Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev is fond of lauding his oil-rich country’s economic successes – but now he has acknowledged that they are not trickling down to everyone.
Speaking at the Council of Entrepreneurs on April 10, Nazarbayev said Kazakhstan’s growing rich-poor divide had hit his personal radar and ordered his government to bridge it, Tengri News reported.
Officials must examine “how many poor people we have, what the difference between the rich and poor is – and the difference in our country is substantial,” Nazarbayev – whose close family members include millionaires and billionaires – told Kazakhstan’s top entrepreneurs. “I have especially engaged in [studying] this.”
Nazarbayev cited statistics showing that 8 percent of households have incomes of less than 15,000 tenge ($100) per person, below the official minimum salary of 18,660 tenge ($124). Nazarbayev said those households included 1.5 million people – which means 8.8 percent of Kazakhstan’s population of 17 million are living on less than the minimum wage.
This puts into perspective official statistics showing the average monthly salary in Kazakhstan standing at 98,736 tenge ($654), and suggests that the gap between high earners and low earners is indeed wide.
Fresh from hosting international talks on Iran’s nuclear program this month, Kazakhstan is quietly pushing its offer to host a global nuclear fuel bank that would serve non-proliferation efforts by providing safe access to low-enriched uranium.
Kazakhstan is hoping to reach agreement this year with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on hosting the fuel bank, Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov told the Express K newspaper on April 4.
Astana has long sought to position itself as a leader in non-proliferation efforts, citing President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s renouncing of nuclear weapons at independence and Kazakhstan’s Soviet nuclear legacy.
The government offered to host the nuclear fuel bank in 2011 and has been in talks with the IAEA. The site under consideration is the Ulba Metallurgical Plant, which has produced nuclear fuel pellets since Soviet times and – Idrissov pointed out – has never experienced a nuclear leak in four decades of operation.
The suicides of two soldiers on two consecutive days have again highlighted festering problems in Kazakhstan’s armed forces.
One conscript hanged himself at a military unit Astana on April 4 while the next day a young private killed himself in a military unit in Karaganda by shooting himself in the neck, the Zakon.kz website reported.
Two 20-year-old privates were arrested on suspicion of driving the soldier in Karaganda, in northeastern Kazakhstan, to suicide by hazing – the practice of army bullying common in many post-Soviet militaries. The arrests suggest Kazakhstan’s military is starting to take hazing – a phenomenon that has for years been quietly tolerated – seriously.
Last June the commander of a border post near China was arrested with two other soldiers on suspicion of hazing after 11 conscripts deserted from the Tersayryk unit in northeastern Kazakhstan to protest their treatment.
In October a military court sentenced the commander to three years in jail and the other two soldiers to seven years each.
Kazakhstan’s Border Guard Service, which falls under the remit of the powerful KNB domestic intelligence service, has had a troubled year, starting with a bizarre mass slaughter in a remote outpost near the border with China last May that was blamed on rogue conscript Vladislav Chelakh.
International negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program broke down without result in Almaty on April 6.
“Over two days of talks, we had long and intensive discussions on the issues addressed in our confidence-building proposal put forward during the last round of talks with Iran in Almaty on 26-27 February,” EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who chairs a six-nation group negotiating with Iran, said in an emailed statement.
It became “clear” that the positions of the six-nation P5+1 group (consisting of the five UN Security Council permanent members – the United States, China, Russia, Britain and France – plus Germany) and Iran “remain far apart on the substance,” the statement said.
The last round of talks, in February, left some participants cautiously optimistic a breakthrough might be in the works. Those talks, which were also held in Almaty, unfroze an eight-month deadlock and, when they concluded, the parties agreed to keep talking.
This time there was no agreement to meet again; it was “agreed that all sides will go back to capitals to evaluate where we stand in the process,” Ashton’s statement said.
The sides are at odds over Iran’s nuclear program, which Tehran insists is for peaceful purposes but the international community is concerned is aimed at making an atomic bomb.
As a second round of talks on Iran’s nuclear program opens in Almaty on April 5 analysts are not expecting major breakthroughs, but international negotiators will be pushing a proposal advanced when they met in the same venue in February.
Although there was no breakthrough, those talks in Kazakhstan – regarded as a fitting host due to its own non-proliferation efforts – unlocked an eight-month negotiations deadlock.
The six-nation P5+1 group (the five UN Security Council permanent members – the United States, China, Russia, Britain and France – plus Germany) had been pressing Iran to end medium-level uranium enrichment, close its Fordow underground enrichment facility, and hand over stockpiles of medium-enriched uranium – production of which marks a critical stage in bomb making – for international safe-keeping.
Tehran insists it is not pursuing nuclear weapons and that its program is for peaceful purposes. It has pushed for crippling international sanctions to be lifted without preconditions.
Negotiators have been tight-lipped about the February proposal. Reuters reported on April 3, citing unidentified Western officials, that the six-nation group has offered to ease gold sanctions and relax a petrochemicals embargo in return for Iran suspending medium-level uranium enrichment.
Kazakhstan has extended its smoking ban by prohibiting the use of the shisha pipe in enclosed public spaces including bars, nightclubs and restaurants.
The ban came into force on March 14, sparking an outcry among entrepreneurs warning of widespread job losses.
According to the calculations of the Association of Shisha Pipe Industry Entrepreneurs of Kazakhstan, reported by Bnews.kz on April 1, up to 20,000 jobs stand to be lost since each of the 5,000 premises where the shisha is smoked employs three or four people to clean and light the pipes.
The pipes are hugely popular in bars and restaurants in Astana, Almaty and other cities. One pipe, which is shared by groups of friends out socializing, costs around $30-$50. Establishments breaking the new rules face fines of just over $1,100.
Shisha – also known as kalyan or hooka – pipes had been exempt from a smoking ban in enclosed spaces introduced in 2009, when officials said some 30,000 people per year were dying from tobacco-related diseases. Implementation is patchy, with most establishments respecting the ban but some openly flouting it.
According to a World Bank report published in 2010, 40 percent of male adults in Kazakhstan smoke – fewer than Russia’s 59 percent, but almost double the 22 percent smoking in neighboring Uzbekistan.
An elderly woman has died in western Kazakhstan after being attacked by a camel she had raised from infancy, local media report.
The fatal clash took place on April 2 in the village of Umirzak outside the oil city of Aktau in western Kazakhstan, the Lada newspaper said.
Shocked neighbors put the attack down to it being camel mating season, when males are especially aggressive. “I remember this camel as a calf,” one unidentified villager told Lada. “Our neighbor was always looking after it, checking on it, feeding it.”
When she went out to feed the cattle on April 2 “no one paid any attention,” the villager said, until the woman’s husband “noticed that she was lying all in blood and not moving.”
An ambulance came but doctors pronounced her dead from “multiple open wounds.” So fierce was the attack that “her scalp was almost totally torn off,” the newspaper said.
Many people raise camels in the western desert regions of Kazakhstan, where they are prized as a mark of wealth – a single ungulate can be worth upward of $3,000. Camel meat is popular, as is shubat, fermented camel milk.
This is not the first fatal clash between a human and a ship of the desert in recent years: In 2011 the driver of a speeding Opel Vectra was killed after he collided with a herd of camels in the western Aktobe Region. A camel also died in the crash.
The fate of the camel that turned on its owner has not yet been decided, Lada reported, but the “camel murderer is being kept in a separate pen, far from other animals. And people.”
Kazakhstan's new foreign minister did some traveling in the region last week, visiting Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in an apparent effort to get the two sides to talk about their dispute over the massive, controversial Rogun dam project. The United Nations has been trying to get Kazakhstan to play a leading role in resolving the issue between its neighbors to the south and when the foreign minister, Erlan Idrissov, spoke to the press in Dushanbe, he highlighted the Rogun issue:
"It's no secret that the construction of the Rogun hydroelectric power plant is one of the important issues on the agenda. The Tajik president spoke during the meeting about his vision and approach to the construction of this facility. He suggested the importance of working together with the World Bank to conduct an independent examination of the construction of the power station," Idrisov said....
"The states in the upper waters should not violate the rights and economic interests of the states located in the lower waters and vice versa. There are international conventions according to which the two sides should sit at the negotiating table and work out a mutually acceptable scheme for the usage of water resources," Idrisov said.
Eurocopter-Kazakhstan Engineering's factory in Astana
Just a week after proudly announcing the expansion of the Kazakh-European joint venture producing military helicopters, it seems that relations between Kazakhstan's government and its European partner, defense giant Eurocopter, may be getting rocky. The company, Eurocopter-Kazakhstan Engineering, has been accused of violating labor laws and discriminating against citizens of Kazakhstan, reports Tengrinews.kz. From a press release of the Aviation Prosecution Office of Astana:
The Astana Aviation Transport Prosecutor's Office together with the government labor inspector for Astana conducted an inspection of the Eurocopter-Kazakhstan Engineering's compliance with the labor legislation of Kazakhstan. Many violations of Kazakhstan's legislative requirements on labor and insurance in the activity of the partnership were uncovered.
Among the violations: the company allegedly failed to provide proper safety instructions to its employees and engaged in "discrimination against the rights of citizens of Kazakhstan with regard to pay in comparison with foreign citizens for equivalent work." As a result, the company was fined 934,740 tenge, or just a little over $6,000. So, chances are this won't break Eurocopter's bank.
A Bible bonfire is unlikely to boost Kazakhstan’s religious freedom credentials. After all, the country likes to tout itself as a bastion of religious tolerance. Yet as Astana enters new territory in its zealous attempts to control religion, it looks like officials are about to strike the match.
A court in northern Kazakhstan has ordered Christian literature including Bibles to be destroyed, Oslo-based religious freedom watchdog Forum 18 reports. One official has said the Holy Scriptures are likely to be burned.
The order to destroy religious books may be a first for Kazakhstan, Forum 18 said. A legal order last April to destroy religious works, including a Bible, was annulled.
The latest order concerns 121 Bibles and other religious books and leaflets belonging to Vyacheslav Cherkasov, a Baptist from the town of Shchuchinsk. He was slapped with a fine of around $575 after being arrested for distributing religious literature for free.
In his defense, Cherkasov cited his constitutional rights, but the court ruled that only two bookshops in Shchuchinsk are licensed to distribute religious literature. Last year local authorities throughout Kazakhstan issued decrees authorizing only named, licensed bookshops to sell religious literature, Forum 18 said.
Cherkasov is appealing, but if he fails the Bibles are likely to be “burnt,” Justice Ministry official Kulzhiyan Nurbayeva told Forum 18.
“[T]his is terrible, terrible,” the watchdog quoted prominent human rights campaigner Yevgeniy Zhovtis as saying.