The presidents of Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus sat down on October 24 in Minsk to grapple with the thorny problems facing their free trade zone – from trade barriers to confusion over Customs Union expansion. It was a tense meeting.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan – usually a staunch Russian ally – was in a combative mood, accusing Moscow and Minsk of erecting unfair barriers to trade, describing the Customs Union’s Russian-dominated regulatory body as politicized, and urging caution in Moscow’s efforts to welcome new members.
Nazarbayev told Vladimir Putin and Aleksandr Lukashenka that he noted “positive results” from the Customs Union but urged an open dialogue on “shortcomings,” including “foreign trade disproportions” and “serious difficulties” for Kazakhstan to access Russian and Belarusian markets.
As EurasiaNet.org reported this month, there is strong opposition to Customs Union membership in some quarters in Kazakhstan. Upon accession in 2010, increased trade was touted as the chief benefit, but so far the result has been a flood of imports into Kazakhstan from Russia, plus a derailed bid to join the World Trade Organization.
Putin was conciliatory but vague, describing it as “necessary, of course, to work on eliminating all exemptions and all mutual preferences” and “necessary to create equal conditions.”
Kazakhstan’s intelligence service believes that around 100 citizens from Central Asia’s richest state are fighting global jihad in foreign lands, it has revealed.
The National Security Committee (known by its Russian acronym KNB) released its estimate of the number of citizens who have left the country to join extremist groups abroad on October 24 to Tengri News. Two days earlier a senior security service official denied reports stemming from a propaganda video circulating online that there are 150 Kazakhstani jihadis from a single family in Syria alone.
Rumors have long circulated that citizens of Kazakhstan are engaged in the extremist struggle abroad. In June KNB Chairman Nurtay Abikayev said there were 100 fighting on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border alone, suggesting that the latest figures may be conservative.
News that elder statesman Kassym-Jomart Tokayev is returning from a high-level diplomatic posting in Geneva to step into Kazakhstan’s second most important job, constitutionally speaking, has sparked renewed talk about who will succeed the long-serving president, Nursultan Nazarbayev.
On October 16 Tokayev was approved as speaker of the Senate, the upper house of parliament, Novosti-Kazakhstan reports, in a unanimous vote by the rubber-stamp body. Nazarbayev put Tokayev up for the key position after sending his predecessor, Kayrat Mami, to the Supreme Court as chairman.
The role of Senate speaker is crucial because, under the constitution, this is the person who steps in to assume the reins of power should the president become incapacitated.
As Nazarbayev ages (he turned 73 in July), speculation has mounted about his succession strategy – or absence of one. Analyst Dosym Satpayev told EurasiaNet.org last year that the lack of an obvious strategy to install a successor is fraught with political risks, including the possibility of a destabilizing power struggle if Nazarbayev falls seriously ill or dies in office.
Having a safe pair of hands running the Senate is vital for the movers and shakers in Astana as they mull a strategy to hand over power in the years ahead – and Tokayev is certainly a trusted loyalist. He has served as Senate speaker before, and also has been Kazakhstan’s prime minister and foreign minister.
Kremlin kingpin Vladimir Putin’s pet project to drive former Soviet states back into Moscow’s embrace – via the Customs Union -- is gathering momentum. But the possibility of expansion doesn’t thrill all the union’s current members.
Since the infamous comic character Borat burst onto the world stage seven years ago, Central Asian states have had trouble shedding their images as tinpot dictatorships run by vainglorious, venal leaders.
Kazakhstan, the fictional home of Borat, has since spent millions on PR buffing its image. So news that a TV series lampooning the Central Asian states à la Borat – with some uncomfortable parallels to the truth – is about to air in the UK will come as an unwelcome shock.
As The Independent reports, the show Ambassadors, airing on the BBC2 channel from late October, is set in the fictional country Tazbekistan, a hybrid of the real-life Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan.
“The fictional Tazbekistan is run by the dictatorial President Kairat who presides over a regime with a dubious human rights record,” reports the newspaper, a description that will sound familiar (albeit perhaps not amusing) to the inhabitants of the Central Asian states.
The authoritarian leaders of real-life Tajikistan (Emomali Rahmon), Uzbekistan (Islam Karimov), and Kazakhstan (Nursultan Nazarbayev) may not take kindly to this depiction – and they may be surprised to learn that the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has assisted in the program’s making.
The series's writers spent time at the British Embassy in Astana and were given access to other diplomats to learn about the realities of the diplomatic lifestyle.
A member of Kazakhstan’s parliament has called for a new law banning “homosexual relations,” upping the ante in the homophobic rhetoric that erupts from time to time in the legislature.
Deputy Bakhytbek Smagul urged Kazakhstan to follow the lead of countries that criminalize homosexuality and draw up a bill to “root out homosexual relations,” and ban anything perceived to promote homosexuality (following Russia’s lead).
The arguments put forward by Smagul – who sits in parliament for the ruling Nur Otan party, headed by President Nursultan Nazarbayev – were convoluted, touching on family values, demographics, and the “national mentality,” before invoking the ancient cultures of Central Asia and Kazakhstan’s location in a “strategic region.”
“It is obvious that when the Kazakhstani national ideology is being shaped we cannot look at the future of the nation outside the family,” Smagul told parliament on October 2 in remarks quoted by Tengri News.
“However, it is worth pondering what the level of development of the institution of the family will be in a country if such homosexual relations are openly advocated. In Central Asia, where ancient cultures intersect, and [in Kazakhstan,] as a state that is an active member of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, this phenomenon damages the image of our country and its domestic policy.”
Kazakhstan faces crucial challenges as the end of strongman leader Nursultan Nazarbayev’s long rule approaches, a new report says, with the country’s veneer of wealth and stability papering over cracks in the system that threaten to overwhelm the next president.
“Kazakhstan has long been viewed from the outside as the most prosperous and stable country in a region widely regarded as fragile and dysfunctional,” says the International Crisis Group (ICG) in its September 30 report. Yet the country’s oil-fueled wealth conceals “a multitude of challenges.”
“An aging authoritarian leader with no designated successor, labor unrest, growing Islamism, corruption, and a state apparatus that, when confronted even with limited security challenges, seems hard-pressed to respond, all indicate that the Kazakh state is not as robust as it first appears,” the study, entitled Kazakhstan: Waiting for Change, says.
Astana cultivates the image of an economic powerhouse and an oasis of political stability in a volatile region, but the ICG singles out serious challenges that it suggests Astana is doing little to tackle. These include a growing rich-poor divide that is fueling disaffection (particularly in the oil-rich west); rampant corruption; and a rising tide of radicalism that has led to a spate of terrorist attacks.
Some rare good news from the Aral Sea, Central Asia’s most infamous manmade environmental disaster: Efforts to save the northern part of the sea have notched up a success. The water is getting ever closer to the town of Aral, which once stood on the seashore but was left high and dry when the sea started steadily shrinking in the 1960s.
At one point the waters retreated 74 kilometers from the town (formerly called Aralsk) as the rivers feeding the inland sea were diverted by Soviet central planners to Central Asia's thirsty cotton and rice fields.
“This means the sea is returning,” he said in remarks quoted by Kazinform. “This data has been proven by satellite observation.”
Efforts to restore the fish population are also bearing fruit. At one point there was only one type of fish left in the waters, Kusherbayev said, but now there are 22. Salinity levels have dropped from 34 grams per liter to eight.
The recovery of the Northern Aral Sea has been brought about by a 13-kilometer dike that opened in 2005, an ambitious project that cost $86 million, of which $64.5 million came from a World Bank loan.
One of Kazakhstan’s few remaining opposition leaders has announced that he is quitting politics, a move that comes amid Astana’s ongoing crackdown on dissent and leaves a dearth of dissenting voices in the country.
Bolat Abilov said in a statement quoted by Tengri News on September 19 that he had taken the “difficult decision” to leave politics (at least for a few years) and concentrate on media, movie and book projects around Kazakhstan.
Abilov, one of the country’s most prominent opposition leaders, had been head of the Azat (Freedom) party, which was in a prickly alliance with the OSDP social democrats. That union collapsed earlier this year amid much acrimony, with OSDP leader Zharmakhan Tuyakbay falling out publicly with his deputy, Amirzhan Kosanov, leaving the party in tatters.
Abilov’s departure from politics and the collapse of the OSDP Azat alliance mean that Kazakhstan now has no genuine, functioning opposition parties to take on the difficult job of holding President Nursultan Nazarbayev to account.
The opposition has always struggled to operate in Kazakhstan’s restrictive environment, where it is shut out of the rubber-stamp parliament and has little access to mainstream media, but until a couple of years ago it was given limited room for maneuver.
All that changed after a bout of fatal unrest in December 2011, when an oil strike in the western town of Zhanaozen turned violent and 15 people died in clashes with the security forces.