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.
Areas of northern and central Kazakhstan has been hit by intense floods caused by heavy rainfall and overflowing rivers, forcing thousands to flee their homes.
The crisis began unfolding on April 11 with the outbreak of intense downfalls. Rivers bursting their banks have barred roads in several northern regions of the country, including around the capital, Astana.
A detailed account of the crisis has been provided by Sputnik news agency.
Rescue workers have evacuated around 5,000 people to safer locations. Many thousands of heads of livestock have been similarly driven to more secure ground.
The worst situation has been recorded in the town of Atbasar, in the northern Akmola region, around 260 kilometers west of Astana. Over the past weekend, levels of a river coursing past the town rose around six meters because of a combination of rainfall and snowmelt, causing it to spill over into the town. Water rushed into the first floor of numerous apartment blocks.
Those remaining in the town told stories of wailing sirens, helicopters whirring overhead and rescuers going around town in boats. More than 500 people were mobilized into the mammoth task of mitigating the fallout of the flood.
The Interior Ministry said that this year 10 billion tenge ($32 million) were allocated to local governments to help prevent and mitigate similar calamities. Questions are being raised about whether the resources are either enough or have been spent efficiently.
Sailors from Kazakhstan and Iran at a welcoming event for a flotilla of Iranian warships to Kazakhstan. (Photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
Iran's navy has made its first formal visit to Kazakhstan as Tehran continues to slowly build military ties with its Caspian neighbors.
Two Iranian warships, the destroyer Damavand and corvette Paykan, berthed at Kazakhstan's Caspian port of Aktau on April 12. It is the Iranian navy's first such visit to Kazakhstan, and follows 2015's first-ever visit to Azerbaijan. Iranian warships have made at least three visits to Russia's Caspian coast, the first in 2013 and the most recent in March.
In Aktau, the Iranians were greeted by the rocket-artillery ship Saryarka; the two sides will exchange visits to one another's ships and take part in some sort of joint exercise.
"The aim of the visit is the establishment of cooperation between the navies of the two countries, the role of which is significantly rising amid the need to ensure regional security, in particular in the Caspian Sea," the Kazakhstan Ministry of Defense said in a statement.
"The Iranian Navy's flotilla ... is slated to convey Iran's message of peace and friendship to Kazakhstan," Iran's Fars News Agency reported.
The president of Kazakhstan published an article in a state newspaper on April 12 announcing a switchover to the Latin alphabet by 2025 — a stark change of tack from the vaguer and longer-term objectives set previously.
Nursultan Nazarbayev wrote in Kazakh language newspaper Egemen Kazakhstan that under government plans, all official documents, periodicals and books in Kazakh should be published in Latin letters by that date.
Work is already under way and a timetable for the transition will be ready by the end of the year, he said. That is the timetable being set for experts and the public to agree on a unified standard alphabet.
From 2018, education specialists will be tasked with compiling new textbooks for middle school.
Nazarbayev has advanced the latinization agenda before, but his article indicates a fresh urgency. In December 2012, the changeover of alphabet was included as part of the Kazakhstan-2020 national strategy.
In his piece, Nazarbayev argued that younger people would find no trouble adapting to a new alphabet, since they all now study English. During the adaptation period to the new alphabet, Cyrillic will be used all the same.
The president described the transition as an embrace of pragmatism and he said it was necessary to pursue the path of modernization.
“The state or the nation should not be like rigid metal, they should be living organisms capable of constantly evolving. You need to be able to change to keep up with life. Anybody that fails to understand this will always lag behind,” he wrote.
News that Kazakhstan’s parliamentarians have been given bumper pay rises of up to 50 percent of their salary is causing a stink.
The information leaked out to the media through deputies themselves. Bahytbek Smagul and Yekaterina Nikitinskaya told news outlets that the salary increases had taken effect as of March 1 and that MPs will now be earning around 600-700,000 tenge (around $2,000 to $2,200) per month.
While the amounts are hardly enormous, the outcry illustrates creeping frustration at stagnant improvement to the general economic wellbeing of the population.
The deputy speaker of the lower house of parliament, Vladimir Bozhko, said there was no grounds for clamor.
“We were the last among the civil servants to get a bump in our salary. This decision was taken four years ago. First the ministries [got the pay rise] and now, four years later, it is our turn,” he told reporters.
One MP, Nurlan Zhazylbekov, said he only gets around 500,000 tenge, which he said was not much when compared to the amount made by members of the government or some workers at state companies.
That only added fuel to the fire, since the divide between the average salaries of officials and those of the population at large is indeed not indifferent. According to official figures for 2016, average salaries in Kazakhstan stood at around 150,000 tenge ($480), although many online commentators argued that estimate too might be on the high side.
A court in Kazakhstan has sentenced a trade union activist to two-and-a-half years in jail for his role in a recent labor dispute.
The presiding judge in the Almaty courthouse in the capital, Astana, Aizhan Kulbayeva, ruled on April 7 that Nurbek Kushakbayev had violated a law by encouraging workers to participate in an unauthorized strike.
Kushakbayev was charged for his involvement in strike mounted in December by several dozen workers at a company based in western Kazakhstan and called Techno Trading Ltd. The workers declared they were going on a partial hunger strike in a demand for improved working conditions and an increase in their wages. Kushakbayev is accused of giving strikers advice on how to formulate their demands.
“Kushakbayev offered them his consultation, gave them more effective tips on how to mount a strike, and specifically suggested that they declare a hunger strike, gather as many people as possible and not be afraid of the police,” prosecutor Kanat Daribay said in the opening hearing in late March.
Daribay said that the protest set Techno Trading Ltd back by around 25 million tenge ($79,000). It is not clear how this amount was calculated, but the court rule to also require Kushakbayev to pay that amount in compensation.
The area around the Emba missile test site in Kazakhstan, which Kazakhstan is taking over from the Russian military. (image: Google Maps)
Kazakhstan has shut down another Russian military testing site, as it steadily removes Moscow's Soviet-legacy military footprint.
On April 5, President Nursultan Nazarbayev ratified an agreement to take over the Emba missile testing site, in the Aktobe region of western Kazakhstan, from Russia.
When the agreement was first signed in October, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoliy Antonov presented it as just a bit of housekeeping: "After all, the weapons and equipment that are tested at these facilities, protect not only Russia, but Kazakhstan as well," he said. He described the move as an "optimization" of the use of Kazakhstan's land by the Russian military.
But there is an unmistakeable trend: in 2015 Kazakhstan got Russia to hand over another missile testing site in western Kazakhstan, Taysogan; in 2014 it got Russia to agree to the joint usage of another site, Balkhash, which had previously only been used by Russia. Astana also has gotten Moscow to cede more control over the Baikonur space launch facility. Russia now operates only three test facilities in Kazakhstan.
At a Kazakhstan parliamentary hearing last year, MPs complained that Russia was paying a pittance for the use of the various test sites it operates, about $24 million.
"I think that price is very low," MP Kuanysh Aitakhanov said at the time. "In theory, it should be no less than the price of the land that Kazakhs use for agriculture. Farmers pay 2,000 tenge per hectare to rent a plot, while Russia just 424 tenge. How is that possible? After all, in the current crisis Kazakhstan could be getting tens of billions in profit for this rent."
The recent visit to Kazakhstan by a notoriously provocative and pro-government TV presenter on Russian state television drew howls of indignation from the self-styled national-patriotic camp.
The irritation could be felt even before the arrival of Vladimir Solovyov, who is among others things charged with being a prominent propagator of the chauvinist “Russian World” ideology that underlies much of the aggressive diplomatic, and at times military, posturing by Moscow toward its neighbors. Solovyov has, for example, been an ardent champion of the annexation of Crimea and condemned Ukrainian government attempts to regain control over its separatist-occupied territories in the east.
Unruffled by the criticism, Solovyov described his detractors in Kazakhstan as “lost people suffering from mental illnesses.”
The talk show presenter was ostensibly in Kazakhstan to lead a training seminar for people looking to get ahead in business, deal with tricky opponents and develop leadership techniques.
He was bullish on his return to Russia this week, noting on his Twitter feed that “the seminar went well. I met no ‘outraged citizens.’ That was to be expected. Internet hamsters do not reflect the mood of the population.”
Kazakh-language media in particular has had a field day.
The website Abai.kz ran a story under the headline: “Fire the people that invited Solovyov!”
Politician and commentator Amirzhan Kosanov was quoted as saying that it was absolutely mandatory that “any kind of propagandist should be given no quarter.”
A trial that opened this week in Kazakhstan sees the government returning with gusto to the pursuit of its favorite bogeyman: disgraced banker and opposition stalwart Mukhtar Abylazov.
The special inter-district court of Almaty, Kazakhstan’s business capital, on April 3 started hearings into charges of alleged massive fraud. The anti-corruption bureau has put the cost of the alleged financial machinations while Ablyazov was head of privately run BTA Bank at more than $7.5 billion — a sharp jump from the $6 billion that has previously been cited.
Abylazov was nowhere to be seen. He did, however, post a video appeal on his Facebook page on the eve of the hearings to give advice on how to mount massive protest rallies in Kazakhstan in his absence.
“You have to choose a theme for the protests that will bring thousands or tens of thousands of people out onto the street,” Ablyazov said from an undisclosed foreign location. He suggested that land ownership issues, education and bad roads could be good spurs for rousing demonstrations.
In Ablyazov’s absence, three of his former associates are having to face the music. Zhaksylyk Zharimbetov, chair of loan committee at BTA bank and a former No.2 to Ablyazov, admitted full culpability. Saduakash Mamesh, chair of the board, and Kairat Sadykov, loans director, pleaded only partial guilt.
Nursultan Nazarbayev and Ilham Aliyev, the presidents of Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, respectively, at an April 3 press conference in Baku. (photo: president.az)
Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev traveled across the Caspian on an official visit to Azerbaijan, where the agenda focused on trade. The dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan, meanwhile, loomed large, albeit behind the scenes.
Nazarbayev was supposed to visit Baku last October, and on the same trip go to the summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization in Yerevan. But he canceled, citing illness, though many suspected that he in fact skipped the whole thing in order not to have to go to Yerevan. And it's telling that this time around, he went only to Baku with no visit to Yerevan on the horizon.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev warmly welcomed Nazarbayev on April 3, calling him a "dear friend" of Azerbaijan and praising Kazakhstan as a "brotherly" country. At the same time, Kazakhstan is increasingly seen in Yerevan as hostile to Armenia, which is awkward as Armenia and Kazakhstan are supposed to be treaty allies in the CSTO. And there is an ongoing drama about a change of leadership in the CSTO: the organization has promised that the next secretary general will be an Armenian, but many Armenians have accused Kazakhstan (along with Belarus) of doing Azerbaijan's bidding by blocking that move.
At a joint appearance, Aliyev suggested that Kazakhstan had signed on to its version of the Karabakh conflict -- that it should be resolved on the principle of the inviolability of borders. "These basic points are reflected in the declaration that we signed today," he said. "This is another sign of the principled position of Kazakhstan on the resolution of the conflict." (The declaration was not made public.)