The United Kingdom’s Serious Fraud Office (SFO) has launched a criminal investigation into alleged corruption at a London-listed natural resources giant with strong links to Kazakhstan, British media report.
The SFO probe targets the Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation (ENRC), a company with interests in the energy and mining sectors mainly in Kazakhstan but also in China, Brazil and some African states. It is partially owned by three oligarchs believed to have powerful connections in Kazakhstan. The Kazakh government also holds a stake.
“The focus of the investigation will be fraud, bribery and corruption relating to the activities of the company or its subsidiaries in Kazakhstan and Africa,” The Guardian newspaper quoted the SFO – an arm of the British government – as saying in an April 25 statement.
ENRC, which is listed on the London Stock Exchange, said in a statement the same day that it “is assisting and cooperating fully with the SFO” and “is committed to a full and transparent investigation of its procedures and conduct.”
The news follows a troubled period for ENRC, whose chairman Mehmet Dalman resigned on April 23, less than two weeks after a law firm appointed by ENRC to pursue an internal inquiry into the corruption allegations – first made by a whistleblower – was abruptly replaced.
Kazakhstan’s social affairs minister was pelted with eggs Friday while addressing the government’s controversial pension reforms at a lively press conference.
In a show of protest rare for Kazakhstan, Minister of Labor and Social Protection Serik Abdenov was targeted as he attempted to explain why the government is seeking to raise the pension age for women from 58 to 63 over the next decade. The reform, which would bring the female retirement age into line with the male one, has passed its first reading in the lower house of parliament (with several more stages to go before it becomes law), raising a storm of controversy.
Abdenov called the briefing in Almaty on April 26 to douse the flames of the dispute – but one protestor was not in the mood for listening. Activist Andrey Tsukanov got up and hurled two eggs at the minister, Tengri News reports. A video posted by Radio Azattyq showed Abdenov batting away the make-do missiles.
Abdenov has become the target of vilification and ridicule in the past week after another unsuccessful attempt to defend Astana’s pension reforms to a group of workers in Temirtau, an industrial city in eastern Kazakhstan, fell flat.
Asked why women should work for five more years, Abdenov got a little lost for words. “You have to work and work,” he said, to guffaws of laughter from the audience,” because, my dear fellow countrymen, because, because.”
News that the suspected perpetrators of the April 15 Boston marathon bombings have links to Kazakhstan – albeit extremely tenuous ones – has brought unwanted attention to this oil-rich Central Asian state neighboring Kyrgyzstan, where the two suspects have family roots.
Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, is bucking a trend by pooh-poohing scaremongering about the security threat that the Central Asian region will face after NATO troops finish withdrawing from Afghanistan next year.
Observers have voiced apprehension that the region will confront rising challenges from threats such as terrorism, extremism and drug trafficking that could destabilize the entire Central Asia region. But Nazarbayev does not subscribe to that view.
“I will say it directly: I do not accept the catastrophic theories that we read and hear from various sides,” he said on April 25, adding that he did not believe that there was some sort of “countdown timer” running, ticking off the days before coalition forces withdraw and disaster strikes.
Nazarbayev was speaking at the Eurasian Media Forum in Astana, a jamboree of assorted international media professionals and pundits organized by his daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva to discuss global and regional problems.
His remarks fly in the face of accepted wisdom about the mounting security threat that Central Asian states will struggle to cope with after 2014.
Nazarbayev’s own security chief, Nurtay Abykayev, is less insouciant than his boss, warning last month of “growing threats of instability.” “We are concerned by the ongoing activeness of terrorist and extremist organizations in the region, particularly in the run-up to the departure of NATO forces from Afghanistan.”
Following last year’s crackdown on Kazakhstan’s media and opposition, many have wondered what political course President Nursultan Nazarbayev is steering.
Today, Nazarbayev delivered his response: Kazakhstan is firmly set on becoming a Western-style democracy, he said – but it will take time.
“We believe that the democracy and freedom that exist in the West, as in Finland, are for us the final goal, and not the start of the path,” he told visiting Finnish President Sauli Niinistö, in remarks quoted by Tengri News. “We are going along that path.”
Kazakhstan may have occasionally stumbled along the way, but Nazarbayev believes the glass of democracy is at least half full. “To put it vividly in the words of a philosopher, our glass is half or three-quarters full, and we have to fill it up,” he said.
Nazarbayev was speaking the day after a motion was made in the European Parliament urging members to vote for a new resolution expressing concern about Kazakhstan’s human rights situation.
The draft resolution specifically points to court rulings last year banning the Alga! party and independent media outlets, alleging that such a move "violates the principles of freedom of expression and assembly and raises great concerns with regard to subsequent repression of media and opposition.”
It has long been rumored that huge bribes change hands in Kazakhstan to secure public-service jobs and law-enforcement positions that come with small salaries but enormous potential to make a few bucks on the side.
Now comes some indication of just how large the bribes may be: A human resources official in South Kazakhstan Region’s bureaucracy is under arrest after demanding a $50,000 backhander in a cash-for-job deal, Kazinform reports.
The official offered her services to secure a lowly job as deputy head of the regional Entrepreneurship and Trade Directorate, begging the question of how much money might be changing hands for more senior (and potentially lucrative) positions.
Graft is officially acknowledged to be rife throughout Kazakhstan’s bureaucracy, including the judiciary and law-enforcement system.
Last month the financial police said that some tax officials were taking bribes ranging from 1,000 to 1 million tenge (approximately $6.60 to $6,600) to fix results on tax audits, Tengri News reported.
In one high-profile case, Major-General Almaz Asenov, former head of the military’s armaments department, was arrested earlier this year on suspicion of taking a $200,000 kickback from two representatives of Ukrainian company Ukrspetzeksport in return for turning a blind eye to faulty repair work on An-72 aircraft.
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev is fond of lauding his oil-rich country’s economic successes – but now he has acknowledged that they are not trickling down to everyone.
Speaking at the Council of Entrepreneurs on April 10, Nazarbayev said Kazakhstan’s growing rich-poor divide had hit his personal radar and ordered his government to bridge it, Tengri News reported.
Officials must examine “how many poor people we have, what the difference between the rich and poor is – and the difference in our country is substantial,” Nazarbayev – whose close family members include millionaires and billionaires – told Kazakhstan’s top entrepreneurs. “I have especially engaged in [studying] this.”
Nazarbayev cited statistics showing that 8 percent of households have incomes of less than 15,000 tenge ($100) per person, below the official minimum salary of 18,660 tenge ($124). Nazarbayev said those households included 1.5 million people – which means 8.8 percent of Kazakhstan’s population of 17 million are living on less than the minimum wage.
This puts into perspective official statistics showing the average monthly salary in Kazakhstan standing at 98,736 tenge ($654), and suggests that the gap between high earners and low earners is indeed wide.
Fresh from hosting international talks on Iran’s nuclear program this month, Kazakhstan is quietly pushing its offer to host a global nuclear fuel bank that would serve non-proliferation efforts by providing safe access to low-enriched uranium.
Kazakhstan is hoping to reach agreement this year with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on hosting the fuel bank, Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov told the Express K newspaper on April 4.
Astana has long sought to position itself as a leader in non-proliferation efforts, citing President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s renouncing of nuclear weapons at independence and Kazakhstan’s Soviet nuclear legacy.
The government offered to host the nuclear fuel bank in 2011 and has been in talks with the IAEA. The site under consideration is the Ulba Metallurgical Plant, which has produced nuclear fuel pellets since Soviet times and – Idrissov pointed out – has never experienced a nuclear leak in four decades of operation.
The suicides of two soldiers on two consecutive days have again highlighted festering problems in Kazakhstan’s armed forces.
One conscript hanged himself at a military unit Astana on April 4 while the next day a young private killed himself in a military unit in Karaganda by shooting himself in the neck, the Zakon.kz website reported.
Two 20-year-old privates were arrested on suspicion of driving the soldier in Karaganda, in northeastern Kazakhstan, to suicide by hazing – the practice of army bullying common in many post-Soviet militaries. The arrests suggest Kazakhstan’s military is starting to take hazing – a phenomenon that has for years been quietly tolerated – seriously.
Last June the commander of a border post near China was arrested with two other soldiers on suspicion of hazing after 11 conscripts deserted from the Tersayryk unit in northeastern Kazakhstan to protest their treatment.
In October a military court sentenced the commander to three years in jail and the other two soldiers to seven years each.
Kazakhstan’s Border Guard Service, which falls under the remit of the powerful KNB domestic intelligence service, has had a troubled year, starting with a bizarre mass slaughter in a remote outpost near the border with China last May that was blamed on rogue conscript Vladislav Chelakh.
A report in The New York Times that Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of Uzbek strongman Islam Karimov, has resigned as her country’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva set off a flurry of speculation about her future plans.
On April 6 The Times suggested that she was “possibly positioning herself for a larger role at home” amid uncertainty about her father’s health.
However, an official at Uzbekistan’s Geneva mission denied the report of Karimova's resignation on April 8.
“This does not correspond to reality,” a spokesperson who declined to be identified by name told EurasiaNet.org by telephone from Geneva. “Ms. Gulnara Karimova is still Uzbekistan’s ambassador to Geneva.”
Karimova is a colorful personality – a pop diva and fashion designer as well as a diplomat. Many observers believe she is positioning herself to succeed her 75-year-old father, which she pointedly failed to rule out in an interview recently made public.
The subject of the presidential succession in Uzbekistan is currently the subject of much international press speculation, prompted by a report put out by Uzbekistan’s opposition-in-exile that Karimov suffered a heart attack last month. The rumor spread like wildfire but was soon proved false.