Ahead of Kazakhstan’s presidential election on April 3, Astana’s swish PR machine is revving up to secure foreign support for incumbent leader Nursultan Nazarbayev, as EurasiaNet.org reported yesterday. Now, it seems, a foreign Nazarbayev fan is so blinded by admiration that he feels moved to lobby in print on his behalf.
On March 21, The Huffington Post carried a eulogy of Kazakhstan’s president talking up his debatable democratic credentials and urging the West to forge stronger relations with Astana.
“By rejecting the referendum, Nazarbayev has shown resolve to keep his country on a democratic track,” states Witt, who no doubt talks with the voice of experience since he claims to have extensive work experience in Kazakhstan. Since 1991, according to his website, Witt has led “over thirty delegations to Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Vietnam, Ukraine and Libya to hold meetings with senior finance, taxation, customs, and Parliamentary officials” -- just the kind of experience that helps one understand how democracy works in authoritarian countries.
International concern over what’s passing through Tajikistan’s sieve-like borders continues to grow: drugs? guns? Islamic militants? This week, several foreign officials rushed to Dushanbe to sound the alarm, anticipating the dreaded NATO drawdown in neighboring Afghanistan. But while the Americans, the Russians and even the Europeans simultaneously bemoaned the challenges of keeping illicit goods and bad people from crossing into ex-Soviet Central Asia, their conspicuous lack of joint meetings suggested that cooperation -- official statements notwithstanding -- is not a priority.
Moscow, which patrolled Tajikistan’s 1,300-kilometer border with Afghanistan from tsarist times until 2005, is signaling it would like to lead an international coalition there – but without the West’s help, thank you very much. At a conference in Dushanbe, Nikolai Bordyuzha, the secretary general of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, said CSTO members should tackle the threat together “because problems which emerge on this border then echo on the territory of the Russian Federation, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and other CSTO member states," Interfax-Kazakhstan reported.
NATO, he suggested, should finish what it started in Afghanistan and keep the situation there from poisoning neighboring countries.
Despite Russia’s time-honored tradition of meddling in its neighbors' politics, one might have thought there wouldn’t be much point in seeking to influence an election with a foregone conclusion. Moscow knows different, though: It wasn’t going miss a chance to express a public view on Kazakhstan’s April 3 presidential vote, which incumbent leader Nursultan Nazarbayev is going to win hands down.
As Nazarbayev met his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow on March 17, the Russian president was oozing praise for Kazakhstan’s Leader of the Nation and – reported Nazarbayev’s press service – “wished Nursultan Nazarbayev successful participation in the early presidential elections upcoming in Kazakhstan.”
“We respect you very much, Nursultan Abishevich, as a friend of the Russian Federation,” Medvedev gushed in remarks quoted by Nazarbayev’s administration. “You have made a great contribution to the development of our relations. We very much wish you all kinds of success. And I hope that you and I will continue our close work in the coming years, too.”
You can’t get much clearer than that, but there was one thing omitted by Nazarbayev’s press service that was picked up by The Moscow Times: Medvedev’s remark that he knew his comments amounted to inappropriate interference in the internal affairs of another state.
“From the point of view of international politics, it is not completely ethical for the president of another country to comment on upcoming elections, but I will say a few words anyway,” The Moscow Times quoted Medvedev as saying.
Kazakhstan’s presidential election candidates continue to underwhelm.
Party of Patriots leader Gani Kasymov, seen as likely to claim most of the crumbs incumbent President Nursultan Nazarbayev fails to suck up, has committed what might in most countries be considered a PR disaster.
Ahead of a pre-arranged live interview at RFE/RL’s Kazakh service Azattyk studio Thursday, Kasymov demanded to know what questions would be put to him. Having acquainted himself with the line of questioning, he retorted with a curt “nuh-uh,” leaving Azattyk with no guest to interview.
Still though, to Kasymov’s credit, he has maintained a sustained and eclectic output of pronouncements in an election contest light on policy platforms. He has also been the only one of the four candidates, including Nazarbayev, to do the routine rounds one would normally expect of a presidential election candidate.
He also popped into a fire station in Almaty to find out what contingency measures are in place to deal with an earthquake like the one in Japan. That visit prompted the following enlightening exchange:
Kasymov: “How long are the ladders on your fire trucks?”
Fireman: “37 meters. They’re designed for 13-story buildings.”
Kasymov: “And what if the buildings are taller, what then?”
In an embarrassing episode only weeks before Kazakhstan’s presidential election, an activist has found himself behind bars for organizing an unsanctioned march through the capital. Interior Ministry spokesman Kuanyshbek Zhumanov announced today that one organizer had received a 15-day prison sentence over the unsanctioned March 15 protest, the Novosti-Kazakhstan news agency reported, and three other participants had been fined around $10.
The Socialist Resistance activist website identified the protestor as Yesenbek Ukteshbayev, leader of the Let's Leave Housing for the People movement, which -- along with the For Worthy Housing group -- rallied in Astana for the right to decent housing. That includes the rights of angry would-be homeowners who pre-paid for apartments now languishing unfinished due to the credit crunch, sometimes for years.
Activists demanded unsuccessfully to speak to President Nursultan Nazarbayev, and some campaigners occupied the headquarters of the ruling Nur Otan party building; others marched through the center of the capital, leading to dozens of arrests, as a photo report carried by the Respublika newspaper today shows. They also chanted slogans urging a boycott of Kazakhstan’s April 3 presidential election.
Eugene Gourevitch, the former head of MGN Capital and ex-board member of numerous strategic objects under former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, has been sentenced in absentia to 15 years in a maximum-security prison for corruption, Kyrgyz media outlets are reporting.
Gourevitch told EurasiaNet.org that the conviction for his role in selling Aalam Services to Manas Aerofuels in 2009 at a knockdown price is politically motivated and evidence of the “total failure” of the Kyrgyz justice system.
“I believe this verdict violates not only Kyrgyz laws, but also common sense. Board members adopted all resolutions unanimously. The CEO executed the decisions of the Board. The trial and verdict are clearly of a political nature and demonstrate the total failure of the Kyrgyz justice system,” he said on March 16.
The investigation into the sale of Aalam Services, the main fuel depot at the Manas International Airport and US air base near Bishkek, opened in May 2010, shortly after Bakiyev was overthrown.
But another defendant in this case, former head of the airport, Bakytbek Sydykov, was acquitted on March 3.
The buyer of Aalam Services, Manas Aerofuels, was created and financed by Mina Corp, the Gibraltar-registered company that holds the previous and current US government contract to supply aviation fuel to the Manas air base.
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.”