“One Fatherland, one Fate, one Leader of the Nation” – so says the slogan beside the smiling face of President Nursultan Nazarbayev on giant billboards looming over the streets in Kazakhstan. They are promoting a new holiday on December 1: First President’s Day, when Kazakhstan will fete its longtime leader.
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton has wound up a four-day trip to Central Asia, where she focused on security, energy and trade. The visit disappointed campaigners who hoped for stronger public statements about what they say are serious human rights abuses in the region.
New York-based Human Rights Watch had urged Ashton to “publicly call for the release of wrongfully imprisoned activists” across Central Asia, where “numerous human rights defenders, civil society groups, and opposition activists languish in prison for their peaceful work and activism.”
There was no public mention of prisoners during the visit, which ended in Astana on November 30. After meeting President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Ashton said talks had “not surprisingly, focused on economic and trade issues” and mentioned the “security dialogue.”
“I also want to say that it is important that the country moves forward with economic liberalization and in support of civil society and human rights,” Ashton said. She did not publicly mention the case of opposition leader Vladimir Kozlov, controversially jailed last month on charges of inciting unrest and attempting to overthrow the state.
Security and energy topped the agenda on the first day of European Union foreign affairs envoy Catherine Ashton’s visit to Central Asia, disappointing campaigners hoping she would make vocal calls for improvements to what they see as the five states’ dismal human rights records.
Following the EU-Central Asia Ministerial meeting in Kyrgyzstan on November 27, Ashton cited first security (due to the region’s proximity to Afghanistan) then energy and trade as key to “the growing importance of Central Asia.”
“We face shared security challenges. We have great potential to further develop our energy, trade and economic relations,” she said, only then pointing to the EU’s desire to “support the efforts of the countries of Central Asia as you take that journey of political and economic reforms.”
She listed topics of discussion as education; the rule of law; the environment; and energy and water resources (a particular bone of regional contention). “And we talked about democratization and human rights and the development of civil society,” Ashton then added.
Human rights campaigners had been hoping for stronger language from the EU foreign policy chief, who promised ahead of her visit in an interview with Radio Free Europe to make human rights “a core part of the dialogue.”
Prosecutors have moved to silence some of the few dissenting voices left in Kazakhstan’s tightly controlled political arena, seeking to muffle media and opposition groups for allegedly calling for the overthrow of the state in the run-up to fatal violence in Zhanaozen last December.
A statement by the prosecutor’s office on November 21 accused two vocal opposition forces -- the unregistered Alga! party and the People’s Front organization, consisting of Alga! and the Communist Party of Kazakhstan -- of extremist actions and said it had filed a court case to ban them, along with a host of media outlets.
Alga! is led by Vladimir Kozlov, who on November 19 lost his appeal against a seven-and-a-half year prison sentence over the Zhanaozen unrest. Critics -- including international human rights organizations and the US government -- fear Kozlov’s imprisonment was designed to silence Kazakhstan’s battered opposition.
“The authorities are themselves radicalizing dissent, pushing it out of the legal field,” Amirzhan Kosanov, deputy leader of another -- still tolerated -- opposition party, OSDP Azat, commented on his Facebook page.
A court in Kazakhstan has rejected the appeal of opposition leader Vladimir Kozlov, who was jailed last month in a trial widely condemned as politicized.
Tengri News reports that Kozlov lost the November 19 appeal against his seven-and-a-half-year prison sentence. He had been found guilty of stoking unrest that left 15 dead last year in Zhanaozen, according to official figures, and plotting the overthrow of the state.
Kozlov, leader of the unregistered Alga! party, has taken the political rap for violence which erupted on December 16 as Kazakhstan marked its 20th anniversary of independence. The authorities allege he urged violence by politicizing a protracted oil strike that Astana acknowledges was mishandled.
Ahead of his appeal state television aired a vitriolic program accusing Kozlov of being a manipulative criminal who allegedly channeled millions of dollars into Kazakhstan from Mukhtar Ablyazov, a fugitive Kazakh oligarch who is on the run from British justice, in a bid to destabilize the state.
Kozlov and Ablyazov deny the accusations, and Kozlov has argued that he only engaged in legitimate political opposition.
“Money for blood: Their weapons are dirty games and provocations, their business is unrest and social conflicts.” It sounds like a trailer for an exciting new movie, but it is actually an advert for a state TV “documentary” in Kazakhstan sullying the names of political opponents of President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
The program, broadcast on Khabar TV on November 15 ahead of an appeal hearing by jailed opposition leader Vladimir Kozlov, consists of a 20-minute diatribe against Kozlov and alleged accomplices, including fugitive oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov. They are portrayed as greedy criminals who stoked deadly unrest in the town of Zhanaozen last December to make money.
The “documentary” -- which has echoes of the “Anatomy of a Protest” aired on Russian TV to slur Russia’s opposition -- is entitled “Amoral Alga!rhythm,” a play on words with the name of Kozlov’s unregistered political party, Alga!. The party is described as “a criminal group,” a secretive network that funneled money from Ablyazov into Kazakhstan to foment unrest.
As Kazakhstan, the breadbasket of Central Asia, struggles with a disastrous grain harvest this year due to drought, Astana has accused local officials of massaging statistics. It’s all reminiscent of the Soviet-era tradition of overstating production to meet central government plans.
Deputy Agriculture Minister Muslim Umiryayev said discrepancies had been revealed between satellite monitoring data on the harvest and preliminary figures supplied to the government by Kazakhstan’s three northern grain-growing regions: Kostanay, Akmola and North Kazakhstan.
He said there was a discrepancy of 1.4 million metric tons.
Umiryayev added that Astana was receiving desperate appeals from farmers being forced by local governments to overstate production. “This fact is confirmed by the presence of appeals reaching the minister’s blog from agricultural producers, in which they indicate that local government employees are in a number of cases asking them for false reports overstating productivity,” he said in comments carried by Bnews.kz.
In the Soviet Union, local officials often distorted economic output figures to Moscow in order to conceal poor production, as well as corruption. In the 1980s, for example, Kazakhstan’s neighbor Uzbekistan was rocked by scandal when Moscow accused Communist Party officials of skimming off billions by submitting distorted reports on cotton harvests.
As the anniversary of last December’s killing of 15 protestors in Zhanaozen approaches, a lobbying war is heating up in Washington that looks set to focus new attention on the Kazakhstan violence.
A group of Kazakhstani activists, with the support of a New York-based human rights watchdog, has been pushing for sanctions on officials they deem responsible for the shootings, from President Nursultan Nazarbayev on down. That’s upset one associate of the Nazarbayev administration, who has sent the rights group a letter threatening legal action.
The letter to the Human Rights Foundation (HRF) was penned by lawyers for Alexander Mirtchev, a businessman who chairs the Krull Corp. Krull describes itself as a “global strategic solutions provider” and is linked to Kazakhstan’s administration through Mirtchev’s position as an independent director of the country’s sovereign wealth fund. Mirtchev also sits on various think tanks in the US and UK that critics say are lobbying organizations.
Mirtchev’s lawyers take issue over allegations made by Kazakhstani civil society activists in an open letter HRF helped publish last month that Mirtchev is a “fixer” who was among people who “enriched themselves while serving a ruthless tyrant that ordered oil workers killed” in Zhanaozen, and “peddled the lie that Kazakhstan is the story of a ‘young democracy’… rather than a totalitarian police state.”
Religious life in Kazakhstan features a glaring dichotomy these days. Officials in Astana tout the country as a bastion of toleration, yet they are making it harder for those practicing what are deemed non-traditional faiths to worship openly.
In the latest twist in the long-running saga of Russian cellphone operator MTS in Uzbekistan, a Tashkent appeals court reportedly has made a landmark ruling and promised to return the company to its Russian owners. Tashkent had shut down the billion-dollar firm this summer.
Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency quoted a “source close to the company” as saying that MTS had been told verbally that the appeals court had overturned a September ruling granting Tashkent the property of O’zdunrobita, MTS’ Uzbekistan arm, following a months-long dispute over alleged legal violations and tax evasion charges that the company vehemently denied.
Vedomosti newspaper quoted another source “close to one of the sides in the proceedings” as confirming the news, but said that the court had ruled that the company should pay Tashkent “the monetary equivalent of the cost of its assets -- around $600 million.” The report said MTS had declined to comment.
If confirmed, the ruling would signal an abrupt about-face by Tashkent that could suggest it has bowed to pressure from Moscow, which -- although not too vocal in its criticism -- has made it clear that it does look kindly on the treatment meted out to one of its oligarchs, Vladimir Yevtushenkov, owner of MTS.