President Nursultan Nazarbayev has been courting European Union officials in Brussels in the hope of bolstering Kazakhstan’s trade and economic ties with Europe as way of mitigating the funk back home.
In a conveniently timed development, Nazarbayev also talked human rights in Europe just as two activists jailed in Kazakhstan earlier this year were allowed to walk free by a court in Almaty. Many observers interpreted their release under suspended sentences on March 30 as being designed to send a positive message to Brussels.
Meeting Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, and Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, Nazarbayev stressed the importance to Kazakhstan of the Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with the EU, which was signed in 2014 and will take full effect in May following ratification by Kazakhstan’s Senate earlier this month. (The agreement is one notch below the Association Agreement signed between the EU and hopeful candidates such as Ukraine and Georgia.)
Astana is counting on the deal to boost trade with and investment from the European Union, its largest overall trading partner. Wooing investors has become a major priority for Kazakhstan as it battles its worst economic crisis in years — brought on largely as a result of low oil prices — and it is seeking to lure them with a package of investment perks and visa-free travel.
Six more arrests have been made in a high-profile corruption case involving prominent media figures that has sparked fresh claims that freedom of speech is under attack in Kazakhstan.
Aset Matayev, director of the KazTAG news agency, four government officials and ex-officials and a senior official from the state Kazakhtelecom company are suspected of involvement in a conspiracy designed to defraud the state of more than $1 million dollars, the National Bureau for Counteracting Corruption said in a statement on March 28.
Aset Matayev is the son of Seytkazy Matayev, a well-respected figure on Kazakhstan’s media scene whose arrest in February on charges of embezzlement and tax evasion sparked a domestic and international outcry.
Now, Aset Matayev has, like his father, been placed under house arrest after the investigation purportedly revealed that he had “taken a direct part in the embezzlement of budget funds,” the anti-corruption bureau said.
Four current and former officials from the government’s Communications, IT and Information Committee have also been arrested: director Talgat Kazangap and former director Bolat Kalyanbekov are on bail; and Bolat Beserbayev, another ex-director, and his former deputy Bek Arpabayev are under house arrest. Also under house arrest is Batyr Makhanbetazhiyev, who is strategic management director at Kazakhtelecom.
The Matayevs categorically deny the charges against them. Aset Matayev told EurasiaNet.org in February that he believes the case is politically motivated and designed to get hold of valuable real estate owned by his father.
When Kazakhstan’s ruling party unveiled its candidate list for the March 20 snap parliamentary election, it seemed to be summoning the spirit of that old MGM slogan, “More stars than there are in heaven.”
Alas, with the results now in, the beautiful and the young have receded into the distance and the lower house of parliament, or Mazhilis, will have to contend with the same aging countenances as before.
Only one of the high-profile celebrity candidates who was on the party list of the ruling Nur Otan party will take up a seat in the new parliament, it emerged as parties revealed the names of their MPs on March 24, four days after a lackluster election featuring no genuine opposition.
Chat show host Artur Platonov is taking up a seat in parliament, but other popular figures on the Nur Otan list, such as world champion boxer Gennady Golovkin, Olympic gold medal-winning weightlifter Ilya Ilyin and pop singer Kairat Nurtas, will not be joining the ranks of MPs.
This suggests that criticism that Nur Otan’s list was a cynical bid to shore up voter support amid political apathy given the lack of opposition in an election taking place during a serious economic crisis may not have been groundless.
Nur Otan’s parliamentary representation features 33 MPs who were in the outgoing parliament, along with a host of party apparatchiks and former officials as well as a smattering of business people, according to a list published by Tengri News.
Scenes from voting in Kazakhstan's parliamentary election
Kazakhstan is voting in a snap parliamentary election expected to return a storming victory for the ruling Nur Otan party, which has run without any substantive opposition.
Speaking as he cast his ballot in Astana, President Nursultan Nazarbayev said the election was a “landmark in Kazakhstan’s most recent history” and urged incoming legislators to implement the reform program put in place last year to help fight the economic crisis gripping the country.
Voters leaving polling stations in Astana and Almaty overwhelmingly said they had cast their ballots for Nazarbayev’s Nur Otan party.
“I voted for Nur Otan. It’s the best party and it’s Nazarbayev’s party,” student Rakhimzhan Bakhytzhanov, 22, told EurasiaNet.org.
It is the party’s association with the 75-year-old former Communist party boss, who has ruled Kazakhstan for a quarter of a century, that informs the choice of many voters. Most appeared ill-informed about the content of Nur Otan’s manifesto and were also hard-pressed to name any of the five parties challenging Nur Otan’s dominance in the Mazhilis, the lower house of parliament.
“I voted for Nur Otan,” student Adilet Aliturliyev, 23, told EurasiaNet.org. “It’s the number one party in Kazakhstan, and it’s the party of the president.”
Despite having only just cast his ballot, Aliturliyev was able to name only one of the other parties standing, the Communist People’s Party of Kazakhstan, known by the acronym KNPK and led by Zhambyl Akhmetbekov.
Protesters at a small rally in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on March 18, 2016.
A handful of civil society campaigners staged a rare picket in Almaty on March 18, demanding freedom for a political activist sentenced to jail on incitement charges.
The protest took place two days before Kazakhstan votes in a snap parliamentary election, and was the first time activists had staged any such actions during a lackluster campaign for an election certain to be won by the ruling party of President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
“Freedom for Yermek Narymbayev,” chanted the five activists who took part in the picket on a pedestrian shopping thoroughfare in downtown Almaty.
They held up banners in Kazakh, English and Russian showing demands such as “Free human rights defender Yermek Narymbayev” and calling for the abolition of Article 174 of the criminal code under which he was jailed on charges of inciting ethnic strife.
The protest lasted approximately three minutes and attracted little attention on a quiet and rainy weekday morning.
With no police in the immediate vicinity to witness it, no arrests were made. Public protest is rare in Kazakhstan and protesters are frequently detained on charges of breaching stringent public assembly laws.
Narymbayev was handed a three-year jail term in January on charges of inciting ethnic enmity following a trial in which fellow activist Serikzhan Mambetalin received a two-year term.
The two were released under house arrest shortly after their sentencing pending an appeal hearing due later this month. They spent four months in jail before their release, and will return to prison to serve out their time if the appeal fails.
A former prime minister of Kazakhstan who was jailed last year in a high-profile corruption case has had his jail sentence reduced on appeal.
The case attracted widespread attention in Kazakhstan, where corruption is rife but the arrest of political heavyweights on graft charges is rare. That has led some observers to speculate that the case is the result of infighting among the elite groups surrounding President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
The term of Serik Akhmetov, who was prime minister for 18 months until April 2014 and was subsequently defense minister for six months, was cut from 10 years to eight in a ruling handed down on March 14, the Total.kz news website reported.
Akhmetov was jailed in December after a trial in which he pleaded guilty to bribery and embezzlement during his tenure as governor of Karaganda Region, which is Kazakhstan’s industrial heartland, from 2009 to 2012.
Investigators accused the former prime minister of taking bribes worth some $2.4 million to ensure that a firm run by his brother Berik Akhmetov and his son Daniyar Akhmetov was awarded lucrative tenders in Karaganda.
Prior to his conviction, Akhmetov issued a groveling public apology to Nazarbayev, in which he begged the president’s forgiveness “for failing to live up to his trust.”
Campaigners have handed a petition to the World Bank urging it to suspend funding for agricultural projects in Uzbekistan until Tashkent roots out forced labor in the cotton harvest.
A petition addressed to World Bank President Jim Yong Kim and signed by 140,000 people was delivered to the institution’s Washington HQ on March 9, said the Cotton Campaign, a coalition of advocacy groups.
On the same day, one human rights group released a damning report documenting allegedly systematic use of forced labor during last year’s cotton harvest.
“To harvest cotton, officials once again forced more than a million people, including students, teachers, doctors, nurses, and employees of government agencies and private businesses to the cotton fields, against their will and under threat of penalty, especially losing their jobs,” the report by the Berlin-based Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights (UGF) stated.
The World Bank press office told EurasiaNet.org by e-mail that the organization “does not condone forced labor in any form and takes seriously the reports of such practices in the cotton production system of Uzbekistan.”
“Over the past 2-3 years, the Bank has maintained an intensive dialogue with the Government of Uzbekistan on issues related to child and forced labor in the cotton sector. During this period, the authorities introduced changes to the national legal framework related to the protection of the rights of workers and the prohibitions on child and forced labor,” the World Bank said.
In many democratic systems, holding legislative elections amid spiraling inflation, a rapidly depreciating currency, sharp contractions in government expenditure and reports of job losses and delayed wages usually spells trouble for a governing party.