Uzbekistan’s foreign minister has begun a round of annual consultations in Washington that happen to follow shortly after Tashkent launched an offensive to recover millions of dollars frozen in a U.S. corruption case involving the Uzbek president’s daughter.
Abdulaziz Komilov began the three-day talks on January 19 with a meeting with Nisha Desai Biswal, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent said in an e-mailed statement.
Topics for discussion include the usual suspects: security, political developments, human rights and trade. But one onlie Uzbek media outlet is speculating that Komilov may also be raising another thorny topic behind the scenes.
According to documents recently filed with a U.S. court, copies of which have been seen by EurasiaNet.org, Tashkent has begun pressing for the release of $300 million in assets frozen during a bribery investigation involving the president’s daughter, Gulnara Karimova. The last that was heard of Karimova, she was under house arrest in Tashkent.
The funds are allegedly illicit proceeds from “an international conspiracy to launder corrupt payments” made in Uzbekistan’s telecoms sector, according to a lawsuit filed by the U.S. Department of Justice last summer.
The $300 million – held in Bank of New York Mellon accounts in Belgium, Ireland, and Luxemburg – were frozen by a U.S. Federal Court order in July.
The lawsuit named two Karimova associates, Gayane Avakyan and Rustam Madumarov, as owners of shell companies “beneficially owned by GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL A.”
Human rights campaigners in Kazakhstan are calling for the abolition of two pieces of legislation frequently used against critics of President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
The appeal comes against the backdrop of an ongoing trial in Almaty of two activists facing charges of incitement — an accusation that their supporters argue is an attempt to muzzle them through the courts.
“There are two articles in our Criminal Code that can – given the desire – be used against inconvenient dissidents and political opponents,” Yevgeniy Zhovtis, the country’s best-known human rights campaigner, told a press conference in Almaty on January 19. “Both are political.”
Zhovtis was referring to the charge of incitement to social, ethnic, tribal, racial, class or religious strife — a statute routinely wielded against political activists and journalists — and the charge of dissemination of false information, which was criminalized last year.
Continued use of these articles “for the persecution of dissidents” risks “turning our country into a police state moving closer to totalitarianism, which is extremely sad,” said Zhovtis.
Oil production is entering a new year of decline this year in Kazakhstan — a dismal omen for a country so heavily reliant on energy exports.
Energy Minister Vladimir Shkolnik said on January 15 in remarks quoted by the Novosti-Kazakhstan news agency that Kazakhstan expects to pump 77 million tons of oil in 2016, 3.1 percent down on the 79.5 million tons produced last year.
The fall is down to the gradual depletion of the country’s oil fields, most of which have been under development for decades. As the fields dry up, recovering the remaining crude becomes more expensive, and with oil prices now hovering obstinately at $30, drawing Kazakhstan’s deposits is becoming costly.
And this latest government forecast may be too optimistic.
Shkolnik said in September that Kazakhstan would slash its oil output forecast for 2016 to 73 million tons if the oil price hit $30, as it has done this week. He said 77 million tons would be the target if oil stood at $40 per barrel.
The decline has been in train for several years already.
Oil output dropped 1.2 per cent in 2014, to 80.8 million tons, and 1.6 percent last year, to 79.5 million tons.
But it is the disastrously low prices that are taking the toll on the economy. The government announced on January 15 that gross domestic product grew by 1.2 percent last year – a significant slowdown on the previous year’s 4.3 percent.
The government is to meet on January 19 to discuss cuts to this year’s budget in the face of the economic slump.
Kazakhstan’s lower house of parliament called for a snap election on January 13, setting the stage for a vexed vote against the backdrop of chronic economic uncertainty.
The early dissolution of the Mazhilis had been widely predicted as President Nursultan Nazarbayev seeks to refresh the mandate for his ruling Nur Otan party.
“The Mazhilis has fulfilled its historic mission, creating the legislative basis for the implementation of the Plan of the Nation,” Vladislav Kosarev of the pro-government Communist People’s Party of Kazakhstan said in a statement read out in parliament and quoted by Kazinform news agency.
He was referring to a reform agenda unveiled by Nazarbayev last year that is intended to reverse an economic slowdown provoked in large part by the slump in the price for oil.
“Now that a new historic period is getting under way and the large-scale modernization of the country and practical implementation of presidential reforms in all areas are beginning, it is important that parties receive a new mandate of trust from voters,” Kosarev said.
Kosarev said that “broad social consolidation” was required to implement anti-crisis measures, since “only unity and coordinated actions will allow us to withstand fresh economic blows.”
The snap vote must be approved by Nazarbayev, which is expected to be a formality, and is expected in spring. Under the current schedule, the election had been due to take place in early 2017.
Despite talk of a fresh mandate, it is likely the authorities are also motivated by a desire to complete the electoral process ahead of time to head off any discontent provoked by the economic downturn.
The controversial trial in Kazakhstan of two prominent civil society campaigners accused of inciting ethnic discord has descended into chaos with proceedings derailed amid angry courtroom scenes and claims the authorities are trying to force a sick man into the dock.
Yermek Narymbayev was rushed to hospital in an ambulance from the courtroom in Almaty on
January 6 complaining of heart problems and high blood pressure, the Respublika-kz.info website reported.
Pictures circulated on Facebook showed a prone and anguished-looking Narymbayev huddled under a sweater on a stretcher being transferred into an ambulance.
Despite claims from supporters that Narymbayev, who has a history of heart problems, may have suffered a cardiac arrest, the activist was later returned to court after doctors declared him fit to stand trial – prompting co-defendant Serikhzhan Mambetalin to threaten a hunger strike in protest, RFE/RL reported.
Furious scenes broke out in the courtroom after the judge ordered Narymbayev back into the dock, video posted on Facebook by journalist Ayan Sharipbayev shows.
“Shame, shame!” Narymbayev’s supporters chanted, rising to their feet and haranguing the judge and prosecutors as the trial descended into chaos.
Earlier in the day, Narymbayev had asked the judge to curtail the schedule of hearings because of his ill health, complaining that it was too intense. “I ask you to slow the pace, I want to live to the sentencing,” Respublika-kz.info quoted him as saying.
A jailed opposition leader in Kazakhstan whose case has drawn expressions of concern from Washington and Europe is to remain behind bars after his parole bid was rejected.
Vladimir Kozlov’s application for release from custody was rejected on December 8 at a hearing in the jail outside Almaty where he is being held, his lawyer Aiman Umarova said in postings on her Facebook page. Umarova complained in her post of the judge’s “negative attitude” to Kozlov during the hearing.
Kozlov had exercised his legal right to file for parole after serving half of his seven-and-a-half-year jail term on charges of inciting violence in the western oil town of Zhanaozen in 2011.
He was also found guilty of seeking to use the unrest in Zhanaozen to overthrow President Nursultan Nazarbayev in the capital, Astana, some 2,600 kilometers away.
Speaking at the parole hearing, to which journalists and human rights campaigners were not admitted, Kozlov denied committing any crimes.
He argued, as he always has, that his only link to the Zhanaozen violence — which spiraled out of an oil-sector strike that the government acknowledged mishandling — was his legitimate political activity.
“I have not committed any crimes,” he said in a speech posted by his lawyer on Facebook. “I headed a political party, and when the oil workers of Zhanaozen came and asked for support in their economic and social dispute with employers, we decided to offer them informational, legal and consultative support.”
President Nursultan Nazarbayev has signed off on a controversial law regulating the funding of nongovernmental organizations, against the advice of campaigners.
Critics of the bill drew comparisons to a 2012 law adopted in Russia that requires foreign-funded NGOs to register as “foreign agents,” although Kazakhstan’s law contains no such wording.
The law, approved on December 2, will establish a single state operator through which funding for NGOs must be channeled.
In October, as the bill was wending its way through Kazakhstan’s rubberstamp parliament, civil society campaigners urged Nazarbayev to veto it.
The legislation would give the state a veto over which NGOs receive funding and for what kind of activities, they argued. They pointed out that the bill’s wording does not include human rights in the list of areas in which NGOs can legitimately operate, though it does not rule the sphere out either.
The law will grant the government “ideological control over NGOs,” activist Amangeldy Shormanbayev said.
Over 60 NGOs signed a petition calling on Nazarbayev to reject the law, charging that it would “seriously restrict human rights,” including the rights to freedom of speech, conscience and association.
The OSCE’s media freedom representative agreed, warning that the law “could pose a clear threat to free media.”
The government has rejected criticisms of the bill.