There is an interesting piece posted recently on Foreign Policy’s website that highlights how authoritarian-minded leaders in Eurasia are becoming adept at leveraging thuggish behavior.
The article, titled “The League of Authoritarian Gentlemen,” is written by Alex Cooley, a Central Asia specialist at Columbia University. It examines the ways in which Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan have used the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) to stifle dissent.
Horse-mad Kazakhstan will soon be bathing in mare’s milk if a group of researchers at an Almaty university get their way.
Students at the Al-Farabi Kazakh National University have invented a new soap containing one of Kazakhstan’s favorite tipples: fermented mare’s milk. The drink, called kumis in Kazakh, is one of the ingredients in a new line of natural soaps developed at the university, reports Tengri News.
“Right now a lot of cosmetics cause allergic reactions,” researcher Lyudmila Ignatova told the agency. “That’s because they contain various chemical components. We tried to find natural components that would benefit the skin of the hands, face and body.”
The students aren’t the first in the world to cotton on to the commercial value of kumis cosmetics: One online Canadian company is flogging its soap made from a “secret ingredient [discovered] on Mongolia's wild steppes” – you guessed it, mare’s milk – for over $10 a bar. The Kazakh version is a bargain by comparison, retailing for $2-5 a bar – and the researchers hope to drive prices down by buying ingredients wholesale.
Kazakhstan suffered its second fatal plane crash in just over a month on January 29, when a domestic passenger flight arriving in Almaty crashed in bad weather, killing all 21 people aboard.
The SCAT Airlines Bombardier Challenger CRJ-200 crashed at around 1:00 p.m. as it was landing at Almaty airport in heavy fog, hitting the ground five kilometers outside Kazakhstan’s financial capital, the prosecutor’s office said in a statement. The statement contained a preliminary list of the dead: five crew members and 16 passengers who were on the flight from the northern town of Kokshetau.
The prosecutor’s office said it had already opened a criminal case into the crash, the second in the space of just over a month: On December 25, a military aircraft crashed near Shymkent, killing all 27 people on board. The dead included the acting head of Kazakhstan’s Border Service, Turganbek Stambekov, and other senior border officials.
An investigation blamed technical failure combined with pilot error for that crash, which, like today’s disaster, occurred in bad weather. Kazakhstan’s airports are frequently closed due to adverse weather conditions, but – despite heavy fog blanketing the city on January 29 – Almaty airport was open for business.
It is no secret that elements of Kyrgyzstan’s underworld enjoyed many freedoms during the reign of the country’s second president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev. Indeed, members of the current political elite are keen to remind us of anything that blackens the former first family’s name and deflects attention from their own shortcomings. But recent comments by Interior Minister Shamil Atakhanov go beyond the usual Bakiyev-bashing and provide some interesting insights into the way the state and mafia became enmeshed during his rule, as well as what Kyrgyz mob-watchers should look out for in the future.
In a January 23 interview with K-News, Atakhanov spoke of the “criminalization of the entire political structure,” and labeled “criminal elements” as the main drivers of the ethnic violence in Osh shortly after Bakiyev’s overthrow in 2010. But he also made some more specific remarks about the fight against drugs and organized crime under Bakiyev.
During the presidency of Kurmanbek Bakiyev, criminals managed to incorporate themselves in the system of state governance. Staffing and government activities were decided thanks to the help of criminal leaders, including in the law enforcement agencies. [...] Not without the participation of criminal elements were the Agency for Drug Control and the Main Department in the Fight Against Organized Crime reduced in size. Practically, the police and the criminal world became one and the same.
Kazakhstan and Russia have moved to defuse a spat over Moscow’s use of the world’s largest spaceport, which is vital for Russia to maintain its standing as a space power.
Kazakh Foreign Minister Erlan Idrisov and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov smoothed over accounts of a rift between the two close allies during talks in Moscow on January 25, with Idrisov describing reports that Kazakhstan was planning to tear up Russia’s lease of the strategic Baikonur cosmodrome as “absurd.”
The row erupted on December 10, when Kazakhstan’s National Space Agency director, Talgat Musabayev, said Astana was looking to renegotiate the deal. Moscow leases the site from Kazakhstan for $115 million per year. The current agreement runs until 2050.
Musabayev said President Nursultan Nazarbayev had ordered work on “drawing up a new, all-encompassing agreement on the Baikonur site, which could envisage a withdrawal from leasing relations.” “We are not saying that we will immediately halt the lease,” he added, but abandoning it “in stages” was possible.
His remarks provoked an outcry in Russia, which is dependent on Baikonur to launch all its manned space missions and most commercial satellites. Moscow is building its own spaceport in its Far East, but the first launch there is not due until 2015.
The row escalated after Kazakhstan revealed that it was allotting Russia only 12 Proton rocket launches from Baikonur in 2013, against the 17 Moscow desires. Russia’s Federal Space Agency says this will prevent it from fulfilling contractual obligations and cost it $500 million.
A caricature poking fun at Orthodox Christian priests and the powers that be has sparked an outcry in Kazakhstan, a country that markets itself as a bastion of religious tolerance.
The offending cartoon appeared in the Russian-language Megapolis broadsheet on January 14, illustrating an article called “Christmas Surprise” that recounted how Astana city officials hijacked the Russian Orthodox Christmas service at the Church of the Holy Assumption in the capital. (Orthodox Christmas is marked on January 7.)
“Bewildered” worshippers were forced to line up along a red carpet to welcome officials from the office of Astana Mayor Imangali Tasmagambetov, while “church officials scurried about here and there and fussed around, waiting for the arrival of the important guests,” the article recounted.
After being given the red carpet treatment, the two bureaucrats were taken to the ambo, a special part of the church from which sermons are read (out of bounds to ordinary worshippers). From there, they read out a message from Tasmagambetov, a high-profile politician sometimes tipped as a future president.
“What was this? Some sort of political event, or still a church holiday?” one annoyed worshipper asked.
To illustrate such sentiments, Megapolis published the cartoon showing a porky priest telling a meek-looking Jesus wearing a crown of thorns: “Citizen, free up the ambo or I’ll call the riot police!”
Church officials were quick to take offense. “The article and the caricature have had negative repercussions in the Orthodox community,” Bishop Gennadiy of Kaskelen (near Almaty) told a news conference on January 23.
An Afghan airline is using passenger flights to deliver “bulk quantities of opium” to Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe, according to U.S. officials cited in a January 24 Wall Street Journal report.
The Pentagon, which has blacklisted Kam Air from receiving military contracts, opened an investigation when the airline bid on a contract to service the U.S.-led coalition. "An organization such as Kam Air exposes itself when it bids on a U.S. contract," U.S. Army Maj.-Gen. Richard Longo, the commander of Task Force 2010, a coalition anticorruption unit, told the Wall Street Journal. "They are subject to scrutiny."
Kam Air, which is in talks to merge with state-run Ariana Afghan Airlines, denies the charges. The private airline operates four weekly flights between Kabul and Dushanbe.
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime says approximately 30 percent of Afghan narcotics, including 90 tons of heroin, exit Afghanistan through Central Asia each year, mostly through Tajikistan. Tajik officials either lack the capacity to interdict the narcotics, or are complicit in the trade, according to Western officials in Dushanbe.
Those Western officials suspect the bulk of the onward trafficking begins at Tajikistan’s airports, usually on flights to Russia. The inbound smuggling, according to the Wall Street Journal report, is apparently happening right under the nose of airport officials, too.
Kam Air operates a fleet of some 16 planes, including Boeing 767 and 747 aircraft and Antonov cargo planes. The task force believes that domestic passenger routes have been used to ferry opium around the country, according to a U.S. official in Kabul. But the investigation is focused on Central Asia, the official said. "Kam Air is flying out bulk quantities of opium," the official said.
Marking a year this week since the start of a political crackdown, Kazakhstan has entered 2013 with a transformed political landscape, the opposition effectively decimated and independent media muzzled.
Under the strongman reign of 72-year-old President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has been in power for over two decades, Kazakhstan has never willingly opened its arms to criticism. But critics say last year witnessed an unprecedented attack on dissenting voices, leaving the political scene bereft of any meaningful platform from which to hold the administration accountable.
The crackdown began on January 23, 2012, with the rounding up of opposition figures and journalists a month after fatal unrest in Zhanaozen, a western oil town.
The anti-dissent campaign culminated in December court rulings that shut down approximately 40 independent media outlets (including outspoken newspapers Respublika and Vzglyad) and Kazakhstan’s most vocal opposition party, Alga! (whose leader Vladimir Kozlov is serving a jail term on charges of fomenting the Zhanaozen violence and plotting to overthrow the state).
Alga! and the media outlets were declared extremist and accused of inciting the Zhanaozen violence, which spiraled out of a protracted oil strike that the government acknowledges was mismanaged.
Kyrgyz villagers in a troubled border region are experiencing food, fuel and medicine shortages, local media reported today, as a state of emergency in southern Kyrgyzstan continues. In Bishkek, officials say they have made no progress getting their Uzbek counterparts to reopen the frontier after Tashkent unilaterally closed most checkpoints on January 17.
The latest tensions date to January 5, when residents of Sokh, an Uzbek enclave surrounded by Kyrgyz territory, reportedly attacked Kyrgyz border guards who were installing electrical wires on a contested piece of territory. The next day locals took several dozen Kyrgyz hostage and destroyed their vehicles.
Though the hostages were quickly released and the Kyrgyz received compensation for their damaged property (reportedly collected from Sokh’s residents, who are mostly ethnic Tajiks), troubles remain in this Ferghana Valley flashpoint.
Sokh is a strategic parcel of land. A 350-square-kilometer valley blessed with water in a parched agricultural region, it basically cuts Kyrgyzstan’s Batken Province in half. The only all-weather Kyrgyz road passes through this Uzbek territory, meaning Kyrgyz traveling between Batken, perhaps Kyrgyzstan’s poorest province, and Osh must stop at Uzbek checkpoints. As the population grows, and land and water become scarcer, the region seethes and occasionally erupts in violence.
Kazakhstan’s capital has the reputation of a conformist city of bureaucrats, loyal to the man who made it the seat of government and micromanaged its construction, President Nursultan Nazarbayev – but it seems that not everyone is banging the drum for the Leader of the Nation.
Some of the less fortunate inhabitants of the glitzy city took to the streets one freezing evening this week to complain about their lot and demand social justice, reports KTK TV.
“Who are the rulers?” footage broadcast from a dark Astana street showed a man with a megaphone yelling at a small crowd.
“Dozens” of people gathered on January 16, KTK reported – hardly the type of large, unruly street protest that has twice helped overthrow presidents in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, but still revolutionary stuff for this most conformist of capitals.
The main organizers were residents of a hostel on Astana's outskirts that is slated for demolition to make way for a power station. Some inhabitants have refused the compensation package offered by the authorities and say they will be left without affordable housing – a major bone of contention in Astana, where Zauresh Battalova, a former senator and now prominent campaigner, spearheads the For Decent Housing movement to fight for accommodation for the underprivileged and low paid.
The rally gathered protestors with wide-ranging demands, some urging timely payments of salaries and others calling on the local authorities to do a better job of clearing the snow that blankets Astana in winter.