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.
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.
As news trickled out of Taijkistan on July 22 that the government was releasing, albeit with some restrictions, international scholar Alexander Sodiqov after five weeks in jail, a group of scholars and activists gathered at New York University to discuss the long-term effects of his detention. The case, panelists cautioned, could signal on-going trouble for academic freedom for scholars focusing on Tajikistan.
Sodiqov, a political science doctoral student at the University of Toronto and a Tajik national, first traveled to his home country in June as part of a University of Exeter (UK) research project on conflict management strategies. He was detained in Khorog on June 16, before being brought to the intelligence agency headquarters in Dushanbe, where he remained until July 22, accused of espionage.
“Tajikistan was never a no-go area for academic research,” commented John Heathershaw, a lecturer at the University of Exeter who was working with Sodiqov at the time of his arrest. “Alex’s detention is unprecedented… and it sent a message that research is under threat in Tajikistan.”
Sodiqov and others have vehemently denied any connection to espionage, which Heathershaw called “simply untrue.” Disseminating his story and his denials, however, has proved a challenge in Tajikistan, where pro-government media dominate.
“The region thrives on conspiracy theories. Having knowledge – having data – is extremely threatening to these governments,” Alexander Cooley, a political science professor focusing on Central Asia at New York’s Barnard College, affirmed. “Alexander’s detention has had an effect: it’s going to deter research. It’s making this muddled environment even worse.”
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.
A graduate student detained by Tajikistan’s security services over five weeks ago and accused of treason has been released on his own recognizance. Alexander Sodiqov confirmed to the BBC’s Russian Service late on July 22, "I'm home. I'm happy. I'm with my family. I'm doing well. I've been treated well.” He is reportedly not allowed to leave the country.
Sodiqov, 31, was arrested on June 16 while interviewing an opposition leader in Badakhshan province, scene of fighting between militants and government troops in 2012 and renewed upheaval in May. A political science PhD student at the University of Toronto, Sodiqov was home in his native Tajikistan carrying out research for the University of Exeter when he was detained.
The State Committee for National Security (GKNB) accused Sodiqov of carrying out “subversion and espionage” for an unnamed foreign country. As EurasiaNet reported:
Friends and colleagues are growing increasingly concerned that Tajikistan’s heavy-handed authorities may be trying to make an example out of Sodiqov to discourage others from examining tensions between Tajikistan’s authoritarian government and minorities in the restive eastern province of Badakhshan. […]
Tajik authorities are notoriously thin-skinned about anyone prying into their fraught relations with ethnic minorities in Badakhshan, which happens to be a key weigh station on the drug trafficking route between Afghanistan and Russia.
A Kazakhstani citizen, convicted of conspiracy and obstruction of justice in connection with the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, faces up to 20 years in a federal prison.
Azamat Tazhayakov, 20, was convicted on July 21 by a jury in US District Court in Boston. He is scheduled to have sentencing hearing on October 16. His defense team intends to appeal the conviction in the meantime.
According to US prosecutors, Tazhayakov, along with another Kazakhstani national, Dias Kadyrbayev, were friends of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who is accused of carrying out the attacks that claimed three lives and wounded more than 260 people near the marathon finish line on April 15, 2013. All three were students at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth at the time. Tsarnaev’s brother, Tamerlan, believed to be the driving force behind the bombings, was killed during a shootout with police on April 19, 2013.
Days after the bombings, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev allegedly sent a text message requesting that Tazhayakov and Kadyrbayev remove items from the accused bomber’s dormitory room, including a backpack, which they subsequently threw in a dumpster.
Tazhayakov was the first of four individuals indicted on charges of conspiracy and obstruction in connection with the marathon bombings to stand trial. Kadyrbayev’s trial is scheduled to begin in September. Tsarnaev’s trial is slated to start in November.
A popular Russian social networking site appears to have become the latest target of Tajikistan’s Internet sentinels.
Odnoklassniki.ru became inaccessible in Tajikistan this weekend, users say.
Tajik officials often block websites that carry material critical of the government. As usual, the communications agency has said little, today even denying it knows of the problem. But a representative of one leading Internet Service Provider (ISP) said he had received an oral order to block the site.
Odnoklassniki is popular among the million-plus Tajik migrant workers abroad who use it to communicate with their families back home.
Some users told Radio Ozodi that the site may have been blocked because some Tajiks fighting alongside jihadists in Syria have used it to post extremist content. Others point out that, like Facebook – which also has been blocked at times – Odnoklassniki is frequently used to spread material critical of the government and its strongman president.
YouTube also has been unavailable for a few weeks though authorities deny they are responsible. In June, when YouTube was also blocked, all other Google products were unavailable as well for a few days, though that appeared to be a technical side effect of the YouTube block (Google owns YouTube).
As such obstructions have become common in recent years, many Internet users have turned to proxy services. But the authorities are catching up and appear to be hindering access to those, too.
Tourists associate Kyrgyzstan’s Lake Issyk-Kul with beaches, children hawking boiled corn, and a welcome reprieve from the sweltering summers that plague most of Central Asia. But for the residents of Kadji Sai on the lake’s southern shore, the summer tourist influx is only a distraction from the trouble looming, literally, right over them: a derelict Soviet-era uranium mine.
Just uphill, the mine and uranium-processing mill were the original rationale for the settlement. But they closed when the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s. In recent years, the site has become a source of radiation-related concerns. When heavy rains hit the area, the uranium tailings – buried between two creek beds – are frequently covered in water; the overflow drains through the village and into Issyk-Kul.
On a recent visit, one resident expressed the frustration that many of his neighbors share: “Everything was just left here. People that could leave, did. But for those of us who stay here and who have families here, what can we do? It seems like everyone wants to come to Kyrgyzstan and make mines but how do we live with [the mines] once they’re finished?”
As foreign donors, government agencies and NGOs spend time and money discussing the cleanup, local officials are often reduced to hand wringing, begging someone to do something. In the case of Kadji Sai, local authorities say they are unable even to afford guards to keep scavengers from looting the little valuable equipment and infrastructure that remains.
Tajik Foreign Minister Sirojiddin Aslov (center right) speaking at the House of Lords on July 2.
Two weeks after Tajikistan's secret police arrested researcher Alexander Sodiqov on bogus treason charges, Tajikistan’s foreign minister visited London for a series of long-planned bilateral talks. At times, the atmosphere was tense. The Tajiks wanted to focus on issues of political and economic cooperation, but they came away from London with little to show except for a lot of bad press concerning Sodiqov.
Kyrgyzstan's massive loss at an arbitration court this month has encouraged speculation that the country's only significant foreign asset – its stake in a Canadian gold mining company – is up for grabs.
On July 2, a tribunal in Moscow awarded Toronto-listed Stans Energy Corp $118.2 million in damages in a dispute over the Kutessay-II heavy rare earth elements mine in Kyrgyzstan’s Talas Province. Stans acquired a 20-year license to the mine in 2009, which the Kyrgyz parliament recommended the government annul in 2012. (Stans has alleged that powerful Chinese interests in Kyrgyzstan bribed parliamentarians to revoke the license in order to help Beijing maintain control over the lucrative rare earths market.)
Canada’s National Post reports that Stans has few options because Kyrgyzstan, one of the poorest countries in Asia, does not have that kind of cash lying about. So Stans could seek to seize Kyrgyzstan’s shares in Toronto-listed Centerra Gold, which, in turn, owns Kyrgyzstan’s largest industrial asset, the Kumtor Gold Mine. From the National Post’s financial pages:
It is highly unlikely that Kyrgyzstan will respect the ruling and pay out any cash. That leaves Stans the option of securing verdicts against one or more of the state’s foreign assets. And a logical one to go after would be Kyrgyzstan’s 32.7% stake in Centerra, currently worth almost $500 million.