, merely
reflects official policy - which is to marginalise all serious political rivals
to Ak Jol, leaving the field free for it and a few select allies.
Ismailova says the CECs decision to ban the Zamandash party from the race, and
also to expel the young and charismatic Social Democratic candidate, Edil
Baisalov, offer proof of the commissions susceptibility to what people term
This code word, understood by everyone, refers to the web of patronage,
coercion and manpower the incumbent authorities can draw on to secure the
desired outcome of elections.
Zamandash was barred because it was not corrupt, so they barred it on a
technicality, said Ismailova on. The government was afraid because it had
good people in it; because they were fresh and new.
She dismisses President Bakiev with a look of scorn. If he was 33 and had
travelled abroad, that would be one thing, but hes a classic bureaucrat, a
real part of the old nomenklatura, she said.
But he moves fast, she conceded. Hes gathering a lot of money and
Bakiev came to power as a result of mass street protests in March 2005,
prompted by rigged parliamentary elections that forced the then president Askar
Akaev to flee.
During the two years that Bakiev has been president, he has been under pressure
from opposition and civil society groups to deliver on a range of reform
To defuse one of a series of mass anti-government protests, he signed a new
constitution in November 2006 extending the powers of parliament and curtailing
his own. But by the end of the year he had regained most of his powers, as
parliament feared dissolution if it did not comply with the constitutional
After the Constitutional Court ruled both versions of the document invalid,
Bakiev proposed a third version in September, which was quickly passed the
following month in a referendum. The announcement of an early parliamentary
election followed shortly afterwards.
The countrys 100 or so parties were given only weeks to prepare to compete
under the newly introduced proportional electoral system for all parliamentary
seats. Until now, the main system used has been based on single-mandate
Charges of election bias are not limited to rights activists like Ismailova.
While foreign diplomats hold their fire unwilling, perhaps, to alienate the
Central Asian state that comes closest to upholding democratic principles
many are privately concerned that Kyrgyzstan could go the same way as Kazakstan
with its one-party parliament.
Its very obvious, said one diplomatic source, referring to the preferential
treatment Ak Jol gets in the media. They get 80 per cent of the airtime. They
are supposed to allow all the parties free airtime but this hasnt happened.
I find it disappointing, the source added. If you are going to behave like
this, dont do it so openly. Its almost farcical.
A representative of one of the observer groups preparing to monitor the polls
said he feared the authorities were pre-arranging the election results in a
somewhat obvious fashion.
Im not sure theyre smart enough to set up a false result more credibly, he
The results are pre-determined, he added, outlining a scenario in which
various provinces compete to outperform on his [Bakievs] behalf. Where there
is no observer presence, you will see people voting 98 per cent for Ak Jol.
A widespread conviction that people are being asked only to go through the
motions helps explain the lacklustre atmosphere in the capital only days before
the ballot. There are few signs on the street of tension, excitement, or even
Election posters are few and far between, while minimal effort has gone into
devising slogans for the 12 parties allowed to take part. Most posters for Ak
Jol merely feature a smiling person above the unimaginative slogan, Ak jol,
Turnout is expected to be low, though whether the authorities will be prepared
to admit this remains to be seen.
Many observers are concerned about ballot-stuffing, a common practice in past
elections. The presence of a few hundred foreign monitors provides only partial
insurance against this, as they will not be able to cover the several thousand
The day after the October 21 referendum, the OSCE mission head in Bishkek,
Markus Mueller, lambasted the high number of irregularities that had marred
In a statement, the OSCE said these included "massive ballot-stuffing by
members of precinct election commissions, use of administrative resources to
bring people to polling stations, [and] obstruction of domestic observers by
local authorities and members of election commissions.
Political observers note that in the weeks before the election, the president
has made a number of key moves, replacing the governor of the southern Osh
region and the Kyrgyz education minister with known loyalists and shunting
aside Prime Minister Almazbek Atambaev, who heads the Social Democratic Party.
With few indications that the election will be entirely free or fair, observers
already have their eye on the aftermath, wondering whether the opposition will
sit back or take to the streets.
Tolekan Ismailova is in no doubt that the government will use its fresh mandate
to clamp down on dissenters. After the election a lot of people will be
arrested, she predicted.
She says she is not fazed by that prospect, as her family has already suffered
as a result of her political activities.
People will stand up, she said confidently. They know this election is their
only chance to express their views and change something in this country.
COUNTING THE KYRGYZ MIGRANT VOTE
As the election looms, it remains unclear how expatriates votes will be
By Gulnara Mambetalieva in Bishkek
Kyrgyz political parties have expressed fears that a lack of clear guidelines
for counting the votes cast by migrant workers abroad may lead to conflict
after the polls.
In the weekend ballot on December 16, each vote could be of decisive
importance. This is because besides meeting a national threshold of five per
cent of the countrys 2.7 million voters, the parties must also gather at least
0.5 per cent of the vote in each of seven regions and two cities, Osh and
The Central Electoral Commission, CEC, has ruled that this half per cent is to
be counted not from the actual number of voters in each region, but from the
national electoral roll, which works out as at least 13,500 votes in each
region, regardless of its population.
It is not clear how these regional allocations will work for the migrant
workers currently in Russia and Kazakhstan, of whom there are believe to be
between half a million and a million.
Temir Sariev, leader of the opposition Ata-Meken party, says the current
ambiguity concerning migrant votes and their allocation by region is storing up
trouble, as the threshold could mean some parties that would otherwise be
eligible will not get into parliament.
It is very difficult to calculate which region is to receive the [migrant]
votes, said Sariev, explaining that it would be complex and expensive to
discover where each expatriate voter is now living and where he or she is
listed as living in Kyrgyzstan.
Topchubek Turgunaliev, chair of the Erkindik party, describes the confusion
over migrant votes as the Achilles heel of the parliamentarian election.
Nowhere, he says, has it been officially declared how these votes will be
The electorate is already wrestling with a novel system of proportional
representation and party candidate lists that will have its trial run in
Kyrgyzstan this weekend.
Most of the 50 parties that declared their intention to run in the snap
election have already dropped out or have been barred by the CEC, and just 12
have been admitted to the race.
The majority have only recently started developing election programmes and
building a support-base in all nine electoral regions, so the 0.5 per cent
barrier could pose a formidable obstacle.
This is especially the case in sparsely populated regions such as Talas in
north-west Kyrgyzstan. The total number of registered voters in Talas is only
121,000, which means each of the 12 parties needs 11 per cent of that figure to
get the requisite 13,500 votes needed to get into parliament.
That is clearly an impossible task for many, not least since many of those
listed on the regional electoral role are away working abroad, and others will
simply stay at home.
Omurbek Sarbagishev, deputy chair of the CECs organising committee, said the
commission had not decided which regions would receive the votes of migrants
This issue will be put to the vote in the CEC; and its currently hard to tell
how members will vote, Sarbagishev told IWPR. As things now stand, he added,
all these votes will be counted in with the Pervomaysky district of Bishkek.
However, Asein Isaev, from the foreign ministry department that deals with
relations with other former Soviet states, said despite the air of ambiguity
surrounding the migrant vote, he was confident that each polling station abroad
would in fact record the district from which an individual came.
Information on the regions from which our citizens abroad come will be entered
into the voting lists, Isaev told IWPR.
Kyrgyzstan nationals abroad have also raised other concerns about the imminent
Akyl Kuduev, a diaspora leader in the Russian city of Samara, said far too few
ballots had been allocated for his community, so that only 3,000 out of at
least 5,000 Kyrgyz nationals who wanted to vote in Samara would be able to do
Because of the very short run-up to the election, we were unable to compile a
full list of voters and obtain the necessary blank ballots, said Kuduev. We
applied to the CEC [for more] but were told there would be no additional ballot
Kuduev explained that the migrant workers in the area worked in diverse sectors
in agriculture, construction, manufacturing and at the bazaars - making it
difficult to identify them all within the allotted time frame of a few weeks.
The CEC admits it has released only about 29,000 ballot papers for use abroad,
a tiny fraction of the number of Kyrgyz citizens known to be living and working
outside the country.
Political scientist Toktogul Kakchekeev says it is almost incomprehensible why
no realistic count has been made of the number of potential voters abroad.
No one from the migration and border services, the state statistics committee
or the interior ministry will tell you the exact number of migrants, because
they dont have this information, complained Kakchekeev. They dont have the
Turgunaliev highlighted another problem whether the substantial number of
people who have moved within Kyrgyzstan in search of a better life will be
counted as residents of their original region or their new one, and whether
they will be able to vote at all.
In principle, voters are listed by the place where they are officially
registered as residents with the authorities. This means that internal migrants
either have to go back and vote in their original area, or obtain an absentee
ballot beforehand, entitling them to vote at any polling station of Kyrgyzstan.
There are tens of thousands of people from the Batken and Naryn regions who
are now in Osh and Bishkek and who will not really want to go back to their
villages at their own expense, said Turgunaliev. The state doesnt have the
money to pay for it, nor do tens of thousands of voters. Therefore, I think 30
or even 40 per cent of these migrants will be unable to vote.
Gulnara Mambetalieva is an IWPR contributor in Bishkek.
OPPOSITION CLAIMS ELECTION BIAS
As parties and NGOs accuse the electoral commission of stacking the decks in
favour of the presidents party, there are warnings of protests ahead.
By Aziza Amirova in Bishkek
Days before Kyrgyzstan goes to the polls, several parties and non-government
groups have accused the countrys electoral commission of bias, saying it has
acted on behalf of the current administration rather than as an impartial
They have warned that if their complaints are not addressed, mass protests are
likely either before or immediately after the December 16 ballot.
In a public statement sent to the Central Election Commission, CEC, on December
6, the parties said the commissions conduct, especially as regards registering
participants, revealed extreme bias in favour of one participant in the
election process. By this, they meant the Ak Jol party, set up last month by
Kyrgyzstans president, Kurmanbek Bakiev.
The signatories included registered participants in the election such as
Ata-Meken, Asaba, Ar-Namys and the Social Democrats, as well as parties that
the CEC has barred from standing, including Rodina and the Greens.
The CEC has granted permission to stand to only 12 of the 50 parties that
To our great misfortune, the CEC has become one of the administrative
resources used to eliminate participants in the upcoming election
government deems undesirable, said the statement.
The parties also said that the commission had forgotten its direct official
responsibilities and assumed the role of a punitive body.
Last week, the CEC controversially dismissed Edil Baisalov, a leading Social
Democrat, from the race. His offence was to place a photograph of a blank
ballot paper on his web blog. Baisalov insisted his aim had been to publicise
the poor security featuresof the ballot papers.
Many observers maintained that the CEC acted improperly in this instance,
saying only the courts - or the party itself had the authority to exclude a
candidate from the race.
Bolobek Sherniazov, from Ata-Meken, one of the parties that signed the
statement, said the election situation was now so hopeless that protests were
the only option.
leave us no choice, he said. We are not asking for them to
campaign for our party, we are simply asking for equal opportunities for all
Erkin Bulekbaev from the Greens told IWPR that parties were already planning a
protest against the excessive use of what are called administrative resources
the power deployed by all branches of government in favour of one party.
Our calls are addressed to the president and government not to mess around,
and to observe the election code and the constitution, because administrative
resources are being blatantly used in the election in favour of the
presidential party, Ak Jol, he complained.
We will most likely hold protest actions before the elections.
Bulekbaev insisted that unequal conditions for campaigning meant the electorate
would not have a real choice.
Azimbek Beknazarov of Asaba told IWPR that public servants like teachers and
doctors, and many ordinary people in rural areas, faced heavy pressure to vote
for the pro-presidential party.
The administration ought to stop using administrative resources, or we will
undertake protest actions, Beknazarov pledged.
Kyrgyzstan has seen a series of anti-government protests in the last couple of
years, but in the capital Bishkek it has just got harder to stage public
meetings Under a recent regulation introduced by the mayor of the capital
Bishkek, protest organisers must notify the mayors office of the date of their
planned rally - and its objectives - at least three days beforehand.
The lawyer for the municipal authority, Eldarbek Mamyrov, said he had not yet
received written notification from any opposition parties concerning a protest.
Damir Lisovsky, a member of the CEC, dismissed the attacks on the commission as
a political stunt.
I cant rule out the idea that behind their demands, there lies a desire to
score some extra points, since there is almost no time left before the
elections, said Lisovsky.
These steps look like PR, with the single aim of making certain parties known
Protest actions and calls for boycotts will not affect the election at all. If
they want to protest, let them.
However, media observer Turat Akimov said there was considerable potential for
major protests after the election. One of the recent concerns that has caused
widespread anger, he said, was the way the regional vote threshold had been
Under a ruling issued by the CEC on November 19, in order to win seats in
parliament, a party must receive 5 per cent of the total electorate of about
2.7 million people and 0.5 per cent of the same total for each of the seven
regions and two big cities of Kyrgyzstan. Based on a national list of all
voters, this works out at 13,500 people in each of the nine units.
Many parties may find this fixed threshold difficult to reach in sparsely
populated rural regions such as Talas, where the total registered electorate is
121,000 people. That would mean that the 12 eligible parties will each be
fighting for an 11 per cent share of all voters in Talas, an apparently
impossible task given the number of people who are away working in Russia or
who will simply stay at home on election day.
Akimov said the parties were seriously worried at the prospect. Calls to
boycott the election or to stage protests beforehand indicates that the parties
do not have sufficient resources to overcome this minimum threshold, he said.
However, political scientist Mars Sariev said that street protests had become
so frequent in the last two years that they had lost much of their
The electorate is tired of protest actions, he said. Opposition attempts to
again draw attention to themselves might backfire. The opposition could lose
credit - and lose the election.
Aziza Amirova is a pseudonym for an IWPR contributor in Bishkek
PERSONALITY POLITICS MAY TURN OFF KYRGYZ VOTERS
Failure of parties to offer voters distinctive policies may result in a low
turnout in the weekend parliamentary election.
By Yryskeldi Kadykeev in Bishkek
Kyrgyzstans upcoming election could see a low turnout because the various
political parties have failed to develop distinctive programmes that will
entice voters to the polls, and instead are continuing to rely on the pulling
power of big-name leaders.
Analysts say the sudden decision to go for an early parliamentary election on
December 16 has left the electorate no time to grasp any of the differences
between the 12 registered parties, especially when it comes to solutions to the
economic crisis gripping of one of the poorest countries in the former Soviet
The parties election material does not help. Most of it is based purely around
the personalities of the leaders and offers few clues as to what a partys
actual policies might be.
The parties have not been working on their programmes for long, which is why
they are so similar to each other and so cumbersome, the political analyst
Marat Kazakbaev told IWPR. Theyve worked harder on other promotional material
highlighting the names of their leaders and their positive traits.
The early election was announced immediately after the October 21 referendum on
the new constitution that changed the election process from a
constituency-based system to one using proportional representation.
The sudden decision left Kyrgyzstans parties only two months to prepare. Only
12 of the 100-odd parties have been admitted to the race.
Nur Omarov, another political analyst, said the tight timetable has resulted in
quasi-party elections, involving a battle of identities rather than of
political programmes. The lack of clear programmes offering a way out of
economic crisis makes parties less attractive to the electorate, Omarov went
Many of Kyrgyzstans people dont believe their votes will make a real
difference, nor do they believe the count will be fair, he said.
Besides, one-third of the electorate is outside the country and another 20 per
cent is apathetic and will ignore the election. So a 50 per cent turnout is a
Kyrgyzstan has been in the throes of economic crisis ever since the collapse of
the Soviet Union in 1991. In 2007, the unemployment level hovered at 18 or 19
per cent. Meanwhile, a million able-bodied adults, one-fifth of the total
population, are away working abroad, mainly in Russia and Kazakhstan.
Toktogul Kakchekeev, another analyst, said what interested voters most was how
the election might lead to a turnaround.
Instead of this, he said, the electorate is getting arguments rewritten and
copied from other parties particularly in Russia that resolve almost
All the parties have the same things written into their programmes, he added.
People are aware of the pasts of all these politicians and are bored with
their personae; they havent done people any good and are engaging in politics
just to make money.
Kakcheev concluded, Its now seen as proper, intelligent and well-mannered to
vote against all of them [by not voting].
But not everyone agrees the turnout will be so low, or that there is much of an
appetite for detailed electoral programmes.
Valentin Bogatyrev, deputy head of the Vostok think-tank, believes the
novelty of the newly-introduced proportional system of voting will lure
people to the polls.
People are interested in the
new party system, he said.
Dinara Oshurakhunova, who heads the Association for Democracy and Civil
Society, agrees. Although lack of time has prevented the parties from preparing
serious election programmes, turnout will be quite high because of interest in
the proportional system, she maintains.
Voters are interested in taking part in this proportional system; I think the
turnout will be higher than usual, said Oshurakhunova.
Bermet Bukasheva, who is standing as a candidate for the opposition Ata-Meken
party, also believes turnout will be high, albeit for very different reasons.
She notes that each of the big personalities taking part in the campaign has a
numerous army of supporters, his own campaign team, his own funding and his own
Bukasheva says the electorate is not politically mature enough to engage with
party political platforms, so the emphasis on personalities is natural enough
and will not necessarily depress the turnout.
Maybe turnout will not be very high in Bishkek, but the regions will be moved
by regional and clan factors, she said.
Each party has people representing the districts and villages, and they will
bring out their own supporters.
Yryskeldi Kadykeev is the pseudonym of an IWPR contributor in Bishkek.
KARIMOV TIGHTENS HIS GRIP IN UZBEK ELECTION RUN-UP
The hard-line president is taking no chances as he prepares to secure another
IWPR staff in Central Asia
Uzbek president Islam Karimov leaves nothing to chance. In the run-up to an
election in which he is standing yet again, the security services have been
placed on maximum alert.
The countrys Coordination Council, which links Ministry of Interior officials
and the National Security Service, held a meeting in late October at which the
green light was given for police to increase surveillance and strengthen their
presence on the streets.
Officially, the heightened security was to counter crime and Islamic extremism.
In practice, the alert reminds potential opponents of the regime of what they
can expect if they cause trouble during the December 23 polls.
Observers in Uzbekistan have reported a major build-up of police in cities and
villages. Guards at government buildings have been reinforced and there are
more police on the streets.
The number of police on the streets is three times more than usual, and it is
especially visible in Tashkent, said one Uzbek journalist.
Voters are in no doubt what the message is - there is no alternative to Karimov.
When people came to us and forced us to submit our signatures in support of
Karimovs candidacy, it was clear the authorities would stop at nothing to
achieve their goal, one potential voter in the Bukhara region told IWPR. They
want everything to go according to their scenario.
A crackdown on suspected opponents of the authoritarian regime in Tashkent has
been going on for several weeks. In mid-October, police arrested five people
suspected of ties with the banned Islamic organisation Hizb-ut-Tahrir in
Karasuv, which lies on the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border near the city of Andijan.
Evidence of their involvement in the group was far from compelling, observers
say. Police used ashes from allegedly burned leaflets as evidence to detain
Many people suspect the campaign against alleged Islamic militants is a cover
to round up anyone suspected of anti-government sympathies.
I heard that the brother of an acquaintance of mine was arrested on suspicion
of belonging to Hizb-ut-Tahrir, though he certainly wasnt one of their
supporters he was just critical of the government, said an Andijan resident.
Karimov is afraid of protests and demonstrations because during events in
Andijan, people were able to mobilise, the same person added, referring to the
may 2005 demonstration which security forces fired on, causing large-scale
The Moscow-based Memorial Human Rights Centre has already reported a crackdown
on anti-government Uzbek exiles in Russia, Ukraine and Kazakstan.
In late October, the human rights group reported that the Ukrainian security
service, was grilling Central Asian migrants living in Kiev in order to track
down Shukhrat Goziev, an asylum-seeker from Kokand.
Goziev is on the Uzbek governments wanted list for ties with Hizb-ut-Tahrir,
though many believe he is unconnected with the group.
On November 23, sources reported that another Uzbek refugee, Khurshid
Shamsutdinov, who fled to Kazakstan in August after Tashkent police charged him
with Islamic extremism, had disappeared in Almaty. Friends of Shamsutdinov have
expressed concern that the Uzbek security services may have abducted him.
Experts say that inside Uzbekistan, the authorities started hiking up the
pressure several months ago. The drive began with special directives sent to
all provincial administrations to ensure the public was made aware of the need
for a peaceful situation and to head off possible trouble in the run-up to
the polls on December 23.
Although Uzbekistans constitution prohibits the head of state for more than
two consecutive terms, Karimov, who has run Uzbekistan for the last 18 years,
is standing once again. The justification appears to be that when the
constitution was changed in 2002 to give presidents seven rather than five
years, he should be considered to be starting again and his many previous years
in office were irrelevant.
In theory, he is running against three alternative candidates: Diloram
Tashmuhammedova from the Adolat party, Asliddin Rustamov from the Peoples
Democratic Party and Akmal Saidov, director of the National Centre for Human
But seasoned observers say the three contenders are there purely to create the
appearance of pluralism, and that Karimov will secure an easy win.
The elimination of serious political opposition began soon after Uzbekistan
became independent in 1991, and the Birlik and Erk parties were driven
underground within a few years. Their leaders are in exile, and they never had
the slightest chance of fielding candidates in this election; nor did the more
recent Ozod Dehkonlar (Free Farmers) Party.
Karimovs unchanging thesis is stability at any price, which he declares
during his many public speeches, said a local commentator. For the people of
Uzbekistan, it has come to mean the start of a new campaign to crush any form
Nadezhda Ataeva, head of the French-based Human Rights in Central Asia
association, believes the crackdown is evidence of Karimovs paranoia, as there
is no serious threat to his regime certainly not from the political
Karimov can rest easy, she said. Hes got a free hand.
TURKMEN LEADER WIPES UGLY TV DISHES FROM SKYLINE
Officially, satellite dishes have to go because they are an eyesore, but the
real aim may be to cut off people from information from outside.
By IWPR staff in Bishkek
Turkmenistans authoritarian leader has demanded the removal of satellite
dishes from the roofs and walls of houses and tower blocks in the capital
Ashgabat on the grounds that they spoil the citys appearance.
The decision was taken at a cabinet meeting on December 1. By way of
compensation, President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov said he had ordered the
telecommunications ministry to install a common satellite dish with a huge
diameter in the near future.
It will not be a big problem to do so, the Turkmen president said in a
statement carried on the national Altyn Asyr television channel.
Satellite TV is one of the main ways for people in this isolated country to
obtain information about the outside world.
Cable television boomed in the Nineties, when local firms offered packages of
Russian TV channels.
However, in 2003, the late president, Saparmurat Niyazov, slapped a ban on the
broadcasting of Russian TV without a special license, cable television was cut
off and the firms providing the services closed.
Resourceful people surmounted this obstacle by installing their own satellite
Many families have installed two, three or four dishes, one resident in
Ashgabat told IWPR. A satellite dish is an integral part of our daily life, as
much as a library is for any cultured person. A person without a dish is seen
as weird or hopeless in Turkmen society.
According to the Vienna-based Turkmen Initiative on Human Rights, almost every
family in Ashgabat which has a population of about 500,000 regularly
watches satellite television, thanks to cheap Chinese imported dishes that cost
as little as 50 US dollars.
A good-sized dish, a digital tuner and a 20-metre cable together cost just over
100 dollars, depending on the brand. A small antenna carrying only European
channels might cost only a fifth of that price. Mounting the dish costs six or
A family on almost any income can afford a complete set of equipment, said
one source. Even those who have to count every manat [national currency] are
often ready to stint themselves on food to get the money for this spiritual
The plan to dismantle the dishes has therefore provoked dismay, prompting some
people to protest to the president via human rights websites based abroad.
It will be a violation of the right to access to information, one Ashgabat
resident, Adalat Bairiev, said in an open letter to President Berdymuhammedov,
published on the human rights and news website Turkmenistan Chronicle, based in
Whatever they say about dishes making cities look ugly, everybody will regard
this decision as an act of censorship and a restriction of peoples rights to
information, added Bairiev.
Because of the lack of independent information in a country where only
heavily-censored state media operate, the demand for satellite dishes has been
high - not only in the capital but also in rural areas.
Satellite dish owners currently enjoy access to the Yamal and Hot Bird
satellites carrying Russian, European, Turkish, Iranian, Azerbaijani, Kazak and
Uzbek channels. The most popular programmes in Turkmenistan appear to be on the
main Russian news, entertainment and sports channels, plus the MTV music
channel, CNN and EuroNews.
People also tune in to Voice of America radio and the Turkmen service of Radio
Liberty via their satellite dishes.
Ethnic minorities also rely on the dishes for TV in their own languages.
In the north of Turkmenistan, where ethnic Uzbeks and Kazaks live, the
population receives programmes from those countries with the help of antennae,
said an observer from the northern Dashoguz region.
An engineer from the state telecoms agency, Turkmentelecom, said he thought
people would accept the ban on dishes if all the TV channels that people like
to watch remain available to homes by relay from the planned giant dish.
Some experts are sceptical about Berdymuhammedovs proposal, saying that even
if the channels available via the common satellite service are not restricted
for political reasons, there is unlikely to be enough of them to serve the
needs of a diverse audience.
One former employee of state television pointed out that if the government
allowed more choice in the domestic media, there would be competition and
quality and the need for individual satellites would fall off by itself.
This looks unlikely in the current political climate, where the four state TV
channels and handful of government-controlled newspapers continue to serve up a
carefully-filtered diet of propaganda.
(The names of interviewees have been withheld out of concern for their
UNCLEAR KYRGYZ-KAZAK BORDER MAKES LIFE TOUGH FOR VILLAGERS
Border difficulties affecting Kyrgyz villagers blamed on overzealous frontier
guards and on Kyrgyzstans failure to ratify a demarcation agreement.
By Diana Iskakova in Bishkek
Most of the long and winding frontier between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakstan is a
picture of peace and tranquility.
With a border drawn mainly on natural geographic lines, the two countries the
Goliath of Central Asia and its much smaller southern neighbour - have avoided
the kind of frontier disputes that have bedevilled Kyrgyzstans relations with
Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
But at two points on the 980-km long border, unresolved matters remain, and
Kyrgyz villagers complain of routine harassment by Kazak border guards.
One flashpoint is the village of Stepnoye, in the Chui region of northern
Kyrgyzstan, just north of the capital, Bishkek.
Here about one thousand hectares of land belonging to the village lies in a
wedge of Kyrgyz territory that protrudes into Kazakstan. About 800 of the 1,200
villagers have fields in this area, but to reach their land, they have to cross
the highway running between the Kazak cities of Almaty and Taraz.
The catch is that the road counts as Kazak territory, and it has a checkpoint
As local land surveyor Yury Nikolaev explained, Kazak border guards delay
villagers going to their fields and demand to see their passports, so conflicts
arise as a result. Not all the villagers take their passports because they
believe its their territory and it shouldnt be necessary.
Aydarbek Asambaev is among the villagers who has had trouble with the Kazak
border guards while returning home from the fields.
The guards ordered me to go through their checkpoint, and I refused, he said.
Why should we go through [border] posts on our own territory?
After a discussion, I showed my passport and they let me pass. But I got the
impression that the border guards from Kazakstan dont know where the borders
lie and regard the land across the road as their own.
Other villagers have also complained about the Kazak officials high-handed
ways, and especially about a mobile frontier unit that patrols the Almaty-Taraz
Kazbek Semenov, another resident of Stepnoye, recalled, Once they said Id
crossed the border and took away my passport. Then they ordered me to pay a
fine of 17,000 tenge [about 140 US dollars], allegedly for breaching the
Only following the intervention of the village policeman was Semenov able to
recover his passport without paying the stiff penalty the Kazaks had demanded.
After that, Ive tried not to go to the field very often, only during sowing
and harvesting, he said. But I do have to go to fertilise crops, check how
the seedlings are coming up and see whether there is damage caused by cattle.
Almaz Tashpaev, chief of police in the Chui regional administration, says he
has received countless complaints from villagers in Stepnoye that they are
unable to go freely to their fields and gather the harvest.
Apart from complaining of unnecessary border checks, the villagers also accuse
Kazak border guards of seizing stray livestock, and only returning it in
exchange for money or following Kyrgyz police intervention.
LACK OF CLEAR BOUNDARIES TO BLAME
Kyrgyz politicians and experts say the blame for the situation does not lie
solely at the feet of Kazakstans frontier service; their own side is also at
fault for failing to ratify a border agreement.
An agreement on the Kyrgyz-Kazak state border was signed by the two governments
back in 2001 and has been ratified by the Kazak parliament. However, the
parliament of Kyrgyzstan has refused to approve the agreement, claiming it is
But another important factor has been the political turmoil that has gripped
Kyrgyzstan and consumed parliaments energies for the past two years.
When Kazak president Nursultan Nazarbaev visited Bishkek in April, he urged
legislators to ratify the agreement, saying that apart from offering a
comprehensive solution, this is also a matter of trust a matter of the
future of our countries.
Salamat Alamanov, head of the Kyrgyz governments department for regional
affairs, says opposition parties played on nationalist fears about the border
deal and stirred up hostility to the agreement.
Some politicians have talked about only those areas that were to be given to
Kazakstan and said nothing about those that were going to Kyrgyzstan, he said,
referring to proposed exchanges of territory.
As a result, Alamanov continued, our parliament is extremely sensitive about
the border, whereas in reality there were no problems. When the border lines
were drawn, there were mutual exchanges of land so that neither side would lose
Returning to the Stepnoye dispute, Alamanov insisted the problem was not only
the demarcation of borders but also the poor manner in which situations were
handled on the ground.
The frontier officials in Stepnoye need to meet and agree on a simplified
procedure for letting our villagers across [to their land], he said. Its
just not correct to claim that one of the major causes of border conflicts is
Some steps to ease the situation in Stepnoye have taken place and according to
Almaz Tashpaev of the Chui regional administration, Kyrgyz and Kazak border
officials recently agreed to allow local residents to cross showing other forms
of ID rather than their passports.
Village head Nikolay Budko clarified the terms of the deal, During the spring
and autumn harvests, we will give out special certificates to villagers who
have land plots over the road so they can go to the fields without being
But whether Kazak frontier guards are aware of the new arrangement is far from
clear. Sabit Beishenbetov, a sergeant with the Kazak unit stationed near
Stepnoye insisted that as far as he knew, Kyrgyz citizens could cross the
border only with passports, and other documents were not valid.
VILLAGERS TAKE THE LONG WAY ROUND
Problems on the Kyrgyz-Kazak border are not limited to the village of Stepnoye,
or to Chui region. Similar disputes simmer away in the Talas region, which also
Here, as in Stepnoe, there are frequent complaints that livestock are impounded
if they stray into Kazak territory, and herdsmen have been detained.
In this case, it is a slice of Kazak territory that juts into Kyrgyzstan.
Villagers in Kaynar and Koksay in the Karabuura district, on one side of the
peninsula, say Kazak border guards will not let them drive farm vehicles
across to reach 1,200 hectares of farmland which lie on the other side.
They have to take a long detour to reach their land without crossing Kazak
territory, and complain that the route takes them through rough terrain which
even tractors find difficult going
RIVER MIGRATING INTO KAZAKSTAN
According to Chui police chief Tashpaev, the simplest solution for most border
disputes between Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan would be a final, definitive
agreement involving land swaps where necessary.
In the case of Stepnoye, this would mean that Kyrgyzstan would surrender the
fields lying on the far side of the Almaty-Taraz road, and receive an
equivalent slice of land closer to the village.
But petty disputes and a tendency on either side to view any agreement as a
sell-out get in the way of a final deal.
In Stepnoye, part of the border follows the course of the river Chu. When the
river overflows and washes away its banks, both Kazak and Kyrgyz sides try to
shore them up more or less where they were in order to hold onto their
But from a Kyrgyz point of view, annual floods between 2002 and 2006 have
shifted the course of the river markedly, leading to the loss of about 500
hectares of land. Some argue that this washed away land must be factored into
any final settlement.
Cholponbek Turusbekov, an official with the Kyrgyz frontier service, says joint
patrols in controversial areas might offer an interim solution.
But he fears conflicts will continue to arise as long as citizens on either
side of the border remain unaware of the exact course of the border.
The failure to sign off on the agreement with Kazakstan has not improved
things, he argues, adding, There is only one way out to ratify the border.
Diana Iskakova is an independent journalist in Bishkek.
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