A former prime minister of Kazakhstan has been placed under house arrest on corruption charges. The rare move against such a high-ranking member of the political establishment is sure to set tongues wagging about the presidential succession.
Serik Akhmetov – who was premier until this April and defense minister until last month – has been charged with graft under an ongoing investigation that has seen high-profile arrests in Karaganda Region, the former PM’s political fiefdom, Tengri News reported, citing Kazakhstan’s anti-corruption agency.
Baurzhan Abdishev, a former regional governor and ex-mayor of the city of Karaganda, and Meyram Smagulov, another former mayor, were arrested this fall on corruption charges relating in part to the lucrative metallurgy industry based in the central region.
Akhmetov – who forged his career in the Karaganda metallurgy industry and the Soviet Communist Party in the 1970s and 1980s – was governor of Karaganda Region from 2009 to 2012, at a time when Abdishev was city mayor. This implies that the two are political allies, and commentators in Kazakhstan had already been linking the Karaganda corruption case with a likely move against Akhmetov.
He was appointed prime minister in 2012 and dismissed this April, amid hints that President Nursultan Nazarbayev was disappointed by his lackluster performance.
Yet Akhmetov was still appointed defense minister in that reshuffle, a post from which Nazarbayev abruptly fired him in October after just six months in the job.
Kazakhstan’s journalistic community has long debated how to face the pervasive influence of Russian media in the Central Asian country. The topic has increased in urgency with the bitter international standoff between Russia and Ukraine, which is partly playing out on Russian television.
Russian state channels like Rossiya, NTV, and First Channel – which critics see as Kremlin propaganda tools – enjoy huge popularity in Kazakhstan, the Media Kurultai (an annual gathering of journalists in Almaty) heard on November 14.
This creates a national security threat to Kazakhstan, where viewers are swallowing their poisonous coverage about Ukraine, speakers told a panel on information security.
The public mindset in Kazakhstan is being shaped by Russian officials and TV presenters like Dmitry Kiselyov, who is well-known for his anti-Western tirades, opposition politician Amirzhan Kosanov told the conference. This means Kazakhstanis end up “viewing events in Ukraine through the eyes of [Russian Foreign Minister Sergey] Lavrov or Kiselyov,” he said.
Yet Astana is itself pushing viewers into the arms of Russian TV, Kosanov argued, by controlling the Kazakhstani media so tightly that it becomes unattractive.
“The challenge to information security emerges from governmental policies,” agreed Adil Nurmakov, a journalism professor at Almaty’s KIMEP University. “It’s a vicious circle.”
“Now [government officials] have found themselves in a situation when they’re wondering why people are not watching Kazakhstani TV channels and why they’re not reading the Kazakhstani press,” Nurmakov told EurasiaNet.org on the sidelines of the forum. “But there’s nothing to read and nothing to watch.”
Fresh allegations have emerged of bribery in Uzbekistan’s telecoms market involving another Nordic company and Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of President Islam Karimov.
A cellphone company partly owned by Norway’s Telenor is alleged to have paid some $25 million in kickbacks to acquire telecoms licenses in Uzbekistan, AFP reports, citing the Klassekampen daily.
The funds were reportedly transferred from Amsterdam-headquartered Vimpelcom, the operator of the Beeline brand in Uzbekistan, to the infamous Takilant Limited company, which is at the heart of two separate graft probes in Europe. Takilant is involved in a money-laundering probe in Switzerland (in which Karimova is a suspect), and also a bribery probe in Sweden involving another Nordic telecoms giant, TeliaSonera.
“Bank statements document how the money was transferred from a previously unknown company in the British Virgin Islands as Vimpelcom purchased licenses to the mobile market in the former Soviet state,” AFP quoted Klassekampen as saying.
Telenor responded that it has “zero tolerance for corruption, both when it comes to our own operations and also to the companies that we are part owners in.”
“We are a minority shareholder in Vimpelcom, so it’s up to Vimpelcom to take responsibility for answering any questions that relate to their operations,” Telenor communications head Glenn Mandelid told AFP.
Vimpelcom, which is 33 percent owned by Telenor, told EurasiaNet.org by email that there is nothing new in the information that has emerged.
Fast-food giant McDonald's will open its first restaurant in the oil-rich Central Asian state of Kazakhstan next year, in partnership with an energy tycoon related by marriage to President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
The company will open its first burger bar at an unspecified location in Kazakhstan in the second half of 2015, with more to follow, it announced on November 12.
McDonald’s is heading into Kazakhstan with good connections guaranteed: It will be partnering with prominent gas tycoon Kairat Boranbayev, whose daughter Alima is married to Nazarbayev’s grandson, Aysultan Nazarbayev.
“Our agreement with Kairat will enable us to continue to build our brand,” Doug Goare, president of McDonald’s Europe, said of the foray into Kazakhstan, where insiders say that the key to business success is often not what you know but who you know.
The Kazakhstan launch comes as McDonald’s comes under massive pressure in neighboring Russia, where more than half of its 440 locations are under investigation over alleged health and safety violations (which the company denies) and nine outlets have been temporarily closed.
Kazakhstan is a close economic partner of Russia’s, but has been keen to distance itself from Moscow as Western sanctions bite, making it abundantly clear that its doors are always open to foreign investors.
Uzbekistan’s practice of sending forced laborers to pick the cotton harvest causes a furor abroad every year. But now there are rumblings of discontent from within the country.
National University students have taken the unusual step of publicly complaining about being forced to help with the harvest, publishing an open letter to the prime minister and law-enforcement agencies on the Dunyo Uzbeklari (World of Uzbeks) opposition website.
Third-year male journalism students were ordered to the cotton fields by the rector and faculty deacon, says the letter. It is addressed to Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev; the prosecutor’s office; the National Security Service (SNB); the Higher Education Ministry; and the university rector, Mirzo Mukhamedov.
“Surely the legislation of Uzbekistan does not mention the responsibility of students for taking part in the cotton harvest?” the outraged students (who remained anonymous, no doubt fearing repercussions) ask. “Of course not!”
Students who do not wish to pick cotton could cough up 300,000 sums to buy themselves out, the letter said. That is equivalent to around $125 at the official exchange rate, or two months’ worth of a student’s living grant.
Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest relies on forced labor to help farmers meet government-set quotas.
In 2012, Tashkent – facing widespread international pressure over its widely documented use of child labor to harvest its main cash crop – moved to take younger children out of the cotton fields. However, human rights groups have reported that this merely shifted the burden of forced labor onto older children (including students) and adults. Tashkent denies using forced labor at all.
The man convicted of ordering the murder of an opposition leader eight years ago is to be released on parole, a court in Astana has ruled. The decision raises, yet again, questions about the judiciary’s independence.
Yerzhan Utembayev will be released after serving eight years of his sentence over the brutal killing of Altynbek Sarsenbayev, an opposition leader and former government minister, in 2006, Tengri News reports.
Sarsenbayev’s brother, Rysbek Sarsenbay, had asked the court not to release Utembayev, claiming that he is concealing the names of those really responsible for the murder. “We want those who are really guilty to be exposed and convicted,” Sarsenbay said. But his arguments fell on deaf ears.
At his trial in 2006, Utembayev – who originally confessed to contracting the murder, but later recanted – was jailed for 20 years after being found guilty of hiring a hitman to kill Sarsenbayev for $60,000 in revenge for a newspaper article making unflattering revelations about him.
The trial found that Utembayev (who was at the time was head of the Senate secretariat) contracted Rustam Ibragimov, a former Interior Ministry officer, who set up a death squad comprising rogue members of elite Kazakhstani anti-terrorism units, which kidnapped Sarsenbayev and two aides and delivered them to Ibragimov, who killed the three men.
The 19th-century Kazakh and Russian cultural icons depicted enjoying a kiss on a poster may be long dead. But that has not stopped a court in Kazakhstan awarding massive damages to a group of living people who claim the image of two men kissing has hurt their feelings.
On October 28, a court in Almaty ordered the advertising agency that designed the poster – which shows Kazakh composer Kurmangazy Sagyrbayuly and Russian poet Alexander Pushkin kissing – to pay 34 million tenge ($188,000) to a group of 34 music students and teachers whose only tenuous connection to the image is that they study and work at the Kurmangazy Kazakh National Conservatory, Tengri News reports.
The ruling awarding each plantiff a million tenge is “unfair,” said Dariya Khamitzhanova, director of the Havas Worldwide Kazakhstan agency, which designed the poster. “This 34 million will ruin our company.” She pledged to appeal, but meanwhile the court has frozen the agency’s assets.
The controversial poster – advertising an Almaty gay club at the intersection of Kurmangazy and Pushkin streets and inspired by a famous image of the leaders of East Germany and the Soviet Union kissing in 1979 – was designed for an advertising competition in August and was never intended for showing in the public domain.
However, after the picture started doing the rounds on social media a public outcry ensued and three separate lawsuits were launched against the agency, which has repeatedly apologized for any offense caused.
The steep decline in global oil prices is stoking angst in Kazakhstan. Experts and officials alike say the government has ample resources to grapple with fiscal surprises. The real question is whether the political will exists for the government to take necessary measures.
What to get the oligarch who has everything? How about a caviar spa experience on the shores of the Caspian Sea?
Billed as a “black caviar spa for real gourmands,” this is one of the leisure experiences that will be available at the upmarket Kenderli resort in Kazakhstan when it opens its doors in a few years. If immersing your body in a bath of fish eggs is not to your taste, how about “dances with seals?”
These and other once-in-a-lifetime experiences are being touted to lure tourists to a part of Kazakhstan not known for bringing in the holiday hordes: the eastern shores of the Caspian Sea, where, if developers get their way, a high-class resort will soon spring up out of the desert, reports Tengri News.
The development blueprint expects that by 2020 over half a million tourists will be flocking to Kenderli every year, with foreigners making up over half of the projected 642,000 visitors. Russia is considered the most promising market, but the resort will also target holidaymakers from other parts of Central Asia and the former Soviet Union, and visitors from Turkey and the Middle East.
Developers have an ambitious vision for Kenderli as “a superb 21st century tourist coastal resort” that will become the “best” on the Caspian, “the perfect destination for domestic and international tourists, generating wealth for the region and wellbeing for our people.”
President Nursultan Nazarbayev is in Brussels putting the finishing touches to a landmark agreement with the European Union, cementing ties with Europe even as Astana pushes ahead to join the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union.
Nazarbayev met Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, on October 9, to “confirm the conclusion of negotiations” on the Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, the EU said.
The agreement – three years in the making – aims to boost cooperation in around 30 policy areas including trade and foreign and security policy, it said, and will “significantly deepen political and economic ties” between Kazakhstan and the EU (Astana’s largest trade partner and a major consumer of its energy exports).
The agreement is a far weaker deal than the Association Agreement signed by Ukraine this year, but is still the most ambitious deal to be concluded between the EU and any Central Asian state.
It “puts a strong emphasis on democracy and the rule of law, human rights and fundamental freedoms,” the EU stated, although it failed to specify how.
The visit was marred by news that France is investigating possible kickbacks involving a helicopter deal with Kazakhstan, and probing allegations that Nazarbayev put indirect pressure on Brussels to close a bribery case against Kazakhstani oligarchs.
There was also controversy over Kazakhstan’s human rights record.