Tony Blair was often described as a master of spin during his time as British prime minister, positioning the United Kingdom as “Cool Britannia” when he came to power in 1997. Now it seems he has found a good use for his skills in Central Asia: Blair has been hired to burnish the image of Kazakhstan – and in the process, no doubt, also that of its Leader of the Nation, Nursultan Nazarbayev.
The Financial Times reports that Astana has hired Blair to form a team of consultants who will advise the energy-rich post-Soviet autocracy on how to “present a better face to the West.”
The deal to spin for Kazakhstan is believed to be worth millions, though Blair denies making any personal profit. His office said in a statement that the work he has undertaken for Kazakhstan was “excellent, sensible and supports the reforms they are making.”
Naturally, that is not how the deal is seen in Astana, which says it’s all about improving Kazakhstan’s lure for investors.
“A number of prominent foreign state figures” have agreed to advise Astana on matters ranging from economic strategy to international policy, Foreign Ministry spokesman Altay Abibullayev said on October 24, adding that Blair is one of them.
The sight of the bloodied corpse of an overthrown dictator being beamed around the world might give US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pause for thought as she heads to Uzbekistan this weekend.
The dictator in question is, of course, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, whose demise on October 20 Clinton said would give Libyans a fresh start. And the dictator Clinton is going to meet is Islam Karimov, the president of Uzbekistan who has been in power for 20 years.
Bearded men and headscarved women beware: Kazakhstan's controversial new law on religion may not have come into force yet, but zealous officials are already cracking down – even though the legislation has nothing to say about facial hair or the hijab.
Bearded men in South Kazakhstan Province are being ordered to shave, reports the Vremya tabloid, quoting a man who says that he and a colleague were summoned to the local authorities in Suzak District and told, “For the sake of peace and quiet in the country shave your beards off.” District governor Berik Meyirbekov told Vremya that the shave order had been issued “so that any person looks pleasant and tidy in front of people and society.”
Elsewhere a row has erupted in the conservative city of Shymkent over wearing hijab in schools, reports Channel 31: Some schools are demanding girls remove their headscarves. Parents are protesting. The new law does not mention the hijab, so wearing it is legal anywhere in Kazakhstan – although President Nursultan Nazarbayev has previously expressed his disapproval.
Most controversially, the new religion law bans prayer in state institutions (from government offices to military barracks and educational establishments) and introduces rigorous registration requirements for religious associations.
A boycott of Uzbek cotton by leading Western clothing retailers may be nipping at Tashkent’s pockets, though Asian buyers seem happy to pick up the slack.
The Wall Street Journal reports that at Tashkent’s annual showpiece international cotton fair last week, “not a single Western buyer signed a contract for Uzbekistan’s cotton.”
Last month over 60 multinationals pledged “to not knowingly source Uzbek cotton for the manufacturing of any of our products until the Government of Uzbekistan ends the practice of forced child labor in its cotton sector.”
As EurasiaNet.org reported in September, Tashkent is coming under unprecedented pressure to end the use of child labor, which has been documented by human rights campaigners again during this year’s cotton harvest.
Tashkent firmly denies using child labor. The WSJ quoted an unnamed government official as pointing to a legal ban on children under 16 working at all, and quoted him as saying that if kids are out doing the backbreaking work of picking cotton, “it wasn't because they were forced to do so but because they wanted to.”
Party politics in Kazakhstan isn’t the liveliest of scenes. In recent years Astana has extended its iron grip over most parties, squeezing out alternative voices to the extent that since 2007 only one party – Nur Otan, led by President Nursultan Nazarbayev – has sat in the lower house of parliament.
That is set to change: Due to constitutional amendments passed in 2008, the next parliament will contain at least two parties. And there are persistent rumors that a snap election may supplant the next vote scheduled for August 2012.
Speculation about the spontaneous ballot prompted the Guljan website to take a satirical look at Kazakhstan’s political parties in a video presented by analyst Dosym Satpayev.
The film offered bestial characterizations for parties, starting with the lumbering political behemoth Nur Otan, which was compared to a dinosaur – a diplodocus whose “large body was clearly not in line with the small size of its brain.”
The Ak Zhol party, which has changed political hue many times, earned a comparison with a chameleon. Under new leader Azat Peruashev, Ak Zhol is the favorite to win parliamentary seats and form a tame “opposition” to Nur Otan.
Genuine opposition parties fared no better in the caustic video: OSDP Azat was likened to an electric eel, which often “serves as a decoration in large public aquariums.” The Communist Party of Kazakhstan (CPK) was compared to a tortoise that has existed “for more than 220 million years.”
Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has approved a controversial new law on religion, dashing the last-ditch hopes of human rights campaigners that he might veto it over freedom of conscience concerns.
Hopes that Nazarbayev might strike the bill down were pretty vain, since it was the president himself who demanded the law to counteract the rising extremist threat in Kazakhstan.
The most controversial aspect of the legislation is a ban on prayer in state organizations, which covers everything from the president’s office down to local government buildings, universities and military barracks. Rights watchdogs are also concerned about tighter registration procedures for religious associations.
Nazarbayev’s approval came the day after a senior cleric reiterated the mainstream Islamic clergy’s opposition to the law in its current form. Speaking at Almaty’s Institute of Political Solutions, Nurmukhamed Iminov, the deputy imam of Almaty, said the Spiritual Board of Muslims of Kazakhstan (the state-backed body that runs Islamic affairs) did not approve of banning prayers in state institutions.
As long prison terms were handed down in Almaty on October 11 to those convicted of the murder of Kyrgyzstani journalist Gennadiy Pavlyuk in 2009, vital questions about the case linger. Was justice done for the reporter who was brutally defenestrated?
Aldayar Ismankulov (a Kyrgyz citizen and former member of Kyrgyzstan’s security services) was sentenced to 17 years in prison. His accomplices Shalkar Orazalin and Almas Igelikov (both Kazakh citizens) received 11 and 10 years respectively.
It’s not often that those guilty of perpetrating violence against journalists in Central Asia are taken to court at all, so the first reaction to the sentencing might be applause.
But wait a minute. Despite loudly voiced misgivings that the death of Pavlyuk – an investigative reporter who wrote under the pseudonym Ibragim Rustambek – was linked to Kyrgyz politics, the court appears to have swallowed the version propounded by Kazakh investigators earlier this year that this was a robbery gone wrong.
According to that theory, the thieves lured Pavlyuk 200 kilometers from Bishkek to Almaty purely to rob him. When they failed to extract satisfactory valuables from the reporter, they became so enraged that they bound his hands and feet and hurled him to his death from the sixth floor of an apartment building.
Pavlyuk’s associates have long pointed to the flaws in that theory – namely that the reporter was not a rich man and that defenestration seems something of an overreaction to the circumstances.
The Kazakh capital of Astana – with its glittering skyscrapers, chic shopping malls and trendy restaurants – is a showpiece of wealth and consumerism. In this young city, you’ve got to look good to get ahead. But not everyone can afford the prices in its designer boutiques. Perhaps that’s why one young man came up with the spontaneous idea of sporting the latest fashions at no cost to himself.
While mugging two unfortunate men as they passed a downtown shopping mall, the 24-year-old thief took a sudden shine to the fancy pants one was wearing and demanded that he hand them over, Kazakhstan Today reports.
The mugger wasn’t so cruel as to leave the poor victim shivering pant-less in the chilly temperatures of Astana – he offered (or rather demanded) a swap, somehow dragging his victim into the toilet of the shopping mall and ordering him to exchange.
Smart idea – but the mugger wasn’t smooth enough to carry it off. The friends of the victim, whom the thief’s accomplices were supposed to be guarding outside, alerted police and shopping mall security guards, who rushed to the toilet and nabbed the criminal, while his accomplices got away.
Astana’s vigilant servants of law and order have scored a victory, catching the thief not only red-handed but also with his pants down.
A rallying cry for Kazakh. Protestors on October 2 carried a banner reading, in Kazakh and French, "We are only for the Kazakh language as the state and official language in Kazakhstan!"
One of the most emotive issues on Kazakhstan’s political agenda – language rights – brought Kazakh speakers out to rally in Almaty on October 2.
Around 1,500 protestors gathered with official permission in the country’s financial capital demanding legal changes to the status of Russian – which detractors say undermines the position of Kazakh.
Kazakh enjoys the constitutional status of “state language.” But rally organizers told EurasiaNet.org they believe that privilege remains largely on paper.
“Over these 20 years of independence it hasn’t become like the state language in status,” Dos Kushim, head of the Ult Tagdyry (Fate of the Nation) nationalist movement, said, adding that the protest reflected “bewilderment … at why it hasn’t become the state language after all, why it doesn’t work in all spheres of the state’s life.”
Mukhtar Shakhanov, poet and head of the Memlekettik Til (State Language) movement, is spearheading calls to change the constitution, in which Russian is protected by a clause allowing its use “equally with Kazakh in state bodies.”
Critics say this provision disadvantages native Kazakh speakers and serves as a disincentive for others to learn Kazakh. Supporters say non-Kazakh speakers – a third of the population – would be lost without it.
But would changing the constitution really be sufficient motivation for non-Kazakh speakers to put their minds to learning Kazakh?
“It would be more than enough,” Serik Mambetalin, leader of the Rukhaniyat (Spirituality) Party, told EurasiaNet.org. “Because the government itself will devote more efforts – and give more money – to develop the Kazakh language.”