Astana is slashing growth expectations and cutting its budget revenue forecasts as Kazakhstan eyes its gloomiest economic outlook for years, sources in parliament report.
The government intends to cut this year’s GDP growth forecast to 1.5 percent (against its previous forecast of 4.8 percent) and reduce budget spending by a whopping $7 billion, sources in the ruling Nur Otan party told Vlast.kz following a presentation to parliament by National Economy Minister Yerbolat Dosayev on January 16.
Such growth would represent a significant slowdown on last year’s 4.3 percent, and would be Kazakhstan’s lowest since 2009, the height of the global credit crunch.
As President Nursultan Nazarbayev acknowledged last week, Kazakhstan is facing a litany of economic problems, from low prices for oil and metallurgical output to the knock-on effect of Western sanctions against Russia and pressures on the tenge as a result of the ruble’s precipitous fall.
The government is cutting the oil price on which its budget is based from $80 to $50 in its revised budget (which will have to be approved by parliament), Dosayev confirmed, after global prices dipped below $50 this month.
Kazakhstani soldiers take part in exercises against "extremist, terrorist and separatist organizations." (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
Kazakhstan's armed forces are carrying out exercises against "separatists," citing "geopolitical shifts" as the justification. But while the reference to separatists may make the Kremlin a bit uneasy, the scenario seems to be oriented toward Chinese separatists, rather than Ukrainian.
The exercise is being conducted from January 15-17 by land forces command staff. "According to the scenario of the joint staff training, groups from extremist, terrorist and separatist organizations, disguised as refugees, infiltrate the territory of a hypothetical government," according to a release from the Ministry of Defense. "During the course of the training the soldiers blocked and destroyed illegal armed formations and repelled the invasion."
The "relevance of the training" was the result of "contemporary geopolitical shifts," the MoD added. So what geopolitical shifts is Astana worried about?
The last line seems to point to a Ukraine scenario; as Ukrainian website depo.ua suggests, "ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan complain about 'oppression' and eagerly await the arrival of 'little green men' from Russia." While Kazakhstan has clearly been rattled by the events in Ukraine, and has undertaken serious efforts to shore up its statehood as a result, ethnic Russians are hardly begging for Moscow's intervention.
Shortly after an Islamic State propaganda video featuring Kazakh-speaking children called for the slaughter of infidels, a new clip has emerged in which one of those children appears to execute two “spies” with possible Kazakhstan links.
The latest video sparked a denial from Kazakhstan’s intelligence service that the two men are Kazakhstani citizens—even as reporters unearthed possible links.
The video shows the men, speaking in Russian, supposedly confessing to being spies for Russian intelligence. The video then seems to show them being shot by a young boy closely resembling a child who appeared in the previous video. One of the men claimed to hail from Kazakhstan.
There is no independent confirmation that the events took place as depicted in the video, which analysts say could be a montage designed and acted out for propaganda purposes.
It has been “authoritatively established” that two alleged spies are not Kazakhstani citizens, the National Security Committee (known as the KNB) said in a statement. The KNB did not rule out the possibility that they could have roots in the country.
One of the men in the video identifies himself as Zhanbolat Mamayev and states his place of birth as Kazakhstan’s southern Zhambyl Region, where RFE/RL tracked down two people who remembered a boy by that name studying at a school in a village called Oytal (the school’s deputy principal and a former pupil). RFE/RL also located social networking sites that could belong to the same man, linking him to Kazakhstan’s Zhambyl Region.
The Russian soldier accused of killing six members of an Armenian family was captured and will be prosecuted under Russian jurisdiction, in spite of the fact that the base agreement between the two countries appears to give Armenia that right.
Valery Permyakov, a Russian conscript, deserted his guard post at the 102nd military base in Gyumri, Armenia, and shot six members of the Avetsiyan family while they slept. About 24 hours, he was captured near the Armenia-Turkey border and reportedly confessed to the crime.
Russian border guards patrol the border between Armenia and Turkey, and it was officers from that force who arrested Permyakov. Armenian authorities announced shortly thereafter that he would be prosecuted by Russia, not by them:
“Valery Permyakov suspected of the crime is a Russian citizen and has been placed under the control of Russian law enforcement agencies, that is under the Russian jurisdiction. Thus, handing over Valery Permyakov to Armenian law enforcement bodies is not discussed considering the ban enshrined in paragraph 1 of Article 61 of the Russian Constitution, which speculates that the Russian citizen cannot be handed over to another country," according to a press release from the office of the General Prosecutor of Armenia.
Valery Permyakov, a Russian conscript soldier suspected of killing six members of a family in Gyumri, Armenia, in a photo released by the Armenian authorities.
A Russian soldier is suspected of killing six members of an Armenian family after deserting his guard post.
In the early morning hours of January 12, six members of the Avetisyan family were shot and killed in their home. The suspect, Valery Permyakov, was a conscript soldier serving at Russia's 102nd military base in Gyumri, Armenia's second city. Thus far, the authorities have not explained what connection Permyakov had to the family. By evening Armenia time, Permyakov remained at large.
Permyakov's boots, imprinted with his name, were reportedly found at the scene of the crime. Permyakov is from Chita and had earlier served at a military base there, where he tried to escape, one of his fellow soldiers there told newspaper Moskovskiy Komsomolets, adding that Permyakov was a "normal, friendly guy."
Russian defense minister Sergey Shoigu called his Armenian counterpart Seyran Ohanian and expressed his "deep condolences for the family and loved ones of those killed," emphasized that "nothing can justify this kind of violence against innocent people," and promised "all possible help and support of the family of those killed," RIA Novosti reported. Russia's MoD also formed a commission, headed by First Deputy Minister Arkady Bakhin, to investigate the crime.
Whether or not Vladimir Putin bribed Uzbekistan, as a Bishkek newspaper claims, it is welcome news all around that Uzbek gas is once again flowing into southern Kyrgyzstan.
Kyrgyzstan is happy because 60,000 customers in a potentially restive part of the country aren’t relying on dung to heat their homes; Uzbekistan again has revenue from the cross-border gas trade; and Russia, whose energy giant Gazprom promised a constant supply of gas when it bought Kyrgyzstan’s gas distribution network last year, gets to save face.
But the sudden resumption of gas deliveries from Uzbekistan to Kyrgyzstan on December 30 begs two related questions: Why wasn’t a deal reached earlier, after Uzbekistan abruptly cut supplies last April? And what made the recalcitrant Uzbeks change their mind?
Kyrgyz newspaper Vechernii Bishkek, citing an unidentified Kyrgyz government source, claims it knows the answer to the second question.
The source told Vechernii Bishkek today that no less a figure than Russian President Vladimir Putin negotiated the gas deal during a December 10 meeting with his counterpart Islam Karimov in Tashkent. Karimov, according to this account, pushed Moscow to forgive $3 billion of Uzbek debt (oddly, that’s much more than the $890 million other media reported Uzbekistan as owing). In the end the Kremlin agreed to write off $865 million.
A senior Kremlin official has warned that the Islamist group ISIS is gathering its forces in northern Afghanistan in preparation for an attack against Central Asia and Russia, and that a wide array of military measures are required to prevent that. But in spite of the alarmist rhetoric, he suggested that the Russian military would not be heavily involved in Central Asia's fight against ISIS.
The official, Zamir Kabulov, is Russian President Vladimir Putin's special representative for Afghanistan, and he gave a long interview to Interfax on the occasion of the end of the Western combat mission in Afghanistan. The ginning up of the ISIS threat isn't new for Russian officials, but Kabulov's interview is noteworthy for its unusual amount of detail. (Whether or not that detail corresponds to reality is another matter.)
According to Russia's information, Kabulov said, a "small group -- maybe a bit more than a hundred fighters" -- was redeployed from ISIS's main base in Iraq and Syria to Afghanistan. But they supplement local fighters loyal to ISIS, he says:
A "spillover" into Central Asia is inevitable, especially considering that all the foundations are there. They have created two beachheads in Afghanistan: one on the border of Tajikistan, and the other of Turkmenistan. There they have concentrated fairly large forces. Let's say on the Tajikistan beachhead there are 4-5,000 fighters concentrated. And on the beachhead opposite Turkmenistan, 2,500 fighters. They have deployed camps for two-month preparation courses for fighters. We know of three such camps, and there may be more. They are training 50 fighters in every course, so if you take at least three camps that we know about, that's 150 fighters every two months. What's interesting is that they are mostly natives of Central Asia.
Turkmenistan rang in the New Year by dramatically devaluing its national currency, the manat, and introducing a steep levy on the price of petrol.
The scale of the devaluation – comparable to the 19 percent devaluation of the tenge in Kazakhstan earlier in the year – comes as all Central Asian economies are feeling the downturn in Russia, where the ruble lost 45% of its value against the dollar in 2014. But it is still somewhat surprising because Turkmenistan’s is the region’s economy least dependent on exports to its former colonial master.
AFP reported January 1 that the Turkmen central bank had published a rate of 3.50 manats to the dollar, down from the 2.85 that had held since 2009—a devaluation of 18.6 percent. The government has not commented.
Noting that a liter of popular 95-octane petrol had also jumped overnight – from 0.62 manats to 1 – The Chronicles of Turkmenistan, a news blog run by Turkmen exiles, feared significant inflation would follow.
After three years of negotiations, Kyrgyzstan has signed up to join the Moscow-led Eurasian Union, a protectionist post-Soviet economic club that some fear will allow the Kremlin to reassert political influence in its former backyard. But in what has become a tradition, Kyrgyzstan’s actual accession will be delayed yet again.
Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev signed on the dotted line at a Moscow meeting of the Eurasian Economic Council December 23 along with his counterparts from Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia.
Atambayev was in high spirits after signing, waxing lyrical about the benefits of regional integration.
“I’d like to emphasize that today is December 23. I am a person that sometimes lends a lot of credence to things, dates, signs of destiny, lets say. Yesterday, December 22, was the shortest day and the longest night [of the year] and today, December 23 is the day when light starts to defeat night. It seems very significant. I am confident that even in these difficult times, things will be a lot easier for all of us if we are friendly with one another and help one another,” Atambayev said, to what looked, on camera, like sniggers from Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko.
More importantly, Atambayev confirmed that Kyrgyzstan would not be ready for full membership in the Eurasian Economic Union – which fellow aspirant Armenia will join on January 1 – until the anniversary of the Soviet Union’s 1945 victory over Germany on May 9. All year officials have said Kyrgyzstan will join on January 1, when the Customs Union becomes the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).
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.