Chief Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili faces the press at the Iran P5+1 Iran talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan on February 27.
Kazakhstan seems to be the winner after the first round of renewed talks concerning Iran's nuclear ambitions.
There were fresh signs of life in the deadlocked process on February 27 as Iran and the P5+1 group – the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the United States, China, Russia, Britain and France) plus Germany – agreed to meet again in Almaty, Kazakhstan's commercial hub.
Talks on technical issues will be held in Istanbul March 17-18 and the P5+1 will reconvene in Almaty on April 5 and 6, delegates announced at a closing press conference.
Negotiations broke down last June over seemingly irreconcilable differences: Iran demanded an immediate end to sanctions, without preconditions. Before any sanctions relief, the P5+1 wanted an immediate end to medium-level enrichment and the closure of the Fordow underground enrichment facility.
At the Almaty talks, delegates were tight-lipped about details of new proposals the P5+1 put on the table. Chief Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, avoided specifics at his closing press conference. He said that the P5+1 had moved closer to Iran's position on some issues but reiterated that there was still a long way to go before reaching any consensus.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who chairs the P5+1, refused to go into detail on any new proposals relating to sanction-easing, saying only that “We are looking now for the Iranians to have the opportunity to study” the new proposals before April.
While not giving much away about proceedings, the negotiators were effusive in their praise for their Kazakh hosts. Ashton thanked Kazakhstan for creating a comfortable environment for the talks. An official Iranian statement praised Kazakhstan for its “warm hospitality.”
Vodka named after Allah was always sure to create a storm of controversy in mainly Muslim Kazakhstan – as it did last year, when bottles bearing Allah’s name went on sale in the eastern city of Semey.
Those bottles were produced in Aktobe on the other side of Kazakhstan, where it seems the country’s security services have recently uncovered a plot to blow up the offending factory.
On February 19 three young men – including a minor – were jailed by a court in the western city of Aktobe for plotting to plant explosives at a factory producing vodka with a label mentioning Allah, KTK TV reports.
Media reports did not name the plant at the center of the plot, but back in April last year a factory owned by Kazakhstan’s GEOM company (which makes liquor under the popular Wimpex brand) got into hot water for making vodka with a label showing an Arabic inscription reading “Allah’s strength is enough for everybody.”
The court found the three young men guilty of plotting to blow up the factory and sentenced 17-year-old Salamat Akhet to three years in prison and Nursultan Tenizbayev and Arslan Zhakabayev, both 18, to five years.
Akhet’s mother claimed her son was the victim of a stitch-up by the security services, which have been cracking down heavily on suspected extremists – particularly in western Kazakhstan – since a spate of terrorist attacks began in 2011.
The American Senate’s contentious confirmation hearings for Defense Secretary nominee Chuck Hagel have raised the prickly issue of foreign financing at US think tanks, with Republicans opposing his candidacy suggesting nefarious links between Hagel and Kazakhstan, among other foreign nations and companies. Republicans have asked Hagel – a former Senate Republican who is now the nominee of a Democrat president – to reveal the sources of foreign funding at several organizations for which he has served as a board member, most notably the Atlantic Council, where he is currently chairman.
Foreign money flowing to US-based think tanks is often opaque, which means countries like Kazakhstan – where opaque is the gold standard – fit right in. The extent to which foreign funding influences the policies or positions taken by these organizations, or their associates, sometimes concerns the government officials they seek to advise and influence.
Such seemed to be the motive for an unnamed aide to a Senate Republican, who asserted to the conservative Washington Free Beacon blog on February 11, “The nexus between Chuck Hagel, the government of Kazakhstan, the Atlantic Council, and Chevron is apparent. He’s clearly delivered political cover from a prominent think tank and used his board position at Chevron to encourage investments in Kazakhstan.” (Chevron was deeply invested in Kazakhstan long before Hagel joined the Atlantic Council in 2009.)
A new school has opened in Almaty to prepare perfect brides for discerning Kazakh husbands-to-be.
Bride School is teaching women all the skills they need to keep their men happy, reports Tengri News. Diligent students can go on to enter a competition for Kazakhstan’s best bride.
The skills deemed necessary to be the perfect kelin – Kazakh for bride – range from cooking to applying makeup to parading like a model.
“At the lessons the students will be able to learn to cook, parade, grasp the basics of makeup; there will be classes in family psychology – in how to understand your husband, for example,” Bella Satmyrza, the woman who runs the school, said. “We want to create our ideal of a real kelin – a modern girl who looks after herself, looks good, is educated and well-read, but at the same times pays attention to national traditions, habits, culture and cooking.”
The culinary classes will naturally involve cooking beshbarmak (“five fingers”), Kazakhstan’s signature dish of flat noodles with mounds of meat heaped on top. The cut of choice is horsemeat, currently the subject of controversy in Europe but beloved in Kazakhstan.
Satmyrza is bringing in experts to advise the girls on how to please their husbands, from a choreographer who worked on the recent Kazakh dance film Forbidden Dances to “experienced mothers” offering training in how to raise children.
The outspoken Respublika newspaper has lost an appeal against a publishing ban.
On February 8, a judge in Almaty upheld a December ruling that Respublika and all print editions and websites associated with it would be closed down, the newspaper reported in an article posted on a Facebook page where it continues placing material.
The closure aimed to “introduce censorship, which in Kazakhstan is banned under the Constitution and the law on the media,” Tatyana Trubacheva, the newspaper’s former editor, argued in court.
She was speaking the day after being fined by an Almaty court for publishing another newspaper, Ripablik, which staff from the newspaper have been putting out with a circulation of just 99 copies to circumvent registration requirements.
The court found Trubacheva guilty of infringing the publishing ban, though she argued that Ripablik was a new outlet that did not exist when the original ban was imposed on December 25. Respublika has long played a cat-and-mouse game with the authorities, changing its name to get around legal bans.
Trubacheva is listed as the Ripablik newspaper’s “reader in chief,” a tactic to prevent her from being accused of being the editor. That led to a surreal exchange with the judge during her trial, shown in a video posted on YouTube by the Koz Ashu (Open the Eye) video project.
Kazakhstan is experiencing a betting boom. Bookmaker's offices are mushrooming across the country, allowing just about anyone to gamble on international sports matches. And, as if to tempt every last ludomaniac, thousands of electronic kiosks – in shopping arcades, pedestrian underpasses, and gas stations – are standing by to take your bets.
The situation looked dire for Kazakhstan's gamblers six years ago when authorities forced casinos to relocate to two purpose-built betting zones – Shchuchinsk in the north and Kapshagay in the south. The move was designed to help regulate and tax this somewhat shady business and confront gambling addiction.
While the exclusive casinos are keeping the high-rollers happy, in recent months a number of nationwide bookmaker chains have sprung up to cater to small-time punters who wish to gamble on international soccer and hockey matches and the like. While casinos require visitors to purchase between $300-500 in chips, in these state-licensed bookmakers, which are often attached to bars and restaurants, the minimum stake is 500 tenge ($3.30). At parlors like Bet City, Fair Play and Profit, it's never been easier to place a bet.
Today there are hundreds of such licensed bookmakers operating in Kazakhstan. Olimp, the biggest network, has 267 branches, with 86 in Almaty and 61 in the capital, Astana.
For those who like a little after-hours gambling, online betting is also gaining ground. Bets can even be made at ubiquitous QIWI payment terminals (usually used for topping-up mobile phones and paying utility bills). Across Kazakhstan there are 10,000 such reverse-ATM machines just waiting to inhale your cash.
Kazakhstan’s border guards have had a troubled few months: first, a bizarre mass slaughter at a remote outpost (blamed on a rogue conscript), then the death of the border commander in a plane crash. Now, the Border Service has been hit by fresh controversy after two officers committed suicide in the space of a week.
The latest to kill himself was Captain Murat Kadralinov, deputy commander of the Shonzhy border outpost, 250 kilometers east of Almaty near the border with China, Tengri News reported. Kadralinov committed suicide on February 4 due to a “family dispute,” the report quoted the Border Service press service as saying.
A local newspaper in northern Kazakhstan, Kostanayskiye Novosti, reported that the 28-year-old captain was from the northern Kostanay area and said he was living with his pregnant wife and two children at the Shonzhy border post in southeastern Kazakhstan.
Kadralinov’s suicide came five days after a more senior officer, the head of the Border Academy, shot himself in the head in his office. The National Security Committee, the domestic intelligence agency which is in charge of the Border Service, said it was investigating the death of Major-General Talgat Yesetov on January 31 in what appeared to be suicide.
Horse-mad Kazakhstan will soon be bathing in mare’s milk if a group of researchers at an Almaty university get their way.
Students at the Al-Farabi Kazakh National University have invented a new soap containing one of Kazakhstan’s favorite tipples: fermented mare’s milk. The drink, called kumis in Kazakh, is one of the ingredients in a new line of natural soaps developed at the university, reports Tengri News.
“Right now a lot of cosmetics cause allergic reactions,” researcher Lyudmila Ignatova told the agency. “That’s because they contain various chemical components. We tried to find natural components that would benefit the skin of the hands, face and body.”
The students aren’t the first in the world to cotton on to the commercial value of kumis cosmetics: One online Canadian company is flogging its soap made from a “secret ingredient [discovered] on Mongolia's wild steppes” – you guessed it, mare’s milk – for over $10 a bar. The Kazakh version is a bargain by comparison, retailing for $2-5 a bar – and the researchers hope to drive prices down by buying ingredients wholesale.
Kazakhstan suffered its second fatal plane crash in just over a month on January 29, when a domestic passenger flight arriving in Almaty crashed in bad weather, killing all 21 people aboard.
The SCAT Airlines Bombardier Challenger CRJ-200 crashed at around 1:00 p.m. as it was landing at Almaty airport in heavy fog, hitting the ground five kilometers outside Kazakhstan’s financial capital, the prosecutor’s office said in a statement. The statement contained a preliminary list of the dead: five crew members and 16 passengers who were on the flight from the northern town of Kokshetau.
The prosecutor’s office said it had already opened a criminal case into the crash, the second in the space of just over a month: On December 25, a military aircraft crashed near Shymkent, killing all 27 people on board. The dead included the acting head of Kazakhstan’s Border Service, Turganbek Stambekov, and other senior border officials.
An investigation blamed technical failure combined with pilot error for that crash, which, like today’s disaster, occurred in bad weather. Kazakhstan’s airports are frequently closed due to adverse weather conditions, but – despite heavy fog blanketing the city on January 29 – Almaty airport was open for business.