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.
Security forces in Kazakhstan carried out a special operation in the western city of Aktobe on December 7 to break up an alleged group of Islamist radicals stealing and reselling oil and oil products.
The National Security Committee, or KNB, said in a statement that several people have been detained and several tanker trucks confiscated following a special operation at an oil refinery in Aktobe. The raid was carried out together with officers from the anti-corruption agency.
No further information was provided about the identity of those detained or the means by which the oil goods were being resold.
Claims of collusion between criminal gangs and radical Islamists are not new for Kazakhstan. Following a series of terror blasts in 2011, authorities spoke about how criminal group operating under the guise of Islamists were siphoning oil directly from pipelines in western Kazakhstan. Likewise, the head of the anticorruption in June 2014 announced that authorities had broken up a transnational crime group led by a Salafist was stealing oil in the Aktobe region.
The repeated occurrence of such investigations highlights the extent of interdependence between regular financial crime and terrorism in Kazakhstan. While officials have on occasion tried to present one as a convenient cover for the other — underground radical Islamist groups as a good recruitment base for criminal gangs — the phenomenon appears to suggest a far more symbiotic relationship.
A man in northern Kazakhstan has reportedly been sentenced to 5 1/2 years in jail after he called for part of the country to break away and become part of Russia.
Russian news agency Sputnik reported on December 5 that a court in the North Kazakhstan Region ruled that Igor Chuprina had violated two laws — one on disseminating propaganda undermining the country’s territorial unity and another on inciting interethnic hatred through his social media posting.
The trial underlines the enduring anxiety provoked in Astana by the roiling conflict in Ukraine, whose government remains mired in a war with Russian-backed militias in the east of the country seeking independence or possible unification with Russia. Northern Kazakhstan has a substantial ethnic Russian minority.
The court in Petropavlovsk found that in September 2014, Chuprina used his cellphone to log into social media website VKontakte, a Russian analogue of Facebook, and posted disparaging posts about Kazakh people. The posts reportedly lasted until May 2015..
The messages “provoked negative reactions and social tension, and fueled conflict and the emergence of a type of anti-constitutional civil and political conduct, expressed as incitement to ethnic hatred, and also constituted a potential for compromising the [territorial] integrity of the Republic of Kazakhstan,” the court ruling noted, according to Sputnik’s report.
Those responding to Chuprina’s thread on the VKontakte page are also being investigated, Sputnik reported.
Just a few days after the former head of the tax service in Kazakhstan was appointed to serve as deputy to the chief of the security services, another senior tax official has been handed a top job in the defense ministry.
The presidential administration announced on December 1 that Abylkair Skakov would be moving from his post as head of the tax inspectorate in the capital, Astana, to become deputy defense minister.
Both appointments appear to stem from the government’s ongoing efforts to reduce graft and optimize financial efficiency, both key priorities as the economy faces the prospect of indefinite stagnation amid depressed prices for oil.
When Daulet Yergozhin was named as the new deputy head of National Security Committee, or KNB, even his colleagues were candid about the sense of the move.
“Daulet Yergozhin has shown himself to be an effective manager everywhere he has worked. He is a very upstanding person. I hope that [he] will also be effective in the fight against corruption, which is the main threat to our national security,” former deputy tourism and sports minister Bahytzhan Shengelbayev said on his Facebook account.
It is customary for top officials in the former Soviet space to speak notionally about corruption posing a security threat, but this is as concerted an effort to address the issue as the region has seen for a long time.
The twin KNB and Defense Ministry reshuffles look like a pincer movement on the armed forces. The KNB has not been heavily invested in investigating financial crime in recent years, and has focused more on antiterrorism or, in some cases, going after prominent figures in the opposition.
“We have a great show tonight!” (Applause and cheers). “And our first guest tonight is Kazakhstan’s president and leader of the nation, Nursultan Nazarbayev!” (Wild applause and cheers).
No, this is not the opening to a recent edition of the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, but it is pretty much what was said over at his Kazakhstani imitators on Late Night in the Nurlan Koyanbayev Studio.
A trailer posted on the Koyanbayev show Facebook page on November 29 has offered a glimpse of what appears to be the latest wheeze by the Nazarbayev entourage to make the ageing authoritarian leader seem to more relatable and down-to-earth.
Such populist antics are, of course, old hat for television viewers in the West, who have become used to seeing their presidents and prime ministers pop up in popular shows for some light banter.
Even before he ascended to the US presidency, Barack Obama energetically courted the housewife vote by appearing on The Ellen Degeneres Show and performing a dance. Ever since taking office, Obama has routinely cropped up in comedic talk shows, drawing criticism from some quarters that he was demeaning the office of the president.
Politicians tend as a rule to keep away from comedy shows for fear of falling prey to mockery, but Obama has done the circuit in relatively certain knowledge he would likely face only gentle ribbing at most.
A court in the the city of Aktobe on November 28 sentenced seven men to life in jail for their role in a group shooting spree earlier this year. Another two men accused in direct involvement in the violence of June 5, when eight people, including three soldiers, were shot dead by a group of attackers that had seized weapons from shops stocking hunting supplies.
Eighteen people charged with abetting the attackers received jail terms of between two and five years.
Investigators have said the group were Islamic extremists and followers of the Salafist current.
According to the Aktobe regional court service, the defendants were given the last chance to speak on November 21, when they appealed for clemency and not to be given life sentence, so that they could one day return to their families.
The fullest account of the state’s case provided to date has become from Aktobe-based newspaper Evrika, which obtained and published a copy of the prosecution indictment in October. The indictment describes a man called Dmitry Tanatarov, who was killed on the day, as the main organizer of the bloodshed. It states Tanatarov converted to Islam in 2009 and fell under the sway of “extremist religious ideologues.” It said Tanatarov had aspired to go fight in Syria, but lacked the funds and decided instead to create his own militant group in Aktobe. He is said to have shared his thoughts about his ambitions to embark on a violent jihad with a friend, Arman Aituganov.
Two activists accused of organizing land protests in Kazakhstan have been sentenced to five years in jail.
At the culmination of a trial lasting one and half months, Max Bokayev and Talgat Ayan were found guilty of inciting social unrest, spreading false information and disrupting public order and will, in addition to serving prison time, be banned from public activities for three years.
Judge Gulnar Dauleshova also said the defendants had to pay 259,000 tenge ($750) to cover the costs of expert witnesses and would have their mobile phones confiscated.
Authorities will hope this verdict puts a definitive end to the season of political unrest that began when thousands of citizens hit the streets in the spring in protest at legislation to privatize swathes of public land. In the absence of adequate information campaigns, speculation circulated that much of the land would be bought by foreign investors, primarily from China — a taboo suggestion in a country where land is popularly deemed a natural birthright and where suspicions toward China run high.
Lawyers for the activists, both from the city of Atyrau, where the trial took place, have said they will appeal the sentence.
A journalist for RFE/RL’s Kazakh service, Radio Azattyq, present in the courtroom reported that the pair reacted calmly to the verdict and thanked their supporters as they were escorted out of the building.
As supporters left the courtroom, dozens of them broke out into renditions of the national anthem and shouted “Freedom” as the paddy wagon carrying Bokayev and Ayan drove past, Radio Azattyq reported.
Starting from next year, international television stations wishing to broadcast in Kazakhstan will have to register a representative inside the country, under new rules announced this week by Information and Communications Minister Dauren Abayev.
The rules are being introduced to even the playing field for local broadcasters, who complain at having to compete with foreign rivals unbridled by domestic legislation.
Kazakhstan’s authorities have long been waging a rearguard battle against popular international television broadcasters available to local viewers through cable packages. In July, laws came into force requiring foreign television stations to black out their advertising output — a measure intended to protect local broadcasters’ ad revenue. That law had been adopted in October 2015 and was due to take effect the following January, but its implementation was delayed amid protests from cable operators, who complained they lacked the technical wherewithal to enforce the rule.
Foreign content dominates the airwaves in Kazakhstan. As Abayev has pointed out, cable companies currently air up to 150 channels each, of which around 70 percent are foreign. They are, however, necessarily exempt from multiple domestic restrictions, such as those requiring a certain amount of content to be in the Kazakh language and on what constitutes suitable advertising material. Many channels advertise goods and services not registered and licensed in Kazakhstan, and some of the advertisements, such as those for alcohol, are in outright breach of broadcasting regulations.
Kazakhstan is flouting the rights of its workers to organize in trade unions and assert their labor rights, a damning new report published by an international human rights watchdog alleges.
The study, “We Are Not The Enemy: Violations of Workers’ Rights in Kazakhstan”, was published by Human Rights Watch on November 24, shortly ahead of the fifth anniversary of a bout of fatal violence that spiraled out of an oil strike in the town of Zhanaozen.
The report documents “harassment, surveillance, and, in some cases, spurious legal prosecution or dismissals in apparent retaliation for labor activism.”
Based on interviews with 55 union leaders, labor activists and workers in nine cities—including in the oil and gas sector in western Kazakhstan and the industrial heartland in the center and northeast—the study reveals cases of harassment and intimidation of workers by the authorities and employers to deter them from joining independent trade unions.
It cites cases of workers fired for taking industrial action — a ‘disproportionate disciplinary sanction,’ HRW says — and instances of surveillance of independent union leaders and activists by the security services.
Larisa Kharkova, president of the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions, recalled how on a trip to western Kazakhstan in March this year she was “surrounded in Aktau — day and night” by intelligence agents, and during her meetings with union members “we were sitting there, talking, and we could see how [the security agents] drove up and photographed us.”
Kharkova also explained how a new trade union law enacted in 2014 had “paralyzed” the work of her confederation’s members, independent labor unions which were denied re-registration under burdensome new requirements.
Only a week after Kazakhstan celebrated the 23rd anniversary of its national currency by sticking the face of President Nursultan Nazarbayev on banknotes, talk is afoot of renaming the capital after the leader.
Nazarbayev is already object of a vigorous campaign of state-engineered adulation that often tips into a full-on cult of personality, but this is taking things to a new level.
The proposal to rename Astana to somehow reflect the name of Nazarbayev — who is also known by the Sultanate-style honorific of Elbasy, or leader of the nation — was aired in the hyper-loyalist rubber stamp lower house of parliament, the Majlis, on November 23.
“We suggest placing a note in the country’s constitution observing the leading role played in the creation of our state by the first president, the leader of the nation, Nursultan Abishevich Nazarbayev. And to reflect the name of Elbasy in the name of the capital and other important sites,” said Kuanysh Sultanov, a member of parliament with the ruling Nur Otan party.
Sultanov’s suggestion on how to rename Astana was for either Nursultan or Nazarbayev. Another MP, Pavel Kazantsev, said the decision could be made in just a single month and that “there is no need to drag out the issue.” Kazantsev’s notion was to change the name by independence day, which falls on December 16.
“By the end of the year, we can already choose a new name. It all depends on how discussions go and on what the people say. It just remains for parliament to formalize the decision of the Kazakhstani people,” Kazantsev said.
A referendum could be held to approve the decision, he said.