WELCOME TO IWPR'S REPORTING CENTRAL ASIA, No. 569, March 12, 2009

KYRGYZ NGOS FEAR TOUGHER LEGISLATION  But legislators backing new bill say too 
many non-profit groups behave like political parties.  By Mirgul Akimova in 
Bishkek

KYRGYZSTAN: ALARM AT TRIBAL CLAIM TO SEPARATE STATUS  Acceding to one group’s 
demands for formal recognition as separate ethnicity could open Pandora’s box, 
analysts warn.  By Jenish Aydarov in Batken and Mirgul Akimova in Bishkek

THAW IN TAJIK-UZBEK RELATIONS  Analysts in Dushanbe believe signs of change are 
real.  By Lola Olimova and Daler Gufronov in Dushanbe

TURKMEN OFFER INCENTIVES FOR BIG FAMILIES  Move to encourage people to have 
more children comes amid signs of a shrinking population.  By IWPR staff in 
Central Asia

PRICE RISES HIT TURKMEN POSTAL SERVICE  Many can no longer afford to send mail 
due to rising costs following currency change.  By Maksat Alikperov

KAZAK RIGHTS GROUPS DENOUNCE “INTERNET CENSORSHIP” BILL  Bill would allow 
authorities to close or block websites carrying material critical of their 
policies.  By Anton Dosybiev in Almaty

KAZAKSTAN: SMALL SHOW OF DEFIANCE AGAINST PROTEST “BAN”  Keeping the lid on 
public anger over economic crisis not the answer, say government critics.  By 
Sanat Urnaliev in Uralsk

KAZAKSTAN: ALARM AT SCHOOL DRUG TEST PLAN  Minister says screening essential in 
war on drugs, but critics warn of unwarranted state interference.  By Elmira 
Gabidullina in Almaty

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KYRGYZ NGOS FEAR TOUGHER LEGISLATION

But legislators backing new bill say too many non-profit groups behave like 
political parties.

By Mirgul Akimova in Bishkek

Legislation going before the Kyrgyz parliament this week would restrict the 
rights of non-government organisations, NGOs, by barring them from any activity 
that brings them too close to politics, civil rights activists warn.

Opponents of the bill say it has been conceived as a way of clamping down on 
election monitoring groups, in particular, with a view to the presidential 
election expected later this year or in 2010.

When Arapbay Tolonov and Nurgazy Aydarov of the governing Ak Jol party and 
Communist leader Iskhak Masaliev proposed the package of amendments to the Law 
on Non-Commercial Organisations. on February 20, they said in an accompanying 
statement that it would “ban non-profit organisations from any engagement in 
political activity and in elections”. Such matters, they argued, should be left 
to political parties. 

“If NGOs want to be involved in politics and pursue those ends, they should 
form parties and participate in political life,” Masaliev told IWPR. 

Avtandil Arabaev, deputy chairman of parliament’s committee for constitutional 
law and human rights, supports the amendments, arguing that “what happens in 
Kyrgyzstan is that NGOs are set up and get grants, and then act as if they were 
political parties”. 

The amendments would also require NGOs to be more transparent about their 
funding sources, and would allow the justice ministry to block grants of money 
or property to locally-registered branches of foreign non-profit organisations. 

Here the bill’s backers cite national security concerns, arguing that 
Kyrgyzstan must follow the example of other states which tightened up on NGO 
funding flows in the wake of the al-Qaeda attacks on the United States in 
September 2001.

“No one know how all the... NGOs are financed,” said Arabaev. “Some of them may 
be funded by religious extremists, although we can’t prove that. So it’s best 
to avert danger and make information about their funding sources transparent 
and accessible.” 

Tabyldy Orozaliyev, deputy leader of Ak Jol’s parliamentary group, alleges that 
some NGOs misspend donor money on political activity, while others act as cover 
for extremist groups. 

“Extremist and terrorist organisations are becoming more active, and often 
finance their propaganda through local organisations,” he added. 

Since the content of the bill was announced, Kyrgyz NGOs have mounted a 
vociferous campaign against changes that they say would hamstring them. 

As parliament gets ready to debate the amendments, a number of groups have 
mounted what they call a “fax attack”, bombarding legislators with appeals not 
to approve the changes. 

Leading activists like Dinara Oshurakhunova, head of the ?oalition for 
Democracy and Civil Society, argue that the real aim is to prevent NGOs from 
engaging in election monitoring, and the idea that it will curb the activity of 
al-Qaeda-type groups is a red herring. 

“Under the pretext of combating religious extremism, the authorities are trying 
to exclude NGOs from the election process so that they are unable to monitor 
the transparency of the upcoming presidential ballot,” she said. 

Aziza Abdirasulova, head of the Kylym Shamy human rights centre, believes 
Kyrgyzstan risks going down the slippery slope to authoritarian rule, 
exemplified by its neighbour Uzbekistan.

“The phrase ‘combating religious extremism’ can be used to suppress freedom of 
speech and expression. The authorities are using it in order to stop people 
talking about violations of human rights or about social and economic 
problems,” she said. 

Oshurakhunova points out that Kyrgyzstan’s thriving non-profit sector deals 
with many of the challenges the government is failing to address – helping 
vulnerable groups, and building capacity for both the business sector and 
government itself. The authorities could thus be shooting themselves in the 
foot if they rein in the activities of NGOs. 

Masaliev, one of the MPs who drafted the bill, insisted that NGOs whose formal 
mandate includes election monitoring would not be prevented from doing so. 

“There are international and local organisations that have a legal mandate to 
monitor elections, so I can't see any reason to worry that no one is going to 
do election observation,” he said. 

Some NGOs believe the amendments, if passed, will be only the latest in a 
series of concerted attempts to reduce rights and freedoms in Kyrgyzstan.

Three rights organisations – Kylym Shamy, the Coalition for Democracy and Civil 
Society, and the Mir – Svet Kultury group – issued a statement on March 2 
saying that this process had been going on for just over a year now. As a 
result, they said, “the rights that citizens of Kyrgyzstan no longer enjoy 
include freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom of confession, and electoral 
rights”. 

The Ak Jol party’s Orozaliev rejects claims that the bill is anti-democratic.

“This is not a retreat from democracy; it’s about putting this [NGO] sector in 
order,” he said. “Everyone should do their own thing.”

Political scientist Nur Omarov argues that the bill follows other restrictive 
legislative changes, such as a change to the law on public assembly finalised 
last August which means anyone planning to arrange a rally has to get 
permission from the authorities, and can only hold it in a designated area. 

Omarov believes the NGO law is being changed to prevent foreign-funded groups 
playing an active role during the presidential election, especially now that 
Kyrgyzstan appears to have moved closer to Moscow and has asked the American 
military to vacate the Manas airbase it was using near the capital Bishkek. 

“This is being done right before the election. Everyone knows that NGOs can be 
powerful levers of influence on society, and it is no secret that their foreign 
partners use them to exert influence on the political situation,” he said. “The 
authorities are concerned that now that they have evicted the US from the base, 
it will start sponsoring opposition parties, movements and NGOs.”

While Omarov agrees with the view that “many NGOs in Kyrgyzstan act as 
political parties”, he adds a note of caution, “At the same time, foreign 
donors fund many social programmes, and Kyrgyzstan needs this assistance.” 

Mirgul Akimova is a pseudonym for an independent journalist in Bishkek.


KYRGYZSTAN: ALARM AT TRIBAL CLAIM TO SEPARATE STATUS

Acceding to one group’s demands for formal recognition as separate ethnicity 
could open Pandora’s box, analysts warn.

By Jenish Aydarov in Batken and Mirgul Akimova in Bishkek

Demands by members of a tribal group to be accorded separate ethnic status have 
alarmed commentators in Kyrgyzstan, who argue that such claims could sow 
unnecessary and dangerous divisions. 

The campaign for formal recognition of Kypchak identity is being led by 
Kamchybek Samatov, a retired teacher from the village of Bujum in the southern 
region of Batken. 

>From March 24 to April 3, Kyrgyzstan will conduct the second national census 
>since it became independent in 1991, and Samatov plans to name both his 
>ethnicity and his mother tongue as “Kypchak” when he is polled.

He reckons there are 30,000 people around Batken willing to do the same.

“Apart from Batken, I am being approached by Kypchaks from Jalalabad and Osh as 
well,” he told IWPR, referring to the two other administrative regions of 
southern Kyrgyzstan. 

Once they have recorded their details in the census, Samatov and his associates 
plan to appeal to Kyrgyzstan’s president and parliament to allow them to enter 
“Kypchak” as their ethnic identity in their passports. As in Soviet times, the 
Kyrgyz passport includes a provision stating one’s “nationality” or ethnicity – 
for example Russian or Uzbek – as distinct from one’s citizenship of the state.

If that fails, Samatov plans to seek recognition by the United Nations. “The 
international community will not remain indifferent to the problems facing a 
small ethnic group threatened with extinction,” he said. 

It has been a long haul for Samatov, who first sought legitimacy for Kypchak 
ethnicity in the last Soviet census, conducted in 1989. That attempt failed, 
but he tried again with around 350 others when the next census came round in 
1999. 

“Now that our country had become a democracy, we were hoping we’d be recognised 
as an ethnic group without running into problems,” he said. 

Although the census-takers did write down their ethnicity as requested in 1999, 
the final published statistics did not record any Kypchaks among the various 
minorities officially noted as living in Kyrgyzstan.

The head of the census department at Kyrgyzstan’s National Statistics 
Committee, Gulzeynep Myrzabekova, explained to IWPR that information collated 
about how people identified themselves did not necessarily show up in the 
final, general data. 

“The Kypchaks are an ethnic subgroup, not a nation,” she said “They need to say 
which language they speak – if it’s Kyrgyz, then they belong to the Kyrgyz 
nation, and if it’s the Kazak language, then they are Kazaks.”

Samatov tried another approach in 2006, getting a local court to recognise the 
Kypchak as an ethnic group. However, this ruling was overturned by a higher 
regional court and subsequently by Kyrgyzstan’s Supreme Court. 

Tribal identity remains strong in Kyrgyzstan, and many people are able to cite 
their own family lineage, the clan they belong to, and above that the name of 
their tribe. At a still higher level, the tribes are traditionally apportioned 
to larger groupings, one of which, the Ichkilik, includes the Kypchaks.

For the average person, pride in clan or tribal allegiance does not diminish 
the overarching sense of Kyrgyz identity, and opponents of Samatov’s 
aspirations ask what there really is to distinguish the Kypchaks from any other 
group. Culturally and linguistically, they are similar to other Kyrgyz groups 
in the south, as opposed to groups that speak related but distinct Turkic 
languages like Uzbek or Kazak.

The justification for nation status appears to stem from earlier historical 
times, when the term Kypchak was used for a dominant grouping of Turkic peoples 
living from present-day Kazakstan to Ukraine.

“We’ve got enough cultural and historical evidence,” Samatov said. “I’ve been 
working on this for 30 years now.”

At one level, Samatov’s claims are reminiscent of the academic debate over 
whether the Soviet Union’s rulers manufactured nations out of the various 
groups that inhabited Central Asia when they took over. But for many 
commentators, the argument is far from abstract, and threatens to undermine the 
generally-accepted concept of Kyrgyz nationhood.

Shairbek Juraev, head of the international and comparative politics department 
at the American University of Central Asia, points out that plenty of Kyrgyz 
tribal groups have names harking back to some other historical identity. 

“If you take into account that very many of the tribes have names associated 
with peoples that used to exist or still do – the Naiman, the Kytay and so on – 
this could set a precedent that could lead to a situation where the Kyrgyz 
disintegrate as a unified ethnic group,” he said. 

Political and ethnic affairs experts interviewed by IWPR were unanimous in 
expressing concern at the “Kypchak” project, not because they did not respect 
people’s sense of identity, but because they felt that calling for legal 
recognition sent out a divisive and potentially dangerous message.

“It’s ridiculous,” said Iskhak Masaliev, who leads the Communist Party group in 
parliament. “There are only 3.6 million of us [Kyrgyz] and there’s no sense in 
dividing us further into Kypchaks and Kyrgyz. 

Ethnologist Emil Kanimetov worries that a campaign that would result in ethnic 
fragmentation is a move in the wrong direction.

“There’s no sense in dividing the nation. The entire world is globalising, and 
many countries are dropping ethnicity [from passports],” he said. “It would be 
a step backwards for Kyrgyzstan.”

Legal expert Abdykerim Ashirov says now is not a good time to be stirring up 
divisions in Kyrgyzstan. 

“Kyrgyz society is already showing a tendency to fracture along religious, 
regional and other lines,” he said. “What we need are actions that unite the 
nation.”

Osmonakun Ibraimov, a leading figure in Kyrgyzstan who was State Secretary 
under former president Askar Akaev, says more should be done to create a 
meaningful “national idea” for Kyrgyzstan.

“Kyrgyzstan doesn’t have any national ideology at the moment, and that’s why we 
divide into north and south, and into clans and tribes. The Kyrgyz are a 
synthetic nation formed out of various tribes and peoples… but that doesn’t 
mean we need to be divided,” he said. 

Ibraimov said nationhood should be an inclusive concept, and warned against 
those who he said spoke of “Kyrgyzstan for the Kyrgyz”. “That would mean that 
if you aren’t Kyrgyz, you are a temporary tenant here,” he explained. 

In Batken, a region where a large percentage of people belong to the Kypchak 
tribe, people interviewed by IWPR appeared generally uninterested in the idea 
of forging a new nation, and many were also concerned about the risks inherent 
in drawing unnecessary dividing lines. 

“What difference does it make whether you’re Kypchak, Kytay or Kyrgyz?” asked 
local man Maksatbek Baymyrzaev. “I don’t believe that the people I know who’re 
planning to put themselves down as Kypchak will find that their lives change 
for the better merely because of that.”

Local teacher Ularbek Arapov notes that Batken region, which is flanked on two 
sides by Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, is vulnerable to disputes based around 
ethnic difference. 

“The densely-populated Fergana valley is full of potential for explosive ethnic 
conflicts,” he said. “Why make the situation worse?” 

Samatov insists his claims of recognition are not cover for a separatist 
agenda. 

“We don’t mean that we want to separate off from Kyrgyzstan. We have always 
lived in Kyrgyzstan and will continue to do so,” he said. 

Some observers appear content to let Samatov’s group pursue its dream. 

At national level, Kyrgyzstan’s ombudsman for human rights has in the past 
rejected the concept of a formal status for the Kypchaks, but local 
representative Hait Aykynov, says there is nothing unlawful in Samatov pushing 
his claims. 

Meanwhile, the head of the statistical office in Batken, Mirzakmat Ergeshov, 
says the census agents will write down anything people want. “We don’t look at 
what it says in their passports. We haven’t had instructions from above not to 
put people down as Kypchak,” he said.

Just as in the last census, however, recording people’s statements will not 
automatically generate numbers for Samatov’s would-be nation. 

Lawyers say an individual’s formal ethnic identity is inherited and cannot be 
chosen at will, so a person seeking official identification as Kypchak would 
need to prove that their mother or father was, too.

Jenish Aydarov is a stringer for the Kyrgyz Service of RFE/RL. Mirgul Akimova 
is a pseudonym for a reporter in Kyrgyzstan.


THAW IN TAJIK-UZBEK RELATIONS

Analysts in Dushanbe believe signs of change are real.

By Lola Olimova and Daler Gufronov in Dushanbe

Analysts in Tajikistan are viewing the recent warming of relations with 
Tashkent as a sign that Uzbekistan is becoming more flexible and pragmatic in 
dealing with long-disputed issues.

The latest sign of improved ties came on March 5, when the heads of the Uzbek 
and Tajik national airlines announced that flights between the two capitals 
would resume after a 17-year break. 

The move came a few days after the Uzbeks restored supplies of electricity, 
both their own and from Turkmenistan. The Tajiks buy Turkmen electricity which 
reaches them through the Uzbek national grid, but this was halted in early 
January, for what Tashkent said was technical reasons. 

The resumption in power supplies came as a welcome relief in Tajikistan, where 
blackouts have left large parts of the country with only a few hours of 
electricity a day, and some remoter areas plunged into total darkness. 

Analysts believe both moves reflect a change in Uzbekistan’s view of its 
smaller neighbour, and they are cautiously optimistic that the often difficult 
relationship between the states is at last going to improve.

The first sign of change came at a February 18 meeting of a joint commission on 
trade and economic ties. The very fact that the Uzbeks agreed that it could 
take place in the Tajik capital for the first time since 2002 was seen as a 
breakthrough. 

The meeting resulted in a preliminary agreement being signed on demarcating the 
long frontier between the two states. The border has frequently been the focus 
for tensions – the Uzbeks laid mines along parts of it in 1999-2000 after 
accusing the Tajiks of failing to prevent incursions by Islamic militants.

Tighter border controls imposed by the Uzbeks, including a new visa requirement 
from 2000 onwards, constricted trade and travel opportunities for people in 
Tajikistan, which otherwise only has land routes to the outside world via 
Kyrgyzstan, China along a remote high-altitude border stretch, and unstable 
Afghanistan. 

IWPR understands that the inter-governmental - commission also managed to agree 
a partial solution to the vexed question of shared water resources. 

The Uzbeks frequently accuse Tajikistan of filling up reservoirs on the Amu 
Darya and Syr Darya rivers in order to generate hydroelectricity over the 
winter, depriving them of irrigation water which they need in spring and 
summer. They make the same allegation against Kyrgyzstan, where the Syr Darya 
has its headwaters. 

Officials agreed that the reservoir which feeds the Kayrakkum hydroelectric 
plant on the Tajik section of the Syr Darya would be allowed to fill up until 
the end of May, and the water would then be gradually released downstream to 
give Uzbekistan the water it needs for its agricultural sector. 

Since independence in 1991, the Central Asian states have found it hard to 
agree a common plan to share water equitably. Downstream states like Uzbekistan 
and Turkmenistan feel their mountainous neighbours Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan 
ignore their agricultural needs and hoard the waters of the Syr Darya and Amu 
Darya over the warm months. 

The Tajiks and Kyrgyz, for their part, believe that they are blackmailed into 
letting the water flow so that they have none left to generate hydropower for 
themselves over the cold winter. They are also unhappy at providing the water 
free of charge, whereas their wealthier neighbours charge them market rates for 
oil and gas imports to fill the energy gap.

Plans to build new hydroelectric stations in Tajikistan, and also Kyrgyzstan, 
have exacerbated the debate. Uzbekistan has been a strong opponent of 
additional dams and reservoirs, arguing that these would only make the water 
shortage worse. 

When Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov and Turkmen president Gurbanguly 
Berdymuhammedov met recently, they presented a new common front in setting out 
objections to hydropower projects launched unilaterally by their neighbours.

At the concluding press conference on February 25, Karimov spoke of a need to 
take into account the views of all the states that share the Amu Darya and Syr 
Darya when one country decides to build a hydroelectric power station, and 
suggested that the United Nations oversee independent studies into the 
environmental and other impacts that such schemes would have on the wider 
region.

At the same time, some analysts in Tajikistan were optimistic about the way 
Karimov framed his remarks, which they said indicated a possible move away from 
the previous Uzbek stance of unreserved obstructionism. 

For instance, Karimov noted that “we are not against building hydroelectric 
plants as long as this is in the interests not only of two countries 
[Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan], but of all the states and peoples in the region”. 
This suggested that Uzbekistan might be prepared to cooperate with such 
schemes, or at least not try to block them, if the conditions were right. 

Several hydroelectricity projects in Tajikistan are under construction – 
Sangtuda-1, financed by Russia, is nearing completion, the Iranians are working 
on Sangtuda-2, and the Tajiks are currently working on the giant Rogun dam 
themselves. 

At the press conference, Karimov seemed to reach out to other Central Asian 
leaders, saying people in the region had always been able to resolve their 
differences by themselves.

Rashighani Abdullo, a Tajik political analyst, said the Uzbek leader was 
displaying a new pragmatism.

Since several hydropower schemes were already on their way to completion, he 
said, the Uzbeks may have concluded that the policy of “vehement opposition… 
hasn’t been a success”.

“For the first time in many years, President Islam Karimov has outlined the 
possibility of moving away from his harsh stance on hydropower projects,” he 
said. “It follows that Tajikistan should support this change.” 

Rahmon Tagaev, a senior researcher with the Institute for Strategic Studies in 
Dushanbe, also welcomed the signs of change. 

“The fact that the Uzbeks have restored electricity supplies reflects the first 
[sign of] agreement by Karimov to improve the relationship,” he added.

A Dushanbe-based economist, who asked to remain anonymous, said he believed 
Uzbekistan was trying to sort out water issues ahead of the growing season and 
was prepared to make concessions to achieve this.

“It does look as though relations are shifting over to a more civilised 
framework, based on market economics,” he said. 

Lola Olimova is IWPR’s editor in Tajikistan. Daler Gufronov is an Asia-Plus 
correspondent in Dushanbe.


TURKMEN OFFER INCENTIVES FOR BIG FAMILIES

Move to encourage people to have more children comes amid signs of a shrinking 
population.

By IWPR staff in Central Asia

Turkmenistan’s leaders have launched a campaign to encourage people to have 
more children. The public response to the plan has so far been sceptical.

Under a scheme announced by President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov at a cabinet 
meeting last month, incentives will be put in place for families who have more 
than two children. 

“The state should shoulder all medical expenses for children up to 15 years of 
age,” said the president. “Mothers caring for children under the age of three 
must have all their needs catered to.”

These benefits would also include loans to buy homes, he said.

Under legislation dating from 2007 – the year Berdymuhammedov came to power and 
started reversing some of the social policies of his predecessor Saparmurat 
Niazov – women get the equivalent of 18 US dollars a months for each child aged 
under three, plus a one off payment ranging between 100 and 200 dollars for the 
third and subsequent children born. 

Legislative amendments approved on March 6 increased the monthly benefits by 30 
per cent and the one-off payments by 25 per cent. A separate benefit to cover 
the costs of care introduced in 2007 is being raised by 30 per cent, and 
importantly, this will now be provided until the child is three, as opposed to 
the earlier 18-month period.

The president first spoke of the need to increase the negative demographic 
trend last spring, when he unveiled a new award for women who have eight or 
more children, called Ene Mehri, or “Mother’s Love”. 

The principles behind the award are reminiscent of the “Heroine Mother” medal 
awarded to women with at least ten children in the Soviet Union. At that time, 
Turkmenistan had one of the highest birth rates in the USSR and families of 
eight children were not uncommon. 

Kazakstan, facing a shrinking population, still hands out medals to mothers 
with more than eight children. In Tajikistan, on the other hand, large families 
are so common that the government tries to discourage them.

In the absence of firm population data, it is unclear what the current position 
is in Turkmenistan. 

The final Soviet census of 1989 gave the republic’s population as 3.5 million, 
while the official government figure now is close to double that – 6.8 million.

Another source, the CIA Fact Book, gives an estimate of 5.2 million. A 2007 
report published by the opposition website TM-iskra came up with a low figure 
of 3.7 million, based on unofficial data obtained from the Turkmen statistical 
agency.

Analysts in Turkmenistan say there is anecdotal evidence that population 
numbers are falling. Economic difficulties and the erosion of Soviet-era 
healthcare and welfare provision, plus economic emigration, appear to be the 
major factors.

“Although there isn’t any [reliable] data about the birth rate or the total 
population, I believe that the demographic situation has reached critical 
stage, and that the authorities intend to boost the birth rate,” said a 
journalist based in the eastern Lebap region. “Over the years that Turkmenistan 
has been independent, hundreds of thousand of young people of reproductive age 
have left for many reasons, including economic considerations. Even now, many 
head off to other countries in search of work, and many of them won’t return.”

A journalist based in Dashoguz who has covered demographic trends in this part 
of northern Turkmenistan said there was a marked fall in the birth rate, even 
in rural areas where large families used to be the norm.

“Most young families set themselves a ceiling of two children,” he said.

A doctor in Turkmenabat in the eastern part of the country said widespread 
poverty, unemployment, and housing shortages were putting people off having 
more children. He said the government needed to do more than hand out medals if 
it was to turn the situation around.

“The authorities give awards to mothers with many children, but there aren’t 
many of those,” he said. “It hasn’t led to women having more children.”

Many argue that even an increase in welfare benefits is not going to be enough 
to offset the rising price of food, goods and services.

“Aside from social payments and benefits, there’s a need for wide-ranging 
social reforms to achieve a real improvement in living standards and welfare,” 
said the journalist in Lebap.

One mother in the capital Ashgabat, currently on maternity leave and looking 
after her four-month-old baby, said the benefits she received were only enough 
to buy bread and milk, with nothing left over.

“Milk costs around a dollar a litre, and I need two litres a day for the 
family,” she said.

Many people interviewed for this report were sceptical that life would get 
easier for families, however many children they had. 

“I remember Berdymuhamedov talking about benefits for women with children last 
year, and now he’s saying it again,” said a journalist based in Ashgabat.

Housing is another concern. A university student in the capital asked “What 
kind of government support do you think you can count on? With prices as they 
are and long queues of people waiting to get on the property ladder, I doubt 
the state is going to be able to provide every family with a house or a flat.”

One mother in Ashgabat said she was planning to have another child because her 
husband had a good job with a construction company, but added, “I am not 
expecting any help from the state.” 

However, not everyone was dismissive of the latest changes. A former government 
employee said, “It can be assumed that these changes to the [welfare] code will 
result in a rise in the birth rate. That conclusion is justified by the fact 
that the care benefit introduced in 2007 had, in my view, a positive effect on 
the birth rate.”

(The names of interviewees have been withheld to protect their identity.)


PRICE RISES HIT TURKMEN POSTAL SERVICE

Many can no longer afford to send mail due to rising costs following currency 
change.

By Maksat Alikperov

The soaring cost of postal deliveries in Turkmenistan following the 
redenomination of the national currency in January has made sending mail 
unaffordable for many.

A post office worker in the capital Ashgabat said that in January, she noted a 
five-fold drop in the number of parcels sent abroad during her shift.

The postal worker, who wished to remain anonymous, said she handled only 46 
deliveries during, as opposed to the 250 to 350 she normally processes.

The rise in prices follows the redenomination of the Turkmen national currency, 
the manat, on January 1. The new banknotes have a face value of one manat to 
5,000 in the old currency. 

The redenomination was carried out to create a more realistic exchange rate. It 
did away with the old system where the official rate was fixed at 5,250 manat 
to the US dollar, contrasting sharply with the black market, where the manat 
was worth far less. Before January, it was almost impossible to buy currency at 
the official rate and people used the parallel rate when buying and selling 
notes. Among themselves, the banks used a third rate, the “commercial rate”, 
set at 14,250 to the dollar.

The new manat is pegged at an exchange rate of 2.85 to the dollar that works 
out exactly the same as the commercial rate in old notes. 

Even though the transition is a gradual one, and both old and new banknotes 
will be accepted as legal tender throughout 2009, people feared redenomination 
would lead to a surge in inflation. 

They have been proved right when it comes to postal charges. To coincide with 
the redenomination, the post office introduced new prices for all services set 
at the new exchange rate (or in old notes, the commercial rate). 

Before January, it cost 100,000 manats, or seven dollars at the US) to send a 
parcel weighing two kilogrammes. It now costs three times as much – 300,000 old 
or 60 new manats – to send the same kind of package. The price of sending a 
letter abroad has gone up from the equivalent of 38 to 85 cents.

The spike in the price of postal services has been particularly felt by those 
with relatives abroad.

Many people in Turkmenistan have family members in Russia, who have either 
emigrated permanently or are studying there temporarily. The country also has a 
sizable Uzbek community, many of whom have relatives living across the border 
in Uzbekistan. 

For these people, the high costs of phone calls, internet and air travel meant 
that sending letters and parcels was the only way they could afford to stay in 
touch.

The higher prices have meant that some have now had to curb communication with 
their families.

A pensioner from Mary in southeast Turkmenistan told IWPR, “My pension is 42 
dollars [monthly], which is just about enough to make ends meet. Three of my 
grown-up grandchildren and two close friends live in Russia. Before, I used to 
exchange letters with them regularly, and send postcards for holidays and 
birthdays.

“Now that a letter costs almost a dollar to send, I don’t write much.”

Parents whose children have gone abroad to study also find themselves in a 
difficult situation. 

Oguljamal, who works in a chemist’s shop in the eastern city of Turkmenabad, 
has a son living in Turkey.

“My son asked me to send him warm clothes and several dictionaries. I had to 
pay 53 dollars for a parcel weighing five kilos. That’s exactly one third of my 
salary,” said Oguljamal.

“Last year, we regularly sent him parcels – at least two or three times a 
month. With the new prices, sending even one parcel puts a dent in your budget.”

People say the steep rise in prices has not led to an improvement in postal 
services.

Although the communications ministry recently announced that services were 
being improved, residents of the country say this is far from the truth.

They complain about the speed of delivery and about the fact that parcels 
appear to have been tampered with when they arrive.

“My sister [in Uzbekistan] sent me a parcel. It takes only ten hours to travel 
to where she lives, but the parcel took two months to arrive,” said Begench, a 
driver from Ashgabat. “The packaging had been torn apart, the contents mixed 
up, and boxes containing chocolate and biscuits had been opened.”

Begench said a postal worker told him the parcel had gone through customs.

“They say this is how parcels come from customs. I was then made to pay three 
manats of customs duty,” he said.

Others say the service has become even more unreliable of late.

“I often used to receive small parcels from relatives and friends living 
abroad. Nothing valuable – souvenirs, sweets, sometimes cookbooks,” said a chef 
at a cafe in Ashgabat.

But over the last three months, only three out of the seven parcels sent to him 
have arrived, he complained.

“Delivery speed is the biggest problem with our post – not only for parcels, 
but also for letters. It takes one and a half or two months at least [for these 
to arrive],” said Turkmenabat resident Mered.

According to Mered, postal workers said this was because customs officers held 
on to incoming mail for so long.

A former communications ministry official acknowledged the postal service was 
in disarray. 

“The current dismal state of postal system clearly reflects two facts – the 
weak development of the overall infrastructure in the country, as well as the 
state’s desire to exercise total control over all kinds of contact and 
communications between its citizens and the outside world,” he said.

Maksat Alikperov is the pseudonym of a journalist from Turkmenistan.


KAZAK RIGHTS GROUPS DENOUNCE “INTERNET CENSORSHIP” BILL

Bill would allow authorities to close or block websites carrying material 
critical of their policies.

By Anton Dosybiev in Almaty

The Kazak authorities look likely to push through a bill designed to control 
internet use in the country, in spite of calls from media organisations for it 
to be reconsidered.

On February 23, a parliamentary working group met for the second time to 
discuss amendments to a number of existing laws which are mainly intended to 
control web use.

While the authorities say some regulation of the internet is necessary to 
prevent users accessing illegal information, media representatives warn that 
the changes could give the government power to censor the web for political 
reasons.

Although press freedom is enshrined in the Kazak constitution, observers say 
privately-owned and opposition-leaning media in the country are subject to 
tight controls.

In 2008, media watchdog Reporter Without Borders, RSF, cited several examples 
of pressure on the Kazakstan press, including cases of outlets being closed 
down after they criticised the authorities.

In Kazakstan, journalists can be prosecuted for insulting the president and 
other officials. Details of the president’s private life, health and financial 
affairs are classified under state secrecy regulations. The authorities control 
most of the country’s printing presses, as well as the bulk of radio and TV 
broadcasting facilities. 

The internet – which is currently unregulated – is seen as a last refuge for 
those seeking alternative sources of information, and is widely accessed by 
Kazakstan residents.

If the bill is passed, changes will be made to existing legislation on media, 
national security, and communications to allow web-based content to be 
subjected to the same controls imposed on conventional media.

Examples of material which the press and broadcasters are prohibited from 
publishing include classified information, terrorist or extremist propaganda, 
pornography and calls for the overthrow of the government.

The bill proposes adding to this list a ban on foreign nationals using media to 
promote electoral candidates, as well as a prohibition on using a news outlet 
to call on workers to strike.

The proposals would allow the authorities to block foreign websites if the 
content went against Kazak domestic law.

Other draft changes include an obligation on internet service providers to 
gather personal information on customers – including their phone numbers, 
postal addresses and passport information – and keep this on file for two 
years. 

Provider firms would be held legally responsible for not complying, and would 
have to hand over this information to the law-enforcement agencies at the 
latter’s request.

The amendments also propose giving the prosecution service new powers to close 
down news outlets if they are deemed to be breaking the law.

The chairman of the government agency for information technology and 
communications, Kuanyshbek Yesekeev, who presented the legal amendments, said 
they represented an attempt to regulate internet use and protect users from 
what he called “negative” material.

But media representatives warn the restrictions could lead to censorship of the 
web.

The free speech group Adil Soz and the National Association of Broadcasters 
produced a report calling for the changes to be revised after a public debate.

Their report, publicised at a press conference on January 27, noted that 
Kazakstan has some of the harshest media laws in the former Soviet Union. It 
said the authorities were trying to bring the internet under the same tight 
controls as those already imposed on other media. 

It also argued that the amendments went against the Kazak constitution, which 
uphold political and ideological pluralism, creativity and freedom of speech.

In their analysis, the NGOs called for clearer criteria to determine which 
web-based content can be treated as media. They pointed out that the catch-all 
term “internet resource” used in the bill could extend to content like personal 
ads.

Of particular concern to the NGOs was the proposal to give state prosecutors 
the power to suspend or close news outlets. Under current laws, only a judge is 
empowered to require this.

The head of Adil Soz, Tamara Kaleeva, said the proposals would allow the 
authorities to censor the internet for political reasons.

Under the amendments, an enormous list of justifications can be invoked to 
block websites which the government considers damaging, said Kaleeva.

Meanwhile, Rozlana Taukina of the Journalists in Danger foundation argued that 
the changes were unconstitutional and contradicted international standards of 
press freedom.

“Our bureaucrats want to place an iron curtain around Kazakstan,” she said. 
“The aim of the bill is to strengthen the authorities and protect them from 
dissident thoughts and ideas, and prevent journalists from doing their 
professional work.” 

Taukina said there was a growing mood of public discontent in Kazakstan which 
could lead to protests erupting.

The country has been hard hit by the global economic downtown, and thousands of 
workers have been affected by the widespread closure of businesses.

“There are many matters of concern to society, but journalists won’t be able to 
write about them,” said Taukina.

Other observers argue that the bill is an attempt to legalise the existing 
practice of blocking controversial web sites. For some time, many sites linked 
to opposition groups have been sporadically blocked.

“As far back as I remember, it has been always like this – if they 
[authorities] want to block a site, they do so,” said Yuriy Mizinov, 
editor-in-chief of internet site Zona.kz.

In October and November 2007, users found they were denied access to several 
opposition websites, including Zonakz.net, which published transcripts of audio 
recordings of conversations apparently between high-level officials. The voices 
were discussing a plot to eliminate President Nursultan Nazarbaev’s disgraced 
ex-son-in-law Rakhat Aliev.

The site Geokz.kz, which has published personal information about government 
members, including details of their business interests, has also been blocked 
repeatedly.

Igor Loskutov, a media lawyer with Adil Soz, noted in a report published on the 
organisation’s website that with Kazakstan’s chairmanship of the OSCE coming up 
next year, the government had to introduce legal methods of controlling web 
content.

But some say there is little point in the government extending its powers to 
block and close websites, saying it is well-nigh impossible to monitor the vast 
amount of material available on the net. 

“It costs a huge amount of money to monitor millions of sites. I think that 
given the current economic crisis, it is not worth spending funds on it,” said 
Adil Jalilov, head of the MediaNet Centre for International Journalism.

Jalilov questioned the effectiveness of obstructing access to opposition sites.

“I believe that blocking a political opponent’s blog is pointless,” he said. 
“He can open another one on a different server, of which there are plenty.”

Anton Dosybiev is an IWPR-trained journalist in Almaty.


KAZAKSTAN: SMALL SHOW OF DEFIANCE AGAINST PROTEST “BAN” 

Keeping the lid on public anger over economic crisis not the answer, say 
government critics.

By Sanat Urnaliev in Uralsk

A small group of protesters in the west Kazakstan city of Uralsk have made 
waves by becoming the first to defy a government instructions to avoid public 
gatherings until the current economic crisis is over.

The March 5 gathering, called to bring attention to the social impact of the 
economic crisis, only involved 20 or so members of the opposition Communist 
Party of Kazakstan, the Alga party and a pensioners’ movement called Pokolenie. 

Police soon arrived at the scene on the central square of Uralsk, 
administrative centre of the Western Kazakstan region, and detained seven 
people, four of them passers-by who had simply picked up leaflets. All seven 
were released half an hour later.

Speaking the following day, Uralsk mayor Samigolla Urazov played down the 
significance of the protest., 

“Several people did indeed gather on the square yesterday, but I don’t think 
that people were queuing up to join them,” he told IWPR. “We’re interested in 
what they were doing. I don’t think they wish people any harm, just as we 
don’t. Maybe they had orders from above [from party headquarters]. But I don’t 
think that it’s right to rock the boat at a difficult time for the country, 
when we need to be united.”

Acting on a request from the central Kazak authorities, the city government in 
Uralsk last month called on political parties and NGOs to sign up to an 
agreement not to stage protest actions so as to “maintain social and political 
stability” while the economic crisis was continuing. 

The regional branches of three opposition parties, the Communists, Azat and Ak 
Jol, refused to do so, saying the move was unconstitutional, but seven others 
including the governing Nur Otan did sign.

Local political analyst Nikolai Osipov says attempting to muffle protests could 
be counterproductive as it could make people more prone to come out against the 
government. 

He says it is important to allow people to express their views to their rulers, 
adding that “if this link is lost, people will lose confidence in the 
authorities, whose influence with the electorate will then wane”. 

Pavel Kochetkov, the head of the regional branch of the Kazakstan Bureau for 
Human Rights and Rule of Law agreed, noting that the Kazak constitution 
contains provisions for citizens to make their views known to government. 

“It doesn’t look good,” he said of the effective ban on protests. “There’s a 
need for normal dialogue.”

In other large cities – the exception being Almaty, the country’s commercial 
capital – the authorities have refused to grant permission for protests. The 
Azat party has launched court actions to contest these local bans in a number 
of regions.

Kazakstan has suffered multiple effects from the global financial crisis. Its 
banks borrowed heavily on international markets in recent years, and have had 
to drastically curtail their lending, with serious consequences for local 
businesses and the construction industry. 

Meanwhile, falling prices for oil and metals have placed a strain on the 
country’s main export industries.

Officials say thousands of people have been put out of work by the closure of 
businesses across the country. The revaluation of the Kazak currency last 
month, intended to restore the economy’s competitiveness vis-à-vis its trading 
partners, has led to a jump in the prices of imported foodstuffs and consumer 
goods.

Western Kazakstan region, which depends on agriculture, light industry and 
above all the giant Karachaganak oil and gas field, has also been affected, 
though not more than other parts of the country. 

However, in a petition for which the groups involved in the Uralsk petition 
collected 1,400 signatures, they said residents of the region had been “placed 
in a desperate situation by the sharp decline in living standards, and are 
forced to go into the streets and squares to hold protest meetings”.

Oxana Ternovskaya, local branch secretary of the Communist Party, said one of 
the main demands put to the authorities in the petition is for public-sector 
wages, pensions and welfare benefits to be increased in real terms.

A pensioner who signed the petition said he agreed with demands for higher 
pensions and a reduction in the retirement age. 

“There aren’t many people who would say they’re happy with the current 
pension,” said this man, who asked to remain anonymous. “The money you get is 
just enough to cover food, medicine and utility bills – we can’t afford 
anything else. I deplore the state’s attitude to the elderly.”

Uralsk mayor Urazov insisted things had not deteriorated badly in his city. 
“Food prices and utility bills haven’t risen substantially, and the city is 
implementing measures to counter the crisis,” he said. 

Sanat Urnaliev is a freelance journalist in Uralsk


KAZAKSTAN: ALARM AT SCHOOL DRUG TEST PLAN

Minister says screening essential in war on drugs, but critics warn of 
unwarranted state interference.

By Elmira Gabidullina in Almaty

A member of Kazakstan’s parliament has joined rights activists in questioning 
an initiative by the interior ministry to introduce compulsory drug testing for 
school and university students.

On March 4, member of parliament Serik Temirbulatov requested a formal 
statement from Prime Minister Karim Masimov on the progress of the bill and 
what the justification for it was.

Temirbulatov said he accepted there was a need to curb the rising use of 
illegal drugs in Kazakstan, but he shared concerns that a group of human rights 
groups had raised about the idea of testing students for signs of drug use. 

In a letter to the government on February 13, these groups spoke of the 
emergence of a police state. 

“It is as if everyone were forced to turn out their pockets when they left a 
supermarket in case they had stolen something,” said their letter. 

These groups believe compulsory drug testing would breach several 
constitutional rights and freedoms, including privacy rights and the 
presumption of innocence.

In January, Kazakstan’s interior minister Baurjan Muhamedjanov asked parliament 
to approve new legislation that would enforce drug testing in educational 
institutions.

“It’s needed most of all by the children themselves and by their parents,” he 
told legislators. “The sooner parents find out their child is ill, the easier 
it will be to get treatment.” 

The ministry conducted a pilot study in a number of universities last year, and 
deemed it enough of a success to merit introduction nationwide. 

The human rights groups dispute the value of the pilot study results, saying 
that only three per cent of those tested showed signs of narcotics use, much 
less than the ten per cent that officials had thought likely. In their 
statement, the groups concluded that 97 per cent of those who underwent testing 
were forced to do so for no reason.

No one disputes that Kazakstan faces a significant challenge from rising drug 
abuse. 

The country lies on routes for Afghan heroin heading to Russia and other 
European states. As is typical in transit countries, local sales and use are on 
the increase, together with associated problems such as HIV transmission 
through shared needles. 

Kazakstan is itself a major source of cannabis, which grows naturally in the 
southeast. The production and sale of these narcotics is illegal here.

Official figures from the interior ministry say there are 55,000 recorded users 
of illegal drugs out of a population of 15 million.

Critics of testing in schools and colleges say the measure would be of 
questionable legality, as well as being too blunt an instrument to curb drug 
use effectively.

Yevgeny Zhovtis, director of the Kazakstan Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of 
Law, one of the groups behind the open letter to the government, says it is 
wrong to target users, who are really victims, rather than dealers and 
traffickers.

The leader of the Society of Young Professionals, Nurul Rahimbekov, says more 
sophisticated social policies are needed to stop young people getting involved 
in drugs in the first place.

“What’s needed is effective preventive measures, not repressive methods,” he 
said. “The fight against drug use should be directed at its sources and not at 
the consequences, still less with methods like these.”

Bahyt Tumenova, who heads a health NGO called Aman Saulyk, worries that 
compulsory testing for drugs would set an alarming precedent for the 
authorities to introduce other kinds of intrusive measures.

A school head in Almaty who asked not to be named warned that testing might 
simply alienate young people in the highest risk groups, often from 
dysfunctional families, leading them to drop out of education. 

“They will undergo testing, but what then?” she asked. “The kids will simply 
separate themselves off from school more than ever, and consequently they’ll 
spend more time on the street and become more vulnerable to drug dependency.”

Elmira Gabidullina is an independent journalist in Almaty.

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