CNN Blurs Line Between News and Advertising

All this week, CNN International, part of that “most trusted name in news,” has aired a series of reports on Kazakhstan. But what looks to the unsuspecting viewer like more of CNN at its finest appears in fact to be sponsored advertisements paid for by none other than Kazakhstan’s oil-rich government.  Continue reading CNN Blurs Line Between News and Advertising

Citizen Journalism in Kyrgyzstan’s Capital

The following was posted for the Sustainable Cities Collective, a global site covering urbanism and sustainable development of urban spaces.

Bishkek, capital of the ex-Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan with a population of approximately 1 million (though no one knows for sure – that is a different story), is notoriously dark at night, considering its population density and streetlighting infrastructure. Many bulbs have been out for years, leaving huge swaths of the city off its several main streets in the dark after sunset. Few seem to associate the lack of street lighting with an increase in street crime, which everyone acknowledges has risen precipitously over the past two decades of independence.

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Could Kyrgyzstan’s Microfinance Bubble Burst?

Late last month, the Kyrgyzstan’s National Bank abruptly shuttered 94 microfinance lenders, allegedly for charging well above the industry-average interest rate of 38 percent. But observers fear the move will do little to cool what appears to be an overheating microfinance market.

Kyrgyzstan’s poor, unbanked and largely rural population, along with its lax regulatory environment, has triggered a microfinance boom in recent years. A microfinance institution (MFI) can be founded with only 100,000 Kyrgyz soms ($2,175); staff need no expertise in microfinance, let alone banking. With so little data and transparency, a crisis analogous to the US subprime mortgage meltdown of 2008, where the riskiest loans at the fringes of the market ended up sinking the entire economy, is not difficult to picture.

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Zhanaozen Trials Set to Leave Many Unanswered Questions

The ongoing trials of those indicted for crimes related to labor strikes in the western Kazakhstan city of Zhanaozen appear unlikely to answer questions about the country’s domestic security policy, or prevent repeat incidents. While President Nazarbayev has declared that the striking workers were acting within their rights, and his ambassador to the U.S. insists that the trials will vindicate Kazakhstan’s progress towards the rule of law, the proceedings appear to demonstrate otherwise. Prosecutors have cast a wide net that entangles striking workers, local activists, opposition politicians, and vague foreign instigators in the plot to destabilize social order in the country.

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Borders Hardening throughout Central Asia in Anticipation of NATO Pullout

Kyrgyzstan’s Border Guards Service announced on May 9 that the United States will finance the construction of six facilities in Kyrgyzstan for use by Kyrgyz security forces. They will include a barracks, a command center for the Border Guards’ southern services and new checkpoints. The US Embassy confirmed the plans to build the facilities through CENTCOM, though no specifics were provided (paruskg.info, May 11).

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Interview on Central Asia’s Fast Food Industry

Below is an interview for EurasiaNet’s Yigal Schleifer’s food and food industry blog, Kebabistan:

For those of you who missed it, Central Asia-based Eurasianet contributor Myles Smith had a great story out of Bishkek about Begemot (“hippopotamus”), a local fast food chain that’s revolutionizing the Kyrgyz food scene by selling western-style burgers. Curious to learn more about the story, I sent Smith — a freelance analyst who has lived in Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan for the last five years — a few questions to find out how this Central Asian McDonald’s was working its way into the hearts and stomaches of Kyrgyz eaters and — most importantly — just how does the “hippo” burger stack up against a Big Mac and its other “western” competitors:

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Bishkek Burger Barons Channel Ray Croc’s Spirit

This is a tale of a hippo emulating a behemoth. The outcome is a Central Asian version of a Happy Meal.

For a region that has long associated the term “gamburger” with Turkish-style mutton sliced from a spit, the meals served up at Begemot are a bit unfamiliar—beef patties on a fresh white bun, layered with cheese, lettuce, tomato, pickles, ketchup and mayonnaise. Even stranger, the food is served up in less than five minutes, even at peak hours, and made to order by an assembly line of young men and women dressed in clean red and white uniforms. Continue reading Bishkek Burger Barons Channel Ray Croc’s Spirit

Kyrgyz-Russian Relations Salvaged, as Gazprom Weighs Another Buyout

Kyrgyzstan President Almazbek Atambaev, in an interview with the Russian daily Kommersant on April 10, said that while some may want to drive a wedge between Russia and Kyrgyzstan, “this will be hard to do.” Considering Atambayev’s streak of bewildering statements on Russia, and Kyrgyzstan’s policy over the last month, fallout appears to be becoming a permanent possibility.

Continue reading Kyrgyz-Russian Relations Salvaged, as Gazprom Weighs Another Buyout

Nazarbayev Drifts from ‘Multi-Vector’ Foreign Policy

In an interview with Russian state television, Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev chided the West for trying to influence other countries through mass and new media, echoing positions long held by the Kremlin. The aging Kazakh leader appeared reasonably healthy and articulate on the issues. But his comments may challenge his long-held multi-vector foreign policy, which sought to advance Kazakhstan’s national interests by balancing those of the West, Russia, and China. With Afghanistan’s future in doubt and domestic stability becoming a question for the first time, Nazarbayev is more openly tying Kazakhstan’s future to Russia.

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Southern Kyrgyzstan Tinderbox Awaits Next Spark

A recent International Crisis Group (ICG) report on tensions in Kyrgyzstan’s south has raised pointed questions about the country’s underlying stability. The ICG report, “Kyrgyzstan: Widening Ethnic Divisions in the South,” calls the current peace in Osh “superficial,” noting that “neither the Kyrgyz nor Uzbek community feels it can hold.” The ICG describes the central government as unwilling or unable to remove nationalist Osh Mayor Melis Myrzakmatov and engage in the long-term effort that would be required to mitigate mistrust and dislocation between the two communities.

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Troubles at Kumtor Gold Mine May Spill into Bishkek Politics

A sharp cut in the production forecast of Kyrgyzstan’s lone large industrial enterprise could spell disaster for the country’s finances. A labor strike by workers at the mine in February led to an immediate freeze on production, which led to the company revising its 2012 production forecast from around 600,000 to around 400,000 ounces. The announcement led to an immediate downward revision of Kyrgyzstan’s industrial output and GDP for the first quarter of 2011 by 2 percent. But the government’s growing reliance on indirect taxation for revenues means Bishkek can expect ever greater fallout when the operations of Kumtor are disrupted.

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US Secretary of Defense Seeks to Shore Up Manas Air Base

Secretary Panetta visited Kyrgyzstan on March 13 to solidify that Bishkek honors its commitment to the agreement to host the U.S. military’s Transit Center at Manas International Airport outside Bishkek. The agreement lasts through mid-2014, though U.S. forces will need the base at least through the end of that year. Previous negotiations have been volatile, though each has ended in the U.S. paying a significantly higher price in exchange for business continuing as usual. Yet, given Moscow’s interest in avoiding a haphazard U.S. evacuation of Afghanistan, there is reason to believe that agreements over the Manas base will be extended as long as needed.

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