Authorities in Kazakhstan have had to mount a rearguard battle against claims that they have dipped into the state pension pot to fund the showcase EXPO-2017 fair in Astana.
A few media outlets, news agency Interfax-Kazakhstan first and foremost, put the cat among the pigeons on August 9 by citing the Kazakhstan Development Bank as saying that it would use 15 billion tenge ($43 million) sourced from the state pension fund to build unspecified facilities on the grounds of EXPO-2017.
Perhaps understandably, the news was immediately and widely interpreted (maliciously misinterpreted, official say) as the government throwing the cash of future retirees at a loss-making vanity project.
The government has steadily been outlining plans on how it intends to use its pension fund bounty, which is gathered through 10 percent levies on the salaries of Kazakhstani workers, to kickstart an economy hamstrung by reliance on low oil prices. Last October, then-National Bank chairman Kairat Kelimbetov announced that 1 trillion tenge out of the fund would be used to support the budget and sunk into stimulus-generating construction and investment projects.
In March, the government clearly listed what kind of investment opportunities pension fund cash could be used for — namely shares, bonds and gold.
The general public is brimming with distrust for its officials, whom they already suspect of trying to auction off land to foreigners over their heads.
RFE/RL’s Kazakhstan service, Radio Azattyq, illustrated the mood well with a series of vox pops some months back in which people queried expressed their skepticism about the fate of the pension fund.
Kazakhstan’s troubled weightlifters finally struck gold in Rio, with a little help from Azerbaijan.
Weightlifter Nijat Rahimov, who formerly competed for his native Azerbaijan, set a new world record as he won Kazakhstan’s second gold medal of these Olympics. Earlier in the day, Dmitriy Balandin won gold in the pool in the 200-meter breaststroke.
Rahimov’s win was not without controversy. He recently returned to the sport after serving a two-year ban after failing a doping test at Universiade, the World Student Games, in 2013. At the time, he was representing Azerbaijan, but he made the switch to Kazakhstan in 2015.
It turned out to be a good choice for the 77 kilogram-class weightlifter. In June, Azerbaijan was banned from competing in these Olympics because of repeated doping test failures.
Kazakhstan itself narrowly escaped a ban from competing in Rio. Ahead of the Games, Kazakhstan’s weightlifters were rocked by a series of doping scandals that saw four gold medal winners from London 2012, including double Olympic champion Ilya Ilyin, banned from competing in Rio. Unfazed by his recent brush with notoriety, Ilyin was reportedly headed to Rio on August 11 so that, as he put it, he could “support our team.”
Rahimov attributed his success to his rigorous training schedule, as he dodged questions about his doping past in the post-event press conference.
“When normal people were asleep, we were training. When the snow was deep, you know how it is in Kazakhstan, we went out for training at 11 or 12 [at night],” Rahimov said.
Kazakhstan has become the latest country to demand tax revenues from technology giants Google and Apple, which have deftly exploited international loopholes to reduce their global fiscal burden.
Daulet Yergozhin, chairman of the state revenue committee, told a press conference on August 10 that the government should be earning money from transactions completed in Kazakhstan that profit those companies.
Measures on how to ensure those taxes are paid will be studied in the fall, said Yergozhin, whose committee operates under the auspices of the Finance Ministry.
Yergozhin cited the recent precedent set in Russia and said that the experience there would serve as a useful guide in formulating Kazakhstan’s approach. As The Moscow Times has reported, State Duma deputies in June approved a bill requiring foreign IT companies to pay sales taxes on online content purchases by customers in Russia. Residency status will be determined through credit card details or IP addresses, according to the legislation.
A roundtable is planned in Kazakhstan with representatives from the two US companies in September.
“They should in any case pay since the size of the transactions that is effected by these two platforms is huge. There are multimillion operations in dollars. We should receive our share of this in the budget,” Yergozhin said.
Neither Apple or Google have yet responded to the remarks.
Dariga Nazarbayeva, Kazakhstan’s deputy prime minister and the eldest daughter of the president, has supported a novel solution for using up cannabis crops growing wild in the countryside: turn them into paper.
Kazakhstan has long battled with its virulent wild cannabis crop, which grows freely in the Chui Valley — a much-beloved part of the region among avid aficionados of the weed. As Interior Minister Kalmukhanbet Kasymov explained, authorities are at a loss to police the huge areas covered by the plant.
“Of course, covering all 140,000 hectares (140 square kilometers) is not possible. Cannabis grows all over the country. So we have to decide what to do with it. Either destroy it or use it for economic development,” Kasymov said.
Deputy Investment and Development Minister Albert Rau said at a government meeting on August 8 that proposed methods for utilizing hemp would entail processing measures that destroy the active narcotic ingredient.
A statement on the government website notes somewhat redundantly that research has revealed that cannabis plants could be turned into a type of cellulose that lends itself to transformation into all kinds of paper: banknotes, wrapping paper and office paper. Even textiles and foodstuffs. This is nothing new to admirers of hemp. Indeed, as the North American Industrial Hemp Council notes, hemp has been used to produce paper and textiles for at least 12,000 years.
And as Nazarbayeva approvingly noted at the government meeting, the cost of the paper produced would be low.
The end of a trial this week in Tajikistan has again highlighted the ongoing campaign against outward displays of pious Islamic behavior and the anger it is provoking.
A court in Dushanbe this week sentenced 18 residents of the town of Roghun — site of the planned giant hydroelectric dam — to jail terms of between three-and-a-half and 10 years. The charge appears to have been for “calling for the forcible overthrow of the government.”
RFE/RL’s Tajik service, Radio Ozodi, reported that the defendants were aged between 20 and 35.
The arrests were carried out in March and sparked an immediate backlash from residents of the Firdavsi district, who picketed the police station. This rare impromptu rally inspired an official statement of remarkable Orwellian linguistic truth-bending.
“None of the close relatives of the detained or witnesses gathered at the police station in the Firdavsi district since unsanctioned meetings are banned under the laws of Tajikistan, and the people are aware of this,” the Interior Ministry said at the time.
Relatives had told reporters that the men were detained at a local mosque for displaying Salafist behavior. Among the reported detainees were an imam for the village of Kalai Nav and a doctor. Asia-Plus reported that there were two imams among those convicted.
Salafist behavior can imply any number of things, from style of praying and dietary choices to dress and the adoption of beards.
An Interior Ministry press officer at the time was clear about the consequences for anybody perceived to be a Salafist.
Tajikistan’s General Prosecutor is considering prosecution for a Russian journalist for “inciting ethnic hatred” over an article that mocked the country and its president.
Sergei Ponomaryov’s piece in Russian tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda about a visit to Tajikistan was published last month and featured numerous crude stereotypes. The article has already led to the shuttering of the local edition of the newspaper, which had a circulation of 5,000 in Tajikistan.
Likely most troubling for authorities in Dushanbe, however, was the fact that the article reveled among other things in ribald observations about President Emomali Rahmon. A concerted exercise in personality cult building has made Rahmon, who is alluded to exclusively in state media as the “Leader of the Nation,” off-limits to any critics.
Asia-Plus website cites General Prosecutor Yusuf Rahmon as saying Ponomaryov’s article, which was sarcastically titled “Tajikistan: Out of the Soviet Waste to a Bright Future,” will be studied for evidence of incitement to interethnic hatred.
The piece was certainly patronizing and insulting. Ponomaryov bases some of his caustic observations on a pair of Tajik characters from a popular Russian sketch show, Nasha Russia.
“On the plane from Moscow to the ancient city of Khujand, the capital of northern Tajikistan and the second city in the country, mine was the only Slavic countenance. The rest was straight-up Ravshan and Jamshuds,” he wrote.
The Nasha Russia characters are a pair of Tajik migrant laborers distinctive for their primitiveness and stupidity.
A court in Kazakhstan has ordered the release on parole of jailed opposition leader Vladimir Kozlov, rights activist Yevgeny Zhovtis wrote on his Facebook on August 4.
Kozlov, the former leader of the banned Alga! opposition party, was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison for his supposed involvement whipping up unrest in the town of Zhanaozen in December 2011.
Zhovtis wrote of his relief at the news of Kozlov’s imminent release.
“It is true that another 15 days will pass before the decision comes into force, but at last…” he wrote.
Kozlov has appealed for early release on previous occasions without success. On the contrary, the politician appears to have been singled out for particularly harsh punishment by prison authorities for allegedly violating rules.
Last July, officials at Kozlov’s prison colony in Zarechniy in south-eastern Kazakhstan transferred him “to a strict-regime cellblock,” purportedly for offenses that included “speaking ill of the country’s president.” Kozlov was reportedly transferred away from the strict-regime cellblock on August 1.
Kozlov was not present in Zhanaozen at the time of the disturbances, but the government claims he was whipping up strikers with the ultimate aim of overthrowing Nazarbayev. The politician has always steadfastly denied any involvment in the violence and argued at the time that he wished to serve as a negotiator between the government and striking oil workers in the town.
Ever the optimist, Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon is again pleading with the global Islamic community for financial assistance to develop his country.
Speaking at the 12th World Islamic Economic Forum in Indonesia this week, Rahmon appealed to prosperous Muslim countries to give a helping hand to struggling Muslim nations, including his own.
Rahmon proposed changing banking procedures to simplify the transfer of grants and lowering interest rates for loans.
“In our view, with a view to lowering the impact of global crises and other current issues in the developing Islamic world, especially among countries that do not have an outlet to the sea, it is necessary to create a specialized bank or a financial support fund,” he said. “I am certain that this would to a great extent enable the successful resolution of current problems before us, as well as strengthen the unity of the Islamic umma on the trajectory toward peace and stability,”
The Tajik government suggests electricity infrastructure like the proposed CASA-1000 grid, mineral exploration, farming and tourism could be promising targets for investment.
Rahmon said conditions were highly favorable in his country for investment and that reforms had been enacted to promote private enterprise. This will come as a surprise to the business community in Tajikistan, which has become used to operations in conditions of rampant corruption and cronyism.
Since the start of the year, Rahmon has been doing the rounds in monied Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in the hope of drumming up investment for his cash-strapped country. Those efforts have yielded few notable results, however.
Rumors about the rape of a little girl has sparked mass unrest along ethnic lines in villages in southern Kazakhstan, culminating in dozens of arrests.
Interior Ministry official Syrym Abdullayev said on August 1 that trouble in the Maktaraal district, in the South Kazakhstan region, began when word spread that an eight-year old girl had been sexually assaulted by a local 15-year old boy.
The ensuing unrest centered on an area inhabited by large numbers of ethnic Tajiks. One clash involving dozens of people ended up with windows of a shop being smashed and three people injured. Tengri News reported that 170 police officers were dispatched to the scene to restore calm.
Reports are piecemeal, but it seems the disturbances spread across several villages in the area, which borders Uzbekistan. Overnight on August 1, a group of men set light to two houses and a car in the village of Dikhan.
RFE/RL’s Kazakhstan service, Azattyq, reported that the local Tajik community pleaded with authorities to provide them with protection.
“Around 100 young people came shouting, so we escaped with our children. In the space of 10-15 minutes, they burned down the house and destroyed the car,” Makhmutzhan Arzimuratov, owner of a damaged house in Dikhan, told Azattyq, recalling the late-night attack.
A shop in the village of Muratbayev was also target of an arson attack.
In his latest marathon press conference, Kyrgyzstan’s president spoke in favor of proposed constitutional reforms, lashed out at criticism from Turkey and had yet another pop at the United States.
Almazbek Atambayev has taken a leaf out of his Russian counterpart’s books by holding regular hours-long meetings with the press in which he rarely fails to jar some sensibilities.
The focus this year was on wide-ranging constitutional reforms that would if approved bolster the role of the executive — the prime minister’s office, in other words. The plan is to eventually submit the changes to a national referendum. Suggestions that the constitution is to be modified are particularly contentious as previous changes made in 2010 included provisions for the document to remain untouched at least until 2020.
Speculation is that Atambayev may seek to extend his rule by slotting in the prime minister’s seat, but he offered less than emphatic reassurances on that front.
“If I wanted to stay in power, I would have done it without parliament. I would have had no trouble doing it through a referendum by popular initiative,” he said.
On the contrary, he suggested, the intent behind modifying the constitution was to prevent his successor for grabbing too much power.
“With the current constitution the next president could easily become a dragon,” Atambayev said, speaking about a constitution he himself ushered into being. “In order for there to be no dragon with 120 heads [the number of members of parliament], we need to change the constitution.”
Much discussion has been aroused by the suggestion to have the constitution recognize the supreme value of “love for the motherland,” “respect for the elderly” and “honor and dignity” — juridically vague if not meaningless terms that might stand to trump the current constitutional supremacy of individual human rights.