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.
The only suspect in the recent spate of shootings in Kazakhstan’s business capital, Almaty, has told investigators his only targets were people involved in the law enforcement system and that he avoided attacking civilians.
Ruslan Kulekbayev told his interrogators, according to transcripts obtained by Vremya newspaper and published on July 27, that his motivation was revenge and that although he is a devout Muslim, his actions were not religiously inspired.
“I wanted to take revenge on judges, prosecutors and police officers because I consider my (previous) convictions unfair. First I went to the Almaly district court, but I saw nobody in uniform there. From there I went to the Almaly police precinct and the first person I saw was the guy who came through the security checkpoint,” Kulekbayev reportedly told interrogators.
The Vremya profile of the suspected 26-year old attacker is highly detailed and describes a serial recidivist whose background shares features with the typical violent radical extremist as described Kazakhstan’s authorities, although distinct in some respects.
Kulekbayev first criminal conviction came in 2010, when he received a three-year suspended sentence for robbing a jeweler. In February 2012, he was detained at the railway station in his native city of Kyzylorda in possession of a pistol and religious literature. Kulekbayev said that although he prayed, he had no link to extremist groups.
Kazakhstan’s national currency has taken a fresh tumble this week, provoking a new cycle of anxiety.
On July 20, the official exchange stood at 338 tenge to the dollar, but that had officially slid by July 28 to more than 350. As has become customary, however, street exchange shops are buying dollars at slightly higher rates, depending on the location. There were reports of a 365 rate in the capital, Astana.
Predictably, the slide has dominated news coverage and discussions on social media. Some comments under a piece on news website Nur.kz are illustrative.
“My pension savings are going to become toilet paper,” wrote one reader.
“Today I took my car to be repaired. The work has been estimated at 26,000 tenge. Now, because of the fall of the tenge, the cost has been changed to 37,000. And they haven’t put up our salaries,” wrote another.
Kazakhstanis are growing used to devaluation of their currency, not that it gets any easier. Rather than sliding gradually, the tenge has historically been allowed to plunge in one-off drops, as happened in February 2009, February 2014 and August 2015. Since that last drop, however, the currency has been allowed to float freely, adding a strong element of unpredictability.
The National Bank, which has become target of much popular criticism, defended itself from attacks on July 26.
Adil Muhamedjanov, director of the monetary operations and asset management department at the National Bank, told Tengri News that the free-float policy allowed for daily volatility according to numerous factors — primarily the price of oil and currency markets in Kazakhstan’s main trading partners.
Kazakhstan launched a rare exercise in consulting with the general public earlier this year to defuse spreading discontent, but the authorities are now bracing to pull the plug on the experiment and return to its more trusted heavy-handed measures.
This weekend, the government-initiated outreach commission on the land reforms rolled into the western city of Atyrau, which is notable for having mounted the largest protest rally against the proposed reforms in the spring.
While much of the discussion on July 23 was centered on the reforms themselves, there were also multiple impassioned demands for the release of jailed activists Max Bokayev and his friend, Talgat Ayan.
Organization of this session of the commission had not gone smoothly. One prominent member opposed to the reforms, Mukhtar Taizhan, had announced on his Facebook account that it was to be held on July 16, but the event was postponed. Commission chair and Agriculture Minister Askar Myrzakhmetov told Ak Zhaiyk newspaper that it was taking an unexpectedly long time to arrange the equipment to stream the event over the internet.
Once the date came around though, only 25 people in of 75-member body actually turned up, although the event was at least open to the public.
Amendments to the land law approved in November extended the period for which farming land could be rented to foreigners from 10 to 25 years. The law also set the terms for a series of land auctions that would have been open only to citizens of Kazakhstan. All the provisions have since been reversed amid widespread public opposition.
In the wake of the deadly Almaty shootings, authorities in Kazakhstan are drawing up measures to step up the fight against extremism and considering the creation of a fingerprint and DNA register.
“Penalties for crimes of an extremist or terrorist character will be intensified through an increase in the minimum and maximum prison sentences. Rules will be brought in on the confiscation of property as a mandatory form of punishment for extremism and terrorism,” National Security Committee chief Vladimir Zhumakanov said at a government meeting on July 19.
The measures proposed had been drawn up before the July 18 events in Almaty, which authorities have said were the single-handed work of 26-year old Ruslan Kulekbayev, but they are now being discussed with fresh urgency.
One plank of the suggested new measures includes tightening control over the circulation of firearms.
“It is planned that there will be a strengthening of control over the circulation of firearms, and administrative penalties for violating rules in that area will be made stricter,” Zhumakanov said.
Interior Minister Kalmukhanbet Kasymov proposed at the same meeting that citizenship be stripped from people that had left the country to join extremist organizations overseas.
Kasymov’s ministry is now developing legislation on fingerprinting and DNA registration that will be brought to parliament by the end of the year. No details are forthcoming yet, however, about who would be included in such registers, which have sparked concern about privacy rights and ethical-legal objections over citizens’ right to presumption of innocence elsewhere in the world.
Foreign ministers of the Caspian littoral states meet in Astana on July 13, 2016. (photo: MFA Russia)
Are the five states around the Caspian Sea finally going to resolve their dispute about how to divide the body of water between themselves?
A number of unusually positive statements from diplomats from the littoral states have suggested that the seemingly intractible dispute is on the verge of being resolved. But if any of the Caspian countries have softened their negotiating positions -- the intransigence of which has resulted in this long dispute -- they aren't telling.
The foreign ministers of the five states -- Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan -- met last week in Astana, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the sides could reach an agreement in a year.
"I believe it is absolutely realistic to aim for signing the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea in 2017. I think this can be done even in the first half of the year," he said. That enthusiasm was shared by Kazakhstan, whose prime minister, Karim Massimov, tweeted: "Met with foreign ministers of Caspian littoral states. There's hope for prompt completion of talks over Caspian Sea Legal Status Convention."
At least four people, including three policemen and one civilian, were killed on July 18 in the heart of Kazakhstan’s largest city following an attack on a police station.
Police in Almaty said that the attack began around 11 a.m. local time as a man attempted to force his way into the Almaly district police station. The attacker shot a sentry guard and stole his weapon, officials said in a statement.
The suspect then shot two pursuing officers, the statement said.
Police say that during his escape, the gunmen tried to carjack a civilian, killing him in the process.
Authorities have detained a 27-year old native of the southern Kyzylorda region who is also suspected of killing a woman over the weekend. Police earlier said that another person connected to the attack remained on the loose.
There have scattered reports of separate attack around the city, suggesting a coordinated action, but the details remain highly confused.
Soon after the unrest began, police issued a statement to say an antiterrorism operation was underway and asked the public to avoid large crowds.
“Law enforcement authorities will in good time provide information about all suspect individuals and asks the public to be understanding toward the actions of police and special forces,” the Almaty police said in a statement.
The National Security Committee, or KNB, said in a statement that it had raised the terrorism alert in Almaty to red, which stands for critical. The statement said gunmen attacked the Almaly district police station and an Almaty branch of the KNB.
As it presented its case this week to prove that Tohtar Tuleshov was plotting to seize power, Kazakhstan’s security services revealed that the businessman was involved in, of all things, film production. And not especially successfully at that.
In truth, Tuleshov’s Shymkent Pictures studio, named after the city where he was based, was not much to write home about. Its only known complete production was leaked to the internet before it was officially released, damaging its already dubious commercial prospects. The IMDB film website lists the 2007 movie under the name “Blizhniy Boy: The Ultimate Fighter.” (The Russian term “Blizhniy Boy” means “close quarters combat”).
Depending on how generous one is willing to be, it could be said that the movie, which reportedly had a $4 million budget, included some illustrious bit players: the late David Carradine, Gary Busey, and Eric Roberts, brother of the more famous Julia Roberts.
In the main role, Vietnamese-American former multiple martial arts fighter Cung Le played a man called Eric, who returns from the United States to his native Kazakhstan (yes) only to accidentally become witness to a crime being committed by a gangland kingpin. Eric escapes back to the United States, which is when all the trouble begins.
The criminal underworld plot-line is curious given that Kazakhstan’s authorities are now accusing Tuleshov of also being a member of the notorious and murky trans-national criminal group known as the Brothers’ Circle. Such is the ill-repute of this organization that some of its suspected members have been targeted for sanctions by the US Treasury Department.
One of Kazakhstan’s last remaining independent newspapers has been ordered to pay heavy damages in a libel case that its editor believes was designed to drive it out of business.
The ruling ordering the Tribuna/Ashyk Alan newspaper to pay nearly $15,000 in damages to a former Almaty city official was the latest in a series of lawsuits lost by independent media in Kazakhstan that critics see as a blow to freedom of speech.
“This basically means the destruction of the independent media,” Zhanbolat Mamay, the newspaper’s editor, told EurasiaNet.org after the verdict on July 12. “It is an attack on freedom of speech.”
The lawsuit was filed by Sultanbek Syzdykov, a former Almaty city hall official whom the newspaper had labeled “corrupt” because he was accused of embezzling $70,000 from funds to stage the 2011 Asian Winter Games. A criminal probe was closed after he repaid the sum.
The case was widely covered in Kazakhstan’s media at the time, but Tribuna/Ashyk Alan has now been punished for reporting on it, Kazakhstan’s Adil Soz (Freedom of Speech) watchdog noted.
Denis Krivosheyev, a journalist at the bilingual Russian-Kazakh newspaper (whose name means “Platform”), wrote about it again this spring after Syzdykov was appointed to head a company belonging to city hall.
“[Syzdykov] now considers that he is not corrupt, and that we called him corrupt without grounds,” Mamay told EurasiaNet.org prior to the verdict, which awarded Syzdykov a third of the $45,000 in damages he had sought.
Kazakhstan’s security services have presented an extraordinarily exotic case against a businessman accused of organizing anti-land reform protests as a means to seizing power.
The National Security Committee, or KNB in its Russian initials, said on July 11 that it is pursuing cases against 25 people following its investigation into the alleged criminal activities of Tohtar Tuleshov.
The would-be plotting detailed by the MNB is deeply convoluted and riddled with gaping holes.
KNB spokesman Ruslan Karasev told reporters that Tuleshov has “maintained contacts and supplied funding to leaders and authorities in a trans-national criminal group known abroad as the Brothers’ Circle.”
While the formal existence of the Brothers’ Circle is subject of debate, members suspected of belonging to the loose association of Eurasian crime lords have been targeted for sanctions by the US Treasury Department.
The Treasury Department describes the organization as “a criminal group composed of leaders and senior members of several Eurasian criminal groups that are largely based in countries of the former Soviet Union, but also operate in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America.”
The KNB claimed that Tuleshov had developed regular contacts with a veritable Who’s Who of criminal kingpins, many of whom are better known by their nicknames. They included Aslan Usoyan (Dyed Khassan), a Russian mafia boss killed in a gangland-style assassination in early 2013, Gafur Rahimov (Chyorny Gafur), who is said to be a close confidante of Uzbekistan’s president, Georgy Sorokin (Zhora Tashkentsky), Noizin Jumayev (Maxim Buharsky), and Ilyas Sultanov (Dyadya Ilyas).