Kazakhstan faces crucial challenges as the end of strongman leader Nursultan Nazarbayev’s long rule approaches, a new report says, with the country’s veneer of wealth and stability papering over cracks in the system that threaten to overwhelm the next president.
“Kazakhstan has long been viewed from the outside as the most prosperous and stable country in a region widely regarded as fragile and dysfunctional,” says the International Crisis Group (ICG) in its September 30 report. Yet the country’s oil-fueled wealth conceals “a multitude of challenges.”
“An aging authoritarian leader with no designated successor, labor unrest, growing Islamism, corruption, and a state apparatus that, when confronted even with limited security challenges, seems hard-pressed to respond, all indicate that the Kazakh state is not as robust as it first appears,” the study, entitled Kazakhstan: Waiting for Change, says.
Astana cultivates the image of an economic powerhouse and an oasis of political stability in a volatile region, but the ICG singles out serious challenges that it suggests Astana is doing little to tackle. These include a growing rich-poor divide that is fueling disaffection (particularly in the oil-rich west); rampant corruption; and a rising tide of radicalism that has led to a spate of terrorist attacks.
Some rare good news from the Aral Sea, Central Asia’s most infamous manmade environmental disaster: Efforts to save the northern part of the sea have notched up a success. The water is getting ever closer to the town of Aral, which once stood on the seashore but was left high and dry when the sea started steadily shrinking in the 1960s.
At one point the waters retreated 74 kilometers from the town (formerly called Aralsk) as the rivers feeding the inland sea were diverted by Soviet central planners to Central Asia's thirsty cotton and rice fields.
“This means the sea is returning,” he said in remarks quoted by Kazinform. “This data has been proven by satellite observation.”
Efforts to restore the fish population are also bearing fruit. At one point there was only one type of fish left in the waters, Kusherbayev said, but now there are 22. Salinity levels have dropped from 34 grams per liter to eight.
The recovery of the Northern Aral Sea has been brought about by a 13-kilometer dike that opened in 2005, an ambitious project that cost $86 million, of which $64.5 million came from a World Bank loan.
One of Kazakhstan’s few remaining opposition leaders has announced that he is quitting politics, a move that comes amid Astana’s ongoing crackdown on dissent and leaves a dearth of dissenting voices in the country.
Bolat Abilov said in a statement quoted by Tengri News on September 19 that he had taken the “difficult decision” to leave politics (at least for a few years) and concentrate on media, movie and book projects around Kazakhstan.
Abilov, one of the country’s most prominent opposition leaders, had been head of the Azat (Freedom) party, which was in a prickly alliance with the OSDP social democrats. That union collapsed earlier this year amid much acrimony, with OSDP leader Zharmakhan Tuyakbay falling out publicly with his deputy, Amirzhan Kosanov, leaving the party in tatters.
Abilov’s departure from politics and the collapse of the OSDP Azat alliance mean that Kazakhstan now has no genuine, functioning opposition parties to take on the difficult job of holding President Nursultan Nazarbayev to account.
The opposition has always struggled to operate in Kazakhstan’s restrictive environment, where it is shut out of the rubber-stamp parliament and has little access to mainstream media, but until a couple of years ago it was given limited room for maneuver.
All that changed after a bout of fatal unrest in December 2011, when an oil strike in the western town of Zhanaozen turned violent and 15 people died in clashes with the security forces.
Kyrgyzstan’s intelligence service has declared that it has foiled a terror plot with links reaching into Syria, which allegedly provided a training ground for three suspects now under arrest.
The State National Security Committee (known by its Russian acronym, GKNB) said in a statement on September 16 that it detained the three – two citizens of Kyrgyzstan and one of neighboring Kazakhstan – in late August in the southern city of Osh. The GKNB pointed out, with its typical dearth of detail, that the arrests happened in the run-up to a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Bishkek on September 13, but did not say why it is only now revealing the plot.
The GKNB said the three are members of Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), which is listed as a terrorist organization by the US government. The group was sent from Syria, where it had been fighting on the side of the rebels in the civil war, to Kyrgyzstan to commit “acts of sabotage and terrorism” in Bishkek and Osh, the GKNB said.
Two of the suspects were named by media as Sardor Rakhmonov and Mazhit Abdullayev, originally of Osh. The citizen of Kazakhstan – who has not been identified – has testified that the three trained in a militant camp in Syria, Tengri News reported, quoting the GKNB’s press service.
Kazakhstan's love-struck Romeos have a new way to demonstrate their affections. A romantic not content with mere flowers and chocolates can now order a mock attack that makes his loved one feel threatened – and then step in to save his damsel in distress.
“It’s a question of staged attacks during which the man, supposedly defending his girl, repels the bandits and becomes the hero,” reports Tengri News.
The Cupid behind the scenes is Almaty student Alan Temirbayev. He was inspired after impressing his girlfriend with his macho style during a real-life assault two years ago.
“We have special effects, shots, whatever you want can be done,” the brains of the operation said. “It’s essential to make it all look natural, so that the girl is frightened and the guy sees them all off.”
Temirbayev says the business is a hobby rather than a money-spinner: He charges $50-$300 to stage one of the 15 attack scenarios in his repertoire. So far he has carried out 15 mock attacks in Almaty, mostly for students. But his clients have also included schoolchildren and men over 30. He says word has spread through social networks and the “bush telegraph.”
The enterprising student puts the popularity of his scheme down to its originality. “It’s not about giving flowers or an expensive telephone – this is a real action,” Temirbayev enthused, apparently without irony.
China’s president clinched another round of multi-billion-dollar oil and gas deals in Uzbekistan on September 9 as he continued vacuuming up the region’s energy resources on his tour of Central Asia.
Xi Jinping and his Uzbek counterpart Islam Karimov signed agreements worth $15 billion in Tashkent, AFP reported.
Details were not immediately released, but the report said the deals included contracts in the oil and gas industry, where Sino-Uzbek economic cooperation has been expanding since Uzbekistan started exporting gas to China in September 2012, and also agreements in the uranium sector, which Tashkent is eager to develop.
Other deals covering trade, energy, investment and financing were also signed, a report on the People’s Daily website added. Uzbek media, which are notoriously slow to react to events, had not reported the deals by late evening on September 9; neither had the presidential or Foreign Ministry websites.
During his visit Xi called for China and Uzbekistan to boost bilateral trade, which stood at $3.4 billion last year, to $5 billion by 2017. Xi suggested opening negotiations to set up a Sino-Uzbek free trade zone, and looking at measures to promote infrastructure connectivity between the two countries, which do not share a direct border but are linked via Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan.
As Chinese President Xi Jinping continued his tour of Central Asia in Kazakhstan on September 7, Beijing and Astana were set to sign a raft of lucrative business deals that will further boost China’s presence in its hydrocarbon-rich neighbor’s energy sector.
Key among them was a deal giving China’s state energy company, CNPC, a stake in the super-giant Kashagan oilfield, which is about to start commercial production. The agreement, announced in July, is a coup for CNPC, which usurped India’s ONGC Videsh to acquire a stake put up for sale by Houston-based ConocoPhillips.
Under the deal, CNPC will pay approximately $5 billion for an 8.33 percent share in the consortium developing the field, which also includes Kazakhstan’s state energy company KazMunayGaz (KMG); oil majors ExxonMobil, Shell, Total, and Eni; and Japan’s INPEX.
The agreement cements China’s grip on oil and gas resources in Kazakhstan (where it already controls around a quarter of oil output) just as Kashagan is about to come on stream after years of delays. On September 7 KMG head Sauat Mynbayev said commercial production would start in three to four weeks.
Mynbayev also unveiled what Kazakhstan stands to gain: CNPC will dig deep to finance half of KMG’s investment obligations in Kashagan, and it will also build a pipeline plant and an industrial center to produce equipment for the oil industry.
In a rare piece of good news for Central Asian labor migrants, Astana has announced that it is easing migration regulations to allow some of the thousands of workers from neighboring states toiling underground in Kazakhstan to come out of the shadows.
The government plans to simplify the procedure by which individual citizens of Kazakhstan can hire foreign workers by the end of this year, an official said on September 6.
The Interior Ministry has drawn up a bill that “substantially simplifies the recruitment of foreign workers by individuals,” Serik Sainov, head of the ministry’s Migration Policy Department, explained in remarks quoted by Tengri News.
Once the bill is passed by parliament, a Kazakh citizen and a foreign laborer can simply sign a contract, and the laborer can then apply to the migration police for a one-year work permit.
This measure will benefit the government by improving tax receipts, but it will also boost the rights of thousands of labor migrants currently working underground as they attempt to circumvent complicated migration procedures. It will apply to thousands of female migrants working as domestic help or nannies, for example, offering them the opportunity to acquire legal status.
Oil-rich Kazakhstan is a magnet for labor migrants from poorer neighbors such as Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Some work legally, some work underground, and some are trafficked against their will.