The opening ceremony of the Caspian Cup naval competition, in Kaspiysk, Russia. (photo: MoD Russia)
Russia has kicked off its inaugural "International Army Games," an Olympic-style competition for militaries, with 2,000 soldiers from 17 countries competing in 13 disciplines from a tank biathlon to naval games on the Caspian to a military cooking contest.
The biggest event by far will be the tank biathlon, in which 13 countries will compete. The tank biathlon was first held two years ago under the auspices of Russia's nascent military bloc the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and last year with an expanded guest list that also included China and India.
All the rest of the events are brand-new and only Belarus and China are competing in most of them (the Russian Ministry of Defense has an extensive English-language guide to the games here, with detailed explanations of the rules for each contest).
From the Bug Pit's coverage area, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Russia, and Tajikistan are all competing in the tank biathlon. Kazakhstan also is competing in the "Aviadarts" air force skills challenge, and both Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan are in the "Caspian Cup." The other participating countries are Angola, Venezuela, Egypt, India, Kuwait, Nicaragua, Pakistan, and Serbia.
There was disappointment in Almaty as it lost out to Beijing in the race to host the 2022 Olympic Winter Games by a mere four votes.
A 500-strong crowd gathered in the mid-afternoon on July 31 in downtown Almaty's Abai Square greeted the news of their city’s defeat with stony silence. Almaty was the clear underdog, and despite giving a good account of itself, the city failed to tip the balance its way as International Olympic Committee delegates gathered in Kuala Lumpur gave the nod to Beijing by a narrow margin of 44 votes to 40.
The decision is a blow to long-term president Nursultan Nazarbayev's image-making project for Kazakhstan, which had hoped for the spectacle of the Winter Olympics as the crowning glory of the country's rise from impoverished post-Soviet backwater to a dynamic, emerging player on the world stage.
Both Almaty and Kazakhstan have gained a massive publicity boost in the world's media as the bid decision day loomed. Almaty received plaudits from IOC delegates for the quality of its bid. That was a remarkable turnaround as it was tagged a rank outsider only a year ago. At that time, there was another rival contender — Norway's capital Oslo — and Almaty received the lowest scores from the IOC working group in most of the evaluation categories.
For the authorities the Winter Olympics bid was all about putting Kazakhstan on the map. “Of course we're not as famous as other big cities,” the vice-chairman of Almaty's bid, Andrey Kruykov, told the Associated Press. “It's our main task to let everybody know [about Almaty].”
The World Trade Organization has approved terms for Kazakhstan to join, paving the way for Central Asia’s leading economy to become a full member toward the end of the year after nearly two decades of “challenging” talks.
Speaking in Geneva after signing the accession protocol with WTO Director-General Roberto Azevedo on July 27, President Nursultan Nazarbayev hailed the imminent accession as a sign that Kazakhstan’s economy is opening up to the world.
“In improving the investment climate, we are giving priority to the diversification of our economy,” he said in remarks quoted by state news agency Kazinform.
Astana sees accession as crucial to its bid to wean Kazakhstan’s economy off its dependence on oil and gas. To that end, Nazarbayev reminded investors that Kazakhstan has devised perks for those putting money into the non-extractive sectors.
The government has indicated that it aims to complete the ratification process by October 31 and hopes Kazakhstan will be a full member once the next WTO ministerial conference comes around in mid-December.
Kazakhstan’s accession negotiations have lasted 19 years and been among the most “challenging” the global body has faced with any country, the WTO said in a statement issued when talks were finally completed last month.
It made it clear that the process had been substantially set back by Kazakhstan joining the Russia-led Customs Union (a regional free trade zone) in 2010, which evolved into the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) this year.
Kazakhstan’s accession process slowed after Russia first said the Customs Union members would negotiate as a bloc to join, before proceeding to join alone in 2012.
Imprisoned opposition leader Vladimir Kozlov has been targeted for harsh punitive measures for alleged violations of prison rules, including “speaking ill” of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, his wife told EurasiaNet.org on July 27.
The timing of the punishment could be intended to deny parole eligibility to Kozlov, who is serving a seven-and-a-half year sentence on charges of fomenting fatal violence in western Kazakhstan in 2011 and plotting to overthrow the state.
Aliya Turusbekova told EurasiaNet.org that prison authorities have characterized her husband as a “persistent offender” and transferred him “to a strict-regime cellblock” on July 27.
Kozlov is accused of “threatening the [work] team leader with physical reprisals and speaking ill of the country’s president,” she explained, citing information she received from his lawyer. The change in his status means greater restrictions on telephone calls, visits and parcels, Turusbekova said.
An official at the prison colony in Zarechniy in south-eastern Kazakhstan, where Kozlov is being held, declined to confirm or deny the change in status when contacted by EurasiaNet.org. “We do not give out any information by telephone,” the official said, before hanging up.
Kozlov briefly declared a hunger strike last week in protest at his treatment after he was placed in solitary confinement, the Open Dialog Foundation, a Poland-based human rights watchdog, said on July 21.
The watchdog added that Kozlov is suffering from health problems in jail, where he has been held in cramped conditions and forced to stand for long periods in temperatures approaching 50 degrees Celsius.
Filmmakers should harness the power of the silver screen to make feel-good movies about Kazakhstan and avoid churning out hard-hitting productions that “shame” the country. So says the guardian of the nation’s cultural values, in remarks which sound like something out of the mouth of the fictional Kazakhstani journalist Borat.
Instead of tackling hard-hitting subjects like violence and corruption, moviemakers should direct their creative efforts toward “fighting what is negative in society,” not showing “human passions that abase our senses,” Arystanbek Mukhamediuly, Kazakhstan’s minister of culture and sport, said on July 22 in remarks quoted by Tengri News.
It arouses “indignation” when movies depicting “contemptible human qualities” are made, he added, especially when they go on to represent Kazakhstan at international film festivals.
Mukhamediuly’s latest broadside came a month after he took aim at movies that “shame” Kazakhstan – such as Harmony Lessons, an award-winning production by Emir Baygazin that won a Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2013.
Described by The Hollywood Reporter as “formally disciplined and psychologically gripping,” the movie tackles the topic of bullying (which is rife in many schools in Kazakhstan, where the film has never been shown in mainstream cinemas).
Welcome to Kazakhstan! But not all of it, unless you want to pay a fine.
That’s the mixed message emerging as enthusiasm about moves to open up visa-free travel to a growing list of nationalities is dampened by the introduction of special access permits for some of the country’s prime tourist spots.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs unveiled legislation on June 26 making it easier for citizens of 19 countries to visit the country for stays of up to 15 days by waiving visa requirements. The full list can be found here. The law will remain in force through to the end of 2017.
But while it will become easier for many to get into Kazakhstan, it will now be illegal to visit some of the country’s top tourist draws without written permission obtained seven days in advance.
Under legislation that came into force on June 15, special documentation is needed to visit sights located within a 25-kilometer radius of the border. That would include Medeu ice skating rink and the Shymbluak ski resort, both located only a short drive from the country’s largest city, Almaty. Other places effectively off-limits to visitors include Lake Alakol and the Kolsai lakes.
Anybody visiting these places without the proper paperwork now risks incurring a fine.
According to tour guide Karlygash Makatova, a foreign diplomat was recently fined for visiting Big Almaty Lake without permission, Tengrinews website reported. Makatova mentioned another occasion when tourists were detained and fined while visiting Sharyn Canyon, one of Almaty region's landmark attractions.
After months of pressure on Kazakhstan’s currency, the central bank has moved to allow the tenge to slide – but avoided the large snap devaluation that doomsayers have long been predicting.
On July 15, the National Bank eased the corridor within which the tenge trades to allow it to drop by 5%, to 198 to the U.S. dollar.
Chief central banker Kayrat Kelimbetov explained, in remarks quoted by Tengri News, that the measure was adopted as the tenge was pushing the upper margin of the corridor of 170-188 tenge to the dollar that the bank had previously committed to enforcing.
There were no immediate signs of panic over the mini-devaluation in Kazakhstan, where the National Bank maintained its exchange rate at 186.8 tenge to the dollar and the currency closed at 187.05 on the Kazakhstan Stock Exchange on July 15. In exchange offices, the tenge was trading at around 187.5 to the dollar after the central bank’s announcement.
Financial analysts predict the slide will be gradual.
“The scenario of a sharp devaluation is not being considered, and in principle that’s correct,” economist Olzhas Khudaybergenov, a former adviser to Kelimbetov, wrote on his Facebook page.
Khudaybergenov predicted a slow depreciation of 0.5-1 tenge per month, with the currency reaching the upper limit of the new corridor (198 tenge) in about a year.
The calm with which the news was received contrasted with the last devaluation in 2014, when the tenge lost nearly 20% of its value in a single day, sparking public anger that escalated into small-scale unrest in Almaty.
Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov meets his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin at the SCO summit in Ufa. Behind the smiles, there were disagreements over the planned accession of India and Pakistan to the group. (photo: president.uz)
Central Asian states are eyeing with concern the planned expansion of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to include India and Pakistan, regional analysts say.
With the addition of the two South Asian countries, the membership of the organization -- now China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan -- would increase from six to eight. Four of those are outside Central Asia, and all four of those are nuclear powers with populations and economies that far surpass those of the SCO's four Central Asian members.
While there is little room in the SCO for public dissent, Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov issued probably the most surprising statement of the summit, saying that the addition of India and Pakistan "would not only change the political map, but would change the balance of power. This is not a simple issue, and it needs to be discussed."
That went against the conventional wisdom in Ufa, which was that the addition of India and Pakistan would make the SCO stronger and was to be welcomed.
On India and Pakistan, Karimov "said what everyone was thinking, but wouldn't say," said Galiya Ibragimova, a consultant on Central Asia at the Moscow PIR Center on Political Research, in an interview with The Bug Pit.
The concerns about the addition of India and Pakistan are various. In Karimov's case, he is worried that it would shift the group's attention away from Central Asia to South Asia.
Ibragimova pointed out that Karimov has traditionally not wanted to participate in groups where the focus was outside of Central Asia, noting that its decision to pull out of the Collective Security Treaty Organization in 2012 was justified by the fact that the CSTO was also getting involved in conflicts outside the region, for example Nagorno Karabakh.
The State Department has released its annual "Country Reports on Terrorism" reviewing terrorism activity from the past year and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the ISIS is the overwhelming focus throughout the report, but also in the former Soviet Union.
"The ongoing civil war in Syria was a significant factor in driving worldwide terrorism events in 2014," State wrote in the report's introduction. "The rate of foreign terrorist fighter travel to Syria – totaling more than 16,000 foreign terrorist fighters from more than 90 countries as of late December – exceeded the rate of foreign terrorist fighters who traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, or Somalia at any point in the last 20 years."
The report continues State's practice of describing governments' perceptions of the threat of terrorism, rather than Washington's own perception. The introduction of the section on South and Central Asia reads: "Central Asian leaders have expressed concern about the potential terrorist threat posed by the return of foreign terrorist fighters to the region in the wake of ISIL’s growth in the Middle East and the drawdown of U.S. and Coalition Forces in Afghanistan."
Last year's report expressed substantial skepticism about Central Asian government's claims about terror threats; that skepticism is less apparent in this report's newly written sections on ISIS. However, a senior State Department official testified before Congress earlier this month on ISIS in Central Asia and downplayed the threat, noting that the vast majority are not recruited in Central Asia but abroad, particularly in Russia.
Astana places severe restrictions on civil liberties, including freedom of expression, conscience, and assembly, a United Nations rapporteur says in a report published following a visit to Kazakhstan earlier this year.
The country offers “very limited space for the expression of dissenting political views” and treats freedom of assembly “as a privilege or a favor rather than a right,” Maina Kiai, rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, said in a report being presented to the United Nations in Geneva on June 17.
“A web of policy, practice and perception contributes to a general environment where engaging in political activities is difficult, discouraging and sometimes dangerous,” Kiai found. “Dissent may be criminalized and critical political expression is often portrayed as threatening the stability of the state.”
He expressed concern about the case of Kazakhstan’s most prominent prisoner, Vladimir Kozlov, jailed on charges of fomenting fatal violence in western Kazakhstan in 2011.
The rapporteur, who met the opposition leader behind bars during his January visit, “is seriously concerned that Mr. Kozlov’s ordinary political speech and association activities were deemed criminal incitement of social hatred,” the report stated.
The case “seems emblematic of a more general trend to marginalize political leaders voicing dissent,” it added.