While most of the world's attention is now fixated on the World Cup in Brazil, the lesser-known sport of horseback wrestling has been grabbing headlines in Kazakhstan.
Asia's first horseback wrestling championships were held near Astana, Kazakhstan's glitzy capital, on June 15. A total of 35 wrestlers from Central Asia and beyond took part in fast and furious tussles: bouts can be over in less than 10 seconds. The rules of audaryspak, as the sport is called in Kazakh, are simple – there are two guys on horseback and the object is to be the first to wrestle your opponent to the ground.
Kazakhstan took gold in all three weight categories – Yermek Zhapishev prevailed in the 70 kg class, Syrym Izbasarov won the 70-90 kg class, and the 90 kg and above category was taken by Birzhan Kosaliyev. Competitors from China, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia and Uzbekistan filled the other places on the podium.
The horseback grappling-fest was organized by Kazakhstan's Association of National Sports and was sponsored by President Nursultan Nazarbayev's politcal party Nur Otan. Samruk-Kazyna, the nation's cash-rich sovereign wealth fund, was another sponsor. Kossaliyev, winner of the 90 kg and above class, took home a Toyota car and a check for a million tenge ($5,448).
Audaryspak, which originated on the Central Asian steppe in the times when the horse was king and fighting abilities were paramount, is now enjoying a contemporary renaissance, spreading its reach into Hungary, Russia, Afghanistan, Mongolia, Azerbaijan, and China, where the next championships are to be held in 2016.
The Canadian company operating Kyrgyzstan’s troubled Kumtor gold mine has announced that a shutdown will not happen. A last-minute agreement appears to end a period of brinksmanship between Kyrgyz officials and company representatives that could have pushed the country’s shaky economy over the edge.
Toronto-listed Centerra Gold threatened on June 2 to start implementing a shutdown plan at close of business on June 13, if it did not receive government approval for its annual work plan. Centerra executives said they had been seeking approval since late last year.
The company – Kyrgyzstan’s largest investor – said that “despite repeated submissions and discussions with senior officials,” the company remained in limbo, unable to receive the necessary permits to operate until Bishkek signed off on the work plan.
Environmental concerns were one reason for the hold-up: the State Agency for Environmental Protection had voiced misgivings that the company’s plans could damage the Davydov Glacier high up in the Tian Shan Mountains, where the mine is located.
Centerra Gold warned that “an extended shutdown […] would likely have a material adverse impact on the Kumtor mine and the Company’s operations, future cash flows, earnings, results of operations and financial condition.”
Astana is abolishing visa requirements for citizens of 10 countries with a strong track record of investing in Kazakhstan, President Nursultan Nazarbayev has announced.
The visa-free countries are France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, the Netherlands, South Korea, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and the United States, Nazarbayev told a June 12 gathering of the Foreign Investors Council at the lake resort of Burabay, to the north of Astana.
The visa-free system is expected to go into effect on July 15 and initially be in force for a pilot period of one year, Rapil Zhoshibayev, the deputy foreign minister, later explained. Citizens of 10 designated countries can stay in Kazakhstan without visas for 15 days; anyone needing to stay longer would be required to apply for business or investor visas.
Astana is also mulling simplifying the visa process with the introduction of online applications for tourists from China, India and Middle Eastern states, Aset Ishekeshev, the minister of industry and new technologies, announced on June 16.
The visa-free regime is part of a package of investment perks that Nazarbayev signed into law on June 12, which also includes tax breaks.
The perks are part of a push by Astana to attract investment, especially outside the extractive sectors. They are part of the government’s strategy to diversify the economy away from oil and gas, upon which it is heavily reliant at present.
With no teams from Central Asia making it to the 2014 World Cup finals, set to kick off tomorrow in Brazil, local interest again will focus on the man in the middle, Uzbekistan's top referee Ravshan Irmatov.
Tashkent-based Irmatov, 36, won plaudits for his smooth handling of five high-pressure matches in South Africa in 2010, including the opening game and the semi-final between The Netherlands and Uruguay. He returned home a hero and was anointed the Pride Of Uzbekistan, the state's highest honor.
Irmatov will be joined in Brazil by two assistant referees from Central Asia—Bakhadyr Kochkarov, 44, another South Africa veteran who hails from Osh, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan's Abdukhamidullo Rasulov, 38, who is making his first World Cup appearance. The three work as football instructors at home and are the only officials from the former Soviet Union presiding in Brazil (Russia’s team is competing).
The Central Asian troika will need to be on the ball to avoid repeating gaffes the group made at last year's Confederations Cup tournament also in Brazil. There, Irmatov allowed Italy a controversial goal in its match with Brazil. He initially blew for a foul and was seen pointing at the penalty spot but then allowed play to continue and Giorgio Chiellini scored for the Italians.
Irmatov accepted the goal but later admitted it should not have been allowed, that he should have stuck with the decision to give a penalty. In the same match, Rasulov and Kochkarov were both faulted for failing to spot offside goals scored by Brazil.
Gazprom was supposed to end Kyrgyzstan’s gas shortages and contract disputes with its neighbors. Instead, since the Russian energy giant took control of Kyrgyzstan’s bankrupt gas company almost two months ago, the country has faced one of its worst gas crises in memory.
The immediate cause of the shortage is Uzbekistan. The Uzbek state gas supplier, Uztransgaz, closed the taps on April 14, leaving an estimated 60,000 households in southern Kyrgyzstan without gas. Kyrgyz leaders are now proposing solutions that are likely to get Uzbekistan’s attention, but could prove risky.
The problem appears to have started on a technicality: Shortly before Kyrgyzgaz handed control of its debt-ridden gas network to Gazprom, its supply contract with Uzbekistan ran out. Uztransgaz agreed to add two more weeks, to April 15, but who were they supposed to negotiate with? The now-defunct Kyrgyzgaz? Gazprom? Gazprom’s new local subsidiary Kyrgyzgazprom?
That question lingers, but after almost two months it sounds like the Uzbeks are not keen to talk.
Deputy Prime Minister Valery Dil says he has tried multiple times to reach his Uzbek counterparts, yet they ignore him. Prime Minister Djoomart Otorbaev has also complained he can't get anyone in Tashkent to take his calls.
Rakhat Aliyev, the former son-in-law of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, has been arrested in Vienna seven years after fleeing Kazakhstan following a spectacular fall-out with his father-in-law.
The arrest of Aliyev, who has been convictedin absentia in Kazakhstan on charges ranging from kidnapping and embezzlement to plotting a coup d’etat against Nazarbayev, was reported by Austria’s APA news agency on June 6.
The report did not specify on what charges Aliyev – the former husband of Nazarbayev’s eldest daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva – had been detained, but noted that Austria opened a murder investigation against him in July 2011.
That came a month after Kazakhstan announced that Aliyev was facing a murder rap in absentia after evidence emerged “irrefutably proving” he had killed two bankers who disappeared in 2007.
Prosecutors said after finding the bodies of Zholdas Timraliyev and Aybar Khasenov four years after their disappearance that the men had been tortured, suffocated, put in barrels and hidden in a gorge outside Almaty, Kazakhstan’s commercial capital.
Aliyev – who held a string of high-powered posts in Nazarbayev’s administration and controlled a vast business empire – was serving as ambassador to Austria when the scandal over the bankers’ disappearance broke. He never returned to Kazakhstan.
He was later convicted in absentia of kidnapping the bankers, among other charges, and sentenced to 40 years in jail.
Lest anyone get the wrong idea about who controls northern Kazakhstan, a golden man and his silver maiden consort were out in Pavlodar on June 4 drumming up Kazakhstani patriotism.
These symbols of Kazakhstani identity rode white horses through the streets in the northern city where ethnic Russians slightly outnumber Kazakhs, reports Bnews.kz.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March alarmed Central Asian leaders who fear Moscow could have an eye on their territories. Kazakhstan looks especially vulnerable because it shares a 6,846-kiliometer border with its former imperial overlord, along which live large ethnic Russian populations. Just in case, Astana has moved to criminalize calls for separatism.
The flag-waving parade in honor of the day Kazakhstan's national emblem was adopted in 1992 culminated with a crowd of 5,000 young patriots gathering in Pavlodar's football stadium to sing the national anthem.
Symbolism hung heavy on the football pitch. The original Golden Man (“Altyn Adam” in Kazakh) was a Scythian prince dressed in gold-plated armor whose remains were discovered in a burial mound near Almaty in 1969. After the Soviet Union collapsed, Kazakhstan adopted the Golden Man as a symbol of independence, representing a nomadic, warrior heritage.
Kyrgyzstan’s largest industrial enterprise, the Canadian-operated Kumtor gold mine, says it will stop production next week if the Kyrgyz government does not approve the necessary work permits. The announcement, which sent the company’s stock plummeting to its lowest point this year, comes less than a month after a rancorous board meeting where Kyrgyz representatives complained their Canadian partners ignored their decisive vote on the company’s management structure.
Toronto-listed Centerra Gold, which is one-third owned by Kyrgyzaltyn, the Kyrgyz government’s state-owned gold company, says its has worked since late 2013 to secure the necessary mining and environmental permits and approval of its 2014 action plan.
“Unfortunately, this year, despite repeated submissions and discussions with senior officials, such approvals and permits have not been provided. The continuing absence of such approval and permits creates significant uncertainty and risks for Centerra and its employees,” the company said in a June 2 statement.
Without the permits, Kumtor will begin stopping operations on Friday, June 13. Slowing down or temporarily stopping work at Kumtor negatively impacts revenues for longer than any stoppage, because work can only be gradually resumed at the high-altitude, high-tech mine in Kyrgyzstan’s Tien Shan mountains.
It has become standard for rights advocates to use Uzbekistan’s controversial policies – forced labor in the cotton fields and the hounding of independent religious groups, for example – to demand Uzbekistan’s international partners push for reform. But a separatist group from within Uzbekistan taking its campaign to the World Bank is something new.
On June 1, a little-known freedom movement in Uzbekistan’s resources-rich, but impoverished northwestern region of Karakalpakstan urged the president of the World Bank Group, Jim Yong Kim, to postpone loans to the Uzbek government until Tashkent has taken "concrete steps to end the use of forced labor" in the cotton sector. Alga Karakalpakstan ("Forward Karakalpakstan") said the $411 million for water management improvement and horticulture projects in cotton-growing Karakalpakstan will encourage the government to continue abusing the minority’s rights.
"The government owns all the land of Uzbekistan and forces farmers to meet annual quotas for cotton, and sell it to the state at a low purchasing price—under the threat of losing land, criminal charges and physical violence," said the English-language letter to Kim, describing a widely documented practice. "Every autumn, the Uzbek government forcibly mobilized 16-17 year old students of colleges and universities, pensioners, education and health professionals, and other public sector workers to pick cotton."
Federal Prosecutors unsealed an indictment on May 30 charging Khairullozhon Matanov, a 23-year-old citizen of Kyrgyzstan, with four counts of obstructing justice in connection with the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.
The indictment asserts Matanov was a close acquaintance of the accused Boston Marathon bombers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and that he had repeated contact with the duo in the days following the April 15, 2013, tragedy. In particular, it outlines that Matanov had dinner with the Tsarnaev brothers just hours after two home-made bombs detonated near the marathon finish line. In addition, “in the hours and days following the bombings, Matanov contacted and attempted to contact Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev by cellphone and saw Tamerlan in person at least twice.”
Matanov is specifically charged with destroying potential evidence and making false statements that impeded the criminal investigation into the Tsarnaevs’ alleged actions. Authorities identified the Tsarnaevs as prime suspects on April 18, 2013.
The indictment notes that Matanov spoke with federal investigators several times on April 20, 2013. “Although Matanov soon dropped the pretense that he and Tamerlan Tsarnaev had not seen each other much, he continued to falsify, conceal and cover up evidence of the extent of his friendship, contact and communication with the Tsarnaevs during the week of the bombings, especially during the hours following the bombings,” the indictment states.
“One subject about which Matanov misinformed federal investigators concerned his interactions with the Tsarnaevs on April 15, 2013, the afternoon and evening of the bombings," it adds. Tamerlan Tsarnaev died during a shootout with law-enforcement officers in the early hours of April 19, 2013. Dzhokhar was taken into custody late the same day; his trial is scheduled to begin November 3 in US District Court in Boston.