President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s administration in Kazakhstan is hoping the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) summit, which opens in Astana on December 1, will enhance the Central Asian nation’s global prestige.
As Hillary Clinton landed on the tarmac in Astana ahead of the summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), she might have been feeling a trifle uncomfortable. Many of the world leaders she’s facing as they embark on thorny negotiations over security, conflict resolution and arms control are at the center of uncomfortable revelations through WikiLeaks – and, embarrassingly, the latest bout of indiscretions is full of juicy gossip about Clinton's Kazakh hosts.
Anyone who thought Kazakh officials were a dry-looking bunch will have to agree that appearances can be deceptive. The allegations contained in one confidential cable purportedly sent by the US Embassy in Astana suggest that US diplomats have witnessed the city’s powerful leaders letting their hair down in style. Some dance the night away, while others prefer the more prosaic entertainment of drinking themselves into oblivion.
According to the document on the lifestyles of Kazakhstan’s leadership, Prime Minister Karim Masimov was once spotted at Astana’s chicest nightspot, Chocolat, strutting his stuff -- and not on the dance floor, either, but on a raised podium above it, alone, after his companions wore themselves out with all the fun and went back to their seats.
The Kazakh Agriculture Ministry has sounded an alarm over the fate of the saiga, a critically endangered antelope that roams the steppes of Central Asia. The animals continue to fall prey to poachers engaged in the lucrative trade in their horns, which fetch large sums over the border in China where they’re prized for use in traditional medicine, the Kazakhstan Today news agency reports.
The deaths registered by inspectors are undoubtedly just the tip of the iceberg. Kazakhstan faces a formidable challenge in its saiga conservation efforts, with hard-pressed inspectors trying to police the vast and remote territories where the antelopes roam as poachers continue to hunt them down.
The World Wildlife Fund identifies loss of habitat and hunting as key threats to the existence of the saiga, a distinctive creature with a long, humped nose that allows it to filter air during the dusty summer months and breath warm air during the freezing winters.
The epic Kazakhgate bribery scandal has finally come to an end, and – in a breathtaking twist – the man originally accused of funneling millions of dollars in kickbacks to top Kazakh officials has suddenly emerged as a Cold War hero – at least, that’s what the judge who sentenced him on November 19 said, according to the Main Justice website.
Judge William H. Pauley heaped defendant James Giffen with praise, describing him as a “significant source of information to the United States government and a conduit for secret communications with the Soviet Union and its leadership during the Cold War.”
Pauley said he’d learned this in classified information about Giffen, which also revealed that the defendant had worked tirelessly in the 1980s to help Soviet Jews leave the country – a sort of latter-day Schindler of the Soviet Union.
This is a remarkable turnaround for a man arrested in 2003 on suspicion of channeling $78 million to senior officials in Astana in exchange for energy contracts in the 1990s, when he was adviser to Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev. The amount of the alleged bribes rose to $84 million in a later indictment under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). Giffen insisted the CIA authorized his dealings in Kazakhstan; the agency denies the charge. In remarks that lend some credence to Giffen’s defense, Judge Pauley hinted that if investigators had had access to classified information, the charges wouldn’t have been filed.
Officials in Kazakhstan are developing a grand plan to get virtually everyone in the Central Asian country speaking Kazakh by 2020. Data from a recent survey, however, suggests that Astana’s goal may be overly ambitious.
The bureaucratic hoops that people sometimes have to jump through to complete routine business in Kazakhstan are legendary. Frustrated by years of dealings with what they say are high-handed officials, one group of citizens has turned in desperation to the old Soviet method of samizdat to draw attention to their plight, Respublika reports.
Distributors of samizdat bypassed the Soviet censors by photocopying material and circulating it by hand. Now this group of inhabitants of two settlements outside Almaty, Bakay and Akbulak, have published a samizdat book to detail their twists and turns through the corridors of bureaucracy as they seek to complete the paperwork for land plots and property they say they’ve owned for up to a decade.
The book has a suitably surreal title: The Ordeal in the Land of Nurat, combining the name of President Nursultan Nazarbayev with that of Borat, the “Kazakh” hero of the famous film that lampooned a fictional Kazakhstan as a bizarre and insane place. The title also plays on the name of a trilogy by Russian writer Aleksey Tolstoy, The Ordeal, about the trials and tribulations of the October Revolution and the Civil War. In this case, the ordeal they describe is about becoming mired in a Kafkaesque nightmare as they strive to obtain their title deeds from recalcitrant officials.
The authorities had denied blocking LJ, but observers were skeptical. As a motive for the government to deny access, they pointed to the LJ blog of Rakhat Aliyev, the disgraced former son-in-law of President Nursultan Nazarbayev who fell out with the president in 2007, was divorced by his daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva, and was later sentenced to 40 years in prison in absentia on charges he denied.
Now, all of a sudden LiveJournal is accessible again in Kazakhstan – but Aliyev’s journal can’t be seen here, or anywhere else for that matter. In a twist that’s most convenient for Astana, Aliyev’s blog was suspended by LiveJournal itself on November 9.
Visitors to his page now see a sign saying “Suspended Journal” and an incongruous picture of a goat wearing an eye patch and a skull and crossbones hat. “This journal has been suspended,” a message says. “Its contents are no longer publicly visible. LiveJournal cannot discuss the reasons for a journal suspension with anyone except the journal owner.”
Kazakhstan’s presidential election may be two years away, but political passions are already starting to build. The announcement by an opposition leader who happens to be from an ethnic minority group that he will challenge incumbent Nursultan Nazarbayev in the 2012 vote has already provoked a storm of protest from nationalists.
Kazakhstan’s not famous as a staunch defender of political freedoms and human rights, and its chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) this year hasn’t been noted for its focus on democratic values. Given Astana’s controversial record, that’s perhaps not surprising. Nevertheless, President Nursultan Nazarbayev is now lecturing other member states on their commitment to the core values of the OSCE and its predecessor, the CSCE, which include respecting democracy, media freedom and human rights.
“Unfortunately, today the principles and obligations set out in the CSCE/OSCE founding documents are ever more not being observed to the full," Nazarbayev lamented in an interview with Euronews (the text of which was carried by Kazakhstan’s state news agency Kazinform).
He knows what he’s talking about. For a start, Kazakhstan has never had an election judged free and fair by the OSCE’s observer missions. The last parliamentary election in 2007 saw Nazarbayev’s own party, Nur Otan, sweep up all elected seats in the lower house amid cries of foul play by the opposition, leading to a rubber-stamp one-party parliament that Nazarbayev described at the time as “a wonderful opportunity” to modernize Kazakhstan.
Legal options are running out for a group of Uzbek asylum seekers who are in detention in Kazakhstan, facing deportation to Uzbekistan. The case threatens to form an uncomfortable backdrop as Astana prepares to host a December summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).