Kazakhstan is showing signs it is stepping up its campaign against critical journalists with the one-and-a-half year jail sentence handed down to the editor of a defunct news website.
An Almaty court on May 23 found Guzyal Baydalinova guilty of deliberately distributing false information in relation to her outlet’s reports on trouble at the country’s largest bank, Kazkommertsbank.
The Committee to Protect Journalists has slammed the verdict and demanded Baydalinova's release.
"CPJ condemns [the] sentencing of Guzyal Baydalinova, who has already spent five months behind bars merely for doing her job," CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said in a statement.
Baydalinova and her now-closed website, Nakanune.kz, have already been on the receiving end of Kazakhstan’s punitive libel laws, which media advocacy groups argue are specifically designed to quash independent reporting.
Last April, Kazkommertsbank filed suit after Nakanune.kz ran a letter claiming the lender was implicated in corruption. A court in Almaty in June ordered Baydalinova, who owns the domain name, to remove the offending post and pay 20 million tenge ($107,000) to compensate for damage to Kazkommertsbank’s commercial reputation. Baydalinova’s legal team had argued that the lender failed to prove that the Nakanune.kz post had in fact caused any financial damage, which should have invalidated the monetary penalty.
What appears evident from this latest verdict is that the libel laws were not considered to be a sufficiently severe tool in coping with Nakanune.kz and its staff.
Authorities in Kazakhstan reacted with startling severity to attempts to hold rallies against land reforms on May 21 by detaining possibly hundreds of journalists, activists and demonstrators.
Police had been laying the ground for their hardline approach in the days ahead of the demonstrations by arbitrarily detaining and jailing people suspected of organizing the protests.
Security was notably high in the capital, Astana, where scores of police and national guardsmen occupied the city center in anticipation of the rallies. Around 50 police officers lined the boulevard leading to the presidential palace from the landmark Baiterek monument.
The protest had been scheduled to kick off at 11 a.m. although police were left with little to do at the appointed time. As the morning wore on, police around Baiterek began detaining people they suspected of being potential protesters. Onlookers refrained from filming anything for fear of also being carted away. One man observing everything from a bench said a few buses full of people had already left the scene.
“They detain anybody who says something negative about the government,” the man said.
Authorities in Kazakhstan are betraying a note of panic ahead of planned nationwide demonstrations by rounding up activists and sticking them behind bars.
Activists reported on social media accounts that police on May 17 barged into several homes of hopeful meeting participants and took them into detention.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Kazakhstan service, Radio Azattyq, reported that at least five people were detained in Almaty. One of the people held by police was Yermek Narymbayev, who was recently convicted, but later given a suspended sentence, on charges of incitement to ethnic strife.
Narymbayev wrote on his Facebook account that another two Almaty activists, Suyundyk Aldabergenov and Bakytzhan Toregozhina, had been ordered to serve 15 days in jail. In an indication of the authorities' determination to keep as many potential rally organizers off the streets, the court passed its verdict against Aldabergenov and Toregozhina after 10 p.m.
The rallies planned for May 21 were scheduled ahead of a government decision to shelve proposed land auctions that had sparked widespread discontent. Prime Minister Karim Masimov announced subsequently that a state commission was to be set up to discuss privatization of land and that talks would include prominent opposition figures. Critics of the authorities have insisted, however, that it is necessary to keep up the tempo of public demonstrations to ensure that the government keeps to its word.
A partly Russian-owned television station controlled by Kazakhstan’s government has waded into controversy once again with an inept and widely mocked attempt at an exposé on the recent land protests.
In a report aired over the weekend, First Channel Eurasia broadcast brief footage showing what they claimed were organizers of the demonstrations being paid sums of up to $150 by unnamed parties. No faces can be seen or voices heard in the footage, which is filmed in a way that is intended to suggest the images have been captured with a mobile phone.
Reprising a theme that his employers have been supporting since the height of the land protests, one of the First Channel Eurasia expresses indignation at the currency being used.
“And that is how they are selling us off. And please note that they are not even doing this with Kazakhstani tenge, the national currency, but in dollars. You understand who is behind this?” the anchor asks rhetorically in a less-than-subtle suggestion that the United States has for some reason fomented the recent political turbulence.
First Channel Eurasia, which has been on the air since 1997, is jointly owned by Kazakhstan state television channel and Russia’s government-run First Channel, which holds a 20 percent stake. The combination of inflammatory accusations and shoddily produced would-be evidence presented by the broadcaster indeed betrays many similar features with now-regular smear attacks by Russian state on Western governments and opposition figures.
The exposé has drawn a barrage of exasperated ridicule.
A zoo in Kazakhstan’s business capital, Almaty, is facing mounting criticism about mistreatment of its animals since the agonizing death of a six-year old tigress called Kuralai.
Almaty zoo deputy director Agibai Azhibayev announced on May 8 that the tiger had died, although pictures of the emaciated and sore-ridden animal had circulated on social media for weeks before, sparking a wave of indignation.
Azhibayev said an autopsy would be carried out to establish the exact causes of Kuralai’s demise.
Zoo director Kanat Karimov said in 2015 that the tiger had been diagnosed with pneumonia and was being treated with anti-viral and anti-fungal drugs. But the cat’s condition deteriorated sharply at the start of this year, when she stopped eating and began to lose weight. Eventually, sores broke out all over Kuralai’s body and she grew so weak that she was unable to even stand up.
This state of affairs only became public knowledge after distressed zoo staff took photos and posted them online.
At the invitation of the zoo’s board of trustees, the chief veterinarian for Moscow zoo, Mikhail Alshinetsky, was eventually summoned to carry out a medical examination. His verdict was that all treatment was proving futile and recommended euthanizing the tiger. That advice was spurned by the Almaty zoo officials, however.
"That is his personal opinion, and we are seeing improvements in Kuralai’s wellbeing and are hoping we can cure her,” Azhibayev told KTK television station.
But the treatments being adopted by the Almaty zoo have appalled many animal lovers, who have accused the zoo’s management of cruelty.
Fresh data from Kazakhstan’s National Economy Ministry has shown that the trend for ethnic Russians to leave the country is clearly on the rise.
In 2014, more than 28,000 people in total left the country. Another 30,000 left last year — of out those 25,000 were going to Russia. The number of people emigrating easily outnumbers those seeking Kazakhstani citizenship, according to recent figures cited in a report by Exclusive.kz.
The runner-up destinations for those leaving the country in 2015 were Germany (2,000 people), Belarus (605), Uzbekistan (364) and the United States (265).
Analysts see a raft of reasons for this exodus, ranging from the country’s economic prospects, the uncertain outcome of future political transition and a purported uptick in Russophobic sentiments.
Political analyst Maksim Kramarenko suggested to Exclusive.kz that migration of ethnic Russians reflects a process of communities “choosing their identity” — going to live in a country where they feel they belong.
A recently adopted initiative by the Education Ministry to introduce trilingualism into schools (Kazakh, Russian and English) has caused much upset among parents.
“Teaching in three languages can negatively affect the educational process,” Kramarenko said. “This is initiative is forcing many Russians to think about the future of their children and about how to preserve their ethnic and cultural essence, how to get a quality education in their native Russian language.”
Many of those leaving the country are well-educated and highly skilled and fear for their potential to succeed in Kazakhstan.
The government in Kazakhstan has set a rare precedent by backing down over the planned land sales that sparked off a wave of major protests across the country.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev announced on May 6 that he was imposing a moratorium on changes to the land code that were making the sales possible.
In a related development, National Economy Minister Yerbolat Dosayev, who has been tasked with explaining aspects of revised land legislation to the public, resigned his post.
Minor pickets in Astana and Almaty in April escalated into a major demonstrations in several cities all over Kazakhstan, badly spooking the authorities.
Amendments to the law approved in November extended the period for which farming land could be rented to foreigners from 10 to 25 years and set the terms for land auctions, open only to Kazakhstani citizens, to be held from July onward. Objections to these changes ranged from suspicions that long-term land leases to foreigners might in practice end up with renters becoming de facto owners to concerns that corrupt officials could pocket the proceeds of land rentals and sales.
While acknowledging defeat in this standoff against an increasingly disgruntled population, Nazarbayev sought to blame the tension on a misinformed general public.
“We should have explained to a misunderstanding people that there was no talk of selling farming land,” he said. “The people who should have been addressed didn’t understand the essence [of the land law amendment]. The mechanisms and norms of this law were not discussed with the public and the fears and concerns of the people were in many respects justified.”
With tempers fraying over the vexed issue of land in Kazakhstan, some prime plots in Almaty are to be leased to a local consortium with the aim of reviving the fortunes of the city’s iconic Aport apple.
The Agriculture Department of Almaty, Kazakhstan’s commercial capital, has allotted 400,000 square meters of agricultural land on the outskirts of the city to a group of Kazakhstani investors trading as Apple World, reports state news agency Kazinform.
The group hopes to cultivate the Aport apple, which once grew abundantly in the foothills of the Trans-Ili Alatau mountain range, on a patch of land that was home to an orchard in the 1940s. The fortunes of the Aport have suffered from encroaching development as Almaty has expanded its borders into the surrounding countryside in recent decades, destroying swaths of both cultivated and wild orchards.
This move represents a homecoming as apples are believed to have originated from these forests in the Trans-Ili Alatau’s foothills. Almaty’s name is derived from the Kazakh for apple, alma, and it translates as “place of apples.” The Aport, which has become a symbol of the city, is a large, red species of apple that can grow up to one kilogram in weight.
A press conference in Almaty on the proposed plans to rent land to foreign investors had to be cancelled April 29 after police detained the organizers.
The heavy-handed effort to prevent a public discussion is highlighting the nervous state of a government that is flailing in its attempts to quell a wave of protests over the land issue.
Mukhtar Taizhan and Rysbek Sarsenbaiuly, who were set to speak at Almaty’s National Press Club, were forcibly denied from getting to the building by police. Rights activists filming the detention, like Galym Ageleuov, were themselves also hauled away by police.
Some time later, Sarsenbaiuly’s wife, Marzhan Aspandiyarova, did manage to reach the National Press Club to explain to reporters what had happened to her husband, but the scene degenerated into chaos as she spoke. As journalists gathered around her to listen, several policemen barged in to physically drag her away into a waiting car.
“If you want to prosecute, go ahead. The land will not be sold,” Aspandiyarova yelled as she was being manhandled.
The protests that have sprung up in several locations in Kazakhstan revolve around government plans to sell off unused farming land, which many Kazakhstanis fear could be bought up by foreign buyers — the Chinese are the main suspects.
Authorities have tried to reassure the public, specifying that the land being made available can be sold only to citizens of Kazakhstan, while foreigners must do with renting for periods of up to 25 years.
Those reassurances have had little effect. Some argue that once the 25 year period is up, foreigners may choose to squat on the land, while others suspect unauthorized sales will be approved on the sly.
The land protest movement in Kazakhstan is gathering momentum and spreading to more cities, while the authorities appear determined to ride out the public anger.
RFE/RL’s Kazakhstan service reported on April 27 that activists in the city of Uralsk applied for permission to rally next month on the heels of major demonstrations earlier in the day in Aktobe and Semey.
The demonstrations are ostensibly against government plans to sell off unused farming land, which many Kazakhstanis fear could be bought up by foreign buyers — the Chinese are the main suspects — but public speeches at the rallies indicate the discontent is spreading to other issues, such as corruption.
Authorities have tried to reassure the public, specifying that the land being made available for acquisition can only be sold to citizens of Kazakhstan, while foreigners will only be able to rent for up to 25 years. The president’s office has argued this move will put the farming land back into circulation and provide economic return on land that is now lying unused.
That has reassured few, however.
Footage uploaded to the Internet from the unsanctioned meeting in Aktobe, which looks to have gathered many hundreds, showed speakers touching on a variety of issues, from the justice system to recurrent plans to build a nuclear power station — another popular source of unhappiness.
All the protests appear to have proceeded peacefully so far, not least as the police have refrained from attempting to break them up.
Although state media have studiously avoided reporting on the protests, President Nursultan Nazarbayev on April 26 criticized what he said was a swirl of disinformation surrounding the planned land sales.