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.
Kazakhstan’s Culture Minister caused a diplomatic row with Kyrgyzstan earlier this year after unwittingly insulting Kyrgyz citizens working in Russia.
Now, Arystanbek Mukhamediyuly is facing accusations of sexual harassment and corruption.
The charge was advanced by a former student of the Kazakhstan National Academy of Arts (KazNAI), Enlik Sydykova, in a YouTube video posted on October 9. The young woman said that in 2011 she had been hoping to sit an entrance exam for the college but did not make it in time. Mukhamediyuly, who was rector of the institute at the time, offered to assist in resolving the problem against a $3,000 bribe, Sydykova claimed. But when she said she did not have that kind of cash at her disposal, Mukhamediyuly proposed an alternative arrangement, Sydykova accused.
“Mukhamediyuly said to me: ‘You can come over to my place, we can drink wine, dance, chat and have fun.’ I was shocked. I did not expect to hear such things from such an upstanding figure,” Sydykova said in her video account.
Despite refusing the then-rector’s alleged advances, Sydykova made it into KazNAI all the same. At a later juncture, according to Sydykova, Mukhamediyuly entered a lecture hall in an inebriated stated and forced female students to sing before him. Sydykova said she was not the only student to face harassment from Mukhamediyuly.
After a week of hearings, the trial in Kazakhstan of two antigovernment activists charged with organizing unsanctioned protests has revealed numerous cracks in the state’s case, although it is unlikely this will make a guilty verdict any less probable.
Hearings in the case of Max Bokayev and Talgat Ayan began on October 12 and stem from a wave of unprecedented land reform protests in the spring that saw several thousand people hitting the streets of Atyrau in April.
One of the prosecutors’ most explosive charges is that Bokayev and Ayan were acting on the pay of a power-hungry tycoon from the southern city of Shykment, Tohtar Tuleshov, who authorities claim was looking to sow instability as a prelude to seizing power. Tuleshov is also in jail and facing trial separately in behind-closed doors proceedings in the capital, Astana.
Tuleshov gave testimony by video conference to the Atyrau court as witness for the prosecution on October 18. It is alleged Tuleshov gave Ayan $100,000 to finance the protests.
The state’s version of events is that Tuleshov hoped to sow the conditions for the creation of a vice presidential post, which does not now exist, presumably to set the stage for him to eventually take over the reins from 76-year old Nursultan Nazarbayev. This initiative would have come about by an engineered grass roots movement, prosecutors suggest.
In his testimony, Tuleshov admitted as much, although his account does not bear too much scrutiny.
The trial began in the western Kazakhstan city of Aktobe on October 18 in the case of a mass shooting by a group of local men suspected of links to Islamic extremism.
The 29 men on trial face numerous charges, including terrorism, for the unrest that unfolded on June 5, when eight people, including three soldiers, were shot dead by a group of attackers that had seized weapons from shops stocking hunting supplies.
Proceedings at Aktobe’s specialized inter-district criminal court are taking place under an intense cover of security. News websites have shown images of snipers posted on roofs of building surrounding the court.
The case of the prosecution is vast and comprises 201 volumes of evidence. Almost 50 witnesses are expected to take the stand.
Of the 29 men on trial, nine are accused of direct involvement in the attacks, another 18 are said to have failed to report information about preparations for the violence, while another two are accused of harboring suspected criminals. Eighteen of the attackers were killed in the clashes.
It seems all but certain that the trial will culminate in guilty verdicts — state media has taken to referring to the defendants as “probable terrorists” — but authorities are taking additional measures to convey the impression of transparency, at least at the outset.
While reporters have not been allowed into the courtroom itself for the preliminary hearings, they were able to follow proceedings from a nearby room through a video feed. Almost two dozen cameras were installed inside the courtroom, including some trained on the defendants, to ensure everything is done above board.
An oil strike that started in late September in the western Kazakhstan town of Zhanaozen – the scene of fatal industrial unrest in 2011 – has ended after the company caved in to strikers’ demands.
In contrast with that industrial dispute five years ago, company officials and authorities were quick to pursue mediation, in a reflection of the sensitivities that surround signs of public discontent against a background of broader economic stagnation.
The Zhanaozen standoff ended late on October 5, after private drilling company Burgylau agreed, with mediation from the authorities, to concessions, one striker told EurasiaNet.org.
“All the demands have been meet,” said Askar, a driller speaking under a pseudonym by telephone from Zhanaozen on October 6. “We’re satisfied. We’re already back at work today.”
The 2,300 or so strikers had downed their tools for six days running in pursuit of two goals: changes to the salary calculation system that would result in a pay rise and an end to what they described as intimidation of their choice of union leader.
The company agreed to review the way salaries are calculated, Alik Aydarbayev, the regional governor, said in remarks reported by Tengri News.
Strikers had been demanding that Burgylau switch to the salary calculation system used by KazMunayGaz, the main state employer in Kazakhstan’s oil industry. The company agreed instead to install a similar system that should see salaries go up by an unspecified amount.
The company had argued that it could not afford to raise salaries, which are already around double the national average, owing to the knock-on effect of low global oil prices.
Middle Eastern royalty are not an uncommon sight in Central Asia, which is a favored destination for lovers of falconry.
So there was nothing too unusual on September 28, when Forbes.kz reported that the Emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, had flown into Kazakhstan on a private visit for a hunt with his beloved bustards.
The emir is a regular visitor to Kazakhstan and reportedly favors hunting in the deserts near Lake Balkhash, site of a falconry facility. His latest visit was due to last two weeks, but for an unfortunate incident at Almaty airport.
As journalist Denis Krivosheev revealed on his Facebook account, the emir’s favorite falcon, Ali, died in the customs warehouse from “overexposure.” A day later, yet another falcon perished.
Krivosheev wrote that 12 rare saker falcons had been brought into Almaty for further transportation to the southern city of Taraz. Officials with the prosecutor’s office, however, insisted the birds not be released pending inspection as there have been cases of old falcons being brought into Kazakhstan and switched for younger ones, which would then be exported, depriving the country of healthier specimens. Last year, the inspection routine was performed discreetly and lasted no more than six hours, Krivosheev reported.
“They fed them the first time on Monday [September 26], but the birds already began falling ill,” he wrote. “There were no obvious reasons for holding them, but still the falcons stayed in the same place.”
Each falcon can, by some estimates, cost anything between $100,000 and $150,000, so it may not be surprising that the emir is, according to Krivosheev, mulling writing a formal note of protest.
When Uzbekistan’s acting president Shavkat Mirziyoyev addressed a joint session of parliament earlier this month, he made a point of saying that his foreign policy priority was to boost relations with regional neighbors.
"We always remain committed to adopting an open, friendly and pragmatic position toward our immediate neighbors — Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan," Mirziyoyev said.
Since even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, leaders in Central Asia have been paying lip service to the notion of fostering fraternal ties in the region, but Mirziyoyev has tentatively lived up to his word in small if meaningful ways so far.
In an apparent start at trying to mend fences, Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Komilov on September 29 visited Tajikistan, where he met with President Emomali Rahmon.
Discussions were confined to what might sound like meaningless generalities anywhere else. For these two countries, however, talk of positive trends in relations, increased trade, revitalized dialogue on trade and economic cooperation and “the importance of maintaining regular political consultations and dialogue at the highest levels” are more than noteworthy.
Rahmon and Karimov’s relationship was fraught by personal enmity, making reaching state-level agreement on a number of thorny sticking points — of which there are many — all the more difficult.
The biggest source of bilateral unease lies in Dushanbe’s determination to build the giant Roghun hydropower plant, which Tashkent has loudly complained will pose a potentially existential risk to its agricultural sector by stemming the flow of a major river.
It has been 25 years since the Soviet Union collapsed, but some habits die hard.
Before September 27, the day on which President Nursultan Nazarbayev was due to visit, the city of Kyzylorda, in southern Kazakhstan, went into overdrive to prepare for the leader’s arrival.
As a rule, that kind of visit means city workers hastily tidying up the streets, effecting express repairs on the roads, demolishing dilapidated facilities and smartening up facades.
Kyzylorda, however, has more than the average amount of eyesores to hide, particularly on the road along which Nazarbayev was set to drive into town, so authorities adopted some creative solutions, as local media reported. One particular headache in Kyzylorda are the amount of dilapidated homes and potholed roads.
Rather than repair the problem homes, city authorities simply erected a long fence to hide the offending buildings from Nazarbayev’s view, news website Nur.kz reported.
This drastic measure might have gone unremarked upon but for the fact that the fence has caused a sudden surge in car accidents. As motorists pull into the road from behind the barricade, they are unable to see oncoming traffic, often leading to collisions. Local residents have told media they are afraid for their children’s lives and are making sure they don’t get too close to the fence.
Kyzylorda resident Ainur Aldabergenova complained to Nur.kz that real problems, meanwhile, are not being dealt with.
A shocking outbreak of violence in the western Kazakhstan city of Aktobe in June was quickly linked by authorities to radical Islam and prompted calls for greater emphasis on sidelining extremist currents of the faith.
Those ambitions, however, have not translated into any material improvements for the city’s main mosque — theoretically a bastion for state-approved Islam.
Employees at Aktobe’s Nur-Gasyr mosque have filed suit in a municipal court after exhausting all other efforts to be paid their wage arrears.
Sputnik news website on September 26 ran a report citing the plaintiffs as saying they had initially appealed to head of mosque’s management, Bakhytkerei Balkenov, to address the problem, but received only obscenities and threats in reply. They also tried to get help from the imam, Ospan Tole bi Dadiluliy, and again were unsuccessful.
Faith-focused online portal E-Islam.kz describes Nur-Gasyr as one of the two largest mosques in Aktobe along with the Central Mosque. It can accommodate up to 3,500 worshippers and houses a madrassa, or Islamic school, with 25 students.
In its time, Nur-Gasyr mosque was seen as an important project for advancing the influence of the government-affiliated Spiritual Association of Muslims of Kazakhstan (DUMK). Around $16.6 million were spent building the mosque from 2005 to 2009. Money was sourced from donations from Aktobe residents and businesspeople. Funding was also provided by major national companies.
Construction of the building was completed in September 2008. The opening was attended by Kazakhstan’s topmost elite, from President Nursultan Nazarbayev downward, as well as senior guests from Russia like then-President Dmitry Medvedev and the presidents of Dagestan, Ingushetia and Kalmykia.
Authorities in Kazakhstan have declared that Almaty, which was the capital until 1998, is one millennium old.
To celebrate this purported landmark, the city held celebrations capped off with a firework display on September 18.
Kazakhstan, like other Central Asian nations, has something of a dubious fondness for round dates. The people of Almaty were certainly quite surprised. Schoolchildren have long been told that Almaty first appeared on the map in 1854, when Fort Verniy was erected along the Malaya Almatinka river. That outpost grew in the following decade into a town known as Almatinsk, and then subsequently Verniy.
So how did Almaty suddenly grow more than 800 years older all of a sudden is a mystery to many residents. The date has been greeted with a fair dose of scorn online.
News website Kazday put together some of the most acid responses.
Sergei Kovalenko, writing under the handle Fizik, remarked: “In 2000, the people of Almaty marked the 150th anniversary of their city. Today, Almaty is already knocking on 1,000 years.”
And @altrbgdt was even more sarcastic: “This business about Almaty’s 1,000th anniversary reminds me of the novel 1984, in which people were told that two times two is five and everybody worshipped lies.”
Popular blogger Alisher Yelikbayev (@yelikbayev) quipped: “Because of a trip to Astana I missed the 1,000th anniversary of Almaty. Hopefully I won’t miss the 1,200th anniversary. According to our historians, that will pass in seven years time.”
And then @normkorm: “Next year our officials will show us some stone age tools they found and we will celebrate Almaty’s one millionth anniversary!”