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.
A court in Kazakhstan has upheld a five-year jail sentence for two activists serving time for their role in organizing protest rallies in opposition to a proposed land privatization scheme.
The Atyrau court on January 20 ruled to leave Maks Bokayev and Talgat Ayan in prison at the end of a week of hearings marred by procedural irregularities. While a handful of supporters of the pair claimed that they were systematically denied the ability to attend the hearings, around 50 people did make it to the courtroom daily.
Bokayev and Ayan refused to attend the hearings in person, calling the proceedings unjust, but initially gave testimony via videoconference. From January 18 onward, they declined to participate altogether.
The appeal reexamined the basic core of the state’s argument against the two activists, which was that they were instrumental in inciting social unrest in mid-April last year by spreading unfounded rumors about the proposal to sell off swathes of land. Prosecutors argued that Bokayev and Ayan were the primary organizers of the protests in Atyrau, although their supporters have argued the rallies snowballed organically and that the pair played a peripheral role.
Independent Atyrau-based newspaper Ak Zhaiyk cited Bokayev’s sister, Zhanargul Bokayeva, who also acted as public defender for the jailed pair, as saying that on the day of the largest rally, April 24, there was already a large crowd on the main square in Atyrau by mid-afternoon, which is when Bokayev arrived. The crowd also included regional and city officials, who attempted to cool moods in the crowd.
The rally proceeded peacefully and without incident — an achievement that Bokayeva argued was partly down to her brother.
Authorities in Kazakhstan are stepping up efforts to tighten control on information by granting the security services power to sever internet and phone connections without having to apply for a court order.
Independent newspaper Ak-Zhaiyk reported on January 20 that the authority to disconnect telecommunications has been granted to the National Security Committee, or KNB, at all levels, down to local branches.
The stated aim of the measure is to combat terrorism.
As lawyer Jokhar Utebekov has noted on his Facebook account, the fact that the KNB will be able to act directly in blocking websites, disconnecting mobile phone links, disabling messenger apps or suspending internet connections without having to go through service providers would appear to indicate that it already possesses the technical means to do so.
The KNB will be able to carry out any of those actions at the request of the police, the anti-corruption agency, the economic crimes service and several other security bodies, in effect giving it authority previously wielded only by the General Prosecutor’s Office.
The changes to the law that have brought about these changes are, incidentally, part of the same contentious legislative package that required citizens to register with local authorities in the event that they settle in a location for more than one month.
Be it as it may, the adjustment to the law will change little in reality and will only formalize an already existing pattern of censorship.
A protest by oil sector workers in the western Kazakhstan city of Aktau has entered its third week as authorities appear unwilling to reconsider a decision to withdraw the registration of an independent trade union.
This dispute flared when the Specialized Inter-District Economic Court of South Kazakhstan Region ruled on January 4 to shutter the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Kazakhstan (KNPK in its Russian initials), which had around 1,600 members, over technicalities to do with its registration. The following day, laborers with the Atyrau-based Oil Construction Company, or OCC, filed an official motion to initiate a hunger strike.
In an echo of the industrial dispute that culminated in bloodshed in the oil town of Zhanaozen in 2011, national media have almost entirely ignored the standoff. But for tireless reporting from correspondents at RFE/RL’s Kazakhstan service, Radio Azattyq, possibly nothing would be known at all about what is taking place. With the number of workers taking part in protest actions growing — to around 400 people, according to Radio Azattyq — officials may possibly begin to take more notice.
Moscow-based website ferghana.ru cited a workers representative at OCC, Nurbek Kushakbayev, as saying that operations had not been halted by the industrial dispute.
“Work continues, we have not stopped work. The workers are working, but they have simply stopped eating. There are threats from the authorities, they keep on saying this is illegal. But there is nothing illegal about this. To eat or not to eat is for every individual to decide,” Kushakbayev toldferghana.ru.
A court in the western Kazakhstan city of Atyrau is currently hearing an appeal in the case of two activists jailed last year for organizing rallies against land privatization plans.
In a string of suspicious episodes that echoes previous such high-profile court cases in Kazakhstan, supporters of the pair trying to travel to Atyrau have been prevented in various ways from attending. Meanwhile, Max Bokayev and Talgat Ayan, who were found guilty in November of inciting social unrest, spreading false information and disrupting public order and sentenced to five and half years in jail, failed to attend their own appeal.
Rights activist Amangeldy Shormanbayev said that on the day that appeal hearings began, on January 16, as he was heading to the airport in Almaty, where he lives, he was detained by police for having fake license plates on his car. Shormanbayev said on his Facebook account that somebody appeared to have switched his plates overnight and that the police refused to investigate the matter any further.
“I was at the auto impound lot for five hours while I sorted this out. Naturally, I was late for my flight, and it turns out that I was not alone,” Shormanbayev wrote.
Rysbek Sarsenbaiuly, chief editor of Zhas Alash newspaper, said he also missed his Atyrau flight from Almaty after he received a phone call from somebody posing as a representative with the airline informing him of a delay. Bek Air, the carrier in question, denied it had made any calls, RFE/RL’s Kazakhstan service reported.
The government in Kazakhstan plans to force internet users to register on websites with their mobile phones if they wish to post comments, the deputy head of the communications and information technology committee, Mikhail Komissarov, has told media.
KazTAG news agency cited Komissarov as saying that law is to be changed to reflect these requirements. Under the changes under consideration, websites will be obliged to create the technical means to enter one’s phone number and receive an SMS so as to be able to complete the authentication process.
The aim of this regulation is purportedly to combat what Komissarov referred to as “information war.”
“We are all witnesses to how certain articles, which do not always have an unambiguous meaning, can be interpreted ambiguously by the public, and then in the comments section information wars will break out, often taking on uncivilized forms and leading to the incitement of inter-ethnic and religious hatred,” Komissarov said.
Introduction of this type of authentication will, Komissarov believes, lower the temperature of online discussions.
“A person that has registered will think three time before writing a message that could incite somebody to something,” he argued.
Ironically and predictably enough, internet users immediately rushed to the comment boards of news article to let Komissarov know what they thought of his idea. Readers of news website Nur.kz likened the proposed rule to something out of North Korea. Others said they were seizing the final opportunity to speak from their hearts while they still had the opportunity.
Anger is mounting in Kazakhstan at a strict new residency registration law after two people dropped dead at government service centers processing the permits.
The recently implemented rules require people living anywhere for more than one month to register with the local authorities or face fines, which has led to massive crowds forming at government offices ill-equipped to handle the demand. Several hours of waiting to be served is reportedly the norm.
On January 16, 53-year old Zharas Kuntakov collapsed at an overcrowded Civilian Service Center (TsON in its Russian initials) in Almaty. The man was at the center with his father and wife and was seeking to register at his father’s home.
A witness who gave his name as Khalelkhan told Nur.kz news website that the man fell to the ground before his very eyes.
“I called the ambulance. He died five minutes later. His heart failed. The medics only arrived after an hour. Later they had to take him out through the back entrance,” Khalelkhan said.
The Government for Citizens, a state corporation created to handle the provision of government services, was swift to downplay the notion that the crowds caused by the registration drive were to blame for Kuntakov’s death and said there were few people around at the time of his collapse anyhow. Photos and video footage of the service center, however, tell another story.
Just for safe measure, Government for Citizens has advised anybody with chronic illnesses to refrain from visiting service centers at peak hours.
A crusade in Kazakhstan against the leaking of state secrets has claimed another scalp in the shape of former deputy head of the presidential administration, Baglan Mailybayev.
The Committee for National Security, or KNB in its Russian initials, said in a statement on January 16 that Mailybayev has been placed under arrest for 2 months on suspicion of illegally gathering and disseminating state secrets.
Another former top official in the presidential administration, the ex-deputy head of the internal policy department Nikolai Galikhin, has also been arrested in connection with the same case.
The KNB said it is searching the two men’s homes for evidence and that further details will be provided once investigations are concluded.
Mailybayev was fired on January 12 from the post he had held since October 2011. He was replaced by old hand and arch-loyalist Marat Tazhin.
Mailybayev has made steady and swift progress through the ranks. From June 2009 he worked as Nazarbayev’s press secretary and had previously served in various positions in the culture ministry. Galikhin, meanwhile, was as recently as December bestowed the Kurmet state award.
Political analyst Dosym Satpayev has noted that the return of Tazhin suggests President Nursultan Nazarbayev is losing faith with some of the younger cadres coming through he system and decided to put his faith in tried-and-tested figures.
Then again, the veterans aren’t having a better time of it either.
A curious advertisement popped up on Facebook a few days, appealing to women in Kazakhstan in search of a prospective husband: “An elite group of bachelors is coming to Astana from Beijing to make new friends and to get married. A number of special events are scheduled. The men are monied, have European educations and speak English, and many of them speak Russian. To learn more about these bachelors apply at our agency.”
News website Nur.kz looked into the matter and learned that an Astana company was indeed organizing a four-day trip in February for 15 Chinese unmarried men in search of a bride.
The business model is reminiscent of the kind of bride-hunting expeditions embarked upon by lonesome Western men in parts of the former Soviet bloc.
There is not much parity in the proposed arrangement. While the women, who have to pay 15,000 tenge ($45) to be placed on the agency’s books ($75 for first-time registration), get no say as to who they pair up with, the men may pick and choose. If the women are not picked, they lose their fee.
According to the program outlined by the Astana company, dates are organized for the couples at venues like karaoke bars and bowling alleys, and once a pair is set, they attend a gala dinner. Women then have the option of going to China at the man’s expense from a week to three months so as to acclimatize to the conditions and culture, and to see if they will be able to settle down.
All this has got some armchair patriots up in arms and sent them charging at their keyboards to vent their fury on social media.
The lawyer for a prominent journalist arrested last year on charges of fraud said on January 11 that his client had admitted his guilt and returned funds he is accused of earning through intimidation.
Bigeldi Gabdullin, the 61-year old chief editor of the Central Asia Monitor newspaper and the executive director of Radiotochka.kz news website, was detained in mid-November on what authorities said was suspicion of using media under his control to intimidate officials into paying him money to avoid negative coverage.
The officials targeted in this scheme allegedly lobbied for Gabdullin to receive government contracts through a system of media subsidies known as the state order. The objects of the claimed blackmail operation later had positive articles about them appear in the media, investigators claimed at the time of Gabdullin’s arrest.
Gabdullin’s lawyer, Amanzhol Muhadmedyarov, said at a pre-trial court hearing on January 11 that his client was cooperating with the investigation and helping to clarify the circumstances of his alleged crime. The journalist has compensated the injured parties to tune of 20.6 million tenge ($62,000) and pleaded to be spared prosecution in exchange for repenting for his offense, Muhadmedyarov said.
One of the people allegedly targeted for extortion by Gabdullin spoke in court to confirm that he had received the compensation and said he wished to drop charges.