A Russian rocket has exploded and crashed shortly after taking off from the Baikonur space-launch site in central Kazakhstan. The incident is likely to make further waves in Russo-Kazakh relations, which are already strained over cosmic cooperation.
Dramatic live video broadcast by the Rossiya 24 channel showed the Proton-M rocket taking off from Baikonur then veering off course before bursting into flames, breaking up and crashing to the ground.
The rocket engines cut out 17 seconds after takeoff and it crashed 2.5 kilometers from the launch pad, Russian space agency Roskosmos said. It added that there were no reported casualties or damage at the scene of the crash. Video of the incident showed the burning rocket, which was carrying three satellites into space, setting fire to the ground where it landed.
A Russian space industry source told RIA Novosti that problems with the flight control system were the likely cause of the crash, but Kazakh Emergencies Situations Minister Vladimir Boyko preliminarily put it down to engine failure, as a result of which there was “combustion of fuel, some of which fell to the ground and continued to burn,” he said in remarks quoted by Tengri News.
Villagers in a valley in eastern Kazakhstan knew what to blame when they kept being hit by misfortune: the restless spirits of one of their illustrious ancestors, unearthed from his elaborate grave a decade ago by archeologists.
Now, to the chagrin of historians from Kazakhstan and Russia who have spent 10 years studying the body for clues about the ancient Scythians who inhabited the steppes of Eurasia, the body has been returned to the grave to appease those spirits, KTK TV reports.
The villagers had lobbied heavily to have the body returned from Almaty, where it was being studied, and buried because “since the burial mound was dug up, utter misfortune has befallen the region: hurricanes keep raging over and over, cattle is dying in the villages, and children are being born sick. All this, the villagers said, was because historians disturbed the spirits of the ancestors.”
The Scythian nobleman, originally buried decked out in gold as a mark of respect for his rank, was returned to his original grave near the settlement of Shilikty at a ceremonial burial, and the villagers now plan to erect a memorial in his honor. The hapless historians have managed to secure agreement that they can reenter the grave for more studies if the need arises.
Kazakhstan is a treasure trove of amazing archeological finds. The jewel in the crown is the Golden Man, found in the Issyk burial mound just outside Kazakhstan’s commercial capital, Almaty, in 1969. Believed to have been a young Scythian prince who lived in the 4th or 5th century BC, he was interred wearing some 4,000 gold ornaments.
The United Nation’s Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) released its annual World Drug Report today. There are not a lot of surprises for Central Asia watchers, but the study is a good reminder of just how entrenched Afghan narcotics are in the region.
Afghanistan remains the world’s largest producer of illicit opiates, accounting for 74 percent of global production in 2012. Those narcotics continue to pass relatively unhindered from Afghanistan through Central Asia for markets in Russia and Eastern Europe. On the way, they wreck havoc, as increasing numbers of Central Asians succumb to heroin addiction and HIV.
What’s being done? The striking chart to the right shows how, over the past ten years, interdiction in the region has actually fallen, especially in Tajikistan (shown in pink).
Over the same period, Afghan drug production generally increased (with the exception of 2012, when, due to adverse weather and disease, production fell by 36 percent). “A preliminary assessment of opium poppy cultivation trends in Afghanistan in 2013 revealed that such cultivation is likely to increase in the main opium growing regions, which would be the third consecutive increase since 2010,” the report says.
Why, then, the dramatic decline in seizures in Central Asia? The UNODC sort of sidesteps issue:
Five shepherds and at least a thousand head of sheep seem to have become the latest victims in the ongoing border dispute between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
Uzbek border guards seized the wandering ruminants earlier this month, Fergananews reported on June 24, citing the Tajik service of Radio Liberty, which in turn cited Tajik border guards in the northern province of Sughd. A father of one of the disappeared shepherds said the number of abducted animals was 2,200 sheep plus 41 cows.
No comment was immediately available from the Uzbek side, which has reportedly not responded to Tajik requests for negotiations.
The two countries have long been at odds over their 1,200-kilometer border, much of which remains undefined.
The troublesome boundary is not the main source of friction, however. Dushanbe and Tashkent barely speak with one another. The Uzbeks are furious over Tajik plans to build the world’s tallest hydropower dam, Rogun, upstream, claiming it will give Tajikistan unfair control over regional water resources and could harm the environment. Tajikistan, for its part, cites Uzbekistan’s constant gas cuts as a reason it needs the giant project. The antagonism is often described as deeply personal between the two countries’ autocratic rulers.
Uzbekistan has mined much of the border since it became an international frontier in 1991 at the collapse of the Soviet Union, splitting families who once lived in the same country. Shootings are common, often of stray shepherds chasing their livestock and of smugglers who have failed to pay off the right border guards at night.
A consortium consisting of a trio of oligarchs and the Kazakh government has moved one step closer to taking control of a London-listed natural resources giant with major operations in Kazakhstan.
The consortium bidding to win control of the Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation (ENRC) submitted a slightly revised offer to take the company back into private hands on June 24, after its initial proposal last month fell flat when minority shareholders said it undervalued the company.
However, the new offer valued the embattled company at even less: The terms were similar to last month’s proposal but the value was slightly down due to changes in dollar-sterling exchange rates and falling share prices.
The new offer proposes paying shareholders $2.65 in cash plus 0.23 of a share in London-listed copper miner Kazakhmys in exchange for each ENRC share. Kazakhmys, ENRC’s largest stakeholder with 26 percent of the company, issued a statement on June 24 saying it was accepting the offer despite believing it “may undervalue ENRC and its assets.”
Kazakhmys said it did not believe it could secure better terms, and that it would raise $887 million from the sale that could be targeted to its core business. If approved by shareholders, the deal would remove the firm from ENRC.
The endangered saiga antelope has had a rough few years in Kazakhstan, hunted mercilessly by poachers for its horns and wracked by a deadly sickness that has seen thousands of these endangered long-nosed antelopes perish on the steppe.
Yet amid all the doom and gloom there is a glimmer of hope: Kazakhstan’s saiga population has more than doubled over the last five years, according to figures released by the Ministry for Environmental Protection.
The country’s saiga population now stands at 137,000 against just 61,000 five years ago, the ministry said. The news comes less than two years after officials reported that efforts to conserve this creature – listed as critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List – were bearing fruit as numbers passed the symbolic 100,000 mark in Kazakhstan.
The population has since grown by over a third, but today’s figures are still a far cry from Kazakhstan’s million-strong population of the 1970s. Since then the saiga – an unusual-looking creature with a distinctive long, humped nose that allows it to filter air during the dusty summer months and breathe warm air during the freezing winters – has been hunted mercilessly by poachers for its horn, which is prized in Chinese medicine.
Getting hard currency in and out of Uzbekistan, with its notoriously tight controls over cash flows, is about to become even harder as Tashkent brings into force draconian new checks over bank transfers that will hit investors and individuals, foreign and local alike.
The new rules, announced by the UzDaily.uz website on June 17, launch a new monitoring system that forces banks to report a wide range of bank transfers into and out of Uzbekistan to the tax authorities. The report said the rules were approved on June 12, but did not specify when they will come into force.
For foreign companies, these include fines received from local partners via transfer for breaching agreements. Dividends or profits repatriated abroad to foreigners who have founded companies in Uzbekistan also come under the rules. (The right to repatriate profits is theoretically assured to foreign investors under Uzbek legislation, but frequently breached due to the Byzantine hoops through which they must jump to repatriate their money.)
The rules also cover payments to non-residents for sales of shares in Uzbekistan-based businesses and of property in Uzbekistan, which will hit both foreign companies and foreign individuals.
The rules aren’t just targeted at foreigners: Uzbek citizens will also be hit as the transfers they receive and make come under scrutiny. Any transfers abroad from Uzbek banks by individual account holders above the equivalent of $10,000 per calendar year will come under the microscope, as will all transfers from abroad to their accounts from foreign companies.
Transfers of funds via international services such as Western Union and MoneyGram – used by many labor migrants abroad to send remittances home – are not covered by the rules.
A Bishkek court has acquitted and released three opposition leaders previously convicted for attempting to seize power violently. In March, Kamchybek Tashiev and two other lawmakers from the nationalist Ata-Jurt party received sentences of between six months and one year for leading unrest outside parliament last autumn.
But the end to this saga did not come without more violence. Tashiev, Sadyr Japarov and Talant Mamytov were released on June 17 after their supporters threw shoes and bottles at the judge and a prosecutor who was demanding an even longer sentence, AKIpress reports.
The Prosecutor General’s office told 24.kg that the court caved to public pressure and said it intends to pursue charges at the Supreme Court.
The case of Tashiev et al. is linked to regular protests over the fate of the lucrative Kumtor gold mine in Issyk-Kul Province. At the October rally, where Tashiev led protestors over the fence surrounding parliament and vowed to “replace this government,” the three Ata-Jurt deputies demanded the nationalization of Kumtor, the largest foreign-run gold mine in Central Asia, which accounts for over 50 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s exports.
Nearly a third of high school graduates in Kazakhstan flunked their final exams this year, figures released by the government show. A total of 29 percent of the 95,487 students who took the important exam (which determines whether or not they will get into university) failed to make the grade.
This is a marked improvement on last year, when 37 percent of graduates didn’t pass, but it still shows that a remarkably high number of students are going through school without learning much. Those who fail can re-take the exam, but not until next summer.
Every year the school-leaving exam (known as ENT) generates controversy, with critics arguing that the multiple-choice format fails to test critical-thinking skills. Astana rejoins that it introduced the standardized test to replace school-led exams and standardize the final qualification.
The figures show that over twice as many students sat the exam in Kazakh as in Russian this year: 66,689 against 28,798, meaning that 70 percent of students are receiving their education in the Kazakh language. Parents can opt to send their children to schools teaching in Russian or Kazakh (and a few other languages such as Uzbek), but Kazakh and Russian language classes are compulsory for all students.
Cheating remains rife: This year invigilators across Kazakhstan confiscated 28,000 banned objects such as cellphones from exam halls and identified six people impersonating others to sit the test on their behalf.
Officers from the domestic intelligence service are deployed in schools at exam time in testament to how seriously education officials take cheating, but to some that’s no deterrent.
Almost 24 hours after the vote, and after a widespread public outcry in Bishkek, parliament has published the text of the controversial resolution it passed last night. It turns out, though MP Irgal Kadyralieva is still insisting to the press that she wishes to protect the Kyrgyz "gene pool,” the final resolution does not limit travel for women based on their age.
In the confusion -- fueled by multiple press appearances where Kadyralieva insisted women under age 22 or 23 must be forbidden from traveling abroad without a parent's consent -- early on June 13 activists in Bishkek lashed out at the resolution.
“This legal act is absurd,” Vechernii Bishkek quoted Aikanysh Jeenbaeva, co-founder of the Bishkek Feminist Collective SQ as saying. “It's not going to protect anyone. It will only increase corruption. Now girls will have to pay bribes at the border.”
“Deputies acted ignorantly by passing the resolution,” human rights Ombudsman Tursunbek Akun was quoted as saying. “Don't they know that they're violating the Constitution, civil rights, and freedom of movement?”