Kazakhstan’s diplomatic balancing act over the conflict in Ukraine has been upset by a fresh row about the status of the Russia-annexed Crimean Peninsula.
Ukraine’s embassy in Astana on September 25 addressed a note of protest to Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry over school textbooks that show Crimea — which most of the international community, including Kazakhstan, recognizes as part of Ukraine — as belonging to Russia.
The information in the textbooks “contradicts the position of the international community and the leadership of the Republic of Kazakhstan, which has more than once stated its support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity,” the embassy said in its statement.
Only a handful of countries, including North Korea, Cuba, Syria and Venezuela, have recognized Crimea as part of Russia. Other members of the international community — even usually staunch Moscow allies, like Belarus — insist the territory should be handed back to Ukraine.
Kiev has asked Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry and Education and Science Ministry to work toward “the immediate recall of these textbooks from secondary schools,” the embassy statement said. No response was immediately forthcoming.
The Ukrainian embassy’s contacts with Mektep, the publishing house that put out the offending textbooks, “testified that, unfortunately, a certain part of Kazakhstani society is deeply infected by Russian propaganda,” the statement said.
It urged action to boost Kazakhstan’s information security by restricting broadcasting of Russian television channels, which are beamed into homes all across Kazakhstan and play a large public opinion-forming role.
The downward trajectory of Kazakhstan’s national currency since last month has caused economic pain all around, but the free-float engineered by the country’s financial authorities was intended to benefit at least one group: exporters.
Not so, says Moody’s Investors Service.
“Any positive revenue effects for exporters from depreciation will be offset by the revaluation of debt and higher expenses, owing to exporters’ significant share of expenses pegged to foreign currency and cost inflation,” Moody’s vice president Denis Perevezentsev said in a briefing note on September 21.
Importers will take the biggest hit from the devaluation of the tenge, which has lost 50 percent of its value since mid-August, Perevezentsev said.
“Import-oriented businesses, such as food and non-food wholesalers and retailers, will suffer the most and we expect that these companies will find it difficult to quickly pass price increases on to their customers without incurring a possible reduction in demand,” he said.
This echoes what retailers are saying on the ground in Kazakhstan, where they are fretting over the rocketing costs of the goods they import, which they doubt they can pass on to customers.
A rise in inflation as a result of a weaker tenge will also end up “eroding the upside for companies that stand to benefit from a reduction in their cost bases while lower real incomes and higher prices for imported goods will result in reduced demand,” Moody’s said.
When an irate mother posted shocking pictures of a dilapidated children’s hospital in Almaty on her Facebook page, she no doubt hoped the authorities would act — but she probably did not expect such a fast result.
The pictures posted by Ainura Seitakyn showing grimy toilet facilities and a dismal-looking ward with peeling paintwork and cracked tiles caused a social media outcry. The furore got Almaty’s new mayor, Baurzhan Baybek, out from behind his desk to take a non-virtual look at conditions at the Almaty Children’s City Clinical Infection Hospital.
Hospital staff spruced the place up with a lick of paint before he arrived — but Baybek was not fooled. After the grim-faced mayor visited the hospital on September 17, the head of the chief doctor and two senior healthcare staff rolled, Almatynews.kz website reported.
“You’re sitting in here, it’s alright for you. So you don’t care what it’s like over there for others,” said an angry Baybek, presumably referring to the somewhat more luxurious office of the chief doctor, which was also pictured in Seitakyn’s photos. “Would you place your children here in these conditions?”
Baybek’s hands-on approach won plaudits from a public unaccustomed to top officials delving into the nitty-gritty of their problems and reacting so fast to solve them.
His actions suggest that the 42-year-old mayor, an up-and-coming politician who only came to office a month ago, has a keener sense of the public mood than his older-generation predecessor, Akhmetzhan Yesimov.
Nordic telecoms giant TeliaSonera is pulling out of the Eurasian region in the wake of a three year-long scandal over its business dealings in Uzbekistan that saw it accused of funneling illicit payments to associates of Gulnara Karimova, the disgraced daughter of President Islam Karimov.
The company will gradually wind down its operations in its Eurasia section, which includes the six former Soviet states of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Tajikistan, as well as Nepal, and ultimately cease them altogether, it said in a statement on September 17.
The Swedish-Finnish company said it would focus instead on its telecoms business in Europe “within the strategy of creating the new TeliaSonera.”
“It is our belief that it is possible to do business in Eurasia which are [sic] both profitable and sustainable — but it is important to enter markets in a correct way,” it said.
When TeliaSonera entered Uzbekistan’s lucrative telecoms market, it allegedly used Karimova — at the time a major business player with telecommunications interests, but now under house arrest in Tashkent on corruption charges — as an intermediary.
TeliaSonera’s problems began three years ago, when a Swedish television station aired a report claiming the telecoms giant had made dubious payments to a shell company run by Karimova associate Gayane Avakyan in order to gain access to Uzbekistan’s market. That report sparked a major corruption investigation in Sweden that is ongoing to this day. The resignation of former chief executive Lars Nyberg and the dismissal of several senior company executives ensued the following year.
The president of Kazakhstan’s eldest daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, has been named deputy prime minister in an appointment that will reignite speculation she is being primed to succeed her father.
Nazarbayeva, 52, has hitherto spent the bulk of her political career in Kazakhstan’s rubber stamp parliament.
Nazarbayeva was appointed to the post by her father, Nursultan Nazarbayev, in a decree signed on September 11.
No explanation has been offered for Nazarbayeva’s elevation to the office, but she replaces Berdybek Saparbayev, who has been named governor of the oil-rich Aktobe Region as part of a reshuffle of provincial officials.
Nazarbayeva had previously held the position of deputy speaker of parliament, where she also headed the faction of the ruling Nur Otan party, which is led by her father.
Her appointment to government seals a political comeback that Nazarbayeva has made in recent times, following several years in the political wilderness sparked by the downfall of her former husband, Rakhat Aliyev. He fell afoul of Nazarbayev and fled Kazakhstan in 2007, after which the president’s daughter divorced him.
Aliyev was later found guilty in trials held in absentia in Kazakhstan of a litany of crimes ranging from kidnapping and embezzlement to plotting a coup d’etat.
In February he was found hanged in a prison cell in Austria, where he was on trial for the murder of two Kazakhstani bankers.
Kazakhstan has launched festivities to mark over half a millennium of Kazakh statehood in a celebration designed to shore up patriotism at home and make a geopolitical statement abroad.
“We pay tribute to the memory and deeds of our ancestors, remembering that the history of our sacred land dates back several centuries,” President Nursultan Nazarbayev said in Astana at the kickoff to a month of nationwide celebrations.
There will be festivities in Astana this weekend ahead of the main events in the southern city of Taraz in October as Kazakhstan marks 550 years since the khans Kerey and Zhanibek created the first Kazakh khanate.
The date seems arbitrary to some critics, but Nazarbayev defended it when he announced the plans for the celebrations last fall.
“The statehood of the Kazakhs dates to those times,” he said. “It may not have been a state in the modern understanding of this term, in the current borders. … [But] it is important that the foundation was laid then, and we are the people continuing the great deeds of our ancestors.”
A board showing exchange rates in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on September 10, 2015.
Kazakhstan’s currency hit historic lows on September 9 in another day of decline for the tenge on the stock exchange since the government last month stopped propping it up.
By the evening, the tenge was trading at 261 to the dollar in exchange offices in Almaty, the financial capital.
The currency recovered slightly on September 10, with bureaux de change in Almaty buying dollars at 258 tenge in the morning and at 253 by lunchtime. That was the same as the rate set by the National Bank, which has fallen by 6 percent over the course of a week.
The tenge closed at 255 to the dollar on the Kazakhstan Stock Exchange on September 9, but appreciated to close at 252 at the end of morning trading the following day.
Exchange rates have experienced intense volatility since August 20, when the government announced it was finally abandoning costly efforts to maintain the national currency. President Nursultan Nazarbayev said at the time that authorities had spent $28 billion since the start of 2014 on defending the tenge.
The move to a free float was inevitable, but it has been painful for Kazakhstanis, whose currency has depreciated by 36 percent since the decision was taken.
A bomb exploded in Tashkent, close to the city’s main bazaar, in one of the most crowded areas of Uzbekistan’s capital, RFE/RL has reported.
No-one was injured in the blast on September 4, which was confirmed to RFE/RL by Tashkent police.
It was caused by an explosive device left at a bus stop, said the police, who said they were searching for a suspect witnessed dumping it there before making a getaway.
Only much later in the day, Uzbekistan's Interior Ministry issued a statement saying that the explosion was a security exercise designed to test the capacity of the security forces to react to a terrorist attack.
The explosion took place near Tashkent’s Chorsu Bazaar in the heart of the Old Town, which was the scene of a terrorist attack in 2004. That episode introduced suicide bombing to Central Asia and prefaced a spate of explosions in Tashkent and Bukhara that left at least 19 people dead.
The device blew up near the Tokhtaboy Mosque, one of Uzbekistan’s largest and best-known places of worship, where Obidkhon Qori Nazarov — a religious leader whose preaching displeased the authoritarian regime of President Islam Karimov — was once the imam.
He fled Uzbekistan in 1998, and in 2012 was the subject of an assassination attempt in Sweden, where investigators have pointed the finger at the Uzbekistani authorities for the crime.
Kazakhstan is at the center of a fresh controversy over freedom of speech, following the suspension of a hard-hitting magazine which was one of the country’s few remaining independent voices.
International press freedom watchdogs have expressed outrage over the suspension of the Adam (Person) magazine over a linguistic technicality, in a court ruling that editor-in-chief Ayan Sharipbayev says is political.
“In Kazakhstan the closure of any media outlet is a matter decided by political bodies,” Sharipbayev told EurasiaNet.org on September 2. “Of course this is connected to politics.”
He said Adam — known for its gutsy reporting and criticism of the administration of President Nursultan Nazarbayev — would appeal the three-month suspension handed down by an Almaty court on August 27.
When Adam registered with the authorities earlier this year (after the courts had closed a previously existing independent magazine called Adam Bol), it gave its languages of publication as Kazakh and Russian – but in fact it prints only in Russian.
The ruling was “discriminatory and utterly disproportionate,” Johann Bihr of the France–based Reporters Without Borders press freedom watchdog said in a statement on September 1.
“The use of such absurd bureaucratic pretexts is typical and cannot hide the fact that the authorities clearly want to close this publication for good because they regard it as a nuisance,” he said. “We urge them to rescind this unjust decision and to end this persecution, which has gone on for too long.”