Five former prisoners from the notorious US-run Guantanamo prison camp who arrived in Kazakhstan at the end of last year have lodged asylum claims in the Central Asian state, the government says.
The five arrived in Kazakhstan on December 31, the Foreign Ministry said in a January 5 statement, after being freed from Guantanamo owing to “the absence of sufficient grounds to present them with charges of committing a crime.”
The ministry did not name the five, but press reports had previously provided their names and identified them as three men from Yemen and two from Tunisia. They had been in detention for over a decade, Reuters reported, but “were identified as low-risk detainees cleared long ago for transfer.”
The five have been granted the status of asylum seekers pending the hearing of their claims, the Foreign Ministry said. By law, a ruling should be made within three months.
These are the first asylum claims Kazakhstan has received from former Guantanamo prisoners, Foreign Ministry spokesman Nurzhan Aytmakhanov added in remarks quoted by Tengri News on January 5. Coming to Kazakhstan was their “personal choice,” he said.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev has paid a visit to Kiev to meet his Ukrainian counterpart Petro Poroshenko – Vladimir Putin’s sworn enemy – the day before heading to Moscow for an important meeting of the fledgling Eurasian Economic Union.
Poroshenko used Nazarbayev’s surprise visit to Kiev on December 22 (announced with just three days’ notice) to thank him for Kazakhstan’s “firm and consistent position of support to the independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine.” The remarks are guaranteed to arouse the ire of Putin, whose annexation of the Ukrainian territory of Crimea in March sparked international condemnation and Western sanctions against Russia.
Nazarbayev took a conciliatory line, calling on Moscow and Kiev to move from confrontation to compromise. But his very presence in Ukraine is likely to irritate Putin, coming the day before leaders of member states of the Eurasian Economic Union, a new regional integration effort to be launched on January 1, meet in Moscow.
At that meeting, Kyrgyzstan is expected to join the union – alongside Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Armenia – which Putin has sought to expand to boost the Kremlin’s regional clout in the face of Moscow’s geopolitical setbacks in Ukraine.
The grandson of President Nursultan Nazarbayev has been parachuted into a top political job in Astana, sparking speculation in Kazakhstan that the aging president may be grooming him as his successor.
Nurali Aliyev, the millionaire eldest son of the president’s daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva and her disgraced ex-husband Rakhat Aliyev, has been appointed deputy mayor of the capital of Kazakhstan, the Astana administration’s website has announced.
This is the first foray into politics by Aliyev, hitherto a prominent banker who has occupied top jobs in Kazakhstan’s financial system, including as chairman of the boards of Nurbank and the Development Bank of Kazakhstan. Aliyev – who has an estimated fortune of $200 million, according to Forbes Kazakhstan’s rich list – is currently chairman of the board of the Transtelekom telecommunications company.
Aliyev is Nazarbayev’s eldest grandson and is rumored to be his favorite grandchild (though the president does not believe in nepotism, which he railed against angrily earlier this year).
Aliyev’s mother Dariga Nazarbayeva, an MP and deputy speaker of parliament’s lower house, is a powerful political player who is herself sometimes tipped as possible presidential material.
Kazakhstan is scrambling to keep its diplomatic options open amid rapidly rising Western-Russian tension. Not wanting to get dragged down by Western sanctions imposed on Russia, Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s administration is ramping up an international charm offensive.
Regional security and domestic politics featured high on the agenda as Russian President Vladimir Putin jetted into Tashkent on December 10 for a meeting with Uzbekistan’s strongman leader, Islam Karimov.
Putin appeared both to be wooing Karimov for backing in his confrontation with Ukraine, and offering a show of support for the incumbent ahead of upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections in Uzbekistan.
It “goes without saying” that Tashkent is “one of [Russia’s] priority partners in the region,” Putin said, according to a Kremlin transcript. That he bypassed other Central Asian allies like Kazakhstan to pay a visit to Uzbekistan lent weight to his remarks.
Karimov responded with boilerplate compliments about how Moscow has “always been present in Central Asia, and that position has always been a stabilizing factor.” Notwithstanding isolationist Tashkent’s habit of holding Moscow at arm’s length, he added that “Uzbekistan has always been open to Russia and is open today.”
Karimov repeated his oft-voiced concerns about regional security threats emanating from Afghanistan following the drawdown of NATO troops this year, but the Ukraine conflict was the elephant in the room. In the Kremlin transcript, neither side mentioned it by name, but Karimov referred obliquely to the need to respond to “challenges” in the face of a “known confrontation,” while Putin noted laconically that neither Russia nor Uzbekistan was “indifferent to how the situation in the region as a whole develops.”
Putin took more interest in upcoming elections in Uzbekistan—the vote to the rubberstamp parliament on December 21, and the far more significant presidential election due in spring (in which Karimov has not stated if he intends to stand).
The collapse of the ruble is causing economic doom and gloom in Russia. But in border regions of neighboring Kazakhstan demand for the ailing currency is rocketing as people rush across the frontier to snap up bargains.
“In northern Kazakhstan, people are buying up rubles en masse and going shopping across the border,” reports KTK TV.
Bringing goods across the long border is relatively straightforward as Russia and Kazakhstan are fellow members of the Customs Union. So people are hurrying across from cities in northern Kazakhstan to buy anything from property and cars to clothes and food in Siberia.
The price of an apartment in some Siberian cities, once far higher than in the depressed towns of northern Kazakhstan, is now on a par, KTK said.
“I’ll sell my apartment, and for the same price I’ll buy in Omsk, because of the fall of the ruble,” an inhabitant of the city of Petropavl, which lies just 70 kilometers from the Russian frontier, said. “It’s an investment.”
In Kazakhstan’s capital, status-conscious bargain hunters are using the cheap ruble to buy expensive cars, an Astana-based dealer told Kazinform news agency. “We brought five cars over from Yekaterinburg [in Russia] yesterday, now we’re going to sell them on. Our rivals are doing the same, as are ordinary people wanting to acquire an expensive vehicle. You can find good options almost half as cheap as in Kazakhstan. Some people are going over and driving new cars right out of the showroom.”
The ruble has fallen almost 40 percent against the dollar and 60 percent against the euro since the beginning of this year. That may be good news for Kazakhstanis near the Russian border, but more generally it is bad news for Kazakhstan, economists say.
Kazakhstan does not persecute political opponents or attack freedom of expression, President Nursultan Nazarbayev has avowed, fending off awkward questions from journalists during a December 5 visit to Astana by his French counterpart, François Hollande.
“There are no censorship questions here, no political persecutions,” Nazarbayev said in remarks quoted by Vlast.kz, calling on critics to “abandon stereotypes here and look with new, open eyes.”
Nazarbayev was speaking the same day that two high-profile cases which raise questions about political liberties and freedom of speech reached the courts.
In one, the Adam Bol magazine – which was one of the last remaining independent media outlets in Kazakhstan – is fighting closure on the grounds that it allegedly called for war in its coverage of the Ukraine conflict. The case was adjourned until December 22.
The magazine was closed down on November 20 over an interview in which opposition activist Aydos Sadykov pledged to urge citizens of Kazakhstan to take up arms to fight pro-Russian separatist forces in eastern Ukraine. The closure was condemned by OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatovic as “drastic and disproportionate,” and by Reporters Without Borders, a media watchdog, as the “orchestrated throttling” of an opposition-minded outlet.
Authorities in Kazakhstan suspect toxic emissions of “dangerous substances” from Karachaganak – one of the world’s largest gas and condensate fields – is to blame for the mass poisoning of children in the country’s northwest last week.
There were atmospheric emissions of highly toxic hydrogen sulfide beyond permissible levels from Karachaganak on November 27, the day before 20 children and three teachers were rushed to hospital in the village of Berezovka, Serik Karamanov, the prosecutor of West Kazakhstan Region, said on December 3.
The emissions were the result of a gas leak during flaring eight and a half kilometers away by Karachaganak Petroleum Operating (KPO), Karamanov said in remarks quoted by the Uralskaya Nedelya local newspaper. KPO is an international consortium that includes Britain’s BG Group, Italy’s ENI, US-based Chevron, Russia’s LUKOIL, and Kazakhstan’s KazMunayGaz.
The children and teachers were rushed to hospital after they started fainting en masse at a village school, while other villagers complained of dizziness and nose bleeds. “Weird things are happening here,” as one put it to Tengri News.
The presidents of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Iran have opened a long-anticipated railroad link connecting landlocked Central Asia to the Persian Gulf.
On the Turkmen-Iranian border, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov of Turkmenistan, Hassan Rouhani of Iran, and Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan donned white gloves to bolt together a final section of track that was symbolically colored gold, the Associated Press reported, inaugurating the last stage of the freight link that they hope will herald a boom in trade between the three Caspian littoral states.
Highlighting those expectations, the first cargo to cross the border between Turkmenistan and Iran on December 3 was a wagonload of wheat from Kazakhstan.
The line – which carries only freight but may carry passengers later – has an initial capacity of 5 million tons per year, projected to rise to 12 million tons. Forecasts suggest the new line could triple trilateral trade in the short term from 3 million to 10 million tons, and double it again by 2020 to 20 million.