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.
Local authorities in Kazakhstan’s business capital, Almaty, have begun demolition work on a building used to host press conferences for political activists and independent journalists.
The building was also home to KazTAG, a news agency run by two prominent media figures — father and son, Seytkazy and Aset Matayev — facing trial on charges of defrauding the state of nearly $1 million.
The official reason given for the demolition of the National Press Center is that the 300-square meter, two-story building does not correspond to earthquake standards and is therefore illegal.
The Matayevs are currently facing trial in the capital, Astana. Prosecutors have ruled out any link between the trial and the fate of the building, which is situated on a valuable piece of real estate in central Almaty. Media observers and rights activists are a little more skeptical, however, suggesting that the Matayevs have fallen victim to a crude attempt at a property grab.
Tamara Kaleyeva, head of the Adil Soz press advocacy group, told Channel 31 that she believes the charges of fraud against Matayevs are without foundation and that the situation surrounding the National Press Center headquarters can hardly be considered a coincidence.
Representatives of the National Press Center have said a second story was added to their building 10 years with all the necessary permits from the city administration. Despite that, in February, just as the charges were being level at the Matayevs, a note was delivered to the center declaring the building unfit. Appeals to reverse that decision were rejected.
Uzbekistan is relishing its best ever performance in an Olympic Games after some last-minute sporting victories handed the team an extra two gold medals.
The country’s haul of medals — four golds, two silver and seven bronze — put it ahead of Central Asian rival Kazakhstan and was helped in large part by its contingent of boxers. A stunning seven out of the 13 medals won by Uzbekistan came from boxing.
The first boxer to claim gold was light flyweight Hasanboy Dusmatov, who beat Colombia's Yuberjen Herney Martinez Rivas in the final of their category.
Uzbek state television broadcast a report from Dusmatov’s hometown in the Andijan region, where family and friends were watching the match. The boxer’s father said that although he family was confident Dusmatov would get the gold, they were affected by the nerves of the big Olympic occasion. Dusmatov’s could not bear to watch the broadcast and instead waited out the fight in another room.
But the best was left for last.
On the final day of competitions, Shakhobidin Zoirov won the men's Olympic flyweight boxing gold with a points victory over Russian Misha Aloyan. Later in the afternoon, Fazliddin Gaibnazarov edged out Azerbaijan's Cuban-born Lorenzo Sotomayor with a split 2-1 decision.
This last victory caught many by surprise. Sotomayor struck easily the more impressive figure with his height, long arms and confident strut.
Gaibnazarov’s win was all the more sweet for his underdog status and social media in Uzbekistan was accordingly set alight by the result.
Uzbekistan’s last Olympic gold for boxing came in the Sydney Games of 2000, courtesy of Mahammatkodir Abdullaev in the light welterweight category.
Abdullaev was one of the first to comment on Gaibnazarov’s achievement, saying that the whole country had cried with joy at the win.
Kazakhstan’s security services say they have detained members of an extremist organization plotting a series of terror attacks.
The National Security Committee, or KNB in its Russian initials, said in a statement on August 22 that that the four people captured in the Almaty region in a special operation were citizens of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. The operation took place on August 18.
The KNB said that they found components of improvised explosive devices and extremist religious material in the places where the group resided.
“The plan of the radicals to mount armed attacks on staff and places of deployment of KNB officers and police and on military bases have been neutralized. Their next stage was to be terrorist attacks on places where the public gather in large groups,” the KNB said.
The statement was typically perfunctory and similar in tone and detail to one in late June, when the KNB said it had intercepted a group in the central Karaganda region that it believed was also planning a series of terrorist strikes. Initial reports spoke of seven suspected plotters being arrested, but that figure was increased to eight in the first half of August.
And that is as much of a public update as has been provided, other than that the group is to be tried on terrorism and a variety of arms-related charges. The line is that in the interests of the investigation, no more details are being released.
This lack of transparency or even the slightest insight into what might be motivating would-be attackers is standard operating procedure for Kazakhstan’s security services.
Starting from August 1, internet service providers in Kazakhstan have reportedly massively hiked fees for online services to companies in neighbor and fellow Eurasian Economic Union member Kyrgyzstan.
Media in Kyrgyzstan are warning that internet users should expect their traffic bills to increase substantially in the future.
Kazakhstan is Kyrgyzstan’s only dependable, high-quality link to global online infrastructure, so any shift in the former’s market inevitably has a knock-on effect in the latter.
The Association of Communication Operators has called in a letter for the government to intervene by raising the issue at the Eurasian Economic Commission, the executive body of the EEU.
According to the letter, addressed to Prime Minister Oleg Pankratov, Kazakhstani operators, who they say have raised their tariffs by two- to threefold, are playing hardball. Any attempts by Kyrgyz to shop around for alternative providers will result in automatic cutoffs.
“Also, Kazakhstani operators are increasing transit prices for European and Russian operators which supply internet services to Kyrgyzstan,” the letter said.
Non-Kazakhstani-sourced internet dominates supply, accounting for 90 percent of the total in Kyrgyzstan.
Soldiers from Kazakhstan take part in the opening ceremony of "Cooperation-2016," the CSTO military exercises taking part near the borders of Estonia and Latvia. (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
Russian military exercises near its western borders have become de rigeur over the last couple of years, as tension between Russia and NATO has spiked. But exercises that kicked off this week are novel in that Russia has brought along its allies from the Caucasus and Central Asia, which have for the most part sought to avoid getting drawn into Russia's conflict with the West.
The exercise kicked off August 16 in the Pskov oblast, which borders Estonia and Latvia. About 5,000 Russian soldiers are taking part, along with about 1,000 from the other countries of the Collective Security Treaty Organization: Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.
These exercises, under the rubric "Cooperation," are the annual cornerstone of the CSTO military exercise program. But there are some new twists this time. For the first time in the history of the exercises, Russia's ambassador to NATO Aleksandr Grushko is observing them. "Obviously, in the situation where NATO countries are pursuing a course of military containment of Russia, we have to undertake efforts to ensure that Russia's safety is secured," he said at a press conference there. "I'm sure that the NATO countries are carefully following" the CSTO exercises, he added. "The art of war is an extremely competitive field."
The Russian corvette Makhachkala, taking part in ongoing exercises -- and more? -- in the Caspian Sea. (photo: Russian MoD)
Russia asked Iran and Iraq for permission to to use their airspace for ballistic missiles against Syrian targets, apparently from the Caspian Sea, part of a new offensive against ISIS from the East.
"The Russian Defense Ministry last week sent a request to Iraq and Iran for the use of the airspace of these countries for the flight of ballistic missiles," a military source told the Russian news agency Interfax on Monday.
The request coincides with naval exercises, which also started Monday, of the Caspian Flotilla in the "southwest part of the sea," i.e. the part closest to Syria. "The plan of the exercises envisages testing the readiness of the forces of the Caspian Flotilla in resolving crisis situations presenting a threat to the military security of the country, including of a terrorist nature," the MoD said in a release.
Russia last year senttwo salvos of Kalibr cruise missiles against ISIS targets in Syria from ships in the Caspian Sea, the first ever combat use of those missiles and an unprecedented step in the militarization of the Caspian. The events caused some consternation among Russia's Caspian neighbors, most notably Kazakhstan, which rerouted flights across the sea and apparently complained behind the scenes.
After a lengthy hiatus, Kazakhstan’s prime minister returned to his Twitter account with a vengeance earlier this year. Karim Masimov’s tweets have been notable largely for their teeth-grinding tediousness, however.
So his social media team (if it exists) must have imagined they would turn the tide around on August 9, when Masimov invited followers to adopt the hashtag #25летнезависимости (#25yearsofindependence) to crowdsource examples of major national achievements over the past quarter century.
State news agency Khabar bizarrely tried to get the ball rolling with some usefully encouraging, if anodyne, examples.
“Madina Yerkin: Did you know that Kazakhstan belongs to 70 international organizations? #25летнезависимости,” read one.
“Bazaraiyim Akzhan: This is interesting! Did you know that at Cambridge University you can study Kazakh language, history and culture? #25летнезависимости,” bragged another.
These did not appear to be real social media postings, but rather the kind of thing Khabar that wanted people to tweet. In the way that post-Soviet governments are convinced that a flash mob is a pre-organized rally organized by the authorities, Khabar and Masimov seem to believe this is how trending is done.
Alas, scrutiny of Twitter reveals that this initiative has failed completely. Jaded tech-savvy Kazakhstanis have, contrary to the intended spirit of the hashtag, used #25летнезависимости to express their bitter irony about their lot.
Twitter user @AlmiriKarpykov wrote: “Our national currency embarked on a bright path of devaluation from 4.75 to 345 to the dollar. And we know this isn’t the end #25летнезависимости”
Authorities in Kazakhstan have had to mount a rearguard battle against claims that they have dipped into the state pension pot to fund the showcase EXPO-2017 fair in Astana.
A few media outlets, news agency Interfax-Kazakhstan first and foremost, put the cat among the pigeons on August 9 by citing the Kazakhstan Development Bank as saying that it would use 15 billion tenge ($43 million) sourced from the state pension fund to build unspecified facilities on the grounds of EXPO-2017.
Perhaps understandably, the news was immediately and widely interpreted (maliciously misinterpreted, official say) as the government throwing the cash of future retirees at a loss-making vanity project.
The government has steadily been outlining plans on how it intends to use its pension fund bounty, which is gathered through 10 percent levies on the salaries of Kazakhstani workers, to kickstart an economy hamstrung by reliance on low oil prices. Last October, then-National Bank chairman Kairat Kelimbetov announced that 1 trillion tenge out of the fund would be used to support the budget and sunk into stimulus-generating construction and investment projects.
In March, the government clearly listed what kind of investment opportunities pension fund cash could be used for — namely shares, bonds and gold.
The general public is brimming with distrust for its officials, whom they already suspect of trying to auction off land to foreigners over their heads.
RFE/RL’s Kazakhstan service, Radio Azattyq, illustrated the mood well with a series of vox pops some months back in which people queried expressed their skepticism about the fate of the pension fund.
Kazakhstan’s troubled weightlifters finally struck gold in Rio, with a little help from Azerbaijan.
Weightlifter Nijat Rahimov, who formerly competed for his native Azerbaijan, set a new world record as he won Kazakhstan’s second gold medal of these Olympics. Earlier in the day, Dmitriy Balandin won gold in the pool in the 200-meter breaststroke.
Rahimov’s win was not without controversy. He recently returned to the sport after serving a two-year ban after failing a doping test at Universiade, the World Student Games, in 2013. At the time, he was representing Azerbaijan, but he made the switch to Kazakhstan in 2015.
It turned out to be a good choice for the 77 kilogram-class weightlifter. In June, Azerbaijan was banned from competing in these Olympics because of repeated doping test failures.
Kazakhstan itself narrowly escaped a ban from competing in Rio. Ahead of the Games, Kazakhstan’s weightlifters were rocked by a series of doping scandals that saw four gold medal winners from London 2012, including double Olympic champion Ilya Ilyin, banned from competing in Rio. Unfazed by his recent brush with notoriety, Ilyin was reportedly headed to Rio on August 11 so that, as he put it, he could “support our team.”
Rahimov attributed his success to his rigorous training schedule, as he dodged questions about his doping past in the post-event press conference.
“When normal people were asleep, we were training. When the snow was deep, you know how it is in Kazakhstan, we went out for training at 11 or 12 [at night],” Rahimov said.