In a surprising shakeup of Kazakhstan’s leadership, prime minister Karimov Masimov was on September 8 moved sideways and appointed head of the security services.
In a decree confirming that appointment, President Nursultan Nazarbayev named the up-and-coming Bakytzhan Sagintayev to head up the government, albeit only in an interim capacity for now.
It is not immediately obvious what motivated the personnel shuffle, but the position of Vladimir Zhumakanov, the outgoing head of the National Security Committee, or KNB, has been in question since a spate of fatal shootings in the western city of Aktobe in June.
This spells the end of Masimov’s second stint as prime minister. He served as head of government in 2007 and fill that post until 2012, after which he headed the presidential administration. He was again named prime minister in April 2014.
His removal as head of the Cabinet has been predicted for months, but that he would be appointed head of the security services is something few can have expected. It has long been rumored, although never officially confirmed, that Masimov had a background in the secret services in the Soviet era, so the transition may not be as surprising as it seems.
Political commentator Marat Shibutov told news and analysis website 365info.kz that he believed the move was only temporary.
“He will remain one of the most influential people in the country and close to the president. So you cannot write him off. This is just a temporary disappearance into the shadows,” Shibutov said.
Shibutov estimated that Masimov would occupy his KNB post for around one year.
The only suspect in the recent spate of shootings in Kazakhstan’s business capital, Almaty, has told investigators his only targets were people involved in the law enforcement system and that he avoided attacking civilians.
Ruslan Kulekbayev told his interrogators, according to transcripts obtained by Vremya newspaper and published on July 27, that his motivation was revenge and that although he is a devout Muslim, his actions were not religiously inspired.
“I wanted to take revenge on judges, prosecutors and police officers because I consider my (previous) convictions unfair. First I went to the Almaly district court, but I saw nobody in uniform there. From there I went to the Almaly police precinct and the first person I saw was the guy who came through the security checkpoint,” Kulekbayev reportedly told interrogators.
The Vremya profile of the suspected 26-year old attacker is highly detailed and describes a serial recidivist whose background shares features with the typical violent radical extremist as described Kazakhstan’s authorities, although distinct in some respects.
Kulekbayev first criminal conviction came in 2010, when he received a three-year suspended sentence for robbing a jeweler. In February 2012, he was detained at the railway station in his native city of Kyzylorda in possession of a pistol and religious literature. Kulekbayev said that although he prayed, he had no link to extremist groups.
In the wake of the deadly Almaty shootings, authorities in Kazakhstan are drawing up measures to step up the fight against extremism and considering the creation of a fingerprint and DNA register.
“Penalties for crimes of an extremist or terrorist character will be intensified through an increase in the minimum and maximum prison sentences. Rules will be brought in on the confiscation of property as a mandatory form of punishment for extremism and terrorism,” National Security Committee chief Vladimir Zhumakanov said at a government meeting on July 19.
The measures proposed had been drawn up before the July 18 events in Almaty, which authorities have said were the single-handed work of 26-year old Ruslan Kulekbayev, but they are now being discussed with fresh urgency.
One plank of the suggested new measures includes tightening control over the circulation of firearms.
“It is planned that there will be a strengthening of control over the circulation of firearms, and administrative penalties for violating rules in that area will be made stricter,” Zhumakanov said.
Interior Minister Kalmukhanbet Kasymov proposed at the same meeting that citizenship be stripped from people that had left the country to join extremist organizations overseas.
Kasymov’s ministry is now developing legislation on fingerprinting and DNA registration that will be brought to parliament by the end of the year. No details are forthcoming yet, however, about who would be included in such registers, which have sparked concern about privacy rights and ethical-legal objections over citizens’ right to presumption of innocence elsewhere in the world.
Authorities in Tajikistan have said they have all but contained a breakout from a jail in the northern city of Khujand, while at least one media outlet has reported that numerous prisoners have escaped.
The Interior Ministry said in a statement that one man was shot dead while trying to flee the prison in a breakout that occurred at 8:45 p.m on June 17. Another prisoner was wounded and captured during the breakout, while a third managed to escape, despite sustaining injuries, the statement said.
Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported that a prison guard, 52-year-old Ermamad Alimamadov, was stabbed to death during the escape.
Officials have variously speculated to the media that the fugitives were plotting to cross over to Afghanistan and possibly attempt to join the ranks of the Islamic State group.
The escapees were named as Ramzullohon Dodohonov, Habibjon Yusupov, Mirzozarif Kayumov. Dodohonov was sentenced to 20 years in jail in 2013 for allegedly participating in militant activities in Pakistan’s tribal region of Waziristan. Kayumov was serving a 14-year jail sentence handed down in December for fighting alongside Islamist radicals in Iraq. The standout figure in the trio was Yusupov, who was also sentenced to 20 years in jail in 2014, but over a non-religious extremism-related case. He took part in the robbery of a money exchange point that culminated with the death of an employee.
Kayumov was shot dead by guards as he was trying to flee. Yusupov was wounded and detained. Dodohonov incurred injuries too, but managed to escape.
Security forces in Kazakhstan on June 10 mopped up most of the remnants of the armed gang that sowed terror in western city of Aktobe over the weekend.
The Antiterrorism Center said in a statement that the gunman were located overnight in an apartment on Nekrasov Street in Aktobe. Troops with the National Security Committee and Interior Ministry surrounded the building and evacuated residents to safety.
Authorities said the gunmen refused to lay down their weapons and instead fired on security forces. Four of the gunmen were killed when the apartment was stormed.
Another man, identified by officials as an accomplice to the gunmen, was killed at another location when he opened fire on a patrol car.
A correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Kazakhstan service Azattyq reported seeing multiple armed personnel carriers and fire engines, as well as dozens of security forces, at the scene. The correspondent reported hearing at least two blasts.
Several journalists were forced to delete video footage and photos of the special operation, Azattyq reported.
Earlier in the week, the head of the National Security Committee said that six gunmen were on the run, which means at least one person still remains at large.
This brings the total death toll among the alleged perpetrators of the attacks on June 5 to at least 18. Seven people — four civilians and three servicemen — were killed on that day.
With the critical phase of operations nearing conclusion, attention would be expected to turn now to determining the motives of the group.
Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev, meeting with National Security Committee chief Vladimir Zhumakanov on June 8, 2016.
Authorities in Kazakhstan look like anything but in control.
For a whole three days after violence erupted in the western city of Aktobe, Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev was nowhere to be seen.
Prime Minister Karim Masimov tepidly assured his Cabinet on June 6 that the president was monitoring events closely: “The head of state is maintaining this issue under his control.” But still no messages, of either reassurance or condolence, came out of the presidential administration in Astana.
The silence was finally broken on June 8, when the Akorda presidential administration released a video of a brief exchange between Nazarbayev and the chairman of the National Security Committee, Vladimir Zhumakanov.
In the briefing, Zhumakanov told Nazarbayev that 13 of the attackers involved in the shootouts in Aktobe had been killed and that another 14 were injured. Between gunmen, servicemen and civilians, a total of 20 people died in the clashes.
“During preparations for the crime, 20 people declined to participate directly — they have been identified and questioned,” he said. “Six people are wanted and, according to our information, they are in the Aktobe region.”
Nazarbayev, who looked weary and curiously had a bottle of hand sanitizer before him on his desk, tried to transmit some sense of menace and grit, although not very effectively.
“We know they are in the region, their names are known and the population has been warned. It is imperative that every last one is captured,” he said, barely raising his voice above a monotone. “If they resist, they must be eliminated. They should all be punished in a most severe fashion.”
Authorities in Kazakhstan said at least 10 people were killed on June 5 in a spate of shootouts in the western city of Aktobe instigated by a group of religious extremists.
Internet connections in the city were suspended shortly after the unrest broke out and officials provided only scant details about the unfolding events, fueling online speculation and sometimes muddled reporting.
Late in the evening, Interior Ministry spokesman Almas Sadubayev was reported as saying that a group of gunmen in the mid-afternoon stormed a hunting supplies shop, killing a sales clerk and a guard. Three police officers dispatched to the scene received gunshot wounds. During a raid on another gun store later in the day, a customer was killed, Sadubayev told Vlast.kz.
Sadubayev the armed gang also commandeered a commuter bus and rammed the gates of military base in the city.
“Having got into the grounds [of the base], they opened fire indiscriminately, killing three and wounding six servicemen,” he said.
Police joined troops on the base in repelling the assault and killed one of the attackers in the process, Sadubayev said.
Authorities reacted to the outbreak of violence by deploying special forces and declaring an antiterrorist operation.
“During the antiterrorist operation in Aktobe, four criminals were killed, seven were detained — two of them were injured,” Sadubayev said.
Earlier statements from the Interior Ministry identified the attackers as “adherents of nontraditional, radical religious groups.” That term is typically used as shorthand for Islamic extremists.
In recognition of their degree of concern, authorities declared a level red terrorism alert, the highest available.
Remote control airborne drones are becoming increasingly popular playthings for hobbyists around the world, but not in Uzbekistan.
Officials in Guliston, a town some 100 kilometers south of the capital, found and confiscated four small pilotless drones during what appears to have been a major multi-departmental operation.
The government’s Electromagnetic Compatibility Enforcement Service produced pictures with its November 23 statement that showed several Phantom unmanned aerial vehicles, which are made by Chinese company DJI. The brand is widely available and can be bought over the Internet for less than $500.
The Guliston haul wasn’t exactly massive, despite the many different government bodies involved. The raid included officials from the state communications inspectorate, the customs committee, the tax inspectorate, and the anti-money laundering department.
The ban on drones was introduced on January 1 in what the government says was an effort to ensure aircraft security and avoid the unsanctioned use of Uzbekistan’s airspace.
Such regulations are inexistent in most parts of the world, and in the region for that matter. Drone footage is becoming popular in production of wedding videos in places like Kyrgyzstan.
Still, use of the devices is not uncontentious.
Flying drones over national parks is illegal in the United States, for example.
Across the world, drones are also typically banned around military bases and airport.
Russia too has been looking to tighten use of the vehicles.
A spokesman for a key security body in Tajikistan has wandered off the script on Afghanistan by scoffing at claims there is a build-up of Islamic State militants beyond the country's southern border.
Muhammad Ulugkhodzhayev, spokesman for the security services Main Border Troops Directorate, told Avesta website on November 5 that the rumors of fighters with the terrorist organization converging in northern Afghanistan were “far from truthful.”
Seeking to downplay another oft-aired scare scenario, Ulugkhodzhayev said there has not to date been a single attempt by militants from either Islamic State or the Taliban to make an incursion into Tajikistan.
The more thoughtful observers of the region have indeed long questioned whether the Taliban in particular would have any tactical, strategic or ideological interest in venturing into the former Soviet states along Afghanistan’s border.
Ulugkhodzhayev said that defenses on the country’s border were as normal.
Officials in Tajikistan, from the president downward, have tended to speak out of both sides of their mouths on the thorny issue of security. On one hand, they seek to cast themselves as the frontline against Islamic radicalism, thereby buying themselves diplomatic leverage with international partners, but at the same time they insist Tajikistan’s security forces are more than capable of dealing with any challenges that present themselves.
A bomb exploded in Tashkent, close to the city’s main bazaar, in one of the most crowded areas of Uzbekistan’s capital, RFE/RL has reported.
No-one was injured in the blast on September 4, which was confirmed to RFE/RL by Tashkent police.
It was caused by an explosive device left at a bus stop, said the police, who said they were searching for a suspect witnessed dumping it there before making a getaway.
Only much later in the day, Uzbekistan's Interior Ministry issued a statement saying that the explosion was a security exercise designed to test the capacity of the security forces to react to a terrorist attack.
The explosion took place near Tashkent’s Chorsu Bazaar in the heart of the Old Town, which was the scene of a terrorist attack in 2004. That episode introduced suicide bombing to Central Asia and prefaced a spate of explosions in Tashkent and Bukhara that left at least 19 people dead.
The device blew up near the Tokhtaboy Mosque, one of Uzbekistan’s largest and best-known places of worship, where Obidkhon Qori Nazarov — a religious leader whose preaching displeased the authoritarian regime of President Islam Karimov — was once the imam.
He fled Uzbekistan in 1998, and in 2012 was the subject of an assassination attempt in Sweden, where investigators have pointed the finger at the Uzbekistani authorities for the crime.