At first blush, it seems Kazakhstan's strongman President Nursultan Nazarbayev likes to keep business in the family. A daughter heads his party in the rubber-stamp parliament; his sons-in-law held various official positions and became fabulously wealthy. So why is it not surprising that Kazakhstan is paying the wife of Nazarbayev’s most distinguished advisor, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, hundreds of thousands of pounds for her legal services?
Citing an anonymous source, The Telegraph broke the story today. The paper describes Cherie Blair as known for her “ardent” defense of civil liberties and human rights. Kazakhstan is known for muzzling free speech and locking up critics. The contract with Mrs Blair’s law firm Omnia Strategy doesn’t concern those sensitive issues, however. Instead, the paper reports, Mrs Blair will review Kazakhstan’s “bilateral investment treaties.”
The first stage of the review, which was expected to take as little as three months, is worth £120,000 [$200,000], sources have told The Sunday Telegraph.
A second phase of the project is worth a further £200,000 to £250,000 for another three to four months’ work, it is understood. Omnia Strategy, which Mrs Blair set up in 2011, also has an option to complete a third stage of the legal project for the Ministry of Justice at a fee to be decided, according to the source.
Mrs Blair is understood normally to charge clients £1,150 an hour but will bill the Kazakh taxpayer at a reduced rate of £975 an hour if the Ministry of Justice, based in the capital Astana, continues to employ Omnia on the legal review into its third stage.
When Russia banned many Western agricultural products last week in response to Western sanctions, it created a $9.5 billion hole for other countries to fill. Immediately, officials across Central Asia optimistically announced plans to help plug the gap.
But sudden shortages created by the ban have all but guaranteed to increase inflation in Russia, a major food importer. And Central Asians will suffer likewise because their expected jump in exports will leave fewer products available to local consumers, thus driving up prices at home.
All this highlights a paradoxical mix of opportunities and risks for Kazakhstan, a member of the Moscow-led Customs Union whose economy often feels ripple effects from Russia. Aside from the immediate pros and cons of the food ban, Kazakhstan is clearly spooked by Russia’s deepening confrontation with the West over its support for rebels in Ukraine, concerned about the fallout from a slowing Russian economy.
Kazakhstan’s response to the food ban paints a picture of a junior partner struggling to navigate the shoals between an increasingly isolationist Kremlin and its own ambitions of greater global integration.
When the Shanghai Cooperation Organization exercises kick off August 24, the organization that is often promoted as an "alternative to the West" will be benefitting from American and European contributions.
Kazakhstan will be transporting its troops on the C-295 it bought from Airbus. And Kyrgyzstan's contribution will be made up largely of soldiers from the 'Scorpions' and 'Ilbirs' special forces units that the U.S. has spent a lot of money and time training.
In 2009, for example, the U.S. ambassador to Bishkek opened a brand-new base for the Scorpions, built with $9 million of U.S. Central Command's money. "The compound, which consists of 12 buildings, landscaping and accompanying infrastructure, is truly the gold standard in Central Asian construction and far exceeds any other facility the Kyrgyz currently have," according to a U.S. diplomatic cable describing the event. The U.S. also has spent millions to both train and equip the Scorpions and Ilbirs.
This isn't exactly news: The Scorpions and Ilbirs units have participated in several SCO exercises in the past, including drills in 2007, 2010, and 2012.
The joint military exercises of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization will involve about 7,000 troops, the largest number in an SCO exercise in many years, as the organization seems to be taking on a new prominence in the wake of collapsing Russia-West relations.
The bulk of the troops exercising, as in past years, appear to be from China. Russia announced that it is sending about 900 troops, as well as hardware including four Su-25 jets and eight Mi-8MT helicopters. Kazakhstan said it is participating with about 300 troops from an air-mobile unit. From Tajikistan, more than 200 soldiers are participating, including members of an unnamed "rapid reaction unit." (An aside: one wonders if it is one of the special forces units that the U.S. has trained.) Uzbekistan, as usual, does not seem to be participating at all. Kyrgyzstan is sending about 500 soldiers. So if it's 7,000 total, that's about 5,000 from China.
The exercises, Peace Mission 2014, will be held August 24 to 29 in China's Inner Mongolia region. But participating countries have already started moving their troops toward China. "Loading up -- that's already a stage of the exercise. We're trying to improve, getting used to loading up our equipment," said Ruslan Muzdybayev, the deputy commander of Kazakhstan's air mobile forces for military readiness.
As Moscow’s ties with the West continue to deteriorate, Central Asian farmers may be saying prayers for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Kremlin slapped restrictions on imports of meat, dairy, fruit and vegetables from the US, EU, Norway, Canada and Australia on August 7, in response to progressively heavier Western sanctions designed to punish Moscow for supporting rebels in eastern Ukraine.
While that is bad news for Russians who like Camembert and thousands of American and European producers supplying Russia, there is an obvious beneficiary from the fallout: Central Asia, which already supplies Russia with much of its produce.
On August 7 the New York Times detailed the size of the gap in the Russian market that must now be filled:
According to figures compiled by the [World Bank] and other agencies, Russia imports about 25 percent of its food, worth some $43 billion annually. Of that, about 75 percent, or $30 billion, comes mainly from Europe and the United States. The other 25 percent is mainly from former Soviet republics.
With the post-Soviet region embroiled in its deepest crisis since the Cold War over Ukraine and Kazakhstan facing the impact of Western sanctions on Russia, strong leadership and staunch policy decisions would seem to be required from Astana.
But when President Nursultan Nazarbayev summoned his government today, instead he engaged in a bout of cosmetic cabinet tinkering that may distract officials seeking to steer Kazakhstan’s economy through some choppy waters.
Nazarbayev kept his prime minister, Karim Masimov, but made several ministerial replacements and announced a merger of ministries to cut their number from 17 to 12 and subsume some of Kazakhstan’s numerous agencies, departments and committees.
The streamlining of the bloated bureaucracy is welcome, but it will likely spark a bout of distracting infighting as bureaucrats fight to keep their jobs in a vastly diminished pool of vacancies.
Several ministries received a rebranding.
The Oil and Gas Ministry became the Energy Ministry under new minister Vladimir Shkolnik. But a new name and a new face will not solve Kazakhstan’s main energy problem, the stalled Kashagan oilfield, now not expected to resume production until 2016. In an unusual meeting of interests sure to please oil and gas companies, the Energy Ministry was also handed the environment portfolio.
The Economy and Budget Planning Ministry became the National Economy Ministry, swallowing up the Regional Development Ministry. The Emergencies Ministry was merged into the Interior Ministry, and the health and labor portfolios were combined at the new Health and Social Development Ministry. Aset Isekeshev, formerly minister of industry and new technologies, heads up a new Ministry of Investment and Development.
Kazakhstan's flagship Astana cycling team claimed victory in this year's Tour de France as the team’s Italian leader Vincenzo Nibali lead the turquoise and yellow charge into Paris on July 27.
Nibali bested his nearest rival by over seven minutes to record a third Tour de France success for the Astana team. He won his kisses, too: Earlier, after Nibali had won the second stage of the race, he was awkwardly rebuffed. This time there were no uncomfortable scenes on the winner's rostrum.
The Astana Pro Team for this year's Tour included three Italians, two riders from Kazakhstan and one rider each from Denmark, Ukraine, The Netherlands and Estonia. Spaniard Alberto Contador previously led Astana to wins in 2009 and again in 2010. But the 2010 victory was soured as Contador was stripped of the title over doping allegations.
Following the retirement of Kazakhstan's most famous rider Alexander Vinokourov in 2012, the Astana team was overhauled for the 2013 season with the arrival of an Italian contingent headed by Nibali and two of his teammates from the Liquigas-Cannondale team. Astana scored an immediate success with Nibali, nicknamed “the Shark,” winning the 2013 Giro d'Italia.
The Astana Pro Team was formed in 2006 and has garnered heaps of international PR for Kazakhstan's glitzy new capital, Astana. Its main sponsor is the state asset holding company Samruk-Kazyna, which pumps in more than $20 million a year to keep the wheels turning and buff up Kazakhstan’s international image.
Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses his security council, July 22. (photo: kremlin.ru)
When Russian President Vladimir Putin addressed his security council on July 22, one statement in particular piqued the interest of Russia's allies -- er, friends: "Russia is fortunately not a member of any alliance. This is also a guarantee of our sovereignty," Putin said. "Any nation that is part of an alliance gives up part of its sovereignty."
That line was greeted with confusion and curiosity by many in the member countries of the Collective Security Treaty Organization: Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. This is the political-military bloc that Russia created to, as the name implies, provide collective security in the post-Soviet space. But doesn't collective security require giving up some sovereignty? Several experts quoted in a piece on the Kazakhstani website kursiv.kz suggested that Putin's statement suggest that it sees its fellow-members of the CSTO (and, for that matter, the Eurasian Union) as unequal partners to whom Russia has no obligations.
"Moscow's interests, expressed in the efforts to define the borders to which it can expand its territory, striving to defend the 'Russian world,' by definition can not coincide with the interests of its CSTO partners," said Russian expert on Central Asia Arkady Dubnov. "So, acting exclusively in its own interests, Russia demonstrates that the CSTO isn't an alliance but a mesalliance -- that is, an unequal marriage."
A group of scientists and academics from Kazakhstan have set off in the footsteps of a renowned 19th-century Kazakhstani explorer to highlight the tourism potential of the ancient trade routes linking Central Asia and western China.
The expedition follows the path Shokan Valikhanov took in the 1850s in what was then a part of the world relatively unknown to Europeans. Led by Professor Ordenbek Mazbaev of Astana's L. N. Gulimyov Eurasian National University, the team includes scientists from Astana's Nazarbayev University, along with tourism officials and journalists from Kazakhstan, Tengri News reports.
The 12-day jaunt, which began July 24, aims to open up a route for travelers to explore some of the major sights of the Silk Road. It started in Urumchi, capital of China’s restive Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and is scheduled to arrive in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan on August 4. Along the way the expedition will pass through the fabled oasis towns of Kashgar, Khotan and Yarkand on the fringes of the Taklamakan Desert before entering Kyrgyzstan through the Torugart Pass.
Valikhanov is a legendary figure in the world of Central Asian anthropology. He was born in 1835 near Kostanay, in northern Kazakhstan, and at age 11 enrolled in the Omsk Cadet Corps. After graduating from the academy, the Russian military sent him to the recently established Fort Verny – now Almaty, Kazakhstan – from where he undertook his expeditions to the neighboring regions.
The modern Kazakh explorers will retrace Valikhanov's journeys of 1855-56 and 1858-59, when he travelled through what is now Kyrgyzstan and into China in a camel convoy.
Islamic militancy is high on the agenda in Central Asia. This week, authorities have handed lengthy prison terms at two unrelated trials in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
Six people were jailed for between nine and 15 years on terrorism charges at a mass trial involving 66 suspects in southwestern Uzbekistan. A court in central Kazakhstan jailed four citizens for between six and 12 years for recruiting militants to wage holy war in Syria.
At the mass trial in the city of Qashqadaryo in Uzbekistan, three men and three women were jailed on July 22 for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government of the strongman president, Islam Karimov, and propagating terrorism, RFE/RL reported, citing the Tashkent-based Ezgulik (Compassion) human rights center.
In Kazakhstan, the conviction of the four over the Syria recruitment campaign in and around the city of Zhezkazgan, reported by Tengri News on July 22, came as media reports emerged of a new propaganda video showing 16 people believed to be from Kazakhstan (since some are speaking Kazakh) who have headed off to fight in the Middle East.
Authorities in Central Asia have frequently cited Syria-linked threats this year amid a growing number of reports that militants from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are waging holy war in Syria.