Western and Russian companies are helping Central Asian governments build and maintain vast surveillance networks that facilitate indiscriminate monitoring of all types of communication, according to a report released November 20 by a watchdog organization. Such sales of technology appear to violate international law and obligate Western governments to take action to tighten export controls of surveillance-related trade, the report adds.
The report, titled Private Interests: Monitoring Central Asia, is the product of a year-long investigation carried out by the watchdog group Privacy International. It shows how local and foreign communications service providers, including telecoms and Internet-related companies, are complicit in helping governments carry out authoritarian-style snooping. It also provides exhaustive documentation on the types of spyware and technical assistance that firms based in the United States, United Kingdom, Germany and Israel are supplying to Central Asian states.
While focusing on the surveillance architecture of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the report also provides overviews of practices in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
"Some countries are equipped with sophisticated surveillance capabilities that allow the monitoring of communications on a mass scale,” the report stated. “These surveillance capabilities are centralized and accessed by security agencies in monitoring centers, located across the region, allowing agents to intercept, decode and analyze the private communications of thousands of people simultaneously.”
Footballers for Galatasaray, the legendary Turkish club, may soon be wearing the name of Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana, across their chests. Kazakhstan’s sovereign-wealth fund, Samruk-Kazyna, is rumored to be close to signing a five-year, $50 million deal to sponsor Galatasaray, Turkish media has reported.
Samruk-Kazyna is the main source of funding for the Astana Presidential Sports Club. Astana was already affiliated with the Istanbul-based team after the two signed a cooperation agreement in April. It is unclear if the jerseys will be marked “Astana” or “Samruk-Kazyna.”
Team Astana, founded in 2012, has had a good year. In cycling, the team’s Vincenzo Nibali won the Tour de France. Figure skater Denis Ten, who receives funding from Samruk-Kazyna, won bronze for Kazakhstan at the Sochi Winter Olympics. And Samruk-Kazyna-funded middleweight boxer Gennady Golovkin successfully defended his world champion title in October.
The wins are part of President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s relentless effort to promote the capital city he founded in 1997, and Kazakhstan more generally, on the world stage. Senior officials are actively engaged in the effort. National Bank Chairman Kairat Kelimbetov, for example, is president of the Cycling Association funded by Samruk-Kazyna.
A former prime minister of Kazakhstan has been placed under house arrest on corruption charges. The rare move against such a high-ranking member of the political establishment is sure to set tongues wagging about the presidential succession.
Serik Akhmetov – who was premier until this April and defense minister until last month – has been charged with graft under an ongoing investigation that has seen high-profile arrests in Karaganda Region, the former PM’s political fiefdom, Tengri News reported, citing Kazakhstan’s anti-corruption agency.
Baurzhan Abdishev, a former regional governor and ex-mayor of the city of Karaganda, and Meyram Smagulov, another former mayor, were arrested this fall on corruption charges relating in part to the lucrative metallurgy industry based in the central region.
Akhmetov – who forged his career in the Karaganda metallurgy industry and the Soviet Communist Party in the 1970s and 1980s – was governor of Karaganda Region from 2009 to 2012, at a time when Abdishev was city mayor. This implies that the two are political allies, and commentators in Kazakhstan had already been linking the Karaganda corruption case with a likely move against Akhmetov.
He was appointed prime minister in 2012 and dismissed this April, amid hints that President Nursultan Nazarbayev was disappointed by his lackluster performance.
Yet Akhmetov was still appointed defense minister in that reshuffle, a post from which Nazarbayev abruptly fired him in October after just six months in the job.
Kazakhstan’s journalistic community has long debated how to face the pervasive influence of Russian media in the Central Asian country. The topic has increased in urgency with the bitter international standoff between Russia and Ukraine, which is partly playing out on Russian television.
Russian state channels like Rossiya, NTV, and First Channel – which critics see as Kremlin propaganda tools – enjoy huge popularity in Kazakhstan, the Media Kurultai (an annual gathering of journalists in Almaty) heard on November 14.
This creates a national security threat to Kazakhstan, where viewers are swallowing their poisonous coverage about Ukraine, speakers told a panel on information security.
The public mindset in Kazakhstan is being shaped by Russian officials and TV presenters like Dmitry Kiselyov, who is well-known for his anti-Western tirades, opposition politician Amirzhan Kosanov told the conference. This means Kazakhstanis end up “viewing events in Ukraine through the eyes of [Russian Foreign Minister Sergey] Lavrov or Kiselyov,” he said.
Yet Astana is itself pushing viewers into the arms of Russian TV, Kosanov argued, by controlling the Kazakhstani media so tightly that it becomes unattractive.
“The challenge to information security emerges from governmental policies,” agreed Adil Nurmakov, a journalism professor at Almaty’s KIMEP University. “It’s a vicious circle.”
“Now [government officials] have found themselves in a situation when they’re wondering why people are not watching Kazakhstani TV channels and why they’re not reading the Kazakhstani press,” Nurmakov told EurasiaNet.org on the sidelines of the forum. “But there’s nothing to read and nothing to watch.”
For Kyrgyzstan observers, reports that kerosene is being stolen from a Russian airbase and illegally sold on the open market will hardly surprise. But it is still embarrassing.
Last week Kyrgyz authorities formally began investigating why a truck stopped leaving the Kant Airbase last month was found carrying 13 tons of stolen kerosene.
Details about the October 7 incident that triggered the November 11 investigation are still scarce. The driver, who appeared to have entered the Kant base without documents, has not been identified in press reports.
It seems unlikely a theft from the heavily guarded base would be possible without the connivance of Russian soldiers stationed there, Ruslan Umarov, who is heading the investigation for the State Service for the Fight Against Economic Crimes, conceded on November 12. “We have a circle of suspects. Currently we are clarifying the market channels, buyers and suppliers. It is possible that military servicemen at the Kant Airbase are involved in the case,” Umarov is quoted as saying by several Kyrgyz news outlets.
Kant receives its kerosene, which it uses it to fuel fighter planes and other aircraft, from a Kyrgyz-Russian joint-stock company partly owned by Russian energy behemoth Gazprom: Gazprom Neft Aero-Kyrgyzstan. The company has friends in high places. Sapar Isakov, President Almazbek Atambayev’s chief foreign policy advisor, was formerly chair of the company’s board.
Fast-food giant McDonald's will open its first restaurant in the oil-rich Central Asian state of Kazakhstan next year, in partnership with an energy tycoon related by marriage to President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
The company will open its first burger bar at an unspecified location in Kazakhstan in the second half of 2015, with more to follow, it announced on November 12.
McDonald’s is heading into Kazakhstan with good connections guaranteed: It will be partnering with prominent gas tycoon Kairat Boranbayev, whose daughter Alima is married to Nazarbayev’s grandson, Aysultan Nazarbayev.
“Our agreement with Kairat will enable us to continue to build our brand,” Doug Goare, president of McDonald’s Europe, said of the foray into Kazakhstan, where insiders say that the key to business success is often not what you know but who you know.
The Kazakhstan launch comes as McDonald’s comes under massive pressure in neighboring Russia, where more than half of its 440 locations are under investigation over alleged health and safety violations (which the company denies) and nine outlets have been temporarily closed.
Kazakhstan is a close economic partner of Russia’s, but has been keen to distance itself from Moscow as Western sanctions bite, making it abundantly clear that its doors are always open to foreign investors.
Astana has promised to save Kyrgyzstan from near-certain energy crisis this winter, committing to supply over a billion kilowatt-hours of electricity and releasing several Kyrgyzstan-bound oil tankers stuck on the border between the two countries since April. But questions remain about the terms of the deal signed by Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev and Kyrgyzstan’s Almazbek Atambayev on November 7.
Chiefly, how will Kyrgyzstan finance the difference between the cost of the electricity it is buying from Kazakhstan and the low rates its own citizens expect to pay—lower, according to energy officials, than the cost of production?
In other words, Kyrgyzstan has agreed to pay Kazakhstan far more than it charges its citizens per kilowatt-hour. Most of the energy will be subsidized by the impoverished government, Nurbek Elebaev, director of Kyrgyzstan’s State Department for the Regulation of the Fuel and Energy Complex, told Vechernii Bishkek on October 31. (Note: $1 is about 58 soms at current rates.) He said:
It is worth noting that the cost of the imported energy is 5.13 soms for a kilowatt-hour. Accordingly, every kilowatt-hour will be subsidized [by Kyrgyzstan] by around 3 soms. Moreover, 5.13 soms is the cost of electricity up to the Kazakh border. The cost of transit from the border to the consumer will be borne by [Kyrgyzstan’s] energy company. How the company will cover the financial deficit will be decided by the government. The cabinet will need to borrow money. This tariff will apply to 1 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity. A further 400 million kilowatt-hours will be determined by an exchange in kind.
The man convicted of ordering the murder of an opposition leader eight years ago is to be released on parole, a court in Astana has ruled. The decision raises, yet again, questions about the judiciary’s independence.
Yerzhan Utembayev will be released after serving eight years of his sentence over the brutal killing of Altynbek Sarsenbayev, an opposition leader and former government minister, in 2006, Tengri News reports.
Sarsenbayev’s brother, Rysbek Sarsenbay, had asked the court not to release Utembayev, claiming that he is concealing the names of those really responsible for the murder. “We want those who are really guilty to be exposed and convicted,” Sarsenbay said. But his arguments fell on deaf ears.
At his trial in 2006, Utembayev – who originally confessed to contracting the murder, but later recanted – was jailed for 20 years after being found guilty of hiring a hitman to kill Sarsenbayev for $60,000 in revenge for a newspaper article making unflattering revelations about him.
The trial found that Utembayev (who was at the time was head of the Senate secretariat) contracted Rustam Ibragimov, a former Interior Ministry officer, who set up a death squad comprising rogue members of elite Kazakhstani anti-terrorism units, which kidnapped Sarsenbayev and two aides and delivered them to Ibragimov, who killed the three men.
In terms of statistics, unless they are the rosy government sort, Tajikistan often appears to be on the edge of an abyss. But somehow the poorest country to emerge from the Soviet Union chugs on.
So a grim World Bank report out this week probably does not indicate imminent collapse. But it is unnerving to see that almost every macroeconomic indicator suggests trouble ahead. And Tajikistan’s latest predicament coincides with a push from Moscow to join Russia’s new Eurasian Economic Union.
Tajikistan’s economic dependence on Russia is, as economists have long warned, a liability—and not only because it gives Moscow enormous influence. “The possible spillover effect from the Russian slowdown onto the Tajikistan economy is estimated to be one of the largest in the [Europe and Central Asia] region: a 1 percentage point reduction in the growth of Russia’s GDP would reduce growth in Tajikistan by the same amount,” says the October 27 report, “Tajikistan: Moderated Growth, Heightened Risk.”
For starters, over a million Tajiks, or about one-half of working-age Tajik men, labor in Russia, usually in menial jobs. Their transfers are worth about half of Tajikistan’s GNP, making it the most remittance-dependent country in the world.
But as the Kremlin sacrifices Russia’s economy for its Ukraine policy, which has caused a new low in relations with the West, the resulting downturn is hurting the ruble and Tajikistan’s economy at large. An ailing ruble buys fewer dollars to send home.
The 19th-century Kazakh and Russian cultural icons depicted enjoying a kiss on a poster may be long dead. But that has not stopped a court in Kazakhstan awarding massive damages to a group of living people who claim the image of two men kissing has hurt their feelings.
On October 28, a court in Almaty ordered the advertising agency that designed the poster – which shows Kazakh composer Kurmangazy Sagyrbayuly and Russian poet Alexander Pushkin kissing – to pay 34 million tenge ($188,000) to a group of 34 music students and teachers whose only tenuous connection to the image is that they study and work at the Kurmangazy Kazakh National Conservatory, Tengri News reports.
The ruling awarding each plantiff a million tenge is “unfair,” said Dariya Khamitzhanova, director of the Havas Worldwide Kazakhstan agency, which designed the poster. “This 34 million will ruin our company.” She pledged to appeal, but meanwhile the court has frozen the agency’s assets.
The controversial poster – advertising an Almaty gay club at the intersection of Kurmangazy and Pushkin streets and inspired by a famous image of the leaders of East Germany and the Soviet Union kissing in 1979 – was designed for an advertising competition in August and was never intended for showing in the public domain.
However, after the picture started doing the rounds on social media a public outcry ensued and three separate lawsuits were launched against the agency, which has repeatedly apologized for any offense caused.