Kazakhstan’s election officials like to claim that state-controlled media presents equal coverage of all candidates in the upcoming April 3 presidential elections. Yesterday's Kazakh-language evening news on state-run Khabar is an example of just how “fair and balanced” the campaign is presented.
As usual, President Nursultan Nazarbayev dominates the headlines. The first item is a two-minute report on a Security Council meeting that serves neatly to remind viewers of Nazarbayev's military leadership.
News then turns to Nazarbayev presenting new apartments to 400 people in the capital, Astana. The item shows busy construction sites, and an old war hero hailing Nazarbayev to the rapturous applause of a packed hall. Nazarbayev has claimed he is too busy with state business to campaign, but he somehow spared the time to attend this state-sponsored love-in.
It was surely no coincidence that this news item about housing, as EurasiaNet’s Joanna Lillis pointed out yesterday, coincided with protests outside about, well, housing. Just as the news was going to air, a group of homeowner activists had taken over the conference hall at the ruling party’s offices in Astana. Khabar, however, didn’t go anywhere near the topic.
But Khabar did take a short break from Nazarbayev to air a report about 128 new apartments being commissioned in Uralsk for young teachers and doctors. A wholesome family was rolled out to show their happiness at not being homeless.
And then it's back to a bit more Nazarbayev: This time a report on a meeting of the Kazakhstan-2020 coalition of democratic forces campaign for Nazarbayev. Yet more North Korean-style enthusiasts pour forth in adulation.
Authoritarian Uzbekistan is notorious for its tight grip on the media. But it's probably safe to assume that Tashkent knows what's been going on in northern Africa in recent months. Perhaps this is why the government is patching up a hole in its spotty control over access to information: mobile phone technology that allows users to view blocked Internet sites on cell phones and quickly distribute information via text message.
Russia’s RBC Daily reports that Uzbek regulators have demanded mobile operators notify the government about mass distributions of SMS messages with “suspicious content.” A source at the Uzbek Agency for Communications and Information, which regulates the wireless market, told RBC Daily that mobile operators would also have to switch their Internet networks off whenever authorities wish.
The Left Bank of Astana is normally a staid kind of place. Purpose-built as the seat of government, this futuristic spot is populated mainly by officials in smart suits zipping between the glittery buildings. That changed today, though, as activists took to the streets on the Left Bank for a rare protest. Police made several arrests.
Activists from the For Worthy Housing and Let's Leave Housing for the People movements, which lobby for Kazakhs’ right to decent accommodation, had gathered in Astana from all over the country to persuade President Nursultan Nazarbayev – who’s up for re-election on April 3 – to resolve their housing problems.
Watched by police, they gathered near the Singing Fountain in the heart of the government sector of the city, opposite the parliament, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. The news agency put the number of protestors at over 100, though other sources placed it far higher: the Respublika newspaper suggested several hundred activists had turned out.
The protest later split into two groups, the website of the activist group Socialist Resistance of Kazakhstan said. One, headed by Zauresh Battalova (a well-known For Worthy Housing movement campaigner and former senator), headed for talks with the ruling Nur Otan party, while the other marched through the old center of Astana on the Right Bank. As the protestors marched up the main avenue, they “chanted slogans to boycott the upcoming elections,” Respublika reported.
Presidential offspring in Central Asia often follow similar development patterns.
It has become standard, for example, for the children of the region's leaders to cultivate an uncanny knack for business, but also to branch out into sport and now also philanthropy.
Uzbek President Islam Karimov's daughter, Gulnara, is mainly famous for her fashion sense, entrepreneurial skills and diplomatic nous, but she has also attempted in recent years to cast herself as the country's arch-philanthropist.
British singer Sting's performance in Tashkent, for instance, was ostensibly organized by Karimova to raise money for "various charitable projects and grants programs," as her own official site explains. That performance turned into such a major PR disaster, however, attracting negative coverage from international media, that Sting was forced to issue a hasty statement describing Karimov as being "hermetically sealed in his own medieval, tyrannical mindset.”
Aisultan Nazarbayev, grandson of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, has joined Kazakhstan soccer club Lokomotiv Astana. The 20-year-old striker, son of Dariga Nazarbayeva and Kazakhstan's Public Enemy No. 1, Rakhat Aliyev, is widely seen as his grandfather's favorite and his presence should give a boost to the capital’s team.
The younger Nazarbayev, who recently graduated from the UK's Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, has previously represented his country at an under-17 level. He will start out in the reserves of the soccer team that was founded two years ago from the merger of two clubs in Almaty, Kazakhstan's commercial hub.
Soccer is something of a kingly sport in Central Asia. Rustam Emomali, son of Tajik president Emomali Rakhmon, set up his own club Istiqlol Dushanbe, which, as striker, he led to victory in the Tajik league.
Kazakhstan Temir Zholi, the state railroad company, bankrolls Lokomotiv Astana, but until now the capital has been unable to unseat the country’s traditional soccer powerhouses in Aktobe and Kostanay. With the all-powerful Nazarbayev brand on board, the playing field looks a little less level.
You might think that in an election where the incumbent president is guaranteed to win, the opposition would be able to go about its business unhindered. Not in Kazakhstan, though, where the campaign for the presidential poll has taken a turn that’s both dirty and surreal.
Activists from the Alga! DVK party who took to the streets in the northern city of Pavlodar on March 11 had a festive air about them as they waved colorful balloons promoting a boycott of the April 3 vote.
As a video posted on YouTube shows, their cheerful mood was soon spoilt as they were set upon by five knife-wielding thugs with a clear target in mind: the balloons. Clearly disturbed by the subversive message on them (“I’m not going to the polls!”), the troublemakers set about popping the balloons with their knives, to the evident shock of the Alga! party members.
The circumstances of the attack “give grounds to assume that the act of intimidation was planned by those who consider themselves supporters of the current authorities and President [Nursultan] Nazarbayev,” the party said in a statement that also urged law-enforcement bodies to conduct a proper investigation to find and punish the perpetrators of the attack. “The Alga! people’s party demands from the authorities that they assure the security of citizens, irrespective of their party affiliation and degree of opposition to the ruling regime.”
Simultaneous nighttime fires struck three restaurants in Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek, this week, all of them specializing in Russian or Ukrainian cuisine. While investigators poke around in the debris, locals are left scratching their heads, with some worried about a violent turf war, some warning of anti-Slavic nationalism, and others just wondering whether they’ll still be able to enjoy their favorite cured pig fat and pepper-infused vodka.
All three fires began between 4:15 and 4:30 a.m. on March 7, the second day of a three-day weekend in honor of International Women’s Day, a state holiday. So far, one person has been reported injured.
The worst damaged, according to local press, was the biggest of the three restaurants, Pechki-Lavochki, which lost its entire outdoor terrace to the blaze, complete with tables and chairs. Fire inspector Ulan Rysaliev told reporters that a security camera had recorded trespassers nearby and an arson probe is underway.
Investigators likewise suspect foul play at Zaporozhskaya Sech, a Ukrainian restaurant with some of the finest fatback this side of the Black Sea. There, a 23-year-old security guard sustained bad burns after kicking aside a Molotov cocktail hurled into a bathroom window. Several media reports said the assailants tried to set fire to the restaurant from the outside as well, leaving behind an empty five-liter gas canister, but the building’s fire-resistant coating thwarted the attempt.
Maybe Tajikistan’s leaders have finally decided that a heavy-handed approach to smoldering discontent is futile and have taken a page from the hearts-and-minds playbook. Despite their concerted crackdown on anything related to Islam lately, the ruling party has offered locals in Isfara -- often described as an Islamic stronghold in northern Tajikistan'ssection of the Ferghana Valley -- something with popular appeal.
The People’s Democratic Party paid for eight indigent boys from the village of Charku (the scene of a shootout last fall, allegedly with Islamic militants) to be circumcised this week, Avesta.tj reports. The ceremony was complete with music and food and the press service of the regional government said the party promised more support for low-income families in the future.
But the people of Charku may be unimpressed if they learn that, as far as charitable snipping is concerned, they come up short. A year ago, businessmen provided circumcisions for 200 boys at the Dushanbe Business Center and 70 more in Dangara, the president’s home district.
Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, has been taking a British tabloid beating over the controversial links he has cultivated in his role as a trade envoy. Touring the world for years drumming up business for the United Kingdom with assorted dictators and despots, the underemployed prince seems to roll with a motley crew, including some movers and shakers in Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan.
Earlier this week Andrew managed to cling on to his envoy role despite his links to convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. This furor seems not to have bothered the “Prince of Sleaze,” as he’s come to be known. Even as his position was under intense scrutiny on March 7, he was lobbying a member of Britain's parliament to promote business links with Azerbaijan, a country he has visited on numerous occasions. He is said to be a frequent dinner guest of President Ilham Aliyev.
Kyrgyzstanis looking for a quick buck could do no worse than giving birth to triplets and naming them after the country's leading politicians.
At least that's what a family in the southern Batken region has just done. The KyrTAG news agency says parliament has unanimously voted to give 1 million Kyrgyzstani soms ($20,000) to a family that decided to named their newborn sons after the leaders of the three coalition parties: Prime Minister Almazbek Atambayev, Ata-Zhurt leader and parliament speaker Akhmatbek Keldibekov, and Respublika leader Omurbek Babanov.
According to KyrTAG, a set of triplets -- one girl and two boys born last year -- were named in a similar vein after the provisional government leaders that came to power in the April 7 uprising: Atambayev, President Roza Otunbayeva and Ata-Meken leader Omurbek Tekebayev. That earned the family 50,000 soms, a cow, and a house worth 250,000 soms.
But with all the speculation currently swirling about Kyrgyzstan's shaky coalition government possibly falling apart in the near future, things don't bode well for sibling ties between little Akhmatbek, Almazbek and Omurbek.