In November 2014, in a Kazakhstani village near one of the world’s largest oil, gas and condensate fields, 25 schoolchildren and four adults suddenly grew ill and fell unconscious.
Residents of the village, Berezovka, had noticed flaring at the nearby Karachaganak field and had smelled gas the day before. They say they were poisoned and have demanded relocation. Though some local officials did speak publicly about the problem at the time, a watchdog says that Kazakhstan’s government and its Western partners are ignoring the illnesses and falsely accusing residents – who have complained of poisonings since 2002 – of faking.
The field is operated by Karachaganak Petroleum Operating BV (KPO), a consortium including BG Group from Britain, Italy’s ENI, Chevron from the USA, Russia’s Lukoil and Kazakhstan’s state-run KazMunayGaz. It is Kazakhstan’s largest producing gas field.
Crude Accountability, a Virginia-based watchdog focusing on hydrocarbon extraction in the Caspian Sea basin, says KPO is trying to “hush up” the tragedy.
Independent monitors have found dangerous chemicals including hydrogen sulfide in Berezovka’s air, Crude Accountability said this month. And since the initial poisonings last November, several other bouts of fainting and illness have hit the village: “Almost 50 percent of the villagers are chronically ill and 80 percent of the children suffer from respiratory diseases.”
Kazakhstani and Russian pilots take part in the ceremony handing over four Su-30SM fighter jets in Taldykorgan, Kazakhstan. (photos: Ministry of Defense, Kazakhstan)
Kazakhstan has acquired four state-of-the-art fighter jets from Russia, part of a deal that could include up to 36 of the aircraft by 2020 in what Kazakhstan media called "one of the biggest deals on the defense market in the last decade."
The Su-30SM fighters were handed over at a ceremony April 17 at the Taldykorgan air force base. "This shows the increasing military power of the Kazakhstan armed forces... The Su-30SM will substantially improve the defense of the air borders of the republic of Kazakhstan," said the commander of Kazakhstan's air forces, General-Major Nurlan Ormanbetov.
The Su-30SM is a so-called Generation 4++ fighter, and thus far has only been ordered by the Russian air force. (The only 5th-generation fighter in operation is the Lockheed Martin F-22.)
Russian newspaper Vedemosti reported that the deal (which includes training on the new aircraft for pilots and mechanics) was worth 5 billion rubles (about $90 million at the current exchange rate). That was "close to the price for the Russian air force" thanks to the favorable pricing for Russia's allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization. If Kazakhstan buys all 36 aircraft, the deal would total $2 billion, Vedemosti reported.
The Russian military is handing Astana more than a million hectares of land it has been renting in Kazakhstan, which hopes to use the territory to boost its extractive industries.
During talks in Moscow on April 16, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and his Kazakhstani counterpart Imangali Tasmagambetov finalized the deal that will see 1.6 million hectares of land that is part of two military testing grounds ceded to Kazakhstan, Russian news agency TASS reported.
“Unused territories and sectors where communications routes and mineral wealth are located will be removed from the lease and handed over to Kazakhstan,” Shoigu said.
The land is part of two military facilities operated by Russia in Kazakhstan: the Saryshagan anti-ballistic missile testing ground at Lake Balkhash in the southeast and a flight testing center in Aktobe in the energy-rich west.
“We have taken into account all the desires of the Kazakhstani side in removing the land from the lease,” Shoigu added.
For Kazakhstan, the deal reasserts its sovereignty over the territory and opens up the opportunity to build infrastructure and prospect for energy and mineral resources, just as Astana launches a program to increase Kazakhstan’s proven reserves.
“This agreement is linked to the economic interests of the Republic of Kazakhstan,” the country’s Ministry of Defense said in a tight-lipped statement. The land “will be used in the interests of the oil-and-gas sector, the construction of housing, railroads, and highways, and for other needs.”
The waters of the Syr-Darya river are highly polluted and should not be used for irrigating crops, let alone for drinking, scientists from Kazakhstan have concluded.
Tests of the waters of Central Asia’s longest river – which flows for 2,200 kilometers through Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan – found dangerous concentrations of metals including chromium, copper, nickel, mercury, molybdenum, and zinc, the Nur.kz site quoted scientists from South Kazakhstan State University as saying.
“The water of the Syr-Darya is not recommended for use either for agricultural needs or for the fishing industry,” concluded Uylesbek Besterekov, one of the professors who took part in the three-year study funded by a €600,000 NATO grant.
The scientists (who tested waters flowing for around 1,000 kilometers through Kazakhstan, from the border with Uzbekistan up to the Aral Sea) could not pinpoint which industrial enterprise was the greatest polluter – or even which of the four countries through which the river flows is causing the most contamination. Even if the main polluters could be identified and stopped, it would take at least a decade for the waters to become clean, Besterekov said.
The findings – which back up 2009 data suggesting that the Syr-Darya’s waters were too dirty to drink or use in agriculture safely – are worrying for the Central Asian governments, since the river is used to irrigate crops that are then transported all over the region for public consumption. (It was the use of this river’s waters for agricultural irrigation – particularly for cotton – that led to the shrinking of the Aral Sea into which it empties.)
The key to massaging your own Wikipedia profile is not getting caught. But Kazakhstan’s efforts to turn the freely editable online encyclopedia into free advertising are yet again in the spotlight.
On March 20, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales hosted an Ask Me Anything conversation (AMA) on Reddit, a social-networking platform. Before long the audience was questioning Wales’s and Wikipedia’s roles in helping to improve Kazakhstan’s image. Back in 2011, Wales awarded a once-and-future Kazakh government employee, Rauan Kenzhekhanuly, the inaugural “Wikipedian of the Year” for his work with WikiBilim, a Kazakh-language platform criticized both for receiving state funds and for publishing multiple articles toeing the authoritarian government’s line. At the time, Wales told EurasiaNet.org, “As far as I know, the WikiBilim organization is not politicized.”
But during the AMA, Wales backpedaled on his decision to name Kenzhekhanuly the first Wikipedian of the Year.
Wales was on the receiving end of a fresh round of criticism last year when Kenzhekhanuly was named deputy governor of Kazakhstan’s Kyzylorda region. During the AMA, a commenter asked Wales if he would have bestowed the award had he known Kenzhekhanuly would go on to serve as deputy governor. “If I had known in 2011 that someone would get a job that I disapprove of in 2014, would I refuse to give them an award in 2011?” Wales responded. “Yes, I would have refused to give that award.”
There’s apparently no end to Kazakhstan's sporting ambitions. While it waits for the International Olympic Committee to decide if it can host the 2022 Winter Games, the oil-rich Central Asian country – not exactly a soccer star – has declared its desire to host the Football World Cup finals in 2026.
“We want to hold the Winter Olympics in 2022, and then it's in the plan to compete for the World Cup in 2026,” Yerlan Kozhagapanov, president of the Kazakhstan Football Federation, told Russia's Sport Express newspaper this week. Our economy is growing rapidly, the country is developing, so why not?”
Kazakhstan – which ranks 138 in the FIFA World Ranking – is far from a soccer superpower. The country has has never qualified for the final stages of a major international tournament and is currently languishing last place in its qualification group for the Euro 2016 championships; it has earned just one point in five matches.
But Kozhagapanov hopes that with a bit of investment, this is all about to change: “We are now starting a program to develop football in Kazakhstan from 2015 to 2022, and establishing a coaching school is one of five priorities.”
In Kazakhstan there is one coach for every 347 children. This compares with one to eight in Germany and one to three in England. Other priorities include developing training infrastructure and combating match-fixing.
Reports that Russia is uncomfortable with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) stepping into banking are nothing new. In particular, Moscow’s quiet efforts to block the creation of an SCO development bank that would funnel largely Chinese credit into Russia’s backyard have featured at the organization’s meetings in recent years.
But a thought-provoking analysis by Alexander Gabuev of the Carnegie Moscow Center, published last week by Russia in Global Affairs, suggests the Kremlin is mistaken, placing fears about appearing to be a junior partner over a sound geopolitical strategy that could give it a measure of control over China’s Central Asia policy.
The SCO – which groups China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – has tried hard to convince the world it is more than just a club for dictators. China’s push to include economic initiatives on the SCO agenda was a part of this process, Gabuev notes, and a development bank has been on the table at SCO powwows since 2009.
Cracks in the fledging Eurasian Economic Union were on clear display in Astana on March 20 as the leaders of Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus met to discuss the regional economic slump.
Nursultan Nazarbayev, the host president, made a point of affirming Kazakhstan’s support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity – a statement guaranteed to raise the Kremlin’s hackles. Vladimir Putin responded with a call for an EEU currency union, something that is anathema to both Nazarbayev and Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus.
“It is necessary to emerge from the situation that has arisen in Ukraine via diplomatic means; no military solution to this problem exists,” Nazarbayev said of Ukraine. “In so doing, it is important that any decisions taken are based on fundamental principles of international law. We are interested in Ukraine remaining a stable, independent, and territorially intact state.”
With Russia denying it has fomented separatist strife in southeastern Ukraine, such a pointed public statement from a close partner was guaranteed to rouse Putin’s ire. In his remarks, Putin said a ceasefire deal reached in Minsk in February – which has been routinely flouted – created a “real opportunity for a gradual de-escalation of the armed conflict.”
A Soyuz TMA-14M spacecraft with American astronaut Barry Wilmore and Russian cosmonauts Alexander Samokutyaev and Elena Serova aboard descends toward the clouds near the Kazakh town of Dzhezkazgan on March 11. The trio returned to Earth after almost six months onboard the International Space Station, where they served as members of the Expedition 41 and 42 crews.
The long-serving strongman leader of Kazakhstan has confirmed his intention to stand for reelection in a snap vote next month. He is guaranteed to win a landslide.
Nursultan Nazarbayev accepted the nomination of his ruling Nur Otan party to stand in the April 26 election at a party congress on March 11, his Twitter feed reported.
“I declare my agreement to stand as a candidate for president from the Nur Otan party in the upcoming elections,” @AkordaPress, the Twitter account run by the presidential administration, quoted him as saying.
“We must move forward,” he told the congress in remarks quoted by Tengri News, after delegate after delegate had proposed in fawning speeches that the incumbent accept the nomination. Nazarbayev remarked that he was “not so young” but was ready to “do great deeds in the future.”