All this week, CNN International, part of that “most trusted name in news,” has aired a series of reports on Kazakhstan. But what looks to the unsuspecting viewer like more of CNN at its finest appears in fact to be sponsored advertisements paid for by none other than Kazakhstan’s oil-rich government.
The spots are part of CNN International’s “Eyes On” series. Pay close attention and only the one-minute promo for the series ends with an announcement, "In association with the following," leaving the viewer to try to read two logos on screen. One is clearly Samruk Kazyna, the state fund that owns all state assets. The other, particularly fuzzy, logo is the Astana Economic Forum, the brainchild of President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Both link to a page promoting Astana's bid to host Expo 2017.
Most of the spots are quirky, soft-core reportage and travelogue sprinkled with carefully framed shots of the glitziest parts of Astana and Almaty. Topics include economic diversification, transportation infrastructure, skiing, and dating games. CNN International offers no coverage of labor strikes, human rights abuses, nascent violent insurgencies, violence against women, or any other diversions from the narrative of relentless growth and limitless opportunity.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has ended a two-day visit to Kazakhstan by calling for an independent international investigation into December’s violence in and around the western town of Zhanaozen, which officials say left 15 dead after police fired on protestors.
Pillay told a press conference in Astana on July 12 that “a precise account of exactly what happened in Zhanaozen […] remains elusive.”
“Allegations of torture and forced confessions do not seem to have been properly investigated, and there are many serious question marks over the fairness of judicial processes, and the conduct of trials,” Pillay continued.
Forty-five civilians have been convicted over the violence, of whom 17 are serving prison terms. Six police officers have also been jailed.
Pillay said the question of whether the use of live fire was “necessary and proportional” remains open, and that an independent investigation could be “a watershed for Kazakhstan” since the Zhanaozen affair encapsulates “in microcosm, many of the human rights concerns and critical gaps in the country’s laws and rule-of-law institutions.”
Astana has conducted its own investigation into the unrest, which – while acknowledging police wrongdoing – concluded that it was stirred up by “third forces” and perpetrated by local ringleaders.
Kazakhstan’s sportsmen are leaving nothing to chance before the Olympic Games open later this month in London. They will power themselves with horsemeat sausages shipped specially to the British capital for the occasion.
Prized kazy (dried horsemeat sausage) and karta (a delicacy made from the animal’s large intestine) will be taken to London to add a taste of home to the diet of the Kazakh team, a government sports official told the Vesti.kz news site.
Visitors to Britain often complain about the food, but Yelsiyar Kanagatov, deputy head of the government’s Agency for Sport and Physical Training, said the decision to fatten up sportsmen with homegrown specialties was not a reflection of the gastronomic delights on offer at London’s Olympic Village, where “whatever you want” will be available. It’s just that Kazakhstan’s sportsmen will have something “extra,” as he put it, to help them reach peak fitness. That means not only the horsemeat delicacies that are staples in every Kazakh's diet, but also a taste of luxury: Caspian Sea caviar.
Kazakhstan is fielding 114 athletes in this year’s Summer Olympics and has set an ambitious but achievable target of bringing home three gold medals.
A prominent activist who was declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International has been released from jail in Kazakhstan, absolved of charges of inciting fatal unrest in Zhanaozen last year and calling for the overthrow of the state.
Bolat Atabayev, an outspoken theater director, told a press conference in Almaty on July 4 that he was released from prison the previous evening after signing a document stating that he had repented.
“In this document I had to answer some questions, basically of this type: ‘Had you known that blood would be spilled on December 16, would you have gone to Zhanaozen?’” Atabayev was quoted as saying by the Novosti-Kazakhstan news agency. “I say: ‘Had I known, I would not have gone.’”
Sixty-year-old Atabayev was facing charges of “inciting social discord” and calling for the forcible overthrow of the constitutional order. He had been out on bail, but was arrested mid-June after refusing to cooperate with the investigation in protest at the sentencing of Zhanaozen protestors. Atabayev had pledged to turn his own trial into “a farce.”
He was among a group of activists due to go on trial on incitement charges. They include leader of the unregistered opposition Alga! party Vladimir Kozlov; youth activist Zhanbolat Mamay; political activist Serik Sapargali; and former oil worker Akzhanat Aminov, who was a prominent participant in an oil strike in Zhanaozen that was the catalyst for the violence.
A Tashkent advertisement for “Your favorite soft drinks.”
A family of Soviet-era soft drinks has suddenly reappeared this summer to quench the thirst of Central Asians.
In Almaty's upmarket Samal district, a retro vending machine is offering a choice of plain fizzy water or three old, syrupy favorites. And in Tashkent, a billboard has popped up around town featuring a matronly Slavic woman standing by an old-fashioned soda fountain.
The Almaty dispenser is a throwback to the carbonated-water dispensers that were found on many a street corner in Soviet times. After the collapse of the USSR these machines largely disappeared or fell into disuse (some still languish, rusting and forlorn, in the occasional back alley or small-town bus station), unable to compete with imported sodas such as Pepsi and Coca-Cola.
But now the familiar flavors are fighting back, almost literally. The Almaty dispenser is decorated with the figure of a Bolshevik revolutionary on a striking red background. For 40 tenge ($0.30) you can have a Buratino, a caramel-colored concoction named after Russia’s indigenous Pinocchio. A radioactive-green, tarragon-flavored Tarkhun will set you back 50 tenge ($0.35), while a flowery, pear-inspired Duchess costs 60 tenge ($0.40).
The plot thickens on Kazakhstan’s eastern frontiers. For a second time in a month, allegations of hazing among border guards are prompting a rapid response in Astana.
This week, authorities arrested the commander of a border post near China on suspicion of committing violence against other soldiers in his unit, local media report.
The arrest of the commander plus two contract soldiers comes two days after 11 conscripts deserted from the Tersayryk unit in northeastern Kazakhstan to protest their treatment.
The military now says the soldiers deserted in order to report hazing, the practice of senior soldiers bullying junior ones that is common in the armed forces of some former Soviet states.
“They wanted to report to the command post that there had allegedly been an incident of hazing,” Ardak Zamanbekov, an official from the regional command, said in remarks broadcast by KTK TV. The military has opened a criminal case to investigate the allegations.
The incident comes in the wake of a massacre at another border unit on the frontier with China, this one in southeastern Kazakhstan, where 15 people were slaughtered on the night of 27-28 May. The sole survivor, 20-year-old conscript Vladislav Chelakh, confessed to the massacre last week, saying that hazing had made him “flip.”
As the European Union prepares to review its Central Asia strategy, a leading international human rights watchdog has urged Brussels to demand the five republics improve their human rights records, or face consequences.
In a June 21 statement ahead of an EU meeting on Central Asia policy, Human Rights Watch urged the 27-member organization not to allow geopolitical interests to serve as “an excuse for downplaying the EU’s focus on human rights abuses in the region.”
“Affecting positive change in Central Asia isn’t easy, but being clear about expectations and linking closer engagement to progress is a good place to start,” Veronika Szente Goldston, HRW’s Europe and Central Asia advocacy director, said in a statement. “The EU has resisted doing this so far, but it’s not too late to set things right.”
EU foreign ministers will meet on June 25 to assess its 2007 program, “The EU and Central Asia: Strategy for a New Partnership.”
HRW said the governments of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan “all have distinctly poor human rights records and to various degrees resist meaningful reform.”
The watchdog documented concerns in a report issued on June 20, which singled out all five states for failing to prevent torture in places of confinement, restricting media freedoms and pressuring civil society activists.
Central Asia has long been associated with difficult border crossings and onerous visa requirements. But now three states are moving to abolish visas for citizens of developed countries in a bid to boost tourism, local media reports say.
Kyrgyzstan became the latest country to take steps to ease visa requirements with a parliamentary vote on June 14 in favor of a bill allowing citizens of 44 states visa-free entry for 60 days, the K.News website reported.
If President Almazbek Atambayev signs the bill into law, citizens from the United States and Canada, EU member states and some Middle Eastern countries will be able to visit Kyrgyzstan without the traditional visa hassle.
The parliament of neighboring Tajikistan last month also voted to lift visa requirements for US and EU nationals and citizens from some Southeast Asian states, Asia-Plus reported. If approved by President Emomali Rakhmon, this would absolve visitors of the need to obtain an invitation and apply for a visa in advance.
Kazakhstan is also mulling an easing of procedures, with plans afoot to allow citizens from the 34 member states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (including the United States, Canada, EU countries, Australia and New Zealand) visa-free travel for 15 days, reports Tengri News.
Two prominent political activists have been arrested in Kazakhstan as a fresh trial over December’s violence in Zhanaozen looms.
Bolat Atabayev, a 60-year-old theater director known for his outspoken political views, and Zhanbolat Mamay, a well-known youth activist, were arrested on June 15, Novosti-Kazakhstan news agency reported.
The two had already been charged with “inciting social unrest” in Zhanaozen for visiting striking oil workers in the town, where a protracted industrial dispute descended into deadly violence on Independence Day.
They had been out on bail pending the start of their trial. Eleven other activists are in jail awaiting trial on the same charge.
The arrests come less than two weeks after the conclusion of the largest Zhanaozen trial to date, in which 34 people were convicted of crimes relating to the violence. Thirteen were imprisoned after a trial described by Human Rights Watch as “flawed.”
Atabayev had declared he was refusing to cooperate with the investigation in protest at those convictions.
Following some embarrassing incidents involving its national anthem, Kazakhstan has passed new legislation imposing stiff punishments for treating its state symbols with disrespect.
Under a bill passed by the upper house of parliament on June 14, anyone who mistreats or desecrates state symbols, which include the country’s flag as well as its anthem, faces up to a year in jail or a stiff fine, the Novosti-Kazakhstan news agency reports.
The new legislation was drafted after Kazakhstan made international headlines over a mix-up involving its national anthem at a March sporting event in Kuwait. Then, the hosts accidentally played a version of the spoof anthem that featured in the 2006 movie “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” which extols Kazakhstan’s potassium and prostitutes and memorably contains the line “Kazakhstan – greatest country in the world, all other countries are run by little girls.”
That blunder came just days after a goof-up in northern Kazakhstan, where the Ricky Martin song "Livin' la Vida Loca" was accidentally played instead of the anthem at the opening of a skiing festival.
The incidents made headlines and got laughs abroad, but at home Astana – ever sensitive to its international image – was not smiling.