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.
Kazakhstan’s annual human rights consultations with the European Union took place this week against the backdrop of what activists say is an alarming spike in arrests over social media postings.
Astana is set to upgrade its relations with EU with the signing of an expanded partnership agreement, prompting concerns that Brussels may choose to gloss over rights issues for geopolitical ends.
While tolerance for dissent has always been low in Kazakhstan, authorities appear to have opened a new front by chasing down what they deem to be critical postings on websites like Facebook and Russia’s VKontakte.
Ahead of the human rights consultations, which took place in Astana on November 26, advocacy groups urged Brussels to address the clampdown.
“The EU should insist that the Kazakhstani authorities stop criminally prosecuting individuals who are legitimately exercising their right to freedom of expression to voice opinions or share information that may not be to the liking of those in power,” said Brigitte Dufour, director of the Brussels–based International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR), in a joint statement with the Almaty-based Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law (KIBHR). “Open debate – both off- and online – is a key element in any society aspiring to be a free and democratic one.”
On November 11, activist Bolatbek Blyalov of the Anti-Heptyl movement, which campaigns against Russia’s use of Kazakhstan’s Baikonur space station, was arrested on charges of inciting ethnic strife in social media postings.
Blogger Yermek Taychibekov is on trial on the same charge over postings in which he argued Kazakhstan should become part of Russia.
Kazakhstan has issued a diplomatic call for restraint from its allies Russia and Turkey following Ankara’s shooting down of a Russian warplane involved in airstrikes on Syria.
The Foreign Ministry said in a statement, issued the day after Turkey downed the Russian fighter jet, that the “tragic incident” on November 24 was cause for regret.
Both sides should exercise restraint and explore “all possible measures and channels of communication for the de-escalation of the situation,” Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry said.
The statement follows an ill-tempered war of words between Ankara and Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin condemned what he called “a stab in the back by the accomplices of terrorists” and foreign minister Sergey Lavrov has canceled a planned trip to Ankara.
The standoff between two of Kazakhstan’s allies that have long been at loggerheads over Syria — with the Kremlin backing embattled incumbent Bashar al-Assad with airstrikes targeting rebels and Turkey’s Recep Erdogan seeking his overthrow and backing the militants — is uncomfortable for President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Kazakhstan is a staunch ally of Russia and a fellow member of the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union, but also has a close partnership with Turkey and is a fellow member of the Ankara-led Turkic Council.
Turkey’s links with Turkic peoples have played a role in the controversy, as the fighter jet crashed in an area of Syria inhabited by ethnic Turkmen, some of whom are believed to be Ankara-backed rebels.
Astana was careful not to apportion blame for the shooting down of the aircraft, in which one pilot died and the other was rescued by Russian special forces.
The use of child labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest is becoming rarer, but there were indications that adults are being press-ganged into service this year, the World Bank has said in a report.
While offering hope of improvement, the report published on November 20 evinced disquiet about the harassment of independent harvest monitors — a sure indication authorities remain nervous about damage incurred to the country’s cotton public image in recent years.
The findings were based on observations by the International Labor Organization (ILO), which was this year asked to broaden its remit by checking for signs of forced labor.
Claims that child labor is on the wane echoes conclusions from independent campaigners since 2012, when the government banned the practice following a punishing cotton boycott by leading western brands.
“Authorities have taken a range of measures to reduce the incidence of child labor and make it socially unacceptable,” the World Bank said.
The assessment is broadly shared.
Apparent efforts by Uzbekistan to reduce reliance on underage workers prompted the U.S. State Department to promote Uzbekistan from Tier 3 to Tier 2 on its watch list in its 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report.
The burden of meeting harvest quotas has instead shifted to adults, who are often recruited against their will.
“Large numbers of citizens seem to be willing recruits and see the harvest as an opportunity. But organized recruitment of large numbers of people in such a short period of time carries certain risks linked to workers’ rights, which need further work, and certain indicators of forced labor have been observed,” the World Bank said.
As the economy sputters in Kazakhstan, the government has been forced into a review of the ambitious and costly infrastructure projects it had hoped would prove a tonic for growth.
Providing a fresh and sobering update, economy minister Yerbolat Dosayev told a meeting of the Cabinet on November 18 that it is now expected the economy will grow by 1.3 percent in 2015, down from the earlier forecast of 1.5 percent.
A spike in inflation is also expected as a result of the plunging value of the national currency, the tenge, Dosayev said in remarks quoted by Tengri News. The tenge has fallen by nearly 40 percent against the dollar since the move to a free float in August.
The inflation forecast has been increased to 8-10 percent from the previous expectation of 6-8 percent, Dosayev said.
Kazakhstan’s exports fell by 42 percent in the first nine months of this year, Total.kz quoted Dosayev as saying.
With President Nursultan Nazarbayev ordering belt-tightening to combat the revenue squeeze, Prime Minister Karim Masimov has ordered a review of the vast Nurly Zhol stimulus program, which was approved last year.
All regional governors are to review projects planned under the Nurly Zhol (Bright Path) strategy, Kazinform reported on November 23. Aset Isekeshev, the minister for industry and development, is to report back to the Cabinet with revised plans by March 1.
Security services in Kazakhstan’s capital recently foiled a major terrorist conspiracy, city mayor Adilbek Dzhaksybekov has claimed.
He gave no details of the alleged terrorist plot beyond that it was thwarted four months ago, or in the summer.
“Anti-terror questions are now coming to the fore,” Dzhaksybekov told a law-enforcement meeting in Astana. “The National Security Committee uncovered, literally four months ago, a major clandestine and well-equipped group which was planning terrorist acts in Astana.”
In recent months city residents have reported no evidence of heightened security in Astana, where security is not particularly tight and residents can stroll freely quite close to government buildings on the Left Bank.
Dzhaksybekov spoke of the need to be vigilant in preventing acts of terrorism following this month’s attacks in Paris.
Kazakhstan has not witnessed any major terrorist attacks. It experienced its first suicide bombing in 2011, and that year and the next year the country saw a series of low-level, mainly botched explosions and attacks on law-enforcement officers in which scores – mostly alleged extremists and members of the security forces - died.
In the most serious incident, seven people were killed when a gunman went on a rampage in the southern city of Taraz in 2011.
A man has been jailed on charges of promoting separatism in Kazakhstan — the first time someone has been thrown behind bars for a crime introduced last year, while separatist conflict raged in Ukraine.
The resident of the northern town of Ridder, a stone’s throw from Kazakhstan’s long border with Russia, received a five-year prison sentence for his activities on a social networking website, the Total.kz reports.
Igor Sychev, 26, was found guilty of propagating separatism over an online poll he published in spring quizzing the residents of Ridder on their views of whether their province, East Kazakhstan Region, should secede and join Russia.
The poll was published on the Heard in Ridder forum on Russian social networking site VKontakte, of which Sychev was administrator.
“I did not create the poll, and after there was a complaint the poll was removed,” Total.kz quoted Sychev as saying after the verdict was delivered on November 18.
“I have never engaged nor do I engage in any separatist activity,” added Sychev, who said his “illegal” trial had been conducted “for show.”
Sychev was convicted under a clause criminalizing calls for separatism that was hurriedly inserted into a new version of the criminal code passed last year. The crime carries a maximum 10-year jail term.
As many commentators pointed out at the time, pro-Russian activists fomenting violence in eastern Ukrainian cities like Donetsk and Luhansk could not fail to arouse consternation in Kazakhstan.
Members of the public in Kazakhstan have taken to stripping off and hitting the streets for bets and laughs — and to take showers.
The craze was sparked by a man who walked naked through the city of Oskemen in north-eastern Kazakhstan earlier this month for a bet.
The unidentified young man won the bet with a casual stroll down a main street in the city on November 11 — but ended up in jail for his pains, all for a pair of boots.
“My boots were torn, and I needed some new ones,” he explained to the YK-local news website on November 13, speaking under the pseudonym Adil.
“I was chatting to some friends, and we were talking about shoes. And we had a bet. The conditions were that if I walked naked through the street, they would buy me some boots. If I chickened out, I would have to do something worse.”
He refused to elaborate on what that was, as it was “a secret.”
Adil won a pair of $60 boots from the bet, but the police were not amused.
He was arrested and jailed for 15 days on hooliganism charges on November 17.
Kazakhstan’s septuagenarian leader Nursultan Nazarbayev has issued a heartfelt call for public servants to step aside after 25 years in the job and make way for fresh blood.
The long-serving president did not immediately announce any plans to step down from his own post, which he has held for a quarter of a century.
“It is necessary to establish a clear position on public servants retiring when they reach the legal retirement age,” Nazarbayev — who, at 75, is 12 years past the usual retirement age for men of 63 — told a Cabinet meeting in remarks quoted by Tengri News.
“That’s enough. For 25 years [some public servants] have been holding on … It’s time to go,” he said, without evident signs of irony.
Nazarbayev has ruled Kazakhstan since 1989, first as its communist leader under the Soviet Union and then as president of an independent state since 1991.
Under legislation passed in 2010 granting him the title of Leader of the Nation, he is exempt from the usual two constitutional presidential term limits and can stand for re-election for the rest of his life. He was last re-elected in April with 98 percent of the vote.
At the Cabinet meeting, Nazarbayev warned that there was no place for life-long appointees in his country. Senior public servants should not think themselves irreplaceable and stop telling him “stick with me — the next person will be even worse,” Nazarbayev said, in remarks that are assumed not to have been a reference to himself.