Lumbering camels and nimble horses are common sights on the Kazakh steppe, but if you spotted a prowling tiger, you’d probably do a double take. In a few years, though, the striped felines may not be such a surprise: Astana is joining forces with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in an ambitious bid to reintroduce tigers to the Central Asian state.
The project seeks to bring these proud beasts from the Russian Far East and settle them in southern Kazakhstan in an area deemed by experts to offer a suitable habitat.
The tigers won’t replace the Caspian tiger (panthera tigris virgata) that once made its home in Kazakhstan and all over the Caspian region. Last spotted in the wild in the 1970s, that breed was driven to extinction by poaching and habitat loss, and there are none in captivity.
But all is not lost for Kazakhstan’s tiger lovers: It’s hoped that the Amur tiger, which is genetically identical to its Caspian cousin, will eagerly take up the relocation offer and adapt smoothly to the Ili River Delta south of Lake Balkhash, where 400,000 hectares of suitable habitat have been identified.
“With a strong plan and proper protections in place, tigers can again roam the forests and landscapes of Central Asia,” WWF-Russia Director Igor Chestin said as the new program was announced on April 14.
He was among WWF officials Prime Minister Karim Masimov met with in March, and now the WWF is teaming up with Kazakhstan’s Environment Ministry to design detailed plans to bring the tiger back.
Sometimes when reading about politics in Kyrgyzstan, you have to read news items twice just to make sure you have understood properly.
Sure enough, Bishkek’s AKIpress news agency is reporting that 10 parliamentary deputies from Felix Kulov's opposition Ar-Namys Party have decided to join the ranks of the governing coalition.
Smart money at the moment is on the imminent collapse of the coalition, which includes the Social Democratic Party, Respublika and Ata-Jurt. But this unexpected show of support from such a large section of the strongly anti-parliament Ar-Namys Party could prove to be a much-needed curative tonic.
In a letter addressed to Prime Minister Almazbek Atambayev, the 10 say their decision has been motivated by the awareness of the "political responsibility incumbent upon every Jogorku Kenesh deputy to seize upon Kyrgyzstan's historic opportunity to embark on a path of sustainable development in the interests of the people."
The deputies will remain in their own party, but they support the government with the aim of defending Kyrgyzstan from "destructive forces, including representatives of the criminal community." Ar-Namys has a total of 25 deputies in the 120-seat Jogorku Kenesh and Kulov is not among those signed up to support the coalition.
A still from The Sky of My Childhood. (KazakhFilm Photo.)
As a new movie about the childhood of Kazakhstan’s president premieres in Almaty tonight, cinemagoers expecting a eulogy to the Leader of the Nation are in for a surprise: The Sky of My Childhood, directed by Rustem Abdrashov for Kazakhfilm, is no piece of simplistic post-Soviet propaganda.
This Kazakh-language movie certainly offers a flattering picture of a young Nursultan Nazarbayev, but it also presents a reflective look at Soviet Kazakhstan in the 1940s and 1950s. It was filmed with a budget of $3 million against a background of the luscious countryside in which this rural-boy-made-good grew up.
The action features a boy named Sultan, born into a family living on the rolling zhaylau (alpine pasturelands) of Ushkonyr outside Almaty. It traces his early childhood in the countryside growing up in a yurt with his mother, father and grandmother, and their move when he was a young boy to the village of Shamalgan.
The tone is upbeat: Despite the backdrop of World War II and the latter Stalin era, the hero -- played by three different actors -- enjoys a carefree childhood galloping across the zhaylau on horseback, learning falconry, and playing the stringed dombyra.
Not surprisingly, Sultan is a high flier, winning the local bayga (horserace) through a feat of horsemanship and outshining his classmates with his intellectual prowess.
A leader of Kyrgyzstan’s largest parliamentary faction, and a rumored contender for president, Kamchybek Tashiev, is gaining a reputation for using his fists to conduct official business. In addition to the widely reported smashup with a deputy from an opposing party earlier this month, some confirmation seems to be leaking out about a more physically damaging brawl between Tashiev and one of his fellow party members a day earlier.
Parliamentary deputy Bakhadyr Sulaimanov alleges Tashiev beat him so badly on March 31 that he suffered a concussion, 24.kg reports. The two are members of the same party, Ata-Jurt, and reportedly the altercation came about after Sulaimanov refused to give up his seat in the legislature. Still in hospital, Sulaimanov is pressing charges, the Prosecutor General’s office announced on April 12. (Someone claiming to be Sulaimanov gave a colorful account of the fight on the popular Diesel Forum.)
Tashiev, who holds parliamentary immunity, denies the allegations. If the assault really did take place, the reasons behind it are not clear. But then, little ever is in the struggle for power among Kyrgyzstan's politicians.
Demolition work has begun on central Tashkent's Bank Land, a failed, futuristic business center that has stood empty since its completion in 2005. With its brown marble façade and gold columns, the building was one of the most ridiculed architectural achievements – though it had ample competition – in Uzbekistan’s capital.
Work started on the building in 2002. But by the time it was completed, Uzbekistan’s business climate had turned moribund: In the aftermath of the Andijan massacre in May 2005, foreign investment in the country dried up and the owners of Bank Land were left with a costly, and empty, white elephant.
As the years passed and still no tenants moved in, Bank Land lost its shine and became just another post-Soviet eyesore. Recently, workers set up fences decorated with forest scenes around the building and the demolition began.
Bank Land must have been an expensive folly. Local journalists’ attempts to track down who actually owned the building drew blanks, however. Business directories list the center, but the web pages contain no information.
When the gaudy building first appeared, its name written in English, jokes started doing the rounds that Bank Land would house a theme park dedicated to the banking industry. At the time, ATMs were a rare sight in Tashkent and even banks seemed to belong to the future. Bank Land would be the place where people could see ATMs and modern banking in action.
There is something of the Twilight Zone about how different sets of international observers in Kazakhstan's recent presidential election seem to have monitored different votes.
Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe observers reported numerous violations. Those included multiple identical signatures on voter lists, ballot-box stuffing, improper sealing of ballot boxes, group voting, multiple voting and proxy voting. And that doesn't even address the pitiful election campaign and widespread reports that government officials intimidated civil servants and university students into casting ballots.
On the other side of the fence were the independent international monitors, including Daniel Witt, whose breathless admiration for Kazakh democracy has been documented here before. Now, he's come back to serve up an extra helping of craven sycophancy, again in The Huffington Post.
After lavishing Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev with so much praise that even the big man himself would probably be embarrassed, Witt airily declares that although his team detected rare cases of "organizational errors," vote administrators were "open and forthcoming" and the "process moved cleanly and efficiently."
Then mystifyingly, he states that unlike in previous elections, his team "witnessed no signs of impropriety."
Kyrgyzstan’s leaders are saying all the right things, if the Kremlin were voting in this fall’s presidential election.
On the heels of Prime Minister Almazbek Atambayev’s recent Moscow visit, First Deputy PM Omurbek Babanov is now there to discuss economic cooperation. To ease his expedition, Atambayev has pushed for Kyrgyzstan to join the Russia-led Customs Union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, which is often described as Russia's bid to reassert economic dominance in the former Soviet Union and stanch rising Chinese influence.
But Babanov is a divisive figure in Bishkek. The largest party in the legislature, Ata-Jurt, has actively used corruption allegations to seek his resignation. Ata-Jurt leaders also fear the Atambayev-Babanov tandem will employ government resources to make a bid for the presidency.
Though Ata-Jurt is in the ruling coalition with Atambayev’s Social Democrats (SDPK) and Babanov’s Respublika, party leaders have repeatedly threatened (at one point employing fists and maybe packing guns) to withdraw and upset the ruling equilibrium just as the presidential campaign enters full swing.
Things are looking good for Kazakhstan's economy as a whole, but the sex industry is still in the doldrums, according to a detailed analysis published on website Better.kz.
The writer, who goes under the name Ilya Blogger, explains that the market for paid sex in Kazakhstan's commercial capital, Almaty, has remained flaccid due to rising food and fuel prices, despite the worst of the financial crisis being over.
“Prices for sexual services have fallen, particularly on the Internet and in the pages of Karavan [newspaper],” Blogger writes. “If you compare what has happened with the [growing] prices for meat and potatoes, intimate services have become cheaper.”
As Blogger explains, rates currently range from $100 per hour to $300 for a whole night—all fairly steep prices in a country with an average monthly salary of around $500. Although fares may not be rising, however, the range of services on offer is widening, which puts a whole new spin on Kazakhstan’s attempts at diversification. For example, it has now apparently become common for prostitutes to work in pairs.
Another trend observed by Blogger is the increase in ethnic diversity among sex workers, perhaps a reflection of the growing cosmopolitanism of Almaty.
Days after Kazakhstan's re-elected president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, took office with a vaguely worded pledge to democratize, his political adviser has voiced a novel strategy: a “top-down revolution” in which -- assuming all goes to plan -- Astana basically gets to choose the parliamentary “opposition.”
In an interview with Megapolis newspaper, Yermukhamet Yertysbayev outlined his ingenious scheme for the Atameken Union -- an entrepreneurs’ association that just happens to be headed by Nazarbayev’s billionaire son-in-law, Timur Kulibayev -- to be transformed into a political party that would sweep into parliament in the next elections, scheduled for August 2012.
“This [presidential] election campaign’s shown that opposition parties here are absolutely not ready for the fight – they don’t have a clear ideology, or organizational structures, or money, or a sociopolitical foundation,” he said dismissively, failing to mention that genuine opposition politicians refused to participate in the election on the grounds that it wasn’t a fair vote.
Yertysbayev sees Atameken forming an offshoot of the ruling Nur Otan party, which is led by Nazarbayev and holds all elected seats in the lower house of parliament.
Other parties would conveniently cease to exist. “Thus all other parties would join either Nur Otan or Atameken, and we would in an accelerated manner have created a two-party political system,” he said.
Following a presidential election lacking any political surprises, Astana watchers were hoping for a bit of excitement over the appointment of the new government. Rumors of a broom sweeping through the dusty corridors of power were confounded, however, when newly re-elected President Nursultan Nazarbayev re-appointed Karim Masimov as prime minister.
Masimov resigned on April 8 along with the entire cabinet in a post-election formality. He was immediately re-appointed and approved the same day in a rapid-fire vote by the rubber stamp parliament. Masimov is Kazakhstan's longest-serving premier. His appointment is a renewed vote of confidence from Nazarbayev in his stewardship, and a sign that the president trusts his political loyalty.
Observers had been keenly watching to see who’d get the plum job of heading the cabinet. They were hoping for a clue about the succession plans of Kazakhstan’s aging president, who’ll turn 71 in July. But now they’ve still been left guessing - is Masimov’s re-appointment a sign that Nazarbayev favors him as successor, or is it an indication that he’s holding his cards close to his chest and keeping Masimov in place until the time’s ripe to maneuver a potential successor into the prominent position later?
Whatever the case, all pundits interested in the only political intrigue that matters in Kazakhstan -- who’ll follow Nazarbayev as president -- will be watching to see who’s up and who’s down as the rest of the cabinet’s named. Masimov has 10 days to announce the appointments, which, it goes without saying, will all be overseen by the man at the top.