Protesters in Kazakhstan’s commercial capital, Almaty, forced their way into the National Bank on February 12 to confront the country’s top financial officials over the sudden devaluation of the tenge, which wiped a fifth off the value of the currency in one fell swoop the previous day.
A group of around 50 people – including low-paid workers, worried mortgage holders, and pensioners – gathered outside the bank in freezing temperatures, demanding a meeting with National Bank chief Kayrat Kelimbetov to address concerns about spiraling inflation that analysts say is certain to result from the devaluation.
“What are the people to do? How should they act in this situation? What is the way out? We want to know this!” Zhasaral Kuanyshalin, a prominent activist who was taking part in the protest, told EurasiaNet.org.
Police stood by as irate protesters barged into the National Bank’s lobby. Riot police reinforcements were summoned, but management moved to deflate tension by inviting the demonstrators inside.
At a turbulent meeting with National Bank Deputy Chairman Kuat Kozhakmetov, Kanagat Takeyeva, a designated spokeswoman for the protesters, put forward demands ranging from a meeting with Kelimbetov (who is in Astana, the capital) to jobs and tackling the rising cost of housing and mortgages.
Kozhakmetov’s explanations that the government had pledged to rein in inflation (which is inevitable as the price of hard currency-denominated imports rockets in the wake of the devaluation) were met with cries of “Lies, lies!” “Why do you deceive us?” and “Kelimbetov, resign!” The meeting broke up inconclusively, with Kozhakmetov promising to consider the demands.
The retrial in Kazakhstan of a man convicted of the 2006 murder of a leading opposition leader was supposed to fill in blanks left by the initial proceedings. Instead, it reopened old wounds for the victim’s family and raised fresh questions about the fairness of Kazakhstan’s justice system.
Kazakhstan allowed a rapid-fire devaluation of the tenge on February 11, causing the currency to lose a fifth of its value.
The National Bank announced the devaluation without notice to forestall panic buying and currency speculation. In a statement the bank said it had decided to stop its costly policy of propping up the tenge and let it slide to a new currency corridor of 185 tenge to the dollar, plus or minus 3 tenge. That is 19 percent lower than the official National Bank rate of 155.5 tenge early on February 11.
The news caused public outrage, particularly since the devaluation comes just a month after National Bank Chairman Kairat Kelimbetov denied – again – that Kazakhstan would be forced to stop pouring reserves into propping up the currency.
Social networks were abuzz with consternation about the devaluation, with users incensed that their tenge-denominated salaries and savings will be worth around a fifth less in dollar terms, and that sharp rises in the prices of imports (on which Kazakhstan is heavily dependent for everything from food to consumer goods) will follow.
“The government of my country just broke my heart,” commented one user, Zauresh Amanzholova.
At a stormy press conference, Kelimbetov fought off resignation calls, defended the devaluation, and said Astana would strive to keep inflation within the now ambitious target of 6-8 percent this year.
Dina Baidildayeva's one-woman show of support for other bloggers got her arrested.
Kazakhstan has never been a bastion of press freedom, but the arrests of four Almaty bloggers in the past week have put Internet commentators in the country’s cultural capital on high alert.
In the latest case Dina Baidildayeva was detained by police on February 8 after staging a one-woman show of solidarity with three jailed bloggers, who were imprisoned on February 5 on hooliganism charges that they denied.
Nurali Aytelenov, Rinat Kibrayev, and Dmitriy Shelokov each received a 10-day prison sentence after protesting outside a restaurant where the mayor, Akhmetzhan Yesimov, was lunching with selected bloggers. The protesters, who had not been invited, accused the mayor of only wanting to hold a dialogue with “tame” bloggers.
In response, Baidildayeva, who is a blogger and also a social networks editor at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, took to Republic Square opposite Almaty city hall waving a poster reading: “Freedom to bloggers – Shame on Yesimov.”
“Mr Yesimov, resign! Freedom to bloggers who were jailed just because they wanted to ask questions to Mayor Yesimov, because they are not satisfied with his work!” she said. “He only gathered bloggers that he liked and who were loyal to him, and that’s not what an intelligent government does!”
Police watched the five-minute protest before moving in to detain Baidildayeva at the scene after she had finished speaking and packed away her poster. She complained that they did not specify what crime she had committed.
Authorities in northern Kazakhstan are disbanding a community of Muslims, believed to be the last independent Muslim congregation in the country.
Officials from a court-appointed Liquidation Commission arrived at the Din-Muhammad Tatar-Bashkir Mosque in the city of Petropavl on February 4, Oslo-based religious freedoms watchdog Forum 18 reports.
The mosque “is to be handed over to another [unspecified] religious organization,” Forum 18 quoted Marat Zhamaliyev, the deputy head of North Kazakhstan Region’s Finance Department, as saying.
The closure comes after the community that worships at the mosque failed to gain the official registration required under a controversial law on religion passed in 2011, which critics have called over-restrictive. The legislation controversially prohibits prayer in state buildings (including government offices, educational establishments, and military facilities), sets strict registration requirements for religious groups, and allows authorities to vet religious literature.
Forum 18 believes the 162-year-old mosque “may possibly be the last remaining publicly accessible mosque independent of the state-backed Muslim Board,” which is responsible for licensing mosques and regulating their activity.
The watchdog says that a community still exists at the mosque, regularly holds prayers there, “and intends to continue to exist.”
“We're not liquidating the mosque, we're liquidating the community,” Zhamaliyev said in response.
“No one is banning people from praying,” he added. “People can go to pray in the new community.”
As country rebranding goes it’s quite radical: President Nursultan Nazarbayev has suggested changing the name of Kazakhstan and calling it Kazak Yeli (Kazakh Country) instead.
Offering a clue to his thinking, Nazarbayev singled out the ‘stan’ part of the name – and held up neighboring Mongolia as an example of a country without the Persian suffix, which means “land of.”
“The name of our country has the ending ‘stan,’ as do the other states of Central Asia,” he said in remarks quoted by his press service on February 6.
“At the same time, foreigners show interest in Mongolia, whose population is just two million people, and its name lacks the suffix ‘stan.’ Perhaps with time the question of changing the name of our country to Kazak Yeli should be examined, but first this should definitely be discussed with the people.”
The people were quick to react, taking to Twitter to vent—some firmly for and others as staunchly against.
“I support Kazak Yeli!” tweeted one user named Ruslan Zhangazy, in Kazakh. “And you?”
“Perhaps now the Twitterati will think how to stand up for the name of our country together,” remarked another, Nikita Shabayev, in Russian.
Nazarbayev was speaking at a meeting with intellectuals during a trip to the western oil town of Atyrau on February 6. The nature of the venue suggests that these may have been off-the-cuff remarks rather than a firm policy statement, but the proposal does suggest that a country name change is on the president’s mind.
Kazakhstan has resolved one problem concerning the Baikonur Cosmodrome, but a fresh challenge for authorities is looming. A compromise between Astana and Moscow should allow for a resumption of normal space cooperation, but public opposition to Russian rocket launches is mounting due to environmental concerns.
Gay and bisexual men in Kyrgyzstan are routinely subject to violence, sexual abuse, and extortion by police, a report by global watchdog Human Rights Watch (HRW) published on January 29 found.
“Gay and bisexual men are easy targets for abuse due to deep social conservatism," HRW said. “Pervasive homophobia in society and widespread police corruption contribute to these abuses.”
Many of the 40 men interviewed for the study “reported ill-treatment in police detention, including being punched, kicked, or beaten with gun butts or other objects,” HRW said.
Some “reported sexual violence by police officers, including rape, group rape, attempts to insert a stick, hammer, or electric shock device inside the victim’s anus, unwanted touching during a search, or being forced to undress in front of police.” On occasion the abuse “rose to the level of torture.”
HRW released disturbing video of men recalling their ill-treatment at the hands of police in Kyrgyzstan, which decriminalized consensual sex between men in 1998. “They detained me, drove me to their office, undressed me, abused me in many ways, hit me, tormented me with a beer bottle, a coffee can, metal hangers, and they kicked me,” one interviewee, Mikhail Kudryashov, recalled. “I still have a lot of scars and marks from the beating.”
Kudryashov – who was fired from his job, disowned by his relatives, and threatened with excommunication by his church after information about his sexual orientation became widely known – took his case all the way to the Supreme Court to try and prove he was tortured, but failed to gain legal redress.
Good news for the endangered saiga antelope in Kazakhstan: Numbers have almost doubled over the past two years to hit 187,000, the environment minister reports.
That means that numbers of this unusual-looking antelope, with its distinctive long, humped nose that allows it to filter air during the dusty summer months and breathe warm air during the freezing winters, have risen by over a third since last June, when the Ministry for Environmental Protection estimated the tally at 137,000, and almost doubled since 2011, when numbers rose above the symbolic 100,000 mark.
The latest figures indicate that the population of the saiga, which is listed as critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List, is starting to recover, although numbers still stand at less than a fifth of Kazakhstan’s million-strong population of the 1970s. The government has set a target to bring the population up to half a million by 2025.
A man in northern Kazakhstan who was the victim of police torture has won a seven-year legal battle for damages, after a court upheld a ruling that he is entitled to financial compensation for his injuries.
The ruling was handed down by an appeals court in Kostanay on January 23, local newspaper Nasha Gazeta reported. Police must now pay some $13,000 in compensation to 44-year-old Aleksandr Gerasimov for injuries they inflicted by beating him up and suffocating him with a plastic bag in police detention to extract a confession in 2007. Gerasimov was arrested after going to a police precinct looking for his stepson, who had been rounded up during a murder investigation.
The court upheld a lower court ruling issued in November which came after Gerasimov, supported by the Open Society Justice Initiative and the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law, won his case at the UN Committee Against Torture in 2012, the first ever brought from Central Asia. [Editor’s note: The Open Society Justice Initiative and EurasiaNet.org are separate entities operating under the auspices of the Open Society Foundations.]
“This ruling is an important step in redressing unjust actions from which victims of the most terrible violations of human rights such as torture continue to suffer,” Roza Akylbekova, director of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law, said in remarks quoted by Nasha Gazeta.