Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev got the red carpet treatment at Buckingham Palace this week after signing billions of dollars in investment deals in London.
The focus of the two-day trip, which started on November 3, was trade, and British Prime Minister David Cameron – fresh from hosting China’s leader Xi Jinping about to welcome Egypt’s Abdul Fattah al-Sisi – showed no sign of succumbing to pressure from campaigners to press Nazarbayev over Kazakhstan’s checkered human rights record.
Nazarbayev met Cameron and British businessmen and came away with 40 trade and investment deals worth around $5 billion, according to Nazarbayev's office.
One coup for Nazarbayev was an agreement for a British company to invest some $3.1 billion in a project to bring gas from the energy-rich west of his vast country to the capital Astana and the industrial heartlands.
Kazakhstan may have plenty of gas, but it lacks distribution capacity. So the deal reported by TengriNews for Britain’s Independent Power Corporation to build a gas pipeline and construct four gas stations is welcome for Astana.
Nazarbayev also secured agreement for British involvement in EXPO-17, a flagship international exhibition that Astana is hosting in two years, and investment in the steel and solar industries.
So it looks like the Zhogorku Kenesh is to get its new chairs after all.
AKIPress reported that newly appointed speaker Asylbek Jeenbekov lamented the woeful state of the legislature’s seating in remarks before deputies on November 4.
“The old chairs have remained in place, but in the summer we will change to a new system. We will buy simpler chairs, so that they are more durable, so deputies don’t spin and twirl on them, so they work,” Jeenbekov said in comments quoted by AKIPress. “But in any case, replacements are needed, you will be convinced of that yourselves soon. Some chairs have broken five or six times.”
One chair failed to withstand the exertions of Ziyadin Zhamaldinov, a deputy with the Onuguu-Progress party. Zhamaldinov has some extensive experience of parliamentary upholstery, having served in three successive convocations, and each time with a different party. From 2005 to 2010, he was a deputy with the then-ruling Ak Zhol party. In 2010, he won a seat with the southern-based Respublika party. He switched to Onuguu-Progress for his latest run at parliament.
Jeenbekov said the decision not to buy new chairs marked a defeat in what he described as an “information war” waged by the media.
In the international soccer stakes, the capital of Kazakhstan is becoming the away destination that clubs dread to visit.
As Europe is gently settling into the cooler weather of November, the players of FC Astana are already familiar with temperatures below freezing.
If the weather was frosty for the visiting Atletico Madrid squad, who traveled to Astana for the latest Champions League group stages match on November 3, the greeting certainly wasn’t.
Europe’s premier competition has proven a major draw and the 30,000-seater Astana Arena was again full to capacity for Tuesday’s game, although traffic snarls meant many ended up missing the first 15 minutes.
FC Astana is becoming the master of grinding out the tedious draw, and they did their magic against a lackluster Atletico, thereby ensuring their unbeaten home record.
Fans were kept on the edge of their seats to the very end. A last-minute save from FC Astana's Nenad Eric denied Atletico and preserved the goalless scoreline.
The 0-0 result won’t get any hearts racing, but but it does mean that Astana still have a slender chance of progressing in the competition. In October, Astana held Turkey's Galatasaray to a 2-2 draw. The team has two points out of four games, which is more than some pundits might have expected of them.
The sub-zero temperatures in Kazakhstan's capital, the second coldest in the world after Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, were expected to make life difficult for their Madrilenian opponents.
“Maybe the cold weather will cause Atletico problems. We can open the roof in the stadium a bit to make it tougher for them,” FC Astana's Bulgarian coach Stanimir Stoilov joked ahead of the game.
Washington’s top diplomat traveled to Central Asia to kick-start a historic initiative to reinvigorate U.S. engagement with the region, but it was the unceremonious treatment of a reporter that is going to stick in the memory.
Activists had hoped in advance of John Kerry’s whistle-stop tour that human rights issues might feature prominently on the agenda. But talk of those was relegated to the sidelines — in public at least.
Instead, Kerry focused on prospects of security, energy and economic cooperation, which have long constituted core priorities for Washington.
The closest Kerry came to mentioning Central Asia’s poor human rights record in public was in remarks about “quality of governance and the strength of democratic institutions.”
“In Central Asia, as elsewhere, people have a deep hunger for governments that are accountable and effective,” he said at the meeting on November 1 in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, with foreign ministers from the region’s five former Soviet republics.
The U.S. State Department said in advance of the tour that this meeting would form the basis of a new diplomatic format, which it has dubbed C5+1.
“We should have no doubt that progress in democratic governance does lead to gains in every other field about which we are concerned and about which we are talking,” Kerry said.
The muted tone of those remarks will have come as a disappointment to many.
Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev has dismissed the head of the central bank as the national currency continues to lose value against the dollar.
Nazarbayev dismissed Kayrat Kelimbetov, who has presided over two major currency devaluations during his two years as chairman of the National Bank, on November 2 and replaced him with Daniyar Akishev, a presidential adviser and a former deputy chairman of the central bank.
“Confidence in the [central] bank and in the national currency, the tenge, has been reduced, and this cannot be permitted,” Nazarbayev told parliament in remarks quoted by his office. “A shortage of tenge liquidity is being felt in the country, and the volume of credit to the economy has been reduced.”
The move did not appear to do anything to restore the confidence of the market in the tenge, however. The currency fell below 280 to the dollar in trading on the Kazakhstan Stock Exchange on November 2 for the first time since mid-September, to close at 281.13.
The tenge has lost around 50 percent of its value since the National Bank abandoned its policy of maintaining the tenge in a managed corridor — a strategy Kelimbetov inherited from his predecessor, Georgiy Marchenko.
Harsh prison sentences handed down this week in two separate cases involving articles published in local newspapers in Kazakhstan raise questions over freedom of speech.
In one case, a newspaper editor in the northern city of Pavlodar was sentenced to eight years in jail on charges of attempting to extort money from the regional governor.
In the other, a civil society activist in the south of the country was jailed for one and half years on libel charges over an article criticizing a local prosecutor. One rights group says this is the first time in six years anyone has been jailed on libel charges in Kazakhstan.
Yaroslav Golyshkin, editor of local Pavlodar newspaper Versiya, received his sentence on October 30 after the court found him of guilty attempting to extort money from regional governor Kanat Bozumbayev, Tengri News reports. The court heard accusations that Golyshkin was demanding money to hush up allegations that Bozumbayev’s son was involved in a rape case.
The woman who filed the complaint was paid $5,000 not to press charges, which is legal under reconciliation procedures in Kazakhstani law, the Adil Soz freedom of speech watchdog said.
She reportedly later gave an interview to Golyshkin. Bozumbayev claimed Golyshkin then demanded a payment of half a million dollars to keep the revelations in the interview under wraps.
In the same trial, Askar Bakhralinov, a former deputy district mayor in the region, was sentenced to 10 years in jail — also on extortion charges.
Four out of the six parties elected to Kyrgyzstan’s 120-seat parliament in the October 4 vote have agreed to form a broad ruling coalition. The size of the majority is likely to be enough to avoid a repeat of the frequent coalition collapses that blighted the last parliament.
Formation of the coalition on October 29 was spearheaded by election winner Social Democratic Party (SPDK), which won 38 seats, in part because of the tacit support of its historic leader, President Almazbek Atambayev. SDPK fell far short of an outright majority, however, so it has had to join forces with the Kyrgyzstan party (18 seats), Onuguu-Progress (13) and Ata-Meken (11).
Barring major schism, that block of 80 deputies could provide a strong mandate to pass much-needed legislation.
Respublika-Ata Jurt, headed by a wealthy businessman and former prime minister, Omurbek Babanov, and Bir Bol, whose parliamentary faction will be led by southerner Altynbek Suleimanov, will sit in opposition.
Incumbent Prime Minister Temir Sariyev, who became the country’s fifth head of government in five years in late April and who is not affiliated to any of the parties in parliament, is to continue in his role.
The coalition is larger than any in the last term of parliament. No single party can collapse the government by unilaterally exiting the coalition, which was a regular threat last time round.
The most likely dissident party will be Ata-Meken. Atambayev in summer accused Ata-Meken leader Omurbek Tekebayev of having “one foot in government, one in opposition” — a reference to the party’s recurrent criticism of a government of which it ostensibly formed a part.
As ever more people in Kazakhstan get onto the Internet, the government is adopting expanding measures to limit access to websites they deem harmful.
Those efforts have earned the country a demotion in Washington-based Freedom House’s latest online freedom rankings to “Not Free,” down from “Partly Free” last year.
The watchdog found in its annual Freedom on the Net report that the government is increasingly cracking down on independent journalism and online content deemed extremist.
“The government also continues to pass restrictive laws banning certain content online and expanding its powers to shut down communication networks and media outlets,” the report found.
Freedom House said that the most significant cases of censorship target reporting on the Islamic State group. The authorities have routinely blocked not only content released by the extremist organization, such as recruitment videos targeting Kazakhstan, but also reports about it in local and foreign media, including EurasiaNet.org.
But there was also pervasive blocking of material unrelated to religious extremism, Freedom House said. Those included reports about the closure of the Adam Bol magazine, the possibility of Ukraine-style secessionism in Kazakhstan, and a minor ethnic clash in south Kazakhstan in February.
That public unrest prompted authorities to temporarily disconnect Internet services and block mobile telephone networks.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wound up a five-nation tour of Central Asia on October 27 in Astana with the promise of multimillion dollar investment deals and an offer from Tokyo to help build a nuclear power plant in Kazakhstan.
In the end, however, nothing substantive appears to have come of this leg of Abe’s historic visit to the region.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev said in remarks cited by his office that Kazakhstan and Japan are moving forward with 10 projects worth a total of $700 million. And yet there were no reports of any investment deals actually being signed between the two countries, which Nazarbayev described as “distant neighbors, but close friends.”
Nazarbayev said hopefully that there was Japanese investor interest in sectors ranging from agriculture and transport to chemicals and rare earth metals.
The agreements on the table in Kazakhstan were dwarfed by the $18 billion and $8.5 billion in investment deals reportedly signed in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan earlier in Abe’s five-nation tour.
Astana is eager to drum up investment as it faces an economic downturn, especially with one of its biggest trading partners, Russia, in recession and another, China, facing slower growth. Tokyo appears to be trying to take advantage of those countries’ plight to muscle more aggressively into the backyard of rival Beijing, whose economic presence in Central Asia is far greater.
Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan may be close to striking a border delimitation deal that could mitigate the occasional flare-ups of unrest among communities in disputed areas.
Speaking on October 27, Kyrgyz deputy prime minister Abdyrahman Mamataliyev hailed the proposed land swap as a historic turning point, CA-News reported.
“This will be a mutually advantageous exchange — 12 hectares apiece. We will receive plots in the village of Kok-Tash, where a cemetery is located. They will get plots lower down from this village,” said Mamataliyev, whose ministerial brief includes border issues.
Negotiations on settling land disputes have long been hindered by each side’s insistence on sticking to delimitations dating back to the Soviet era, when the location of any particular border was of little real significance.
Tajikistan has suggested agreeing to a delimitation established in documents dating back to 1924-27, while Kyrgyzstan insists on a 1958 border. The latter arrangement was at the time approved by the Kyrgyz government, but not Tajikistan’s Supreme Soviet.
But Mamataliyev said the proposed solution has been hammered out without recourse to any historic maps.