Oil-rich Kazakhstan has embraced bling with open arms -- the capital Astana, with its dazzling silver-and-gold skyline, could even be described as bling personified at the state level.
For a country that enjoys flaunting its petrodollars, an ordinary elite-status golden credit card isn’t enough. Luckily for the oil-rich oligarch who wants to stand apart from the crowd, there’s now a gold card with a difference on offer in Kazakhstan: This one is made from the real thing, crafted out of solid gold and encrusted with 26 diamonds -- just to drive the point home that this card will fall only into the hands of the very, very rich.
Not for nothing is Visa billing its Infinite companion card as “the world’s first jewel-encrusted solid gold” card -- though who knew that people needed this glittery status symbol, being offered through Russia’s Sberbank branches in Kazakhstan, before now?
Lucky customers invited to own a gold card might wish to use it to snap up a few choice bits of bling at upmarket US department store Saks Fifth Avenue, which opened its doors in Almaty on September 30 amid much hype -- another sign that Kazakhstan has embraced luxury consumer consumption with alacrity.
The solid-gold card won’t be available to just anyone: Only the bank’s “top 100 customers” will be invited to own what one Visa executive calls a “coveted piece of luxury” and “the ultimate status symbol.”
A month after a law restricting alcohol sales in Uzbekistan came into force, trade in beer, wine and spirits – over the counter at least – has dried up in downtown Tashkent.
Where the city used to be scattered with small shops selling alcohol, only a handful remain since the law designed to safeguard the nation’s health took effect on October 1.
The law bans sales of alcohol and cigarettes within a 500-meter radius of schools, places of worship and sports facilities. That rules out just about any spot in Tashkent and other towns, “despondent” alcohol traders have pointed out to the independent Uznews.net website.
A stroll around downtown Tashkent reveals that many stores that used to sell the demon drink have shut down or changed their trade. A handful of alcohol stores remain in the city center (some of which appear to be remarkably close to schools). Not surprisingly, those still in business are doing a brisk trade.
Implementation of the law seems patchy: Uznews.net found many alcohol stores still in business earlier this month, and there is anecdotal evidence that some stores sell alcohol under the counter. Restaurants, bars and nightclubs are not covered by the ban.
Trade in cigarettes seems unaffected: They remain on sale in shops and at stalls all over Tashkent. For anti-smoking campaigners, the law looks like a missed opportunity, prohibiting smoking in “places of work” but stopping short of a ban in restaurants and bars.
A US-based watchdog is concerned about Kazakhstan's qualifications to sit on the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), ahead of a General Assembly vote November 12 that will decide which countries represent the international community on the commission for three years.
In an October 18 report, Freedom House singled out Kazakhstan -- which has energetically pursued its membership bid -- as one of seven states that the watchdog “does not recommend” for membership on the UNHRC, whose rules say that members should “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights.”
Kazakhstan is in the company of Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia; Gabon, Pakistan, the UAE, and Venezuela. Freedom House says all are unsuitable candidates in view of their dubious human rights records. Astana insists that upholding human rights and political freedoms are a priority, and denies any systematic violations.
Freedom House -- which rates Kazakhstan Not Free in its annual Freedom in the World report -- singled the Central Asian state out over political, media, and religious freedoms.
In the Caspian Sea’s choppy waters off western Kazakhstan’s coast, D-Day is approaching on a man-made mound called D Island. It is the nerve center of the Kashagan field, the world’s biggest oil discovery in decades.
The chief suspect in the shooting of an exiled Uzbek imam in Sweden last winter has been detained in Russia, according to Swedish media.
Swedish media reported on October 13 that a 35-year-old man was detained in Russia on suspicion of the attempted murder of Obid-kori Nazarov, a prominent Uzbek imam who has political asylum in Sweden. Nazarov has been in a coma since the shooting, the independent Uznews.net website says.
The arrest has not been officially confirmed by Swedish or Russian law-enforcement bodies, but Uznews.net suggested that the man was Yuriy Zhukovskiy, a citizen of Uzbekistan and Russia identified as chief suspect by Swedish police after the shooting on February 22 in Stromsund. The arrest reportedly came after Swedish intelligence spotted the suspect using his cellphone in Russia.
An Uzbek couple suspected of complicity in the shooting were acquitted by a Swedish court in July.
In the 1990s, Nazarov gained popularity as an imam in Uzbekistan, where his fiery sermons led President Islam Karimov’s administration to cast him as an opponent at a time when the main challenge to Karimov’s rule came from clerics with wide public followings. He is still an influential preacher with a wide following.
Police in Zhanaozen, scene of fatal unrest last December, have ruled out a political motive in the murder this month of a witness to December’s turmoil.
Aleksandr Bozhenko, 23, was killed in a fight, Zhanaozen police chief Amangeldy Dosakhanov was quoted as saying by the local Lada newspaper. He said two suspects have been arrested for the incident, which happened in the early hours of October 7.
Bozhenko never recovered consciousness and died in a hospital on October 11, but his death only came to light on October 15.
Activists have voiced suspicions over Bozhenko’s death, pointing to his testimony in the trial of former oil workers and other civilians accused of crimes related to clashes in and around Zhanaozen that left 15 dead.
Bozhenko, activist and trial monitor Galym Ageleuov told a press conference on October 15, was at one trial a prosecution witness who had incriminated civilians in the dock -- but recanted his testimony in court and said it had been obtained under torture.
Kazakhstan recently experienced its Pussy Riot moment. But in sharp contrast to the torrent of international criticism that followed last summer’s conviction of three mischievous punk rockers in Moscow, the guilty verdict against a prominent opposition politician in Kazakhstan generated just a trickle of disapproval in the West.
Opposition leader Vladimir Kozlov has been jailed for seven and a half years on charges of fomenting fatal unrest in Zhanaozen last December and plotting to overthrow the administration of President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Kozlov, the leader of the unregistered Alga! party, was sentenced on October 8 after a trial lasting nearly eight weeks.
His co-defendants, political activist Serik Sapargaly and Akzhanat Aminov, a former oil worker from Zhanaozen, got off more lightly with suspended sentences. The defendants have the right to appeal.
The ruling effectively left Kozlov taking the political rap for violence which erupted on December 16, sparked by a protracted oil strike that Astana now acknowledges was mishandled.
Prosecutors’ arguments hinged on the existence of a criminal conspiracy in which Kozlov acted in cahoots with fugitive oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov – currently on the run from British justice in a fraud case – to politicize the oil strike in a bid to overthrow Nazarbayev, Ablyazov’s foe. Speaking to Russia’s Pervyy Kanal the day before the verdict, Nazarbayev himself blamed “puppet masters” for the violence.
The judge refused to allow Ablyazov – who has denied being behind any such plot – to testify for the defense over Skype.
How did an oil-rich region in western Kazakhstan end up with a $100-million hole in its budget?
According to investigators from Astana, this giant hole in public funds in Atyrau Region was caused by massive fraud perpetrated by a man who was a member of Kazakhstan’s national parliament and who just happened to be the brother of the regional governor, acting in cahoots with corrupt officials and construction firm bosses. Speculation is rife in Kazakhstan about whether this corruption scandal is the product of political infighting, but the bare facts are as follows.
On October 1 charges were brought against Amanzhan Ryskali, brother of recently fired regional governor Bergey Ryskaliyev, on one count of fraud, but police are investigating a total of 13 corruption cases involving theft to the tune of 16 billion tenge (a little over $100 million).
Although the scandal had been brewing for weeks, investigators did not manage to charge Amanzhan Ryskali (who uses the Kazakh form of his surname, while his brother uses the Russian form) in person -- He has long since disappeared, along with his brother. (After initial reports that ex-Governor Ryskaliyev was under house arrest, police have confirmed that he is not wanted and has not been questioned over the case.)
As Swiss and Swedish investigators probe allegations of corruption and money-laundering involving Uzbekistan, one name is increasingly appearing linked to the cases: Gulnara Karimova, the eldest daughter of strongman President Islam Karimov.
Leaked documents (whose authenticity is not confirmed) relating to the Swiss money-laundering inquiry suggest that investigators have identified the suspect at the heart of the probe as an associate of Karimova’s and designated the case politically sensitive.
A French-language letter (carried by regional news site Centrasia.ru) purportedly sent by anti-laundering investigators to the Swiss Office of the Attorney General suggests the Uzbek government -- perhaps inadvertently -- sparked the money-laundering probe that is now coming uncomfortably close to Karimova.
The letter states that the probe was launched after investigators received notification from Geneva-based bank Lombard Odier (acting under its legal obligations) that one of its clients was on the Interpol wanted list for alleged fraud.
That client was Bekhzod Akhmedov, former director of the Uzbekistan subsidiary of Russian cellphone company MTS. Tashkent declared him wanted after he fled the country amid a row between the firm and the government that culminated with Tashkent seizing MTS’s assets this summer.