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 press conference in Almaty on the proposed plans to rent land to foreign investors had to be cancelled April 29 after police detained the organizers.
The heavy-handed effort to prevent a public discussion is highlighting the nervous state of a government that is flailing in its attempts to quell a wave of protests over the land issue.
Mukhtar Taizhan and Rysbek Sarsenbaiuly, who were set to speak at Almaty’s National Press Club, were forcibly denied from getting to the building by police. Rights activists filming the detention, like Galym Ageleuov, were themselves also hauled away by police.
Some time later, Sarsenbaiuly’s wife, Marzhan Aspandiyarova, did manage to reach the National Press Club to explain to reporters what had happened to her husband, but the scene degenerated into chaos as she spoke. As journalists gathered around her to listen, several policemen barged in to physically drag her away into a waiting car.
“If you want to prosecute, go ahead. The land will not be sold,” Aspandiyarova yelled as she was being manhandled.
The protests that have sprung up in several locations in Kazakhstan revolve around government plans to sell off unused farming land, which many Kazakhstanis fear could be bought up by foreign buyers — the Chinese are the main suspects.
Authorities have tried to reassure the public, specifying that the land being made available can be sold only to citizens of Kazakhstan, while foreigners must do with renting for periods of up to 25 years.
Those reassurances have had little effect. Some argue that once the 25 year period is up, foreigners may choose to squat on the land, while others suspect unauthorized sales will be approved on the sly.
The land protest movement in Kazakhstan is gathering momentum and spreading to more cities, while the authorities appear determined to ride out the public anger.
RFE/RL’s Kazakhstan service reported on April 27 that activists in the city of Uralsk applied for permission to rally next month on the heels of major demonstrations earlier in the day in Aktobe and Semey.
The demonstrations are ostensibly against government plans to sell off unused farming land, which many Kazakhstanis fear could be bought up by foreign buyers — the Chinese are the main suspects — but public speeches at the rallies indicate the discontent is spreading to other issues, such as corruption.
Authorities have tried to reassure the public, specifying that the land being made available for acquisition can only be sold to citizens of Kazakhstan, while foreigners will only be able to rent for up to 25 years. The president’s office has argued this move will put the farming land back into circulation and provide economic return on land that is now lying unused.
That has reassured few, however.
Footage uploaded to the Internet from the unsanctioned meeting in Aktobe, which looks to have gathered many hundreds, showed speakers touching on a variety of issues, from the justice system to recurrent plans to build a nuclear power station — another popular source of unhappiness.
All the protests appear to have proceeded peacefully so far, not least as the police have refrained from attempting to break them up.
Although state media have studiously avoided reporting on the protests, President Nursultan Nazarbayev on April 26 criticized what he said was a swirl of disinformation surrounding the planned land sales.
Kazakhstan has approved chemical castration as a form of punishment for people jailed on charges of pedophilia.
The law entered into force with approval from President Nursultan Nazarbayev last week.
Under the law, chemical castration will be administered through a course of injections that will act on the body over a number of months to reduce sexual urges.
“The drugs being administered by injection to the subject of castration are anti-androgenic,” psychiatrist Ahtolkyn Meyrmanova told 365info.kz, referring to a type of medication intended to reduce male hormones in the organism. “The injections will be carried out once every three months under observation from a specialist.”
The legislation to introduce chemical castration in Kazakhstan was proposed by the office of the General Prosecutor. The deputy to the General Prosecutor, Nurmahanbet Isayev, has estimated that up to 100 rapists are released from jail ever years.
KazTAG news agency cited official data stating that more than 3,000 people have been sentenced on sex crimes over the past five years. Of the more than 200 whose offenses involving underage children, 63 had prior convictions for similar crimes.
The drastic measures against pedophiles have broad support in society, although some rights activists have spoken out against the punishment.
Protests are picking up steam in Kazakhstan against reforms that many fear could enable foreigners to buy up massive swaths of land and open the way to shady and corrupt transactions.
More than 1,000 people rallied in the western city of Atyrau on April 24, only the latest in a string such demonstrations. Civil activist Galymbek Akulbekov was able to hold a one-man picket in the capital, Astana, for about five minutes last week before being hauled away by police. Another larger rally in Almaty on April 22 drew some 30 people.
Although modest in size, the protests are an unusual sight and the authorities will be wary about cracking down too severely over a potentially incendiary and sensitive issue.
As the ninth largest country in the world, Kazakhstan is well-stocked on the land front. The country has 2.7 million square kilometers of farming land stock, of which around one-third is unused, according to the National Economy Ministry. Another 602,000 square kilometers is made up residential space, industrial areas and protected nature reserves.
Under government plans, the unused farming land could be sold or made available for rent, with the revenue going to the National Fund — Kazakhstan’s stabilization fund — instead of the state coffers.
A mural created by street artist Pavel Kas in the industrial city of Temirtau.
A graffiti artist in the industrial Kazakhstan town of Temirtau has ended up in the authorities’ crosshairs for creating a giant mural in protest at the environmental damage caused by a local smelter.
The mural was painted on the side of an apartment block by Pavel Kas in the style of Henri Matisse’s The Dance and shows a circle of human figures around a chimney stack chugging out thick black smoke. The vividness of the painting is in ironic contrast to the bleak backdrop of the real factories.
But one city’s vandalism is another city’s art, and so the town hall in Shymkent, in southern Kazakhstan, has now invited Kas to take part in an art festival being held there on May 13-15.
Shymkent Art Days 2016 will host street artists, sculptors, architects, designers and graffiti artists for an event to celebrate contemporary style. While Temirtau has reacted poorly to the notion of people painting on its walls, Shymkent is actively inviting festival participants to break out the paints.
“Pavel Kas is a lively representative of informal art dealing with current issues. Shymkent will be happy to welcome Pavel to its festival and organizers will provide all materials needed to create works that will decorate our city,” Shymkent deputy mayor Kairat Nurtai said in remarks reproduced on the city’s official website.
Temirtau is the heart of Kazakhstan’s steel industry, which environmentalists say has had a heavy toll on the quality of the air. One the earliest workers at the city’s first blast furnace in the 1960s was none other than President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
As Kazakhstan’s economic muddle continues apace, the production and sale of new automobiles has collapsed, while more drivers are choosing to buy or keep old clangers.
Figures released last week by the National Economy Ministry show that in the first quarter of 2016, the production of cars fell by 92.2 percent compared with the same period last year, Trend news agency reported. During the same period, factories in Kazakhstan produced 14.2 percent fewer trucks.
Kazakhstan’s main auto assembly companies — Azia Avto, Saryarka AvtoProm and Agromash Holding — turn out some of the world’s largest brands, including Chevrolet, Kia, Skoda, Lada, Toyota, Hyundai, SsangYong and Peugeot.
Most cars sold in Kazakhstan are imported, and demand has been steadily falling.
In 2015, official dealerships reported the sale of 97,446 automobiles, a 40 percent drop on the year before.
The rate of the drop-off in sales is intensifying. Figures from the Kazakhstan Automobile Business Association (KABA) show that 6,991 cars were bought from official dealerships in the first two months of this year, a 59 percent decrease on the same period in 2015.
A glance around the roads in Kazakhstan’s wealthiest cities, Astana and Almaty, is an easy reminder that many Kazakhs prefer when they can to buy larger cars able to handle some of the country’s worst roads.
But as KABA president Andrey Lavrentyev has noted, the greatest demand registered last year was for compact models costing under 4.5 million tenge ($13,300).
The biggest seller among smaller models last year was the Hyundai Elantra (2,203 units), followed by the Skoda Rapid with 1,351 sales. In a far third place was the KIA Cerato with 883 units sold.
Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev, never shy about thrusting his once-obscure country on to the global stage, has unveiled perhaps his most ambitious initiative ever: to rid the world of war.
The new program, announced during Nazarbayev's recent trip to Washington, is called "21st Century: A World Without Wars" and is laid out in a document, "Manifesto: The World. The 21st century."
Nazarbayev's rule has featured several globally ambitious initiatives, like integrating all of Eurasia, bringing the world's religions together and eliminating nuclear weapons. The new anti-war manifesto is an outgrowth of the last, and Nazarvbayev unveiled it at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington.
And as with Kazakhstan's other global projects, it's difficult to separate Nazarbayev's desire to do good from his desire for glory. “The government is not insincere about this issue, but it is certainly also used for public diplomacy issues,” said Togzhan Kassenova, an associate in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment, in an interview with Foreign Policy magazine.
A member of parliament in Kazakhstan has struck a populist note by thundering about the reportedly massive wages being paid to a Russian soccer star recently signed by Almaty’s FC Kairat.
In an intemperate address before parliament on April 18, Muhtar Tinkeyev spoke of the need to develop a sporting culture in Kazakhstan and not to waste money bringing foreign stars to the country. By way of an example, he pointed to FC Kairat’s recent, high-profile signing of Andrei Arshavin.
“Look at Arshavin, they have given him a $1 million contract. Just think, more than $1 million a year. There are foreign players making $30,000 a month. Is this the kind of football we need?” Tinkeyev said in remarks carried in detail by Tengri News. “Why isn’t this money spent on children’s sport? On building courtyard playgrounds?”
Tinkeyev was no more sparing of what he described as the wasteful expense on basketball and hockey.
“Look at the situation with the Barys Atsana hockey team. You have this one Kazakh there, Damir Ryspayev, who only goes onto the ice to get into fights,” he said.
Tinkeyev instead lavished praise on recent sporting events like the Nomad Mixed Martial Arts competition, which wrapped up last week in the city of Karaganda at what Tinkeyev said was of no cost to the state budget.
And the deputy was no less critical of the slovenly behavior he claimed to have seen among overpaid sports stars.
Good news for hikers and bikers in Kazakhstan’s business hub as a local beverage company plans to build 25 kilometers of foot and cycle paths into the hills to mark its 25th anniversary.
Kazakhstan’s Raimbek Bottlers, which markets its drinks range under the Juicy, Palma and Ainalaiyn brands, is stumping the cash to build car-free access to the most popular out-of-town getaway spots. Once the path is completed, people will be able to get to the Medeu ice skating rink and Shymbulak ski resort from Kok-Tobe, a hilltop recreation area in Almaty, under their own steam.
“We want to give these paths to the city so that you don’t have to go by transport to Medeu or Shymbulak, but, for example, you can go on foot up to Kok-Tobe and then use the paths. Part of the path will be for trekking and the other for mountain bikes,” Raimbek Batalov, chairman of Raimbek Holdings, told Kapital.kz.
Kazakhstan has on paper been making bold efforts to nudge their automobile-addicted population onto their bicycles by building dedicated paths (albeit not always very good ones). And there is health to consider. Almaty is plagued by appallingly polluted air because over-reliance on cars, which also seems to be contributing to a burgeoning obesity crisis. Research by the Kazakh Academy of Nutrition has found that 30.6 percent of women and 36.8 percent of men in Kazakhstan are overweight.
So Batalov’s cycle and trekking path could not have come at a more apposite time.