Kazakhstan soldiers in southern Tajikistan for CSTO joint military exercises. (photo: CSTO)
Russia and several of its allies have completed joint military exercises on the Tajikistan Afghanistan border, which they say was necessitated by the worsening situation in northern Afghanistan.
The drills of the Collective Security Treaty Organization began last week and the first step was deploying the 2,500 troops, without prior notice, to the exercise site in Tajikistan's Khatlon province. According to the scenario of the exercises, "the situation on the Tajik-Afghan border seriously deteriorated. Armed groups invaded the territory of Tajikistan from the territory of Afghanistan. The Tajikistan armed forces together with other security structures carry out military operations to repel the invasion."
Military units from the various CSTO member states carried out individual tasks: Tajikistani aircraft carried out aerial reconnaissance and identified the position of "terrorist groups" numbering 700 people.
Then an Armenian special forces company reconnoitered the site on the ground, traveling with modified Nissan pickup trucks armed with machine guns. Then, various special forces units from Belarus, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan advanced to "capture the militants' field commander and secure the withdrawal of the Armenian reconnaissance troops."
In the final stage, Russian and Kazakhstani bomber jets carried out air strikes on the militant positions, and drones identified targets for further artillery strikes.
Central Asia faces a gloomy economic outlook for the rest of this year and into next, battered by the tanking Russian economy and low commodity prices, according to a regional outlook released by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on May 19. Several countries face double-digit inflation.
“The region has been hit by two major external shocks: the oil price and the slowdown in the Russian economy,” Juha Kahkonen, deputy director of the IMF’s Middle East and Central Asia department, told a briefing in Almaty as the forecast was released.
Growth slowed last year and is set to decrease “much more significantly” this year, he said, before recovering “only slightly” next year.
All the Central Asian states are feeling the pinch of the slump in Russia, “which has close linkages with the region through remittances, trade, and foreign direct investment,” the IMF pointed out.
Energy exporters (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) and importers (Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) alike are suffering: exporters are battling falling revenues from the drop in global oil and gas prices, while importers are feeling what Kahkonen described as “only a very small beneficial impact” from lower prices because of the long-term nature of their energy import contracts in which prices are set.
Falls in prices for other commodities (gold in the case of Kyrgyzstan and aluminum for Tajikistan, for example) are also biting.
Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are also suffering from a drop in labor remittances from Russia, as migrants lose their jobs and the dollar value of remittances falls because of the depreciation of the ruble. This is causing weaker domestic demand in remittance-dependent economies.
Former Soviet dictator Josef Stalin has been experiencing some ups and downs in Kazakhstan lately. The only full-sized monument to the iron-fisted leader remaining in the Central Asian state – where a quarter of the population died during a famine under his watch – was recently restored, and then quickly taken down.
Blown off his pedestal in a storm last summer, the silvery Stalin was reinstalled by jubilant villagers in Stariy Ikan, near the border with Uzbekistan, earlier this month. It was torn down again on May 15 amid controversy over the glorification of the brutal colonialist dictator.
The villagers “gave their agreement to the removal of the monument,” mayor Abdulla Saydikarimov said in remarks quoted by Bnews.kz. The authorities had said villagers had not obtained the paperwork to erect the statue. But there was plainly far more to Comrade Stalin’s fall than planning permission.
It was no coincidence that the monument – standing five meters high with its pedestal and showing a commanding figure in military greatcoat and cap – was re-erected on May 6 by Stariy Ikan community elders.
That was during the run-up to May 9, the anniversary of the end of World War II, known as the Great Patriotic War in much of the former Soviet Union and celebrated with particular gusto this month, the 70th anniversary of victory.
At the ceremony to re-erect the contentious statue, veteran Babadzhan Nishanbayev waxed lyrical about its symbolism for those who returned from battle. “More than 300 of us went to the front from [Stariy] Ikan, almost all the men of the village. And 58 returned,” he told local news site Otyrar.kz. “Throughout the war, we went onto the attack with the cry ‘For the Motherland! For Stalin!”
Over a thousand saiga antelopes have been found dead in northern Kazakhstan. Conservationists had been hoping that populations of this rare steppe-roaming ruminant were recovering.
The corpses have been found in Kostanay Region in northern Kazakhstan, the Ministry of Agriculture said in a May 13 statement that did not specify the precise figure.
The cause of death is unknown. Experts are running tests on the dead animals and on the surrounding soil and water, with the results expected in a week, the ministry said.
Last time there was a case of mass saiga deaths in this region, in 2012, the cause was established as pasteurellosis, a disease that attacks the lungs and which killed nearly 12,000 saigas – a species listed as Critically Endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List – in an epidemic in 2010.
The latest deaths have occurred just as conservationists have been reporting something of a success story in the saiga population's recovery. The distinctive creature has a long, humped nose that allows it to filter air during the dusty summer months and breathe warm air during the freezing winters.
Last year, the saiga population in Kazakhstan jumped by 37 percent to 256,000, the international Saiga Conservation Alliance said in December. The result was “very encouraging and showed the only increase in saiga populations across the saiga’s ranges,” the group said.
The “sex school” in Kyrgyzstan’s capital that EurasiaNet.org profiled last year has moved to a bigger facility and opened a branch in neighboring Kazakhstan.
The Jade Gift School’s new location on Bishkek’s Bokonbaeva Street includes a larger gymnasium, where men and women learn to exercise muscles used during intercourse. There’s also now a separate room for theoretical instruction, such as courses on sexual fantasy and “playing the flue” – the school’s metaphor for oral sex. The school now also offers yoga, weight training, and customized workout trainings.
“I never expected this to become a full-time job,” confesses Jade Gift School founder and owner Rakhat Kenjebek kyzy, 31, describing how the school started out as a personal project rather than a business.
While working in China in the late-oughts, Kenjebek kyzy became acquainted with traditional treatments for women’s health. When she returned home, she started passing her knowledge around among friends. The circle of people seeking her advice grew wider and she eventually founded Jade Gift in 2011.
The school now employs three sales managers, a social media manager and five trainers. There are about 50 regular students; another 50 or so attend one-time events each month.
In this conservative country, many eschew talking openly about sex. But Kenjebek kyzy says some of her students are girls from religious families. Some confide that they attend classes because they are afraid their husbands will take second wives, she says. (Polygamy, though illegal, is increasingly common in Kyrgyzstan.)
In November 2014, in a Kazakhstani village near one of the world’s largest oil, gas and condensate fields, 25 schoolchildren and four adults suddenly grew ill and fell unconscious.
Residents of the village, Berezovka, had noticed flaring at the nearby Karachaganak field and had smelled gas the day before. They say they were poisoned and have demanded relocation. Though some local officials did speak publicly about the problem at the time, a watchdog says that Kazakhstan’s government and its Western partners are ignoring the illnesses and falsely accusing residents – who have complained of poisonings since 2002 – of faking.
The field is operated by Karachaganak Petroleum Operating BV (KPO), a consortium including BG Group from Britain, Italy’s ENI, Chevron from the USA, Russia’s Lukoil and Kazakhstan’s state-run KazMunayGaz. It is Kazakhstan’s largest producing gas field.
Crude Accountability, a Virginia-based watchdog focusing on hydrocarbon extraction in the Caspian Sea basin, says KPO is trying to “hush up” the tragedy.
Independent monitors have found dangerous chemicals including hydrogen sulfide in Berezovka’s air, Crude Accountability said this month. And since the initial poisonings last November, several other bouts of fainting and illness have hit the village: “Almost 50 percent of the villagers are chronically ill and 80 percent of the children suffer from respiratory diseases.”
Kazakhstani and Russian pilots take part in the ceremony handing over four Su-30SM fighter jets in Taldykorgan, Kazakhstan. (photos: Ministry of Defense, Kazakhstan)
Kazakhstan has acquired four state-of-the-art fighter jets from Russia, part of a deal that could include up to 36 of the aircraft by 2020 in what Kazakhstan media called "one of the biggest deals on the defense market in the last decade."
The Su-30SM fighters were handed over at a ceremony April 17 at the Taldykorgan air force base. "This shows the increasing military power of the Kazakhstan armed forces... The Su-30SM will substantially improve the defense of the air borders of the republic of Kazakhstan," said the commander of Kazakhstan's air forces, General-Major Nurlan Ormanbetov.
The Su-30SM is a so-called Generation 4++ fighter, and thus far has only been ordered by the Russian air force. (The only 5th-generation fighter in operation is the Lockheed Martin F-22.)
Russian newspaper Vedemosti reported that the deal (which includes training on the new aircraft for pilots and mechanics) was worth 5 billion rubles (about $90 million at the current exchange rate). That was "close to the price for the Russian air force" thanks to the favorable pricing for Russia's allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization. If Kazakhstan buys all 36 aircraft, the deal would total $2 billion, Vedemosti reported.
The Russian military is handing Astana more than a million hectares of land it has been renting in Kazakhstan, which hopes to use the territory to boost its extractive industries.
During talks in Moscow on April 16, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and his Kazakhstani counterpart Imangali Tasmagambetov finalized the deal that will see 1.6 million hectares of land that is part of two military testing grounds ceded to Kazakhstan, Russian news agency TASS reported.
“Unused territories and sectors where communications routes and mineral wealth are located will be removed from the lease and handed over to Kazakhstan,” Shoigu said.
The land is part of two military facilities operated by Russia in Kazakhstan: the Saryshagan anti-ballistic missile testing ground at Lake Balkhash in the southeast and a flight testing center in Aktobe in the energy-rich west.
“We have taken into account all the desires of the Kazakhstani side in removing the land from the lease,” Shoigu added.
For Kazakhstan, the deal reasserts its sovereignty over the territory and opens up the opportunity to build infrastructure and prospect for energy and mineral resources, just as Astana launches a program to increase Kazakhstan’s proven reserves.
“This agreement is linked to the economic interests of the Republic of Kazakhstan,” the country’s Ministry of Defense said in a tight-lipped statement. The land “will be used in the interests of the oil-and-gas sector, the construction of housing, railroads, and highways, and for other needs.”
The waters of the Syr-Darya river are highly polluted and should not be used for irrigating crops, let alone for drinking, scientists from Kazakhstan have concluded.
Tests of the waters of Central Asia’s longest river – which flows for 2,200 kilometers through Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan – found dangerous concentrations of metals including chromium, copper, nickel, mercury, molybdenum, and zinc, the Nur.kz site quoted scientists from South Kazakhstan State University as saying.
“The water of the Syr-Darya is not recommended for use either for agricultural needs or for the fishing industry,” concluded Uylesbek Besterekov, one of the professors who took part in the three-year study funded by a €600,000 NATO grant.
The scientists (who tested waters flowing for around 1,000 kilometers through Kazakhstan, from the border with Uzbekistan up to the Aral Sea) could not pinpoint which industrial enterprise was the greatest polluter – or even which of the four countries through which the river flows is causing the most contamination. Even if the main polluters could be identified and stopped, it would take at least a decade for the waters to become clean, Besterekov said.
The findings – which back up 2009 data suggesting that the Syr-Darya’s waters were too dirty to drink or use in agriculture safely – are worrying for the Central Asian governments, since the river is used to irrigate crops that are then transported all over the region for public consumption. (It was the use of this river’s waters for agricultural irrigation – particularly for cotton – that led to the shrinking of the Aral Sea into which it empties.)
The key to massaging your own Wikipedia profile is not getting caught. But Kazakhstan’s efforts to turn the freely editable online encyclopedia into free advertising are yet again in the spotlight.
On March 20, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales hosted an Ask Me Anything conversation (AMA) on Reddit, a social-networking platform. Before long the audience was questioning Wales’s and Wikipedia’s roles in helping to improve Kazakhstan’s image. Back in 2011, Wales awarded a once-and-future Kazakh government employee, Rauan Kenzhekhanuly, the inaugural “Wikipedian of the Year” for his work with WikiBilim, a Kazakh-language platform criticized both for receiving state funds and for publishing multiple articles toeing the authoritarian government’s line. At the time, Wales told EurasiaNet.org, “As far as I know, the WikiBilim organization is not politicized.”
But during the AMA, Wales backpedaled on his decision to name Kenzhekhanuly the first Wikipedian of the Year.
Wales was on the receiving end of a fresh round of criticism last year when Kenzhekhanuly was named deputy governor of Kazakhstan’s Kyzylorda region. During the AMA, a commenter asked Wales if he would have bestowed the award had he known Kenzhekhanuly would go on to serve as deputy governor. “If I had known in 2011 that someone would get a job that I disapprove of in 2014, would I refuse to give them an award in 2011?” Wales responded. “Yes, I would have refused to give that award.”