There is a bleak mood hanging over the editorial office of the Nakanune.kz website these days. The news site, which has won plaudits for its hard-hitting coverage in Kazakhstan’s beleaguered media environment, has run afoul of the country’s judicial system.
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.
Astana places severe restrictions on civil liberties, including freedom of expression, conscience, and assembly, a United Nations rapporteur says in a report published following a visit to Kazakhstan earlier this year.
The country offers “very limited space for the expression of dissenting political views” and treats freedom of assembly “as a privilege or a favor rather than a right,” Maina Kiai, rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, said in a report being presented to the United Nations in Geneva on June 17.
“A web of policy, practice and perception contributes to a general environment where engaging in political activities is difficult, discouraging and sometimes dangerous,” Kiai found. “Dissent may be criminalized and critical political expression is often portrayed as threatening the stability of the state.”
He expressed concern about the case of Kazakhstan’s most prominent prisoner, Vladimir Kozlov, jailed on charges of fomenting fatal violence in western Kazakhstan in 2011.
The rapporteur, who met the opposition leader behind bars during his January visit, “is seriously concerned that Mr. Kozlov’s ordinary political speech and association activities were deemed criminal incitement of social hatred,” the report stated.
The case “seems emblematic of a more general trend to marginalize political leaders voicing dissent,” it added.
A corruption scandal has engulfed a high-profile international exhibition that Astana is organizing, just as Kazakhstan enters the final stages of its bid to stage another prominent global event – the Winter Olympics.
Talgat Yermegiyayev, the chief organizer of Kazakhstan’s EXPO-2017 exhibition (which is due to be held in Astana in two years) has been placed under house arrest on suspicion of embezzlement, reports the Today.kz website.
The court ruling was issued on June 12, the day after President Nursultan Nazarbayev had fired Yermegiyayev from his position as chief executive of the Astana EXPO-2017 company, which is organizing the international exhibition. Nazarbayev’s administration has billed the event a major PR coup for Kazakhstan.
Another top EXPO official, Kazhymurat Usenov, who was in charge of the department overseeing construction of facilities for the exhibition, has also been placed under house arrest. He is suspected of embezzling 214 million tenge ($1.2 million) from the $385 million the state has allocated for the $3 billion event.
The corruption scandal has erupted as Kazakhstan enters the final stages in the race to stage the 2022 Winter Olympics, in which commercial capital Almaty is competing with Beijing to host the prestigious sporting event. A vote is due at the end of July.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has finished a weeklong tour of the five Central Asian states by appealing for them to improve their dismal human rights records. He called on the region’s autocrats to respect civil liberties, at the very least as a means to preserve stability.
“There is no peace without development. No development without peace. And neither is possible without a respect for human rights,” Ban told a meeting of students and officials in Turkmenistan, which campaigners describe as one of the world’s worst human rights abusers.
Speaking in Ashgabat on June 13, the last day of his tour, Ban pointed to concerns about a “deterioration of some aspects of human rights – a shrinking democratic space” across Central Asia.
Restrictions on freedoms might foster “an illusion of stability in the short-run,” he added, but ultimately threatened to create “a breeding ground for extremist ideologies.”
“Around the world, the way to confront threats is not more repression, it is more openness. More human rights,” he added.
A day earlier, in Uzbekistan, Ban had heeded calls by human rights campaigners to press Tashkent over the issues of forced labor and torture.
He acknowledged progress in eliminating the use of child labor, but urged the government to address “the mobilization of teachers, doctors and others in cotton harvesting,” and also “prevent the maltreatment of prisoners.”
Ban hailed “good laws” adopted in Uzbekistan to uphold the rule of law, but added that “laws on the books should be made real in the lives of people.”
Kazakhstan is poised to become part of the World Trade Organization (WTO) nearly two decades after it first applied to join. The Central Asian nation has completed entry talks that have been among the most “challenging” the global body has faced with any country.
Kazakhstan “finalized the negotiations of its WTO membership terms with WTO members at the Working Party meeting on Kazakhstan’s accession on 10 June,” the international trade body said in a statement issued the same day.
Farida Batyrbayeva, spokeswoman for Minister of Economic Integration Zhanar Aytzhanova, confirmed to EurasiaNet.org the completion of talks that started back in 1996.
Astana will not release details of the accession package until after a meeting in Geneva on June 22 at which the WTO’s 161 member states will consider formal approval of the draft accession package, Batyrbayeva added.
The WTO announcement came on the same day that the Agriculture Ministry had declined to put a date on Kazakhstan’s long-delayed accession, hinting at behind-the-scenes disagreements over agricultural subsidies.
The size of subsidies Kazakhstan would be permitted to retain for the agricultural sector – which contributes some 5 percent of GDP and employs around a quarter of the workforce – remained “unresolved,” as Kazakhstani negotiators tried to secure “the maximum possible domestic support,” the ministry told Tengri News on June 10, shortly before the WTO issued its statement on the completion of the accession talks.
Evidently, negotiators overcame the stumbling block to conclude the deal, which WTO Director-General Roberto Azevedo hailed as a “historic step.”
The accession talks with Kazakhstan were among “the most challenging negotiations” in the WTO’s 20-year history, the statement said.
Students in Kazakhstan have long dreamed up inventive ways to rig their scores at the make-or-break nationwide university entrance exam each year. But this year is the first that cross-dressing has featured as a cheating tactic.
To help his girlfriend make the grade, student Ayan Zhardemov came up with an elaborate plan to impersonate her and take the exam in her place this week, reports Tengri News.
He no doubt felt he had a good chance of doing well, since he had already passed the exam (known as ENT) three years ago himself, to enter the prestigious Kazakh British Technical University in the commercial capital of Almaty, where he is a chemical engineering student.
Zhardemov went to some pains for his audacious bid, taking a journey of nearly 1,000 kilometers from Almaty to southern Kazakhstan, near the border with Uzbekistan, to cheat for his girlfriend.
He donned a long black wig, a gray skirt, a white T-shirt, and white sandals, completing his look with a touch of eye makeup and some pink lipstick.
Unfortunately for him, his efforts did not convince invigilators: They got wise to the con and called the police, who presented Zhardemov with fraud charges that could lead to a short prison term, a fine, or community work.
Prominent human rights activist Elena Urlayeva was detained and abused by police while monitoring the Uzbek government’s use of forced labor in its springtime cotton planting effort on May 31, she has told EurasiaNet.org.
Officers subjected Urlayeva, 58, to physical and sexual abuse during her 11 hours in police custody and confiscated a camera on which she had recorded evidence of forced labor, she said by telephone from Tashkent on June 3.
“With some other activists, I was conducting monitoring of forced labor involving medics, teachers, and public-sector workers,” Urlayeva, who heads the Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan, explained.
The arrest took place when she was interviewing and photographing some doctors early in the morning on May 31 at a gathering point in the small town of Chinaz (60 kilometers southwest of Tashkent) from which the authorities were dispatching healthcare staff to the cotton fields.
When she refused to hand over her camera to officials, police took her to the precinct where “they started to use violence, they hit me on the head.”
Urlayeva accused officers of subjecting her to vaginal and rectal internal examinations (claiming they were searching for a hidden USB flash drive) and other sexually humiliating procedures, including photographing her nude. She was released without charge.
She has filed complaints with the Interior Ministry, the prosecutor’s office, and police authorities over her detention and treatment in custody.
Urlayeva said she believed her arrest “was an attempt to intimidate me … and to put a stop to my activity” monitoring the use of forced labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest.
The administration of strongman President Islam Karimov regularly comes under fire over the use of forced and child labor to reap the cash crop that fills up state coffers.
Kazakhstan’s recently re-elected president has made a vaguely worded pledge of political reform for his new term. Nursultan Nazarbayev suggested that Kazakhstan must transition from its super-presidential system to a more balanced one with greater checks and balances.
Yet while mulling reforms to pave the way for the eventual post-Nazarbayev era, the president made no specific pledges about what form they might take or when they might be enacted, leaving skeptics wondering if his intentions are serious.
Kazakhstan’s political system has hitherto been characterized by “strong presidential rule,” Nazarbayev said on May 29 in remarks quoted by the Kazakhstanskaya Pravda government-owned daily.
Yet as a middle class emerges “this should probably be weakened and the government should be given more opportunities to work independently and more powers should be handed over to parliament.”
There has long been talk in Kazakhstan about weakening the top-down system in which Nazarbayev wields all powers, the government carries out his orders, and parliament (which contains no genuine opposition parties) rubberstamps executive decisions.
Reforms, the thinking goes, would pave the way for a time when the aging president – who has ruled Kazakhstan for a quarter century and will be 80 when his term of office ends in 2020 – will no longer be in power, allowing him to bequeath his successor a system less dependent on one personality.
Almost half of Kazakhstan’s population of rare saiga antelopes has been wiped out in recent weeks. The endangered beasts are believed to have succumbed to a lung disease that is sweeping across the steppe.
Latest figures show that the number of dead saigas has reached 120,977, the Agriculture Ministry reported on May 27. That is 40 percent of Kazakhstan’s total saiga population of 300,000 before disease started striking down the long-nosed antelopes, according to government estimates. (Astana’s figures are higher than an estimate of 265,000 released last year by the international Saiga Conservation Alliance after an aerial study of roaming grounds in Kazakhstan.)
Some 90 percent of the dead animals are females, the Agriculture Ministry said. This has enormous implications for breeding capacity to restore the population.
“Measures to monitor the state of the wild animals and establish the cause of mortality continue,” said the ministry, which has set up a working group and flown in experts from the UK, Germany, and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization to assist with the investigation.
The Saiga Conservation Alliance also has a team in the field, a representative told EurasiaNet.org, and the government says the World Organization for Animal Health is to send in specialists.
Scientists suspect the cause of death to be pasteurellosis, a disease that attacks the lungs and killed nearly 12,000 saigas in a 2010 epidemic.
Other theories floated include poisoning by rocket fuel from launches at Kazakhstan’s Baikonur spaceport (which is leased by Russia). However, Meirbek Moldabekov, the head of the government’s Aerospace Committee, has argued that the vast areas over which saigas are dying make this hypothesis unlikely.