While the abolition of capital punishment has earned the regime some credit 
abroad, observers note that critics of the regime are still at risk. 
By IWPR staff in Central Asia 

A new law obliges private firms to carry social awareness advertisements, 
although the level of compliance is expected to be low.
By IWPR staff in Central Asia

If growth rates drop in 2008, some analysts say social tensions will increase, 
posing a test for the political elite. 
By Irina Stupakova in Almaty and Elina Karakulova in Bishkek 

One year after a government clampdown on gambling, the casinos are as busy as 
ever - the only difference is that they no longer pay taxes.
By Natalya Napolskaya in Almaty

While some observers say trying to outlaw sorcery is counterproductive, others 
agree with the president view that such traditional practices are harmful.
By Lola Olimova and Mukammal Odinaeva in Dushanbe 

Bishkek city council wants to restrict children's access to internet cafes.
By Gulnara Mambetalieva in Bishkek

Critics say the authorities have failed to ensure homes are earthquake-proof 
and are ill-prepared to cope with the aftermath of a serious tremor. 
By Tolkun Namatbaeva in Bishkek


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While the abolition of capital punishment has earned the regime some credit 
abroad, observers note that critics of the regime are still at risk. 

By IWPR staff in Central Asia 

Teardrops form quickly in the eyes of Tamara Chikunova when she remembers her 
only son Dmitry, whom the authorities in Uzbekistan secretly executed and 
buried in Uzbekistan eight years ago. 

Chikunova only learned her son had been executed on July 12, 2000 - two days 
after his death. But she still does not know where her son's body lies, and nor 
do hundreds of relatives of other executed prisoners. 

When she wants to talk to her son, Tamara goes to the Russian cemetery in 
Tashkent, one of the oldest graveyards in the Uzbek capital. There, next to her 
father's grave, a small gravestone with Dmitry's picture on it rises above a 
small heap of earth that a Russian Orthodox priest blessed for her. 

Dmitry Chikunov was arrested in April 1999 as part of a murder investigation. 
In November that year, a Tashkent court sentenced him to death and, after the 
Supreme Court rejected his appeal, he was executed.  

The only personal effect Chikunova obtained was a letter from Dmitry, smuggled 
out of prison, in which he wrote that officers had threatened to rape him 
unless he signed a confession. 

Such brutal methods of extracting confessions are frequently used by the Uzbek 
police, according to human rights groups. 

On January 1 this year, Chikunova's organisation Mothers against the Death 
Penalty and Torture, which she founded to honour her son's memory, marked the 
official abolition of the death penalty in Uzbekistan. 

"This is a truly great event for Uzbekistan," she said. 

Last June, the Uzbek parliament amended the penal code to replace capital 
punishment with life and long-term imprisonment. In August, the death penalty 
was formally abolished under a decree issued by President Islam Karimov. The 
change came into force on the first day of 2008. 

"Now that the death penalty has been officially removed, we want the case of 
every single [death row] prisoner to be reviewed individually," said Chikunova. 
"If all these sentences are simply automatically replaced by life imprisonment 
or long terms, it will be wrong." 

Surat Ikramov, head of the Tashkent-based Initiative Group of Independent Human 
Rights Activists, also urges the authorities to reconsider the capital cases 

"But, of course, if these cases are reviewed without the convicted persons 
themselves being involved, it will be difficult to expect results," he added. 

Whether the authorities are about to review the cases of former death row 
inhabitants remains to be seen. For now, it looks most unlikely.

Under existing law, people jailed for life can only appeal for clemency after 
they have completed 25 years of their sentence. 

One woman told IWPR she feared that abolition of the death sentence would 
simply mean automatic conversion into life sentences.

As the sister of a man sentenced to death in 2004, she said she had written 
regularly to the authorities requesting an appeal.

"Nothing happened, and now that capital punishment has been abolished, I'm 
afraid my brother will simply get a 30-year prison term," she said. 

The government has made much of the legal change, which has brought rare 
sympathetic coverage of Uzbekistan from the foreign media and international 
organisations. The European Union praised Uzbekistan for the move in a 
statement posted on the website of its presidency on January 11. 

Information is scant on how many people were judicially executed in Uzbekistan 
over the past 17 years of independence.

During those years Uzbekistan obtained a reputation as one of the most 
repressive former Soviet states. 

"We have repeatedly urged the government to publish figures on how many death 
sentences were handed down and how many were executed," says Chikunova. "We 
also call on the authorities to tell the relatives where their family members 
were buried". 

But official Tashkent has not published any hard figures on the number of death 
sentences and executions. 

Tashkent-based commentator Ibrahim Rasulov says the EU's congratulations look 
ridiculous in the light of the regime's continuing use of torture against 
dissidents in prison. 

The government stands accused of using extra-judicial methods to remove 
dissidents and others seen as troublemakers without trial or sentence.

"In my opinion," said Rasulov, "the EU should have called on the authorities of 
Uzbekistan to stop its elimination of dissidents and start meaningful 
democratic reforms." 

Another journalist from Fergana in the southeast, who preferred to stay 
unnamed, noted that despite the formal abolition of the death penalty, critics 
of the authoritarian regime still risk being killed - even when they are 
outside the country. 

"People who too often or openly criticize the present regime are especially at 
risk," the journalist said, citing the murder last October of the prominent 
journalist Alisher Saipov.

Saipov, a Kyrgyzstan national of Uzbek ethnicity, was shot dead in Osh, a city 
in southern Kyrgyzstan, close to the border with Uzbekistan.

In his Uzbek-language weekly Siyosat (Politics), Saipov frequently criticised 
Tashkent officials and the regime's repressive policies against Muslims.   

Before his still unexplained death, Uzbekistan's state-controlled media 
publicly slated him as an "enemy of the Uzbek nation".  

Kyrgyz ombudsman Tursunbay Bakir-Uulu claims the Uzbek secret service received 
orders to kill the journalist, citing sources in his own country's Kyrgyzstan 
security agencies. 

Nervous of the implications of offending their powerful neighbour, the Kyrgyz 
authorities have yet to make the claim publicly, and are unlikely to do so, 
judging from the police investigation which has focused instead on other 
suspects such as Islamic radicals. 


A new law obliges private firms to carry social awareness advertisements, 
although the level of compliance is expected to be low.

By IWPR staff in Central Asia 

Charities, non-government groups and social service agencies in Uzbekistan say 
a new law obliging advertising agencies to carry low-cost "social" adverts will 
be honoured mainly in the breach.

Some local charities are keen to take advantage of the innovative scheme, 
designed to help them get their message out on a low budget. But there are 
fears that in an environment where public campaigning is unusual and social 
problems are not widely debated, law will remain a dead letter. 

Amended legislation came into effect on January 11 obliging private ad agencies 
to carry a certain proportion of low-cost public information and advertising 
for deserving causes.

The "social advertisements" category includes healthcare alerts, posters 
encouraging people to look after the environment, warnings against breaking the 
law, and information on public safety. 

Commercial and other non-state firms are now required to post such adverts at 
rates that will be established by special bylaws. 

The new law does not apply to companies, institutions and media funded by 
government, which already have to set five per cent of their advertising aside 
for public information or social causes free of charge. 

The authorities say the law is overdue because agencies working in fields such 
as HIV/AIDS prevention, homelessness, drug addition and care for the elderly 
have repeatedly complained that they are unable to get their message over to 
the public. 

They say appeals and advertisements featuring their work rarely appear either 
in the media or on posters in public places. 

When it comes to television, caring organisations have until now paid the same 
high commercial advertising rates as everyone else.

The Tashkent coordinator of an international project on HIV/AIDS said it had 
suffered from this lack of public exposure. 

"There was only one TV advertisement on this issue on Uzbek television on 
December 1," he said, referring to World AIDS Day. "And that advertisement was 
very expensive." 

A worker with the Istikbolli Avlod non-government group said it placed an ad in 
a newspaper in the eastern city of Andijan a few years ago, to alert 
prospective migrant workers to a telephone hotline offering advice on how to 
avoid exploitation and human trafficking. 

"Although this was a social advertisement, it was printed at the usual 
commercial rate," he said. "That small social ad in a newspaper cost us 77 US 
dollars, which was expensive."

Aybek Iskhakov, head of Uzbekistan's national association of disabled people, 
made a similar point. His organisation is keen to publicise information about 
centres for disabled people but cannot afford to advertise at the market rate. 

"We are in dire need of free social advertising and we are placing our hopes in 
the new legislation," he said.

A 30-second video advertisement on television in Uzbekistan currently costs 
between 100 and 500 dollars, while the price range in national newspapers is 
about 20 per cent less. 

Such prices are often beyond the means of many organisations working on social 
problems. Whether state-funded or not, they operate on small budgets. 

While most of these groups welcome the new legislation, many doubt it will make 
much difference in the immediate future.

One observer in the Khorezm region of north-west Uzbekistan said the 
parliamentary move was "doomed to failure" because media would remain deeply 
resistant to publicising even the existence of social problems.  

He recalled a recent case in which the United Nations Development Programme 
distributed a shipment of disposable syringes and condoms free of charge in 
Khorezm. The material was intended for anonymous distribution among drug 
addicts and prostitutes. 

"However, the editor of the local regional newspaper refused to advertise it," 
said the observer. "He said the syringes would be more useful for people with 
tuberculosis and children." 

A shopkeeper said he was outraged at the idea of his premises being used to 
alert people to the existence of drug addiction, alcoholism, homelessness and 
abandoned children.

"I would not agree to that, whatever the money," he said. "I don't want trouble 
in my business." 

A civil society activist in Bukhara said the Uzbek media did not understand 
what a social advertisement is, or why it would be valuable.

"They don't think they have a social role in the development of society; they 
just want a profit," he added.

Yevgenia Lapteva, of the Kyrgyzstan-based regional network Age Net - Central 
Asia without Borders, fears that private advertising agencies will be reluctant 
to carry socially-oriented adverts. 

There is also a danger that free or low-cost advertising could be exploited as 
a covert way of promoting personal interests, for example by politicians.

But Lapteva is not against the idea behind the Uzbek initiative. On the 
contrary, she hopes that more social advertisements on public transport, in the 
streets and in the media will help introduce a culture of philanthropy that is 
not yet well-developed in Central Asia.  


If growth rates drop in 2008, some analysts say social tensions will increase, 
posing a test for the political elite. 

By Irina Stupakova in Almaty and Elina Karakulova in Bishkek 

Analysts are warning that Kazakstan's over-dependence on crude oil exports is 
creating economic distortions that could lead to social tensions in 2008. 

They predict that unrest could arise as a consequence of the current economic 
imbalances that are spurring inflation and inhibiting the growth of 
manufacturing and other forms of production outside the energy sector.

They suggest the recent crisis in the Kazak banking system and sharp rises in 
the price of bread and other foodstuffs point to bigger dangers lying ahead.

The warnings about Kazakstan - the economic giant of the region - were 
contained in an annual forecast released in December by the international 
consultancy Control Risks.

Among many worrying developments in the Kazak economy, the report notes 
worsening inflation, soaring real estate prices and significant rises in the 
cost of basic consumer goods. 

While the official projection for economic growth has dropped from 8.7 per cent 
to five per cent this year, Prime Minister Karim Masimov has blamed the 
slowdown on instability on world financial markets.

But local experts attribute the growing crisis in part to weaknesses in 
Kazakstan's banks, which have become seriously indebted in recent years. 

The banks now owe up to 70 billion US dollars to foreign lenders. This stems 
largely from them accessing loans at advantageous rates in Europe and using the 
capital to fund mortgage loans. 

However, the repayment of many of these mortgages now looks uncertain, as the 
borrowers are struggling with real estate prices that have soared to western 
levels as a result of the oil boom.

A single square metre of prime residential property in Kazakstan's bigger 
cities now routinely sells for more than 3,500 US dollars. 

That still leaves Almaty, the biggest city and commercial centre, cheaper than 
Manhattan, but puts it almost on a level with Paris. 

Surging property prices have contributed to inflation, the exact rate of which 
is hotly disputed. 

Vladislav Yuritsyn of the internet publication Zona.kz, says the official 
figure of 12 per cent year on year is not convincing. From his own monitoring 
of increases in prices of staple products, he says annual inflation in this 
area is probably closer to 30 per cent. 

Yuritsyn says a cluster of unfavourable economic indices are converging in 
Kazakstan. "The volume of trade has dropped, and while prices are rising, 
average salaries are not." 

"Many sectors are suffering, such as the construction industry," he said. "We 
can already see a growth in social tensions. It's obvious that the consequences 
can only be negative. People can't trust the government when the electricity 
supply fails regularly and prices are rising."

Although Kazakstan enjoyed a record grain harvest in 2007, this was not 
reflected in bread prices, which actually doubled last autumn from 35 tenge (30 
US cents) to 60 or 70 tenge.

Economist Petr Svoik says inflation is hitting low-income groups the hardest, 
as they depend most on the products whose prices have risen fastest. 

Svoik also says if the government is unable to get its own finances into better 
order, there will be "serious difficulties in the budget with the social 
payments and pensions". 

Like many experts, he blames the current distortions on an economy that has 
become excessively dependent on oil. 

Kazakstan today exports about 55 million tons of oil a year, and plans to 
double both production and exports by 2015, when the giant Kashagan oilfield on 
the Caspian shelf is due to come on stream.

Svoik says inflows of money from oil exports into the economy have led to the 
"structural crisis of a one-sided economy - an export-oriented raw-material 
economy that does not encourage the development of domestic production".  

Political observers maintain this will pose a severe test for the leadership 
skills of Nur Otan, the presidential party that won all seats in the lower 
house of parliament in the August 2007 election. 

As Nur Otan monopolises political power in the country, it will not be able to 
place the political blame on others for a likely economic slowdown.  

Political scientist Eduard Poletaev, editor of the magazine Mir Yevrazii, told 
IWPR that if oil prices continued to climb, it would only spur further 

"Critics of the current regime will have far more opportunities in 2008 [than 
before]," he predicted. "There will be tensions as economic tensions spill over 
into the sphere of politics. 

"My forecast is the activation first of opposition and marginalised groups that 
suffered worst in the autumn crisis, and then of the rural migrants who have 
come to the cities in search of work and have now lost their jobs." 

Economists close to the government disagree, and remain confident that 
Kazakstan will ride out any turbulence.

Gulnur Rahmatullina, of the Institute for Strategic Studies, which is attached 
to the presidency, admits 2008 may be a tough year as unemployment grows and 
average incomes grind to a halt in real terms. 

But she says the government has the strategies and resources to prevent a real 
social crisis from developing. 

"The government is not sitting back doing nothing," she said. "It is solving 
these problems today, in all likelihood successfully." 

Rahmatullina continued, "The country has 22 billion dollars in the national 
fund [where oil revenues are deposited], and there are the budget resources. I 
believe we can minimise the consequences of the financial crisis quite well 
with the help of our own national resources."  

Irina Stupakova is an IWPR contributor in Almaty. Elina Karakulova is an IWPR 
editor in Bishkek.


One year after a government clampdown on gambling, the casinos are as busy as 
ever - the only difference is that they no longer pay taxes.

By Natalya Napolskaya in Almaty 

On a quiet side-street in Almaty, the signboards outside the shops and office 
buildings proclaim the existence of a variety of saunas, shops, hairdressing 
salons and billiard halls. 

But according to a police officer who knows these streets well, the signs are a 
facade. In fact, the real businesses operating in many of these establishments 
are illegal casinos. 

They are carefully hidden from prying eyes, but the officer said it was not 
that difficult to detect them.

Even so, they are rarely closed down. "Each of the owners has his own 
'protector' who can buy off anyone," explained the policeman.

The existence of a thriving world of illegal casinos is direct result of legal 
changes in Kazakstan, where parliament passed a strict new law a year ago, 
forcing all gambling houses to relocate to a couple of resorts.

The two new designated "Las Vegases" were Kapshagay and Schuchinsk, on the 
outskirts of Almaty and Astana, respectively. 

At the time, legislators complained of a national addiction to gambling, 
fuelled by the existence of an estimated 132 casinos and more than 2,000 
arcades, together housing at least 23,000 slot machines. 

But one year on, neither site has opened for business and the old casinos 
remain as active as ever - albeit now behind closed doors.

As for the gamblers, they take little notice of the fact that their habit has 
become illegal.

"Who cares where I spend my money? I earn it myself," one self-confessed 
gambler named Igor told IWPR. 

"I gamble and I will continue to do so. All these complexities in the form of 
bans don't stop anyone. In fact it's got even better because there are now 
fewer outsiders in the casinos now; they are all our own people."

Most casino owners did not retire from the trade after the passage of the 
gambling law but merely disappeared from view.

One illegal casino owner named Asylkhan told IWPR that after the law was 
passed, he fired most of his employees and went underground with the rest. 

Like many of his colleagues, he left debts to the banks after closing the doors 
of his legal operation.

"A few years ago, I took out a loan to expand the business," he explained. "I 
still owe that debt."  

Political scientist Oleg Sidorov believes the decision to close most of the 
legal casinos was rash and poorly thought-out.

He says the main effect of the law has been to damage the economy rather than 
to cut levels of gambling. 

"The casinos and slot machine halls that went underground still make profits - 
probably even ones than before," he says. "The gamblers are still as active as 

Asylkhan agrees. "The state came off worst because the casinos and slot machine 
halls enriched the treasury with their taxes," he said. "Obviously, now we 
don't pay any taxes." 

Bakhytbek Balginbaev, who works for the interior ministry's organised crime 
department, told IWPR that while police regularly swoop on illegal casinos, 
they can take little action against the owners when they catch them.

During one recent operation, Balginbaev said, the police found seven illegal 
casinos and confiscated 55 slot machines.  

"But the only punishments available are fines," he said. "So far, I can't tell 
whether these measures are effective." 

One police officer told IWPR the fines imposed on owners of gambling 
establishments had not had much effect. 

"This business is very lucrative, so those who are earning easy money from it - 
lots of money - will never give it up," he predicted.

The same officer maintained the law had too few teeth to be effective as a 

"Either gambling should be permitted, as that would help the country in terms 
of taxes, or else we need to increase the penalties," he said.

Sidorov also described the existing penalties as ineffectual, because the fines 
are far lower than the average daily receipts of most of these establishments.

Most illegal casino earners are liable to fines of around 1,000 tenge, which is 
about nine US dollars. Yet sources in the police and gambling industry say a 
single establishment can expect to earn thousands of dollars a day. 

According to government data from the end of 2006 - the last year before the 
ban came into force - annual tax revenue from casinos was worth more than 20 
million dollars.

Meanwhile, the government is moving ahead with plans to develop the two 
gambling resorts in the north and south of the country. 

Amandyk Batalov, deputy governor of the Almaty region, said in December that 
work on the Kapshagay project was in full swing. Some 11 hectares of land have 
been set aside, and there are potential investors for the project. Construction 
is due to start in 2008.

But Talgat Akuov, one of the heads of the Independent Association of Kazak 
Businessmen, said he doubted the new resorts would open their doors on 

Before the government passed its gambling law, it should have put in place the 
basic infrastructure for the two resorts, he said, because individual casino 
owners do not have the resources to build a new site from scratch. 

Natalya Napolskaya is an IWPR contributor in Kazakstan.


While some observers say trying to outlaw sorcery is counterproductive, others 
agree with the president view that such traditional practices are harmful.

By Lola Olimova and Mukammal Odinaeva in Dushanbe 

Much of the outside world raised a wry smile when Tajikistan's president 
Imomali Rahmon announced a clampdown on witchcraft last month.

Hot on the heels of earlier official initiatives to curb or outlaw expensive 
weddings and gold teeth, to many it appeared no more than another diversion 
from the deep social ills besetting this impoverished state.

The bill banning witchcraft, sorcery and fortune-telling, which the Tajik 
parliament adopted in mid-December, provides for stiff fines for those who 
disobey the law. 

Convicted sorcerers can expect a fine of between 180 and 240 US dollars, 
several times the average monthly minimum wage. Repeat offenders will be 
subject to even larger penalties. 

But while sociologists suggest sorcery is only a manifestation of wider social 
issues, rather than a problem in itself, the authorities insist the rising 
number of magicians makes drastic action necessary. 

Outsiders might be surprised at the strength of popular faith in magic in a 
Muslim society. Yet belief in mystical healing powers, casting the evil eye and 
other magical practices is an enduring tradition in Tajikistan, as in other 
parts of the broader Central Asian region. 

Such practices have persisted despite the prevalence of Islam, which frowns on 
such things, and 70 years of official Soviet atheism.

When police conducted a survey into the role of magic in Tajik society last 
year, they came up with some surprising results. 

According to local media, the police survey, which started in 2006, revealed 
the existence of at least 5,000 regular practitioners of magic. 

Many famous politicians and businessmen insist they are on the receiving end of 
malicious spells.

Zafar Saidov, director of the state-run Khovar news agency, supports the new 
law for one solid reason - he himself believes he has been the victim of 
supernatural curses. 

"Unfortunately, some of our fellow countrymen seek the help of Pakistani and 
Afghan magicians," he told IWPR. "Black magic comes into Tajikistan from 
outside and has a negative influence on people."

According to folk tradition, Kashmiri wizards are the most powerful of all and 
there are many tales of their deeds. 

These days, curses can be delivered by the latest technologies.

"Some magicians now use modern mobile phone technology and the internet for 
their black deeds, damaging people's health," said Saidov. 

Rashid Abdullo, a political analyst, says magic enjoyed a renaissance in 
Tajikistan as a result of economic collapse and civil war in the Nineties, 
which created unprecedented levels of psychological distress.

As the healthcare system was unable to offer conventional psychological help to 
many people, the adepts of the old supernatural arts stepped into the breach.

"Many people lost confidence during the transition period," said Abdullo. 
"Previously, they had confidence in the state but after the shift to a market 
economy, they lost faith."

Abdullo says alternative medicine now fills a niche. "Magicians and wizards 
play the role of psychotherapists," he noted. "People feel they can't solve 
their problems themselves and try to enlist the help of magicians instead." 

This interest in mystical powers is by no means the preserve of underprivileged 
and marginalised groups. Senior officials and businessmen and their wives often 
visit magicians in order to secure a job, make a successful deal or win love. 
In consequence, magicians are often wealthy.

People line up for days in order to see the most popular magicians. 

Bibi Fatima, a popular fortune-teller in the capital Dushanbe, says her clients 
are mostly well-heeled professionals.

"Members of parliament, artists, prosecutors, fiscal agents and businessmen 
come to me for amulets against the evil eye," she says. 

"For some money, I can insert bear's teeth or claws, garlic or red pepper into 
an amulet. I can also advise my clients to make the fig sign when talking to 
their enemies," she said, referring to the symbolically potent gesture made by 
inserting one's thumb between the second and third fingers of a clenched fist. 

"That helps a lot," she maintained.

The tenets of the Muslim faith professed by most of Tajikistan's population 
prohibit superstitious practices outright, and clerics condemn people for 
running to magicians and fortune-tellers.

Domullo Murojon Sabitzade, the senior imam or prayer leader at a Dushanbe 
mosque, says the quest for supernatural advice distances people from their 
faith in God. 

"A person's desire to seek God slackens," he explained. "Most fortune-tellers 
are also charlatans. The conclusions they draw are not trustworthy, because 
only Almighty God governs the fate of the world. He is the only one making 

The imam concluded, "It is the Almighty to whom a person should apply and to 
whom he should direct his prayers. Religion is given to us as a staff is given 
to a blind person in the desert." 

Kimiyo Juraeva, a well-known singer, agrees, saying, "A true Muslim ought never 
to ask magicians for help. If you believe in Allah, He will help you. It's 
better to go to the mosque and pray if you believe - and if you don't believe 
in God, then why believe in fortune-tellers?"

But while many people agree that witchcraft is foolish or wrong, opinion is 
more divided on the government's move to penalise the practitioners. 

Abdullo thinks that since witchcraft is so popular, the government would do 
better to license those who practice it and earn fees from them rather than 
punish them.

"We should make a more rational decision and impose some kind of tax on them," 
he said. "Let them continue to work." 

Lawyer Salomat Mahmudova says the interest in sorcery is deeply- rooted in 
Tajikistan and ought not to be pushed underground. 

"They give advice to businessmen, tell traders whether to get involved in some 
business or not, and reveal which season is the most beneficial for concluding 
a deal, or arranging or cancelling a meeting," she said.

"As long as there is a demand, there will be a supply. As long as [witches] pay 
their taxes, why not? Going to see a magician is the exclusive right of each 
person. No one should ban it." 

Lola Olimova is an IWPR editor in Tajikistan, and Mukammal Odinaeva a 
correspondent for the newspaper Biznes i Politika.


Bishkek city council wants to restrict children's access to internet cafes.

By Gulnara Mambetalieva in Bishkek

Horrified by the amount of time that teenagers and even small children are 
spending in Bishkek's internet cafes when they should either be in class or in 
bed, the authorities in the Kyrgyz capital have voted to ban them from going 
clubs during school hours and after seven in the evening. 

A specially created commission reported that it found more than a hundred 
children sitting in internet cafes playing games during school hours and at 
night over a one-month period. 

The city council said it feared children were also viewing pornographic 
material or visiting sites espousing extremist views without supervision. 

Vyacheslav Krasienko, deputy chair of the city council and one of the sponsors 
of the clampdown, said unrestricted access to certain kinds of sites was almost 
certainly responsible for rising crime rates. These sites, he said, encouraged 
aggressive and volatile behaviour in children, as well as slowing their 
intellectual development. 

He said his only regret was not introducing a clampdown several years ago, when 
the proliferation of internet cafes first started. 

Krasienko said the local by-law, which came into force in January, would apply 
to all young people under the age of 18. A special regulatory body will be 
established shortly to make sure the law is observed.

Few experts dispute that young people in Bishkek are internet crazy. The centre 
of the capital is crammed with internet cafes and clubs, many of them open 24 
hours a day and almost permanently full with users, most of them young.  

Kyrgyzstan leads all other Central Asian states in terms of web users per 
capita. In 2007, about ten per cent of the five million population had 
permanent access to the internet.

Those who do not have computers at home crowd the cafes whose reasonable prices 
make them affordable to most people, especially when several youngsters club 
together and pay to use a single computer. An hour of internet access costs 
only about 20 soms, just over 50 US cents. Playing games over the web is even 
cheaper at just 10 soms an hour.

Janarkul Isaeva, a Bishkek psychologist, applauds the council for trying to 
curb children's passion for cyberspace. But she worries that the core problem 
is not so much playing internet games as the changing patterns of family life. 

"The fact that [so many] children spend their time outside the house at gaming 
stations shows they feel uncomfortable at home and that their parents simply 
don't care about them," she says. 

Isaeva also fears that the current addiction to web-based games among 
youngsters will lead to worse social problems in future, and that a passion for 
computer games could grow into a more serious addiction for gambling. 

Ruslan Suleymanov, director of the Schmel network of internet cafes, argues 
that placing restrictions on young people's access to these places will not 
solve the truancy problem. 

"We need special school programmes, we need to talk to children, and the 
parents also must pay more attention to them," he said.

Sociologists point out that the computer craze is at least partly the result of 
complex social and economic trends. Many parents have to spend most of their 
time earning money and leave their children without supervision. 

They say this partial ban on schoolchildren using the web would be more 
effective if it was introduced in parallel with other initiatives such as 
encouraging them to get involved in sports and clubs of a more cerebral nature 
at schools. 

Many families can no longer afford to go to local swimming pools, for example, 
as these often cost 50 to 200 soms per person - several times the price of an 
hour in an internet café.

Irina Kirichenko is aware that her ten-year-old son Andrei visits internet 
cafes without her permission when she is at work. She says she would feel 
happier if she knew a police officer was patrolling these places to make sure 
children stay away during school hours.   

"If it was possible, I would like to close all the net clubs because these 
games produce aggression, violence and depression in children," she adds. "But 
I have to be realistic and accept that this [council] instruction is not going 
to close all the clubs. They would simply go underground, anyway, as they earn 
too much money."

Dmitry Vlasin, director of a network of internet clubs in Bishkek, warns that 
once the new rules are enforced, many internet cafes will face such a dramatic 
loss of earnings that they will continue to allow children in.

"The profit from children playing games makes up 90 per cent of the whole 
takings," he says. "If access [for children] is restricted, this business will 
simply go bankrupt."

Suleymanov makes the same point. "If children are banned from net clubs, most 
of them will lose half their earnings," he said. "Many will have to close 

Asel, the administrator at one internet café in Bishkek, supports the city 
council's move, although she is afraid she could end up losing her job. 

"It's absolutely wrong that children play on them for hours," she says. "But 
this initiative by the city council needs to be weighed up thoroughly. If we 
can't allow children to enter the clubs to play at all, we will be simply 

As for the children themselves, they are less than enthusiastic about the plan 
to clamp down on their favourite pastime. 

Arslan, a fourth grade pupil in Bishkek, says computer games are so popular 
among his peers that they do not know what they will do after the ban takes 

"There are two internet centres near my house but they are always full so we 
have to wait our turn," he said. "If they close, it will be terrible because we 
will become very bored. What are we going to do then?" 

Gulnara Mambetalieva is an IWPR contributor in Bishkek.


Critics say the authorities have failed to ensure homes are earthquake-proof 
and are ill-prepared to cope with the aftermath of a serious tremor. 

By Tolkun Namatbaeva in Bishkek 

Recent earthquakes in southern Kyrgyzstan, which caught the local population 
unprepared, have raised fears that authorities are turning a blind eye to 
warnings from scientists about the scale of the danger facing the country.

The latest quakes rocked the southern city of Osh on December 26 and early on 
January 1. The second tremor occurred just after midnight as people were 
celebrating New Year.

"People didn't know what to do," local journalist Bekbolot Ibraimov told IWPR. 
"There was no information on TV or radio, even though the tremors were 
extensive and recurred for hours. They sparked incredible rumours and panic." 

What angered some experts is that scientists predicted these quakes months ago 
and notified the authorities. They say warnings went unheeded. 

"We notified the government there would be earthquakes at the start of 2008 in 
Osh and Jalalabad though we didn't know the exact day," recalled Kanat 
Abdrahmanov, director of the Kyrgyz Institute of Seismology.

He claims the authorities took little notice. "For some reason, only 
non-government organisations and foundations like the Red Cross are making any 
preparations for natural disasters. It has not become a matter of state," he 
told IWPR. 

"Yet our country is part of a region that has always experienced earthquakes, 
and they will certainly recur in future."

Seismologists are relieved that the quakes in southern Kyrgyzstan over the New 
Year were not more serious. Registering six points on the Richter scale, they 
caused no fatalities. 

But thousands of people lost their homes or were forced to abandon cracked 


The extensive damage to buildings in Osh highlighted another aspect of 
Kyrgyzstan's lack of preparedness - the government's failure to inspect 
newly-constructed buildings for safety. 

"It all shows how poor the quality of construction is, especially in the Osh 
region - that after moderate earthquakes, buildings did not survive but 
collapsed," noted Abdrahmanov. 

"That's a bad sign. If there is an eight- or nine-point earthquake, there will 
be human casualties."

Seismologists have forecast increased seismic movement in 2008 and 2009 and a 
wave of more powerful activity in the period from 2011 to 2013. 

Experts accuse the government of ducking the issue by placing all the 
responsibility for making preparations on the shoulders of a single all-purpose 
ministry, the Ministry for Emergency Situations. 

They say that the ministry is too small to handle so many tasks and has too few 

"The state must adopt a long-term programme to prepare people over the next 
three to five years," said Abdrahmanov. "Even without investing a lot 
financially, they can at least teach people to secure their houses using simple 


Scientists are concerned with the effects of seismic activity not only in the 
south but in the north, too, including the capital Bishkek. The problem of 
illegal, unsafe structures is acute in the capital, where anything between 
200,000 and 500,000 squatters are thought to live.

According to Abdrahmanov of the seismology institute, 90 per cent of these 
illegal structures would not survive a six- or seven-point earthquake. 

NGOs working with squatters and migrants know that many of their homes are 

Rahila Jusupova, leader of the NGO Er Ayim, says squatters in Ak-Orgo, a new 
residential district, told him they were building houses with cheap adobe 
because they lacked the money for bricks, concrete and cement. 

"These houses will not survive powerful earthquakes," predicted Jusupova. "I am 
afraid they could collapse like a pack of cards." 

The problem of rickety buildings is not confined to poor squatter's homes in 
the Bishkek suburbs, however. 

Architects and safety experts suspect many of the gleaming new tower blocks 
erected recently in the city centre are also suspect in safety terms. 

"In Soviet times, the construction inspectorate would come to check the quality 
of reinforcement and concrete every two days, but today buildings are built 
within two weeks," complained Abdrahmanov. 


Meanwhile, the arguments continue over the speed and effectiveness of the 
government's response to the most recent quakes. 

Bakyt Jolchiev, deputy minister for emergency situations, says the ministry was 
put on high alert. "Teams of 15-16 people worked daily to assess the level of 
damage, while countries like Italy, Sweden and Russia provided us with 
humanitarian aid," he said.

But some victims say the delivery of aid was far from transparent or effective. 
They are especially unhappy that people left homeless were given only light 
summer tents to sleep in despite the winter cold. 

It took two weeks for the government to come up with only a million soms - 
around 28,000 US dollars - in financial aid for the quake victims.

Marzia-Apa, 59, one of the quake victims from the village of Karasogot, said 
she was disappointed. 

"It's impossible to live in tents when it is freezing," she pointed out. "They 
gave us electric heaters but there's no electricity in the villages, so these 
heaters won't save us." 

In any case, she said, "Tents and heaters are not the solution. The government 
should have set aside proper accommodation for quake victims in advance."

Others hit by the quakes complained of a lack of transparency in the 
distribution of foreign aid.

"People say foreign planes with humanitarian aid were sent but no one knows how 
many items we are supposed to get, how many were distributed, or how many 
things were in there [the planes]," another quake victim told IWPR. "There's 
been no transparency." 

The same person added, "There is a shortage of tents, and in any case, children 
and women shouldn't be living in tents in winter.

"Only now do they start showing on TV what people should do during earthquakes, 
but this should have been done before New Year and not after the disaster."


Vladimir Mokrousov of the emergency ministry's forecasting department agrees 
that the south may be in for a rough ride over the next few years.

"The forecasts predict a continuation of seismic activity in 2008 and 2009," he 
told IWPR. "Again, the most dangerous districts are in the southern part of the 
country like the Batken and Osh regions, and especially those districts of 
Batken region that border Tajikistan." 

Mokrousov agreed that earthquakes may strike other parts of the country. But he 
insisted that the ministry did not have the resources to make large-scale 
preparations such as contingency plans for the mass resettlement of people. 
"Such work is already being done but it is not constant," he admitted. 

Taalaibek Temiraliev, head of the ministry's external relations, says the 
country remains dependent on continuing flows of foreign aid merely to cope 
with the after-effects of the recent quakes, let alone prepare for new ones.

"The list of people who suffered currently stands at 1,020 families but this 
number is growing as experts continue to visit every village and evaluate the 
situation," he said. 

"We are having to tell people that it's dangerous to remain in their damaged 
houses, as these will collapse if there is another earthquake, and they will be 
buried alive for days." 

Temiraliev said the ministry was in direct contact with international 
organisations. Austria and Slovakia had already sent 45 warm tents and a 
thousand sets of clothing, while the United Nations had sent another 120 winter 
tents and Sweden and Bulgaria had also sent aid.

The ministry had been the first institution to respond to the crisis, 
delivering warm clothes, foodstuff, mattresses, blankets and sleeping bags, he 
maintained, "but the number of victims is growing, so the need for aid is also 

He accepted that the ministry was not providing everyone with all the help they 
needed, but insisted this was also the responsibility of local authorities, 
including provincial governors and local councils. 

Other officials within the ministry are now calling for additional preventive 
measures, such as the introduction of affordable building insurance schemes.

Anaraly Sydykov, head of the ministry's department for dealing with 
emergencies, said that the State Agency for Architecture and Construction must 
first complete an assessment of the damage, and then the government would need 
to decide on the next steps. 

"We will need money," he said. "It's always difficult to get funding at the 
start of the year, but only when we have it can we start building proper 
facilities such as schools, hospitals and houses that meet construction 

He also called for an insurance scheme, saying, "Today the entire population 
lives in uninsured houses and some of these have been built illegally."

"We should not have allowed so many new residential areas to be built in 
Bishkek, or at least should have obliged the State Agency for Architecture to 
develop solid plans... God forbid that something should happen, because all the 
houses in the new residential areas will collapse." 

Nikolay Baylo, a Communist legislator, accused the government of dithering in a 
debate in parliament on January 11.

"Despite all the warnings of scientists about a possible earthquake in Osh, the 
government was busy with politics," he said. "It also turned out the Ministry 
of Emergencies didn't have a single winter tent for the eventuality of a 
natural disaster happening during the cold season."

Marzia-Apa hopes officials will be better prepared in future, though she is far 
from confident that they will. 

"We could at least prepare for natural disasters," she said, "though only Allah 
knows when floods or landslides will happen. Thanks to Allah, we are all alive, 
if homeless."

Tolkun Namatbaeva is an IWPR contributor in Bishkek. 

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