Nowruz - also known as Navruz or Novruz - is a holiday celebrated in Iran, Afghanistan, and in all Central Asian countries, marking the first day of spring and the beginning of the year in the Persian calendar.
The feast is celebrated one week earlier, this year on March 14, by descendants of the Adai clan, who populate large swathes of the oil-rich western regions of Kazakhstan.
Peter Leonard is EurasiaNet's Central Asia editor.
It has been 25 years since the Soviet Union collapsed, but some habits die hard.
Before September 27, the day on which President Nursultan Nazarbayev was due to visit, the city of Kyzylorda, in southern Kazakhstan, went into overdrive to prepare for the leader’s arrival.
As a rule, that kind of visit means city workers hastily tidying up the streets, effecting express repairs on the roads, demolishing dilapidated facilities and smartening up facades.
Kyzylorda, however, has more than the average amount of eyesores to hide, particularly on the road along which Nazarbayev was set to drive into town, so authorities adopted some creative solutions, as local media reported. One particular headache in Kyzylorda are the amount of dilapidated homes and potholed roads.
Rather than repair the problem homes, city authorities simply erected a long fence to hide the offending buildings from Nazarbayev’s view, news website Nur.kz reported.
This drastic measure might have gone unremarked upon but for the fact that the fence has caused a sudden surge in car accidents. As motorists pull into the road from behind the barricade, they are unable to see oncoming traffic, often leading to collisions. Local residents have told media they are afraid for their children’s lives and are making sure they don’t get too close to the fence.
Kyzylorda resident Ainur Aldabergenova complained to Nur.kz that real problems, meanwhile, are not being dealt with.
A shocking outbreak of violence in the western Kazakhstan city of Aktobe in June was quickly linked by authorities to radical Islam and prompted calls for greater emphasis on sidelining extremist currents of the faith.
Those ambitions, however, have not translated into any material improvements for the city’s main mosque — theoretically a bastion for state-approved Islam.
Employees at Aktobe’s Nur-Gasyr mosque have filed suit in a municipal court after exhausting all other efforts to be paid their wage arrears.
Sputnik news website on September 26 ran a report citing the plaintiffs as saying they had initially appealed to head of mosque’s management, Bakhytkerei Balkenov, to address the problem, but received only obscenities and threats in reply. They also tried to get help from the imam, Ospan Tole bi Dadiluliy, and again were unsuccessful.
Faith-focused online portal E-Islam.kz describes Nur-Gasyr as one of the two largest mosques in Aktobe along with the Central Mosque. It can accommodate up to 3,500 worshippers and houses a madrassa, or Islamic school, with 25 students.
In its time, Nur-Gasyr mosque was seen as an important project for advancing the influence of the government-affiliated Spiritual Association of Muslims of Kazakhstan (DUMK). Around $16.6 million were spent building the mosque from 2005 to 2009. Money was sourced from donations from Aktobe residents and businesspeople. Funding was also provided by major national companies.
Construction of the building was completed in September 2008. The opening was attended by Kazakhstan’s topmost elite, from President Nursultan Nazarbayev downward, as well as senior guests from Russia like then-President Dmitry Medvedev and the presidents of Dagestan, Ingushetia and Kalmykia.
Authorities in Kazakhstan have declared that Almaty, which was the capital until 1998, is one millennium old.
To celebrate this purported landmark, the city held celebrations capped off with a firework display on September 18.
Kazakhstan, like other Central Asian nations, has something of a dubious fondness for round dates. The people of Almaty were certainly quite surprised. Schoolchildren have long been told that Almaty first appeared on the map in 1854, when Fort Verniy was erected along the Malaya Almatinka river. That outpost grew in the following decade into a town known as Almatinsk, and then subsequently Verniy.
So how did Almaty suddenly grow more than 800 years older all of a sudden is a mystery to many residents. The date has been greeted with a fair dose of scorn online.
News website Kazday put together some of the most acid responses.
Sergei Kovalenko, writing under the handle Fizik, remarked: “In 2000, the people of Almaty marked the 150th anniversary of their city. Today, Almaty is already knocking on 1,000 years.”
And @altrbgdt was even more sarcastic: “This business about Almaty’s 1,000th anniversary reminds me of the novel 1984, in which people were told that two times two is five and everybody worshipped lies.”
Popular blogger Alisher Yelikbayev (@yelikbayev) quipped: “Because of a trip to Astana I missed the 1,000th anniversary of Almaty. Hopefully I won’t miss the 1,200th anniversary. According to our historians, that will pass in seven years time.”
And then @normkorm: “Next year our officials will show us some stone age tools they found and we will celebrate Almaty’s one millionth anniversary!”
Mortgage holders picket a bank in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in a demand for their loans to be refinanced following the dramatic fall in value of the national currency, the tenge.
In a reprisal of impromptu rallies seen earlier this year, around 30 mortgage holders in Kazakhstan’s business capital picketed banks on September 19 demanding their loans be refinanced.
Frustration is mounting among many debtors that a program ordered by President Nursultan Nazarbayev for the central bank to provide commercial lenders with 130 billion tenge ($380 million) to refinance loans is failing to take full effect.
The rallying mortgage holders, who complained that their debts had not been refinanced, called during their picket for them to be granted 1 percent interest rates and five-year repayment periods.
But Zhanna Sadykova, a member of the Let's Leave Housing for the People, claimed in remarks to EurasiaNet.org that banks are refusing to grant those terms.
Those suffering the most are people like 64-year old pensioner Tatyana Alenkina, who obtained a dollar mortgage worth $35,000 in 2008 to buy an apartment. She repaid $27,000, but a paltry monthly pension worth 35,000 tenge (devalued to $89 by the collapse of the national currency) means she can no longer keep up with payments.
“They kicked me out of my apartment in the evening, they won’t let me into my apartment any longer. I cannot find my things. I am going hungry. Now I’m living in a basement,” Alenkina told EurasiaNet.org.
The National Bank has said that as of September 1, almost 18,000 refinancing requests out of a total of more than 24,200 have been fulfilled. Protesters blamed banks for disruptions to the refinancing program.
In a surprising shakeup of Kazakhstan’s leadership, prime minister Karimov Masimov was on September 8 moved sideways and appointed head of the security services.
In a decree confirming that appointment, President Nursultan Nazarbayev named the up-and-coming Bakytzhan Sagintayev to head up the government, albeit only in an interim capacity for now.
It is not immediately obvious what motivated the personnel shuffle, but the position of Vladimir Zhumakanov, the outgoing head of the National Security Committee, or KNB, has been in question since a spate of fatal shootings in the western city of Aktobe in June.
This spells the end of Masimov’s second stint as prime minister. He served as head of government in 2007 and fill that post until 2012, after which he headed the presidential administration. He was again named prime minister in April 2014.
His removal as head of the Cabinet has been predicted for months, but that he would be appointed head of the security services is something few can have expected. It has long been rumored, although never officially confirmed, that Masimov had a background in the secret services in the Soviet era, so the transition may not be as surprising as it seems.
Political commentator Marat Shibutov told news and analysis website 365info.kz that he believed the move was only temporary.
“He will remain one of the most influential people in the country and close to the president. So you cannot write him off. This is just a temporary disappearance into the shadows,” Shibutov said.
Shibutov estimated that Masimov would occupy his KNB post for around one year.
Local authorities in Kazakhstan’s business capital, Almaty, have begun demolition work on a building used to host press conferences for political activists and independent journalists.
The building was also home to KazTAG, a news agency run by two prominent media figures — father and son, Seytkazy and Aset Matayev — facing trial on charges of defrauding the state of nearly $1 million.
The official reason given for the demolition of the National Press Center is that the 300-square meter, two-story building does not correspond to earthquake standards and is therefore illegal.
The Matayevs are currently facing trial in the capital, Astana. Prosecutors have ruled out any link between the trial and the fate of the building, which is situated on a valuable piece of real estate in central Almaty. Media observers and rights activists are a little more skeptical, however, suggesting that the Matayevs have fallen victim to a crude attempt at a property grab.
Tamara Kaleyeva, head of the Adil Soz press advocacy group, told Channel 31 that she believes the charges of fraud against Matayevs are without foundation and that the situation surrounding the National Press Center headquarters can hardly be considered a coincidence.
Representatives of the National Press Center have said a second story was added to their building 10 years with all the necessary permits from the city administration. Despite that, in February, just as the charges were being level at the Matayevs, a note was delivered to the center declaring the building unfit. Appeals to reverse that decision were rejected.
Uzbekistan is relishing its best ever performance in an Olympic Games after some last-minute sporting victories handed the team an extra two gold medals.
The country’s haul of medals — four golds, two silver and seven bronze — put it ahead of Central Asian rival Kazakhstan and was helped in large part by its contingent of boxers. A stunning seven out of the 13 medals won by Uzbekistan came from boxing.
The first boxer to claim gold was light flyweight Hasanboy Dusmatov, who beat Colombia's Yuberjen Herney Martinez Rivas in the final of their category.
Uzbek state television broadcast a report from Dusmatov’s hometown in the Andijan region, where family and friends were watching the match. The boxer’s father said that although he family was confident Dusmatov would get the gold, they were affected by the nerves of the big Olympic occasion. Dusmatov’s could not bear to watch the broadcast and instead waited out the fight in another room.
But the best was left for last.
On the final day of competitions, Shakhobidin Zoirov won the men's Olympic flyweight boxing gold with a points victory over Russian Misha Aloyan. Later in the afternoon, Fazliddin Gaibnazarov edged out Azerbaijan's Cuban-born Lorenzo Sotomayor with a split 2-1 decision.
This last victory caught many by surprise. Sotomayor struck easily the more impressive figure with his height, long arms and confident strut.
Gaibnazarov’s win was all the more sweet for his underdog status and social media in Uzbekistan was accordingly set alight by the result.
Uzbekistan’s last Olympic gold for boxing came in the Sydney Games of 2000, courtesy of Mahammatkodir Abdullaev in the light welterweight category.
Abdullaev was one of the first to comment on Gaibnazarov’s achievement, saying that the whole country had cried with joy at the win.
Kazakhstan’s security services say they have detained members of an extremist organization plotting a series of terror attacks.
The National Security Committee, or KNB in its Russian initials, said in a statement on August 22 that that the four people captured in the Almaty region in a special operation were citizens of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. The operation took place on August 18.
The KNB said that they found components of improvised explosive devices and extremist religious material in the places where the group resided.
“The plan of the radicals to mount armed attacks on staff and places of deployment of KNB officers and police and on military bases have been neutralized. Their next stage was to be terrorist attacks on places where the public gather in large groups,” the KNB said.
The statement was typically perfunctory and similar in tone and detail to one in late June, when the KNB said it had intercepted a group in the central Karaganda region that it believed was also planning a series of terrorist strikes. Initial reports spoke of seven suspected plotters being arrested, but that figure was increased to eight in the first half of August.
And that is as much of a public update as has been provided, other than that the group is to be tried on terrorism and a variety of arms-related charges. The line is that in the interests of the investigation, no more details are being released.
This lack of transparency or even the slightest insight into what might be motivating would-be attackers is standard operating procedure for Kazakhstan’s security services.
Starting from August 1, internet service providers in Kazakhstan have reportedly massively hiked fees for online services to companies in neighbor and fellow Eurasian Economic Union member Kyrgyzstan.
Media in Kyrgyzstan are warning that internet users should expect their traffic bills to increase substantially in the future.
Kazakhstan is Kyrgyzstan’s only dependable, high-quality link to global online infrastructure, so any shift in the former’s market inevitably has a knock-on effect in the latter.
The Association of Communication Operators has called in a letter for the government to intervene by raising the issue at the Eurasian Economic Commission, the executive body of the EEU.
According to the letter, addressed to Prime Minister Oleg Pankratov, Kazakhstani operators, who they say have raised their tariffs by two- to threefold, are playing hardball. Any attempts by Kyrgyz to shop around for alternative providers will result in automatic cutoffs.
“Also, Kazakhstani operators are increasing transit prices for European and Russian operators which supply internet services to Kyrgyzstan,” the letter said.
Non-Kazakhstani-sourced internet dominates supply, accounting for 90 percent of the total in Kyrgyzstan.