Kazakhstan’s recently re-elected president has made a vaguely worded pledge of political reform for his new term. Nursultan Nazarbayev suggested that Kazakhstan must transition from its super-presidential system to a more balanced one with greater checks and balances.
Yet while mulling reforms to pave the way for the eventual post-Nazarbayev era, the president made no specific pledges about what form they might take or when they might be enacted, leaving skeptics wondering if his intentions are serious.
Kazakhstan’s political system has hitherto been characterized by “strong presidential rule,” Nazarbayev said on May 29 in remarks quoted by the Kazakhstanskaya Pravda government-owned daily.
Yet as a middle class emerges “this should probably be weakened and the government should be given more opportunities to work independently and more powers should be handed over to parliament.”
There has long been talk in Kazakhstan about weakening the top-down system in which Nazarbayev wields all powers, the government carries out his orders, and parliament (which contains no genuine opposition parties) rubberstamps executive decisions.
Reforms, the thinking goes, would pave the way for a time when the aging president – who has ruled Kazakhstan for a quarter century and will be 80 when his term of office ends in 2020 – will no longer be in power, allowing him to bequeath his successor a system less dependent on one personality.
Almost half of Kazakhstan’s population of rare saiga antelopes has been wiped out in recent weeks. The endangered beasts are believed to have succumbed to a lung disease that is sweeping across the steppe.
Latest figures show that the number of dead saigas has reached 120,977, the Agriculture Ministry reported on May 27. That is 40 percent of Kazakhstan’s total saiga population of 300,000 before disease started striking down the long-nosed antelopes, according to government estimates. (Astana’s figures are higher than an estimate of 265,000 released last year by the international Saiga Conservation Alliance after an aerial study of roaming grounds in Kazakhstan.)
Some 90 percent of the dead animals are females, the Agriculture Ministry said. This has enormous implications for breeding capacity to restore the population.
“Measures to monitor the state of the wild animals and establish the cause of mortality continue,” said the ministry, which has set up a working group and flown in experts from the UK, Germany, and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization to assist with the investigation.
The Saiga Conservation Alliance also has a team in the field, a representative told EurasiaNet.org, and the government says the World Organization for Animal Health is to send in specialists.
Scientists suspect the cause of death to be pasteurellosis, a disease that attacks the lungs and killed nearly 12,000 saigas in a 2010 epidemic.
Other theories floated include poisoning by rocket fuel from launches at Kazakhstan’s Baikonur spaceport (which is leased by Russia). However, Meirbek Moldabekov, the head of the government’s Aerospace Committee, has argued that the vast areas over which saigas are dying make this hypothesis unlikely.
Kazakhstan’s Constitutional Council has struck down a controversial law that would have outlawed “propaganda” of homosexuality to minors, amid signs the legislation was damaging the country’s bid to host the Winter Olympics.
The law was “not in line with the constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan” the Vlast.kz website quoted the Constitutional Council (which rules on the legality of legislation) as saying.
The law governed “the protection of children from information causing damage to their health and development." It was passed by parliament in February. The council struck down the law because of unclear wording rather than human rights concerns, the Vlast.kz report said.
The announcement came after a group of household-name sports stars urged the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to reject Kazakhstan’s bid to host the Winter Games in Almaty in 2022, arguing that the law outlawing the “propaganda” of homosexuality to minors was incompatible with Olympic principles of equality.
A court in Tashkent has ordered one of Uzbekistan’s few privately owned newspapers to close, accusing it of undermining the nation’s moral values.
The silencing of the Noviy Vek weekly is the latest blow to the beleaguered media in Uzbekistan, which watchdogs single out as having one of the world’s worst press-freedom records.
“The newspaper was closed down” by court order, Shakhriyor Mansurov, a spokesman for the government’s Agency for Press and Information – which brought the case – confirmed to EurasiaNet.org on May 21, the day after the ruling.
Noviy Vek could not be reached for comment, its telephones going unanswered on May 21. Its website was updated on May 21, but did not mention the case against the newspaper (which is published in print every Thursday).
Mansurov said he was unable to provide any background details to the case. But the Uzmetronom.com website – the only Uzbekistani-based outlet to mention the trial – reported that the government agency had accused Noviy Vek of publishing material “contradicting principles of moral development, shaping an incorrect notion of the socio-political situation in the country, and causing detriment to traditional values.”
The Agency for Press and Information, which had found these alleged violations in the Russian-language newspaper’s reporting, refused to hold the trial in Russian (as the defense had wished) on the grounds that its officials could not speak Russian, Uzmetronom.com said.
Tashkent is reportedly restricting access to dollars for the business community, in the latest development to suggest that Uzbekistan’s government is facing a liquidity crisis.
The National Bank of Uzbekistan has “halted all convertibility operations for an unspecified period,” the Tashkent-based Uzmetronom.com website reported May 20, citing “information from reliable sources.” There was no confirmation on the website of the central bank, which EurasiaNet.org could not reach for comment.
These are the operations through which foreign and domestic companies convert their revenues earned in Uzbekistani sums into dollars, to repatriate earnings and pay for imports.
“Thus foreign investors and local entrepreneurs who depend on supplies from abroad (raw materials, parts, equipment and so on), who could still recently count on at least minimal levels of profit conversion within the limits of the quotas set for them, are now deprived of this opportunity,” remarked Uzmetronom.com (an unusually outspoken website which is believed to be close to Uzbekistan’s security services).
Investors regularly cite convertibility of sums into foreign currency and repatriation of revenues as the main barriers to doing business in Uzbekistan. Privately, businessmen report delays stretching into months to obtain permission from the central bank to convert sums to dollars, during which time they cannot access the funds since they are held in zero-interest accounts at the National Bank.
If confirmed, the suspension of currency conversion would be the latest indication that Tashkent is suffering from a shortage of dollar liquidity as it struggles under exchange rate pressures, caused in part by the depreciation of the Russian ruble (which has hit currencies across the region).
Central Asia faces a gloomy economic outlook for the rest of this year and into next, battered by the tanking Russian economy and low commodity prices, according to a regional outlook released by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on May 19. Several countries face double-digit inflation.
“The region has been hit by two major external shocks: the oil price and the slowdown in the Russian economy,” Juha Kahkonen, deputy director of the IMF’s Middle East and Central Asia department, told a briefing in Almaty as the forecast was released.
Growth slowed last year and is set to decrease “much more significantly” this year, he said, before recovering “only slightly” next year.
All the Central Asian states are feeling the pinch of the slump in Russia, “which has close linkages with the region through remittances, trade, and foreign direct investment,” the IMF pointed out.
Energy exporters (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) and importers (Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) alike are suffering: exporters are battling falling revenues from the drop in global oil and gas prices, while importers are feeling what Kahkonen described as “only a very small beneficial impact” from lower prices because of the long-term nature of their energy import contracts in which prices are set.
Falls in prices for other commodities (gold in the case of Kyrgyzstan and aluminum for Tajikistan, for example) are also biting.
Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are also suffering from a drop in labor remittances from Russia, as migrants lose their jobs and the dollar value of remittances falls because of the depreciation of the ruble. This is causing weaker domestic demand in remittance-dependent economies.
Former Soviet dictator Josef Stalin has been experiencing some ups and downs in Kazakhstan lately. The only full-sized monument to the iron-fisted leader remaining in the Central Asian state – where a quarter of the population died during a famine under his watch – was recently restored, and then quickly taken down.
Blown off his pedestal in a storm last summer, the silvery Stalin was reinstalled by jubilant villagers in Stariy Ikan, near the border with Uzbekistan, earlier this month. It was torn down again on May 15 amid controversy over the glorification of the brutal colonialist dictator.
The villagers “gave their agreement to the removal of the monument,” mayor Abdulla Saydikarimov said in remarks quoted by Bnews.kz. The authorities had said villagers had not obtained the paperwork to erect the statue. But there was plainly far more to Comrade Stalin’s fall than planning permission.
It was no coincidence that the monument – standing five meters high with its pedestal and showing a commanding figure in military greatcoat and cap – was re-erected on May 6 by Stariy Ikan community elders.
That was during the run-up to May 9, the anniversary of the end of World War II, known as the Great Patriotic War in much of the former Soviet Union and celebrated with particular gusto this month, the 70th anniversary of victory.
At the ceremony to re-erect the contentious statue, veteran Babadzhan Nishanbayev waxed lyrical about its symbolism for those who returned from battle. “More than 300 of us went to the front from [Stariy] Ikan, almost all the men of the village. And 58 returned,” he told local news site Otyrar.kz. “Throughout the war, we went onto the attack with the cry ‘For the Motherland! For Stalin!”
Update, May 26: According to Kazakhstan's Agriculture Ministry, the number of confirmed saiga deaths now exceeds 85,000.
Over a thousand saiga antelopes have been found dead in northern Kazakhstan. Conservationists had been hoping that populations of this rare steppe-roaming ruminant were recovering.
The corpses have been found in Kostanay Region in northern Kazakhstan, the Ministry of Agriculture said in a May 13 statement that did not specify the precise figure.
The cause of death is unknown. Experts are running tests on the dead animals and on the surrounding soil and water, with the results expected in a week, the ministry said.
Last time there was a case of mass saiga deaths in this region, in 2012, the cause was established as pasteurellosis, a disease that attacks the lungs and which killed nearly 12,000 saigas – a species listed as Critically Endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List – in an epidemic in 2010.
The latest deaths have occurred just as conservationists have been reporting something of a success story in the saiga population's recovery. The distinctive creature has a long, humped nose that allows it to filter air during the dusty summer months and breathe warm air during the freezing winters.
The world’s media may be packed with coverage about the 10th anniversary of fatal unrest in the city of Andijan on May 13. But Uzbekistan’s tightly censored press has built a wall of silence about the shooting of protestors by security forces a decade ago.
Headline news in state media on the day of the anniversary covered President Islam Karimov’s tour of urban projects in Tashkent. Private outlets stuck to safe topics such as traffic jams in the capital.
Only one Uzbekistan-based outlet stepped out of line: Uzmetronom.com – a Tashkent-based website which is unusually outspoken and is believed by many Central Asia watchers to be close to the security services – carried a short and loosely worded editorial to mark the anniversary of what it described as the “tragedy” in Andijan.
“Is it worth recalling events of 10 years ago today?” Uzmetronom.com asked rhetorically. “It is, even if only so that they are never repeated.”
The editorial noted the discrepancy between the official death toll of 187 and estimates put forward by human rights campaigners, which run well into the hundreds. It hinted darkly at outside forces stirring the violence and spoke of “ordinary people who naively believed in lofty moral ideals” being “manipulated by cynical and pragmatic leaders” whom it did not name.
The results of the April 26 presidential election in Kazakhstan offer a good illustration of President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s aversion to what he described last month as “forced democracy.” He won reelection with almost 98 percent of the vote.