The endangered saiga antelope has had a rough few years in Kazakhstan, hunted mercilessly by poachers for its horns and wracked by a deadly sickness that has seen thousands of these endangered long-nosed antelopes perish on the steppe.
Yet amid all the doom and gloom there is a glimmer of hope: Kazakhstan’s saiga population has more than doubled over the last five years, according to figures released by the Ministry for Environmental Protection.
The country’s saiga population now stands at 137,000 against just 61,000 five years ago, the ministry said. The news comes less than two years after officials reported that efforts to conserve this creature – listed as critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List – were bearing fruit as numbers passed the symbolic 100,000 mark in Kazakhstan.
The population has since grown by over a third, but today’s figures are still a far cry from Kazakhstan’s million-strong population of the 1970s. Since then the saiga – an unusual-looking creature with a distinctive long, humped nose that allows it to filter air during the dusty summer months and breathe warm air during the freezing winters – has been hunted mercilessly by poachers for its horn, which is prized in Chinese medicine.
Uzbekistan’s pop police have banned several star musical acts for undermining the Central Asian nation’s “moral heritage and mentality” by being insufficiently patriotic.
Three pop stars (Dilfuza Rakhimova, Otabek Mutalkhuzhayev, and Dilshod Rakhmonov) and two groups (Ummon and Mango) have had their licenses stripped, which means they cannot perform in public. Uzbeknavo, the official association controlling Uzbekistan's lucrative pop music business, made the announcement on its website this week.
An Uzbeknavo meeting heard “criticism of songs that are not in line with our national spiritual values, our moral heritage and mentality,” the sternly worded statement said.
“It is our duty to praise the Motherland, rubbing its earth onto our eyes and praising its people and its happiness,” it explained.
Seven other performers received reprimands and were warned to get in line by July 1. Uzbeknavo evidently had patriotism on the agenda as it met to discuss celebrations of Uzbekistan’s 22nd anniversary of independence on September 1.
Uzbeknavo made no mention of Uzbekistan’s most famous pop star, however.
A poster in Tashkent offers a warning about human trafficking.
The United States has given Uzbekistan the lowest possible rating in its annual report on human trafficking and forced labor.
Uzbekistan was downgraded (along with Russia and China) from Tier 2 to Tier 3 in the State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons report for failing to make sufficient efforts to combat the trade in human flesh.
The June 19 report had harsh words for Tashkent: “The Government of Uzbekistan remains one of only a handful of governments around the world that subjects its citizens to forced labor through implementation of state policy.”
The use of forced labor in the cotton harvest featured strongly in the findings: “Internal labor trafficking remains prevalent during the annual cotton harvest, in which children and adults are victims of government-organized forced labor. There were reports that working conditions in some fields during the cotton harvest included verbal and physical abuse and lack of freedom of movement.”
There was no immediate reaction from Tashkent, which has always denied state-sponsored forced labor and points to its efforts to combat people trafficking.
The US report noted that last year Tashkent enforced a decree banning child labor in the cotton fields, resulting in a “sweeping reduction” in the number of children under age 15 in the harvest, but said that older children and adults were still being forced to reap cotton.
News of a foiled terrorist plot to blow up civilian targets in the Kazakhstani capital Astana emerged recently, just as authorities consider the adoption of draconian new controls to root out extremism.
Getting hard currency in and out of Uzbekistan, with its notoriously tight controls over cash flows, is about to become even harder as Tashkent brings into force draconian new checks over bank transfers that will hit investors and individuals, foreign and local alike.
The new rules, announced by the UzDaily.uz website on June 17, launch a new monitoring system that forces banks to report a wide range of bank transfers into and out of Uzbekistan to the tax authorities. The report said the rules were approved on June 12, but did not specify when they will come into force.
For foreign companies, these include fines received from local partners via transfer for breaching agreements. Dividends or profits repatriated abroad to foreigners who have founded companies in Uzbekistan also come under the rules. (The right to repatriate profits is theoretically assured to foreign investors under Uzbek legislation, but frequently breached due to the Byzantine hoops through which they must jump to repatriate their money.)
The rules also cover payments to non-residents for sales of shares in Uzbekistan-based businesses and of property in Uzbekistan, which will hit both foreign companies and foreign individuals.
The rules aren’t just targeted at foreigners: Uzbek citizens will also be hit as the transfers they receive and make come under scrutiny. Any transfers abroad from Uzbek banks by individual account holders above the equivalent of $10,000 per calendar year will come under the microscope, as will all transfers from abroad to their accounts from foreign companies.
Transfers of funds via international services such as Western Union and MoneyGram – used by many labor migrants abroad to send remittances home – are not covered by the rules.
Water was the hot topic as the leaders of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan met in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, on June 14.
Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, struck a conciliatory note over access to Central Asian water resources, a subject which Uzbek leader Islam Karimov last year warned could lead to war.
“A great deal depends for our future on how [Central Asian states] cooperate and trust each other and together resolve our questions without hindering other states,” Nazarbayev said in remarks quoted by state news agency Kazinform.
“Our approaches on many aspects, including the water problem in the region, coincide,” he said of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. “And we want to send a friendly message to our neighbors that we ourselves have to resolve these questions. There are no unresolvable problems and questions.”
Speaking of the plans of neighboring Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to build hydropower projects on Central Asian rivers upstream, which Karimov strongly opposes, Nazarbayev said disputes could be resolved “only on the basis of negotiations and the strengthening of mutual trust, without confrontation.”
Karimov has long been a vociferous opponent of plans by Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to complete long-stalled hydropower dam projects -- Rogun on the Vakhsh River (the headwaters of the Amu-Darya) in Tajikistan and Kambarata on the Naryn River (which becomes the Syr-Darya) in Kyrgyzstan.
Nearly a third of high school graduates in Kazakhstan flunked their final exams this year, figures released by the government show. A total of 29 percent of the 95,487 students who took the important exam (which determines whether or not they will get into university) failed to make the grade.
This is a marked improvement on last year, when 37 percent of graduates didn’t pass, but it still shows that a remarkably high number of students are going through school without learning much. Those who fail can re-take the exam, but not until next summer.
Every year the school-leaving exam (known as ENT) generates controversy, with critics arguing that the multiple-choice format fails to test critical-thinking skills. Astana rejoins that it introduced the standardized test to replace school-led exams and standardize the final qualification.
The figures show that over twice as many students sat the exam in Kazakh as in Russian this year: 66,689 against 28,798, meaning that 70 percent of students are receiving their education in the Kazakh language. Parents can opt to send their children to schools teaching in Russian or Kazakh (and a few other languages such as Uzbek), but Kazakh and Russian language classes are compulsory for all students.
Cheating remains rife: This year invigilators across Kazakhstan confiscated 28,000 banned objects such as cellphones from exam halls and identified six people impersonating others to sit the test on their behalf.
Officers from the domestic intelligence service are deployed in schools at exam time in testament to how seriously education officials take cheating, but to some that’s no deterrent.
Americans are still forbidden from adopting Kazakh children, an official in Astana has said. The ban will continue until Kazakhstan receives a satisfactory explanation from US authorities about the circumstances in which two orphans from the Central Asian state were found in a home for troubled kids last year.
The two children were found on a ranch housing children with “deviant behavior” in July 2012, Raisa Sher, chairwoman of the government’s Committee for the Protection of Children’s Rights, told Tengri News on June 12.
She did not name the children’s home, but last July there were children from Kazakhstan among those staying at the Ranch for Kids Project in Montana when a group of Russian officials turned up with a film crew in tow to demand access to Russian orphans and created an outcry when they were refused.
The ranch describes itself as “a respite care home for adopted children who are experiencing difficulties in their families.” Russian children’s rights ombudsman Pavel Astakhov, a member of the delegation that visited last summer, described it as “a trash can for unwanted children.”
Sher said that Astana had not received “information” from the American authorities despite requesting clarification over the incident, and therefore “we are not renewing the adoption procedure with the United States of America until we receive a response from that country under the Hague Convention on the fulfilment of international obligations.”
The wife of fugitive Kazakh oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov has been deported from Italy to Kazakhstan, where she is facing a criminal investigation as Astana steps up its four-year campaign against the businessman.
Alma Shalabayeva was arrested on the outskirts of Rome overnight May 28-29 along with her six-year-old daughter, Alua Ablyazova, Kazakhstan’s prosecutor’s office confirmed on June 3. Spokesman Nurdaulet Suindikov said Shalabayeva was arrested in possession of a forged passport “with clear signs of fictitiousness, supposedly issued by the Central African Republic in the name of Ayan Alma.”
He said Shalabayeva, currently residing with relatives in Almaty, is under investigation in Kazakhstan for forgery offenses and has signed an agreement not to leave the city.
Ablyazov has accused the administration of President Nursultan Nazarbayev of “kidnapping” his wife and daughter. In a Facebook posting on June 3, he questioned the speed of the deportation and said his wife had told him she was flown out of Italy on a “luxurious” chartered aircraft accompanied by consular staff from Kazakhstan.
Her Italian lawyer, Riccardo Olivo, also questioned the rapid unfolding of events. “It is incredible how quickly this took place,” he told Reuters on June 1. “They handed her over as a hostage to a dictator and this is very grave.”