Scenes from voting in Kazakhstan's parliamentary election
Kazakhstan is voting in a snap parliamentary election expected to return a storming victory for the ruling Nur Otan party, which has run without any substantive opposition.
Speaking as he cast his ballot in Astana, President Nursultan Nazarbayev said the election was a “landmark in Kazakhstan’s most recent history” and urged incoming legislators to implement the reform program put in place last year to help fight the economic crisis gripping the country.
Voters leaving polling stations in Astana and Almaty overwhelmingly said they had cast their ballots for Nazarbayev’s Nur Otan party.
“I voted for Nur Otan. It’s the best party and it’s Nazarbayev’s party,” student Rakhimzhan Bakhytzhanov, 22, told EurasiaNet.org.
It is the party’s association with the 75-year-old former Communist party boss, who has ruled Kazakhstan for a quarter of a century, that informs the choice of many voters. Most appeared ill-informed about the content of Nur Otan’s manifesto and were also hard-pressed to name any of the five parties challenging Nur Otan’s dominance in the Mazhilis, the lower house of parliament.
“I voted for Nur Otan,” student Adilet Aliturliyev, 23, told EurasiaNet.org. “It’s the number one party in Kazakhstan, and it’s the party of the president.”
Despite having only just cast his ballot, Aliturliyev was able to name only one of the other parties standing, the Communist People’s Party of Kazakhstan, known by the acronym KNPK and led by Zhambyl Akhmetbekov.
After weeks of speculation, Andrey Arshavin, the former Arsenal and Russia star, has finally committed his future to Almaty’s FC Kairat, helping stoke Kazakhstan’s dreams of success on the European football stage.
Arshavin became the latest legionnaire to join Kazakhstan’s Premier League after signing a 1+1 deal with FC Kairat on March 18. The club’s website had pictures of Arshavin signing up to a one-year deal with the possibility of a further year’s extension.
Speculation about Arshavin’s future began in February when his contract with Russia’s Kuban Krasnador was terminated by mutual consent. He was spotted training with FC Kairat ahead of Kazakhstan’s Super Cup match with FC Astana, which opened the 2016 season on March 8. FC Kairat won that game on penalties.
Arshavin, 34, is set to make his debut in Kazakhstan’s top-tier on April 3 in the match against Uralsk’s FC Akzhayik. The former Russia captain started his career at Zenit St Petersburg in 1999. Following some eye-catching performances during 2008, a number of big European clubs appeared as suitors for the rising star before Arsenal finally landed him for around $24 million, a club record at the time, in 2009.
After a bright start, Arshavin’s career in England’s Premier League faltered and he was loaned back to Zenit in 2012. Having failed to secure a place in Zenit’s starting line-up, Arshavin was then loaned out to Kuban Krasnador in 2015.
Arshavin joins another seasoned legionnaire in Almaty: Ukrainian international Anatoliy Tymoshchuk, 36. Tymoshchuk formerly starred for Shakhtar Donetsk, Zenit St. Petersburg and Bayern Munich.
Protesters at a small rally in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on March 18, 2016.
A handful of civil society campaigners staged a rare picket in Almaty on March 18, demanding freedom for a political activist sentenced to jail on incitement charges.
The protest took place two days before Kazakhstan votes in a snap parliamentary election, and was the first time activists had staged any such actions during a lackluster campaign for an election certain to be won by the ruling party of President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
“Freedom for Yermek Narymbayev,” chanted the five activists who took part in the picket on a pedestrian shopping thoroughfare in downtown Almaty.
They held up banners in Kazakh, English and Russian showing demands such as “Free human rights defender Yermek Narymbayev” and calling for the abolition of Article 174 of the criminal code under which he was jailed on charges of inciting ethnic strife.
The protest lasted approximately three minutes and attracted little attention on a quiet and rainy weekday morning.
With no police in the immediate vicinity to witness it, no arrests were made. Public protest is rare in Kazakhstan and protesters are frequently detained on charges of breaching stringent public assembly laws.
Narymbayev was handed a three-year jail term in January on charges of inciting ethnic enmity following a trial in which fellow activist Serikzhan Mambetalin received a two-year term.
The two were released under house arrest shortly after their sentencing pending an appeal hearing due later this month. They spent four months in jail before their release, and will return to prison to serve out their time if the appeal fails.
A former prime minister of Kazakhstan who was jailed last year in a high-profile corruption case has had his jail sentence reduced on appeal.
The case attracted widespread attention in Kazakhstan, where corruption is rife but the arrest of political heavyweights on graft charges is rare. That has led some observers to speculate that the case is the result of infighting among the elite groups surrounding President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
The term of Serik Akhmetov, who was prime minister for 18 months until April 2014 and was subsequently defense minister for six months, was cut from 10 years to eight in a ruling handed down on March 14, the Total.kz news website reported.
Akhmetov was jailed in December after a trial in which he pleaded guilty to bribery and embezzlement during his tenure as governor of Karaganda Region, which is Kazakhstan’s industrial heartland, from 2009 to 2012.
Investigators accused the former prime minister of taking bribes worth some $2.4 million to ensure that a firm run by his brother Berik Akhmetov and his son Daniyar Akhmetov was awarded lucrative tenders in Karaganda.
Prior to his conviction, Akhmetov issued a groveling public apology to Nazarbayev, in which he begged the president’s forgiveness “for failing to live up to his trust.”
Kazakhstan is acquiring new naval mines to help defend its shores on the Caspian Sea from marine invasion. Kazakhstan's Ministry of Defense made that announcement just days after Russia's military created a stir by announcing it was acquiring a new marine assault vehicle for its Caspian Flotilla.
"Today, the conception of defense of the Caspian Sea from amphibious landings of a notional enemy are being discussed. Here we can use models being developed by our factory," said Valeriy Sptitsin, general director of the Zistko company. Spitsin was quoted in a press release by the Kazakhstan Ministry of Defense. "After development and testing we can use these models for defense of the Caspian shore," he continued.
This might not have otherwise deserved notice, except that it came just a few days after a minor stir in the Russian-language military blogosphere about Russia's potential for amphibious invasions in the Caspian. The Russian Ministry of Defense TV network published a report describing the introduction of a new marine assault craft into the Caspian Flotilla.
Russian military blogger Andrey Shipilov picked up the story and wrote a post entitled "Russia prepares for an invasion of the countries of the Caspian." He noted: "The equipment is purely offensive, the only function of which is to seize coastal territories. ... the only open question is which state's territory is the target of this necessity?"
(A previous version of this report incorrectly stated that the central bank had spent $464 million propping up the tenge in February.)
After a precipitous plunge over many months, Kazakhstan’s embattled currency has gained ground in recent weeks.
Now, the governor of the central bank has revealed the reason for the tenge’s sudden rally.
Speculation had been rife that the bank was propping up the currency ahead of the March 20 parliamentary election — but it has actually been maneuvering to weaken the tenge, Daniyar Akishev revealed to parliament on March 3.
The precise total spent on buying hard currency in February to bring down the tenge rate was $474 million, he said.
The main factor contributing to the tenge’s rise appears to have been the sale of dollars as the tax-reporting period approached at the end of February, when major companies have to pay their dues in tenge.
Akishev moved to quell speculation that Astana is scrambling to soothe any pre-election tensions by taking measures to pacify public anger over the devaluation of the tenge, which has hit people hard in their pockets and even sparked occasional public protests.
“This is not linked to domestic political processes within the country,” Akishev said in remarks quoted by Tengri News.
“The Kazakh system for investigating police abuses is so riddled with loop-holes and the protection of vested interests that torturers are able to act with virtual impunity,” said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty's Europe and Central Asia director.
A crucial finding was that vested interests hamper investigations into torture claims, preventing eradication of the abuse.
“The underlying factor behind the barriers to justice facing victims of torture in Kazakhstan is that it is not in the interests of the agencies and individuals who carry out investigations of torture to do so impartially and objectively,” the report stated.
Obtaining justice is an up-hill struggle as investigators play “bureaucratic ping-pong” with those who file complaints about police abuse.
Maklakov, one of 12 case studies in the report, filed his complaint in 2006.
In a surprising precedent, the trial of an independent journalist in Kazakhstan has culminated with an acquittal.
A court in Almaty ruled on February 29 to clear Yulia Kozlova of drug possession charges, bringing a close to a trial the reporter’s supporters said was politically motivated.
Kozlova’s lawyer had complained throughout proceedings that the two week-long trial was riddled with procedural irregularities.
The charges against Kozlova, who writes for an embattled website called Nakanune.kz that features regular and robust criticism of the authorities, arose from a police raid on her apartment in December. Investigators claimed that during a search for incriminating material related to a separate case involving reporting appearing on Nakanune.kz they found marijuana in a tea caddy.
Kozlova reacted with tearful surprise and delight to her acquittal, video posted on social networks showed. The verdict was unexpected in a country where innocent verdicts are rare, particularly in cases involving independent journalists.
One possibility is that the government may be seeking to mitigate the wave of international criticism that has been timed unfortunately to surge ahead of parliamentary elections on March 20.
Kozlova had staunchly denied the accusations against her.
“I link this to my work,” she told a court hearing attended by EurasiaNet.org in which she gave her testimony on February 18, pointing to her reporting as the source of her legal troubles.
Nakanune.kz was set up by journalists who used to report for Respublika, Kazakhstan’s most hard-hitting independent newspaper until it was closed down in 2012.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has paid a rare visit to Kazakhstan, where his host Nursultan Nazarbayev hailed the visiting Arab leader as a force for unity and stability in his troubled home country.
These themes are close to the heart of Kazakhstan’s long-ruling leader, who never misses a chance to tout the benefits of unity and stability as a bulwark against political unrest and revolution.
“We are very glad that, despite the internal conflicts, bloodshed and revolution that have taken place in recent years, the people of Egypt have united and expressed their trust in the new president,” Nazarbayev said after a meeting in Astana on February 26, in remarks quoted by his office.
Sisi rose to power through the type of political upheaval that Nazarbayev — who has ruled Kazakhstan with an iron fist since independence a quarter of a century ago — views as anathema.
Egypt’s president was installed following a bloody military coup in 2013 that overthrew the elected president, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, since which time around 1,000 have since been killed in unrest stemming from opposition to Sisi’s rule. Morsi had come to power after the toppling of Hosni Mubarak during the Arab Spring in 2011.
Sisi’s visit to Kazakhstan launched an Asian tour that the Egypt Independent newspaper described as part of a foreign policy tilt eastward by Cairo.
Kazakhstan’s flagship Astana sporting project could be on the rocks after its main sponsor announced significant funding cutbacks in response to the economic crisis engulfing the country.
"Of course, it will reduce the funding of the sports project, but that does not mean that the project will be closed. But there will be a very big reduction," Darkhan Kaletayev, managing director of Kazakhstan’s Samruk-Kazyna sovereign wealth fund, which bankrolls the project, told journalists in remarks reported by Kazinform on February 25.
The Astana Presidential Sports Club was set up in 2012 as the umbrella organization for clubs in Kazakhstan's capital. Included in its ranks are soccer's FC Astana, Barys hockey club and the Astana Pro Team cyclists. It also supports individuals such as world champion boxer Gennady Golovkin and Ilya Ilyin, an Olympic gold medal-winning weightlifter.
Samruk-Kazyna has seen serious budget cuts as government cash dries up as a result of falling oil prices crimping the budget. In a sign that it is in financial straits, the wealth fund is currently engaged in a fire sale of assets worth billions of dollars.
The government has also revealed the extent of the pain being inflicted on the economy, slashing growth forecasts to 0.5 percent in 2016, down from its previous forecast of 2.1 percent.