Kazakhstan is flouting the rights of its workers to organize in trade unions and assert their labor rights, a damning new report published by an international human rights watchdog alleges.
The study, “We Are Not The Enemy: Violations of Workers’ Rights in Kazakhstan”, was published by Human Rights Watch on November 24, shortly ahead of the fifth anniversary of a bout of fatal violence that spiraled out of an oil strike in the town of Zhanaozen.
The report documents “harassment, surveillance, and, in some cases, spurious legal prosecution or dismissals in apparent retaliation for labor activism.”
Based on interviews with 55 union leaders, labor activists and workers in nine cities—including in the oil and gas sector in western Kazakhstan and the industrial heartland in the center and northeast—the study reveals cases of harassment and intimidation of workers by the authorities and employers to deter them from joining independent trade unions.
It cites cases of workers fired for taking industrial action — a ‘disproportionate disciplinary sanction,’ HRW says — and instances of surveillance of independent union leaders and activists by the security services.
Larisa Kharkova, president of the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions, recalled how on a trip to western Kazakhstan in March this year she was “surrounded in Aktau — day and night” by intelligence agents, and during her meetings with union members “we were sitting there, talking, and we could see how [the security agents] drove up and photographed us.”
Kharkova also explained how a new trade union law enacted in 2014 had “paralyzed” the work of her confederation’s members, independent labor unions which were denied re-registration under burdensome new requirements.
Only a week after Kazakhstan celebrated the 23rd anniversary of its national currency by sticking the face of President Nursultan Nazarbayev on banknotes, talk is afoot of renaming the capital after the leader.
Nazarbayev is already object of a vigorous campaign of state-engineered adulation that often tips into a full-on cult of personality, but this is taking things to a new level.
The proposal to rename Astana to somehow reflect the name of Nazarbayev — who is also known by the Sultanate-style honorific of Elbasy, or leader of the nation — was aired in the hyper-loyalist rubber stamp lower house of parliament, the Majlis, on November 23.
“We suggest placing a note in the country’s constitution observing the leading role played in the creation of our state by the first president, the leader of the nation, Nursultan Abishevich Nazarbayev. And to reflect the name of Elbasy in the name of the capital and other important sites,” said Kuanysh Sultanov, a member of parliament with the ruling Nur Otan party.
Sultanov’s suggestion on how to rename Astana was for either Nursultan or Nazarbayev. Another MP, Pavel Kazantsev, said the decision could be made in just a single month and that “there is no need to drag out the issue.” Kazantsev’s notion was to change the name by independence day, which falls on December 16.
“By the end of the year, we can already choose a new name. It all depends on how discussions go and on what the people say. It just remains for parliament to formalize the decision of the Kazakhstani people,” Kazantsev said.
A referendum could be held to approve the decision, he said.
The leader of Kyrgyzstan’s opposition Ata-Meken party, Omurbek Tekebayev, has raised the stakes in his face-off with the president by announcing that he is laying the groundwork for impeachment proceedings.
News website K-News cited Tekebayev as saying on November 22 that Almazbek Atambayev had left himself open to the move by openly supporting his former party, the Social Democratic Party, or SDPK, in violation of the constitution.
“In February, a new political party council was formed and it included all the president’s entourage — Farid Niyazov, Albek Ibraimov, Ikramzhan Ilmiyanov, Kubanychbek Kulmatov. All of them occupy some kind of position in the presidential apparatus or are somehow dependant on him, and they don’t make a secret of it,” Tekebayev said.
Tekebayev is in effect saying what everybody already knows, since the SDPK, while not de facto led by Atambayev, is indissolubly associated with the president. To point out the emperor has no clothes is a transparent political provocation, however.
“The position of SDPK chairman is still not filled. Why? Maybe it is because he [Atambayev] still leads the party?” he said.
Tekebayev said that the influence of the SPDK extends even further. While the party only holds 38 out of the 120 seats in the Zhogorku Kenesh, or parliament, 15 out of 18 government ministries are headed by SDPK representatives, according to the leader of Ata-Meken, which holds 11 seats. Tekebayev said that of the remaining three ministers, two are from the Kyrgyzstan party — which has 18 deputies in parliament and is widely viewed as a stalking horse for the SDPK — and another is from Bir Bol, which has 12 MPs.
Prosecutors in the trial of two activists in Kazakhstan accused of whipping up anti-land reform rallies have demanded jail sentences of up to eight years and a $1.5 million fine to be slapped on the men.
Lawyers acting for the state also argued on November 21 in the Aytrau court that Max Bokayev and Talgat Ayan should be banned from engaging in public activity for three years.
If the court entertains anything near close to that request, it would send an ominous signal about the government’s willingness to tolerate any kind of public dissent, regardless of how peaceful it is.
Bokayev and Ayan staunchly deny they did anything wrong other than express their discontent at a law passed last year that would have led to the privatization of once-publicly owned land. In the absence of a public information campaign, a wave of peaceful but impassioned rallies were held in the spring, mainly in western Kazakhstan, over concerns that land might be the object of major buy-ups by foreign investors.
“What guilt am I supposed to admit? In Kazakhstan there is a law about peaceful gatherings and I took part in a rally in accordance with this law. I am not guilty and I did nothing that could raise alarm or pose a danger to people’s lives,” Bokayev told RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service, Radio Azattyq, during the break of one hearing.
Prosecutors this week once again argued that the activists were in cahoots with brewery tycoon Tohtar Tuleshov, who was sentenced to 21 years in jail on November 7 on charges of purportedly plotting a coup. According to the authorities, Tuleshov was scheming to use the political unrest provoked by the anti-land reform protests to make a grab for power.
An eyebrow-raising appointment to the higher echelons of Kazakhstan’s security services suggests greater emphasis is about to be placed on combating corruption.
The presidential administration announced in a tweet on November 21 that Daulet Yergozhin was being moved from his long-term position as chief of the tax committee to become the new deputy head of National Security Committee, or KNB, the successor agency to the KGB.
Yergozhin, 37, was in the news most recently in October over some intra-departmental sniping coming from the direction of the General Prosecutor’s Office, which accused certain government bodies of being overly aggressive in their checks on business owners.
“There is no system of risk management, no clear analysis about which business needs to be inspected and when,” Marat Akhmetzhanov, the Deputy Prosecutor General, told media in early October. “What is more, state bodies have, in their checklists, included large amounts of outdated requirements. Some of them are absurd and beyond logic.”
Akhmetzhanov did not appear to single out any particular body for criticism, but given Yergozhin’s swift reaction, it was clear that his was one of the departments in question.
Yergozhin said that he would look into the activities of his committee’s economic investigations department to see what work needed to be done.
“On the whole, we share the concerns of the main supervisory body — the General Prosecutor’s Office — about the need for running fewer checks on private businesses so as to interfere less with their affairs. We are open to this criticism,” he said.
Kazakhstan’s medal haul from the 2012 London Olympics and the 2008 Beijing Olympics has been further depleted as four more athletes were stripped of their medals after failing doping tests following a second round of testing.
Weightlifters Irina Nekrasova, a Beijing silver medallist, and bronze medallists Maria Grabovetskaya and Maiya Maneza along with wrestler Asset Mambetov, were stripped of their medals by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on 17 November after testing positive for banned substances.
Maneza already lost her gold medal from the London games on October 27, as did her fellow weightlifters Zulfiya Chinshanlo and Svetlana Podobedova. Wrestler Taimuraz Tigiyev was stripped of his silver medal from Beijing on October 26, bringing the total of medals reclaimed from Kazakhstan to eight.
All these athletes failed retests of samples given at the time. Earlier this year, the IOC began a comprehensive campaign of reanalysing samples, using the latest analytical methods, to try and keep this year’s games in Rio clean.
Grabovetskaya took to the press in Kazakhstan to proclaim her innocence, claiming in an interview with vesti.kz that she had not taken any illegal substances prior to the games, only painkillers.
“We were clean,” she said, referring to the rigorous testing the athletes underwent prior to the games. “We gave all to the [weightlifting] bar. And now I don’t understand it, when we’re asked to return the medal.”
Kyrgyzstan’s most improbable political alliance — between the parties of southern, nationalist firebrand Kamchybek Tashiyev and the northern, business-oriented former prime minister Omurbek Babanov — has crumbled just ahead of next month’s local council elections.
The uneasy tandem act joining Tashiyev’s Ata Jurt and Babanov’s Respublika was first announced in October 2014 and was viewed at the time as likely a short-term proposition. Few partnerships have ever seemed as peculiar. Tashiyev is an easily angered ex-boxer most comfortable conveying his political positions with his fists. Babanov is a wealthy urbanite skilled at operating behind scenes.
In an attempt to convince the public that their alliance had arisen from genuine personal sympathy, Babanov posted pictures on his Facebook account of him horse-playing with Tashiyev in the picturesque snowdrifts of the Suusamyr Valley. The scene drew much ribald commentary.
“A true romance! Kamchike grabbed some snow in his sledgehammer-like fist. With his other hand he grabbed Omuke by the neck and rubbed the snow in Omuke’s face. And Omurbek enjoyed it. He loved it. It was amazing,” one newspaper, Aibat, reported at the time.
Against all expectations, the union kept more or less fast for two years. Together the parties won 28 of the 120 parliamentary seats up for grabs in the 2015 elections, making it the second biggest faction in the legislature after President Almazbek Atambayev’s Social Democratic Party.
A section of a building bang in the center of the EXPO-2017 village in Astana — a project intended as a modern showcase for Kazakhstan — has collapsed only months before the fair was due to kick into high gear.
Organizers and builders went into quick response mode on November 16, hours after the incident occurred.
“Everything with the building is fine, but between the pavilions there was a decorative bridge construction. It did indeed collapse,” said Sergei Kuyanov, public relations director for the state-run Astana EXPO-2017 group organizing the exhibition. “I don’t know what the reason was. This building was created by BI Group. They said that they have called in the designer and that the company’s management would deal with this and rebuild.”
Kuyanov said Astana EXPO-2017 had not yet taken the affected building under management and that the contractor would have to assume the costs of reconstruction.
BI Group said nobody was injured in the collapse, which took place just after 1 pm.
“The general contractor is a daughter company of the BI Group holding group,” the company said in a statement. “According to the head of the project, Ibragim Zhekeyev, the partially destroyed construction was not a supporting structure and was a decorative addition to the project.”
Numerous objectors to plans to tinker with Kyrgyzstan’s constitution have found themselves reportedly object of criminal investigations in a worrying sign the country may be slipping back to old authoritarian ways.
President Almazbek Atambayev’s office on November 14 released details of his meeting with Abdil Segizbayev, head of the State Committee for National Security (GKNB), whose anticorruption department is increasingly said to serve as a stick with which to beat government critics.
At the meeting, Segizbayev is said to have informed Atambayev of materials supposedly provided to the government by the authorities of Belize, in central America, linking unnamed politicians to offshore companies purportedly set up to help benefit the hated son of deposed president Kurmanbek Bakiyev.
The online statement did not identify the suspected figures, but it does mischievously leave their names clearly visible on documents shown in accompanying illustrative photos. They include former Justice Minister Almanbet Shykmamatov, former general prosecutor Aida Salyanova and leading politician Omurbek Tekebayev — all three members of the now-opposition Ata-Meken party.
Ata-Meken quit the ruling coalition last month in protest at the proposed constitutional reforms, which are designed to bolster the authority of the executive branch and reduce that of parliament and the judiciary.
Kazakhstan’s Interior Ministry has said it plans to create a national fingerprint database that would include details on all the country’s citizens by 2021. Deputy Interior Minister Rashid Zhakupov said on November 15 that the initiative will cost 36.8 billion tenge ($107 million).
Submitting fingerprints within the coming four years is to be made compulsory, news website Vlast.kz reported.
“Including fingerprints in identification documents will allow for 100 percent certainty in identification. This will facilitate passage through border controls,” said Serik Sayinov, head of the Interior Ministry’s migration department.
Kazakhstan is drawing on the experience of the European Union, where member nations of the Schengen zone are required to provide fingerprint information to obtain travel documents. In 2009, Kazakhstan introduced biometric passports that included basic information and a digital signature of the passport holder. Under the new rules, the chip incorporated in the document will also include prints from two fingers.
All citizens of Kazakhstan above the age of 16 will have to submit biometric data to receive their IDs. Children between 12 and 16 will need to give consent before their fingerprints can be taken. The rules will also apply to foreign citizens living in Kazakhstan.
DNA registration, meanwhile, will be mandatory for people convicted of serious crimes and those with immediate relatives that have gone missing.
Zhakupov said that refusing to register details will be punishable by a fine. Anybody refusing to submit their fingerprint will not be granted documents.