Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev got the red carpet treatment at Buckingham Palace this week after signing billions of dollars in investment deals in London.
The focus of the two-day trip, which started on November 3, was trade, and British Prime Minister David Cameron – fresh from hosting China’s leader Xi Jinping about to welcome Egypt’s Abdul Fattah al-Sisi – showed no sign of succumbing to pressure from campaigners to press Nazarbayev over Kazakhstan’s checkered human rights record.
Nazarbayev met Cameron and British businessmen and came away with 40 trade and investment deals worth around $5 billion, according to Nazarbayev's office.
One coup for Nazarbayev was an agreement for a British company to invest some $3.1 billion in a project to bring gas from the energy-rich west of his vast country to the capital Astana and the industrial heartlands.
Kazakhstan may have plenty of gas, but it lacks distribution capacity. So the deal reported by TengriNews for Britain’s Independent Power Corporation to build a gas pipeline and construct four gas stations is welcome for Astana.
Nazarbayev also secured agreement for British involvement in EXPO-17, a flagship international exhibition that Astana is hosting in two years, and investment in the steel and solar industries.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is interviewed by Kazakhstan's Mir TV in Astana. (photo: State Department)
As United States Secretary of State John Kerry heads home after an unpecedented five-country tour of Central Asia, the U.S. role in the region remains more uncertain than it's been since the 1990s.
The mere fact that the trip happened was the biggest news to come out of it. It was the first time a high-ranking U.S. official had done this five-country tour that has of late become the standard for world leaders (though Japan, India, and China have all sent their presidents, rather than their top diplomat as the U.S. did).
The tour came at a time when U.S. interest in the region seems to be waning as a result of the (albeit now delayed) drawdown from Afghanistan, and so appeared to be an attempt to demonstrate that no, the U.S. isn't gone just quite yet. Also noteworthy -- throughout the entire trip Kerry barely mentioned the much-derided New Silk Road Initiative, which had been the supposed centerpiece of the State Department's post-Afghanistan Central Asia policy.
Kerry's trip also inagurated the "C5+1" format of talks, with the foreign ministers of all five Central Asian states plus the U.S. In an area with remarkably little interregional cooperation, that is actually a genuinely novel and potentially important new platform. But what might it be used for?
In the international soccer stakes, the capital of Kazakhstan is becoming the away destination that clubs dread to visit.
As Europe is gently settling into the cooler weather of November, the players of FC Astana are already familiar with temperatures below freezing.
If the weather was frosty for the visiting Atletico Madrid squad, who traveled to Astana for the latest Champions League group stages match on November 3, the greeting certainly wasn’t.
Europe’s premier competition has proven a major draw and the 30,000-seater Astana Arena was again full to capacity for Tuesday’s game, although traffic snarls meant many ended up missing the first 15 minutes.
FC Astana is becoming the master of grinding out the tedious draw, and they did their magic against a lackluster Atletico, thereby ensuring their unbeaten home record.
Fans were kept on the edge of their seats to the very end. A last-minute save from FC Astana's Nenad Eric denied Atletico and preserved the goalless scoreline.
The 0-0 result won’t get any hearts racing, but but it does mean that Astana still have a slender chance of progressing in the competition. In October, Astana held Turkey's Galatasaray to a 2-2 draw. The team has two points out of four games, which is more than some pundits might have expected of them.
The sub-zero temperatures in Kazakhstan's capital, the second coldest in the world after Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, were expected to make life difficult for their Madrilenian opponents.
“Maybe the cold weather will cause Atletico problems. We can open the roof in the stadium a bit to make it tougher for them,” FC Astana's Bulgarian coach Stanimir Stoilov joked ahead of the game.
Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev has dismissed the head of the central bank as the national currency continues to lose value against the dollar.
Nazarbayev dismissed Kayrat Kelimbetov, who has presided over two major currency devaluations during his two years as chairman of the National Bank, on November 2 and replaced him with Daniyar Akishev, a presidential adviser and a former deputy chairman of the central bank.
“Confidence in the [central] bank and in the national currency, the tenge, has been reduced, and this cannot be permitted,” Nazarbayev told parliament in remarks quoted by his office. “A shortage of tenge liquidity is being felt in the country, and the volume of credit to the economy has been reduced.”
The move did not appear to do anything to restore the confidence of the market in the tenge, however. The currency fell below 280 to the dollar in trading on the Kazakhstan Stock Exchange on November 2 for the first time since mid-September, to close at 281.13.
The tenge has lost around 50 percent of its value since the National Bank abandoned its policy of maintaining the tenge in a managed corridor — a strategy Kelimbetov inherited from his predecessor, Georgiy Marchenko.
Harsh prison sentences handed down this week in two separate cases involving articles published in local newspapers in Kazakhstan raise questions over freedom of speech.
In one case, a newspaper editor in the northern city of Pavlodar was sentenced to eight years in jail on charges of attempting to extort money from the regional governor.
In the other, a civil society activist in the south of the country was jailed for one and half years on libel charges over an article criticizing a local prosecutor. One rights group says this is the first time in six years anyone has been jailed on libel charges in Kazakhstan.
Yaroslav Golyshkin, editor of local Pavlodar newspaper Versiya, received his sentence on October 30 after the court found him of guilty attempting to extort money from regional governor Kanat Bozumbayev, Tengri News reports. The court heard accusations that Golyshkin was demanding money to hush up allegations that Bozumbayev’s son was involved in a rape case.
The woman who filed the complaint was paid $5,000 not to press charges, which is legal under reconciliation procedures in Kazakhstani law, the Adil Soz freedom of speech watchdog said.
She reportedly later gave an interview to Golyshkin. Bozumbayev claimed Golyshkin then demanded a payment of half a million dollars to keep the revelations in the interview under wraps.
In the same trial, Askar Bakhralinov, a former deputy district mayor in the region, was sentenced to 10 years in jail — also on extortion charges.
As ever more people in Kazakhstan get onto the Internet, the government is adopting expanding measures to limit access to websites they deem harmful.
Those efforts have earned the country a demotion in Washington-based Freedom House’s latest online freedom rankings to “Not Free,” down from “Partly Free” last year.
The watchdog found in its annual Freedom on the Net report that the government is increasingly cracking down on independent journalism and online content deemed extremist.
“The government also continues to pass restrictive laws banning certain content online and expanding its powers to shut down communication networks and media outlets,” the report found.
Freedom House said that the most significant cases of censorship target reporting on the Islamic State group. The authorities have routinely blocked not only content released by the extremist organization, such as recruitment videos targeting Kazakhstan, but also reports about it in local and foreign media, including EurasiaNet.org.
But there was also pervasive blocking of material unrelated to religious extremism, Freedom House said. Those included reports about the closure of the Adam Bol magazine, the possibility of Ukraine-style secessionism in Kazakhstan, and a minor ethnic clash in south Kazakhstan in February.
That public unrest prompted authorities to temporarily disconnect Internet services and block mobile telephone networks.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wound up a five-nation tour of Central Asia on October 27 in Astana with the promise of multimillion dollar investment deals and an offer from Tokyo to help build a nuclear power plant in Kazakhstan.
In the end, however, nothing substantive appears to have come of this leg of Abe’s historic visit to the region.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev said in remarks cited by his office that Kazakhstan and Japan are moving forward with 10 projects worth a total of $700 million. And yet there were no reports of any investment deals actually being signed between the two countries, which Nazarbayev described as “distant neighbors, but close friends.”
Nazarbayev said hopefully that there was Japanese investor interest in sectors ranging from agriculture and transport to chemicals and rare earth metals.
The agreements on the table in Kazakhstan were dwarfed by the $18 billion and $8.5 billion in investment deals reportedly signed in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan earlier in Abe’s five-nation tour.
Astana is eager to drum up investment as it faces an economic downturn, especially with one of its biggest trading partners, Russia, in recession and another, China, facing slower growth. Tokyo appears to be trying to take advantage of those countries’ plight to muscle more aggressively into the backyard of rival Beijing, whose economic presence in Central Asia is far greater.
A young man in southern Kazakhstan has committed suicide by setting himself alight in a gesture intended to draw attention to what he said was the injustice he has suffered at the hands of the police.
The desperate act bears echoes of a similar self-immolation by a street vendor in Tunisia in 2010, which sparked a wave of protests that led to the toppling of that country’s long-term president.
Yerlan Bektibayev, 20, set himself on fire on October 24 in front of the local headquarters of the ruling Nur Otan party in Taraz. The town was the center of much official coverage earlier this month, when it hosted celebrations to mark what Kazakhstan’s authorities say was the 550th anniversary of Kazakh statehood. Those festivities were designed in part to help shore up support for President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
“I have come here because I hope Nur Otan will help me,” Bektibayev said in a video later posted on YouTube. The footage then shows Bektibayev setting himself on fire before running while screaming with pain into the Nur Otan building.
Police said on October 26 that they had arrested people they suspect filmed the video, but did not specify on what charges. The person filming appears directly complicit in Bektibayev's self-immolation and makes no evident effort to aid the young man once he has followed through on the act.
A court has ordered the closure of one of Kazakhstan’s last independent media outlets following a legal battle that has been closely observed by freedom of speech campaigners.
The shuttering of the hard-hitting current affairs magazine follows an appeal by an international organization to Kazakhstan’s foreign minister to intervene over the case to protect press freedom.
The court ruling ordering the closure of Adam (Person), which is known for its gutsy reporting and critical take on President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s rule, was handed down on October 22, Kazakhstan’s Adil Soz press freedom watchdog reported.
The ruling followed the magazine’s suspension in August on a linguistic technicality and was made on the same grounds. The court found that when Adam registered with the authorities earlier this year — after the courts had closed a previously existing independent magazine called Adam Bol — it gave its languages of publication as Kazakh and Russian. The magazine in fact only runs in Russian.
Adil Soz deemed the suspension anti-constitutional, since the magazine was under no legal requirement to publish in two languages.
This time, the court ordered the closure not only of the printed magazine but also of an online version and its Facebook page, where Adam’s editorial team had posted material since the suspension.
Flights transiting the Caspian Sea region on Friday, October 16. (photo: flightradar24)
Kazakhstan's Air Astana and other airlines are altering their flight routes over the Caspian Sea after Russian missiles launches from the sea have created an unpredictable security situation.
Earlier this week, Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific announced that it was suspending flights over the Caspian. “In view of the situation in the region Cathay Pacific suspended all flights over Iran and Caspian Sea since last Thursday until further notice,” the airline said in a statement.
But the announcement by Air Astana, the flagship airline of a close Russian ally, is much more significant. The airline announced Friday that it was changing the route of its Almaty-Baku route. "We are now flying by a more northerly route, in the area of Aktau," said company spokesman Tlek Abdrakhimov, local media reported. The route change would add 15 minutes to the flight time. Flights to Tbilisi and Istanbul could be similarly affected, the company said. The rerouting via Aktau suggests that Kazakhstan doesn't see the entire Caspian as a risk, but only the southern part.
On October 9, the European Aviation Safety Agency issued a safety bulletin alerting airlines that there had been "several launches of missiles from warships, located in the Caspian Sea, to Syria on 06 and 07 October 2015. Before reaching Syria, such missiles are necessarily crossing the airspace above Caspian Sea, Iran and Iraq, below flight routes which are used by commercial transport aeroplanes." The agency did not issue a specific recommendation to avoid the sea, however.