Nerves in Kazakhstan over the state of the national currency turned first to alarm, and now to pretty much outright panic.
Yielding to the inevitable, Prime Minister Karim Masimov announced on August in a special video message that the government would switch to a free-float currency exchange. The value of the tenge duly plummeted 26 percent against the dollar and was trading at 255 by the end of the day.
“On July 15 this year, the National Bank took a decision to widen the currency corridor in order to enable a more flexible and floating exchange rate for the tenge,” said Masimov. “But the situation on the global economy continues to worsen. The prices for the main export goods of our country — oil and metals — have continued to fall, which has had a negative effect on the economic growth.”
Masimov said a priority would be placed on shoring up social welfare, but such remarks will do little to stave off immediate reactions to the collapse of the currency.
TengriNews posted pictures online showing closed currency exchange points in Almaty, where traders are understandably concerned at making large losses in such uncertain times. Vedomosti newspaper reported that some are so desperate that they are offloading their tenge to buy Russian rubles, which is itself experiencing major tribulations, although in a more gradual manner than the tenge.
Alarm is spreading as well deepening as Kyrgyzstan’s som felt the shockwaves from its northern neighbor.
Unlike Russia’s ruble, Kazakhstan’s national currency has for several months managed to hold ground against the dollar, only for it to now slump dramatically and spread alarm of more retreats.
Several commercial banks on August 19 began around mid-morning to offer exchange rates as high as 198 tenge to the dollar, against the 188.5 tenge listed on the National Bank website.
The domestic KASE stock exchange was at same time running trades of 195 tenge to the dollar.
Stubbornly low oil prices appear to have combined with the battering of the Chinese yuan to finally force Kazakhstan’s hand. The apparent decision to allow the tenge to float will gravely dent the credibility of National Bank chairman Kayrat Kelimbetov, who promised as recently as July 15 that the currency would not slip below 190 in the coming quarter. And not speak of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who promised after being re-elected in April that there would be no more sharp devaluations.
Economist Olzhas Hudaybergenov, who heads the Macroeconomic Research Center, wrote on his Facebook page that hopes the currency would resist lay in the hopes that oil prices would stick at around $55-60 mark. The global Brent benchmark slid below $50 last week and shows no immediate signs of rebounding.
“This means the need of a certain section of the business world for a sharp devaluation — it is not important whether it would happen suddenly or over a few days — will be met. I think the next few days will bring us some clarity on this,” he wrote.
Hudaybergenov said that he agreed with supporters of a correction to the tenge, who argue the move will boost competitiveness, save jobs and increase productivity.
The former Soviet space is losing yet another Communist party.
This time around, a court in Kazakhstan’s business capital, Almaty, has ordered the liquidation of the Communist Party, according to a report in Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Kazakh service.
Party leader Toleubek Makhyzhanov told Azattyq that the ruling was made on August 3, but that he was informed only 10 days later.
This is not to say Astana has embarked on any kind of anti-communist hunt. An ersatz Communist People’s Party was created in 2004 with the tacit approval of the authorities.
While the newer party eschewed any genuinely opposition activities, the Communist Party of Kazakhstan, which was born out of the ashes of the ruling Soviet-era party once led by President Nursultan Nazarbayev, has long been a thorn in the side of the ruling order.
That has prompted Makhyzhanov to term the liquidation of his party as being politically motivated.
Azattyq cited Makhyzhanov as saying there were a few fundamental procedural issues with the Almaty court’s verdict.
“The case has been considered in the wrong jurisdiction. The Specialized Inter-district Economic Court of Almaty cannot issue this verdict when the central office of the party is in (the city of) Semey,” he was quoted as saying.
The Almaty court’s decision was based on the finding that the party purportedly only has 38,000 registered members, short of the 40,000 required by law. But the real figure of party members is 58,000, Makhyzhanov said. “Where did they get their figures from?” he told Azattyq.
The Communist Party’s opposition stand has earned it sustained pressure.
Police in Tajikistan are busy naming and shaming renegade members of the pop star class, who have somehow managed to accumulate dozens of unpaid fines for driving violations.
Like many cities across the former Soviet Union, Dushanbe has a driving culture straight out of a Fast and Furious movie. Potholed roads encourage swerving at speed. And it is often the city’s well-heeled and privileged that are the worst offenders.
But running red lights and hanging illegal U-turns is riskier than it used to be thanks to the installation of around 1,000 closed-circuit television cameras.
The ‘Safe City’ project, which has been almost completely financed by deep-pocketed neighbor China, has transformed Dushanbe into a surveillance hotspot. Officials claim it has halved the number of traffic accidents.
If the Interior Ministry is to be believed, it seems famous musicians are particularly egregious lawbreakers, and they often ignore the consequences.
As Asia Plus reported on August 13, citing the Ministry’s website:
Popular Tajik pop star Noziyai Karomatullo, driving a Mercedes Benz ML350 (registration number 1234 AT 01) committed 38 traffic violations from November 1, 2013, to August 9, 2015. The singer paid fines totaling 3,160 somoni [roughly $500] that have already been transferred to the state budget. However, fines for another 21 traffic violations remain unpaid.
In a sign of how close the unrest in Afghanistan has crept to Tajikistan, two stray shells flew across the border during a recent bout of fighting, forcing Kabul to issue a blushing apology.
Interfax news agency cited a source in Tajikistan’s military as saying the 82-millimeter shells fell in the Farkhor district, which is situated along a wide section of the Panj River, a water course that straddles the frontier.
“Happily, nobody was injured and we have no objections to raise with Afghanistan. We support their fight to restore stability to the long-suffering land of Afghanistan,” the source told Interfax. No date was specified for when the incident took place.
Dushanbe-based newspaper Asia-Plus quoted Afghan media, which in turn cited an unnamed and high-ranking army source, as saying that security operations have successfully expunged Taliban forces from villages in the border area.
That will provide only scant comfort to Dushanbe, which has been in a state of intense anxiety for some months over the trouble rumbling to the south.
In May, Tajikistan’s Defense Ministry reacted to the worsening situation in Afghanistan’s Kunduz Province by ordering the formation of a secondary defensive line along the border. An official quoted by Asia-Plus said that additional forces and equipment had been dispatched to the southern Khatlon province to make up the numbers.
In an indication of the level of concern, President Emomali Rahmon ordered that reservists be drafted into reinforcing the security presence.
For all the ceremony that marked Kyrgyzstan’s entry into the Eurasian Economic Union, not much appears to have changed on the border with the only neighboring fellow member, Kazakhstan.
Speaking at a press conference on August 13, Damira Dootoalieva, chairman of the central committee of the Kyrgyzstan Traders Union, said a visit to the border had revealed that Kazakh officials are still not letting goods pass through unhindered.
“You can take across two or three bags, but large-scale cargo still cannot be transported into Kazakhstan. A lot of obstacles are being put in the way by the Kazakhs, including by their traffic police,” Dootoalieva said.
Dootoalieva said that a Porter Nissan van carrying goods from Kyrgyzstan was seized on the Kazakhstan side of the border of August 12, only hours after an inaugural ceremony attended by Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev and his Kazakh counterpart, Nursultan Nazarbayev.
“For about three hours, we tried to get it released. As to how we did that, you understand how these things are done,” Dootoalieva said, adding that money exchanged hands.
When the Kazakh customs officials were asked on what grounds the van had been stopped, they responded only that they would be remaining in place for another 100 days, Dootoalieva said.
At the same press conference, Sergei Ponomaryov, president of the Association of Markets, Trade Enterprises and Service Industries of Kyrgyzstan, said teething problems appeared to be down to poor preparation.
Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have in close succession come up with a new punishment for people suspected of involvement with terrorist organizations. If official accounts are anything to go by, however, the authoritarian governments are also trying their hand at less harsh measures to attack the intensely hyped specter of Islamic terror.
Uzbek news website Anons.uz has reported that President Islam Karimov on August 10 signed off on amendments to the law detailing when somebody can be stripped of their citizenship.
Under the revised law, the penalty will now apply if a given person “has caused substantial harm to the interests of society and the state by engaging in activities in the interests of a foreign state or by committing offenses against peace and security.” Crimes against peace and stability are interpreted in Uzbekistan as acts that include incitement to conflict and terrorism, or any other activity related to terrorism and mass murder.
The U.S. Department of Defense-funded regional military propaganda unit Central Asia Online, meanwhile, reports on the purported good cop part of Uzbekistan’s anti-terrorism campaign.
The National Security Council, a body affiliated to the presidential administration, is spearheading a program aimed at “debunking extremist ideology, supporting traditional Islam” and “promoting harmony among members of different faiths.”
That such a unabashedly approving report should appear in a service funded by the U.S. taxpayer is a stark illustration of the profoundly confused nature of Washington’s stance on Uzbekistan.
A row has erupted in northern Kazakhstan over the erection of a monument to Russian Tsar Nicholas II, who is reviled by many Kazakhs for his association with the bloody suppression of an uprising in 1916.
The bust to Tsar Nicholas II, who was murdered by the Bolsheviks following the 1917 Russian Revolution, was put up by local businessman Pyotr Vanger outside a church in the village of Arkhangelskoye, just south of the border with Russia.
On August 10, the statue was moved inside the village’s Russian Orthodox church following an outcry on social media about a monument revering somebody perceived as a Russian despot appearing in public.
“The monument has been taken inside, into the church,” Tengri News quoted local authorities as saying. “The decision to take it inside was made by the entrepreneur himself, to avoid questions.”
The statue has so far avoided the fate of a monument to Soviet leader Josef Stalin in southern Kazakhstan which was torn down earlier this year after generating a similar controversy.
That statue was removed from its pedestal in May, after villagers had re-erected it following its toppling in a hurricane last summer.
Village authorities ruled that they had acted without planning permission. But the case had wider political connotations as many were enraged at the reverential treatment of a Soviet leader whose policies caused the death of millions of people in Kazakhstan and elsewhere in the Soviet Union.
Statues to Russian and Soviet despots are sensitive for Astana, which is eager to promote its own sovereignty without antagonizing its powerful neighbor and close ally Russia.
The choice of Yesimov to clean up the mess at EXPO-17 following embarrassing revelations that officials had been siphoning off millions from funds intended to organize the international fair suggests he still enjoys Nazarbayev’s confidence. That suggests the 64-year-old former mayor is still a frontrunner to succeed Nazarbayev when a transition of power eventually takes place.
Yesimov’s replacement as mayor of the country’s largest and richest city has been named as Baurzhan Baybek, a top official in the ruling Nur Otan party.
The president was full of praise for Yesimov as he introduced Baybek as his successor in Almaty on August 9. The hundreds of people whose homes were damaged in a mudslide that hit the city last month without early-warning procedures being activated might not be so effusive.
Baybek’s appointment marks him as an up-and-coming politician whose movements will be closely tracked as he climbs the political ladder.
When an Astana businessman dealt a savage beating on a young man he deemed a love rival, he may have thought his influential connections would grant him impunity.
He was wrong.
On August 7, Astana criminal court sentenced Kayrat Zhamaliyev to 13 years in jail, ending a trial that has revealed the power of social media to hold even Kazakhstan’s movers and shakers to account. Two accomplices received prison terms of 12 and eight years.
Zhamaliyev was found guilty of assaulting Alibi Zhumagulov, whom he reportedly suspected of having an affair with his girlfriend.
Adding spice to the high-profile case is the that fact that Zhamaliyev is married and that the woman in question, Aynur Isina, was reportedly his “tokal” — the Kazakh word for a second wife. That aspect of the affair has led wags in Kazakhstan to dub the case “Tokalgate.”
Polygamy is illegal in Kazakhstan, but the practice of taking a second wife – either under Islamic law or informally — is becoming widespread, as Bloomberg has reported.
Isina, who reportedly has a child by Zhamaliyev, stood by the businessman and denied that Alibi had been subjected to any violence. Both she and his wife, Alena Zhamaliyeva, appeared in court to support him.
Zhamaliyev — a well-known figure in Astana and owner of a hotel, two restaurants and a karaoke bar in the city – was accused of inflicting a serious beating on Zhumagulov and subjecting him to a sexual assault.