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.
Those concerned about the danger of drugs and militants in Central Asia know that all roads lead to -- or through – Tajikistan, the impoverished failing state on Afghanistan’s northern border. In recent weeks, apprehensions about the country’s sieve-like borders have been stirred up in Moscow and Washington alike. Can the two find enough mutual ground to cooperate on border security in the region, or will mistrust keep them at odds?
In Russia, the latest alarm bell sounded two days ago, when Semyon Bagdasarov, a member of the State Duma’s International Affairs Committee, said the Tajiks are not keeping Afghan drugs out of Central Asia -- and, by extension, out of Russia -- and should either hand control of the Afghan border back to Moscow, or suffer the consequences.
“Either we go back there and there is control of the situation, or it is time for us to introduce a visa regime with Tajikistan,” the Avesta.tj news service reports Bagdasarov as saying. (By some estimates, as many as a million Tajiks work, legally and illegally, in Russia. Moscow raises the specter of a visa requirement from time to time, usually when it is pressuring Dushanbe for some concession.)
Bagdasarov’s insistence that Russia take more responsibility for the porous, 1,300-kilometer border is not surprising. He’s said as much before. But chatter in favor of a return of Russian troops (who guarded the border from tsarist times until 2005) is growing louder. The fashionable position in Moscow seems to be that Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the sick men of Central Asia, cannot provide adequate security.
Central Asia fans have waited several years for the release of a documentary about Igor Savitsky, whom the New York Times calls “an obsessive collector credited with saving tens of thousands of avant-garde artworks from Soviet authorities who forced artists toward Socialist Realism in the 1930s," by housing his collection out of Moscow’s sight in the Uzbek desert. His successors – he died in 1984 – have maintained his museum with some private support since independence in 1991.
The “Desert of Forbidden Art” is scheduled to open to general audiences in New York this week.
But art is a closely monitored affair in Uzbekistan. In a cruel irony, Uzbek authorities have followed in their paranoid predecessor’s path, apparently reacting against the film, The Times reports.
[L]ate last year Uzbek officials abruptly gave the Nukus Museum 48 hours to evacuate one of its two exhibition buildings, so staff members ended up stacking hundreds of fragile canvases and paper works on the floor of the other space. The building has since stood empty, its fate unknown, and more than 2,000 works are no longer on view at the museum, more formally known as the Karakalpakstan State Museum of Art. The museum’s director, Marinika M. Babanazarova, who has fiercely guarded the collection for 27 years, was not permitted to travel to the United States for a trip that was to include a screening of the documentary at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.