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.
Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev has hailed what he described as the fall of barriers dividing his nation and Uzbekistan since the ascent to power of Uzbek leader Shavkat Mirziyoyev.
The two met for a high-spirited talks in Astana on March 23 that focused as much as anything on mutual admiration.
“Only in the last five months, or the fourth quarter of last year, trade turnover between our nations increased by 30 percent on both sides, and that includes new goods. Four trading houses have opened, there is 30 percent more grain, and Uzbek fruit and vegetables deliveries have increased by 25 percent,” Nazarbayev was cited as saying by Tengri News. “This is thanks to how the new leadership in Uzbekistan has open all opportunities to trade and lifted barriers.”
Nazarbayev could barely contain his ebullience.
“There are no unresolved issues between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan — not territorial, not with the borders, not with politics or the economy. We are free, like a blank page that is to be filled with good deeds that will benefit our nations,” he said.
It is worth recalling that Nazarbayev was an early champion of regional integration in Central Asia — an instinct sniffily mistrusted by Mirziyoyev’s late predecessor, Islam Karimov. Historians of the region may remember that in the wake of the Soviet disintegration, in 1994, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan formed the Central Asian Union, which later became the Central Asian Economic Union (1998) and then the Central Asian Cooperation Organization (2001). In no form did the grouping ever become anything more than a talking shop, as Annette Bohr explained in a May 2004 paper.
Police in Kazakhstan are as of now under instructions to be more polite to the public and to refrain from using informal pronouns — such as the Russian “ty” (you) — or beckon people by just saying “hey.”
Tengri News website on March 15 cited the Interior Ministry as saying that instructions on politeness and proper behavior are included in overall police training courses.
“The conduct of Interior Ministry personnel is regulated by the government workers ethical code and departmental edicts laid down by the Interior Ministry. For police or traffic inspectors to talk in a rude manner or address people and drivers as ‘ty’ is not permitted,” the ministry was cited as saying in a statement.
People that feel they have been improperly addressed can file complaints with the Interior Ministry in person or over the phone.
Rules regulating proper behavior by police when dealing with the public already existed, although in practice there is often slippage in standards.
In another recent example of an apparent attempt by authorities in Kazakhstan to raise general levels of urbanity among the population, city hall in Shymkent last month “strongly forbade” bus conductors from yelling at every stop. The conductors would typically advertise their route by shouting the name of every stop ahead — a cacophonous practice that seems to have irked many members of the public. (See here for examples).
Almaty resident Natalia Galiakbarova speaking to Channel 31 about the compensation being offered for the compulsory purchase of her home. (Photo: Channel 31 screengrab)
Barely a week passes in Kazakhstan without the authorities somehow creating a public uproar around land-related issues.
This time it is residents of an area of the business capital, Almaty, that have come out in protest over what they say is the paltry compensation being offered to them for the compulsory purchase of their homes.
Over the weekend, privately owned Channel 31 reported that some residents are being offered as little as 300,000 tenge ($1,000) for their homes and land, which lie on the route of a planned ring road.
Almaty has for many years been plagued by chronic traffic jams, prompting the authorities to embark on several ambitious road building projects to alleviate the problem. Doing so, however, has required them to pursue the demolition of swaths of often ramshackle homes that sprung up around the city limits in the years following independence.
This latest route has been designed “strategically important” and is intended to link to the northern districts of Almaty to the center. The bulk of traffic coming in that direction currently runs along one single road — Seifullina — and invariably cars get horrendously clogged up at peak hours.
Plans for the new road has been on the drawing table for many years, although work is only now going ahead.
After working out valuations for the houses set for removal, the city government sent out sale agreements that in some instances ranged between 300,000 and 700,000 tenge ($1000-$2,200) — an amount that would pay for only a few months of apartment rental costs in the city.
Kazakhstan is dangling more than $100 million in financial support in front of struggling neighbor Kyrgyzstan, but the transfer is reportedly being hindered by a combination of bureaucratic muddling and a turn of diplomatic ill-will.
The fate of the funds, which have been earmarked to smooth integration within the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), came up in Kyrgyzstan’s parliament on March 13 as MPs wondered aloud why the money was taking so long to arrive.
Agreement on the payment of $100 million in aid was reached late last year, and Kazakhstan’s prime minister Bakytzhan Sagintayev said earlier this month that he had agreed with his Kyrgyz counterpart for the sum to be increased by a further $41 million.
Saidulla Nyshanov, a deputy with the Ata-Meken party, said that the delay had been caused by the failure of Kyrgyz government departments to provide Kazakhstan with certain required paperwork.
The earmarked funds have been described as “technical aid” required to enable Kyrgyzstan to implement regulations in line with its membership in the EEU, which it joined in mid-2015. More specifically, the money is to be spent on building customs infrastructure and developing laboratory facilities for testing goods destined for export with the trading bloc. Kyrgyz deputy prime minister Oleg Pankratov also said in the last week of December that the support would go toward harmonization of railway cargo tariffs.
Kazakhstan’s parliament has hastily adopted amendments to the constitution following weeks of largely cursory public consultation.
Following parliament’s adoption of the reforms on March 6, the amendments will have to be reviewed by the Constitutional Court, but that procedure is likely to be a formality.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev has described the reforms, which ostensibly should lead to his power being shared with the executive and parliament, as a historic development, although critics argue they will change little in reality.
Nurlan Abdirov, a member of parliament and the chair of a joint commission on the reforms, said that legislators approved 26 amendments to 19 articles of the constitution. That suggests that what the government says were the 6,000 proposals offered by the public and the feedback provided during 10,000 public events over the past weeks have largely been disregarded.
The speed with which the reforms have been pushed through parliament is remarkable, even by the normal standards of Kazakhstan’s rubber stamp legislature. The first reading was wrapped up on a single day on March 3.
Among the 10 changes approved on March 6 during the second reading, lawmakers agreed that any acts that could lead to “inter-faith conflict” should be deemed unconstitutional.
Despite the many challenges confronting Kazakhstan down the road, one of the main demands made by the public in the nationwide consultation was, apparently, for language to be inserted into the constitution that would properly reflect Nazarbayev’s historic contributions. The president is already officially designated Yelbasy — Kazakh for “leader of the nation” — a title that affords him lifetime immunity from prosecution and ultimate say over core matters of state, even in the event of his retirement.
Following the formal end of national discussions in Kazakhstan on constitutional reforms intended, if only on paper, to rebalance authority away from the president toward the executive and the legislative, President Nursultan Nazarbayev has ruled the issue should be considered further in parliament.
Speaking at a working group devoted to the reforms, Nazarbayev noted on March 1 that public feedback indicated that there were numerous shortcomings in the proposed amendments on the table.
Quashing one contentious issue from the get-go, however, the president suggested that an amendment that might notionally have opened the way for foreign nationals to buy property should be struck down. Authorities are still rattled by the wave of anti-land privatization protests that shook the country last year and are not eager to see a repeat.
The government outreach exercise to instruct the public about the details of the reforms, which consisted in a large part of members of the upper house of parliament traveling across the country and delivering talks to large halls, wrapped up on February 26, as previously advertised.
Presidential chief of staff Adilbek Dzhaksybekov said the public had submitted more than 6,000 suggestions on possible reforms to 63 out of the constitution’s 98 articles. As things stand, 23 articles of the constitution are due for revisions.
Kazakhstan’s Football Federation has a new vice president with a familiar sounding surname — Aisultan Nazarbayev.
With this appointment, President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s grandson has finally achieved his long-cherished ambition to make his mark on the country’s soccer scene.
The federation on February 28 anointed the younger Nazarbayev as its second-in-command. The 26-year old has a solid footballing pedigree. He represented Kazakhstan at Under-17 level and spent six months with England’s Portsmouth football club in 2007, when it was still in the English Premier League.
Nazarbayev, who is the son of the president’s eldest daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, and the late Rakhat Aliyev, made his first foray into Kazakhstan’s football politics in October 2015.
He was hoping to follow in his father’s footsteps — Aliyev was once the of head of the federation — but Nazarbayev’s bid to repeat that feat was unsuccessful at that time. Aliyev, who was forced out of the country’s top footballing job following his spectacular fall from grace in 2007, committed suicide in his Austrian prison cell in 2015 while facing kidnapping and murder charges.
Aisultan Nazarbayev would not be deterred, however.
Police in Kazakhstan have acted quickly to prevent any public gestures of solidarity with the jailed editor of an independent newspaper, whose supporters fear is being subjected to ill-treatment in prison.
On February 23, political activist Yerlan Kaliyev announced his intent to hold a one-man picket in support of Zhanbolat Mamay, who is facing accusations of laundering the proceeds of corruption through his Tribuna newspaper. But before Kaliyev could reach the headquarters of the Security Services Committee, or KNB, in the city of Almaty, he was detained by police.
Other activists, Galym Ageleuov and Askhat Bersalimov, later made it to the same building to report on Kaliyev’s fate, only to also find themselves being detained, according to RFE/RL’s Kazakh service, Radio Azattyq. Kaliyev and Ageleuov were later released, but Bersalimov has been ordered to served a 15-day jail term for summoning an unsanctioned protest.
Concern has been mounting about Mamay’s wellbeing over reports he has been physically maltreated since being taken into custody on February 10.
A independent committee known as the national mechanism for the prevention of torture stated on February 23 that it had visited the detention facility where Mamay is being held and found that there was indeed apparent evidence of abuse in the prison.
“It has been established that the safety of the detainee was indeed not observed as required,” the committee said in a statement after meeting with Mamay and his lawyer. “In part, he faced psychological and physical intimidation by those with him in the same cell, who were people with multiple convictions.”
Rights activists argue that investigators habitually place suspects in cells with other dangerous prisoners as a form of intimidation.
In the teeth of opposition from the public, the government in Kazakhstan has revived costly plans to build what it is billing as a “national pantheon” — a mausoleum to house the remains of the country’s great and good and dead.
Finance Minister Bakhyt Sultanov announced on February 21 that just one phase of the project alone will set the state coffers back $5.3 million. The final cost will likely be much greater, possibly running into the hundreds of millions, if the earlier blueprint was anything to go by.
A spot has been allocated for the mausoleum in a location around 20 kilometers outside the capital, Astana, next to an existing building housing the tomb of 18th-century Kazakh warrior prince Kabanbai Batyr. Sultanov was unable to offer more specifics, inviting reporters instead to put their questions to the mayor’s office.
Decisions of who is to be buried at the national pantheon are to be taken by President Nursultan Nazarbayev himself. The intended site for the mausoleum is already the resting place to numerous departed public figures whose importance was acknowledged by the president.
In 2013, Nazarbayev decreed that the first person to be buried there should be the late member of parliament Oral Muhamedjanov — “for his massive contribution to the development of the state.” Kazakhstani poetess Fariza Ongarsynova; Sayahat Konakai, the younger brother of Nazarbayev’s wife; former Supreme Court chairman Maksut Narikbayev; and writer and scholar Abish Kekilbayev are among others buried there. The site also allows for Christian burials, like that of Sergei Dyachenko, a former deputy speaker of the lower house, who died last year.