The Peace Corps, which sends thousands of Americans abroad every year to volunteer in public health, education and business development, is pulling out of Kazakhstan, according to unconfirmed reports. Volunteers say they have been ordered home within the next couple of weeks.
Peace Corps HQ did not respond to EurasiaNet.org's request for confirmation, but volunteers are adamant that – 18 years after the first contingent arrived in Kazakhstan – the program is closing.
Lisa Murray, a youth development volunteer in South Kazakhstan Region, blogged on November 17 that the Peace Corps would be leaving Kazakhstan next week.
She pointed to some possible reasons, including safety concerns over terrorism and what she said was the highest level of sexual assault and rape among the countries in which Peace Corps operates.
She says she knows of four incidents of “rape or sexual assault” of volunteers in Kazakhstan in a year – but adds that she does “not believe that Kazakhstan is an overly dangerous country” and has experienced nothing but “warmness, kindness, and hospitality.”
Not everyone in Kazakhstan welcomes the Peace Corps, however. In October the Aktobe Times, a Russian-language newspaper in the country’s west, published a vitriolic attack on volunteers on its website, which was also picked up by other media.
Last week, the stars were pointing toward a snap parliamentary election in Kazakhstan. Today, President Nursultan Nazarbayev has set the date for January 15, dissolving parliament and bringing elections six months forward.
Nazarbayev cited as his top reason the need to replace Kazakhstan’s one-party parliament with a multiparty legislature. Nur Otan, the party he leads, held all elected seats in the now-dissolved rubberstamp parliament.
At a meeting with officials on November 15, Nazarbayev said legislative amendments ruling out a future one-party parliament need to be enacted, so parliament must be dissolved. He did not explain why it had taken him three years to reach this conclusion – those reforms were introduced in 2008.
The likeliest explanation is that Astana is thinking ahead as it mulls the thorny issue of the succession to Nazarbayev, who has been in power for three decades.
After Kazakhstan’s snap presidential election last April, in which 71-year-old Nazarbayev won 95.5 percent of the vote, the early parliamentary poll looks like another jigsaw piece to slot into place as Astana’s gray cardinals plot a succession strategy.
The concept of “managed democracy” is maturing in Kazakhstan, the energy-rich Central Asian state where President Nursultan Nazarbayev has tightly controlled the political process since it gained independence. Analysts believe snap parliamentary elections are likely to be held soon in order to create the appearance of a competitive political system.
Two cops have been shot dead in Kazakhstan's commercial capital, Almaty, Kazakhstan Today reports. The latest violence is advancing concerns that terrorist activity is on the rise in the energy-rich state.
The officers died after unidentified assailants shot them on a thoroughfare outside the city center on the evening of November 8.
This is not the first slaying of police officers in recent times—two were murdered in the western Kazakh village of Shubarshi in June, prompting a security operation in which two more law-enforcement officers and nine suspects were killed.
Another police officer was killed in July in the western oil city of Aktobe in an incident in which a suspect blew himself up.
The latest shooting – which has not been proven to have a terrorist link – follows two explosions in another western oil city, Atyrau, on October 31 which killed one man in what appeared to be a botched suicide bombing.
Some macabre children's toys are on sale in northern Kazakhstan, according to press reports.
The gruesome playthings appear to imitate an abortion or miscarriage, an Interfax report said: “A plastic keg-shaped box contains a human embryo in red liquid. If the cover of the container opens, the embryo falls out together with [a] sticky mucus.”
“When my nine-year-old daughter brought the toy home, I was shocked,” Interfax quoted an outraged parent as saying.
The toys are reported to be on sale at markets and toy stores across Kostanay at a cost of 60-100 tenge (around 40-75 cents).
In contravention of Kazakh law, the packaging displays no writing in Kazakh or Russian, only what the report describes as “hieroglyphics.” That suggests the toys may have been manufactured in neighboring China, Central Asia’s number one source of cheap consumer goods.
Sale of the grisly toys is not limited to Kostanay – they are also on sale near a school in the northwestern city of Oral, displayed alongside more run-of-the-mill items such as exercise books and chewing gum, reports the Uralsk.info local news website alongside a gory picture of the offending item.
Two mysterious explosions hit Kazakhstan's western oil hub of Atyrau on October 31 within the space of five minutes, one of which may have been a botched suicide bombing.
The first exploded in a trash can near the local government headquarters at 9:45 a.m., law enforcers said, and the second followed in a residential district outside the city center.
The second was a suicide bomb, Kazinform quoted law-enforcement sources as saying – but they offered no explanation about what the target might have been, raising the prospect that the device may have detonated by accident. The bomber was killed on the spot and an 18-month-old baby was injured by flying glass when the blast blew out windows in a nearby apartment block.
This is the latest in a spate of perplexing explosions in Kazakhstan – usually hailed as the most stable country in volatile Central Asia – which began with the country’s first-ever suicide bombing in another oil city, Aktobe, in May. Officials blamed that blast on the mafia. A baffling car explosion in Astana a week later, which officials have never satisfactorily explained, killed two men.
All these pyrotechnics have stirred fears that Islamic radicalism is on the rise in Kazakhstan, apprehensions that were stoked by a shootout between security forces and a group of suspects in western Kazakhstan in July that ended in a bloodbath.
Amid all the doom and gloom about the global economy, Kazakhstan can pat itself on the back. It has just joined the ranks of the world’s top 50 countries for doing business, according to a global study.
Kazakhstan jumped 11 places this year to rank 47th out of 183 countries surveyed, said the World Bank and International Finance Corporation’s 2012 Doing Business report.
That economic accomplishment comes on the heels of last year’s recognition, when Kazakhstan soared 15 places to rank 58th and was singled out as the country that had done the most over the previous year to improve the business climate.
Astana scored points this year for having “strengthened investor protections.” It now takes only 19 days to set up a business in Kazakhstan, with just six procedures to complete. Construction permits are a tad more complex, however: There are 32 hoops, and it takes 189 days to jump through them.
Kazakhstan put the basket-case economies of its Central Asian neighbors to shame in this year’s Doing Business: Uzbekistan came in near the bottom at 166th, Tajikistan fared little better at 147th, and only Kyrgyzstan came anywhere close to Kazakhstan, ranking 70th. Hermetic Turkmenistan did not feature at all.
During a Central Asian tour that focused on regional security issues, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gingerly applied pressure on the presidents of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to improve their dubious human rights records. When pressing Uzbek President Islam Karimov to reform, Clinton reportedly secured a commitment from him to change his ways.
Tony Blair was often described as a master of spin during his time as British prime minister, positioning the United Kingdom as “Cool Britannia” when he came to power in 1997. Now it seems he has found a good use for his skills in Central Asia: Blair has been hired to burnish the image of Kazakhstan – and in the process, no doubt, also that of its Leader of the Nation, Nursultan Nazarbayev.
The Financial Times reports that Astana has hired Blair to form a team of consultants who will advise the energy-rich post-Soviet autocracy on how to “present a better face to the West.”
The deal to spin for Kazakhstan is believed to be worth millions, though Blair denies making any personal profit. His office said in a statement that the work he has undertaken for Kazakhstan was “excellent, sensible and supports the reforms they are making.”
Naturally, that is not how the deal is seen in Astana, which says it’s all about improving Kazakhstan’s lure for investors.
“A number of prominent foreign state figures” have agreed to advise Astana on matters ranging from economic strategy to international policy, Foreign Ministry spokesman Altay Abibullayev said on October 24, adding that Blair is one of them.