Cross-regional and Blogosphere
neweurasia devoted much time and energy to cover the December 2005 presidential elections. The following is a quick guide to the material we posted on this site.
While it was no surprise that incumbent Nursultan Nazarbayev would carry home a comfortable win, the margin was subject to discussion right from the start, with some commentators even wondering whether the elections could get rigged in order to lower Nazarbayev’s winning margin.
The Caspian Information Center, a small one-man think tank from London, first appeared in the discussion in November, when the organisation published a report on the preparations for the elections.
neweurasia then featured two cross-posts from KZ-Blog. While the first post reported about the fear of violence during the run up to the elections, the other asked whether the Kazakh government was sincere in its promise to conduct a free and fair poll and why the opposition was so weak.
James took a look back at previous elections in Kazakhstan and wondered whether the December poll could in any way be different – taking into account a new set of incentives to conduct free and fair elections.
With a couple of days to go, we stressed that the actual challenge to fair elections is not so much the election day but the months immediately preceding them. Also, treating the outcome of the elections as a foregone conclusion, we asked whether Nazarbayev would be serious about reform during his renewed tenure.
In our special coverage of the Caspian Information Center’s mission, we reprinted the group’s initial comments. One commenter heavily criticised the findings and doubted the legitimacy of the organisation.
The most intriguing discussion on our blog unfolded after James posted links to different election articles. Some of the commentators seemed angry with the weight given to ‘dubious’ observer missions, whereas others chimed in with CIC’s criticism of the OSCE findings. James also went to visit a Heritage Foundation panel on the elections, the summary of which (here) gave an excellent overview of the differing opinions.
President Nazarbayev was eventually inaugurated in January, and international guests were mainly interested in talking about oil and gas.
Welcome to the second roundup of news on press freedom in Central Asia and the Caucasus.
We’ll start in Kazakhstan, where the radical opposition newspaper ‘Juma Times’ has been ordered to close. The paper was charged with insulting the ‘honour and dignity’ of President Nazarbayev in the run-up to last year’s elections.
Gulzhan Yergaliyeva, the editor of another opposition newspaper, Svoboda Slovo, has been jailed for holding an ‘unsanctioned demonstration’ on the death of Altynbek Sarsenbayev. Yergaliyeva has gone on hunger strike to protest against her imprisonment.
On the Turkmenistan blog, Peter reports on the March 7 arrest of two RFE/RL Journalists. As of March 10, their whereabouts are still unknown, and the telephone lines to all other RFE/RL correspondents in the country have been blocked.
The Tajik Ministry of Communications is aiming to tighten control over internet service providers and international telecoms, through a plan to route all telephone and intenet traffic ‘Unified Communications Center and Information Resource Unit’. However, there are doubts as to whether the Government’s plan is feasible.
Nick discusses a new resolution from the Uzbek Government which strenghtens the regulations on foreign journalists on the Uzbekistan blog.
Meanwhile, in further bad news for RFE/RL, two former Uzbek employees have attacked the service. Rakhmatzhan Kuldashev, the ex-head of the Tashkent bureau, is demanding $20,000 compensation from his former employer, claiming that ‘Humiliation and poverty are all I got for my faithful service’. Another ex-correspondent, Khusniddin Kutbiddinov, has written an open letter in which he states that the Uzbek Government is ‘much more humane’ than RFE/RL.
In Azerbaijan, an opposition journalist was brutally attacked. Fikret Huseynli, who has been threatened in the past for his work on exposing corruption in the Azeri Governemnt, was left in a critical condition. The attack came almost a year after the still unsolved murder of journalist Elmar Husneyov.
Journalists in Georgia suffer from a different type of threat to their work. The media owners who control many major outlets appear uninterested in encouraging investigative journalism, fearing that it may damage their market position and relations with the Government.
Finally, here’s an interesting report on RFE/RL on increasing coverage of previously-taboo religious issues by non-traditional media sources, including the internet, in Central Asian countries.
Editor: Marianna posted this on the Azerbaijan blog. Due to the post’s regional significance, it is also posted here.
By Marianna Gurtovnik
Over the past decade, US policymakers have been questioning the effectiveness of Americaâ€™s multi-billion foreign aid programs. In some cases, these programs created dependency on aid in developing nations or allowed for fundsâ€™ mismanagement by corrupt governments. To address these concerns, George W. Bush launched the â€œMillennium Challenge Accountâ€? (MCA), an initiative that makes good governance a precondition for Americaâ€™s assistance to poor countries. In January 2004, after the initiative had received bipartisan endorsement in the Congress, President Bush established the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) to pioneer the policy.
US foreign aid has been instrumental in promoting American interests worldwide, and South Caucasus is a case in point. Since the midâ€“1990s, United States have been among the largest donors of humanitarian and developmental projects serving refugees and other under-privileged groups in the South Caucasus. With time, the US have also reaped substantial geostrategic pay-offs in the region. Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia aspire to join NATO and have participated in the blocâ€™s military training program. Theyâ€™ve also deployed peacekeeping battalions in either Iraq or Afghanistan, or both. After years of sticky negotiations, Russia has promised to withdraw all troops from its military bases in Georgia by 2008. Russia has already closed down two of its four bases in Georgia. And last May, the British Petroleum-led oil consortium launched a long-delayed pipeline to pump Azerbaijanâ€™s â€œblack goldâ€? over to the US and European markets. Financial feasibility of the $3.7 billion pipeline was questioned even by western economists. However, its route through Georgia and Turkey made sense to western diplomats because it circumvented volatile and unpredictable Russia.
Eager to expand the cooperation, the US have insisted that Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia improve their record on just governance and economic freedom. Vote-rigging, corrupt courts, muzzling of political dissenters, and pervasive red-tape have bred public discontent and stifled private sectorâ€™s growth in all three countries. Last November, US officials chided Armenia and Azerbaijan for falsifying the results of the referendum and parliamentary elections, respectively. The new Georgian government that emerged after the â€˜Rose Revolutionâ€™ of November 2003 enjoys a clear support of the Bush Administration, although it, too, is plagued by human rights violations.
One may now wonder if each of the South Caucasus countriesâ€™ governance practices have been reflected in MCCâ€™s recent funding decisions. The answer is not a clear â€œyesâ€?.
All three countries have a per-capita income of up to $1,435â€”low enough to be considered poor, under MCC rules. But the agency does not base its decisions on income alone. To qualify for MCC funding, a country must score above the median on the corruption indicator. It must also score above the median on at least half of indicators in three categories: rule of law, investment in people, and economic freedom.
Georgia: Long Way Cut Short
In September 2005, MCC signed a 295.3 million Compact (agreement) with Georgiaâ€”the second largest grant the corporation has signed so far. Secretary of State and MCC Board Chair, Condoleezza Rice, who attended the signing ceremony in New York, praised the Georgian Governmentâ€™s â€œcommitment to political and economic reformâ€?.
Unlike traditional foreign aid where a donor country sets the priorities, MCC encourages governments to identify projects and prepare grant proposals themselves. MCCâ€™s key principle is to â€œreduce poverty through economic growthâ€?. Georgians will use the Compact money to repair a gas pipeline and prop up small rural businesses. MCCâ€™s additional grant of $4.1 million will finance road rehabilitation in Samtskheâ€“Javakheti province, home to Georgiaâ€™s largely impoverished Armenian community. It is hoped that better roads will halt economic isolation of Armenian farmers by facilitating the delivery of their produce to Georgian markets.
The Compact was signed despite the fact that Georgian government has failed the tests on corruption, rule of law, and the quality of economic regulatory policies. Georgiaâ€™s ranking on primary education spending relative to other candidate countries (8%) is also way lower than that of Armenia (50%) and Azerbaijan (60%). Many rural schools in Georgia lack funds to upgrade their dilapidated facilities and infrastructure. Education for ages 6 to 16 is officially free but the US State Departmentâ€™s human rights report for 2004 points to â€œendemic briberyâ€? in Georgian public schools where parents are charged informal fees to cover maintenance costs, school supplies, and even teachersâ€™ delayed salaries. â€œIn some cases, students were forced to drop out due to an inability or unwillingness to payâ€?, the report notes.
In 2005, Transparency International ranked Georgia 130th out of 158 countries surveyed for its â€œCorruption Perception Indexâ€?â€”a progress by 0.3 points compared to Georgiaâ€™s standing in 2004. Georgian parliament took steps to combat corruption by adopting amendments to the Criminal Code in February 2004, and passing the Code of Conduct in October 2004. New criminal legislation has expanded the Prosecutor Officeâ€™s authority to charge officials with bribery, eliminated immunity for law enforcement officials, and allowed in-absentia trials for officials who failed to report to court. The Code of Conduct has established ethical norms for parliamentarians.
Armenia: A Semblance of Scrutiny?
The $235.65 million Compact with Armenia for irrigation and rural road rehabilitation was approved in December 2005. Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) reports that Armenian government will match MCC funds to rebuild over 1/3 of the Lifeline Road Networkâ€”a route through which Armenia hopes to link to Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenianâ€“dominated Nagorno-Karabakh province broke away from Azerbaijan in 1988 but hasnâ€™t been internationally recognized as a legal entity.
According to MCC, Armenia has made a strong showing on economic policies where its percentage rankings, relative to other candidate countries, vary from 83 to 99. It has scored below median on political rights and health and education spending.
Rated 88th out of 158 nations on Transparency Internationalâ€™s Corruption Perception Index, Armenia can boast a healthier standing on the control of corruption than Azerbaijan and Georgia. But whether it fully satisfies MCC criteria remains a moot point. International observers have criticized Armenian government for the â€œinflation of turnout numbers, ballot stuffing, and intimidation of observersâ€? in the November 27 referendum on constitutional amendments. MCCâ€™s CEO, John Danilovich, held off the award and issued a warning to Armenian President, Robert Kocharian. Danilovich expressed concern about the â€œlack of transparencyâ€? in the referendum and stressed that MCC would monitor Armeniaâ€™s performance throughout the five-year Compact. Armeniaâ€™s Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanian has acknowledged the wrongdoings and pledged in his letter that the government will work hard to fix them. On January 18, Danilovich responded that Oskanianâ€™s explanations had provided â€œsufficient reasonsâ€? for him to proceed with signing the Compact.
Representatives of Armenian NGOs have criticized MCC for a â€œvague discontentâ€? with the status-quo, adding that the exchange of letters wonâ€™t generate a genuine commitment to reforms in the government. Theyâ€™ve also called for a â€œmore consistent approachâ€? to country assessmentâ€”one that would continuously monitor local trends and developments. This comment echoes the Center for Global Developmentâ€™s recommendation for a more comprehensive monitoring in Georgia to determine the governmentâ€™s â€œcommitment to strong policies and institutionsâ€? over a â€œsufficient period of time.â€?
â€œMCA Compact Countries are required to maintain performance on the selection criteria even after they have received a compact,â€? said Sherri Kraham, MCCâ€™s Development Policy Director in Washington, DC. She added that MCCâ€™s policy envisages circumstances, under which the agency might suspend or terminate assistance to countries.
Azerbaijan: Is There a Hope?
Azerbaijanâ€™s failing on all six indicators in the â€œruling justlyâ€? category has essentially disqualified it both from Compact funding and so-called â€œthresholdâ€? funding. MCCâ€™s Threshold Program provides policy advice to governments that have demonstrated commitment to reforms but need to further improve their policies to become fully eligible.
While Azerbaijanâ€™s role as the USâ€™s economic and political partner in the region becomes increasingly important, the pressure on Azerbaijani government to democratize appears to grow as well. Most recently, international observers have criticized Azerbaijanâ€™s presidential and parliamentary elections of 2003 and 2005, respectively, as unjust and non-transparent. Ranked 137th out of 158 countries, Azerbaijan also lags behind its two South Caucasian neighbors on the Transparency Internationalâ€™s corruption scale.
Last October, President Ilham Aliyev heeded to the Council of Europeâ€™s recommendations and signed a decree enforcing public officialsâ€™ accountability for procedural violations in the conduct of elections. He also approved the inking of votersâ€™ fingertips to prevent multiple voting. However, observers dismissed these measures, which Aliyev introduced two weeks before the parliamentary ballot, as â€œtoo little, too late.â€? Results in several election districts have been cancelled, with repeat elections scheduled for May 2006.
â€œAzerbaijan has been a candidate country for each of the past three yearsâ€?, said MCCâ€™s Sherri Kraham. â€œWe expect that it will be a candidate, and will be reviewed, again for fiscal year 2007â€?, she noted.
Despite some legislative advances, Georgian Government still needs to reign in the corruption and improve its economic policies. â€œApparently, the MCC Board wanted to support Georgiaâ€™s political transition and newly elected president, Mikhail Saakashvili. While this goal is certainly justifiable from a US foreign policy prospective, it is not an appropriate use of MCA funds â€? note Sarah Lucas and Steve Radelet of the Center for Global Development (CGD), a Washington, DCâ€“based think tank that monitors MCC activities.
The fact that Armenia was approved for funding despite its checkered record has spurred speculations. Some suggest that, as in Georgiaâ€™s case, the Bush Administration wanted to reward a strategic ally. Others talk about the pressure on MCC to â€œget money out of the doorâ€? to prove the agencyâ€™s utility to Congress. The $2.5 billion MCC left unspent in 2004â€“2005 may, in part, explain why the Congress has chopped the agencyâ€™s request for 2006 funds from $3 billion to $1.7 billion. Commenting on MCCâ€™s slow start-up, Congressman Henry Hyde, Chairman of the House International Relations Committee, observed: â€œCombined with the prospect for billions more coming on line in 2007, it seems we have more funding than program. I would prefer that Congress catch up and fund success, than need to justify funding for a potential one.â€?
According to CGDâ€™s Sheila Herrling, MCC reviews candidate countriesâ€™ performance annually, while adding new countries and taking out others.
In theory, this leaves a window of opportunity for Azerbaijani Government but just how much time it might need to sufficiently improve its record is anyoneâ€™s guess. However, one should not rule out the possibility of foreign policy agenda overshadowing the US Governmentâ€™s developmental concerns for yet another time.
Opinions expressed in this article do not represent the views of any organization or institution.
Cows by Lake Issyk Kul in Kyrgyzstan
Welcome to the latest roundup from the Central Asian and Caucasian blogosphere brought to you bi-weekly by neweurasia. As usual, we take you through the countries alphabetically.
As a matter of routine, weâ€™d like to draw your attention to the Oneworld blog where Onnik Krikorian has written up his latest roundup from the (English-speaking) Armenian blogosphere. This week, there has been little political discussion, and the bloggers focus on writing about culture. On the same blog, Nessuna summarises the Armenian-language blogosphere, containing great information on the countryâ€™s higher education system and the problem of unemployment. And, on another cultural note, Who knew Armenians could Rap wonders whether one can reconcile the fact that on the one hand young Armenian hip-hop-savvies love crosses and frequently rap about Jesus, but on the other hand hardly ever go to attend church.
Carpetblogger, who has now firmly relocated to the Ukraine, couldnâ€™t resist from offering his very own perspective on a recent Financial Times rating, declaring Azerbaijanâ€™s capital Baku one of the winners in the contest â€œ2006/2007 European City of the Futureâ€?. Despite attracting two MacDonaldâ€™s branches and, well, considerable oil-cash, he is sceptical whether the people responsible for the contest have actually ever been to Azerbaijan.
SueAndNotYou wonders why Georgia features a list called The 14 Most Dangerous Destinations 2006. While Sue has to admit that she had lost her wallet before and some friends tried to assassinate her with vodka, she is a bit disappointed and fears for her Georgiaâ€™s reputation. Ben of neweurasia has attended a very interesting lecture giving a critical account of the Rose Revolution in 2003.
Kazakhstan is currently living through a full-blown political crisis that sparked off when opposition politician Sarsenbaev got killed two weeks ago. This weekend saw the first anti-government protests on Respublika Square in Almaty for years. Nathan over at Registan.net, neweurasia and Democracy Rising have been covering the story. Also at neweurasia, there is a discussion underway about who might be blamed for the murder and whether it is really that easy to simply point the finger at the government. The murder of Kazakh opposition leader has caused anger and dissent, as Petruchooo documents. A vigil held in the memory of Altynbek Sarsenbayev was broken up by the police and petruchooo features a photo and account of the events.
The Golden Road to Samarqand writes about traditions in Kyrgyzstan and highlights the problem of spending far too much money on events such as funerals and weddings. Controversy over at Betsyâ€™s The Moveable Feast: It seems she has been a little bit fed up with life in Jalalabad lately and wanted to voice her anger/confusion on her blog. However, loads of Kyrgyz people found out about the post and engaged her in a hefty discussion, coming very close to the edge of mutual verbal abuse. If taken with some grains of irony, it is, however, absolutely funny reading, both the actual post and the comments. This week, Edil Baisalov sets off for Oxford, in the United Kingdom, to attend a conference entitled â€œKyrgyzstan at the Crossroadsâ€?. He promises to keep his readers updated about his conference-attending activities, which will also take him to Sweden and Finland.
James of neweurasia informs the interested reader that in Tajikistan, President Rakhmonov letâ€™s democracy go exactly as far as he wants, and no one is surprised.
In one of the most in-depth discussions about Turkmenistanâ€™s unknown future after President Niyazov, Peter of neweurasia and some fellow readers exchange their points of view about what could be likely future scenarios. Courtesy of Turkmen blogger Karakum, who has also participated in the exchange, the complete discussion is now also available in Russian on his blog, where in turn some interesting comments have been published. Other newsworthy tidbits from Turkmenistan include a bird-flu scare, demolition of houses in the Caspian Sea port town Krasnovodsk (now called after the President Turkmenbashi) and the ongoing coverage of the gas row between Turkmenistan and the Ukraine.
B??????? ???? reports about an Uzbek musician named DG Pilgrim who became popular enough in his home country to move to Moscow to work as a producer. From there, he moved to Kazakhstan, where he is very popular to the present day. Now, he has moved back to Tashkent, and is working on a number of new projects, including two videos, and in May will hold a concert called â€œPilgrim and Friends.â€? In a sequel to the photo shoot on footwear in Samarkand, ????? presents a photographic tour young peopleâ€™s clothing. Origuy, originally from Tashkent but now living in Sydney, marvels at the fact that foreign films on television are not dubbed. His blog charts the progress of his stay in Australia.
The Winter Olympics are over now, and here some favourite blog posts from the region: Alan Cordova analysed whether the opening ceremony music choice for the respective countries had a secret meaning, Tidor endorses Almatyâ€™s bid to host the games in 2014 (wait, is there any sarcasm???) and My Wrath explains why American figure skater Sasha Cohen is not pseudo-Kazakh reporter Borat (whose real life name is Sacha Baron Cohen). On a more serious note, neweurasia has now finished its special coverage of HIV/Aids in the region and you can read the reports on Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan by clicking on the links. Meanwhile, Jessica offers her critical perspective on donor policies and priorities. A book on Turkmen history by Atamurat Kushzhonov has been published in the Uzbek town of Urgench. Paikhas gives some biographical details about the author and a brief survey of the bookâ€™s contents. He also appends an extensive bibliography on Russian-language materials about the Dashoguz region in northern Turkmenistan.
Compiled by Ben, Peter and James.
Neweurasia has launched a new series of topic-specific posts across all of the country blogs in an effort to provide readers a comprehensive overview of current policy issues in Eurasia. We have devoted this first discussion to HIV/AIDS in the region. Thanks to all of our bloggers, you can find a country-specific overview in each of the country pages:
Here on the homebase, we want to step back a bit and examine the issue from a regional perspective and discuss the following questions:
1) What are the defining characteristics of the regional epidemic and how does this differ from other regions?
2) Where does HIV/AIDS fit in the context of the region’s overall health and development challenges?
3) What should governments and donors be doing to combat this problem?
The World Bank, which launched a $27 million Regional AIDS Control Project in Central Asia in May, has published Reversing the Tide: Priorities for HIV/AIDS Prevention in Central Asia, as well as an accompanying brief available online. In general, the AIDS epidemic in Central Asia – and to a lesser extent the Caucasus – is centralized among intravenous drug users (IDUs), especially among prison inmates, and has more recently started to spread through the commercial sex sector. Although Central Asia’s epidemic is indisputably growing (from about 500 cases in 2000 to over 12,000 in 2004), unlike many other developing regions – Africa in particular, but also South Asia and Latin America – it is still quite small and concentrated in these at-risk populations and has not yet entered the community at large, with a prevalence rate less than 0.3% in most countries. On one hand, this relatively low prevalence would suggest that the huge amounts of donor resources devoted to ‘vertical’ HIV/AIDS programs in the region are unwarranted, given how disproportionately large they are compared to other health and development priorities. However, there is a compelling counter-argument that it is the low prevalence itself that justifies the substantial donor monies because there is still the opportunity to halt the spread of the disease before it enters the broader population through targeted prevention efforts now, reducing the need for expensive – and ultimately unsustainable – antiretroviral treatment programs further down the line.
In either case, though, the international community needs to be careful not to fund HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment at the expense of the broader health system and infrastructure, whose post-Soviet legacy renders it quite different from the other settings with which donors are more familiar. Throughout Central Asia, there is actually excess medical capacity where underused hospitals and medical personnel make up a disproportionately large share of the health budget (although recent efforts have successfully sought to address these inefficiencies). This is in stark contrast to other AIDS-endemic countries, which suffer from a shortage of health facilities and human resources, and thus represents a fundamentally different set of challenges for prevention and treatment efforts and opportunities – particularly as donors strive to simultaneously work within and strengthen the overall health infrastructure through HIV/AIDS programs instead of creating parallel systems.
So where should the international community focus its efforts? First, through facilitating needle-exchanges (which Kyrgyzstan has already experimented with in its prisons), and second, through targeted outreach to commercial sex workers. Neither program requires expensive equipment, new clinics, or staff – and are thus not only ideally suited to the epidemiologic characteristics but also to the existing health capacity in the region. But both programs, unfortunately, are ineligible for U.S. funding, which represents a huge obstacle given that the U.S. policies guide not only its bilateral donations but also influence multilateral funds to which it contributes, including the World Bank and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB & Malaria (for a more detailed discussion of U.S. policies on commercial sex workers, see here). And together, those are the three largest sources of AIDS funding in the region. The more ‘politically palatable’ programs such as antiretroviral treatment, abstinence education, and even condom distribution (relatively speaking) are just not as relevant in Eurasia as they are in Africa or South Asia. At least not yet – and it is up to the donors to make sure their funds are used wisely now to prevent the epidemic from reaching those proportions in the future. Conversely, it is also critical that they don’t devote too much health funding to what is a still relatively small problem at the expense of neglecting more basic and less ‘sexy’ public health problems such as lung cancer, alcoholism and high blood pressure – which represent the much more critical development challenges in the region today.
The first case of HIV/AIDS in Kazakhstan was detected in 1987. Today, there are about 5,440 people reported to live with the virus, including about 313 with full-blown AIDS. Other data estimates the number of people infected as high as 16,500. This makes Kazakhstan the most severely affected Central Asian country. The spread of HIV/AIDS was until recently mostly limited to intravenous drug users. An ILO report from 2002 stated that:
The most common HIV transmission route is parenteral, i.e. 87 per cent of all cases of virus transmission are through injecting drug use, with 6.4 per cent for the sexual route. 6.3 per cent were unaccountable. Thus, based on the infection incidence structure, one may state that, so far, HIV spread in the country has depended by over 90 per cent on unsafe injecting drug use and sexual contacts. The shares of virus transmission routes have changed little since the HIV outbreak in Temirtau.
According to a WHO report, HIV/AIDS in Kazakhstan disproportionately affects young men (about 70% of affected persons are between the ages of 15 and 29, and about 80% are male), although women are increasingly affected as well.
The Tragedy of Temirtau
The outbreak in Temirtau is the bleakest chapter in Kazakhstan’s history of HIV/AIDS. In 1997, it was said that 85% of all reported cases of HIV?AIDS in the entire republic came from that city – and it was dubbed “Central Asia’s Ground Zero” with regards to HIV/Aids. Temirtau’s plight is symbolic for Central Asia’s Aids problem:
The worsening socio-economic situation in Temirtau, inflated by the down-sizing of its main employer the steel-producing combinat, and the virtual collapse of the former Soviet welfare state, is being tragically aggravated by a relatively cheap and well organised supply of illicit narcotics.
(If you read German, I recommend you to give this article on Temirtau a closer look.)
New Forms of Transmission
However, nowadays, this has changed, and the virus is spreading to groups that have previously been relatively safe from contact with HIV-positive individuals. The virus is now being sexually transmitted by prostitutes, and is no longer exclusively a by-product of the country’s huge problem with intravenous drug users (of which there are said to be as many as 200,000 in Kazakhstan alone, and 500,000 in Central Asia).
The World Health Organization in one of their reports (PDF) states that:
More than 25% of newly registered infections in 2004 have been attributed to unprotected sex. Most of the infected people are men, but the proportion of women infected is reported to be increasing.
A BBC special on the topic interviews Kazakh prostitutes, revealing that there is very little public understanding of the disease, or how it is spread. While the prostitutes were aware of HIV/AIDS and concerned about it, they reported wide misconceptions about its transmission.
“Everyone says it is possible to get AIDS through talking to someone. You never know in which bed you are lying, you might get AIDS just from dirty bed or something.”
The BBC also explored Kazakhstan’s small, stigmatized homosexual population by venturing to a gay club. According to their interviews, about half of all gay men still don’t even know about HIV, and because the community is so small and secretive, it is nearly impossible to get information to them.
Solutions to an Increasing Danger
2005 saw a significant rise in reported HIV cases – 960 new cases, increasing from 740 the year before.
While the Kazakh government does recognize the problem, the United Nations is concerned about how it is choosing to handle it.
The state sees the spread of AIDS/HIV, first of all, not as a social, but as a medical problem, the ways of whose resolution lie in the regulatory and administrative dimensions. The inefficiency of such an approach was already revealed in connection with the sharp growth of STI morbidity.
However, the government seems to be changing its stance, and is pursuing new strategies.
The government’s program aims to prevent HIV transmission through behavior change and harm reduction strategies targeting high-risk groups, including injection drug users, commercial sex workers and men who have sex with men.
Finally, NGOs are joining the fight to combat HIV in Kazakhstan. The Clinton Foundation has added Kazakhstan to the Procurement Consortium, allowing the country to receive drugs and diagnostic equipment at reduced prices. Additionaly, Open Society Institute’s International Harm Reduction Development (IHRD) program supports a Street Kids International (SKI) program to “bring at-risk youth and social workers together before the spread of HIV/ AIDS and drug use gets out of control.”
While HIV/AIDS infection rates seem to be on the rise in Kazakhstan, the country still does not face an epidemic of the magnitude many other countries face. Assuming smart government policies and outside funding, Kazakhstan faces a manageable situation that should not be allowed to get out of control.
Both James and Ben contributed to this post.
Welcome to the first of what will hopefully be a series of New Eurasia country blogs universal posts. The idea is that all of the individual blogs will post on a particular topic – in this case on the HIV/AIDS situation – on the same day, collectively providing an overview of the given issue in the region. If you have ideas for a topic you’d like to see covered as a universal post, drop the New Eurasia team a line.
Thinking about HIV/AIDS in Kyrgyzstan, several things become very clear very quickly: so far, registered cases of HIV/AIDs have been relatively low, but numbers are rapidly increasing; secondly, IV drug use, especially in the south and in prisons, is the major cause of infection, but there are an increasing proportion of people who have been infected by sexual contact, and the growth in the number of commercial sex workers is contributing to this rise; thirdly, prevention programmes are being hindered by a basic lack of funding, as well as more emotive and problematic issues brought on by a perceived clash of traditional morals and values and the unavoidably explicit nature of much of the information being given out. It is this final point that is most worrying, since HIV – and other STDs – will not wait for societal attitudes to change.
This is not to say, however, that simply providing more information is the answer, as a recent article in the Vechernii Bishkek highlighted:
Several respondents noted that existing legislative loopholes must be closed, including those that permit officials to use grants for their own interests. NGOs should be open and transparent. It is vital to make information on the distribution of financial resources at all levels, from the national to target groups, accessible. After all, AIDS doesn’t sleep, but nor do corruptioneers.
What this means in practice is that efforts on paper to curb the spread of HIV and STDs, including the government’s 5-year (2000 – 2005) State Programme on the Prevention of AIDS and Intravenously and Sexually Transmitted Infections”, have not translated well into practice, despite the best and often incredibly impressive efforts of many individuals and NGOs.
To take a step back, let’s start with some basic facts and figures:
Not looking good, especially when one considers there is still a significant lack of accurate information available about sexual matters in general, and many people still feel extremely uncomfortable discussing such things – even when it is, literally, a matter of life and death.
The so-called Healthy Lifestyles Controversy surrounding a sex education book, written by head of the National AIDS Centre, Boris Shapiro, showed the degree of influence the country’s “moral majority” wielded when their protests that the book “disgraced ethnic Kyrgyz” in May 2003 (three years after the book’s publication) resulted in the Ministry of Education and Culture withdrawing the book from all schools. Aside from the nastily nationalist and xenophobic tone of some of the articles published in the Kyrgyz-language newspaper Agym, opponents of the book called for strong national ideology to replace teaching “shameless things such as how to put on a condom, how to avoid pregnancy, how to have sex”, arguing that the approach in the book does “not lead to good morals”. The following year, 2004, the same group tried to sue one of the books authors for US $ 100,000 in damages.
As usual with the moral majority, they don’t necessarily represent the majority view, they just make the most noise. To put so-called “morals” above people’s health is downright criminal, but then I would say that as a Westerner with no shame… Even so, many teachers and parents in Kyrgyzstan are in favour of the book, not least as parents often feel unable to talk to their children about sex but they are nonetheless concerned that young people need to receive accurate – and timely – information.
Fortunately, even with the book’s official withdrawal, sources of information and education have not stopped working, even if it means taking an up-front approach that can initially feel a little embarrassing all round, as Bryan Schubert found out at a sex education seminar - he’s been based at the NGO Rainbow in Osh since December when he swore in as a Peace Corps volunteer having completed his training. His blog follows his experiences training and with Rainbow, and currently has a nice set of photos of his colleagues and Rainbow’s office.
One of the most effective ways of educating young people about both HIV/AIDS and drugs has been peer-to-peer approaches, as John Sparrow of the British Red Cross describes. Actively involving young people and utilising informal networks helps to avoid the awkwardness of an inter-generational exchange and provides a far freer environment for information to be distributed using workshops, seminars and events in informal settings – for example the Youth to Youth about HIV/AIDS. The internet is also a valuable source of information for those with access to it, with sites like Stop SPID including a FAQ page and programmes such as the Joint Programme on Expanded Response to HIV/AIDS in the Kyrgyz Republic producing a wide range of materials and leaflets. Other projects include the joint UNICEF-Kyrgyz Soccer Federation initiative started in 2004, as RFE/RL reported.
An arguably bigger obstacle to combating the spread of HIV/AIDS in the republic is the role of narcotics and the narcobusiness. Kyrgyzstan is a transit zone for narcotics from Afghanistan, and there are a significant number of local users – up to 2% of the general population and over 50% of the prison population – being IV users according to some estimates, with the situation being exacerbated by the easy availability of heroin and poor conditions in prisons. In such circumstances, sex education is only half of the battle, as evidenced by the approach many NGOs take, targeting drug addicts, many of whom see little point in getting tested just to become a statistic: Kyrgyzstan may have started to address the issue of rapidly rising HIV infection rates, but providing sufficient medical care, either maintenance or palliative, is an issue that is looming ever larger on the horizon and with no immediate answer in sight.
A further complication in tackling the spread of HIV/AIDS is prostitution. There is a perception that the number of commercial sex workers (CSWs) in Bishkek has increased over the last few years, possibly in connection with the presence of the US airbase, and may be as high as 3,500 now. Many of these women have been forced into selling sex as the only way they can find to earn an income as job prospects remain bleak and the absence of documents make it impossible to work officially. Inevitably, many of these women are also drug addicts, further increasing the danger to both their own health and that of their clients, who may then pass infections on to their wives or other sexual partners.
All in all, the situation remains serious, and it is vital that the work of individual NGOs and projects is backed up on a governmental level to ensure everyone is as informed as possible about the risks of HIV/AIDS. Talk about morality is empty when the health of the country is at stake. One is left to hope that more people will start to echo the words of pop star Maksat Begaliev, who performed at a concert to mark World AIDS Day last December in Bishkek: “We have to live, it is our city, it is our country, and it is our world, we have to stop AIDS.”
The problem of HIV/AIDS has been a relatively new one in Tajikistan. Closed borders have kept the country and its people isolated from HIV/AIDS during soviet rule. Such isolation has been a blessing, but it became a curse in recent years since it led to a knowledge vacuum that took its toll on the population after the country became independent.
Of all Central Asian countries, Tajikistan shares the longest border with Afghanistan (one of the major producers of illegal drugs in the world). Since the use of IV drugs is the largest contributor to the spread of HIV/AIDS, it was a matter of time before the infection made itself known in Tajikistan.
The first case of HIV/AIDS was registered in 1991. According to AIDS Foundation East West, in 1999 Tajikistan had a total of 4 reported HIV/AIDS infection cases. However, from 2000 to 2005 the number of HIV infections grew at an alarming rate. The worst year so far has been 2004 with 198 new persons being registered as HIV positive. Real number of persons with HIV/AIDS infection is thought to be higher with estimates ranging from 3000 to 5000.
The use of IV drugs has been the largest source of infection accounting for 65.8% of all cases, followed by STD (6.6%) and blood transfusion (2.2%). Men constitute the largest share of HIV infected persons. According to IRIN Asia, out of 228 people registered with HIV/AIDS in 2004 182 (or 79.8%) were men. UNICEF mentions Tajik workforce mobility as a contributing factor to the growth of HIV infection in Tajikistan. It is a quite well-known fact that many young people leave their homes looking for work in Russia.
In effort to curb further spread of the infection several educational programs were launched. In 2004 the United States and the Tajik Defense Ministry launched a program that increases the awareness of soldiers about HIV/AIDS. In 2005 UNICEF started a peer education program, which teaches young people in Dushanbe about HIV/AIDS.
These roundups are posted on Global Voices and appear a day or two later on our homebase.
The Armenia section of our travels through the regional blogosphere is essentially a roundup of three great roundups: Onnik Krikorian continues to post weekly summaries from the Armenian blogosphere on his Oneworld blog. This week has been heavily dominated by failed peace talks between arch-rivals Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Another roundup is brought to us by Myrthe, a Dutch national with a passion for everything Armenian. She has put up her favourite stories of the week. Who Knew Armenians Could Rap has a, yes, roundup of the Armenian rap scene.
Can the large Azeri minority in Iran persuade the regime to abandon its nuclear ambitions? Nathan over at The Registan is skeptical and suggests that Azerbaijan’s safest bet is to keep out of a potential future conflict. In what will probably one of his last posts on/from Azerbaijan, Carpetblogger (now relocated to the Ukraine) provides an excellent summary of a Fashion Show that was staged in the Azeri capital last year. Speaking of beauty and fashion, you can find a picture of Miss Azerbaijan 2006 on the same blog.
Fancy a sightseeing tour of Tbilisi? Ben and Alice have put up a nice commented photo set. Kaukasus has an interesting post about Georgian artist Andro Wekua, whose work can be seen in an exhibition in New York. The post also contains links to showcase blogs of Georgian artists David Arobelidze and Otar Arisheli.
Do you think Almaty has not a single chance to host the 2014 Winter Olympics? Well, you better look at these photos on Pestaola.gr and change your mind. For background information on the candidates’ race check The Registan and neweurasia. Susan in Kazakhstan has an interesting post about Kazakh gestures – she explains it all: handshakes, expressing gratitude, physical contact or staring – this is essential reading for cultural understanding.
Betsy writes about everyday deceptions in Kyrgyz life on her blog A Moveable Feast. Whether it’s a headmaster arguing about the colour of a pen or a full restaurant without gas to cook, many things in Jalalabad are just not what they seem if you dare to dig a little deeper. Betsy wonders whether she’ll take her doublecheck-attitude back home to America. Larry Tweed aka The Kyrgyzstan Kid has a lyrical mouth-watering post on shashlik (the Central Asian kebab). After last year’s turmoil in Kyrgyzstan, the country is still struggling to return to normality. The soap opera that has dominated political life ever since the toppling of the former government is beginning to unease observers. What is the outlook for the future? James of neweurasia and Gene of The Registan hold different opinions. Vyacheslav in Bishkek has set himself the objective of earning $1,400 before April 5th. He is working on commission in a local business and promises to update the readers about his progress on his blog, moneysuck.com.
Again, check out Dushanbe Pictures for some breathtaking shots from Tajikistan. Recently, Erik witnessed one of the most excititing sports games – Buzkashi. In Buzkashi, a goat carcass is put in the center of a circle and surrounded by the players of two teams. The object of the game is to get the carcass to the scoring area. A similar game, ulak, is played in Kyrgyzstan, and Buzkashi is one of Afghanistan’s national sports. James of neweurasia has some details on micro-finance as a powerful tool to alleviate poverty in Central Asia’s poorest country.
Peter of neweurasia reports that the Institute for War and Peace Reporting will launch a Turkmen radio broadcasting service. Will it have an impact on the country’s media situation? Also, thanks to Turkmen blogger Karakum, the post carries information on media penetration in the most isolated Central Asian country. Vperyod (Forward), a left-wing youth Russian party, announced on its blog that it planned to picket the Turkmen embassy in Moscow in protest against drastic pension cuts in the country. Paikhas, an opposition Turkmen blog, offers its views on a new Turkmen web magazine Turkmanskaya Iskra..
B??????? ???? has an “exclusive” on the first flowers of the year in Uzbekistan (complete with photos). Also of interest, the blog has a post about Uzbekistan’s contestants in the winter Olympics, and wishes the athletes luck. ????? ????????? ????? has an interesting post on why a radio station was shut down in Uzbekistan. The station, which played music and various other programs, reported on the resignation of the minister of internal affairs without going by the given official word. The ‘Bazaar News Network’ in Uzbekistan spread rumours about an earthquake that never came. The Registan, Seidenstrasse and T-Moor have the details. Bozor has an interesting photo shoot of young peoples’ footwear in Samarkand. The author walked around one day snapping photos of peoples’ feet. Afisha has a good post on an upcoming intellectual olympiad in Tashkent (Feb. 20-27) in which students of a variety of ages and backgrounds compete. It is sponsored by the Forum of Culture and Art of Uzbekistan. It will include festivals of fencing, chess, and computer games, as well as competitions such as, “Do you know the law?”, or, “do you know the history”?
The wider region:
This week, neweurasia’s country blogs will each feature blog posts about HIV/Aids in Central Asia and the Caucasus. The Azeri and Armenian blogs have already done so and portray the two countries’ difficult situation with regards to one of the most imminent regional health threats. Also, press freedom in Central Asia is discussed by Neil on our homebase, as is the eternal question: ‘Where do Central Asians come from?’. Hulegu reports on a Central Asian music event in London, where Azeri, Uzbek, Kyrgyz, Uyghur and Turkish artists performed live. Uzgen laments the shortage of Central Asia talent taking part at the Turin Winter Olympics. While Kazakhstan is reasonably well represented, with 57 sportsmen taking part, Uzbekistan trails far behind with four. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have only one apiece, while Turkmenistan has sent nobody.
I only put up this seminar notice because I have co-organised this one at SOAS. If you’re interested in law in the South Caucasus and you happen to be around London on the 16th of February, please join us in what will surely be a very interesting discussion.
Find the whole text plus a link to the full resolution poster in the extended entry.