The industrial city of Karaganda in northeastern Kazakhstan has seen an event utterly out of the ordinary for the former Soviet Union: a wedding between two women.
The couple organized the symbolic wedding to celebrate their union, the Vox Populi website reports in a photo story showing the elaborate celebration, which included all the usual trappings: from the white limousine that the bride and groom ride in during more traditional celebrations to the flutes of champagne to toast the happy couple.
The marriage has no legal force in Kazakhstan, where same-sex weddings are not recognized by law – but the two women, identified only as Karolina and Kristina, decided to tie the knot symbolically. As Vox Populi put it, “love has no law.”
The pictures showed the elegant couple – one wearing a white wedding dress and the other a white suit – popping champagne corks and following the usual tradition of stopping off at popular sites around the city to have a glass of champagne with wedding guests.
When the wedding party dropped into a shopping mall to buy some food, eyebrows were raised, said Vox Populi. It described onlookers' mood as “spiteful,” with “hostile looks from the shoppers, whispering into walkie-talkies by the security guards, surprised looks from the salespeople.”
The LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community tends not to be very visible in Kazakhstan, where anecdotal evidence suggests that members face widespread discrimination.
Vox Populi’s story on the wedding sparked a lively discussion thread, with some participants openly and proudly voicing those prejudices while others stood up in defense of LGBT rights.
The United Kingdom’s Serious Fraud Office (SFO) has launched a criminal investigation into alleged corruption at a London-listed natural resources giant with strong links to Kazakhstan, British media report.
The SFO probe targets the Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation (ENRC), a company with interests in the energy and mining sectors mainly in Kazakhstan but also in China, Brazil and some African states. It is partially owned by three oligarchs believed to have powerful connections in Kazakhstan. The Kazakh government also holds a stake.
“The focus of the investigation will be fraud, bribery and corruption relating to the activities of the company or its subsidiaries in Kazakhstan and Africa,” The Guardian newspaper quoted the SFO – an arm of the British government – as saying in an April 25 statement.
ENRC, which is listed on the London Stock Exchange, said in a statement the same day that it “is assisting and cooperating fully with the SFO” and “is committed to a full and transparent investigation of its procedures and conduct.”
The news follows a troubled period for ENRC, whose chairman Mehmet Dalman resigned on April 23, less than two weeks after a law firm appointed by ENRC to pursue an internal inquiry into the corruption allegations – first made by a whistleblower – was abruptly replaced.
Kazakhstan’s social affairs minister was pelted with eggs Friday while addressing the government’s controversial pension reforms at a lively press conference.
In a show of protest rare for Kazakhstan, Minister of Labor and Social Protection Serik Abdenov was targeted as he attempted to explain why the government is seeking to raise the pension age for women from 58 to 63 over the next decade. The reform, which would bring the female retirement age into line with the male one, has passed its first reading in the lower house of parliament (with several more stages to go before it becomes law), raising a storm of controversy.
Abdenov called the briefing in Almaty on April 26 to douse the flames of the dispute – but one protestor was not in the mood for listening. Activist Andrey Tsukanov got up and hurled two eggs at the minister, Tengri News reports. A video posted by Radio Azattyq showed Abdenov batting away the make-do missiles.
Abdenov has become the target of vilification and ridicule in the past week after another unsuccessful attempt to defend Astana’s pension reforms to a group of workers in Temirtau, an industrial city in eastern Kazakhstan, fell flat.
Asked why women should work for five more years, Abdenov got a little lost for words. “You have to work and work,” he said, to guffaws of laughter from the audience,” because, my dear fellow countrymen, because, because.”
Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, is bucking a trend by pooh-poohing scaremongering about the security threat that the Central Asian region will face after NATO troops finish withdrawing from Afghanistan next year.
Observers have voiced apprehension that the region will confront rising challenges from threats such as terrorism, extremism and drug trafficking that could destabilize the entire Central Asia region. But Nazarbayev does not subscribe to that view.
“I will say it directly: I do not accept the catastrophic theories that we read and hear from various sides,” he said on April 25, adding that he did not believe that there was some sort of “countdown timer” running, ticking off the days before coalition forces withdraw and disaster strikes.
Nazarbayev was speaking at the Eurasian Media Forum in Astana, a jamboree of assorted international media professionals and pundits organized by his daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva to discuss global and regional problems.
His remarks fly in the face of accepted wisdom about the mounting security threat that Central Asian states will struggle to cope with after 2014.
Nazarbayev’s own security chief, Nurtay Abykayev, is less insouciant than his boss, warning last month of “growing threats of instability.” “We are concerned by the ongoing activeness of terrorist and extremist organizations in the region, particularly in the run-up to the departure of NATO forces from Afghanistan.”
A Russian unmanned aerial vehicle crashed in western Kazakhstan. The drone measured 12 meters long and appeared to have been launched from the Ashuluk military facility near Astrakhan before crashing in the village of Balkuduk, reports Kazinform:
Representatives of Kazakhstan's Prosecutor's Office, Border Guard and Emergency Situations Ministry attended the crash scene. According to the information provided by them, the drone fell in a deserted place, exploding and breaking into three pieces as a result of falling.
Radiation background in the crash area is normal.
There does not appear to be any word yet from Russia on what the drone was doing over the border in Kazakhstan. But Kazakhstan's authorities have handed over the wreckage to Russia. Kazakhstan seems to not be too alarmed about the incident, unlike the last time a foreign drone allegedly violated its airspace.
Kazakhstan's Education Ministry has enlisted the secret police to monitor students studying abroad on a government-sponsored scholarship program. The KNB, successor to the Soviet-era KGB, will ensure the students return home to serve the motherland.
“The ministry, jointly with the National Security Committee [KNB] has fully adopted the 'student abroad' program. The return of our graduates to the homeland will now be strictly tracked,” Education Minister Bakytzhan Zhumagulov told a cabinet meeting in Astana on April 16, News-Kazakhstan reports.
In exchange for the scholarship, which covers all tuition fees and living expenses for the duration of a student's course, alumni of the Bolashak (“Future”) program are expected to return to Kazakhstan to work in any sector for five years after completing their studies.
The minister did not present any figures for non-returnees, so it is unclear how much work is cut out for Big Brother. A 2008 diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks quotes government statistics claiming that only 29 out of some 4,500 students sent abroad on the program by that time had failed to return.
Since its implementation in 1993, Bolashak has sent around 10,000 students from Kazakhstan to educational institutions across the globe. Initially the focus was on undergraduate students, but following the opening of the Nazarbayev University in Astana in 2010, the program has turned its attention to Ph.D. students.
Following last year’s crackdown on Kazakhstan’s media and opposition, many have wondered what political course President Nursultan Nazarbayev is steering.
Today, Nazarbayev delivered his response: Kazakhstan is firmly set on becoming a Western-style democracy, he said – but it will take time.
“We believe that the democracy and freedom that exist in the West, as in Finland, are for us the final goal, and not the start of the path,” he told visiting Finnish President Sauli Niinistö, in remarks quoted by Tengri News. “We are going along that path.”
Kazakhstan may have occasionally stumbled along the way, but Nazarbayev believes the glass of democracy is at least half full. “To put it vividly in the words of a philosopher, our glass is half or three-quarters full, and we have to fill it up,” he said.
Nazarbayev was speaking the day after a motion was made in the European Parliament urging members to vote for a new resolution expressing concern about Kazakhstan’s human rights situation.
The draft resolution specifically points to court rulings last year banning the Alga! party and independent media outlets, alleging that such a move "violates the principles of freedom of expression and assembly and raises great concerns with regard to subsequent repression of media and opposition.”
They might be neighbors on the map, but Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan couldn’t be further apart in how they utilize information and communications technology (ICT). A model for the former Soviet Union, Kazakhstan is charging ahead, according to a new report measuring how ICT affects competitiveness, leaving much-poorer Kyrgyzstan in its digital dust.
ICT is about more than getting online, says the report, published by the World Economic Forum. Today it’s a critical part of any economy, driving growth and job creation.
Information flows and networks have spread across borders in ways that could not be imagined before the onset of the Internet, the global adoption of mobile telephony and social networks, and the rapid growth of broadband. […] It is clear that ICTs offer higher benefit-to-cost ratios in all sectors of production, while simultaneously offering new ways to create value by better and more efficiently organizing the use of natural, financial, and human resources.
In its 12th year, the Global Information Technology Report uses the Networked Readiness Index – computed with 54 indicators – to compare how 144 economies “leverage ICT for growth and well-being.”
This year Kyrgyzstan ranked last among former-Soviet states, at 118, between Suriname and Bolivia. Kazakhstan on the other hand, at 43, beat out all post-Soviet countries, save for the advanced Baltic states, placing between the Czech Republic and Hungary. Russia placed 54th.
The April 10 report praised Astana for its top-down reforms, though it offered poor quantitative assessments of Kazakhstan’s education system, judiciary, and in political reform:
It has long been rumored that huge bribes change hands in Kazakhstan to secure public-service jobs and law-enforcement positions that come with small salaries but enormous potential to make a few bucks on the side.
Now comes some indication of just how large the bribes may be: A human resources official in South Kazakhstan Region’s bureaucracy is under arrest after demanding a $50,000 backhander in a cash-for-job deal, Kazinform reports.
The official offered her services to secure a lowly job as deputy head of the regional Entrepreneurship and Trade Directorate, begging the question of how much money might be changing hands for more senior (and potentially lucrative) positions.
Graft is officially acknowledged to be rife throughout Kazakhstan’s bureaucracy, including the judiciary and law-enforcement system.
Last month the financial police said that some tax officials were taking bribes ranging from 1,000 to 1 million tenge (approximately $6.60 to $6,600) to fix results on tax audits, Tengri News reported.
In one high-profile case, Major-General Almaz Asenov, former head of the military’s armaments department, was arrested earlier this year on suspicion of taking a $200,000 kickback from two representatives of Ukrainian company Ukrspetzeksport in return for turning a blind eye to faulty repair work on An-72 aircraft.
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev is fond of lauding his oil-rich country’s economic successes – but now he has acknowledged that they are not trickling down to everyone.
Speaking at the Council of Entrepreneurs on April 10, Nazarbayev said Kazakhstan’s growing rich-poor divide had hit his personal radar and ordered his government to bridge it, Tengri News reported.
Officials must examine “how many poor people we have, what the difference between the rich and poor is – and the difference in our country is substantial,” Nazarbayev – whose close family members include millionaires and billionaires – told Kazakhstan’s top entrepreneurs. “I have especially engaged in [studying] this.”
Nazarbayev cited statistics showing that 8 percent of households have incomes of less than 15,000 tenge ($100) per person, below the official minimum salary of 18,660 tenge ($124). Nazarbayev said those households included 1.5 million people – which means 8.8 percent of Kazakhstan’s population of 17 million are living on less than the minimum wage.
This puts into perspective official statistics showing the average monthly salary in Kazakhstan standing at 98,736 tenge ($654), and suggests that the gap between high earners and low earners is indeed wide.