“We have a great show tonight!” (Applause and cheers). “And our first guest tonight is Kazakhstan’s president and leader of the nation, Nursultan Nazarbayev!” (Wild applause and cheers).
No, this is not the opening to a recent edition of the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, but it is pretty much what was said over at his Kazakhstani imitators on Late Night in the Nurlan Koyanbayev Studio.
A trailer posted on the Koyanbayev show Facebook page on November 29 has offered a glimpse of what appears to be the latest wheeze by the Nazarbayev entourage to make the ageing authoritarian leader seem to more relatable and down-to-earth.
Such populist antics are, of course, old hat for television viewers in the West, who have become used to seeing their presidents and prime ministers pop up in popular shows for some light banter.
Even before he ascended to the US presidency, Barack Obama energetically courted the housewife vote by appearing on The Ellen Degeneres Show and performing a dance. Ever since taking office, Obama has routinely cropped up in comedic talk shows, drawing criticism from some quarters that he was demeaning the office of the president.
Politicians tend as a rule to keep away from comedy shows for fear of falling prey to mockery, but Obama has done the circuit in relatively certain knowledge he would likely face only gentle ribbing at most.
A court in the the city of Aktobe on November 28 sentenced seven men to life in jail for their role in a group shooting spree earlier this year. Another two men accused in direct involvement in the violence of June 5, when eight people, including three soldiers, were shot dead by a group of attackers that had seized weapons from shops stocking hunting supplies.
Eighteen people charged with abetting the attackers received jail terms of between two and five years.
Investigators have said the group were Islamic extremists and followers of the Salafist current.
According to the Aktobe regional court service, the defendants were given the last chance to speak on November 21, when they appealed for clemency and not to be given life sentence, so that they could one day return to their families.
The fullest account of the state’s case provided to date has become from Aktobe-based newspaper Evrika, which obtained and published a copy of the prosecution indictment in October. The indictment describes a man called Dmitry Tanatarov, who was killed on the day, as the main organizer of the bloodshed. It states Tanatarov converted to Islam in 2009 and fell under the sway of “extremist religious ideologues.” It said Tanatarov had aspired to go fight in Syria, but lacked the funds and decided instead to create his own militant group in Aktobe. He is said to have shared his thoughts about his ambitions to embark on a violent jihad with a friend, Arman Aituganov.
Two activists accused of organizing land protests in Kazakhstan have been sentenced to five years in jail.
At the culmination of a trial lasting one and half months, Max Bokayev and Talgat Ayan were found guilty of inciting social unrest, spreading false information and disrupting public order and will, in addition to serving prison time, be banned from public activities for three years.
Judge Gulnar Dauleshova also said the defendants had to pay 259,000 tenge ($750) to cover the costs of expert witnesses and would have their mobile phones confiscated.
Authorities will hope this verdict puts a definitive end to the season of political unrest that began when thousands of citizens hit the streets in the spring in protest at legislation to privatize swathes of public land. In the absence of adequate information campaigns, speculation circulated that much of the land would be bought by foreign investors, primarily from China — a taboo suggestion in a country where land is popularly deemed a natural birthright and where suspicions toward China run high.
Lawyers for the activists, both from the city of Atyrau, where the trial took place, have said they will appeal the sentence.
A journalist for RFE/RL’s Kazakh service, Radio Azattyq, present in the courtroom reported that the pair reacted calmly to the verdict and thanked their supporters as they were escorted out of the building.
As supporters left the courtroom, dozens of them broke out into renditions of the national anthem and shouted “Freedom” as the paddy wagon carrying Bokayev and Ayan drove past, Radio Azattyq reported.
Starting from next year, international television stations wishing to broadcast in Kazakhstan will have to register a representative inside the country, under new rules announced this week by Information and Communications Minister Dauren Abayev.
The rules are being introduced to even the playing field for local broadcasters, who complain at having to compete with foreign rivals unbridled by domestic legislation.
Kazakhstan’s authorities have long been waging a rearguard battle against popular international television broadcasters available to local viewers through cable packages. In July, laws came into force requiring foreign television stations to black out their advertising output — a measure intended to protect local broadcasters’ ad revenue. That law had been adopted in October 2015 and was due to take effect the following January, but its implementation was delayed amid protests from cable operators, who complained they lacked the technical wherewithal to enforce the rule.
Foreign content dominates the airwaves in Kazakhstan. As Abayev has pointed out, cable companies currently air up to 150 channels each, of which around 70 percent are foreign. They are, however, necessarily exempt from multiple domestic restrictions, such as those requiring a certain amount of content to be in the Kazakh language and on what constitutes suitable advertising material. Many channels advertise goods and services not registered and licensed in Kazakhstan, and some of the advertisements, such as those for alcohol, are in outright breach of broadcasting regulations.
Kazakhstan is flouting the rights of its workers to organize in trade unions and assert their labor rights, a damning new report published by an international human rights watchdog alleges.
The study, “We Are Not The Enemy: Violations of Workers’ Rights in Kazakhstan”, was published by Human Rights Watch on November 24, shortly ahead of the fifth anniversary of a bout of fatal violence that spiraled out of an oil strike in the town of Zhanaozen.
The report documents “harassment, surveillance, and, in some cases, spurious legal prosecution or dismissals in apparent retaliation for labor activism.”
Based on interviews with 55 union leaders, labor activists and workers in nine cities—including in the oil and gas sector in western Kazakhstan and the industrial heartland in the center and northeast—the study reveals cases of harassment and intimidation of workers by the authorities and employers to deter them from joining independent trade unions.
It cites cases of workers fired for taking industrial action — a ‘disproportionate disciplinary sanction,’ HRW says — and instances of surveillance of independent union leaders and activists by the security services.
Larisa Kharkova, president of the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions, recalled how on a trip to western Kazakhstan in March this year she was “surrounded in Aktau — day and night” by intelligence agents, and during her meetings with union members “we were sitting there, talking, and we could see how [the security agents] drove up and photographed us.”
Kharkova also explained how a new trade union law enacted in 2014 had “paralyzed” the work of her confederation’s members, independent labor unions which were denied re-registration under burdensome new requirements.
Only a week after Kazakhstan celebrated the 23rd anniversary of its national currency by sticking the face of President Nursultan Nazarbayev on banknotes, talk is afoot of renaming the capital after the leader.
Nazarbayev is already object of a vigorous campaign of state-engineered adulation that often tips into a full-on cult of personality, but this is taking things to a new level.
The proposal to rename Astana to somehow reflect the name of Nazarbayev — who is also known by the Sultanate-style honorific of Elbasy, or leader of the nation — was aired in the hyper-loyalist rubber stamp lower house of parliament, the Majlis, on November 23.
“We suggest placing a note in the country’s constitution observing the leading role played in the creation of our state by the first president, the leader of the nation, Nursultan Abishevich Nazarbayev. And to reflect the name of Elbasy in the name of the capital and other important sites,” said Kuanysh Sultanov, a member of parliament with the ruling Nur Otan party.
Sultanov’s suggestion on how to rename Astana was for either Nursultan or Nazarbayev. Another MP, Pavel Kazantsev, said the decision could be made in just a single month and that “there is no need to drag out the issue.” Kazantsev’s notion was to change the name by independence day, which falls on December 16.
“By the end of the year, we can already choose a new name. It all depends on how discussions go and on what the people say. It just remains for parliament to formalize the decision of the Kazakhstani people,” Kazantsev said.
A referendum could be held to approve the decision, he said.
The leader of Kyrgyzstan’s opposition Ata-Meken party, Omurbek Tekebayev, has raised the stakes in his face-off with the president by announcing that he is laying the groundwork for impeachment proceedings.
News website K-News cited Tekebayev as saying on November 22 that Almazbek Atambayev had left himself open to the move by openly supporting his former party, the Social Democratic Party, or SDPK, in violation of the constitution.
“In February, a new political party council was formed and it included all the president’s entourage — Farid Niyazov, Albek Ibraimov, Ikramzhan Ilmiyanov, Kubanychbek Kulmatov. All of them occupy some kind of position in the presidential apparatus or are somehow dependant on him, and they don’t make a secret of it,” Tekebayev said.
Tekebayev is in effect saying what everybody already knows, since the SDPK, while not de facto led by Atambayev, is indissolubly associated with the president. To point out the emperor has no clothes is a transparent political provocation, however.
“The position of SDPK chairman is still not filled. Why? Maybe it is because he [Atambayev] still leads the party?” he said.
Tekebayev said that the influence of the SPDK extends even further. While the party only holds 38 out of the 120 seats in the Zhogorku Kenesh, or parliament, 15 out of 18 government ministries are headed by SDPK representatives, according to the leader of Ata-Meken, which holds 11 seats. Tekebayev said that of the remaining three ministers, two are from the Kyrgyzstan party — which has 18 deputies in parliament and is widely viewed as a stalking horse for the SDPK — and another is from Bir Bol, which has 12 MPs.
Prosecutors in the trial of two activists in Kazakhstan accused of whipping up anti-land reform rallies have demanded jail sentences of up to eight years and a $1.5 million fine to be slapped on the men.
Lawyers acting for the state also argued on November 21 in the Aytrau court that Max Bokayev and Talgat Ayan should be banned from engaging in public activity for three years.
If the court entertains anything near close to that request, it would send an ominous signal about the government’s willingness to tolerate any kind of public dissent, regardless of how peaceful it is.
Bokayev and Ayan staunchly deny they did anything wrong other than express their discontent at a law passed last year that would have led to the privatization of once-publicly owned land. In the absence of a public information campaign, a wave of peaceful but impassioned rallies were held in the spring, mainly in western Kazakhstan, over concerns that land might be the object of major buy-ups by foreign investors.
“What guilt am I supposed to admit? In Kazakhstan there is a law about peaceful gatherings and I took part in a rally in accordance with this law. I am not guilty and I did nothing that could raise alarm or pose a danger to people’s lives,” Bokayev told RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service, Radio Azattyq, during the break of one hearing.
Prosecutors this week once again argued that the activists were in cahoots with brewery tycoon Tohtar Tuleshov, who was sentenced to 21 years in jail on November 7 on charges of purportedly plotting a coup. According to the authorities, Tuleshov was scheming to use the political unrest provoked by the anti-land reform protests to make a grab for power.
An eyebrow-raising appointment to the higher echelons of Kazakhstan’s security services suggests greater emphasis is about to be placed on combating corruption.
The presidential administration announced in a tweet on November 21 that Daulet Yergozhin was being moved from his long-term position as chief of the tax committee to become the new deputy head of National Security Committee, or KNB, the successor agency to the KGB.
Yergozhin, 37, was in the news most recently in October over some intra-departmental sniping coming from the direction of the General Prosecutor’s Office, which accused certain government bodies of being overly aggressive in their checks on business owners.
“There is no system of risk management, no clear analysis about which business needs to be inspected and when,” Marat Akhmetzhanov, the Deputy Prosecutor General, told media in early October. “What is more, state bodies have, in their checklists, included large amounts of outdated requirements. Some of them are absurd and beyond logic.”
Akhmetzhanov did not appear to single out any particular body for criticism, but given Yergozhin’s swift reaction, it was clear that his was one of the departments in question.
Yergozhin said that he would look into the activities of his committee’s economic investigations department to see what work needed to be done.
“On the whole, we share the concerns of the main supervisory body — the General Prosecutor’s Office — about the need for running fewer checks on private businesses so as to interfere less with their affairs. We are open to this criticism,” he said.
Kazakhstan’s medal haul from the 2012 London Olympics and the 2008 Beijing Olympics has been further depleted as four more athletes were stripped of their medals after failing doping tests following a second round of testing.
Weightlifters Irina Nekrasova, a Beijing silver medallist, and bronze medallists Maria Grabovetskaya and Maiya Maneza along with wrestler Asset Mambetov, were stripped of their medals by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on 17 November after testing positive for banned substances.
Maneza already lost her gold medal from the London games on October 27, as did her fellow weightlifters Zulfiya Chinshanlo and Svetlana Podobedova. Wrestler Taimuraz Tigiyev was stripped of his silver medal from Beijing on October 26, bringing the total of medals reclaimed from Kazakhstan to eight.
All these athletes failed retests of samples given at the time. Earlier this year, the IOC began a comprehensive campaign of reanalysing samples, using the latest analytical methods, to try and keep this year’s games in Rio clean.
Grabovetskaya took to the press in Kazakhstan to proclaim her innocence, claiming in an interview with vesti.kz that she had not taken any illegal substances prior to the games, only painkillers.
“We were clean,” she said, referring to the rigorous testing the athletes underwent prior to the games. “We gave all to the [weightlifting] bar. And now I don’t understand it, when we’re asked to return the medal.”