Protests are picking up steam in Kazakhstan against reforms that many fear could enable foreigners to buy up massive swaths of land and open the way to shady and corrupt transactions.
More than 1,000 people rallied in the western city of Atyrau on April 24, only the latest in a string such demonstrations. Civil activist Galymbek Akulbekov was able to hold a one-man picket in the capital, Astana, for about five minutes last week before being hauled away by police. Another larger rally in Almaty on April 22 drew some 30 people.
Although modest in size, the protests are an unusual sight and the authorities will be wary about cracking down too severely over a potentially incendiary and sensitive issue.
As the ninth largest country in the world, Kazakhstan is well-stocked on the land front. The country has 2.7 million square kilometers of farming land stock, of which around one-third is unused, according to the National Economy Ministry. Another 602,000 square kilometers is made up residential space, industrial areas and protected nature reserves.
Under government plans, the unused farming land could be sold or made available for rent, with the revenue going to the National Fund — Kazakhstan’s stabilization fund — instead of the state coffers.
The United Nations Human Rights Committee on April 21 urged Kyrgyzstan to immediately free jailed activist Azimjan Askarov, who it said has been subjected to mistreatment and torture since his imprisonment in 2010.
That appeal is bound to provoke deep irritation in Kyrgyzstan, which has reacted combatively to all international appeals over this particular case.
The Human Rights Committee said in a statement that 18 international human rights experts had found that Kyrgyzstan routinely flouted articles of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights in their treatment of Askarov.
In September 2010, Askarov, who is an ethnic Uzbek, was sentenced to life imprisonment for what Kyrgyz authorities say was his role in inciting the mob killing of a police officer amid ethnic unrest in southern Kyrgyzstan in June of that year.
Echoing the positions adopted earlier by advocacy groups and Western governments, the UN rights committee said Askarov had been denied the basic right to properly prepare for his trial and criticized the manner of his initial detention.
“Askarov was initially detained at the police station where the deceased officer was based and … no specific security measures were in place to safeguard him,” the UN rights committee statement said.
Committee members ruled that independent medical examinations suggested Askarov had been subjected to acts of torture.
A subsequent inquiry in 2013 was found to be lacking “the element of impartiality, as it interviewed more than 100 law enforcement officers, judges, court clerks and prosecutors but failed to interview [Askarov’s] lawyers, human rights defenders who visited him in prison, and his relatives,” the committee said.
Going by recent form, Kyrgyzstan is unlikely to take this parade of charges well.
A mural created by street artist Pavel Kas in the industrial city of Temirtau.
A graffiti artist in the industrial Kazakhstan town of Temirtau has ended up in the authorities’ crosshairs for creating a giant mural in protest at the environmental damage caused by a local smelter.
The mural was painted on the side of an apartment block by Pavel Kas in the style of Henri Matisse’s The Dance and shows a circle of human figures around a chimney stack chugging out thick black smoke. The vividness of the painting is in ironic contrast to the bleak backdrop of the real factories.
But one city’s vandalism is another city’s art, and so the town hall in Shymkent, in southern Kazakhstan, has now invited Kas to take part in an art festival being held there on May 13-15.
Shymkent Art Days 2016 will host street artists, sculptors, architects, designers and graffiti artists for an event to celebrate contemporary style. While Temirtau has reacted poorly to the notion of people painting on its walls, Shymkent is actively inviting festival participants to break out the paints.
“Pavel Kas is a lively representative of informal art dealing with current issues. Shymkent will be happy to welcome Pavel to its festival and organizers will provide all materials needed to create works that will decorate our city,” Shymkent deputy mayor Kairat Nurtai said in remarks reproduced on the city’s official website.
Temirtau is the heart of Kazakhstan’s steel industry, which environmentalists say has had a heavy toll on the quality of the air. One the earliest workers at the city’s first blast furnace in the 1960s was none other than President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Tajikistan industry’s visiting card: That was how President Emomali Rahmon once described aluminum producer TALCO.
But things are looking a bit grim for the company at the moment with the news that it has had to lay off 607 employees, equivalent to 7 percent of the entire workforce, because of low global prices for its product.
Reuters news agency on April 19 cited TALCO press secretary Igor Sattarov as saying that 8,200 workers would be left at the company after the cutback.
Although the loss of employment will come as a massive blow to the laborers affected, the cutback is still quite a bit short of the 2,000 job cuts called for international consultants. Sattarov said TALCO instead opted for a “mitigated plans for the staffing optimization” and has put a number of people on unpaid leave.
International aluminum prices are currently hovering around $1,600 per ton, which marks something of a recovery from the lows seen last year, but still falls short of a figure that would make TALCO seriously profitable.
Wanting to help TALCO out of a tight spot, the government in November granted the company licenses to develop two gold deposits in the northern Sughd province, Konchoch and Chulobi. Usage rights over the deposits will extend to 25 years.
Tajikistan has slipped 34 places in the media rights group Reporters Without Borders annual index in a stark reflection of the country’s intensifying assault on political freedoms this past year.
Tajikistan now stands 150th out of 180 positions.
“On the pretext of combatting terrorism, the government has eliminated the political opposition and is stepping up pressure on the remaining independent media. Interrogation by intelligence officers, intimidation and blackmail have become part of the daily fare of independent journalists. Surveillance of communications is now routine, while the blocking of the main news websites and social networks is virtually permanent.” RSF said in a commentary on Tajikistan to go with the index.
By virtue of the state pressure against reporters, few instances of intimidation gain public attention as even the few remaining independent-minded outlets increasingly exercise robust self-censorship.
Little appears to have improved since the visit in March of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the protection of the right to freedom of expression, David Kaye, who spoke of his concern that instability in Afghanistan was serving as a smokescreen for repression.
“I recognize that there is a serious security problem in this part of the world, in particular in Tajikistan and in this neighborhood. But I’m afraid that the security situation has been used as a pretext, as an excuse, to crack down on freedom of expression, whether in the media or in civil society,” Kaye told a press conference at the conclusion of his visit in Dushanbe.
Proponents of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline say the much-discussed, long-delayed project will be completed by the end of the decade. But some regional experts are contending that TAPI’s time may have already passed.
The pipeline, which would convey Turkmen natural gas via Afghanistan to Pakistani and Indian markets via a 1,800km-long route, has been beset by myriad issues for the better part of two decades. But the plan seemed to move off the back burner last December, when, out of the blue, officials in Turkmenistan announced that construction had gotten underway.
The problem, according to Luca Anceschi, a lecturer in Central Asian Studies with the University of Glasgow who has extensively studied TAPI, is that Ashgabat provided no tangible evidence, such as video of backhoes doing some digging, to support the claim that work had started. And since Turkmenistan is home to one of the most ruthless dictatorships on the planet, where words and images are twisted to meet the needs of the country’s leader, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, it is hard to take officials at their word.
“We only know what the Turkmen government wants us to know,” said Anceschi, speaking at a forum hosted by Columbia University’s Harriman Institute on April 11. “There is not a picture, there is not a TV frame, of the works being done. It’s like the Middle Ages.”
As Kazakhstan’s economic muddle continues apace, the production and sale of new automobiles has collapsed, while more drivers are choosing to buy or keep old clangers.
Figures released last week by the National Economy Ministry show that in the first quarter of 2016, the production of cars fell by 92.2 percent compared with the same period last year, Trend news agency reported. During the same period, factories in Kazakhstan produced 14.2 percent fewer trucks.
Kazakhstan’s main auto assembly companies — Azia Avto, Saryarka AvtoProm and Agromash Holding — turn out some of the world’s largest brands, including Chevrolet, Kia, Skoda, Lada, Toyota, Hyundai, SsangYong and Peugeot.
Most cars sold in Kazakhstan are imported, and demand has been steadily falling.
In 2015, official dealerships reported the sale of 97,446 automobiles, a 40 percent drop on the year before.
The rate of the drop-off in sales is intensifying. Figures from the Kazakhstan Automobile Business Association (KABA) show that 6,991 cars were bought from official dealerships in the first two months of this year, a 59 percent decrease on the same period in 2015.
A glance around the roads in Kazakhstan’s wealthiest cities, Astana and Almaty, is an easy reminder that many Kazakhs prefer when they can to buy larger cars able to handle some of the country’s worst roads.
But as KABA president Andrey Lavrentyev has noted, the greatest demand registered last year was for compact models costing under 4.5 million tenge ($13,300).
The biggest seller among smaller models last year was the Hyundai Elantra (2,203 units), followed by the Skoda Rapid with 1,351 sales. In a far third place was the KIA Cerato with 883 units sold.
A member of parliament in Kazakhstan has struck a populist note by thundering about the reportedly massive wages being paid to a Russian soccer star recently signed by Almaty’s FC Kairat.
In an intemperate address before parliament on April 18, Muhtar Tinkeyev spoke of the need to develop a sporting culture in Kazakhstan and not to waste money bringing foreign stars to the country. By way of an example, he pointed to FC Kairat’s recent, high-profile signing of Andrei Arshavin.
“Look at Arshavin, they have given him a $1 million contract. Just think, more than $1 million a year. There are foreign players making $30,000 a month. Is this the kind of football we need?” Tinkeyev said in remarks carried in detail by Tengri News. “Why isn’t this money spent on children’s sport? On building courtyard playgrounds?”
Tinkeyev was no more sparing of what he described as the wasteful expense on basketball and hockey.
“Look at the situation with the Barys Atsana hockey team. You have this one Kazakh there, Damir Ryspayev, who only goes onto the ice to get into fights,” he said.
Tinkeyev instead lavished praise on recent sporting events like the Nomad Mixed Martial Arts competition, which wrapped up last week in the city of Karaganda at what Tinkeyev said was of no cost to the state budget.
And the deputy was no less critical of the slovenly behavior he claimed to have seen among overpaid sports stars.
With Tajikistan now in the midst of its spring conscription drive, the country’s top defense official has given to worrying out loud about the state of discipline and morale among the armed forces.
Asia-Plus last week reported that Defense Minister Sherali Mirzo addressed senior defense personnel to discuss a series of problem areas, including the rampant and often deadly scourge of hazing. There is no reason to believe this problem will be tackled with any vigor, however.
Authorities say they have already enlisted 50 percent of the required number of conscripts this season. The techniques used to hit targets strike terror into the hearts of young Tajik men and for many they amount to little more than legalized mass kidnapping.
Pictures have appeared on social media showing young men being rounded up directly from the streets of the capital, Dushanbe. Social media has also served as a platform in the past for anonymously spreading alleged photographic evidence of hazing among conscripts. Media reported last year on four deaths in Tajikistan as a result of hazing: Firdavs Rahmatov, Abduvahhob Kayumov, Parviz Dustmatov and Azam Ubaidulloev.
In an unhappy piece of timing, a court in Dushanbe has just heard the trial of 22-year old man Umedjon Amrohon, who is accused of involvement in the fatal attack in November on a group of military mobilization personnel. Two of the officers were killed in the assault.
Prosecutors have asked that Amrohon be thrown behind bars for life.
Good news for hikers and bikers in Kazakhstan’s business hub as a local beverage company plans to build 25 kilometers of foot and cycle paths into the hills to mark its 25th anniversary.
Kazakhstan’s Raimbek Bottlers, which markets its drinks range under the Juicy, Palma and Ainalaiyn brands, is stumping the cash to build car-free access to the most popular out-of-town getaway spots. Once the path is completed, people will be able to get to the Medeu ice skating rink and Shymbulak ski resort from Kok-Tobe, a hilltop recreation area in Almaty, under their own steam.
“We want to give these paths to the city so that you don’t have to go by transport to Medeu or Shymbulak, but, for example, you can go on foot up to Kok-Tobe and then use the paths. Part of the path will be for trekking and the other for mountain bikes,” Raimbek Batalov, chairman of Raimbek Holdings, told Kapital.kz.
Kazakhstan has on paper been making bold efforts to nudge their automobile-addicted population onto their bicycles by building dedicated paths (albeit not always very good ones). And there is health to consider. Almaty is plagued by appallingly polluted air because over-reliance on cars, which also seems to be contributing to a burgeoning obesity crisis. Research by the Kazakh Academy of Nutrition has found that 30.6 percent of women and 36.8 percent of men in Kazakhstan are overweight.
So Batalov’s cycle and trekking path could not have come at a more apposite time.