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 National Security Committee, or KNB, is set to receive more powers.
Under a government-initiated draft bill now under consideration, the KNB could be authorized to investigate suspected cases of corruption by certain government departments, including the anti-corruption services and the military.
First deputy Prosecutor General Johann Merkel on February 15 described this provision as laying the ground for greater balance among investigative organs, although the KNB appear to be gaining the upper hand in this arrangement.
The evolution of the KNB into the battering ram of the government’s stated goal to stamp out corruption has been taking place for some weeks already. Placing the anticorruption agency under the KNB’s watch, therefore, represents a formal confirmation of an already existing situation.
Another contentious section of the same legislative package envisions a stiff increase in fines for people found guilty of harassing — even if not physically molesting — law enforcement officers — up to 11 million tenge ($34,000).
Even the speaker of the Majlis, the lower house of parliament, Nurlan Nigmatulin, was moved to describe the proposed fine as “mind-numbing” and suggested that it perhaps be revised downward.
Despite this unusual grumbling, MPs waved the bill through its first reading, thereby readily confirming the reputation of the Majlis as a rubber-stamping adjunct of the government. A review on the size of the fines is expected during the second reading.
The former NATO Central Asia liaison office in Tashkent. (photo: NATO)
Central Asians are more likely to see NATO as a threat rather than as a source of protection, according to a new survey.
The survey, by the American firm Gallup, polled residents of all the ex-Soviet republics except for Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. All of the Central Asian states saw NATO as more of a threat than as protection. Tajikistan was the most anti-NATO state, with 34 percent seeing it as a threat and eight percent as protection. Next is Kyrgyzstan, at 19 percent protection and 30 percent threat; then Kazakhstan, 25 percent protection and 31 percent threat.
It's hard to imagine what NATO would possibly threaten in Central Asia. And while it's tempting to attribute this to exposure to Russian narratives about NATO, Tajikistan is the least Russian-speaking of all these countries, and Kazakhstan the most Russian-speaking, so that explanation isn't satisfying. (The Bug Pit is unable to come up with a better one, though.)
Note that NATO closed down its Central Asia liaison office in Tashkent last year, deciding that it would henceforth operate all of its modest cooperation programs in the region from Brussels.
Armenia also had a mostly negative response, with 20 percent saying NATO is a threat and only eight percent as a protection. Armenia's government makes not-insignificant efforts to maintain real cooperation with NATO, in spite of being a member of the NATO rival Collective Security Treaty Organization. But the fact that the only NATO country on Armenia's border is Turkey no doubt colors public opinion on the alliance.
Anti-corruption officials on February 10 detained the editor of one of Kazakhstan’s few surviving independent news publications on charges of corruption, once more arousing anxieties about the fast-vanishing space for free media in the country.
Authorities are accusing Zhanbolat Mamay, editor of Tribuna newspaper, of involvement in fraudulent schemes with fugitive banker and government foe Mukhtar Ablyazov.
The Anti-Corruption Service said in a statement that they suspect Mamay of using his publication to launder money allegedly embezzled from BTA Bank by Ablyazov and his associate Zhaksylyk Zharimbetov.
Ablyazov is accused of defrauding BTA Bank, which he used to run, of billions of dollars between 2005 and 2009. Kazakhstan has sought but failed on repeated counts to secure Ablyazov’s deportation from either the United Kingdom or France.
Anti-corruption officials have said they are running searches for documentation possibly confirming allegations of money-laundering.
A journalist for Tribuna, Inga Imanbai, published video footage on her Facebook account of the moment when the anti-corruption officers arrived to search the newspaper’s offices. Imanbai said that the same officers had previously also visited Mamay’s apartment.
Unlike most media in Kazakhstan, Tribuna is not a beneficiary of the “state order” system, whereby the government either finances outlets outright or pays for the publication of material publicizing state policies and initiatives. It focuses primarily on social issues and has a line that tends toward robust criticism of the government and provides a platform for the few opposition politicians remaining on the scene.
Kazakhstan is patting itself on the back after a successful conclusion to the Universiade 2017 winter student games in Almaty.
“Universiade 2017 has proved to be a true festival of sport for all Kazakhstanis,” President Nursultan Nazarbayev said in a statement posted on his official website.
The games culminated with a boisterous closing ceremony which saw athletes parading through the 12,000-capacity Almaty Arena to a soundtrack of pulsating Kazakh music provided by the group Ulytau, 150 drummers and other stars from Kazakhstan.
“The 28th Winter Universiade has taken place at a high level, despite the modest budget input,” Prime Minister Bakhytzhan Sagintayev told the crowd at the closing ceremony.
“Over a billion viewers followed the Universiade. We have seen how sports, health and culture facilities, that are going to function for the good of our country's inhabitants, were erected in a short time. We are proud of our victories and we thank you all,” he said.
Nazarbayev offered further congratulations to Kazakhstan’s athletes on finishing second on the medal table with 11 golds, 8 silvers and 17 bronzes, behind only Russia who scooped up more than one-third of the gold medals on offer.
Authorities in Kazakhstan have responded to the moral panic about the widely reported online suicide games by proposing fresh restrictions on access to social media websites.
The scare originally had its roots in Russia, where media outlets — primarily the liberal-leaning Novaya Gazeta — last year whipped up a hysteria over claims that shadowy individuals on the internet were egging on youngsters into taking their own lives. Novaya Gazeta came in for strong criticism for creating a hype on the basis of scant evidence of a real major threat.
Out of the blue, however, at the end of January, several Russian-language outlets in Central Asia almost simultaneously took up the mantle of reviving the scare.
In Kazakhstan, the charge was led by privately owned television channel KTK, which ran a lurid and skimpily sourced report claiming the grisly fad had spread from Russia.
The hype was given a fresh kickstart this week following reports that a 19-year old girl in the city of Karaganda had committed suicide. Media reports claimed to cite her parents as saying they found strange hashtags in messages on their daughter’s phone that indicated she may have been lured into one of the much talked-about suicide games.
Suggestions of a link between online games and this suicide were swiftly scotched by police, however. Interior Ministry representative Almas Sadubayev said on February 7 that investigations into the death were still ongoing, but that “information about the suicide being committed under the influence of social media websites is incorrect.”
Sadubayev said there had been no confirmed cases of any teenage suicide as a result of online games.
Photo: Mariusz Kluzniak via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/dbutrT
The protests that spread across Kazakhstan last spring forced authorities to backtrack on a land privatization agenda that had been quietly approved without consulting the public.
Concerns are now mounting among opponents of the idea of allowing the sale of land to foreign nationals that the government is seeking to achieve that aim by stealth through changes to the constitution.
Those suspicions center around the language in Article 26 of Kazakhstan’s founding law, which currently states that “Citizens of the Republic of Kazakhstan may privately own any legally acquired property.” Under the revised version of the constitution, this passage could be ambiguously amended to read “Anybody may privately own any legally acquired property.”
Zhanbolat Mamay, editor of Tribuna newspaper, conveyed the anxieties being expressed by many people online.
“This proposed change to Article 28 of Kazakhstan’s constitution has created strong discontent. Thousands of people are on social media expressing their deep unhappiness at these changes,” he wrote on his Facebook account. “What is most worrying is that any foreign citizen could buy our land. There is no guarantee that on this land they might build a village or even a city.”
This latter point sounds like a mischievous attempt to tap into popular fears about the specter of eventual mass Chinese resettlement in Kazakhstan. In fact, although it is true that the land privatization law passed in 2015 was adopted with little public consultation, it is not correct to say that the law would have legalized the sale of land to foreigners, as claimed by many objectors.
The have been some rumblings of irritation in Kazakhstan over reports that an ultra-nationalist member of parliament in Russia called for parts of northern Kazakhstan to be “taken back.”
According to some flimsily sourced reports, a deputy with the ultra-right Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Pavel Shperov, is said to have made his remarks, describing parts of Kazakhstan as “temporarily seized” lands, at a January 26 roundtable on the plight of ethnic Russian living overseas. Shperov is then reported to have predicted that the return of those lands was imminent.
There are lingering suspicions the remarks might have been a fabrication, or at best a gross distortion of what was said at some point — Shperov’s colleagues have blamed media in Ukraine.
“I can assure you that nobody had any idea of revising the borders of Russia and Kazakhstan. The quote has clearly been taken out of context and has been accompanied by the subjective and obviously contrived assumptions of the journalist,” the head of the State Duma committee for international affairs, Leonid Slutsky, also an LDPR deputy, told reporters on February 1.
Be that as it may, Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry reached out to its Russian counterparts to seek reassurances. On February 1, Kazakhstan’s deputy foreign minister Mukhtar Tleuberdi initiated a phone call with his Russian counterpart, Grigory Karasin, to reconfirm that relations between the countries remained founded on mutual acknowledgement of one another’s borders, among other things.
“Russia asserted that entreaties from the Foreign Ministry of Kazakhstan have been considered in all serious,” ministry spokesman Anuar Zhainakov told Tengri News.
Self-immolation has in recent times become a recurrent gesture of ultimate despair in Kazakhstan.
In the latest such case, a ex-employee of the Atyrau regional prosecutor’s office, 37-year old Leila Smadyarova, set herself alight in front of her former place of work, local newspaper Ak-Zhaiyk reported.
Smadyarova’s responsibilities at the prosecutor’s office consisted of ensuring state detention facilities were properly ensuring the rights of prisoners. In August, a court in the Atyrau, which is situated in western Kazakhstan, issued an order for Smadyarova to be placed under house arrest pending investigations into allegations that she had taken 3 million tenge ($9,200) in bribes. She denied the accusation.
Trial proceedings have since got underway. Prosecutors have argued that Smadyarova, who was an assistant to the regional prosecutor, took the bribe in two parts.
Ak-Zhaiyk cited unnamed sources as saying Smadyarova was driven to the act of self-immolation to draw attention to her plight. She maintains that she never took any bribes and that she is the victim of a smear campaign undertaken by people that she had previously brought to justice. Other than witness statements from those individuals, prosecutors have no evidence, Smadyarova has reportedly said.
Smadyarova was taken to a local hospital with burns to her face and lower leg. Doctors have said she is no immediate danger to her life and that she is fully conscious.
The case has shocked the public not just because the gesture is an extreme one, but because it has occurred so many times.
Activist Baurzhan Aldybergenov said the incident should serve as a clarion call for greater solidarity.
Authorities in Kazakhstan have unveiled some heartening news on the economic front with the announcement that 20,000 jobs are be created at the Tengizchevroil energy venture.
But that burst of optimism comes just as dozens of workers have reportedly gone on strike for higher pay at the very same project.
Deputy Labour and Social Protection Minister Birzhan Nurymbetov said on January 30 that the oil field joint venture, which is 50 percent controlled by US energy corporation Chevron, is an example of the government’s long-term investment agenda.
Foreign investments generated by this project have a multiplier effect and enable the development of business and the improvement of social wellbeing, Nurymbetov’s ministry stated in a press release.
“According to Tengizchevroil, [future expansion at the project has created] provides employment for 10,500 people — of those, 9,400 people are local staff, which accounts for 90 percent of all workers on the project in Kazakhstan,” Nurymbetov said.
Narymbetov said the government expect 20,000 more jobs to be created by expansion of the Tengizchevroil project, and that 18,000 of those jobs would go to Kazakhstani citizens.
“Tengizchevroil will assume the responsibility of teaching and training Kazakhstani personnel,” he said.
Workers would come from all over Kazakhstan, Narymbetov said.
But even as government officials are boasting of future job-creation, those already employed by Tengizchevroil are complaining that they are not paid enough.