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.
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.
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.
Kazakhstan’s Constitutional Council has struck down a controversial law that would have outlawed “propaganda” of homosexuality to minors, amid signs the legislation was damaging the country’s bid to host the Winter Olympics.
The law was “not in line with the constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan” the Vlast.kz website quoted the Constitutional Council (which rules on the legality of legislation) as saying.
The law governed “the protection of children from information causing damage to their health and development." It was passed by parliament in February. The council struck down the law because of unclear wording rather than human rights concerns, the Vlast.kz report said.
The announcement came after a group of household-name sports stars urged the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to reject Kazakhstan’s bid to host the Winter Games in Almaty in 2022, arguing that the law outlawing the “propaganda” of homosexuality to minors was incompatible with Olympic principles of equality.
A court in Tashkent has ordered one of Uzbekistan’s few privately owned newspapers to close, accusing it of undermining the nation’s moral values.
The silencing of the Noviy Vek weekly is the latest blow to the beleaguered media in Uzbekistan, which watchdogs single out as having one of the world’s worst press-freedom records.
“The newspaper was closed down” by court order, Shakhriyor Mansurov, a spokesman for the government’s Agency for Press and Information – which brought the case – confirmed to EurasiaNet.org on May 21, the day after the ruling.
Noviy Vek could not be reached for comment, its telephones going unanswered on May 21. Its website was updated on May 21, but did not mention the case against the newspaper (which is published in print every Thursday).
Mansurov said he was unable to provide any background details to the case. But the Uzmetronom.com website – the only Uzbekistani-based outlet to mention the trial – reported that the government agency had accused Noviy Vek of publishing material “contradicting principles of moral development, shaping an incorrect notion of the socio-political situation in the country, and causing detriment to traditional values.”
The Agency for Press and Information, which had found these alleged violations in the Russian-language newspaper’s reporting, refused to hold the trial in Russian (as the defense had wished) on the grounds that its officials could not speak Russian, Uzmetronom.com said.
Tashkent is reportedly restricting access to dollars for the business community, in the latest development to suggest that Uzbekistan’s government is facing a liquidity crisis.
The National Bank of Uzbekistan has “halted all convertibility operations for an unspecified period,” the Tashkent-based Uzmetronom.com website reported May 20, citing “information from reliable sources.” There was no confirmation on the website of the central bank, which EurasiaNet.org could not reach for comment.
These are the operations through which foreign and domestic companies convert their revenues earned in Uzbekistani sums into dollars, to repatriate earnings and pay for imports.
“Thus foreign investors and local entrepreneurs who depend on supplies from abroad (raw materials, parts, equipment and so on), who could still recently count on at least minimal levels of profit conversion within the limits of the quotas set for them, are now deprived of this opportunity,” remarked Uzmetronom.com (an unusually outspoken website which is believed to be close to Uzbekistan’s security services).
Investors regularly cite convertibility of sums into foreign currency and repatriation of revenues as the main barriers to doing business in Uzbekistan. Privately, businessmen report delays stretching into months to obtain permission from the central bank to convert sums to dollars, during which time they cannot access the funds since they are held in zero-interest accounts at the National Bank.
If confirmed, the suspension of currency conversion would be the latest indication that Tashkent is suffering from a shortage of dollar liquidity as it struggles under exchange rate pressures, caused in part by the depreciation of the Russian ruble (which has hit currencies across the region).
Central Asia faces a gloomy economic outlook for the rest of this year and into next, battered by the tanking Russian economy and low commodity prices, according to a regional outlook released by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on May 19. Several countries face double-digit inflation.
“The region has been hit by two major external shocks: the oil price and the slowdown in the Russian economy,” Juha Kahkonen, deputy director of the IMF’s Middle East and Central Asia department, told a briefing in Almaty as the forecast was released.
Growth slowed last year and is set to decrease “much more significantly” this year, he said, before recovering “only slightly” next year.
All the Central Asian states are feeling the pinch of the slump in Russia, “which has close linkages with the region through remittances, trade, and foreign direct investment,” the IMF pointed out.
Energy exporters (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) and importers (Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) alike are suffering: exporters are battling falling revenues from the drop in global oil and gas prices, while importers are feeling what Kahkonen described as “only a very small beneficial impact” from lower prices because of the long-term nature of their energy import contracts in which prices are set.
Falls in prices for other commodities (gold in the case of Kyrgyzstan and aluminum for Tajikistan, for example) are also biting.
Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are also suffering from a drop in labor remittances from Russia, as migrants lose their jobs and the dollar value of remittances falls because of the depreciation of the ruble. This is causing weaker domestic demand in remittance-dependent economies.