Oil-rich Kazakhstan has embraced bling with open arms -- the capital Astana, with its dazzling silver-and-gold skyline, could even be described as bling personified at the state level.
For a country that enjoys flaunting its petrodollars, an ordinary elite-status golden credit card isn’t enough. Luckily for the oil-rich oligarch who wants to stand apart from the crowd, there’s now a gold card with a difference on offer in Kazakhstan: This one is made from the real thing, crafted out of solid gold and encrusted with 26 diamonds -- just to drive the point home that this card will fall only into the hands of the very, very rich.
Not for nothing is Visa billing its Infinite companion card as “the world’s first jewel-encrusted solid gold” card -- though who knew that people needed this glittery status symbol, being offered through Russia’s Sberbank branches in Kazakhstan, before now?
Lucky customers invited to own a gold card might wish to use it to snap up a few choice bits of bling at upmarket US department store Saks Fifth Avenue, which opened its doors in Almaty on September 30 amid much hype -- another sign that Kazakhstan has embraced luxury consumer consumption with alacrity.
The solid-gold card won’t be available to just anyone: Only the bank’s “top 100 customers” will be invited to own what one Visa executive calls a “coveted piece of luxury” and “the ultimate status symbol.”
Since July, Astana and Beijing have engaged in an emotional rivalry over Olympic gold medalist Zulfiya Chinshanlo. During the London games, Chinese media were adamant that the weightlifter was about to return to the People’s Republic, claiming that Chinshanlo was born Zhao Changling in a remote mountainous area of Hunan Province and had been loaned to Kazakhstan in 2008 for a five-year period.
But Chinshanlo told Kazakh press after earning Kazakhstan a gold that she was committed to the Central Asian republic. Moreover, Chinshanlo’s biography on the official Web page for the 2012 Olympic Games lists her birthplace as Almaty. (Others report she was born in Kyrgyzstan.)
Now Chinese media have quoted her saying she’s returning to China.
China Radio International's English website reported on October 24 that the champion weightlifter was spotted in Hunan applying for papers to return to China.
She had a different story to tell Kazakh media, however, claiming on October 26 she was merely paying a visit to her former coach in Yongzhou, Hunan, where a Caravan.kz article says she took up weightlifting as an 11-year-old.
It’s rare a Chinese businessman publicly airs a complaint about doing his job in Central Asia. So an op-ed complaining about the deteriorating situation for miners in Kyrgyzstan, published by a state-run Chinese media outlet, deserves flagging.
Last week protestors in Kyrgyzstan’s northern Chui Province succeeded in shutting down work at the Taldy-Bulak Levoberezhnyi gold field. Local news agencies reported that several hundred locals picketed the headquarters, in Orlovka, on October 22, demanding the company be closed. China's Superb Pacific Ltd was working to prepare the site, scheduled to go into operation in 2014. Some media reported that Chinese and Kyrgyz workers engaged in a mass brawl. Radio Free Europe said protestors were angry over what they called the Chinese company’s illegal sacking of Kyrgyz citizens and polluting of the local environment.
Approximately 250 Chinese workers reportedly were evacuated and operations suspended indefinitely.
In response, the head of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce in Kyrgyzstan, Li Deming, wrote in the English-language Global Times (a baby of the Communist Party’s People’s Daily) on October 28 that doing business in Kyrgyzstan is “not easy.”
Informed observers in Tajikistan are continuing to tell EurasiaNet.org that this week’s shuttering of a prominent human rights group had nothing to do with its alleged technical violations (moving its office without reporting to authorities, publishing its findings on a website) and everything to do with its persistent investigation into abuses of military conscripts.
For the past five years, the Young Lawyers Association “Amparo” has documented press-ganging in northern Tajikistan and provided thousands of families pro bono legal advice. Of late, Amparo had started to look at how its lawyers could help recruits outside of Sughd Province. Moreover, and this is perhaps where the organization stepped over the Tajik authorities’ invisible line, Amparo began expressing concern about abuses of Border Service draftees, not just the Ministry of Defense conscripts. The Border Service is a branch of the State Committee for National Security (GKNB) – the powerful successor to the Soviet-era KGB.
A report Amparo published this year with support from the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy (NED) is an example of the kind of work that seems to have angered authorities. The report describes Tajikistan’s biannual conscription process as marred by the kidnapping of recruits, some underage, sometimes with violence, and a systematic denial of conscripts’ legal rights.
While military service in Tajikistan is mandatory, conditions in the military are believed to be so bad that many young men bribe their way out of service; many others leave Tajikistan as migrant laborers, creating a dearth of able bodies for the service.
Kazakhstan's credentials as a haven for religious freedom and tolerance are in the spotlight again, this time following a raid on a Protestant church where authorities reportedly found communion drinks spiked with an unidentified hallucinogen earlier this month. The bizarre find comes just a few weeks before religious groups in the country are to undergo mandatory re-registration.
Forum 18, the Oslo-based religious freedom watchdog, reports that police raided Astana’s Grace Church on October 3. Back in July 2011, a local woman accused the church of harming the health of her daughter, congregation member Lazzat Almenova, and filed a complaint with the police. It’s unclear why authorities waited until now to make the swoop.
According to an October 10 report by Tengrinews, the raiding officers had found traces of hallucinogenic substances in a “red drink” served during services at the Grace Church. The psychoactive ingredients are said to induce a state of euphoria and relaxation.
The cops collected samples of the drink for analysis and took blood from 11 members of the congregation to test for any illicit substances. One parishioner said the volunteer donors included a mystery couple who had only been attending services for a month – seeming to suggest they’d been planted there to discredit the church.
“Extremist” literature also turned up during the search, with copies of a book called “Worthy Answers,” written by two Kazakh Protestant converts, Galymzhan Tanatgan and Zhomart Temir, confiscated along with computers, DVDs and some gold.
A US-based watchdog is concerned about Kazakhstan's qualifications to sit on the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), ahead of a General Assembly vote November 12 that will decide which countries represent the international community on the commission for three years.
In an October 18 report, Freedom House singled out Kazakhstan -- which has energetically pursued its membership bid -- as one of seven states that the watchdog “does not recommend” for membership on the UNHRC, whose rules say that members should “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights.”
Kazakhstan is in the company of Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia; Gabon, Pakistan, the UAE, and Venezuela. Freedom House says all are unsuitable candidates in view of their dubious human rights records. Astana insists that upholding human rights and political freedoms are a priority, and denies any systematic violations.
Freedom House -- which rates Kazakhstan Not Free in its annual Freedom in the World report -- singled the Central Asian state out over political, media, and religious freedoms.
Kamchybek Tashiev has come a long way in the past year.
Last October, he was a prominent contender for Kyrgyzstan’s presidency. This October, he’s in a KGB holding cell, charged with trying to overthrow the government.
On Saturday, Tashiev abandoned his nod to non-violent protest, ending a three-day-old hunger strike, 24.kg reports. He had been hospitalized for what his supporters describe as a sharp deterioration in his health on Friday night; his lawyer said he lost 12 kilograms and called for Tashiev to be moved to house arrest. Some MPs urged him to preserve his strength for the legal battle ahead.
The argumentative nationalist leader of the Ata-Jurt party has been jailed since an October 3 rally, when he led a group of young men over the fence surrounding parliament. The initial jail term is to last two months while the case is investigated. Prosecutors say Tashiev’s actions, including calls for the crowd to seize power, were unconstitutional. Tashiev, a trained boxer, says he was demanding the nationalization of the country’s largest goldmine and was just trying to get to work.
As the United States has grown more dependent on the countries of Central Asia for transit routes into and out of Afghanistan, policymakers in Washington have talked up the military’s Northern Distribution Network as the beginning of a “New Silk Road.” The idea is to help the region’s stagnant economies by promoting regional trade and, hopefully in the process, bring stability to Afghanistan.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton trumpeted the idea at a town hall meeting in Dushanbe in October 2011, saying she hoped the New Silk Road would increase “economic opportunity here in Tajikistan so that so many of your people do not have to leave home to find work, that there can be a flourishing economy right here.”
But a new study says these hopes are overly optimistic. The Northern Distribution Network (NDN), a logistics supply chain that has, since 2009, become the primary overland supply route for the war in Afghanistan, has not helped ease trade or cut corruption throughout the region. Instead, the study, released by the Open Society Foundations on October 19, finds it may be having the opposite effect in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. [Editor’s Note: EurasiaNet operates under OSF’s auspices.]
The report, by Graham Lee (a former EurasiaNet contributor), asks four key questions: Is the NDN incentivizing regional cooperation and border reforms? Is the NDN helping to fight corruption in Central Asia? Has the NDN made transshipment through Central Asia more efficient? Are ordinary Central Asian citizens benefitting from NDN trade?
Ever since Kazakhstan threw in its lot with Russia and Belarus to start their new Customs Union in 2010, smugglers on the Kyrgyzstan border have had to devise creative ways to keep their businesses operational. As Kazakh authorities build mile after mile of concertina-wire fence above ground, these traffickers have gone underground – literally – to evade the authorities and the new customs duties.
Tengrinews reported on October 18 that Kyrgyz authorities have unearthed an improvised pipeline pumping ethyl alcohol (ethanol) from Kazakhstan.
The 12-meter-long rubber hose, found only one kilometer from a border checkpoint, is believed to have delivered more than 100 tons of ethanol since 2008 from Kazakhstan's Zhambyl Region to Kyrgyzstan's Chui Province. Ethanol has a number of industrial uses and can serve as a base for bootleg liquor. It was only discovered when a trucker, nabbed by Kyrgyz border guards with the illicit cargo, spilt the beans.
This isn’t the first unofficial channel for costly liquids to turn up this month.
On October 2, Bishkek’s Knews.kg reported that an illegal fuel pipeline had been discovered in the same vicinity. This one was being used to transport petroleum products, again into Kyrgyzstan (where petrol is more expensive), from Kazakhstan. Authorities discovered a tanker with 10 tons of diesel that had been illegally pumped under the border. It is not known how long this smuggling operation had been in action.
Police in Zhanaozen, scene of fatal unrest last December, have ruled out a political motive in the murder this month of a witness to December’s turmoil.
Aleksandr Bozhenko, 23, was killed in a fight, Zhanaozen police chief Amangeldy Dosakhanov was quoted as saying by the local Lada newspaper. He said two suspects have been arrested for the incident, which happened in the early hours of October 7.
Bozhenko never recovered consciousness and died in a hospital on October 11, but his death only came to light on October 15.
Activists have voiced suspicions over Bozhenko’s death, pointing to his testimony in the trial of former oil workers and other civilians accused of crimes related to clashes in and around Zhanaozen that left 15 dead.
Bozhenko, activist and trial monitor Galym Ageleuov told a press conference on October 15, was at one trial a prosecution witness who had incriminated civilians in the dock -- but recanted his testimony in court and said it had been obtained under torture.