A white sedan pulls up at a busy intersection in downtown Tashkent. The driver lowers the window, a man loitering nearby approaches, the driver hands over a fistful of $100 bills, the man hands over a black plastic bag and the car pulls away.
The World Trade Organization has approved terms for Kazakhstan to join, paving the way for Central Asia’s leading economy to become a full member toward the end of the year after nearly two decades of “challenging” talks.
Speaking in Geneva after signing the accession protocol with WTO Director-General Roberto Azevedo on July 27, President Nursultan Nazarbayev hailed the imminent accession as a sign that Kazakhstan’s economy is opening up to the world.
“In improving the investment climate, we are giving priority to the diversification of our economy,” he said in remarks quoted by state news agency Kazinform.
Astana sees accession as crucial to its bid to wean Kazakhstan’s economy off its dependence on oil and gas. To that end, Nazarbayev reminded investors that Kazakhstan has devised perks for those putting money into the non-extractive sectors.
The government has indicated that it aims to complete the ratification process by October 31 and hopes Kazakhstan will be a full member once the next WTO ministerial conference comes around in mid-December.
Kazakhstan’s accession negotiations have lasted 19 years and been among the most “challenging” the global body has faced with any country, the WTO said in a statement issued when talks were finally completed last month.
It made it clear that the process had been substantially set back by Kazakhstan joining the Russia-led Customs Union (a regional free trade zone) in 2010, which evolved into the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) this year.
Kazakhstan’s accession process slowed after Russia first said the Customs Union members would negotiate as a bloc to join, before proceeding to join alone in 2012.
Imprisoned opposition leader Vladimir Kozlov has been targeted for harsh punitive measures for alleged violations of prison rules, including “speaking ill” of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, his wife told EurasiaNet.org on July 27.
The timing of the punishment could be intended to deny parole eligibility to Kozlov, who is serving a seven-and-a-half year sentence on charges of fomenting fatal violence in western Kazakhstan in 2011 and plotting to overthrow the state.
Aliya Turusbekova told EurasiaNet.org that prison authorities have characterized her husband as a “persistent offender” and transferred him “to a strict-regime cellblock” on July 27.
Kozlov is accused of “threatening the [work] team leader with physical reprisals and speaking ill of the country’s president,” she explained, citing information she received from his lawyer. The change in his status means greater restrictions on telephone calls, visits and parcels, Turusbekova said.
An official at the prison colony in Zarechniy in south-eastern Kazakhstan, where Kozlov is being held, declined to confirm or deny the change in status when contacted by EurasiaNet.org. “We do not give out any information by telephone,” the official said, before hanging up.
Kozlov briefly declared a hunger strike last week in protest at his treatment after he was placed in solitary confinement, the Open Dialog Foundation, a Poland-based human rights watchdog, said on July 21.
The watchdog added that Kozlov is suffering from health problems in jail, where he has been held in cramped conditions and forced to stand for long periods in temperatures approaching 50 degrees Celsius.
An Almaty hospital has been caught trading in children, selling newborns to desperate childless parents for a few thousand dollars apiece.
The case is only the latest in a string of scandals exposing the unbridled level of graft blighting Kazakhstan’s healthcare system.
Prosecutors exposed the “trade in minors” at the Almaty Multidisciplinary Clinical Hospital, where healthcare staff were “providing intermediary services for the illegal acquisition of newborn children for various sums of money,” Dinmukhamed Serikbayev, a city prosecutor’s office official, said in remarks quoted by Tengri News on July 24.
The four suspects, who include a midwife and a nurse, allegedly sold five new-born babies for a total sum of $10,000 plus 150,000 tenge ($800) and pocketed the proceeds.
This is the second baby sale racket to be uncovered in Kazakhstan this summer. In June, two healthcare staff at a perinatal center in the south of the country were arrested on suspicion of selling babies for $1,000-3,000 each.
The mothers wanted to give the newborns up for adoption, but prosecutors believe healthcare staff bypassed all the legal niceties to make some cash on the side.
Corruption is omnipresent in Kazakhstan’s health service. Patients routinely have to pay bribes to receive services to which they are legally entitled free of charge. Doctors and nurses in the public sector pursue bribes to supplement their meager salaries, but even in private institutions staff sometimes demand extra off-the-books payments.
Filmmakers should harness the power of the silver screen to make feel-good movies about Kazakhstan and avoid churning out hard-hitting productions that “shame” the country. So says the guardian of the nation’s cultural values, in remarks which sound like something out of the mouth of the fictional Kazakhstani journalist Borat.
Instead of tackling hard-hitting subjects like violence and corruption, moviemakers should direct their creative efforts toward “fighting what is negative in society,” not showing “human passions that abase our senses,” Arystanbek Mukhamediuly, Kazakhstan’s minister of culture and sport, said on July 22 in remarks quoted by Tengri News.
It arouses “indignation” when movies depicting “contemptible human qualities” are made, he added, especially when they go on to represent Kazakhstan at international film festivals.
Mukhamediuly’s latest broadside came a month after he took aim at movies that “shame” Kazakhstan – such as Harmony Lessons, an award-winning production by Emir Baygazin that won a Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2013.
Described by The Hollywood Reporter as “formally disciplined and psychologically gripping,” the movie tackles the topic of bullying (which is rife in many schools in Kazakhstan, where the film has never been shown in mainstream cinemas).
After months of pressure on Kazakhstan’s currency, the central bank has moved to allow the tenge to slide – but avoided the large snap devaluation that doomsayers have long been predicting.
On July 15, the National Bank eased the corridor within which the tenge trades to allow it to drop by 5%, to 198 to the U.S. dollar.
Chief central banker Kayrat Kelimbetov explained, in remarks quoted by Tengri News, that the measure was adopted as the tenge was pushing the upper margin of the corridor of 170-188 tenge to the dollar that the bank had previously committed to enforcing.
There were no immediate signs of panic over the mini-devaluation in Kazakhstan, where the National Bank maintained its exchange rate at 186.8 tenge to the dollar and the currency closed at 187.05 on the Kazakhstan Stock Exchange on July 15. In exchange offices, the tenge was trading at around 187.5 to the dollar after the central bank’s announcement.
Financial analysts predict the slide will be gradual.
“The scenario of a sharp devaluation is not being considered, and in principle that’s correct,” economist Olzhas Khudaybergenov, a former adviser to Kelimbetov, wrote on his Facebook page.
Khudaybergenov predicted a slow depreciation of 0.5-1 tenge per month, with the currency reaching the upper limit of the new corridor (198 tenge) in about a year.
The calm with which the news was received contrasted with the last devaluation in 2014, when the tenge lost nearly 20% of its value in a single day, sparking public anger that escalated into small-scale unrest in Almaty.
The US government has secured the right to seize $300 million in allegedly illicit proceeds from an “international conspiracy” involving a relative of Uzbek strongman Islam Karimov.
A US Federal Court in New York issued the ruling July 9. The Department of Justice successfully argued that the seized funds are connected to a case involving alleged bribery and money laundering in Uzbekistan’s telecoms sector, Bloomberg reported.
The funds are in accounts in Belgium, Ireland, and Luxemburg held at Bank of New York Mellon, which declined to comment to EurasiaNet.org when the complaint was filed late in June.
The complaint alleges that illicit payments were made by two telecoms companies, Russia’s MTS and Amsterdam-based VimpelCom, to curry influence and secure favorable decisions to operate in Uzbekistan’s telecommunications sector.
VimpelCom is cooperating with the investigation, a spokesperson told EurasiaNet.org last month. MTS declined to comment.
The chief beneficiary, who is unnamed in the complaint, was a “close relative” of Karimov’s, the US complaint alleges. It characterizes the individual as “GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL A,” who previously “held several positions in the Uzbek government.”
Gulnara Karimova, the president’s eldest daughter who is under house arrest in Uzbekistan on corruption charges, has previously been named as a suspect in a money-laundering probe in Switzerland involving payments in Uzbekistan’s telecoms sector, which is linked to an ongoing bribery probe in Sweden.
Uzbek officials brushed aside criticism during a two-day session of a UN human rights panel, claiming that the international community is exaggerating some alleged abuses, such as forced sterilization and religious persecution.
The Uzbekistani delegation faced tough questions on a wide array of issues during the UN Human Rights Committee hearings on July 8-9. Forced and child labor in the cotton sector “were discussed at length,” a summary of proceedings posted on the UN committee’s website stated. Other issues raised included torture, gay rights, forced sterilization and freedom of speech.
Allegations of abuses were highlighted in a report published during the run-up to the UN review by the International Partnership for Human Rights, a Brussels-based NGO that asserted “fundamental rights and freedoms of individuals continue to be routinely violated in Uzbekistan.”
Islam Jasimov, a department head at Uzbekistan’s Prosecutor General’s Office, presented the government’s report. He defended Tashkent’s record on child labor, pointing to “progress” that “had been received very positively” by the International Labor Organization (ILO).
Since 2012, Tashkent has prohibited the use of child labor in the cotton harvest, but rights campaigners say this has simply shifted the burden to adults. Roughly 4 million were pressed into service to help gather the harvest last fall, according to the Cotton Campaign, a coalition pushing to end forced labor in the sector.
The US government wants to recover hundreds of millions of dollars in allegedly illicit funds that American prosecutors contend enriched a “close relative” of Uzbekistan’s strongman president, Islam Karimov.
A forfeiture complaint filed in US federal court in New York seeks the recovery of $300 million in assets “involved in an international conspiracy to launder corrupt payments” made in Uzbekistan’s telecoms sector, according to a copy of the complaint sent to EurasiaNet.org by the Department of Justice, which filed the case on June 29.
It alleges that illicit payments were made by two telecoms companies, Russia’s MTS and Amsterdam-based VimpelCom, to curry influence and secure favorable decisions from Uzbekistan’s government to operate in the lucrative telecommunications sector.
The alleged beneficiary is not named, but is identified as “GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL A,” and is further characterized as “a close relative of the President of Uzbekistan.” The unnamed beneficiary “held several positions in the Uzbek government” during the period in question (2004-2011), according to the complaint.
Gulnara Karimova, the president’s eldest daughter who is under house arrest in Uzbekistan on corruption charges, has previously been named as a suspect in a money-laundering probe in Switzerland involving payments in Uzbekistan’s telecoms sector. During the period in question, she held government positions, including as deputy foreign minister and ambassador to Spain and the United Nations in Geneva.
The lawsuit names two Karimova associates, and two shell companies they allegedly operated to funnel illicit funds: Gayane Avakyan, owner of Takilant, and Rustam Madumarov, owner of Expoline.