Kazakhstan military officers observe the SCO drills, after taking the scenic route to northern Tajikistan.
The annual military exercises of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization wrappied up today in northern Tajikistan, with member militaries practicing "air-to-ground fire attack, joint encirclement and suppression, charging into depth for pursuit and annihilation and vertical interception and annihilation" against the usual "terrorist" threat.
Taking part were about 2,000 soldiers and 500 military vehicles and airplanes from Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. That's all the SCO countries except Uzbekistan, which -- in keeping with its standard practice -- didn't participate. But Uzbekistan seemed to go a bit further this year, and even forbade Kazakhstan's troops and equipment from transiting through its territory en route to Tajikistan, according to Kazakhstan's defense attache in Tajikistan, Serik Zhumadilov:
"The Uzbek authorities have not allowed Kazakhstan's military equipment to pass through Uzbekistan to participate in the exercises. Military equipment and personnel of the armed forces of Kazakhstan, which are involved in anti-terror exercises have been delivered to Tajikistan, bypassing Uzbekistan through Kyrgyz territory."
Uzbekistan, recall, has also declined to participate in various activities of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a similar political-military bloc. It's also bowed out of Western-led regional initiatives, like the "Istanbul Process" for Afghanistan. And given that Uzbekistan sees Kazakhstan as a rival, it's maybe not too surprising that they don't want the Kazakhstan military marching through their territory.
A young man, believed to be the sole survivor of a massacre late last month at a border post near Kazakhstan's frontier with China, has confessed to murdering 15 people because of disagreements within the military unit, according to video released by the prosecutor’s office.
The film showed 20-year-old conscript Vladislav Chelakh describing the catalyst for the murder as an argument with a fellow soldier who refused to get out of bed, which made Chelakh “boil over and flip.”
This was part of wider disagreements at the border post where “I was humiliated […] insulted too often,” he said.
While the motive may seem weak, it lends weight to an initial theory that the murderer was the victim of hazing, the practice of senior soldiers bullying junior ones common in the armed forces of some former Soviet states.
Chelakh was shown confessing on video at the scene of the crime. Evoking scenes straight out of a horror movie, he confessed to hunting the victims down around the unit and shooting them, setting fire to the building, then killing a gamekeeper in his lodge to eliminate a witness. Chelakh spoke coherently, with no sign of reciting a prepared speech.
Further video showed him confessing to his mother and, in a clip reportedly filmed by Chelakh himself after the crime, hiding in what appears to be a cave in the forest.
Gay men are not welcome in Kazakhstan’s military on the grounds that the state classifies homosexuality as a “disorder,” Defense Minister Adilbek Dzhaksybekov has declared.
Asked by a visitor to his official blog if gay men are called up for Kazakhstan's mandatory army service, Dzhaksybekov ruled this out on the grounds that homosexuality is a “disorder of sexual desire” that prevents “entry into military service in the armed forces, other forces and military formations of the Republic of Kazakhstan.”
Citing the health requirements soldiers have to meet by law (which do not explicitly rule out such “disorders” but establish mental health standards), Dzhaksybekov said that homosexuality is determined through psychiatric checks.
This attitude harks back to Soviet times, when homosexuality was classed as a mental disorder and sodomy was punishable by law (most former Soviet countries, including Kazakhstan, have now decriminalized it).
The question of whether homosexuals can serve in Kazakhstan’s military has not featured prominently on the agenda in the past, but the defense minister’s remarks place Kazakhstan among countries that explicitly ban them from serving.
The policy is at odds with practice in neighboring Russia, where gay men and women are allowed to serve. The United States has relaxed its policy in recent years, abandoning its “don’t ask don’t tell” strategy -- which barred openly gay people from serving -- last year.
It’s a high-stakes time of the year in Kazakhstan as graduating high school students head into the make-or-break final exam that will determine their future prospects. Some are leaving nothing to chance, local media report.
Invigilators in Karaganda were surprised to see one girl sitting the test with an enormous beehive hairdo – only 60 years out of date. Exploring her fluffy 'do, they discovered that she hadn’t suddenly developed a taste for 1950s fashion. No, she’d deliberately cultivated her beehive to conceal a cellphone to cheat in the exam.
The girl was allowed to sit the test after the telephone was painstakingly untangled from her hair, presumably in recognition of the amusement value her prank had caused.
The lengths she went in order to cheat seem miniscule in comparison to the efforts of a student in Ridder in northern Kazakhstan: This high school senior went to the trouble of typing out a crib sheet that stretched to an astonishing 11 meters and contained 25,000 answers, reports local website YK-news.kz.
Despite security checks, the enterprising student managed to smuggle it into the exam hall folded into sections. But there his luck ended: It was confiscated by officers from the domestic intelligence service, the KNB, who were conducting checks.
Every year the ENT national standardized exam brings new controversies: over the exam’s multi-choice format, which critics say fails to test critical-thinking skills; and over cheating, with irrepressible students trying new tricks each spring.
NATO reached an agreement with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to ship military equipment out of Afghanistan through Central Asia, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen reported today:
We also reached agreement on reverse transit from Afghanistan with three Central Asian partners: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. These agreements will give us a range of new options and the robust and flexible transport network we need....
With Russia we have a transit arrangement, a reverse transit arrangement already, and the fact that we have now concluded a transit arrangement, three concrete transit arrangements with Central Asian countries at the Chicago Summit, will make the use of the Russian transit arrangement even more effective.
In response to a question on payment for the reverse transit, he implied that there was some, but wouldn't specify: "I do not comment on details in the transit arrangements, but it goes without saying that we have concluded agreements that are of mutual satisfaction of the involved partners."
Meanwhile, he said negotiations with Pakistan on reopening those lines of communication continue: "I'm not going to comment on details in negotiations with Pakistan. I'll just reiterate that I still hope that a solution can be found in the very near future."
These NATO deals are not related to separate deals the U.S. has reached. Obviously the U.S. is a member of NATO, and it's not clear if this new NATO deal now covers all NATO member countries besides the U.S., or what.
The most interesting subplot here is what this means for Pakistan. The AP story on Rasmussen's comments had an intriguing bit of analysis:
Twelve border guards have been found dead at a frontier post in southeastern Kazakhstan, local media report.
A top Border Service official confirmed on May 31 that an investigation was under way after the “charred remains of 13 people” had been discovered in a burnt-out border post the previous day.
The bodies of 12 border guards and one national park ranger have so far been found at the Argkankergen post on the Chinese frontier and the search continues for others, Turganbek Stambekov, first deputy director of the Border Service (which comes under the jurisdiction of Kazakhstan’s domestic intelligence service, the KNB), said. He did not specify if the fire was the cause of death.
Fuelling media suspicions of foul play, Stambekov said the border post is usually staffed by 15 guards in the summer, but gave no indication of the whereabouts of the missing three.
Speculating about what might be behind this unusual incident, local reports suggested an attack on the border detachment (though the possible motive is unclear) or hazing -- it is common in post-Soviet military units for senior soldiers to ritually harass and bully their juniors.
Initial reports that the frontier guards’ weapons were missing were not true, a Border Service source told the Kazinform state news agency. The source said the weapons had been found and sent for tests to see if they had been fired.
Five police officers have received prison sentences for shooting protestors in Zhanaozen during unrest last December in which at least 16 protestors died, media in Kazakhstan are reporting.
The officers, who denied the charges they abused their office, were sentenced on May 28 to between five and seven years for the December 16 shootings.
State prosecutors alleged that the officers fired on protestors when they could have used non-lethal force. Prosecutors showed the court video of police shooting fleeing demonstrators in the back.
Kabdygali Utegaliyev, former deputy police chief of Mangystau Region, received seven years, the longest sentence. Three other officers (Yerlan Bakytkaliuly, deputy police chief of Zhanaozen; Rinat Zholdybayev, senior operations officer; and Bekzhan Bagdabayev, head of the department for combating extremism) were sentenced to six years. Nurlan Yesbergenov, a senior interrogator, got five years.
The sentencing brings the number of police officers who have received jail terms over the deaths to six: The former head of Zhanaozen’s remand center received a five-year sentence over the death of a detainee in police custody.
Over 500 rare Central Asian antelopes have been found dead from unknown causes in northern Kazakhstan.
The news will disappoint conservationists trying to boost numbers of the endangered saiga, a distinctive creature with a long, humped nose that permits it to filter air during the dusty summer months and breathe warm air during cold spells.
A total of 543 saiga corpses have been found in Kostanay Region in the far north of the country, Kazakhstan Today quoted the Emergencies Ministry as saying. The majority were does (508); 31 calves were also found dead. The cause of death is being investigated.
As well as roaming the steppes of Kazakhstan, the saiga also lives in remote areas of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Mongolia and Russia. It is classified as Critically Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List.
Kazakhstan is home to the largest numbers of saigas in the world, but a population that numbered over a million in the 1970s has been decimated.
The World Wildlife Fund identifies loss of habitat and poaching as the major threats: The horn of the male saiga is particularly prized in Chinese medicine for use as a painkiller and antibiotic, creating a thriving and illegal trade.
Nevertheless, conservation efforts appear to be paying off in Kazakhstan: Last year officials estimated that the country’s saiga population had reached 100,000, up from 85,000 the year before.
The trial of 12 people on charges related to December’s violence in and around Zhanaozen has ended with 11 found guilty of involvement and one acquitted. Four will serve time in prison.
All 11 are from the town of Shetpe, where one person was shot dead during the violence. At least 16 people died when a six-month-old industrial dispute spun out of control during celebrations for Kazakhstan’s Independence Day in nearby Zhanaozen on December 16.
Six of the 11 were sentenced to two years in prison but were immediately amnestied and released; four received prison sentences of between four and seven years; another was given a suspended sentence.
The release of over half of the defendants may go some way toward calming tensions in the west, where both protestors and police officers are on trial over last year’s turmoil. Nevertheless, activists in Kazakhstan were unhappy with the verdicts and immediately took to Facebook and Twitter to condemn the imprisonments.
Last week one police officer became the first person convicted on related charges: Zhenisbek Temirov, former head of Zhanaozen’s remand center, received a five-year prison sentence over the death of detainee Bazarbay Kenzhebayev following a beating in police custody.
Five more police officers are on trial for shooting protestors. Yet almost ten times as many protestors as police have faced charges: In addition to the 12 from Shetpe, 37 from Zhanaozen are on trial.
A new report by the United Nations drug agency sheds light on the nuts and bolts of narcotics transit from Afghanistan through Central Asia, highlighting the former Soviet republics’ lackluster efforts at interdiction.
The 106-page report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), released this month, describes how smugglers traffic heroin and opium from Afghanistan, the world’s largest producer, to Russia, the world’s largest consumer. Ninety tons of highly pure heroin, roughly a quarter of the substance exiting Afghanistan, passes through Central Asia annually. Yet in 2010 authorities in the region seized less than 3 percent of it. And despite international efforts to help, that number keeps falling.
Central Asia’s entrenched corruption makes the region a perfect smuggling route, says the report. Senior officials are complicit in the trade, or at least take bribes to look the other way, especially in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. A lack of cooperation among neighbors also offers a boon to traffickers.
The stakes are huge.
“UNODC estimates that in 2010 drug traffickers in Central Asia made a net profit of $1.4 billion from heroin sales. Much of this profit was likely incurred by Tajik traffickers, given that Tajikistan is estimated to handle most of the flow,” said the report. They profit by marking up the heroin by as much as 600 percent once it gets to Russia. Between 70 and 75 percent of the drugs travel by road, leaving a trail of new addicts across Central Asia.