A caricature poking fun at Orthodox Christian priests and the powers that be has sparked an outcry in Kazakhstan, a country that markets itself as a bastion of religious tolerance.
The offending cartoon appeared in the Russian-language Megapolis broadsheet on January 14, illustrating an article called “Christmas Surprise” that recounted how Astana city officials hijacked the Russian Orthodox Christmas service at the Church of the Holy Assumption in the capital. (Orthodox Christmas is marked on January 7.)
“Bewildered” worshippers were forced to line up along a red carpet to welcome officials from the office of Astana Mayor Imangali Tasmagambetov, while “church officials scurried about here and there and fussed around, waiting for the arrival of the important guests,” the article recounted.
After being given the red carpet treatment, the two bureaucrats were taken to the ambo, a special part of the church from which sermons are read (out of bounds to ordinary worshippers). From there, they read out a message from Tasmagambetov, a high-profile politician sometimes tipped as a future president.
“What was this? Some sort of political event, or still a church holiday?” one annoyed worshipper asked.
To illustrate such sentiments, Megapolis published the cartoon showing a porky priest telling a meek-looking Jesus wearing a crown of thorns: “Citizen, free up the ambo or I’ll call the riot police!”
Church officials were quick to take offense. “The article and the caricature have had negative repercussions in the Orthodox community,” Bishop Gennadiy of Kaskelen (near Almaty) told a news conference on January 23.
Marking a year this week since the start of a political crackdown, Kazakhstan has entered 2013 with a transformed political landscape, the opposition effectively decimated and independent media muzzled.
Under the strongman reign of 72-year-old President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has been in power for over two decades, Kazakhstan has never willingly opened its arms to criticism. But critics say last year witnessed an unprecedented attack on dissenting voices, leaving the political scene bereft of any meaningful platform from which to hold the administration accountable.
The crackdown began on January 23, 2012, with the rounding up of opposition figures and journalists a month after fatal unrest in Zhanaozen, a western oil town.
The anti-dissent campaign culminated in December court rulings that shut down approximately 40 independent media outlets (including outspoken newspapers Respublika and Vzglyad) and Kazakhstan’s most vocal opposition party, Alga! (whose leader Vladimir Kozlov is serving a jail term on charges of fomenting the Zhanaozen violence and plotting to overthrow the state).
Alga! and the media outlets were declared extremist and accused of inciting the Zhanaozen violence, which spiraled out of a protracted oil strike that the government acknowledges was mismanaged.
Kazakhstan’s capital has the reputation of a conformist city of bureaucrats, loyal to the man who made it the seat of government and micromanaged its construction, President Nursultan Nazarbayev – but it seems that not everyone is banging the drum for the Leader of the Nation.
Some of the less fortunate inhabitants of the glitzy city took to the streets one freezing evening this week to complain about their lot and demand social justice, reports KTK TV.
“Who are the rulers?” footage broadcast from a dark Astana street showed a man with a megaphone yelling at a small crowd.
“Dozens” of people gathered on January 16, KTK reported – hardly the type of large, unruly street protest that has twice helped overthrow presidents in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, but still revolutionary stuff for this most conformist of capitals.
The main organizers were residents of a hostel on Astana's outskirts that is slated for demolition to make way for a power station. Some inhabitants have refused the compensation package offered by the authorities and say they will be left without affordable housing – a major bone of contention in Astana, where Zauresh Battalova, a former senator and now prominent campaigner, spearheads the For Decent Housing movement to fight for accommodation for the underprivileged and low paid.
The rally gathered protestors with wide-ranging demands, some urging timely payments of salaries and others calling on the local authorities to do a better job of clearing the snow that blankets Astana in winter.
Russian telecoms giant MTS has filed for bankruptcy in Tashkent amid its long-running dispute with the Uzbek government, which is currently embroiled in telecoms scandals on several fronts.
MTS’s Uzbekistan subsidiary O’zdunrobita has petitioned for bankruptcy due to its “inability” to carry out a November court ruling ordering it to pay fines and penalties of $600 million, MTS said in a January 16 statement.
The company’s troubles began last July, when Tashkent accused it of using equipment illegally, then brought tax evasion charges, and finally shut it down.
In September, a court ordered MTS’s assets in Uzbekistan seized. To the surprise of many, that ruling was overturned on appeal in November. But with the good news came a catch: The court that overturned the assets seizure ordered MTS to pay penalties of $600 million – the approximate value of the assets the court had just returned. Some $150 million has already been seized from its bank accounts in Uzbekistan, MTS says.
MTS has protested its innocence, condemning the affair as the kind of assets grab not uncommon in Uzbekistan’s murky business climate – a charge Tashkent denies.
Officials in northern Kazakhstan have taken President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s zero-tolerance policy toward anti-social behavior to heart, jailing a man for making a rude gesture at an official motorcade.
The unidentified 22-year-old resident of Pavlodar was thrown behind bars for giving the middle finger to the cortege of Kayrat Mami, speaker of the Senate (the upper house of parliament), Tengri News reported on January 14.
The man pleaded guilty on hooliganism charges and was given a five-day jail sentence for “insulting the human dignity of a public figure, thus allowing disrespect for those around and violating public order and the peace of individuals,” court spokeswoman Umut Zhumatayeva said.
The jailing is in line with a policy Nazarbayev announced last fall, when he used a parliamentary address to rail against graffiti, garbage and public drunkenness, surprising observers who thought Kazakhstan had more pressing problems to tackle. Nazarbayev also has a Singapore-style fixation with chewing gum and dirty cars in his model capital city, Astana.
The news of the harsh treatment meted out to the Pavlodar man sparked vituperative reactions on the Tengri News site, suggesting that many of Nazarbayev’s fellow citizens do not share his concerns. “Where the hell is democracy?” asked user West. “He was only expressing his opinion.”
The capital of Kazakhstan is well known for its outlandish and whimsical buildings, which include a pyramid and a shopping mall shaped like a khan’s tent. Now architects are planning a new surprise: an ice hotel of yurts, the traditional circular dwelling of Kazakh nomads (more often made of felt, which is much warmer than ice).
One unnamed Astana hotel is planning to erect the frozen yurt village as a novel take on the ice hotels that have become popular in Scandinavia, reports the Ekspress K tabloid, citing Vitaliy Enke, spokesman for an architectural firm (also unidentified) working on the project.
An ice hotel of yurts is certainly weird, but – with Kazakhstan keen to attract more tourists – it looks like a sure bet for those in search of that once-in-a-lifetime experience. Astana, often described as the world’s second-coldest capital, definitely has the climate for it: last month temperatures plunged to -40C (-40F).
Land for the ice yurts has already been allocated on the city’s prestigious Left Bank, the seat of government and home to most of the city’s landmark buildings. As well as the Norman Foster-designed Pyramid of Peace and the tent-shaped Khan Shatyr mall, which boasts a beach inside, they include a velodrome in the shape of a cyclist’s hat, an egg-shaped national archive, and a building nicknamed the Cigarette Lighter for its shape, which once made headlines by catching fire.
Newly released documents appear to make a connection between executives from a Swedish company accused of bribing its way into Uzbekistan’s telecoms market and Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of the country’s strongman, Islam Karimov.
A court in Kazakhstan has banned the outspoken independent newspaper Respublika, amid what critics see as a year-long political crackdown following fatal unrest in the town of Zhanaozen last December that has seen an opposition leader jailed, his party shut down, and media outlets critical of the administration of President Nursultan Nazarbayev closed.
On December 25 the court ordered Respublika to shut down its print version and all associated print outlets and websites containing the word “Respublika,” Almaty-based media freedom watchdog Adil Soz reported. The ruling was issued four days after a key opposition party, Alga!, was closed.
Respublika – which has long operated under pressure in Kazakhstan, and once had the corpse of a decapitated dog pinned to its wall as an apparent threat – was among around 40 media outlets targeted for closure by prosecutors who allege their coverage of the Zhanaozen unrest was “extremist” and contained calls to overthrow the state. Prosecutors say the outlets are funded by fugitive oligarch and Nazarbayev opponent Mukhtar Ablyazov (who is on the run from British justice in a separate fraud case).
The unregistered Alga! party, one of Kazakhstan’s only genuine opposition forces, has lost its legal battle against closure, it announced by Twitter today.
On December 21 a court in Almaty declared Alga! “extremist” and ordered its closure, the party said. It had been battling the closure bid since last month, when prosecutors announced they were seeking to shut it over allegations that it was involved in inciting fatal unrest in Zhanaozen last December.
Alga! leader Vladimir Kozlov is serving a jail term on charges he fomented that violence and sought to overthrow the administration of long-time President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Kozlov denies the charges and argues that he and his party -- which the authorities have for years refused to register to operate legally -- engaged only in legitimate opposition activity. Independent watchdog groups called the trial a sham.