Kazakhstan’s long-serving president has confirmed widespread expectations that the country will go to the polls in a snap election, setting the date for April 26.
Incumbent Nursultan Nazarbayev, 74, did not confirm he will stand in the poll. But in an address to the nation late on February 25 he dropped strong hints that he will, stressing the need for “stability” and “continuation.”
“First, all the appeals to me [to hold a snap election] reflect nationwide alarm that no internal discord or external conflicts should affect our country,” Nazarbayev said. “People understand that for this it is necessary to boost stability and the unity of our society.”
Secondly, he added, amid a “global economic crisis, the people need confidence in tomorrow. This means above all assuring jobs, and stability in social payments, salaries, and grants.”
Nazarbayev invoked “global geopolitical contradictions,” in an indirect reference to tensions in the post-Soviet region over the conflict in Ukraine. This means that “our citizens are concerned about the question of assuring national security,” he said. “Kazakhstanis are, therefore, coming out in favor of the further continuation of a balanced domestic and foreign policy.”
Nazarbayev’s words strongly suggest that he has every intention of staying in power for another term, since a change of leader in Kazakhstan, which has had the same president for a quarter of a century, would undoubtedly bring political upheaval in its wake.
Rakhat Aliyev, the flamboyant and controversial former son-in-law of Kazakhstan’s president, has been found dead in an Austrian prison, where he was awaiting trial on charges of murdering two bankers in Kazakhstan eight years ago.
Once a major powerbroker in Kazakhstan, widely feared for his ruthless pursuit of business interests and personal vendettas, Aliyev was found hanged in the Vienna jail on February 24, Reuters reported. Austrian corrections department director Peter Prechtl reportedly described the death as suicide, though Aliyev’s lawyer expressed doubts.
Aliyev’s death puts an end to a tumultuous life which saw him climb the dizzy heights of power alongside his ex-wife Dariga Nazarbayeva (the eldest daughter of President Nursultan Nazarbayev) and amass a vast fortune in Kazakhstan, before suffering a spectacular fall from grace and ending up behind bars on a murder rap in Europe.
The former senior official in the Nazarbayev administration fell out with his father-in-law in 2007 and holed up in exile to escape criminal charges, first in Austria and then in Malta (where he lived under his second wife’s surname, Shoraz).
He vociferously protested his innocence of all charges, waging a media war with Nazarbayev and making claims of political persecution that were widely ridiculed in Kazakhstan (including by the political opposition, to which he had never demonstrated any previous allegiance).
It’s tough to find good economic news coming out of Central Asia these days. But for those yearning for some, a recent report issued by the German financial giant Commerzbank seems to want to turn back the clock to the dreamy days of booming growth and soaring commodity prices.
The bank’s recently released 36-page report, titled Insights: Central Asia and Mongolia, touts numerous investment opportunities in the region.
“We view the trend for the Central Asian region and Mongolia as positive, owing to the diverse opportunities, and will be pleased if our work helps to make a positive mark and send out a positive signal to politics and business,” the report states.
Axel Bommersheim, one of the bank’s regional heads, goes so far as to predict in a press statement that “future economic growth in the region will be considerably higher than the global average.”
Production schedules make it understandable why the report may be a few steps behind in tracking the decline of Central Asian economies. Still, the report seems to gloss over multiple factors that aren’t exactly new, and which are stalling Central Asian economies – including sagging oil prices and the cratering Russian economy. Ultimately, the report comes across as more wishful thinking than forecasting. The projections in the Commerzbank report aren’t in line with forecasts made by the World Bank or EBRD.
Hurting the report’s credibility is a statement that Mongolians achieved their independence in “1991.” The joke may have been that Mongolia was little more than the 16th Soviet republic, but in actuality the country gained independence in the early 20th century.
A well-known Kyrgyzstani gang leader has reportedly been murdered in Minsk, Belarus, where members of the country’s former ruling clan – the Bakiyevs – are hiding from Kyrgyzstan’s prosecutors.
The bloody body of a man who looks like Almanbet Anapiyaev was found in the trunk of a Mercedes-Benz in the Belarusian capital on February 18, according to Belarusian media. The man was carrying a Russian passport bearing Anapiyaev’s likeness but a different name.
Media in Bishkek have accused Anapiyaev of everything from killing a former presidential chief of staff to instigating ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan in 2010.
Anapiyaev was believed to be a close associate of Kamchi Kolbayev. Both are on the U.S. Treasury Department’s blacklist for alleged involvement in the lucrative Eurasian heroin trade.
In May 2014, the State Department offered a $1 million reward for “information leading to the disruption of the financial mechanisms of the criminal network of Kamchybek Kolbayev.” Shortly after, Kolbayev was freed from a Kyrgyz jail, having served 18 months of a five-and-a-half-year sentence on kidnapping charges.
The International Crisis Group’s latest report, “Syria Calling: Radicalization in Central Asia,” has generated a lot of media buzz. But two prominent experts on the region are less than convinced. In a critique published February 17, John Heathershaw and David Montgomery slam the report’s fundamental assumptions, calling the research “suggestive impressions masquerading as solid insights.”
Heathershaw, of the University of Exeter (full disclosure: he is my PhD supervisor), and Montgomery, of the University of Pittsburgh, argue that there is little evidence to support the ICG’s assumptions on post-Soviet Muslim radicalization. Drawing on a limited number of interviews with “Islamic State sympathizers,” the ICG infers a causal relationship between what sympathizers say and what militants do, where none can be proven. By concluding that Islamization drives radicalization, the ICG helps legitimate Central Asian regimes’ repression of religious practices, the two contend.
Many of the ICG’s conclusions are based on guesswork, the authors say. The exclusive use of anonymous sources makes it difficult to judge whether the interviewees are serious academics or attention-grabbing, self-styled “experts”—of which Central Asia has so many. Yet these “experts” are uncritically cited and provide the sole evidence for the report’s conclusions.
For instance, Heathershaw and Montgomery take issue with the number of Central Asians that the report states have gone to Syria and Iraq:
Proponents of a controversial plan to build a high-voltage electricity export line from Tajikistan to South Asia argue that the connection – known as CASA-1000 – will not be used in winter, when the country’s own citizens suffer debilitating electricity shortages.
But a senior Tajik official has undermined that promise, arguing that no matter how little it has for itself, Tajikistan must export electricity year-round lest any transmission equipment be looted.
Most regions of Tajikistan are currently receiving about 12 hours of electricity per day; some areas get less than 10 hours and, as anyone in remote areas can attest, the current is often so weak that it cannot charge a cell phone.
Despite these extended blackouts, Tajikistan increased its electricity exports to Afghanistan through existing lines from 30 million kWh in January 2014 to 55 million kWh last month, Asia-Plus reported on February 17, citing the State Statistics Agency.
Many ask the obvious question: Shouldn’t a country’s resources first serve its own people?
After years of speculation, now we have the answer. The head of the state electricity monopoly, Barki Tajik, says that the company must export in winter because it cannot risk allowing existing infrastructure to stand idle. “We keep the voltage in these lines because there is a high probability of equipment theft,” the Asia-Plus article quoted Rustam Rakhmatzoda as saying.
That confession should impact CASA-1000, which has been on the drawing board since 2007.
Talco, the company behind Tajikistan’s largest factory, is nearing a deal that would end an eight-year legal battle with the world’s largest aluminum maker, the company says.
The state-owned Talco aluminum smelter is controlled directly by Tajikistan’s strongman President Emomali Rakhmon, whose family has appeared to benefit disproportionately from the plant’s revenues.
But a history of troubled deals with Russia’s Rusal and its subsidiaries saw Talco lose in arbitration hearings in Switzerland and the British Virgin Islands in 2013 and 2014. According to Rusal, as of May 2014 the Tajik company owed $363 million, including interest. With interest accruing at nearly $45,000 per day, the total would be roughly $375 million today.
Now Talco says it has made a proposal that satisfies Rusal and that the two companies have signed off on a draft agreement, Radio Ozodi quoted Talco executive Igor Sattarov as saying on February 16. Tajikistan’s government and the Rusal board must still okay the deal, said Sattarov, who did not disclose any of the terms. Last week President Rakhmon replaced the company’s boss.
A Rusal spokesperson would not offer any details about the alleged deal, only telling EurasiaNet.org, “We can officially say that nothing has been signed yet and the agreement in question is pending approval of Rusal’s board of directors.”
Tajikistan does not mine alumina, but imports the raw materials and uses its cheap electricity to operate the smelter, which was opened in 1975 when the country was part of the Soviet Union. When the plant was functioning at capacity, it used 40 percent of Tajikistan’s electrical output, leaving much of the country in the dark.
Russia is behind schedule implementing billions of dollars of critical hydropower projects on the Naryn River.
A top official in Kyrgyzstan has grumbled that Russia is far behind schedule implementing billions of dollars of critical hydropower projects in the energy-starved country.
The giant Kambar-Ata 1 hydropower dam and the Upper-Naryn Cascade of four smaller hydropower dams were supposed to be well on their way to completion by now. Moscow and Bishkek signed deals for their construction in August 2012. As part of the package of related agreements, Moscow secured a 15-year extension on its military facilities in the Central Asian country after the current lease expires in 2017.
But according to Kyrgyz Energy Minister Kubanychbek Turdubayev, nothing much is happening. Speaking at a ministry meeting on February 12, in comments carried by Vechernii Bishkek, Turdubayev said:
We have been barraged with criticism over [energy] projects. People can see no real progress in such projects as [the construction of] two Kambar-Ata hydroelectric power plants and the Upper-Naryn Cascade of hydroelectric power plants. It should be admitted that there are serious omissions. Kyrgyzstan's rights have been violated and there is no progress. […]
Moves are afoot in Kazakhstan to hold a snap presidential election. Proponents say an early election would give incumbent strongman Nursultan Nazarbayev a fresh mandate as the country faces a slumping economy and regional geopolitical tensions over the Ukraine conflict.
Nazarbayev, who has ruled Kazakhstan since before the collapse of the Soviet Union, won a snap election with little opposition in 2011.
The council of Assembly of People of Kazakhstan (APK), an umbrella organization representing the interests of Kazakhstan’s ethnic groups, called for the early election over the weekend. Nazarbayev chairs the organization and appoints its members.
“The country’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, must be given a new mandate of national confidence in order for the country to successfully navigate a period of global travails,” the APK’s council said in a statement issued on February 14, hinting at Kazakhstan’s economic difficulties and at regional tensions stemming from the escalating conflict in Ukraine.
“A mandate of confidence in the Leader of the Nation [one of Nazarbayev’s official titles] will unite and rally the people at this new stage of world development, allowing all efforts to be concentrated on the most important questions of state development,” the council said.
This public appeal from a quasi-official body for a snap election (which has been rumored for several months) means an early vote is practically a fait accompli. And it is no secret who is the favorite to win.
With Kazakhstan in the economic doldrums, the government is asking the “independent” media to don their rose-colored specs.
“At a time when measures to improve the economic situation are being carried out, the media is recommended to adhere to the following structure for publishing material,” says a statement sent to Kazakhstan’s private media outlets by the authoritarian government's Committee for Communications, IT, and Information and re-published by the Adil Soz media freedom watchdog on February 12.
A list of detailed “recommendations” follows, containing information on what the non-state media should publish, right down to the content, the frequency, and the thrust of the reporting.
The recommendations include publishing “material on every briefing as they are held (1-2 reports in the ‘Main News’ section)”; expert comments on the “correct measures [being taken by the government] and Kazakhstan’s margin of safety that will allow it to withstand a crisis”; and “infographics about Kazakhstan’s margin of safety and achievements in the years of independence (no less than once a month).”
Private media are also recommended to base their reporting on “official statements by competent state bodies,” and they should publish material “on negative social phenomena in foreign countries owing to the global economic situation (daily).”