The suicides of two soldiers on two consecutive days have again highlighted festering problems in Kazakhstan’s armed forces.
One conscript hanged himself at a military unit Astana on April 4 while the next day a young private killed himself in a military unit in Karaganda by shooting himself in the neck, the Zakon.kz website reported.
Two 20-year-old privates were arrested on suspicion of driving the soldier in Karaganda, in northeastern Kazakhstan, to suicide by hazing – the practice of army bullying common in many post-Soviet militaries. The arrests suggest Kazakhstan’s military is starting to take hazing – a phenomenon that has for years been quietly tolerated – seriously.
Last June the commander of a border post near China was arrested with two other soldiers on suspicion of hazing after 11 conscripts deserted from the Tersayryk unit in northeastern Kazakhstan to protest their treatment.
In October a military court sentenced the commander to three years in jail and the other two soldiers to seven years each.
Kazakhstan’s Border Guard Service, which falls under the remit of the powerful KNB domestic intelligence service, has had a troubled year, starting with a bizarre mass slaughter in a remote outpost near the border with China last May that was blamed on rogue conscript Vladislav Chelakh.
A report in The New York Times that Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of Uzbek strongman Islam Karimov, has resigned as her country’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva set off a flurry of speculation about her future plans.
On April 6 The Times suggested that she was “possibly positioning herself for a larger role at home” amid uncertainty about her father’s health.
However, an official at Uzbekistan’s Geneva mission denied the report of Karimova's resignation on April 8.
“This does not correspond to reality,” a spokesperson who declined to be identified by name told EurasiaNet.org by telephone from Geneva. “Ms. Gulnara Karimova is still Uzbekistan’s ambassador to Geneva.”
Karimova is a colorful personality – a pop diva and fashion designer as well as a diplomat. Many observers believe she is positioning herself to succeed her 75-year-old father, which she pointedly failed to rule out in an interview recently made public.
The subject of the presidential succession in Uzbekistan is currently the subject of much international press speculation, prompted by a report put out by Uzbekistan’s opposition-in-exile that Karimov suffered a heart attack last month. The rumor spread like wildfire but was soon proved false.
International negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program broke down without result in Almaty on April 6.
“Over two days of talks, we had long and intensive discussions on the issues addressed in our confidence-building proposal put forward during the last round of talks with Iran in Almaty on 26-27 February,” EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who chairs a six-nation group negotiating with Iran, said in an emailed statement.
It became “clear” that the positions of the six-nation P5+1 group (consisting of the five UN Security Council permanent members – the United States, China, Russia, Britain and France – plus Germany) and Iran “remain far apart on the substance,” the statement said.
The last round of talks, in February, left some participants cautiously optimistic a breakthrough might be in the works. Those talks, which were also held in Almaty, unfroze an eight-month deadlock and, when they concluded, the parties agreed to keep talking.
This time there was no agreement to meet again; it was “agreed that all sides will go back to capitals to evaluate where we stand in the process,” Ashton’s statement said.
The sides are at odds over Iran’s nuclear program, which Tehran insists is for peaceful purposes but the international community is concerned is aimed at making an atomic bomb.
As a second round of talks on Iran’s nuclear program opens in Almaty on April 5 analysts are not expecting major breakthroughs, but international negotiators will be pushing a proposal advanced when they met in the same venue in February.
Although there was no breakthrough, those talks in Kazakhstan – regarded as a fitting host due to its own non-proliferation efforts – unlocked an eight-month negotiations deadlock.
The six-nation P5+1 group (the five UN Security Council permanent members – the United States, China, Russia, Britain and France – plus Germany) had been pressing Iran to end medium-level uranium enrichment, close its Fordow underground enrichment facility, and hand over stockpiles of medium-enriched uranium – production of which marks a critical stage in bomb making – for international safe-keeping.
Tehran insists it is not pursuing nuclear weapons and that its program is for peaceful purposes. It has pushed for crippling international sanctions to be lifted without preconditions.
Negotiators have been tight-lipped about the February proposal. Reuters reported on April 3, citing unidentified Western officials, that the six-nation group has offered to ease gold sanctions and relax a petrochemicals embargo in return for Iran suspending medium-level uranium enrichment.
Kazakhstan has extended its smoking ban by prohibiting the use of the shisha pipe in enclosed public spaces including bars, nightclubs and restaurants.
The ban came into force on March 14, sparking an outcry among entrepreneurs warning of widespread job losses.
According to the calculations of the Association of Shisha Pipe Industry Entrepreneurs of Kazakhstan, reported by Bnews.kz on April 1, up to 20,000 jobs stand to be lost since each of the 5,000 premises where the shisha is smoked employs three or four people to clean and light the pipes.
The pipes are hugely popular in bars and restaurants in Astana, Almaty and other cities. One pipe, which is shared by groups of friends out socializing, costs around $30-$50. Establishments breaking the new rules face fines of just over $1,100.
Shisha – also known as kalyan or hooka – pipes had been exempt from a smoking ban in enclosed spaces introduced in 2009, when officials said some 30,000 people per year were dying from tobacco-related diseases. Implementation is patchy, with most establishments respecting the ban but some openly flouting it.
According to a World Bank report published in 2010, 40 percent of male adults in Kazakhstan smoke – fewer than Russia’s 59 percent, but almost double the 22 percent smoking in neighboring Uzbekistan.
An elderly woman has died in western Kazakhstan after being attacked by a camel she had raised from infancy, local media report.
The fatal clash took place on April 2 in the village of Umirzak outside the oil city of Aktau in western Kazakhstan, the Lada newspaper said.
Shocked neighbors put the attack down to it being camel mating season, when males are especially aggressive. “I remember this camel as a calf,” one unidentified villager told Lada. “Our neighbor was always looking after it, checking on it, feeding it.”
When she went out to feed the cattle on April 2 “no one paid any attention,” the villager said, until the woman’s husband “noticed that she was lying all in blood and not moving.”
An ambulance came but doctors pronounced her dead from “multiple open wounds.” So fierce was the attack that “her scalp was almost totally torn off,” the newspaper said.
Many people raise camels in the western desert regions of Kazakhstan, where they are prized as a mark of wealth – a single ungulate can be worth upward of $3,000. Camel meat is popular, as is shubat, fermented camel milk.
This is not the first fatal clash between a human and a ship of the desert in recent years: In 2011 the driver of a speeding Opel Vectra was killed after he collided with a herd of camels in the western Aktobe Region. A camel also died in the crash.
The fate of the camel that turned on its owner has not yet been decided, Lada reported, but the “camel murderer is being kept in a separate pen, far from other animals. And people.”
The outward signs in Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital, suggest nothing out of the ordinary is going on. But whether or not Uzbek strongman Islam Karimov has experienced a serious heart attack, as some reports suggest, the episode highlights the fact that no clear-cut succession plan is in place.
One of Uzbekistan’s opposition groups-in-exile has reported that President Islam Karimov has had a heart attack, prompting a denial from officials, while reigniting speculation about the aging leader’s health.
The People’s Movement of Uzbekistan (PMU), headed by Muhammad Solih from his base in Norway, reported on March 22 that the 75-year-old president suffered a heart attack on March 19. The report cited the PMU’s “own correspondent” in Tashkent, who was not named.
On March 24 the PMU reported confirmation of the news from a second source, a journalist “working for one of the state media outlets, performing his activities directly under the oversight of the National Security Committee and the press service of the president of Uzbekistan.”
The report quoted the unnamed journalist as saying that Karimov had a heart attack on the evening of March 19 and is “now seriously ill.”
No other sources apart from the PMU have independently confirmed the report of Karimov’s alleged heart attack.
A source in the presidential administration denied the news. “The president of Uzbekistan is in excellent form as always and does not have any signs of any indisposition,” the unnamed source told Russian news agency RIA Novosti on March 22.
In a separate report the same day, RIA Novosti quoted a source in the presidential administration (it was not clear if it was the same person) as saying the report was “most likely a canard” and pointing out that Karimov had been seen in public on March 19 at celebrations of the Navruz spring equinox holiday.