The State Department has released its annual "Country Reports on Terrorism" reviewing terrorism activity from the past year and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the ISIS is the overwhelming focus throughout the report, but also in the former Soviet Union.
"The ongoing civil war in Syria was a significant factor in driving worldwide terrorism events in 2014," State wrote in the report's introduction. "The rate of foreign terrorist fighter travel to Syria – totaling more than 16,000 foreign terrorist fighters from more than 90 countries as of late December – exceeded the rate of foreign terrorist fighters who traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, or Somalia at any point in the last 20 years."
The report continues State's practice of describing governments' perceptions of the threat of terrorism, rather than Washington's own perception. The introduction of the section on South and Central Asia reads: "Central Asian leaders have expressed concern about the potential terrorist threat posed by the return of foreign terrorist fighters to the region in the wake of ISIL’s growth in the Middle East and the drawdown of U.S. and Coalition Forces in Afghanistan."
Last year's report expressed substantial skepticism about Central Asian government's claims about terror threats; that skepticism is less apparent in this report's newly written sections on ISIS. However, a senior State Department official testified before Congress earlier this month on ISIS in Central Asia and downplayed the threat, noting that the vast majority are not recruited in Central Asia but abroad, particularly in Russia.
Astana places severe restrictions on civil liberties, including freedom of expression, conscience, and assembly, a United Nations rapporteur says in a report published following a visit to Kazakhstan earlier this year.
The country offers “very limited space for the expression of dissenting political views” and treats freedom of assembly “as a privilege or a favor rather than a right,” Maina Kiai, rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, said in a report being presented to the United Nations in Geneva on June 17.
“A web of policy, practice and perception contributes to a general environment where engaging in political activities is difficult, discouraging and sometimes dangerous,” Kiai found. “Dissent may be criminalized and critical political expression is often portrayed as threatening the stability of the state.”
He expressed concern about the case of Kazakhstan’s most prominent prisoner, Vladimir Kozlov, jailed on charges of fomenting fatal violence in western Kazakhstan in 2011.
The rapporteur, who met the opposition leader behind bars during his January visit, “is seriously concerned that Mr. Kozlov’s ordinary political speech and association activities were deemed criminal incitement of social hatred,” the report stated.
The case “seems emblematic of a more general trend to marginalize political leaders voicing dissent,” it added.
A corruption scandal has engulfed a high-profile international exhibition that Astana is organizing, just as Kazakhstan enters the final stages of its bid to stage another prominent global event – the Winter Olympics.
Talgat Yermegiyayev, the chief organizer of Kazakhstan’s EXPO-2017 exhibition (which is due to be held in Astana in two years) has been placed under house arrest on suspicion of embezzlement, reports the Today.kz website.
The court ruling was issued on June 12, the day after President Nursultan Nazarbayev had fired Yermegiyayev from his position as chief executive of the Astana EXPO-2017 company, which is organizing the international exhibition. Nazarbayev’s administration has billed the event a major PR coup for Kazakhstan.
Another top EXPO official, Kazhymurat Usenov, who was in charge of the department overseeing construction of facilities for the exhibition, has also been placed under house arrest. He is suspected of embezzling 214 million tenge ($1.2 million) from the $385 million the state has allocated for the $3 billion event.
The corruption scandal has erupted as Kazakhstan enters the final stages in the race to stage the 2022 Winter Olympics, in which commercial capital Almaty is competing with Beijing to host the prestigious sporting event. A vote is due at the end of July.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has finished a weeklong tour of the five Central Asian states by appealing for them to improve their dismal human rights records. He called on the region’s autocrats to respect civil liberties, at the very least as a means to preserve stability.
“There is no peace without development. No development without peace. And neither is possible without a respect for human rights,” Ban told a meeting of students and officials in Turkmenistan, which campaigners describe as one of the world’s worst human rights abusers.
Speaking in Ashgabat on June 13, the last day of his tour, Ban pointed to concerns about a “deterioration of some aspects of human rights – a shrinking democratic space” across Central Asia.
Restrictions on freedoms might foster “an illusion of stability in the short-run,” he added, but ultimately threatened to create “a breeding ground for extremist ideologies.”
“Around the world, the way to confront threats is not more repression, it is more openness. More human rights,” he added.
A day earlier, in Uzbekistan, Ban had heeded calls by human rights campaigners to press Tashkent over the issues of forced labor and torture.
He acknowledged progress in eliminating the use of child labor, but urged the government to address “the mobilization of teachers, doctors and others in cotton harvesting,” and also “prevent the maltreatment of prisoners.”
Ban hailed “good laws” adopted in Uzbekistan to uphold the rule of law, but added that “laws on the books should be made real in the lives of people.”
Kazakhstan is poised to become part of the World Trade Organization (WTO) nearly two decades after it first applied to join. The Central Asian nation has completed entry talks that have been among the most “challenging” the global body has faced with any country.
Kazakhstan “finalized the negotiations of its WTO membership terms with WTO members at the Working Party meeting on Kazakhstan’s accession on 10 June,” the international trade body said in a statement issued the same day.
Farida Batyrbayeva, spokeswoman for Minister of Economic Integration Zhanar Aytzhanova, confirmed to EurasiaNet.org the completion of talks that started back in 1996.
Astana will not release details of the accession package until after a meeting in Geneva on June 22 at which the WTO’s 161 member states will consider formal approval of the draft accession package, Batyrbayeva added.
The WTO announcement came on the same day that the Agriculture Ministry had declined to put a date on Kazakhstan’s long-delayed accession, hinting at behind-the-scenes disagreements over agricultural subsidies.
The size of subsidies Kazakhstan would be permitted to retain for the agricultural sector – which contributes some 5 percent of GDP and employs around a quarter of the workforce – remained “unresolved,” as Kazakhstani negotiators tried to secure “the maximum possible domestic support,” the ministry told Tengri News on June 10, shortly before the WTO issued its statement on the completion of the accession talks.
Evidently, negotiators overcame the stumbling block to conclude the deal, which WTO Director-General Roberto Azevedo hailed as a “historic step.”
The accession talks with Kazakhstan were among “the most challenging negotiations” in the WTO’s 20-year history, the statement said.
Kazakhstan's financial capital, Almaty, has deployed an obvious but credible argument in its battle with Beijing to host the 2022 Winter Olympics – its real snow.
The bidding battle is coming to a close as the two finalists made their presentations to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in Switzerland on June 9. The decisive votes will be cast in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on July 31.
Before the pitches, Almaty was perceived to be lagging behind Beijing in the contest. But a strong performance that focused on its rival's main weakness – a lack of natural snow – drew praise from IOC delegates.
“I was very, very agreeably surprised,” Canadian IOC member Dick Pound told the Associated Press after Almaty's pitch. “I think they attracted the attention of people who may not have been convinced before. It looks to me like they figured out all of the weaknesses of the competitors and they just nailed the differences – snow, water, air, experience.”
The two cities were given a 45-minute presentation slot to impress the delegates followed by a 45-minute question-and-answer session. Almaty’s message was simple: Its mountains, covered in genuine snow, are the ideal backdrop for the Games.
“I think the Almaty presentation scored some points,” U.S. Olympic Committee chairman and IOC member Larry Probst told the AP. “They drove home the message 'keeping it real.' That was all about snow versus making snow. I think that resonates.”
Students in Kazakhstan have long dreamed up inventive ways to rig their scores at the make-or-break nationwide university entrance exam each year. But this year is the first that cross-dressing has featured as a cheating tactic.
To help his girlfriend make the grade, student Ayan Zhardemov came up with an elaborate plan to impersonate her and take the exam in her place this week, reports Tengri News.
He no doubt felt he had a good chance of doing well, since he had already passed the exam (known as ENT) three years ago himself, to enter the prestigious Kazakh British Technical University in the commercial capital of Almaty, where he is a chemical engineering student.
Zhardemov went to some pains for his audacious bid, taking a journey of nearly 1,000 kilometers from Almaty to southern Kazakhstan, near the border with Uzbekistan, to cheat for his girlfriend.
He donned a long black wig, a gray skirt, a white T-shirt, and white sandals, completing his look with a touch of eye makeup and some pink lipstick.
Unfortunately for him, his efforts did not convince invigilators: They got wise to the con and called the police, who presented Zhardemov with fraud charges that could lead to a short prison term, a fine, or community work.
Kazakhstan’s recently re-elected president has made a vaguely worded pledge of political reform for his new term. Nursultan Nazarbayev suggested that Kazakhstan must transition from its super-presidential system to a more balanced one with greater checks and balances.
Yet while mulling reforms to pave the way for the eventual post-Nazarbayev era, the president made no specific pledges about what form they might take or when they might be enacted, leaving skeptics wondering if his intentions are serious.
Kazakhstan’s political system has hitherto been characterized by “strong presidential rule,” Nazarbayev said on May 29 in remarks quoted by the Kazakhstanskaya Pravda government-owned daily.
Yet as a middle class emerges “this should probably be weakened and the government should be given more opportunities to work independently and more powers should be handed over to parliament.”
There has long been talk in Kazakhstan about weakening the top-down system in which Nazarbayev wields all powers, the government carries out his orders, and parliament (which contains no genuine opposition parties) rubberstamps executive decisions.
Reforms, the thinking goes, would pave the way for a time when the aging president – who has ruled Kazakhstan for a quarter century and will be 80 when his term of office ends in 2020 – will no longer be in power, allowing him to bequeath his successor a system less dependent on one personality.
Almost half of Kazakhstan’s population of rare saiga antelopes has been wiped out in recent weeks. The endangered beasts are believed to have succumbed to a lung disease that is sweeping across the steppe.
Latest figures show that the number of dead saigas has reached 120,977, the Agriculture Ministry reported on May 27. That is 40 percent of Kazakhstan’s total saiga population of 300,000 before disease started striking down the long-nosed antelopes, according to government estimates. (Astana’s figures are higher than an estimate of 265,000 released last year by the international Saiga Conservation Alliance after an aerial study of roaming grounds in Kazakhstan.)
Some 90 percent of the dead animals are females, the Agriculture Ministry said. This has enormous implications for breeding capacity to restore the population.
“Measures to monitor the state of the wild animals and establish the cause of mortality continue,” said the ministry, which has set up a working group and flown in experts from the UK, Germany, and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization to assist with the investigation.
The Saiga Conservation Alliance also has a team in the field, a representative told EurasiaNet.org, and the government says the World Organization for Animal Health is to send in specialists.
Scientists suspect the cause of death to be pasteurellosis, a disease that attacks the lungs and killed nearly 12,000 saigas in a 2010 epidemic.
Other theories floated include poisoning by rocket fuel from launches at Kazakhstan’s Baikonur spaceport (which is leased by Russia). However, Meirbek Moldabekov, the head of the government’s Aerospace Committee, has argued that the vast areas over which saigas are dying make this hypothesis unlikely.
Kazakhstan’s Constitutional Council has struck down a controversial law that would have outlawed “propaganda” of homosexuality to minors, amid signs the legislation was damaging the country’s bid to host the Winter Olympics.
The law was “not in line with the constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan” the Vlast.kz website quoted the Constitutional Council (which rules on the legality of legislation) as saying.
The law governed “the protection of children from information causing damage to their health and development." It was passed by parliament in February. The council struck down the law because of unclear wording rather than human rights concerns, the Vlast.kz report said.
The announcement came after a group of household-name sports stars urged the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to reject Kazakhstan’s bid to host the Winter Games in Almaty in 2022, arguing that the law outlawing the “propaganda” of homosexuality to minors was incompatible with Olympic principles of equality.