Following last year’s crackdown on Kazakhstan’s media and opposition, many have wondered what political course President Nursultan Nazarbayev is steering.
Today, Nazarbayev delivered his response: Kazakhstan is firmly set on becoming a Western-style democracy, he said – but it will take time.
“We believe that the democracy and freedom that exist in the West, as in Finland, are for us the final goal, and not the start of the path,” he told visiting Finnish President Sauli Niinistö, in remarks quoted by Tengri News. “We are going along that path.”
Kazakhstan may have occasionally stumbled along the way, but Nazarbayev believes the glass of democracy is at least half full. “To put it vividly in the words of a philosopher, our glass is half or three-quarters full, and we have to fill it up,” he said.
Nazarbayev was speaking the day after a motion was made in the European Parliament urging members to vote for a new resolution expressing concern about Kazakhstan’s human rights situation.
The draft resolution specifically points to court rulings last year banning the Alga! party and independent media outlets, alleging that such a move "violates the principles of freedom of expression and assembly and raises great concerns with regard to subsequent repression of media and opposition.”
It has long been rumored that huge bribes change hands in Kazakhstan to secure public-service jobs and law-enforcement positions that come with small salaries but enormous potential to make a few bucks on the side.
Now comes some indication of just how large the bribes may be: A human resources official in South Kazakhstan Region’s bureaucracy is under arrest after demanding a $50,000 backhander in a cash-for-job deal, Kazinform reports.
The official offered her services to secure a lowly job as deputy head of the regional Entrepreneurship and Trade Directorate, begging the question of how much money might be changing hands for more senior (and potentially lucrative) positions.
Graft is officially acknowledged to be rife throughout Kazakhstan’s bureaucracy, including the judiciary and law-enforcement system.
Last month the financial police said that some tax officials were taking bribes ranging from 1,000 to 1 million tenge (approximately $6.60 to $6,600) to fix results on tax audits, Tengri News reported.
In one high-profile case, Major-General Almaz Asenov, former head of the military’s armaments department, was arrested earlier this year on suspicion of taking a $200,000 kickback from two representatives of Ukrainian company Ukrspetzeksport in return for turning a blind eye to faulty repair work on An-72 aircraft.
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev is fond of lauding his oil-rich country’s economic successes – but now he has acknowledged that they are not trickling down to everyone.
Speaking at the Council of Entrepreneurs on April 10, Nazarbayev said Kazakhstan’s growing rich-poor divide had hit his personal radar and ordered his government to bridge it, Tengri News reported.
Officials must examine “how many poor people we have, what the difference between the rich and poor is – and the difference in our country is substantial,” Nazarbayev – whose close family members include millionaires and billionaires – told Kazakhstan’s top entrepreneurs. “I have especially engaged in [studying] this.”
Nazarbayev cited statistics showing that 8 percent of households have incomes of less than 15,000 tenge ($100) per person, below the official minimum salary of 18,660 tenge ($124). Nazarbayev said those households included 1.5 million people – which means 8.8 percent of Kazakhstan’s population of 17 million are living on less than the minimum wage.
This puts into perspective official statistics showing the average monthly salary in Kazakhstan standing at 98,736 tenge ($654), and suggests that the gap between high earners and low earners is indeed wide.
Fresh from hosting international talks on Iran’s nuclear program this month, Kazakhstan is quietly pushing its offer to host a global nuclear fuel bank that would serve non-proliferation efforts by providing safe access to low-enriched uranium.
Kazakhstan is hoping to reach agreement this year with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on hosting the fuel bank, Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov told the Express K newspaper on April 4.
Astana has long sought to position itself as a leader in non-proliferation efforts, citing President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s renouncing of nuclear weapons at independence and Kazakhstan’s Soviet nuclear legacy.
The government offered to host the nuclear fuel bank in 2011 and has been in talks with the IAEA. The site under consideration is the Ulba Metallurgical Plant, which has produced nuclear fuel pellets since Soviet times and – Idrissov pointed out – has never experienced a nuclear leak in four decades of operation.
The suicides of two soldiers on two consecutive days have again highlighted festering problems in Kazakhstan’s armed forces.
One conscript hanged himself at a military unit Astana on April 4 while the next day a young private killed himself in a military unit in Karaganda by shooting himself in the neck, the Zakon.kz website reported.
Two 20-year-old privates were arrested on suspicion of driving the soldier in Karaganda, in northeastern Kazakhstan, to suicide by hazing – the practice of army bullying common in many post-Soviet militaries. The arrests suggest Kazakhstan’s military is starting to take hazing – a phenomenon that has for years been quietly tolerated – seriously.
Last June the commander of a border post near China was arrested with two other soldiers on suspicion of hazing after 11 conscripts deserted from the Tersayryk unit in northeastern Kazakhstan to protest their treatment.
In October a military court sentenced the commander to three years in jail and the other two soldiers to seven years each.
Kazakhstan’s Border Guard Service, which falls under the remit of the powerful KNB domestic intelligence service, has had a troubled year, starting with a bizarre mass slaughter in a remote outpost near the border with China last May that was blamed on rogue conscript Vladislav Chelakh.
A report in The New York Times that Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of Uzbek strongman Islam Karimov, has resigned as her country’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva set off a flurry of speculation about her future plans.
On April 6 The Times suggested that she was “possibly positioning herself for a larger role at home” amid uncertainty about her father’s health.
However, an official at Uzbekistan’s Geneva mission denied the report of Karimova's resignation on April 8.
“This does not correspond to reality,” a spokesperson who declined to be identified by name told EurasiaNet.org by telephone from Geneva. “Ms. Gulnara Karimova is still Uzbekistan’s ambassador to Geneva.”
Karimova is a colorful personality – a pop diva and fashion designer as well as a diplomat. Many observers believe she is positioning herself to succeed her 75-year-old father, which she pointedly failed to rule out in an interview recently made public.
The subject of the presidential succession in Uzbekistan is currently the subject of much international press speculation, prompted by a report put out by Uzbekistan’s opposition-in-exile that Karimov suffered a heart attack last month. The rumor spread like wildfire but was soon proved false.
International negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program broke down without result in Almaty on April 6.
“Over two days of talks, we had long and intensive discussions on the issues addressed in our confidence-building proposal put forward during the last round of talks with Iran in Almaty on 26-27 February,” EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who chairs a six-nation group negotiating with Iran, said in an emailed statement.
It became “clear” that the positions of the six-nation P5+1 group (consisting of the five UN Security Council permanent members – the United States, China, Russia, Britain and France – plus Germany) and Iran “remain far apart on the substance,” the statement said.
The last round of talks, in February, left some participants cautiously optimistic a breakthrough might be in the works. Those talks, which were also held in Almaty, unfroze an eight-month deadlock and, when they concluded, the parties agreed to keep talking.
This time there was no agreement to meet again; it was “agreed that all sides will go back to capitals to evaluate where we stand in the process,” Ashton’s statement said.
The sides are at odds over Iran’s nuclear program, which Tehran insists is for peaceful purposes but the international community is concerned is aimed at making an atomic bomb.
As a second round of talks on Iran’s nuclear program opens in Almaty on April 5 analysts are not expecting major breakthroughs, but international negotiators will be pushing a proposal advanced when they met in the same venue in February.
Although there was no breakthrough, those talks in Kazakhstan – regarded as a fitting host due to its own non-proliferation efforts – unlocked an eight-month negotiations deadlock.
The six-nation P5+1 group (the five UN Security Council permanent members – the United States, China, Russia, Britain and France – plus Germany) had been pressing Iran to end medium-level uranium enrichment, close its Fordow underground enrichment facility, and hand over stockpiles of medium-enriched uranium – production of which marks a critical stage in bomb making – for international safe-keeping.
Tehran insists it is not pursuing nuclear weapons and that its program is for peaceful purposes. It has pushed for crippling international sanctions to be lifted without preconditions.
Negotiators have been tight-lipped about the February proposal. Reuters reported on April 3, citing unidentified Western officials, that the six-nation group has offered to ease gold sanctions and relax a petrochemicals embargo in return for Iran suspending medium-level uranium enrichment.
Kazakhstan has extended its smoking ban by prohibiting the use of the shisha pipe in enclosed public spaces including bars, nightclubs and restaurants.
The ban came into force on March 14, sparking an outcry among entrepreneurs warning of widespread job losses.
According to the calculations of the Association of Shisha Pipe Industry Entrepreneurs of Kazakhstan, reported by Bnews.kz on April 1, up to 20,000 jobs stand to be lost since each of the 5,000 premises where the shisha is smoked employs three or four people to clean and light the pipes.
The pipes are hugely popular in bars and restaurants in Astana, Almaty and other cities. One pipe, which is shared by groups of friends out socializing, costs around $30-$50. Establishments breaking the new rules face fines of just over $1,100.
Shisha – also known as kalyan or hooka – pipes had been exempt from a smoking ban in enclosed spaces introduced in 2009, when officials said some 30,000 people per year were dying from tobacco-related diseases. Implementation is patchy, with most establishments respecting the ban but some openly flouting it.
According to a World Bank report published in 2010, 40 percent of male adults in Kazakhstan smoke – fewer than Russia’s 59 percent, but almost double the 22 percent smoking in neighboring Uzbekistan.
An elderly woman has died in western Kazakhstan after being attacked by a camel she had raised from infancy, local media report.
The fatal clash took place on April 2 in the village of Umirzak outside the oil city of Aktau in western Kazakhstan, the Lada newspaper said.
Shocked neighbors put the attack down to it being camel mating season, when males are especially aggressive. “I remember this camel as a calf,” one unidentified villager told Lada. “Our neighbor was always looking after it, checking on it, feeding it.”
When she went out to feed the cattle on April 2 “no one paid any attention,” the villager said, until the woman’s husband “noticed that she was lying all in blood and not moving.”
An ambulance came but doctors pronounced her dead from “multiple open wounds.” So fierce was the attack that “her scalp was almost totally torn off,” the newspaper said.
Many people raise camels in the western desert regions of Kazakhstan, where they are prized as a mark of wealth – a single ungulate can be worth upward of $3,000. Camel meat is popular, as is shubat, fermented camel milk.
This is not the first fatal clash between a human and a ship of the desert in recent years: In 2011 the driver of a speeding Opel Vectra was killed after he collided with a herd of camels in the western Aktobe Region. A camel also died in the crash.
The fate of the camel that turned on its owner has not yet been decided, Lada reported, but the “camel murderer is being kept in a separate pen, far from other animals. And people.”