London-based Kazakh oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov has suffered a setback in his British court battle with BTA Bank, the financial institution he once owned in Kazakhstan before he was ousted as chairman and the bank was forcibly nationalized in 2009. The latest High Court ruling allowing BTA to pursue its fraud case against Ablyazov will be welcomed by the bank, and perhaps also behind the scenes by President Nursultan Nazarbayev: Ablyazov, now his implacable foe, has fired off a stream of damaging allegations against the president and his son-in-law Timur Kulibayev since moving to London in 2009.
The High Court ruled on May 10 against Ablyazov’s bid to stay BTA’s $4 billion fraud case against him, clearing the way for the bank to continue proceedings.
Ablyazov had attempted to stay the proceedings on the grounds that “the actions have been brought to assist the President of Kazakhstan in his scheme to eliminate Mr. Ablyazov as a political opponent,” the judgment said. The judge dismissed the bid, ruling that the allegation was untested and BTA has a legitimate interest in pursuing the case.
The judge found the “tsunami of evidence” for a political motivation offered by Ablyazov – who denies any wrongdoing – to be circumstantial, based on Ablyazov’s contentions about “the widespread power and influence of the President in a totalitarian state” and “the alleged (but as yet unchallenged) history of the President's antagonism towards Mr. Ablyazov.”
With his reelection out of the way, Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, is now focusing on carrying out a limited reshaping of the Central Asian country’s political landscape. The changes being contemplated seem aimed at managing the transition to the post-Nazarbayev era.
It's not often the human rights community celebrates a victory in Kazakhstan, but this week offers an opportunity with news that global tobacco giant Philip Morris International (PMI) has – under international pressure – committed itself to improving conditions for migrant workers on tobacco farms in Kazakhstan.
The news comes nearly a year after Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a damning expose of the conditions tobacco pickers were suffering in Kazakhstan, with many working in what HRW described as “virtual bondage.” The watchdog found abuses including the “frequent use” of child labor (it documented 72 cases, including children as young as 10) and cases of forced labor.
PMI has now declared itself “committed to achieving safe and fair working conditions on all farms from which it sources tobacco and to progressively eliminate child labor and other labor abuses where they are found."
It also pledged to implement an Agricultural Labor Practices Code, regulating working hours and salaries and obliging farmers to ensure fair treatment, safe working conditions and the right to collective bargaining for their employees.
PMI is working on this with the international NGO Verite, which on May 2 issued a report sponsored by the tobacco company on labor conditions on Kazakhstan’s tobacco farms.
Lumbering camels and nimble horses are common sights on the Kazakh steppe, but if you spotted a prowling tiger, you’d probably do a double take. In a few years, though, the striped felines may not be such a surprise: Astana is joining forces with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in an ambitious bid to reintroduce tigers to the Central Asian state.
The project seeks to bring these proud beasts from the Russian Far East and settle them in southern Kazakhstan in an area deemed by experts to offer a suitable habitat.
The tigers won’t replace the Caspian tiger (panthera tigris virgata) that once made its home in Kazakhstan and all over the Caspian region. Last spotted in the wild in the 1970s, that breed was driven to extinction by poaching and habitat loss, and there are none in captivity.
But all is not lost for Kazakhstan’s tiger lovers: It’s hoped that the Amur tiger, which is genetically identical to its Caspian cousin, will eagerly take up the relocation offer and adapt smoothly to the Ili River Delta south of Lake Balkhash, where 400,000 hectares of suitable habitat have been identified.
“With a strong plan and proper protections in place, tigers can again roam the forests and landscapes of Central Asia,” WWF-Russia Director Igor Chestin said as the new program was announced on April 14.
He was among WWF officials Prime Minister Karim Masimov met with in March, and now the WWF is teaming up with Kazakhstan’s Environment Ministry to design detailed plans to bring the tiger back.
A still from The Sky of My Childhood. (KazakhFilm Photo.)
As a new movie about the childhood of Kazakhstan’s president premieres in Almaty tonight, cinemagoers expecting a eulogy to the Leader of the Nation are in for a surprise: The Sky of My Childhood, directed by Rustem Abdrashov for Kazakhfilm, is no piece of simplistic post-Soviet propaganda.
This Kazakh-language movie certainly offers a flattering picture of a young Nursultan Nazarbayev, but it also presents a reflective look at Soviet Kazakhstan in the 1940s and 1950s. It was filmed with a budget of $3 million against a background of the luscious countryside in which this rural-boy-made-good grew up.
The action features a boy named Sultan, born into a family living on the rolling zhaylau (alpine pasturelands) of Ushkonyr outside Almaty. It traces his early childhood in the countryside growing up in a yurt with his mother, father and grandmother, and their move when he was a young boy to the village of Shamalgan.
The tone is upbeat: Despite the backdrop of World War II and the latter Stalin era, the hero -- played by three different actors -- enjoys a carefree childhood galloping across the zhaylau on horseback, learning falconry, and playing the stringed dombyra.
Not surprisingly, Sultan is a high flier, winning the local bayga (horserace) through a feat of horsemanship and outshining his classmates with his intellectual prowess.
Days after Kazakhstan's re-elected president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, took office with a vaguely worded pledge to democratize, his political adviser has voiced a novel strategy: a “top-down revolution” in which -- assuming all goes to plan -- Astana basically gets to choose the parliamentary “opposition.”
In an interview with Megapolis newspaper, Yermukhamet Yertysbayev outlined his ingenious scheme for the Atameken Union -- an entrepreneurs’ association that just happens to be headed by Nazarbayev’s billionaire son-in-law, Timur Kulibayev -- to be transformed into a political party that would sweep into parliament in the next elections, scheduled for August 2012.
“This [presidential] election campaign’s shown that opposition parties here are absolutely not ready for the fight – they don’t have a clear ideology, or organizational structures, or money, or a sociopolitical foundation,” he said dismissively, failing to mention that genuine opposition politicians refused to participate in the election on the grounds that it wasn’t a fair vote.
Yertysbayev sees Atameken forming an offshoot of the ruling Nur Otan party, which is led by Nazarbayev and holds all elected seats in the lower house of parliament.
Other parties would conveniently cease to exist. “Thus all other parties would join either Nur Otan or Atameken, and we would in an accelerated manner have created a two-party political system,” he said.
Following a presidential election lacking any political surprises, Astana watchers were hoping for a bit of excitement over the appointment of the new government. Rumors of a broom sweeping through the dusty corridors of power were confounded, however, when newly re-elected President Nursultan Nazarbayev re-appointed Karim Masimov as prime minister.
Masimov resigned on April 8 along with the entire cabinet in a post-election formality. He was immediately re-appointed and approved the same day in a rapid-fire vote by the rubber stamp parliament. Masimov is Kazakhstan's longest-serving premier. His appointment is a renewed vote of confidence from Nazarbayev in his stewardship, and a sign that the president trusts his political loyalty.
Observers had been keenly watching to see who’d get the plum job of heading the cabinet. They were hoping for a clue about the succession plans of Kazakhstan’s aging president, who’ll turn 71 in July. But now they’ve still been left guessing - is Masimov’s re-appointment a sign that Nazarbayev favors him as successor, or is it an indication that he’s holding his cards close to his chest and keeping Masimov in place until the time’s ripe to maneuver a potential successor into the prominent position later?
Whatever the case, all pundits interested in the only political intrigue that matters in Kazakhstan -- who’ll follow Nazarbayev as president -- will be watching to see who’s up and who’s down as the rest of the cabinet’s named. Masimov has 10 days to announce the appointments, which, it goes without saying, will all be overseen by the man at the top.
“It’s a great honor for me to be the nationally elected head of state in the year of the 20th anniversary of our independence and continue the mission of leader of our unique, multiethnic homeland,” Nazarbayev intoned triumphantly, after kissing the Kazakh flag and taking oath standing on a piece of white felt, as the Kazakh khans of old once did.
In a ceremony broadcast live on television, Nazarbayev seemed keen to emphasize his long rule in a year notable for sweeping long-serving Arab autocrats from power, reminding his adoring public of the strides made since 1991. “We were in the ruins of a collapsed superpower… Today it’s hard to imagine that all this was just 20 years ago,” he said.
A huge crowd welcomed the Leader of the Nation as he arrived at the Palace of Independence, and inside the hall a “who’s who” of Kazakhstan solemnly watched the ceremony.
Among them were many of those sometimes tipped to one day succeed the 70-year-old president, including Kayrat Kelimbetov, chairman of the Samruk-Kazyna sovereign wealth fund, and Kazakhstan’s two most powerful mayors, Imangali Tasmagambetov of Astana and Akhmetzhan Yesimov of Almaty.