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.
“It’s a great honor for me to be the nationally elected head of state in the year of the 20th anniversary of our independence and continue the mission of leader of our unique, multiethnic homeland,” Nazarbayev intoned triumphantly, after kissing the Kazakh flag and taking oath standing on a piece of white felt, as the Kazakh khans of old once did.
In a ceremony broadcast live on television, Nazarbayev seemed keen to emphasize his long rule in a year notable for sweeping long-serving Arab autocrats from power, reminding his adoring public of the strides made since 1991. “We were in the ruins of a collapsed superpower… Today it’s hard to imagine that all this was just 20 years ago,” he said.
A huge crowd welcomed the Leader of the Nation as he arrived at the Palace of Independence, and inside the hall a “who’s who” of Kazakhstan solemnly watched the ceremony.
Among them were many of those sometimes tipped to one day succeed the 70-year-old president, including Kayrat Kelimbetov, chairman of the Samruk-Kazyna sovereign wealth fund, and Kazakhstan’s two most powerful mayors, Imangali Tasmagambetov of Astana and Akhmetzhan Yesimov of Almaty.
Visitors to Kazakhstan know the country’s roads are not the world’s safest. Speeding, widespread drunk driving, and just plan bad street sense cause carnage on the best of days. But in the west of this vast country, there’s another hazard to be on the lookout for – stray camels.
On April 3, the 23-year-old driver of a speeding Opel Vectra managed to kill himself and one camel when he collided with a herd of these galumphing ships of the desert. His three passengers absconded from the scene and were later apprehended when they turned up at a hospital seeking treatment.
The accident occurred in Aktobe Region in Western Kazakhstan, where camels are still prized as a mark of wealth – one camel can be worth upward of $3,000. Camel meat is popular, as is shubat, fermented camel milk. With one ungulate dead and six injured, it was an expensive and tragic night out for all concerned.
“The Liquidator,” the latest offering by hotshot Kazakh director Akan Satayev, hits screens across Kazakhstan on April 7. The $2 million feature, shot on location in Almaty, tells the story of a bodyguard who uncovers foul play in his brother's untimely death.
Producers snagged British bruiser Vinnie Jones to add a menacing edge to the film and boost its international appeal. The ex-soccer-star-turned-actor plays a mute assassin on assignment in Kazakhstan. Jones brings solid credentials as an on-screen thug with appearances in Guy Ritchie's “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch.”
Jones, who has a bad boy reputation in real life thanks to his many bar room brawls over the years, is an ideal fit for Satayev, who came to prominence with his debut 2007 feature “Racketeer,” which told the story in graphic detail of Almaty's violent 1990s underworld.
Satayev's last movie, “Strayed,” was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film category in this year's Oscars. This thriller sees a family stranded overnight on the steppe. In the morning the husband awakes to find his wife and son have mysteriously disappeared.
Daniyar Moldashev, director of the ADP Ltd company (Respublika’s registered publisher) went missing last week after being beaten up and robbed of documents belonging to the paper. Now, his brother Askar says, he’s been in contact -- but his phone call has only increased his relatives’ misgivings. Askar Moldashev has now filed a statement with police urging them to get to the bottom of the mystery.
According to the statement, lodged on April 2, Daniyar Moldashev called his brother at noon on April 2 and said “that he was in Minsk on his own business, that everything was fine with him, that I shouldn’t make a statement, and that he’d explain everything to me later.”
This was the first time Daniyar Moldashev had been in contact since March 30, his brother said, and in the intervening period his telephone was switched off and he didn’t reply to SMS messages.
“His behavior looks very strange, there’s never been anything like this before,” Askar Moldashev commented, adding that he only waited so long to file a statement because the police themselves -- who visited Moldashev’s relatives on March 30 to investigate -- advised him that he had to wait three days.
As voters go to the polls in Kazakhstan today, no one doubts that this is a one-horse race. The non-competitive presidential campaign eloquently ended as one challenger actually cast his vote for incumbent Nursultan Nazarbayev. In a farcical moment, environmentalist Mels Yeleusizov admitted that he hadn’t bothered to vote for himself but had voted for his opponent.
The competition is hardly cutthroat, and voters leaving polling stations in central Almaty overwhelmingly said they’d voted for the president, who enjoys genuine public popularity. “We voted for Nazarbayev because we like his policy and his work,” businessman Zaynulla Ibragimov said after casting his vote with his wife.
Some Nazarbayev supporters cited one key factor motivating their choice: the lack of an alternative candidate because genuine opposition politicians refused to stand. “I voted for the leader. I don’t believe there to be any alternative candidates,” said Muslima, a businesswoman who gave only her first name. “He does a lot for the people, though there are minuses, to be honest.” Among them she named corruption scandals involving Nazarbayev’s relatives and a lack of political debate.
Even while backing Nazarbayev, voters voiced a litany of complaints, ranging from graft and bribe-taking to low pensions and rural poverty.
Casting his vote in Astana, Nazarbayev said much had been achieved over his two decades of rule, but Kazakhstan still faced “huge challenges of modernization, so today’s vote by our citizens will define our unity and our aspiration to do everything intended.”
Kyrgyzstan’s politicians are no poster boys for a parliamentary system of governance. The country’s ruling coalition was already shaky before two feral members bloodied each other at an April 1 session of the national legislature. And the mayhem that dominated the day – including not just the brawl but a fiery speech by the recently sacked prosecutor general and a mysterious intervention into lawmakers’ work by unidentified thugs in tracksuits – does not bode well for stability in the violence-racked country.
Prior to the fight, ex-Prosecutor General Kubatbek Baibolov, fired a day earlier, defended himself before the deputies against allegations that his family members had improperly profited off the scandal-clad nationalization of Kyrgyzstan’s largest mobile services provider, Megacom. In his speech, he accused Deputy Prime Minister Omburbek Babanov, leader of the Respublika Party, and others of illegally profiting from the deal.
One of them was Babanov’s long-time detractor Kamchybek Tashiev, whose powerful Ata-Jurt party belongs to the rickety three-party ruling coalition, which also includes Respublika. This time, Tashiev warned, if Babanov wasn’t properly investigated, Ata-Jurt would abandon the coalition, leaving the government to crumble. Because the threat was not Ata-Jurt’s first, one of Babanov’s allies told Tashiev, in no uncertain terms, to clam up and get out if he wanted to. Unprintable words and fisticuffs ensued.
Presidential candidates normally choose to campaign in elections on their home turf, but Kazakhstan's leader likes to stand out from the crowd. Disdaining the campaign trail at home as he heads for victory on April 3, Nursultan Nazarbayev is wooing a foreign audience instead.
Astana's PR machine’s been in overdrive ahead of the election: Foreign Minister Kanat Saudabayev hailing “Nazarbayev’s rich political and life experience, bright charisma, strategic vision of a creative leader, rare inner integrity and adherence to principles” to New Europe magazine was a particular gem.
The latest outpouring, in The Washington Post, is penned by Nazarbayev himself and trumpets, the headline says, “Kazakhstan's steady progress toward democracy.”
“[W]e are progressing steadily on the path of democratic reform,” writes Nazarbayev, who has ruled Kazakhstan for two decades -- critics say with an iron fist; supporters see it more as firm paternalism.
The progress Nazarbayev discerns isn’t always visible to the naked eye. Political reforms of recent years have included exempting Nazarbayev personally from constitutional term limits (otherwise he wouldn’t have been standing in Sunday’s election at all) and granting him the title of Leader of the Nation, with special powers and privileges including the threat of jail for anyone who ventures to criticize the esteemed ruler.
Snow White nearly died from them. Trick-or-treating children once found razors in them. Now an ingenious gang of drug smugglers has been busted for stuffing them – yes, apples – with $14 million worth of heroin and driving them by truck from Kyrgyzstan to Russia, local news reports say.
Security officials in the major Siberian city of Novosibirsk announced this week that they have interdicted more than 82 kilograms of heroin “packed in spherical containers made of foamed plastic and disguised as apples. They were transported together with real fruit,” a spokeswoman for the regional branch of Russia’s main intelligence agency, the Federal Security Service (FSB), was quoted as saying. Officials suspect the smack-packed shipment reached Russia from Kyrgyzstan via Kazakhstan, two Central Asian countries that claim to be the apple’s birthplace.
The major bust, preceded by a months-long joint investigation by the FSB and Russia’s Customs Service, resulted in the arrest of an unspecified number of people from different countries, news agencies reported. A search for the smugglers’ coconspirators continues.