Regional security and domestic politics featured high on the agenda as Russian President Vladimir Putin jetted into Tashkent on December 10 for a meeting with Uzbekistan’s strongman leader, Islam Karimov.
Putin appeared both to be wooing Karimov for backing in his confrontation with Ukraine, and offering a show of support for the incumbent ahead of upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections in Uzbekistan.
It “goes without saying” that Tashkent is “one of [Russia’s] priority partners in the region,” Putin said, according to a Kremlin transcript. That he bypassed other Central Asian allies like Kazakhstan to pay a visit to Uzbekistan lent weight to his remarks.
Karimov responded with boilerplate compliments about how Moscow has “always been present in Central Asia, and that position has always been a stabilizing factor.” Notwithstanding isolationist Tashkent’s habit of holding Moscow at arm’s length, he added that “Uzbekistan has always been open to Russia and is open today.”
Karimov repeated his oft-voiced concerns about regional security threats emanating from Afghanistan following the drawdown of NATO troops this year, but the Ukraine conflict was the elephant in the room. In the Kremlin transcript, neither side mentioned it by name, but Karimov referred obliquely to the need to respond to “challenges” in the face of a “known confrontation,” while Putin noted laconically that neither Russia nor Uzbekistan was “indifferent to how the situation in the region as a whole develops.”
Putin took more interest in upcoming elections in Uzbekistan—the vote to the rubberstamp parliament on December 21, and the far more significant presidential election due in spring (in which Karimov has not stated if he intends to stand).
The collapse of the ruble is causing economic doom and gloom in Russia. But in border regions of neighboring Kazakhstan demand for the ailing currency is rocketing as people rush across the frontier to snap up bargains.
“In northern Kazakhstan, people are buying up rubles en masse and going shopping across the border,” reports KTK TV.
Bringing goods across the long border is relatively straightforward as Russia and Kazakhstan are fellow members of the Customs Union. So people are hurrying across from cities in northern Kazakhstan to buy anything from property and cars to clothes and food in Siberia.
The price of an apartment in some Siberian cities, once far higher than in the depressed towns of northern Kazakhstan, is now on a par, KTK said.
“I’ll sell my apartment, and for the same price I’ll buy in Omsk, because of the fall of the ruble,” an inhabitant of the city of Petropavl, which lies just 70 kilometers from the Russian frontier, said. “It’s an investment.”
In Kazakhstan’s capital, status-conscious bargain hunters are using the cheap ruble to buy expensive cars, an Astana-based dealer told Kazinform news agency. “We brought five cars over from Yekaterinburg [in Russia] yesterday, now we’re going to sell them on. Our rivals are doing the same, as are ordinary people wanting to acquire an expensive vehicle. You can find good options almost half as cheap as in Kazakhstan. Some people are going over and driving new cars right out of the showroom.”
The ruble has fallen almost 40 percent against the dollar and 60 percent against the euro since the beginning of this year. That may be good news for Kazakhstanis near the Russian border, but more generally it is bad news for Kazakhstan, economists say.
Kazakhstan does not persecute political opponents or attack freedom of expression, President Nursultan Nazarbayev has avowed, fending off awkward questions from journalists during a December 5 visit to Astana by his French counterpart, François Hollande.
“There are no censorship questions here, no political persecutions,” Nazarbayev said in remarks quoted by Vlast.kz, calling on critics to “abandon stereotypes here and look with new, open eyes.”
Nazarbayev was speaking the same day that two high-profile cases which raise questions about political liberties and freedom of speech reached the courts.
In one, the Adam Bol magazine – which was one of the last remaining independent media outlets in Kazakhstan – is fighting closure on the grounds that it allegedly called for war in its coverage of the Ukraine conflict. The case was adjourned until December 22.
The magazine was closed down on November 20 over an interview in which opposition activist Aydos Sadykov pledged to urge citizens of Kazakhstan to take up arms to fight pro-Russian separatist forces in eastern Ukraine. The closure was condemned by OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatovic as “drastic and disproportionate,” and by Reporters Without Borders, a media watchdog, as the “orchestrated throttling” of an opposition-minded outlet.
Authorities in Kazakhstan suspect toxic emissions of “dangerous substances” from Karachaganak – one of the world’s largest gas and condensate fields – is to blame for the mass poisoning of children in the country’s northwest last week.
There were atmospheric emissions of highly toxic hydrogen sulfide beyond permissible levels from Karachaganak on November 27, the day before 20 children and three teachers were rushed to hospital in the village of Berezovka, Serik Karamanov, the prosecutor of West Kazakhstan Region, said on December 3.
The emissions were the result of a gas leak during flaring eight and a half kilometers away by Karachaganak Petroleum Operating (KPO), Karamanov said in remarks quoted by the Uralskaya Nedelya local newspaper. KPO is an international consortium that includes Britain’s BG Group, Italy’s ENI, US-based Chevron, Russia’s LUKOIL, and Kazakhstan’s KazMunayGaz.
The children and teachers were rushed to hospital after they started fainting en masse at a village school, while other villagers complained of dizziness and nose bleeds. “Weird things are happening here,” as one put it to Tengri News.
The presidents of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Iran have opened a long-anticipated railroad link connecting landlocked Central Asia to the Persian Gulf.
On the Turkmen-Iranian border, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov of Turkmenistan, Hassan Rouhani of Iran, and Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan donned white gloves to bolt together a final section of track that was symbolically colored gold, the Associated Press reported, inaugurating the last stage of the freight link that they hope will herald a boom in trade between the three Caspian littoral states.
Highlighting those expectations, the first cargo to cross the border between Turkmenistan and Iran on December 3 was a wagonload of wheat from Kazakhstan.
The line – which carries only freight but may carry passengers later – has an initial capacity of 5 million tons per year, projected to rise to 12 million tons. Forecasts suggest the new line could triple trilateral trade in the short term from 3 million to 10 million tons, and double it again by 2020 to 20 million.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev thinks Kazakhstan can spend its way out of the economic doldrums. Experts, meanwhile, are divided about whether Nazarbayev’s plans represent a bold Roosevelt-style New Deal or a throwback to sluggish Soviet-style economics.
A boy described as Kazakh undergoing military training in the video. (Al Hayat media)
The Islamic State has released a propaganda video featuring Kazakh-speaking children calling for the slaughter of infidels. This is the latest propaganda effort by the extremist group appearing to target Central Asians.
The 15-minute video, entitled "Race Towards Good" and subtitled in English and Arabic, shows children at a training camp in an undisclosed location, where fighters are “raising tomorrow’s mujahedin,” according to a subtitle.
“I will be the one who slaughters you, O kuffar [infidel],” a Kazakh-speaking boy aged about 10, who gives his name as Abdullah and says he is from Kazakhstan, tells the camera. “I will be a mujahid [holy warrior], insha’allah.”
The high-quality video – apparently released over the weekend – shows young boys loading assault rifles as they undergo weapons training, and also marching with guns and practicing martial arts. [EurasiaNet.org is not posting a link to the video in order to abide by the provisions of Kazakhstan's anti-extremism legislation outlawing the propaganda of terrorism.]
It also features a girl aged around four in a camouflage headscarf cradling a weapon, and ends with an older girl aged around 10 telling the camera in Kazakh: “Right now, we’re training in the camp. We’re going to kill you, O kuffar. Insha’allah we’ll slaughter you.”
The other children sitting with her respond with a resounding cry of “Allahu akbar [God is great]!”
The film also features men firing weapons and completing military-style assault courses, and speaking to camera in Russian and Kazakh about their training.
“Meet some of our newest brothers from the land of Kazakhstan,” says a subtitle. “They responded to the crusader aggression ... and raced to prepare themselves and their children, knowing very well that their final return is to Allah.”
A former prime minister of Kazakhstan has been placed under house arrest on corruption charges. The rare move against such a high-ranking member of the political establishment is sure to set tongues wagging about the presidential succession.
Serik Akhmetov – who was premier until this April and defense minister until last month – has been charged with graft under an ongoing investigation that has seen high-profile arrests in Karaganda Region, the former PM’s political fiefdom, Tengri News reported, citing Kazakhstan’s anti-corruption agency.
Baurzhan Abdishev, a former regional governor and ex-mayor of the city of Karaganda, and Meyram Smagulov, another former mayor, were arrested this fall on corruption charges relating in part to the lucrative metallurgy industry based in the central region.
Akhmetov – who forged his career in the Karaganda metallurgy industry and the Soviet Communist Party in the 1970s and 1980s – was governor of Karaganda Region from 2009 to 2012, at a time when Abdishev was city mayor. This implies that the two are political allies, and commentators in Kazakhstan had already been linking the Karaganda corruption case with a likely move against Akhmetov.
He was appointed prime minister in 2012 and dismissed this April, amid hints that President Nursultan Nazarbayev was disappointed by his lackluster performance.
Yet Akhmetov was still appointed defense minister in that reshuffle, a post from which Nazarbayev abruptly fired him in October after just six months in the job.
Kazakhstan’s journalistic community has long debated how to face the pervasive influence of Russian media in the Central Asian country. The topic has increased in urgency with the bitter international standoff between Russia and Ukraine, which is partly playing out on Russian television.
Russian state channels like Rossiya, NTV, and First Channel – which critics see as Kremlin propaganda tools – enjoy huge popularity in Kazakhstan, the Media Kurultai (an annual gathering of journalists in Almaty) heard on November 14.
This creates a national security threat to Kazakhstan, where viewers are swallowing their poisonous coverage about Ukraine, speakers told a panel on information security.
The public mindset in Kazakhstan is being shaped by Russian officials and TV presenters like Dmitry Kiselyov, who is well-known for his anti-Western tirades, opposition politician Amirzhan Kosanov told the conference. This means Kazakhstanis end up “viewing events in Ukraine through the eyes of [Russian Foreign Minister Sergey] Lavrov or Kiselyov,” he said.
Yet Astana is itself pushing viewers into the arms of Russian TV, Kosanov argued, by controlling the Kazakhstani media so tightly that it becomes unattractive.
“The challenge to information security emerges from governmental policies,” agreed Adil Nurmakov, a journalism professor at Almaty’s KIMEP University. “It’s a vicious circle.”
“Now [government officials] have found themselves in a situation when they’re wondering why people are not watching Kazakhstani TV channels and why they’re not reading the Kazakhstani press,” Nurmakov told EurasiaNet.org on the sidelines of the forum. “But there’s nothing to read and nothing to watch.”
Fresh allegations have emerged of bribery in Uzbekistan’s telecoms market involving another Nordic company and Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of President Islam Karimov.
A cellphone company partly owned by Norway’s Telenor is alleged to have paid some $25 million in kickbacks to acquire telecoms licenses in Uzbekistan, AFP reports, citing the Klassekampen daily.
The funds were reportedly transferred from Amsterdam-headquartered Vimpelcom, the operator of the Beeline brand in Uzbekistan, to the infamous Takilant Limited company, which is at the heart of two separate graft probes in Europe. Takilant is involved in a money-laundering probe in Switzerland (in which Karimova is a suspect), and also a bribery probe in Sweden involving another Nordic telecoms giant, TeliaSonera.
“Bank statements document how the money was transferred from a previously unknown company in the British Virgin Islands as Vimpelcom purchased licenses to the mobile market in the former Soviet state,” AFP quoted Klassekampen as saying.
Telenor responded that it has “zero tolerance for corruption, both when it comes to our own operations and also to the companies that we are part owners in.”
“We are a minority shareholder in Vimpelcom, so it’s up to Vimpelcom to take responsibility for answering any questions that relate to their operations,” Telenor communications head Glenn Mandelid told AFP.
Vimpelcom, which is 33 percent owned by Telenor, told EurasiaNet.org by email that there is nothing new in the information that has emerged.