With the dust now settling on the London Olympics, Kazakhstan has emerged as the undisputed Central Asia champion, finishing a laudable 12th in the overall medal table, up from 29th four years ago in Beijing. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan also made it to the winner’s podium.
But besides the considerable costs of training and putting athletes forward for Olympic glory, what have the wins cost Central Asia’s thin pocketbooks? Leaders across the region promised more than fame to athletes who could score a medal in London, including cash prizes, apartments and luxury cars.
In Kazakhstan’s case, the cash prizes to be doled out total over $2 million – $250,000 for each of seven golds, $150,000 for one silver, and $75,000 for each of five bronzes. Uzbekistan will fork out $100,000 to its gold winner, 120-kilogram freestyle wrestler Artur Taymazov, and $50,000 to each of three bronze winners. It’s not clear what Tajikistan was offering its bronze winner, however. President Emomali Rakhmon set the prize for gold at $63,000. But the Dushanbe mayor and the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party each promised female boxer Mavzuna Chorieva – who won a bronze – an apartment.
Star of stage and screen, fairy-tale hero – Kazakhstan’s Leader of the Nation is now getting his place cemented in the history books with the publication of his first official biography.
The tome offers a “historical retrospective” of the life and times of Nursultan Nazarbayev, the first (and so far only) president of independent Kazakhstan, under whose astute tutelage the country’s “dramatic” march forward will be viewed.
Being billed by state media as the first attempt at “a historical biographical study of the life and activity” of Nazarbayev, the book, overseen by the president’s office, follows “his path from simple rural guy to national leader.”
If the territory sounds familiar, it is: The early stages of this rise to power and glory were charted in last year’s movie Sky of My Childhood, and Nazarbayev’s life has also featured in a hagiography written by disgraced former British MP Jonathan Aitken (after Aitken served time in a British jail for perjury).
Team Kazakhstan hasn’t bothered with anything but gold at the London Olympics, doubling its haul of first-place medals over the weekend to place fifth in number of gold medals per capita.
Former husband-and-wife team Ilya Ilin and Svetlana Podobedova triumphed in the weightlifting arena. Ilin set a new world record when he hefted 418 kilograms, a 12-kilo improvement on his gold-winning lift in Beijing in 2008. The two-time Olympic champion attributed his success to the supplies of kazy – smoked horsemeat sausage – that Kazakhstan brought to London.
Podobedova triumphed in the 75-kilogram division for her adopted country. She left her native Russia in 2007 after she was cut from the national weightlifting team for a doping offense. The Russian authorities refused to allow her to compete for Kazakhstan in the 2008 games, but now she has gotten revenge by narrowly beating Russia's Natalya Zabolotnaya to take the gold.
The judge did drop the longest jail sentence -- handed to former oil worker Roza Tuletayeva -- from seven years to five. She was a prominent figure in the seventh-month oil-sector strike in Zhanaozen that sparked the violence. Appeals brought by 14 others convicted of involvement in the turmoil (of whom 12 are serving prison terms of three to six years), were rejected.
An appeal from four protestors from the nearby village of Shetpe also serving time over the clashes has already been rejected, as has the appeal of five police officers imprisoned for unlawfully shooting protestors.
The US State Department’s annual terrorism report, released this week, provides a brief overview of how Foggy Bottom views terrorist threats abroad. On Central Asia, unfortunately, the cautious survey adds little to our understanding of the problem.
In its introduction to the region, the report notes that Central Asian governments “faced the challenge” of balancing human rights with security concerns. Further down, the report lists myriad examples where authorities heavily favored security, often at the expense of basic human rights.
State hedges on Central Asian governments’ tendency to hype threats. For the most part, the report simply lists what authorities describe as terrorist attacks and as anti-terrorist operations, but uses qualifying terms – “reportedly”; “potentially” – that make it clear State is as in the dark on the nature of the events as the rest of us.
The report does cautiously point out that Central Asian governments’ widespread human rights abuses may end up creating terrorists.
For example, Kazakhstan’s 2010 amendments to the law on “religious activities” had “severely restricted the peaceful practice of religion,” the report says, adding that some commentators linked subsequent violent incidents to the new law.
In the Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan sections, the report states the widely held belief that the three countries misuse counterterrorism statutes to persecute legitimate political and religious actors. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, despite their well-documented use of the same playbook, are not censured directly on this point.
The London Olympics have offered mixed successes for Central Asia in their first week.
Kazakhstan got off to a great start, meeting its target of three gold medals in the first four days of competition. Uzbekistan has picked up a bronze and also the dubious distinction of seeing a gymnast kicked out for failing a drug test. Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have yet to trouble the winner's podium.
Kazakhstan's weightlifting sensations Zulfiya Chinshanlo and Maiya Maneza struck gold on July 29 and July 31, after cyclist Alexander Vinokourov sped to victory on July 28.
The victories were not without controversy, however. Chinshanlo and Maneza's roots were called into question, as some years previously they had been part of China's weightlifting set-up. A Kazakh official refuted charges the athletes had no right to represent Kazakhstan.
“We led them to this victory for a whole Olympic cycle, and before that they were already members of our national team,” Aleksey Kryuchkov, acting head of the sporting body in charge of Kazakhstan's national teams, told KTK television.
It's been a busy games for Kryuchkov, who also had a kit malfunction to deal with. Some weightlifters from Kazakhstan were shown in competition wearing uniforms reading “Kzakhstan.” An investigation revealed five or six rogue, misspelled T-shirts.
Kazakhstan's gold medalist "Zulfiya Chinshanlo" training in July 2011.
When photographer Ikuru Kuwajima and I visited Kazakhstan's Olympic weightlifting training camp in July 2011, it was difficult to get much out of Zulfiya Chinshanlo, the 19-year-old weightlifter who on July 29 brought Kazakhstan its second gold at the London games.
Neither Chinshanlo, nor her friend Maiya Maneza, could manage more than a few fragments of Russian. And they spoke no Kazakh.
"They’re Dungans [...] from Bishkek," said Kazakhstan's trainer Alexey Ni, as they stood shyly together in one corner of the gym, giggling like the teenage girls that they still are, despite their bulging muscles. "They’re very hard-working. There are only a few Dungan people, not so many."
The Dungans, a Chinese people speaking a language related to Mandarin, are Muslim converts who fled to Central Asia in the 19th Century.
For Kazakhstan to include two of them on its Olympic team demonstrated exemplary inclusiveness.
Only Ni’s story is now being challenged.
According to a report in China's state-run Xinhua news agency (and picked up by CNN) Chinshanlo was in fact born and raised in Yongzhou, Hunan Province under the Chinese name Zhao Changling, and transferred to Kazakhstan legally in 2008.
According to Xinhua, a Kazakh journalist in London also claimed Dungan descent for Chinshanlo. But officials from the Hunan Province Sports Bureau insist that she is in fact Chinese.
Nearly 600 police officers and soldiers have descended into the troubled town of Zhanaozen, scene of riots last December that left 15 protestors dead. Authorities say they are conducting a special law-enforcement operation that will end on August 3, the day after the appeal of 13 civilians serving prison terms over the fatal violence is to be heard.
The regional police HQ said 586 officers, including 300 soldiers, had been drafted for the operation, dubbed “Law and Order,” Kazakhstan Today reported.
The news comes three days after regional police chief Meyrkhan Zhamanbayev denied reports of a troop build-up in the town. Speaking to the local Lada newspaper, he said 200 soldiers were always on duty in Zhanaozen, due to a “shortage” of police officers. It was also “time for the people of Zhanaozen to get used to the soldiers,” since a permanent garrison for 100 troops is being built there.
The Law and Order operation has so far mainly netted petty criminals. But the timing of this zero-tolerance approach suggests that the massive security build-up is related to the hearing of the appeal of 13 jailed civilians from Zhanaozen (who include former oil workers whose industrial action sparked December’s unrest).
Six people have been killed in a shootout with security forces in Almaty, raising concerns that the terrorism that stalked Kazakhstan last year is rearing its head once again.
The six, suspected of involvement in the killing of a police officer in Almaty on July 28, were shot dead by police in an apartment block in a residential district on July 30 after refusing to surrender, Tengri News quoted a police spokeswoman as saying. The group was engaged in criminal activity including robbery, and authorities suspect they may be religious extremists.
Security forces hunting for suspects in the July 28 shooting death of a police officer had sealed off the apartment block.
The violence comes three weeks after an explosion in a house on the outskirts of Almaty left eight people dead in a case police are treating as terrorism. It blew up on the night of July 10-11, killing the four adults and four children. Suspicious items found among the debris included weapons, ammunition, and police uniforms and equipment, Megapolis newspaper reported.
Kazakhstan, which had long prided itself on its reputation for stability, was last year hit by a string of attacks across the country, mostly targeting law-enforcement bodies.
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.