Astana and fugitive oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov are engaged in an escalating war of words after Italy expressed contrition for deporting his wife and daughter to Kazakhstan.
Italy revoked the deportation order on July 12, citing failings in the procedure that saw Alma Shalabayeva and six-year-old Alua Ablyazova arrested in an overnight raid near Rome on May 28-29 and whisked to Kazakhstan on a private jet. Shalabayeva is now under criminal investigation in Almaty for allegedly using forged documents.
“It was a grave failure not to inform the government of the entire episode, which had from the start elements and characteristics that were not ordinary,” Reuters quoted a statement from Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta’s office as saying.
The speed of the deportation was questioned at the time, with Shalabayeva’s Italian lawyer Riccardo Olivo describing it as “incredible” and accusing Rome of having “handed her over as a hostage to a dictator.”
Ablyazov says he believes his wife and daughter are in “grave danger” in Kazakhstan. In a letter to Letta quoted by La Stampa, he hailed the “courageous decision” to revoke the deportation order but said he feared Astana planned to send his wife to jail and his daughter to an orphanage.
Torture and inhumane methods of confinement are rife in Kazakhstan, global human rights watchdog Amnesty International alleged in a new report published on July 11.
The report, “Old Habits: The routine use of torture and other ill treatment in Kazakhstan,” accused Astana of breaking its “bold promise” to the United Nations in 2010 that it “would not rest until all vestiges of torture had been fully and totally eliminated.”
“In 2013, the security forces in Kazakhstan still enjoy impunity for human rights violations,” Amnesty said.
The report singled out fatal unrest in the western oil town of Zhanaozen in 2011, pointing to a “lack of effective investigation and prosecution into the use of excessive and lethal force […] as well as the torture and other ill-treatment” of protestors detained over the violence.
Fifteen civilians died in clashes with security forces in Zhanaozen after a protracted oil strike spiraled out of control. Allegations of torture by detained protestors – who said they had suffered beatings, suffocation, and sexual abuse – were dismissed by investigators and 37 civilians were convicted of unrest-related crimes. Some were amnestied or given suspended sentences; 10 remain in jail, as does opposition leader Vladimir Kozlov (alleged to have fomented the unrest) and six police officers jailed over the demonstrators’ deaths.
Astana celebrated its 15th anniversary as Kazakhstan’s capital with a lavish bash designed to cement the legacy of President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
The country marked Astana Day as a national holiday on July 6, which is also Nazarbayev’s birthday (he turned 73 this year). There is heavy symbolism in celebrating the anniversary of Nazarbayev’s brainchild on the day he was born.
The people of Kazakhstan are used to images of President Nursultan Nazarbayev dominating their TV screens, but it’s rare to catch a glimpse of what makes the man tick.
In a carefully scripted documentary beamed around the country ahead of his birthday this weekend, Kazakhstan got to see the Leader of the Nation’s human face. “Nazarbayev. Live.” – a documentary credited as the brainchild the president’s press secretary – aired on the private KTK channel on July 4.
The film came two days ahead of a big celebration for Kazakhstan: July 6, Nazarbayev’s 73rd birthday, marks 15 years since he moved the capital to Astana.
The documentary struck an informal note, with two young presenters in jeans interviewing a relaxed Nazarbayev, snappily dressed in a blue shirt, purple tie and red waistcoat, over tea in his residence.
Nazarbayev revealed some fond memories: his rural childhood in the village of Shamalgan outside Almaty, when he always wanted to “be first;” his baptism by fire at the furnaces of the Temirtau steelworks, where he started his career and had to “overcome fear” and learn “collectivism” and “discipline.”
From there Nazarbayev built a Communist Party career, rising to the top job as Soviet Kazakhstan’s first secretary in 1989. Archive footage showed him 20 days after that appointment appeasing an irate crowd of striking steelworkers – demonstrating the popular touch he hasn’t lost.
Chinese energy major CNPC is about to snap up a stake in Kazakhstan’s super-giant Kashagan oil field just as the project prepares to start commercial production, expanding an already significant Chinese presence in Kazakhstan’s energy sector.
Astana says it will buy a foreign-owned stake that is up for sale and which India had been eying. A top Kazakh industry official has said the government plans to sell this share to state-run CNPC.
News of the shakeup broke on July 2, when the Oil and Gas Ministry announced that it had notified Texas-based ConocoPhillips of its intention to exercise its legal right to have first option as the American company divests itself of its 8.49 percent stake in Kashagan in a bid to streamline its assets.
The statement did not say what the government – which already owns a 16.85 percent stake in the seven-member consortium operating Kashagan, the North Caspian Operating Company (NCOC) – intends to do with its newly-acquired stake. However, on July 1 the head of Kazakhstan’s state energy company KazMunayGaz (KMG), Lyazzat Kiinov, shed light on Astana’s plans: it will buy ConocoPhillips’ stake and also sell a stake to CNPC, he told Reuters.
Kiinov did not specify the price but confirmed that it would be over $5 billion: “not substantially, but more.”
In the end, CNPC is expected to hold ConocoPhillips’ 8.49 percent stake, leaving the remaining holdings unchanged: oil majors ExxonMobil, Shell, Total, and Eni each hold 16.85 percent (as does KMG), and Japan’s INPEX holds 7.56 percent.
A Russian rocket has exploded and crashed shortly after taking off from the Baikonur space-launch site in central Kazakhstan. The incident is likely to make further waves in Russo-Kazakh relations, which are already strained over cosmic cooperation.
Dramatic live video broadcast by the Rossiya 24 channel showed the Proton-M rocket taking off from Baikonur then veering off course before bursting into flames, breaking up and crashing to the ground.
The rocket engines cut out 17 seconds after takeoff and it crashed 2.5 kilometers from the launch pad, Russian space agency Roskosmos said. It added that there were no reported casualties or damage at the scene of the crash. Video of the incident showed the burning rocket, which was carrying three satellites into space, setting fire to the ground where it landed.
A Russian space industry source told RIA Novosti that problems with the flight control system were the likely cause of the crash, but Kazakh Emergencies Situations Minister Vladimir Boyko preliminarily put it down to engine failure, as a result of which there was “combustion of fuel, some of which fell to the ground and continued to burn,” he said in remarks quoted by Tengri News.
Villagers in a valley in eastern Kazakhstan knew what to blame when they kept being hit by misfortune: the restless spirits of one of their illustrious ancestors, unearthed from his elaborate grave a decade ago by archeologists.
Now, to the chagrin of historians from Kazakhstan and Russia who have spent 10 years studying the body for clues about the ancient Scythians who inhabited the steppes of Eurasia, the body has been returned to the grave to appease those spirits, KTK TV reports.
The villagers had lobbied heavily to have the body returned from Almaty, where it was being studied, and buried because “since the burial mound was dug up, utter misfortune has befallen the region: hurricanes keep raging over and over, cattle is dying in the villages, and children are being born sick. All this, the villagers said, was because historians disturbed the spirits of the ancestors.”
The Scythian nobleman, originally buried decked out in gold as a mark of respect for his rank, was returned to his original grave near the settlement of Shilikty at a ceremonial burial, and the villagers now plan to erect a memorial in his honor. The hapless historians have managed to secure agreement that they can reenter the grave for more studies if the need arises.
Kazakhstan is a treasure trove of amazing archeological finds. The jewel in the crown is the Golden Man, found in the Issyk burial mound just outside Kazakhstan’s commercial capital, Almaty, in 1969. Believed to have been a young Scythian prince who lived in the 4th or 5th century BC, he was interred wearing some 4,000 gold ornaments.
UK Prime Minister David Cameron raised human rights concerns with his hosts during a two-day visit to Kazakhstan. But not even the most delicately phrased admonition seems likely to prompt President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s administration to alter its current political course.
A consortium consisting of a trio of oligarchs and the Kazakh government has moved one step closer to taking control of a London-listed natural resources giant with major operations in Kazakhstan.
The consortium bidding to win control of the Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation (ENRC) submitted a slightly revised offer to take the company back into private hands on June 24, after its initial proposal last month fell flat when minority shareholders said it undervalued the company.
However, the new offer valued the embattled company at even less: The terms were similar to last month’s proposal but the value was slightly down due to changes in dollar-sterling exchange rates and falling share prices.
The new offer proposes paying shareholders $2.65 in cash plus 0.23 of a share in London-listed copper miner Kazakhmys in exchange for each ENRC share. Kazakhmys, ENRC’s largest stakeholder with 26 percent of the company, issued a statement on June 24 saying it was accepting the offer despite believing it “may undervalue ENRC and its assets.”
Kazakhmys said it did not believe it could secure better terms, and that it would raise $887 million from the sale that could be targeted to its core business. If approved by shareholders, the deal would remove the firm from ENRC.
The endangered saiga antelope has had a rough few years in Kazakhstan, hunted mercilessly by poachers for its horns and wracked by a deadly sickness that has seen thousands of these endangered long-nosed antelopes perish on the steppe.
Yet amid all the doom and gloom there is a glimmer of hope: Kazakhstan’s saiga population has more than doubled over the last five years, according to figures released by the Ministry for Environmental Protection.
The country’s saiga population now stands at 137,000 against just 61,000 five years ago, the ministry said. The news comes less than two years after officials reported that efforts to conserve this creature – listed as critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List – were bearing fruit as numbers passed the symbolic 100,000 mark in Kazakhstan.
The population has since grown by over a third, but today’s figures are still a far cry from Kazakhstan’s million-strong population of the 1970s. Since then the saiga – an unusual-looking creature with a distinctive long, humped nose that allows it to filter air during the dusty summer months and breathe warm air during the freezing winters – has been hunted mercilessly by poachers for its horn, which is prized in Chinese medicine.