The recent travails in Uzbekistan of Russian cellphone giant MTS – hit by employee arrests and a three-month suspension – highlight the perils for foreigners of doing business in Central Asia’s most populous country.
Nearly 600 police officers and soldiers have descended into the troubled town of Zhanaozen, scene of riots last December that left 15 protestors dead. Authorities say they are conducting a special law-enforcement operation that will end on August 3, the day after the appeal of 13 civilians serving prison terms over the fatal violence is to be heard.
The regional police HQ said 586 officers, including 300 soldiers, had been drafted for the operation, dubbed “Law and Order,” Kazakhstan Today reported.
The news comes three days after regional police chief Meyrkhan Zhamanbayev denied reports of a troop build-up in the town. Speaking to the local Lada newspaper, he said 200 soldiers were always on duty in Zhanaozen, due to a “shortage” of police officers. It was also “time for the people of Zhanaozen to get used to the soldiers,” since a permanent garrison for 100 troops is being built there.
The Law and Order operation has so far mainly netted petty criminals. But the timing of this zero-tolerance approach suggests that the massive security build-up is related to the hearing of the appeal of 13 jailed civilians from Zhanaozen (who include former oil workers whose industrial action sparked December’s unrest).
Six people have been killed in a shootout with security forces in Almaty, raising concerns that the terrorism that stalked Kazakhstan last year is rearing its head once again.
The six, suspected of involvement in the killing of a police officer in Almaty on July 28, were shot dead by police in an apartment block in a residential district on July 30 after refusing to surrender, Tengri News quoted a police spokeswoman as saying. The group was engaged in criminal activity including robbery, and authorities suspect they may be religious extremists.
Security forces hunting for suspects in the July 28 shooting death of a police officer had sealed off the apartment block.
The violence comes three weeks after an explosion in a house on the outskirts of Almaty left eight people dead in a case police are treating as terrorism. It blew up on the night of July 10-11, killing the four adults and four children. Suspicious items found among the debris included weapons, ammunition, and police uniforms and equipment, Megapolis newspaper reported.
Kazakhstan, which had long prided itself on its reputation for stability, was last year hit by a string of attacks across the country, mostly targeting law-enforcement bodies.
In a nondescript office in Kazakhstan’s commercial capital, Almaty, a group of men and women observed a minute’s silence one day recently. They were told to focus their thoughts on a person “whose life is dependent on drugs” -- a subject with which they could empathize.
A clash on the Uzbekistan-Kyrgyzstan frontier that left one dead on each side has sparked a spat between Tashkent and Bishkek about who was responsible. In response, Tashkent has reportedly closed the border to citizens of Kyrgyzstan.
Bishkek says the July 17 shootout occurred when Uzbek border guards opened fire as a dispute with local villagers got out of hand. But Tashkent, after reportedly firing the head of the Border Service, has upped the ante by describing it as an “armed bandit attack” by Kyrgyz guards, regional media report.
The shootout happened in an undemarcated (hence potentially disputed) sector of the border between eastern Uzbekistan’s Namangan Region and southern Kyrgyzstan’s Jalal-Abad Province.
According to the Kyrgyz Border Service, villagers from the settlement of Bulak-Bashi and staff from the nearby Bozymchak gold mine started repairing a road in the undemarcated sector, refusing to heed Kyrgyz guards’ entreaties to stop.
When border guards from Uzbekistan demanded a halt to the repairs, villagers “reacted aggressively,” Kyrgyzstan’s Border Service said, in comments carried by Kyrgyzstan’s state news agency. “As a result the border detachment of Uzbekistan used weapons; Kyrgyz border guards opened return fire,” it continued, leaving one Kyrgyz border guard dead and two Kyrgyz citizens wounded.
Customers line up outside a Ucell office in Tashkent on July 18. MTS clients mobbed rival mobile providers after the company was forced to suspend operations in Uzbekistan.
Uzbekistan has suspended the operations of Russia’s largest cellphone company amid accusations of legal violations in the use of equipment, prompting an exodus to other operators and sending rumors swirling that vested economic interests are behind the move.
The suspension of all operations of O’zdunrobita, MTS’s Uzbekistan arm, took effect in Uzbekistan from 6pm on July 17 for 10 working days, under a decree from Tashkent’s Communications and IT Agency.
The shutdown left 9.5 million clients -- a third of Uzbekistan’s 29.5-million population -- without MTS mobile communications at least until July 31.
MTS insists it has complied with all government requirements and is operating within the law. A July 17 press release spoke of “ungrounded attacks” on its business, including the shutdown and “the use of the tactic of intimidation and arrest of O’zdunrobita staff.” Five managers are in detention facing criminal charges, while general director Bekzod Akhmedov has fled Uzbekistan.
The arrests came after what MTS described as “synchronized inspections” over recent months, leading to accusations of tax evasion, theft and breaches of Uzbekistan’s complicated currency regulations.
MTS customers reportedly mobbed other providers to buy new SIM cards. “People are going crazy trying to get numbers from other companies,” said a Tashkent resident who subscribes to rival operator Perfectum Mobile on condition of anonymity on July 18.
No matter how hard officials in Kazakhstan try to bring closure to last winter’s outburst of violence in and around the western city of Zhanaozen, the incident continues to dent the Central Asian nation’s reputation for stability and rising prosperity.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has ended a two-day visit to Kazakhstan by calling for an independent international investigation into December’s violence in and around the western town of Zhanaozen, which officials say left 15 dead after police fired on protestors.
Pillay told a press conference in Astana on July 12 that “a precise account of exactly what happened in Zhanaozen […] remains elusive.”
“Allegations of torture and forced confessions do not seem to have been properly investigated, and there are many serious question marks over the fairness of judicial processes, and the conduct of trials,” Pillay continued.
Forty-five civilians have been convicted over the violence, of whom 17 are serving prison terms. Six police officers have also been jailed.
Pillay said the question of whether the use of live fire was “necessary and proportional” remains open, and that an independent investigation could be “a watershed for Kazakhstan” since the Zhanaozen affair encapsulates “in microcosm, many of the human rights concerns and critical gaps in the country’s laws and rule-of-law institutions.”
Astana has conducted its own investigation into the unrest, which – while acknowledging police wrongdoing – concluded that it was stirred up by “third forces” and perpetrated by local ringleaders.
Kazakhstan’s sportsmen are leaving nothing to chance before the Olympic Games open later this month in London. They will power themselves with horsemeat sausages shipped specially to the British capital for the occasion.
Prized kazy (dried horsemeat sausage) and karta (a delicacy made from the animal’s large intestine) will be taken to London to add a taste of home to the diet of the Kazakh team, a government sports official told the Vesti.kz news site.
Visitors to Britain often complain about the food, but Yelsiyar Kanagatov, deputy head of the government’s Agency for Sport and Physical Training, said the decision to fatten up sportsmen with homegrown specialties was not a reflection of the gastronomic delights on offer at London’s Olympic Village, where “whatever you want” will be available. It’s just that Kazakhstan’s sportsmen will have something “extra,” as he put it, to help them reach peak fitness. That means not only the horsemeat delicacies that are staples in every Kazakh's diet, but also a taste of luxury: Caspian Sea caviar.
Kazakhstan is fielding 114 athletes in this year’s Summer Olympics and has set an ambitious but achievable target of bringing home three gold medals.