Social Issues

Turkmenistan responding to the demands of a human rights group? Whatever next?
Last week, Vienna-based Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights and Turkmenistan’s Independent Lawyers Association, based in Holland, published a fascinating and grim report on the state of the country’s prisons. The principal premise underlying the survey was that the Turkmenistan’s harsh judicial system is leading to overcrowding in the jails:
Due to a huge, for the size of the country, prison population, Turkmenistan’s penitentiary facilities house 3.3 times the number of inmates they are designed to accommodate. This results in the fast spread of diseases and numerous deaths in the correctional facilities.
Accordingly, the report calls for milder sentences for minor crimes and the introduction of methods such as home arrest and fines instead of prison terms.
It also draws attention once again to the authorities failure to allow access to jails by the International Committee of the Red Cross. The government has made feeble overturtes in that direction in the past, but nothing has ever come of it.
Clearly, the main reason that the Turkmens don’t want foreigners nosing about their prisons is because of what they might find in there. Tuberculosis – which is likely to become worse in the country in the absence of Medecins Sans Frontieres, who left under bad cloud last year – is rampant. If TIHR’s report is even half accurate, the conditions are nightmarish and the cruelty routine.
But perhaps even more importantly, for the highly sensitive Turkmen authorities, prisons are full of political undesirables that might be inclined to say something inappropriate.
At any rate, it would have have been legitimate to expect this report and its findings to disappear down a deep, dark hole, but the government has responded with surprising alacrity, as AP reports:
Turkmenistan’s president has ordered the country’s maximum prison sentence cut to 15 years and called for improving prison conditions, state media reported Tuesday.
The measures come as doubts grow about the authoritarian government’s commitment to democratic reforms.
President Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov told a meeting of security officials Monday that the maximum sentence will be reduced from 25 years and fines will replace prison time for certain crimes, state newspaper Neutral Turkmenistan reported.
Berdymukhamedov instructed the interior minister to study bringing prison conditions up to international standards, the paper said.
Where the authorities fall short, however, is on the issue of oversight. All Berdymukhamedov seems willing to commit to is to allow unspecified civic groups to monitor the state of jails. But given how craven and toothless those groups tend to be in Turkmenistan, there is no reason to believe that will come to anything.
Regardless of how this works out – and on the face of it, this announcement is unequivocably good news – the very fact that the government seems to have been stung into action by the report of an exiled activist group is a startling development.
Who knows that Berdymukhamedov hasn’t been surfing the net?

Fellow Central Asia blog Registan recently linked to a news report about a Kazakh lawmaker who claimed, somewhat sensationally, that more than 200,000 students had been expelled from colleges and universities for failing to pay their fees.

Saginbek Tursunov accused the authorities of doing nothing to address the problem, but his charges have since been spectacularly shot down.

In video footage featured on a recent post on Prime Minister Masimov’s spanking new blog, Education Minister Zhanseit Tuimebayev dismisses the charge and puts the real figure of expelled students at a more modest 7,000. Out of those, 3,000 students were de-registered because academic performance and failure to maintain communication with their place of study. The rest are having financial difficulties, but Tuimebayev assures the prime minister that he has instructed university officials to allow the students to repay their loans in flexible payments.

In other words, absolutely nothing to fret about.

No place for you in a Kazakh university

No place for you in a Kazakh university

The whole affair stinks to high heaven and looks to all intents and purposes like a crude set-up to make the publicity-ravenous prime minister look good for the public. After all, the original source of the news _ which, in truth, one should have been more careful than to be taken in by _ was a member of the slavishly pro-presidential Nur Otan, the only political party represented in parliament. It seems inconceivable that this Tursunov character, who bears all the hallmarks of a complete toady, would have dared to make such a potentially damaging allegation without prior approval from the required corners.

With the Kazakh government coming under growing scrutiny ahead of its OSCE chairmanship next year, it is evident that its PR strategies will have to change significantly from the old Soviet-style propaganda by diktat and one-sided state reporting. This episode, along with Masimov’s foolishly skittish excitement about his own blog, may serve as a useful of example of what is to come.

By framing government policy on student welfare in the context of a palpably manufactured public debate, the authorities give the impression of openness, transparency and responsiveness. But this is surely an illusory pretension, seeing as students rights organizations are virtually non-existent on a national level, even though there is no shortage of things about which undergraduates could complain about. Corruption in institutions of higher learning is so rampant as to effectively invalidate the real value of many degrees, just to mention one point.

In adopting this sort of shadow boxing, Kazakhstan must hope to create the impression, among those that matter, of a totally free society in which problems are openly discussed. This is not exactly new; the controversial law on religion approved in parliament recently was debated in expert committees bringing together representatives from major faith groups. This charade had the useful function of allowing Muslim and Russian Orthodox Christian proponents to lobby for even stricter rules, which had the ultimate result of making the law itself seem quite reasonable. Conveniently enough, however, none of the religious groups that would actually be affected were present at any of these gatherings. The overall effect is to soften up the thinking classes resistance to controversial proposals and simultaneously give the impression legislation is being drawn up with perfect transparency. Never mind that ordinary could never get their hands on the final version of the law before it was unceremoniously approved by the Senate. Incidentally, the draft law still requires presidential approval and minority faith groups and the OSCE still remain hopeful Nazarbayev may veto it.

 Co-opting the Internet into the PR campaign, while strictly monitoring the public’s access to its more dubious areas (Livejournal still remains inaccessible to many Kazakhtelecom customers for supposedly technical reasons), merely takes gulling the people to a whole new technological level.

This item may generate some very dubious spam, but it seems too peculiar not to report.
Kazakh newspaper Liter reports (link in Russian) that a disability rights group in Karaganda has called on the government to legalize prostitution and issue sex ration cards giving a minimum of five sessions a month to the disabled.
As Tirlik chairman Roza Petrus explains, the reasoning behind the proposal is not altogether frivolous:

The disabled rarely have an intimate life, and that affects their physical and mental health.
Call-girls, who offer sex in classified advertisments, refused to come when they learn the client is disabled. The simply hang up or turn away at the door. Is that not discrimination?

Asked whether rentboys should be available for disabled women, Petrus answers:

Of course. The majority of disabled people in Kazakhstan are women. They are physically handicapped, but are in women in every respect that want to be loved.

According to a World Bank discussion paper published last year, around 405,000 people, around 2.7 percent of the total population, in Kazakhstan receive state social disability allowances. Legislation covering the interests of the disabled is nominally quite liberal, granting a quota for university places and employment.

On a common cultural level, however, it is beyond dispute that people with most physical and mental disabilities are effectively sidelined from public life in Kazakhstan.  Wheelchairs are rare sight in Kazakhstan’s largest cities, which are generally pretty poorly equipped for the purpose, anyhow. In that context, what seems like a foolish and superficial publicity stunt may in fairness be a provocative attempt at challenging prejudices.

Interesting to see if the Majlis picks this one up.

UPDATE: RFE/RL has also picked up the story.