Mortgage protests in Kazakhstan are becoming a familiar sight. In attention-grabbing demonstrations over the past couple of days, crowds have swarmed around banks in the commercial capital, Almaty, loudly banging pots and pans and blowing whistles.
“Down with banks!” chanted the two dozen people who took to the streets of Almaty on February 2.
A political activist recently jailed on charges of inciting ethnic strife has been released pending appeal after issuing a grovelling public recantation for his purported offense.
Serikzhan Mambetalin was freed on January 31 after serving just over a week of his two-year sentence.
“I am at home… How happy I am!” he wrote on his Facebook page on February 1.
Mambetalin’s Facebook page was regularly updated, presumably by his supporters, throughout his trial and incarceration, which began in October.
A court ordered Mambetalin’s release until the appeal is heard, but the activist has been made to sign a written undertaking not to leave his hometown, Almaty.
Mambetalin’s release came after he posted a contrite statement of repentance on his Facebook page on January 29 — a week after he was jailed along with another political activist, Yermek Narymbayev, who remains behind bars.
“The investigation gathered exhaustive evidence of my guilt,” the statement said. “Therefore I fully admit my guilt over the proof presented to me and actively repent.”
Mambetalin has changed his tune since his trial, when he strenuously denied any guilt and denounced the trial — which was condemned by international human rights watchdogs — as a “political order” motivated by his activism and his opposition to President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Kazakhstan’s president could hardly be expected to run for parliament, so the ruling Nur Otan party has gone for the next best thing: The actor who played him as a young man in the biopic.
Nurlan Alimzhanov is just one of several celebrities that Nur Otan included in its populist list of candidates for the March 20 parliamentary election, which authorities are hoping will serve as a tonic for their flagging legitimacy.
Other recognizable faces selected by a unanimous vote at a party congress in Astana on January 29 included Gennady Golovkin, a world champion boxer renowned as the best pound-for pound fighter in the world, Olympic gold medal-winning weightlifter Ilya Ilyin and Kairat Nurtas, a wildly popular 26-year-old pop singer.
One actual Nazarbayev is also standing — Dariga Nazarbayeva, the president’s daughter and current first deputy prime minister.
Alimzhanov may be the actor, but it was President Nursultan Nazarbayev that gave the real performance in Astana as a man pretending his party is readying for a proper election. Speaking to the congress, he urged a “competitive fight” in the upcoming vote.
Since there is no real opposition (not behind bars) anywhere to be seen, however, it can be taken for granted that the new legislature will be similarly compliant as the outgoing lot.
In its eagerness to counteract Islamic extremism, Uzbekistan has embraced a Cultural Revolution-style naming and shaming exercise.
Parents are being hauled before public meetings to be admonished for the sins of their militant sons and daughters in scenes reminiscent of the public castigations common during the Cultural Revolution in 1960s China.
“This sacred land, where model family relations are rooted, never forgives those who do not care about their children's future,” a doom-laden TV program intoned on January 26, according to a translation by BBC Monitoring.
“Unfortunately, some people, who have forgotten their parental obligations and are bringing up their children as traitors, do not seem to realize it,” the program – broadcast on the main state channel – said.
TV screens were filled with a sobbing elderly couple whose son is allegedly fighting with militants in Syria, filmed at a public meeting held in the Andijan Region in eastern Uzbekistan.
Although other areas of the country were featured in the program, the choice of Andijan as a venue was telling. The city was the scene of fatal unrest in 2005 which the government blamed on Islamic extremists, a version disputed by many survivors and by international human rights groups.
“What are the goals of these traitors? Who are they fighting for and dying for as dogs?” state TV asked rhetorically in its latest broadside against extremists, over footage of burials in foreign war zones.
President Islam Karimov frequently embraces alarmist talk about the threat to Uzbekistan and the wider region of Islamic extremism emanating out of Afghanistan.
Hot on the heels of a graft scandal that has blighted a flagship exhibition to be staged in Kazakhstan’s capital comes news that its budget is being slashed – again.
With Kazakhstan in the throes of economic crisis, President Nursultan Nazarbayev has approved cuts of 53 billion tenge ($140 million) to the budget for hosting EXPO-2017 in Astana next year.
“We have to look at budget spending, taking account of hard times,” Akhmetzhan Yesimov, the official in charge of organizing the project, said in remarks quoted by Tengri News on January 26.
The latest cuts bring the total reduction in public spending on the exhibition to 131 billion tenge ($345 million), a dramatic slump forced by the fall in global oil prices.
That is around one-tenth of the originally expected total expenditure of $3 billion, most of which was to come from private investors but with a significant chunk provided by the state.
The project’s financial well-being was not helped by officials previously in charge of organizing it pilfering some $27 million dollars from the construction funds.
Kazakhstan is scrambling for ideas on where to cut as it enters its worst economic crisis since the 1990s. Some economists are forecasting negative growth this year for the first time in nearly two decades.
Critics of the EXPO see it as a vanity project that is wasting money at a time of crisis, though when Kazakhstan won the hosting rights in 2012 oil prices were riding high and growth was buoyant.
Armor-clad warriors surge out from behind a rocky outcrop and gallop across the steppe amid a thunder of hooves, banners flapping in the breeze and swords aloft. Emitting furious war cries, they descend on an encampment and – with a clash of swords – a pitched battle ensues.
As bad as things may have got for Kazakhstan, authorities have tended to grasp the tender slip of consolation that the economy was expected to grow in 2016, if only slightly.
Analysts at the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit now beg to differ and are predicting that Kazakhstan is set for its first year of negative growth in nearly two decades.
“We have revised our forecast for Kazakhstan and now expect GDP to contract for the first time since 1998,” the think tank tweeted on January 22.
An accompanying table showed that the EIU believes the economy will shrink by 2 percent this year, posting negative growth for the first time since 1998.
Years of near double-digit growth were fueled by surging oil prices, and the slump has accordingly been caused by the collapse in the cost of the commodity, which accounts for about one-quarter of Kazakhstan’s economy.
EIU’s prediction, the gloomiest one out there for Kazakhstan, piles on the misery as the country comes to terms with the economy slowing to just 1.5 percent last year, down from 4.3 percent in 2014.
The government is now recalculating its budget, with the most pessimistic scenario based on oil costing just $16 per barrel on average over the year, Prime Minister Karim Masimov said last week. The government’s core scenario is based on $40 oil, well above the sub-$30 per barrel mark registered most of last week.
Kazakhstan is also bearing the brunt of a slowdown in its major trading partners Russia, which is in full-blown recession, and China, which posted its lowest growth in a quarter of a century
Serikhzhan Mambetalin's mother, Anastasia, sobbing after the Almaty court verdict on Friday, January 22, 2016.
Two political activists have been jailed in Kazakhstan on charges of inciting racial hatred at the close of a trial that their supporters believe was politically motivated.
The trial in Almaty ended two days after President Nursultan Nazarbayev called a snap parliamentary election for March 20, a move he said was aimed at consolidating the nation as the country battles an economic crisis.
Yermek Narymbayev – who has been in ill health throughout the trial – received a three-year prison term and Serikzhan Mambetalin was jailed for two years at the end of a six-week trial, to cries of “shame!” from supporters as Mambetalin’s elderly mother was led away from the courtroom in tears.
During the summing up of legal arguments on January 22, Mambetalin denounced the proceedings as “a political order” and Narymbayev dismissed them as “illegal.”
The two were tried on the charge of incitement to ethnic, religious, tribal or social strife, which civil society campaigners recently urged the authorities to abolish, claiming it is used to muzzle critics. The government denies that any politically motivated trials take place in Kazakhstan.
The charges against Narymbayev and Mambetalin stem from their Facebook postings about an unpublished book written some two decades ago by another anti-government activist, Murat Telibekov, who is under investigation on the same charge.
In their postings, the two “incited ethnic strife and insulted the honor and dignity of the Kazakh nation,” a prosecutor claimed – arguments the defendants, known for their mildly nationalist stances promoting ethnic Kazakh interests, dismissed as nonsense.
A man faces a possible jail sentence after a video of him appearing to encourage his two young daughters to knock back shots of vodka went viral in Kazakhstan.
Broadcast by KTK TV on January 20, the video shows the children – who appear to be aged around three and six – drinking large shots of clear liquid dispensed by their father from a vodka bottle, to cries of “a hundred grams, a hundred grams!” and “let’s toast!”
The man, identified only as a 34-year-old resident of Astana, inadvertently drew the attention of the police to the video himself, by filing a complaint about an infringement of his privacy after a friend posted it online.
The clip went viral, sparking widespread condemnation among social media users in Kazakhstan.
The man now claims there was only water in the bottle – but he faces a possible 6 million tenge (around $16,000) fine or a prison term on the charge of encouraging anti-social behavior in a minor.
The video came to light as another case of child abuse shocked the nation, after a woman threw a newborn baby out of a car and allegedly caused its death in southern Kazakhstan earlier this month.
The suspect, Bakhytgul Baysengereyeva, is the adoptive mother of the underage girl who unexpectedly gave birth to the child prematurely in a car traveling along a highway.
She “admitted that she was afraid and threw the baby out onto the road, because she did not know about the girl’s pregnancy,” a police officer explained to Tengri News.