One of Central Asia's favorite sporting pastimes, kokpar, is set to go mainstream in Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan's Association for National Sports has floated plans to professionalize the rough-and-tumble sport and establish purpose-built stadiums across the country.
In a game of kokpar, a distant cousin of polo, two teams of mounted players struggle to take a headless goat carcass into the opposing team’s goal. Kokpar – which often translates as “goat-grabbing” – is better known as “buzkashi” in Afghanistan and Tajikistan.
Sadybek Tugel, the Association’s vice president, told KazTAG on January 15 that the aim is to move kokpar to a professional club system with 16 centers across the country. Tugel also envisages setting up a National Sports Center and training college in the capital, Astana, to promote indigenous sports such as kokpar. Affiliated schools will open in Almaty and in Kazakhstan's 14 regional centers.
Kokpar games have been known to last for hours. To make the sport more television-friendly, the Kazakhs might think about adopting the Afghan Olympic Committee's rules for championship buzkashi: They limit the game to two 45-minute halves, like in soccer.
Tradition or not, kokpar still courts controversy. As EurasiaNet.org reported last year, animal-rights activists are pushing to introduce plastic dummy goats to replace the bloody carcasses. Some, though, might find the game a tad pedestrian without the pre-match slaughter.
Officials in northern Kazakhstan have taken President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s zero-tolerance policy toward anti-social behavior to heart, jailing a man for making a rude gesture at an official motorcade.
The unidentified 22-year-old resident of Pavlodar was thrown behind bars for giving the middle finger to the cortege of Kayrat Mami, speaker of the Senate (the upper house of parliament), Tengri News reported on January 14.
The man pleaded guilty on hooliganism charges and was given a five-day jail sentence for “insulting the human dignity of a public figure, thus allowing disrespect for those around and violating public order and the peace of individuals,” court spokeswoman Umut Zhumatayeva said.
The jailing is in line with a policy Nazarbayev announced last fall, when he used a parliamentary address to rail against graffiti, garbage and public drunkenness, surprising observers who thought Kazakhstan had more pressing problems to tackle. Nazarbayev also has a Singapore-style fixation with chewing gum and dirty cars in his model capital city, Astana.
The news of the harsh treatment meted out to the Pavlodar man sparked vituperative reactions on the Tengri News site, suggesting that many of Nazarbayev’s fellow citizens do not share his concerns. “Where the hell is democracy?” asked user West. “He was only expressing his opinion.”
Investors operating in three post-Soviet Central Asian republics face an “extreme risk” of having their businesses expropriated, according to a survey released last week in the UK.
Maplecroft, a Bath-based political risk consultancy, said on January 9 that it had found plenty of reasons to be wary of the business climate in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan after “evaluating the risk to business from discriminatory acts by the government that reduces ownership, control or rights of private investments either gradually or as a result of a single action.” Recent fits of resource nationalism in Kyrgyzstan -- where the Kumtor gold mine, operated by Toronto-based Centerra Gold, accounted for 12 percent of GDP in 2011 and more than half the country’s industrial output – and rampant authoritarianism in places like Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have led Maplecroft to rank these countries among the most risky in the world. Not far behind, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan both fall in the “high risk” category.
The capital of Kazakhstan is well known for its outlandish and whimsical buildings, which include a pyramid and a shopping mall shaped like a khan’s tent. Now architects are planning a new surprise: an ice hotel of yurts, the traditional circular dwelling of Kazakh nomads (more often made of felt, which is much warmer than ice).
One unnamed Astana hotel is planning to erect the frozen yurt village as a novel take on the ice hotels that have become popular in Scandinavia, reports the Ekspress K tabloid, citing Vitaliy Enke, spokesman for an architectural firm (also unidentified) working on the project.
An ice hotel of yurts is certainly weird, but – with Kazakhstan keen to attract more tourists – it looks like a sure bet for those in search of that once-in-a-lifetime experience. Astana, often described as the world’s second-coldest capital, definitely has the climate for it: last month temperatures plunged to -40C (-40F).
Land for the ice yurts has already been allocated on the city’s prestigious Left Bank, the seat of government and home to most of the city’s landmark buildings. As well as the Norman Foster-designed Pyramid of Peace and the tent-shaped Khan Shatyr mall, which boasts a beach inside, they include a velodrome in the shape of a cyclist’s hat, an egg-shaped national archive, and a building nicknamed the Cigarette Lighter for its shape, which once made headlines by catching fire.
Not long ago Tajik police were forcing men to shave their beards, convinced a terrorist lurked behind every whisker. Now the health minister has recommended salons stop trimming Tajikistan’s chins lest dirty razors spread HIV.
Nusratullo Salimov said barbers are not doing enough to disinfect their shaving equipment, RIA Novosti quoted him as saying on January 10. The health minister emphasized, however, that the majority of Tajikistan’s new HIV infections are transmitted via dirty needles and unprotected sex. He gave no statistics for new infections from tainted razors.
Facial hair is a popular topic of official chatter in Tajikistan. In late 2010, a number of bewhiskered men told local media outlets they were being harassed by police. Some reported being stopped and forced to shave. At the time, an Interior Ministry spokesman confirmed police were detaining “suspicious” men sporting long beards as part of their search for members of banned Islamic sects. Muslim men, moderate and radical alike, often wear beards out of reverence for the Prophet Muhammad.
More recently, in November, a new injunction sponsored by the State Committee on Religious Affairs reportedly prohibited men from wearing beards longer than their fists, though some officials later denied the existence of any rules. (Ironically, across the border in Afghanistan, the Taliban were once said to forbid men from wearing beards shorter than fist-length.)
A second hostage crisis in a week has amplified concerns about ethnic tensions in southern Kyrgyzstan.
Police in Osh Province say a fight between locals and Chinese workers in the village of Kurshab on January 8 left dozens injured. The brawl reportedly started when Chinese workers, possibly intoxicated, accused a local resident of stealing a mobile phone. A fight ensued and the Chinese reportedly took a group of Kyrgyzstanis hostage. Some reports say local police were among the 28 injured in the fracas. All Chinese from the district have been evacuated to Osh city for their safety, KyrTAG reports.
The Chinese were working on a high-profile power line that will connect parts of southern Kyrgyzstan with the north. Due to the fight, the launch of the line has been delayed, said Musazhan Makelek, head of China’s TBEA energy firm in Kyrgyzstan. Makelek told 24.kg that the fight had nothing to do with the $208 million project, which is being financed by China, and blamed both sides.
Thousands of Chinese nationals work in Kyrgyzstan, most on infrastructure projects such as high-voltage electricity lines and roads, and as traders. Beijing has promised hundreds of millions in loans and assistance in recent years. But the Chinese presence and largesse is not without controversy. Many Kyrgyz are deeply suspicious and worry the giant neighbor could swallow their tiny country.
A Ferghana Valley border clash this weekend yet again highlights the potential for violence in Central Asia’s most densely populated and ethnically diverse region.
Several hundred residents of the Uzbek enclave of Sokh reportedly attacked a Kyrgyz border post and took Kyrgyz citizens hostage on January 5 and 6, according to local news wires. Sokh (also spelled Soh) is an island of territory controlled by Uzbekistan and entirely surrounded by one of Kyrgyzstan’s poorest provinces, Batken.
Though Sokh is populated mostly by ethnic Tajiks, a minority in both countries, the episode is an unsettling reminder of the fighting between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan that left hundreds dead in 2010.
Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales is the latest demi-celebrity to find himself embroiled in a Kazakhstan-related controversy. The widely celebrated creator of the non-profit, freely editable website closed a Wikipedia discussion on December 21, 18 hours after a user asked Wales to explain his upcoming visit to Kazakhstan in connection with Wikibilim, a local NGO working to develop the Kazakh-language Wikipedia.
“As far as I know, the Wikibilim organization is not politicized,” replied Wales. He maintained his belief that there are “no particularly difficult issues” with neutrality in the Kazakh-language Wikipedia, and promised to stress press freedom and openness during a visit to Kazakhstan in 2013.
The exchange is raising questions, again, about the Kazakh government’s efforts to control Wikipedia content. But it also points to a fundamental problem in the Wikipedia movement – source material.
One user, PhnomPencil, noted that Wikibilim received, according to another Wikipedia entry, 30 million tenge ($200,000) from the state investment fund Samruk-Kazyna in 2011 “for editing, digitalization, and author rights transfer.” PhnomPencil questions Wales’ connection to a group that appears close to the authoritarian government, and asks whether the Kazakh-language Wikipedia has been hijacked by Astana's paid propagandists.
A court in Kazakhstan has banned the outspoken independent newspaper Respublika, amid what critics see as a year-long political crackdown following fatal unrest in the town of Zhanaozen last December that has seen an opposition leader jailed, his party shut down, and media outlets critical of the administration of President Nursultan Nazarbayev closed.
On December 25 the court ordered Respublika to shut down its print version and all associated print outlets and websites containing the word “Respublika,” Almaty-based media freedom watchdog Adil Soz reported. The ruling was issued four days after a key opposition party, Alga!, was closed.
Respublika – which has long operated under pressure in Kazakhstan, and once had the corpse of a decapitated dog pinned to its wall as an apparent threat – was among around 40 media outlets targeted for closure by prosecutors who allege their coverage of the Zhanaozen unrest was “extremist” and contained calls to overthrow the state. Prosecutors say the outlets are funded by fugitive oligarch and Nazarbayev opponent Mukhtar Ablyazov (who is on the run from British justice in a separate fraud case).
It looks like Moscow isn't interested in buying part of Kyrgyzstan’s gas infrastructure. It wants all of it.
After a week of dangerous energy shortages in Kyrgyzstan, which continued to leave thousands of customers in the capital without gas on Friday, Bishkek is finalizing a deal to sell Kyrgyzgaz to Russia’s state-run behemoth, Gazprom, officials say.
The shortages began when neighboring Kazakhstan stopped gas supplies to Kyrgyzstan on December 14, citing the need to supply its own customers. Kyrgyzstan had also constantly defaulted on payments and reportedly owed the Kazakhs tens of millions of dollars. The shut off happened to coincide with a bout of extreme cold – temperatures in Bishkek have hovered around -20 Celsius (-4 Fahrenheit) for the past week – leading some to speculate the shortage was a bargaining ploy. In any case, as more Kyrgyzstanis turned to electricity to cook and heat their homes, their country's aging infrastructure faltered, resulting in mass blackouts.
For years, observers have warned of a crisis like the one currently gripping the country, but politicians have done little more than bicker and postpone solutions – like find ways to cut rampant corruption in the sector and raise energy tariffs to cover basic maintenance.