On September 10 the city of Oskemen brought out some 60,000 people to take part in a mass Kara Zhorga dance as part of a fitness festival, dwarfing the 15,000 who turned out in the oil city of Atyrau to dance last year.
The first record for dancing the Kara Zhorga, whose title loosely translates as Black Mount, was set in 2009 by 13,370 ethnic Kazakhs living in China’s Xinjiang region, Oskemen-based newspaper Ustinka Plyus reported in a story on the craze.
The paper puts the dance’s revival down to the migration to Kazakhstan of ethnic Kazakhs from other countries, including China, under the state oralman (returnee) program.
In response to the foiling of an alleged terror plot last month, Kazakhstan is moving at breakneck speed to counter mounting concerns about homegrown Islamic extremists. Critics are anxious that human rights may fall by the wayside as Astana races to stay one step ahead of the terror threat.
Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has staked his political reputation largely on his ability to foster domestic stability amid regional turbulence. That sense of tranquility is coming under growing pressure in Kazakhstan, with the latest challenge generated by an impassioned debate over language policy.
Good news for singles in Kazakhstan – a new dating site promises to bring lonely hearts together, and – unlike many such forums which are simply an excuse to peddle sex – nikah.imam.kz has lofty aims: It seeks to help pious Muslims find their other half.
Along with information about attributes such as height, eye color and ethnicity, the site offers users the chance to provide information about their views on questions pertinent to Islam.
Answers to “how do you feel about the hijab?” range from “not obligatory” (Aynur, a 27-year old female from Almaty) to “only in the mosque” (Asiya, a 20-year-old female from Petropavlovsk) and “obligatory for women” (Rakhat, a 22-year-old male from Pavlodar, and Nazyma, a 35-year-old female from Almaty).
The photos accompanying the would-be daters’ profiles show a range of attitudes to the headscarf among the women – some have their heads uncovered, some are wearing headscarves and some are in the full niqab.
Another question asks users how they feel about polygamy, which – as RFE/RL reported earlier this year – is on the rise in Kazakhstan. Answers range from “negative” (Asem, a 20-year-old female from Petropavlovsk), “I don’t know” (Akmalya, a 20-year-old female from Almaty), to “normal” (Rauan, a 26-year-old male from Karaganda, and Roza, a 26-year-old convert to Islam from Almaty).
Some rare positive news about the endangered antelope known as the saiga: Numbers are up in Kazakhstan and have risen over the symbolic 100,000 mark, Tengrinews reports.
According to the latest figures, Kazakhstan’s saiga population has jumped by about a quarter since last year’s estimate. Kazakhstan has the world’s largest number of the endangered antelopes, but today’s figures are a far cry from Kazakhstan’s million-strong population of the 1970s.
The saiga is listed as Critically Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List.
Paradoxically, the increase in numbers could have an unexpected adverse effect by making herds of these creatures – which have a distinctive long, humped nose that allows them to filter air during the dusty summer months and breathe warm air during the freezing winters – more visible to hunters.
Hunting the saiga is illegal in Kazakhstan, punishable by a five-year prison term, but, for risk-takers, there is money to be made.
“The saiga horn is used in traditional medicine in China, so the demand is from there,” Zhannat Tansykbayev, director of Okhotzooprom, the state company in charge of protecting Kazakhstan’s fauna, said.
Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, is fond of vaunting tolerance and ethnic harmony as among his country’s greatest achievements -- but it seems that for some of his citizens tolerance does not extend to foreigners.
One concerned “patriot” has approached Nazarbayev’s right-hand man, Prime Minister Karim Masimov, to urge punishment for any citizen found committing the foul deed of marrying a foreigner.
“As a patriot of my country, I am concerned for its security,” a certain Arman Turdaliyev writes on Masimov’s blog.
“Citizens of other states are seeking through all means to come to Kazakhstan and receive our citizenship,” he continues. “The most popular means is marriage to a citizen of the Republic of Kazakhstan.”
It seems, though, that Turdaliyev is not necessarily concerned about all citizens of Kazakhstan -- it is mainly “Almaty Kazakh women” who are falling for this trick, out of “financial considerations.”
As for the foreigners who are streaming in and stealing the women of Kazakhstan to gain its much-desired citizenship, it turns out the perennial bogeyman is to blame -- China. “Thousands of Chinese have received citizenship in this way in Almaty already,” the outraged Turdaliyev claims.
Luckily, he has a solution -- a law that would deprive nationals of their Kazakh citizenship if they marry foreigners, which would “stop ‘quiet’ Chinese expansion into Kazakhstan, as well as [immigration from] other undesirable countries (countries of Southeast Asia, countries of the Middle East, Africa and the Caucasus).”
Uzbekistan launches its own version of Facebook, Muloqot, on September 1 with claims the new social networking site will be “a convenient and cheap communication platform” for Uzbekistan’s mushrooming legions of social networking addicts.
The name of the bilingual Uzbek-Russian site says it all: Muloqot means “dialogue” or “communication” in Uzbek, and the forum is being touted as cheaper-to-access than sites hosted on foreign servers, with the added bonus of offering an Uzbek-language interface.
So has Uzbekistan – which global watchdogs call an “internet enemy” and say ranks as one of the most repressive countries on earth – suddenly committed itself to freedom of information? Hardly, say critics: Muloqot is more likely just another way of controlling the flow of information.
Uzbek IT company Simple Networking Solutions, which operates the site, is promoting Muloqot as a “web-based project which helps people express themselves and find an audience.”
The company does not mention that the website can also help the government’s cyber-spies find people who are trying to express themselves too freely.
To open an account, Muloqot users must give an Uzbek cellphone number, providing an easy means of monitoring who is posting what. There is no option to sign up without an Uzbek number, reducing chances the system will be infiltrated with dangerous foreign ideas. And to register for an Uzbek cellphone number, of course, one must present a passport.
More trouble in western Kazakhstan, which is beginning to acquire a reputation as a hotbed of Islamic militancy: Police in the oil city of Atyrau have shot dead a suspect they feared was plotting to commit “violent acts,” the Kazinform state news agency reports.
The suspect was mowed down in a gun battle on August 29 as law enforcers rounded up a group of 20 people they suspected of plotting “violent acts both on the territory of Atyrau Region and in neighboring regions of Kazakhstan,” Kazinform reported, citing “operational information.” The other members of the group were detained, reportedly in possession of weapons and explosives.
The incident comes on the heels of a bloody shootout in another energy-rich western region, Aktobe, last month. That episode left nine suspects and four law-enforcement officers dead. Officials offered the baffling account that the suspects were organized criminals sheltering behind the guise of religion.
In late July another cop was killed in Aktobe by gunfire from inside a house in which a man then blew himself up.
Until now, officials have appeared intent on denying that Kazakhstan faces any terror threat: The country’s first-ever suicide bomb in May in downtown Aktobe was blamed on the mafia rather than militants, and a later blast in Astana remains shrouded in mystery.