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.
Kazakhstan military officers observe the SCO drills, after taking the scenic route to northern Tajikistan.
The annual military exercises of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization wrappied up today in northern Tajikistan, with member militaries practicing "air-to-ground fire attack, joint encirclement and suppression, charging into depth for pursuit and annihilation and vertical interception and annihilation" against the usual "terrorist" threat.
Taking part were about 2,000 soldiers and 500 military vehicles and airplanes from Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. That's all the SCO countries except Uzbekistan, which -- in keeping with its standard practice -- didn't participate. But Uzbekistan seemed to go a bit further this year, and even forbade Kazakhstan's troops and equipment from transiting through its territory en route to Tajikistan, according to Kazakhstan's defense attache in Tajikistan, Serik Zhumadilov:
"The Uzbek authorities have not allowed Kazakhstan's military equipment to pass through Uzbekistan to participate in the exercises. Military equipment and personnel of the armed forces of Kazakhstan, which are involved in anti-terror exercises have been delivered to Tajikistan, bypassing Uzbekistan through Kyrgyz territory."
Uzbekistan, recall, has also declined to participate in various activities of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a similar political-military bloc. It's also bowed out of Western-led regional initiatives, like the "Istanbul Process" for Afghanistan. And given that Uzbekistan sees Kazakhstan as a rival, it's maybe not too surprising that they don't want the Kazakhstan military marching through their territory.
A young man, believed to be the sole survivor of a massacre late last month at a border post near Kazakhstan's frontier with China, has confessed to murdering 15 people because of disagreements within the military unit, according to video released by the prosecutor’s office.
The film showed 20-year-old conscript Vladislav Chelakh describing the catalyst for the murder as an argument with a fellow soldier who refused to get out of bed, which made Chelakh “boil over and flip.”
This was part of wider disagreements at the border post where “I was humiliated […] insulted too often,” he said.
While the motive may seem weak, it lends weight to an initial theory that the murderer was the victim of hazing, the practice of senior soldiers bullying junior ones common in the armed forces of some former Soviet states.
Chelakh was shown confessing on video at the scene of the crime. Evoking scenes straight out of a horror movie, he confessed to hunting the victims down around the unit and shooting them, setting fire to the building, then killing a gamekeeper in his lodge to eliminate a witness. Chelakh spoke coherently, with no sign of reciting a prepared speech.
Further video showed him confessing to his mother and, in a clip reportedly filmed by Chelakh himself after the crime, hiding in what appears to be a cave in the forest.
Gay men are not welcome in Kazakhstan’s military on the grounds that the state classifies homosexuality as a “disorder,” Defense Minister Adilbek Dzhaksybekov has declared.
Asked by a visitor to his official blog if gay men are called up for Kazakhstan's mandatory army service, Dzhaksybekov ruled this out on the grounds that homosexuality is a “disorder of sexual desire” that prevents “entry into military service in the armed forces, other forces and military formations of the Republic of Kazakhstan.”
Citing the health requirements soldiers have to meet by law (which do not explicitly rule out such “disorders” but establish mental health standards), Dzhaksybekov said that homosexuality is determined through psychiatric checks.
This attitude harks back to Soviet times, when homosexuality was classed as a mental disorder and sodomy was punishable by law (most former Soviet countries, including Kazakhstan, have now decriminalized it).
The question of whether homosexuals can serve in Kazakhstan’s military has not featured prominently on the agenda in the past, but the defense minister’s remarks place Kazakhstan among countries that explicitly ban them from serving.
The policy is at odds with practice in neighboring Russia, where gay men and women are allowed to serve. The United States has relaxed its policy in recent years, abandoning its “don’t ask don’t tell” strategy -- which barred openly gay people from serving -- last year.
It’s a high-stakes time of the year in Kazakhstan as graduating high school students head into the make-or-break final exam that will determine their future prospects. Some are leaving nothing to chance, local media report.
Invigilators in Karaganda were surprised to see one girl sitting the test with an enormous beehive hairdo – only 60 years out of date. Exploring her fluffy 'do, they discovered that she hadn’t suddenly developed a taste for 1950s fashion. No, she’d deliberately cultivated her beehive to conceal a cellphone to cheat in the exam.
The girl was allowed to sit the test after the telephone was painstakingly untangled from her hair, presumably in recognition of the amusement value her prank had caused.
The lengths she went in order to cheat seem miniscule in comparison to the efforts of a student in Ridder in northern Kazakhstan: This high school senior went to the trouble of typing out a crib sheet that stretched to an astonishing 11 meters and contained 25,000 answers, reports local website YK-news.kz.
Despite security checks, the enterprising student managed to smuggle it into the exam hall folded into sections. But there his luck ended: It was confiscated by officers from the domestic intelligence service, the KNB, who were conducting checks.
Every year the ENT national standardized exam brings new controversies: over the exam’s multi-choice format, which critics say fails to test critical-thinking skills; and over cheating, with irrepressible students trying new tricks each spring.
NATO reached an agreement with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to ship military equipment out of Afghanistan through Central Asia, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen reported today:
We also reached agreement on reverse transit from Afghanistan with three Central Asian partners: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. These agreements will give us a range of new options and the robust and flexible transport network we need....
With Russia we have a transit arrangement, a reverse transit arrangement already, and the fact that we have now concluded a transit arrangement, three concrete transit arrangements with Central Asian countries at the Chicago Summit, will make the use of the Russian transit arrangement even more effective.
In response to a question on payment for the reverse transit, he implied that there was some, but wouldn't specify: "I do not comment on details in the transit arrangements, but it goes without saying that we have concluded agreements that are of mutual satisfaction of the involved partners."
Meanwhile, he said negotiations with Pakistan on reopening those lines of communication continue: "I'm not going to comment on details in negotiations with Pakistan. I'll just reiterate that I still hope that a solution can be found in the very near future."
These NATO deals are not related to separate deals the U.S. has reached. Obviously the U.S. is a member of NATO, and it's not clear if this new NATO deal now covers all NATO member countries besides the U.S., or what.
The most interesting subplot here is what this means for Pakistan. The AP story on Rasmussen's comments had an intriguing bit of analysis:
Twelve border guards have been found dead at a frontier post in southeastern Kazakhstan, local media report.
A top Border Service official confirmed on May 31 that an investigation was under way after the “charred remains of 13 people” had been discovered in a burnt-out border post the previous day.
The bodies of 12 border guards and one national park ranger have so far been found at the Argkankergen post on the Chinese frontier and the search continues for others, Turganbek Stambekov, first deputy director of the Border Service (which comes under the jurisdiction of Kazakhstan’s domestic intelligence service, the KNB), said. He did not specify if the fire was the cause of death.
Fuelling media suspicions of foul play, Stambekov said the border post is usually staffed by 15 guards in the summer, but gave no indication of the whereabouts of the missing three.
Speculating about what might be behind this unusual incident, local reports suggested an attack on the border detachment (though the possible motive is unclear) or hazing -- it is common in post-Soviet military units for senior soldiers to ritually harass and bully their juniors.
Initial reports that the frontier guards’ weapons were missing were not true, a Border Service source told the Kazinform state news agency. The source said the weapons had been found and sent for tests to see if they had been fired.
Five police officers have received prison sentences for shooting protestors in Zhanaozen during unrest last December in which at least 16 protestors died, media in Kazakhstan are reporting.
The officers, who denied the charges they abused their office, were sentenced on May 28 to between five and seven years for the December 16 shootings.
State prosecutors alleged that the officers fired on protestors when they could have used non-lethal force. Prosecutors showed the court video of police shooting fleeing demonstrators in the back.
Kabdygali Utegaliyev, former deputy police chief of Mangystau Region, received seven years, the longest sentence. Three other officers (Yerlan Bakytkaliuly, deputy police chief of Zhanaozen; Rinat Zholdybayev, senior operations officer; and Bekzhan Bagdabayev, head of the department for combating extremism) were sentenced to six years. Nurlan Yesbergenov, a senior interrogator, got five years.
The sentencing brings the number of police officers who have received jail terms over the deaths to six: The former head of Zhanaozen’s remand center received a five-year sentence over the death of a detainee in police custody.