President Nursultan Nazarbayev delivering a televised address to the nation on January 25, 2017. (Photo: TV screenshot)
The president of Kazakhstan has delivered a nationwide televised address to outline a formally dramatic dilution of his own powers and a shift to a more parliamentary form of government.
Nursultan Nazarbayev described the strongly presidential model in force since independence as necessary to “overcome the enormous difficulties of forming the state,” but said that the time had arrived for a new model.
“The basic essence is that the president will give some of his powers to parliament and the government,” he said in an adress televised on all national channels on January 25. “The proposed reform is a serious redistribution of power and a democratization of the political system as a whole.”
The vision, which has been described in still fairly vague terms, is one for a mixed form of government that would still leave the president with an ultimate say over the most sensitive matters of state.
Nazarbayev said around 40 areas of responsibility would be delegated from the president’s office to the executive or parliament. Those would include what Nazarbayev termed the “regulation of social and economic processes.” Priority areas should be changed by adoption of legislative amendments by the end of the current session of parliament, he said.
Parliament will assume a greater role in forming the government — a fact that Nazarbayev said would enhance the accountability of the Cabinet.
“The winning party in parliamentary elections will have a decisive influence over the formation of the government,” Nazarbayev said.
With things as they are, the ascendancy of parliament hints at a variation on the status quo considering the fact that Nazarbayev’s Nur Otan party has all but complete control control over the legislature. The only other parties represented in parliament are token opposition forces who are notable only for their support of the government.
The editor a prominent newspaper has received a suspended five-year jail term after confessing to charges of fraud.
The specialized inter-district criminal court in Astana on January 24 ruled to allow Bigeldi Gabdullin, the 61-year old chief editor of the Central Asia Monitor newspaper and the executive director of Radiotochka.kz news website, to be released from custody and for a freeze of his assets to be lifted.
Gabdullin was detained in mid-November on what investigators said was the suspicion that he was using media under his control to intimidate officials into paying him money to avoid negative coverage.
While the journalist has escaped prison time, his criminal record means he will be denied the right to hold office in local government departments for a period of up to 10 years. He will also be denied the right to relocate from his current place of abode without prior permission from the authorities.
Several high-ranking officials gave testimony as injured parties during the trial. The Kazakhstan edition of Forbes magazine reported prosecutor claims that Gabdullin threaten to publish defamatory material about the head of Zhambyl region, Karim Korkebayev, the deputy mayor of Astana, Yermek Amanshayev and Energy Minister Kanat Bozumbayev among others unless they provided his publications with contracts under a system known at the state order. That system is used by the government to finance state media or place articles about state policies in nominally independent media.
Press freedom advocates had initially cast Gabdullin’s case as another instance of state pressure on the media.
A court in western Kazakhstan has ordered oil workers who went on a hunger strike as part of a labor dispute to pay 3.4 million tenge ($10,000) in compensation for damages purportedly incurred by their refusal to eat.
Mangystau district court in the city of Aktau on January 24 found that the 28 laborers had caused their employer, Oil Construction Company, or OCC, financial losses, despite the fact that they continued to work for the duration of their protest.
The standoff between Aktau-based OCC and its employees was sparked by a court ruling at the start of the month revoking registration for an independent national trade union that laborers have said has been more aggressive in defending their interests than state-approved unions. On January 5, one day after Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Kazakhstan (KNPRK in its Russian initials) was denied its registration over registration technicalities, OCC workers declared a hunger strike.
After OCC management failed to reach a negotiated settlement, the company turned to the courts in Aktau with a plea to have the strike declared illegal. It also asked for the court to require the protesting laborers to vacate company premises in which they were conducting a sit-in. The court upheld the company’s request.
Workers and their representatives expressed dismay at that decision, declaring that their decision to refuse food was a matter of personal conscience and that their protest had no impact on the company’s productivity.
Following up on that ruling, OCC pursued an additional civil suit demanding damages over the hunger strike, also successfully.
Around 300 OCC employees had taken part in the hunger strike, which ran from January 5 through to last weekend, when they were evicted from the location where the protest was taking place.
Penalties for swearing and drinking alcohol in public places in Kyrgyzstan have been stiffened as officials pursue a morality agenda aimed squarely at the nation’s youth.
Changes to the law approved by President Almazbek Atambayev on January 23 will see an increase in the fine for cursing in public places to 1,500 som ($21.50) from 300 som. The fine for drinking in improper locations, including the workplace, will rise tenfold to 1,000 som ($14).
The revised law will come into effect in early February.
Curiously, as Kloop.kg notes, the backers of the law from the Respublika-Ata-Jurt faction in parliament, were unable to specify which words in particular would fall foul of the swearing law. As to the drinking, police will be permitted to mount raids on apartment courtyards as they seek out offenders loitering in doorways and children’s playgrounds brews in hand.
One aspect of the changes to the law addresses the matter of underage drinking. Parents of minors found consuming intoxicating beverages will also now face much greater penalties. Fines for antisocial behaviour involving minors are also been made more severe.
A brawl broke out in a contested section of the border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan over the weekend — the latest of many such incidents caused by failure to forge a solution on joint use of the area.
As usual, the picture has been muddled by duelling accounts of precisely what happened.
On January 21, the head of Kyrgyzstan’s Batken region, Kenesh Salikhov, told media that a representative of the Tajik police came informed him that some villagers from the Kyrgyz village of Kok-Tash had assaulted a citizen of Tajikistan. Despite the nominal border, the two communities have homes side by side, in what is sometimes described as a chessboard configuration, so dust-ups can break out apparently trivial matters.
Salikhov said that his information led him to disbelieve the Tajik police account.
“Later, we found out this person was not assaulted by our citizens and the Tajik police had no case to make, but on the next day, the victim summoned about 15-20 people and came to our village for a showdown,” he told Zanoza.kg.
The bout of verbal sparring from both sides then escalated into stone-throwing. As a result, the informal village leader of Kok-Tash, Raziya Osorova, was injured and had to be taken to a hospital for severe head injuries.
Turmush.kg news website reported this dispute involved around 20 residents from the Kyrgyz village and nearly 100 residents of the Tajik side. Witness accounts of such events, however, should be treated with caution since either side typically inflates the size of opponent contingents in the interests of their narrative. One house and four cars are said to have been damaged in the fighting.
A court in Kazakhstan has upheld a five-year jail sentence for two activists serving time for their role in organizing protest rallies in opposition to a proposed land privatization scheme.
The Atyrau court on January 20 ruled to leave Maks Bokayev and Talgat Ayan in prison at the end of a week of hearings marred by procedural irregularities. While a handful of supporters of the pair claimed that they were systematically denied the ability to attend the hearings, around 50 people did make it to the courtroom daily.
Bokayev and Ayan refused to attend the hearings in person, calling the proceedings unjust, but initially gave testimony via videoconference. From January 18 onward, they declined to participate altogether.
The appeal reexamined the basic core of the state’s argument against the two activists, which was that they were instrumental in inciting social unrest in mid-April last year by spreading unfounded rumors about the proposal to sell off swathes of land. Prosecutors argued that Bokayev and Ayan were the primary organizers of the protests in Atyrau, although their supporters have argued the rallies snowballed organically and that the pair played a peripheral role.
Independent Atyrau-based newspaper Ak Zhaiyk cited Bokayev’s sister, Zhanargul Bokayeva, who also acted as public defender for the jailed pair, as saying that on the day of the largest rally, April 24, there was already a large crowd on the main square in Atyrau by mid-afternoon, which is when Bokayev arrived. The crowd also included regional and city officials, who attempted to cool moods in the crowd.
The rally proceeded peacefully and without incident — an achievement that Bokayeva argued was partly down to her brother.
Tajikistan’s Interior Ministry has claimed that the country’s security agencies managed to thwart 36 terrorist attacks in 2016 and stopped around 50 people from mounting attacks on government buildings.
Interior Minister Ramazon Rahimzoda provided no details of specific alleged plots at his press conference on January 20, although there have been sporadic reports of would-be attacks. One circulated in the local media involved some kind of strike on residents of the capital, Dushanbe, during the May 9 Victory Day celebrations.
To believe Rahimzoda, the achievements of the Tajik security agencies in combating terrorism are little short of miraculous.
More than 400 people were detained last year in Tajikistan on suspicion of belonging to various terrorist groups, Rahimzoda said. Over the same period, 40 people joined Islamic State, he claimed.
If anything, the minister lamented that, with the odd exception, foreign partners are failing to take sufficient advantage of Tajikistan’s terrorist-busting abilities.
Rahimzoda boasted it was his ministry’s information that led to a terrorist group comprising 11 natives of Central Asia being rounded up in Russia. The alleged militants were purportedly members of the Islamic State group and were planning to blow up buildings in St. Petersburg, according to Russian officials.
Authorities in Kazakhstan are stepping up efforts to tighten control on information by granting the security services power to sever internet and phone connections without having to apply for a court order.
Independent newspaper Ak-Zhaiyk reported on January 20 that the authority to disconnect telecommunications has been granted to the National Security Committee, or KNB, at all levels, down to local branches.
The stated aim of the measure is to combat terrorism.
As lawyer Jokhar Utebekov has noted on his Facebook account, the fact that the KNB will be able to act directly in blocking websites, disconnecting mobile phone links, disabling messenger apps or suspending internet connections without having to go through service providers would appear to indicate that it already possesses the technical means to do so.
The KNB will be able to carry out any of those actions at the request of the police, the anti-corruption agency, the economic crimes service and several other security bodies, in effect giving it authority previously wielded only by the General Prosecutor’s Office.
The changes to the law that have brought about these changes are, incidentally, part of the same contentious legislative package that required citizens to register with local authorities in the event that they settle in a location for more than one month.
Be it as it may, the adjustment to the law will change little in reality and will only formalize an already existing pattern of censorship.
A protest by oil sector workers in the western Kazakhstan city of Aktau has entered its third week as authorities appear unwilling to reconsider a decision to withdraw the registration of an independent trade union.
This dispute flared when the Specialized Inter-District Economic Court of South Kazakhstan Region ruled on January 4 to shutter the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Kazakhstan (KNPRK in its Russian initials) over technicalities to do with its registration. The following day, laborers with the Atyrau-based Oil Construction Company, or OCC, filed an official motion to initiate a hunger strike.
In an echo of the industrial dispute that culminated in bloodshed in the oil town of Zhanaozen in 2011, national media have almost entirely ignored the standoff. But for tireless reporting from correspondents at RFE/RL’s Kazakhstan service, Radio Azattyq, possibly nothing would be known at all about what is taking place. With the number of workers taking part in protest actions growing — to around 400 people, according to Radio Azattyq — officials may possibly begin to take more notice.
Moscow-based website ferghana.ru cited a workers representative at OCC, Nurbek Kushakbayev, as saying that operations had not been halted by the industrial dispute.
“Work continues, we have not stopped work. The workers are working, but they have simply stopped eating. There are threats from the authorities, they keep on saying this is illegal. But there is nothing illegal about this. To eat or not to eat is for every individual to decide,” Kushakbayev toldferghana.ru.
A mobile phone operator in Tajikistan has said it is appealing what it considers an illegal tax claim for around $19.5 million.
Tcell, which is controlled by a company that is in turn 60 percent owned by Scandinavian telecommunications giant Telia Company AB, said on January 19 that the claim is based on inexistent revenues. (Telia Company is currently going through the process of divesting itself of its interests in Tcell).
Failure to successfully appeal the claim will place a “very severe financial strain on Tcell,” the company said.
“We are very concerned with the situation which we believe is totally unacceptable,” Emil Nilsson, head of the Eurasia business region at Telia Company, said in a statement.
Telia Company said the claim for 155 million somoni follows a tax audit for the period May 2015 through June 2016 and is equivalent to Tcell earnings for the entirety of 2015.
That the Tajik government is trying to sting a foreign investor for a suspiciously implausible windfall should come as no surprise to anybody familiar with the state of the country's beleaguered telecommunications sector.
Indeed, according to EuriasaNet.org sources, Tcell is not the only one to getting this treatment. Telia Company should consider themselves lucky.
Informed sources have said that Megafon-Tajikistan, another top mobile phone service provider and daughter company of Russia’s Megafon, is being hit up for 300 million somoni. And Beeline, the brand of the local affiliate of Russia’s Vimpelcom, is said to be facing a fine of around 350 million somoni.