Kazakhstan is poised to become part of the World Trade Organization (WTO) nearly two decades after it first applied to join. The Central Asian nation has completed entry talks that have been among the most “challenging” the global body has faced with any country.
Kazakhstan “finalized the negotiations of its WTO membership terms with WTO members at the Working Party meeting on Kazakhstan’s accession on 10 June,” the international trade body said in a statement issued the same day.
Farida Batyrbayeva, spokeswoman for Minister of Economic Integration Zhanar Aytzhanova, confirmed to EurasiaNet.org the completion of talks that started back in 1996.
Astana will not release details of the accession package until after a meeting in Geneva on June 22 at which the WTO’s 161 member states will consider formal approval of the draft accession package, Batyrbayeva added.
The WTO announcement came on the same day that the Agriculture Ministry had declined to put a date on Kazakhstan’s long-delayed accession, hinting at behind-the-scenes disagreements over agricultural subsidies.
The size of subsidies Kazakhstan would be permitted to retain for the agricultural sector – which contributes some 5 percent of GDP and employs around a quarter of the workforce – remained “unresolved,” as Kazakhstani negotiators tried to secure “the maximum possible domestic support,” the ministry told Tengri News on June 10, shortly before the WTO issued its statement on the completion of the accession talks.
Evidently, negotiators overcame the stumbling block to conclude the deal, which WTO Director-General Roberto Azevedo hailed as a “historic step.”
The accession talks with Kazakhstan were among “the most challenging negotiations” in the WTO’s 20-year history, the statement said.
Kazakhstan's financial capital, Almaty, has deployed an obvious but credible argument in its battle with Beijing to host the 2022 Winter Olympics – its real snow.
The bidding battle is coming to a close as the two finalists made their presentations to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in Switzerland on June 9. The decisive votes will be cast in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on July 31.
Before the pitches, Almaty was perceived to be lagging behind Beijing in the contest. But a strong performance that focused on its rival's main weakness – a lack of natural snow – drew praise from IOC delegates.
“I was very, very agreeably surprised,” Canadian IOC member Dick Pound told the Associated Press after Almaty's pitch. “I think they attracted the attention of people who may not have been convinced before. It looks to me like they figured out all of the weaknesses of the competitors and they just nailed the differences – snow, water, air, experience.”
The two cities were given a 45-minute presentation slot to impress the delegates followed by a 45-minute question-and-answer session. Almaty’s message was simple: Its mountains, covered in genuine snow, are the ideal backdrop for the Games.
“I think the Almaty presentation scored some points,” U.S. Olympic Committee chairman and IOC member Larry Probst told the AP. “They drove home the message 'keeping it real.' That was all about snow versus making snow. I think that resonates.”
Students in Kazakhstan have long dreamed up inventive ways to rig their scores at the make-or-break nationwide university entrance exam each year. But this year is the first that cross-dressing has featured as a cheating tactic.
To help his girlfriend make the grade, student Ayan Zhardemov came up with an elaborate plan to impersonate her and take the exam in her place this week, reports Tengri News.
He no doubt felt he had a good chance of doing well, since he had already passed the exam (known as ENT) three years ago himself, to enter the prestigious Kazakh British Technical University in the commercial capital of Almaty, where he is a chemical engineering student.
Zhardemov went to some pains for his audacious bid, taking a journey of nearly 1,000 kilometers from Almaty to southern Kazakhstan, near the border with Uzbekistan, to cheat for his girlfriend.
He donned a long black wig, a gray skirt, a white T-shirt, and white sandals, completing his look with a touch of eye makeup and some pink lipstick.
Unfortunately for him, his efforts did not convince invigilators: They got wise to the con and called the police, who presented Zhardemov with fraud charges that could lead to a short prison term, a fine, or community work.
After stalling for almost two years, Kyrgyzstan’s parliament has overwhelmingly passed a bill that will have a chilling effect on the Central Asian country’s vibrant civil society, if it becomes law. Local media reported that legislators voted 83 to 23 on June 4 in favor of the “foreign agents” bill.
The bill – which must go through two more votes in parliament before landing on the president’s desk – is modeled on a similar law passed in Russia in 2012 that has been used to crack down on independent groups there. Kyrgyzstani rights activists fear that with Russia tightening its grip on the region, and lawmakers seemingly eager to please Moscow, the walls are fast closing in on free speech and other civil liberties.
The bill would require non-governmental organizations that receive money from abroad to register as “foreign agents” – a term widely associated with espionage in the former Soviet Union. It would also saddle NGOs with burdensome reporting requirements.
Human Rights Watch has said the bill “would be incompatible with the right to freedom of association” and has called on Kyrgyzstan’s parliament to reject it.
Lawmaker Nurkamil Madaliev, who co-sponsored the bill, told EurasiaNet.org last autumn that “not all the funds that finance NGO activities in Kyrgyzstan are aimed at creating a favorable situation.” He said his legislation would help protect an embattled nation from two existential threats: Islamic extremism funded by wealthy Gulf Arabs and the efforts by some Western-funded organizations to educate young Kyrgyz about gay rights and reproductive health.
Kazakhstan’s recently re-elected president has made a vaguely worded pledge of political reform for his new term. Nursultan Nazarbayev suggested that Kazakhstan must transition from its super-presidential system to a more balanced one with greater checks and balances.
Yet while mulling reforms to pave the way for the eventual post-Nazarbayev era, the president made no specific pledges about what form they might take or when they might be enacted, leaving skeptics wondering if his intentions are serious.
Kazakhstan’s political system has hitherto been characterized by “strong presidential rule,” Nazarbayev said on May 29 in remarks quoted by the Kazakhstanskaya Pravda government-owned daily.
Yet as a middle class emerges “this should probably be weakened and the government should be given more opportunities to work independently and more powers should be handed over to parliament.”
There has long been talk in Kazakhstan about weakening the top-down system in which Nazarbayev wields all powers, the government carries out his orders, and parliament (which contains no genuine opposition parties) rubberstamps executive decisions.
Reforms, the thinking goes, would pave the way for a time when the aging president – who has ruled Kazakhstan for a quarter century and will be 80 when his term of office ends in 2020 – will no longer be in power, allowing him to bequeath his successor a system less dependent on one personality.
Two illiberal, Russian-style bills passing through Kyrgyzstan’s legislature are moving at such a snail’s pace that civil society activists are beginning to hope they are destined to fail.
A year has passed since conservative lawmakers introduced a bill targeting foreign-funded non-profits that is copied almost word-for-word from Russia’s notorious “foreign agents” law signed by President Vladimir Putin in 2012. Like the Russian version, it would label non-profits that receive money from abroad as “foreign agents,” stigmatizing them in the eyes of many, and introduce numerous financial inspections and other burdens that critics say would deliberately hinder their work.
After parliament’s human rights committee endorsed the bill on May 19, it went to parliament for a first reading of three. There on May 27 it met some unexpected resistance from MPs who noted numerous inconsistencies and delayed a vote.
Daniyar Terbishaliev from the president’s Social Democratic Party claimed that provisions in the bill would require members of parliament to register as foreign agents because they receive support and trainings from foreign governments and organizations.
Screenshots of a man who appears to be Tajikistan's OMON Commander, Colonel Gulmurod Halimov, propagandizing for the Islamic State.
After weeks of speculation about his whereabouts, missing paramilitary police commander Gulmurod Halimov has shown up inside the so-called Islamic State. In a YouTube video released on May 27, the US-trained officer explains that he joined IS to protest increasing restrictions on religious freedom at home in Tajikistan.
The high-definition release is glossier than the usual Tajik extremist videos. IS, it appears, has wasted no time capitalizing on the propaganda potential of their most high-profile Tajik recruit to date.
In the ten-minute clip, Colonel Halimov – who spends most of his time speaking in Russian, suggesting he seeks a wide post-Soviet audience – discusses his 19-year career with Tajikistan’s paramilitary police unit (OMON). He talks about going to the United States in 2003 and 2007 to train with the U.S. Army and defense contractor Blackwater. “I came to America three times. I saw how you train people to kill Muslims. I will come with this gun to your home and kill you,” he declares.
He talks about studying Islam at school and how he started praying in 2001. His country’s repressive religious policy, he says, made him decide to join the Islamic State’s jihad. All Tajiks, including those in Russia, should join IS, Halimov declares, and fight the regime of Emomali Rahmon.
Taking aim at his former colleagues in Tajikistan’s secular security forces, he claims that Interior Minister Ramazon Rahimzoda ordered a hijab ban in Dushanbe and that the Interior Ministry paid prostitutes 10 dollars each to appear in hijabs in a recent video that state media used to discredit Islam.
Almost half of Kazakhstan’s population of rare saiga antelopes has been wiped out in recent weeks. The endangered beasts are believed to have succumbed to a lung disease that is sweeping across the steppe.
Latest figures show that the number of dead saigas has reached 120,977, the Agriculture Ministry reported on May 27. That is 40 percent of Kazakhstan’s total saiga population of 300,000 before disease started striking down the long-nosed antelopes, according to government estimates. (Astana’s figures are higher than an estimate of 265,000 released last year by the international Saiga Conservation Alliance after an aerial study of roaming grounds in Kazakhstan.)
Some 90 percent of the dead animals are females, the Agriculture Ministry said. This has enormous implications for breeding capacity to restore the population.
“Measures to monitor the state of the wild animals and establish the cause of mortality continue,” said the ministry, which has set up a working group and flown in experts from the UK, Germany, and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization to assist with the investigation.
The Saiga Conservation Alliance also has a team in the field, a representative told EurasiaNet.org, and the government says the World Organization for Animal Health is to send in specialists.
Scientists suspect the cause of death to be pasteurellosis, a disease that attacks the lungs and killed nearly 12,000 saigas in a 2010 epidemic.
Other theories floated include poisoning by rocket fuel from launches at Kazakhstan’s Baikonur spaceport (which is leased by Russia). However, Meirbek Moldabekov, the head of the government’s Aerospace Committee, has argued that the vast areas over which saigas are dying make this hypothesis unlikely.
Kazakhstan’s Constitutional Council has struck down a controversial law that would have outlawed “propaganda” of homosexuality to minors, amid signs the legislation was damaging the country’s bid to host the Winter Olympics.
The law was “not in line with the constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan” the Vlast.kz website quoted the Constitutional Council (which rules on the legality of legislation) as saying.
The law governed “the protection of children from information causing damage to their health and development." It was passed by parliament in February. The council struck down the law because of unclear wording rather than human rights concerns, the Vlast.kz report said.
The announcement came after a group of household-name sports stars urged the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to reject Kazakhstan’s bid to host the Winter Games in Almaty in 2022, arguing that the law outlawing the “propaganda” of homosexuality to minors was incompatible with Olympic principles of equality.
The World Bank has released yet another dire economic forecast for Tajikistan, predicting that the downturn in Russia and devalued ruble will push down labor migrants’ remittance transfers by 40 percent this year (in dollar terms). Unemployed young men are expected to return home in droves.
Job-poor Tajikistan is the world’s most remittance-dependent state; the migrants’ transfers account for the equivalent of 49 percent of GDP. This year and next are going to be especially hard for the millions of Tajikistanis who have been lifted out of poverty in recent years by their relatives’ transfers from Russia.
Up to half of working-age men, most of them under 30, have sought work abroad, mostly in Russia. Twenty-five percent are expected to return home this year, putting enormous social pressures on one of Central Asia’s most fragile states.
Some key takeaways from the May 25 report:
Declining remittances would significantly reduce disposable incomes in Tajikistan, forcing the poorest and the lower middle class to cut non-priority expenditures, including those on social services, such as education and health. Reintegration of returned migrants will be difficult given the limited jobs available, mismatched skills, and competition from youth entering the labor market. Returnees are likely to lack awareness of employment and business opportunities, and related legislation—employment information and services are both inadequate.