While most of the world's attention is now fixated on the World Cup in Brazil, the lesser-known sport of horseback wrestling has been grabbing headlines in Kazakhstan.
Asia's first horseback wrestling championships were held near Astana, Kazakhstan's glitzy capital, on June 15. A total of 35 wrestlers from Central Asia and beyond took part in fast and furious tussles: bouts can be over in less than 10 seconds. The rules of audaryspak, as the sport is called in Kazakh, are simple – there are two guys on horseback and the object is to be the first to wrestle your opponent to the ground.
Kazakhstan took gold in all three weight categories – Yermek Zhapishev prevailed in the 70 kg class, Syrym Izbasarov won the 70-90 kg class, and the 90 kg and above category was taken by Birzhan Kosaliyev. Competitors from China, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia and Uzbekistan filled the other places on the podium.
The horseback grappling-fest was organized by Kazakhstan's Association of National Sports and was sponsored by President Nursultan Nazarbayev's politcal party Nur Otan. Samruk-Kazyna, the nation's cash-rich sovereign wealth fund, was another sponsor. Kossaliyev, winner of the 90 kg and above class, took home a Toyota car and a check for a million tenge ($5,448).
Audaryspak, which originated on the Central Asian steppe in the times when the horse was king and fighting abilities were paramount, is now enjoying a contemporary renaissance, spreading its reach into Hungary, Russia, Afghanistan, Mongolia, Azerbaijan, and China, where the next championships are to be held in 2016.
With no teams from Central Asia making it to the 2014 World Cup finals, set to kick off tomorrow in Brazil, local interest again will focus on the man in the middle, Uzbekistan's top referee Ravshan Irmatov.
Tashkent-based Irmatov, 36, won plaudits for his smooth handling of five high-pressure matches in South Africa in 2010, including the opening game and the semi-final between The Netherlands and Uruguay. He returned home a hero and was anointed the Pride Of Uzbekistan, the state's highest honor.
Irmatov will be joined in Brazil by two assistant referees from Central Asia—Bakhadyr Kochkarov, 44, another South Africa veteran who hails from Osh, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan's Abdukhamidullo Rasulov, 38, who is making his first World Cup appearance. The three work as football instructors at home and are the only officials from the former Soviet Union presiding in Brazil (Russia’s team is competing).
The Central Asian troika will need to be on the ball to avoid repeating gaffes the group made at last year's Confederations Cup tournament also in Brazil. There, Irmatov allowed Italy a controversial goal in its match with Brazil. He initially blew for a foul and was seen pointing at the penalty spot but then allowed play to continue and Giorgio Chiellini scored for the Italians.
Irmatov accepted the goal but later admitted it should not have been allowed, that he should have stuck with the decision to give a penalty. In the same match, Rasulov and Kochkarov were both faulted for failing to spot offside goals scored by Brazil.
Lest anyone get the wrong idea about who controls northern Kazakhstan, a golden man and his silver maiden consort were out in Pavlodar on June 4 drumming up Kazakhstani patriotism.
These symbols of Kazakhstani identity rode white horses through the streets in the northern city where ethnic Russians slightly outnumber Kazakhs, reports Bnews.kz.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March alarmed Central Asian leaders who fear Moscow could have an eye on their territories. Kazakhstan looks especially vulnerable because it shares a 6,846-kiliometer border with its former imperial overlord, along which live large ethnic Russian populations. Just in case, Astana has moved to criminalize calls for separatism.
The flag-waving parade in honor of the day Kazakhstan's national emblem was adopted in 1992 culminated with a crowd of 5,000 young patriots gathering in Pavlodar's football stadium to sing the national anthem.
Symbolism hung heavy on the football pitch. The original Golden Man (“Altyn Adam” in Kazakh) was a Scythian prince dressed in gold-plated armor whose remains were discovered in a burial mound near Almaty in 1969. After the Soviet Union collapsed, Kazakhstan adopted the Golden Man as a symbol of independence, representing a nomadic, warrior heritage.
Russia’s defeat to a bearded Austrian transvestite at the annual Eurovision song contest earlier this month has prompted some soul searching among Russia’s horrified, homophobic leaders. Some lawmakers have even called for Russia to stop sending participants to the pop extravaganza.
Russians are sure to find a more wholesome competition at the communist-era Intervision song contest, the Eastern-bloc’s riposte to the decadent mores of Eurovision, which Russian organizers have promised to resurrect this fall. But with the Warsaw Pact rotting in the dustbin of history, organizers have invited Russia’s pals in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a club of Asian autocracies including most of the Central Asian states and China.
Intervision was held between 1977 and 1980 in Sopot, Poland. Soviet pop diva Alla Pugacheva won the competition in 1978. This year Russia's entry will be chosen at a competition for young talent in recently annexed Crimea on June 15, said one of the organizers, Russian singer and producer Igor Matvienko, earlier this week.
In comments carried by pop-culture portal dni.ru, Matvienko said Intervision would be held this October in Sochi with Russia competing alongside China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Other countries may include Japan, South Korea, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, Matvienko said.
In many post-Soviet countries, and Kazakhstan is no exception, stories abound of students forced to bribe their professors to pass final exams. At last, Kazakhstan has an official figure: On average, students pay 50,000 tenge ($275) in unofficial fees at the end of each semester
Deputy Minister of Education and Science Takir Balykbaev told a meeting of the country's university heads in Almaty on April 29 that higher education is among the three most corrupt industries in the country. The sector’s shadow economy is worth about $100 million per year, Balykbaev said.
Endemic corruption in education has long been acknowledged in Kazakhstan, but actual figures are rare. Freedom House said in its 2013 report on Kazakhstan that “corruption in the education system is widespread, and students frequently bribe professors for passing grades.”
Salaries in Kazakhstan's universities are low, with the exception of Astana's Nazarbayev University and Almaty's KIMEP University, encouraging professors to supplement their incomes by soliciting bribes.
Balykbaev said that in the near future his ministry would establish a council on anti-corruption policy to coordinate the fight against graft in universities.
As leaders across the former Soviet Union watch another predominantly Russian-speaking region of Ukraine demand independence this week, Astana is mulling legislation that would jail anyone who calls for separatism in Kazakhstan.
Under a proposed amendment to the criminal code, Kazakhstanis could get 10 years in prison for making "illegal and unconstitutional calls for changes to the territorial integrity of the Republic of Kazakhstan,” Arman Ayaganov of Kazakhstan's Prosecutor General's office told journalists April 8, Tengrinews reports.
"The article refers to serious [offenses] and the first part provides a maximum penalty of imprisonment for up to seven years. If these same actions would be performed by a person using his official position, up to 10 years," Ayaganov added.
The amendment would cover calls for separatism or independence made in the media, including the Internet – and thus, it seems, on social media platforms like Facebook.
In February, Russian nationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky sparked outrage in Astana by suggesting Russia should reabsorb Central Asia.
As voting took place in the breakaway Crimean region's controversial referendum on March 16, Tavriya Simferopol was forced to play its home match against Dinamo Kiev in Ukraine's capital city. On April 5, Tavriya returned to its home base in Crimea for the first time since November 2013. It lost 2-0 to FC Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk leaving it at the bottom of Ukraine's15-team Premier League, having accumulated just nine points from 21 games played.
FC Sevastopol fared better on its return home on April 4, beating FC Vorskla Poltava 1-0. The Sevastopol-based team is in a better position than its Crimean neighbor with 22 points from 20 games played.
It might be too late for Tavriya, whose funding has dried up after the indictment of billionaire-owner Dmitry Firtash on bribery and corruption charges in the United States earlier this month, leaving the future of the club on the line.
Amid the cut and thrust of the sporting competition in Sochi, Kazakhstan's Olympic officials have been busy schmoozing to build support for Almaty’s bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympic Games.
The Kazakh Olympic Committee has opened a hospitality center in the heart of Sochi’s Olympic Park, offering visitors the chance to try delicacies such as kazy (dried horsemeat sausage), karta (made from the animal’s large intestine) and kurt (a dried curd snack), and watch some video presentations detailing Almaty's bid.
One notable visitor was Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, who told Kazinform he is confident Almaty is a strong contender and praised Kazakhstan's athletes—although they have not performed as well as some expected, with figure skater Denis Ten's bronze thus far Kazakhstan's only medal.
Kazakhs officials played down fears of excessive costs after spending on Sochi 2014 broke record after record. “It will not be a big budget,” Andrey Kryukov, an executive board member of the Kazakh Olympic Committee told reporters in Sochi on February 20, eager to demonstrate Kazakhstan’s frugality, which Sochi has made fashionable.
Early estimates from Kazakhstan's Olympic Committee put the costs of hosting the 2022 Games at around $5 billion, a modest sum compared with Sochi 2014, which President Vladimir Putin pitched at $12 billion but ended up costing an embarrassing $51 billion—the most expensive Olympics in history and more expensive than all previous Winter Games combined.
Much has changed for Central Asia and the South Caucasus since 1980, when Moscow hosted the summer Olympic Games. In this Q&A, EurasiaNet.org takes a look at what the Sochi Winter Olympics mean for the post-Soviet countries of Central Asia and the South Caucasus.
For Kazakhs seeking religious enlightenment, a telephone hotline is now available to guide them toward god. Twenty-four hours a day, a dedicated team of specialists is on call to answer burning questions about the divine – and to ensure authorities are kept abreast.
On the surface the hotline – 114 – serves people with genuine inquiries about religious matters. But, says one of its government backers, it will also be useful for ratting on those who deviate from Kazakhstan's myriad restrictions on religious practice.
“Information about breaches of legislation in the religious sphere and illegal and destructive religious activities […] is forwarded to the law-enforcement bodies and departments for religious affairs of the akimats [local government offices] for investigation,” Yulia Denisenko, head of the Association of Centers for Victims of Destructive Religious Organizations, the government organization behind the hotline, told a media briefing in Astana on November 28.
Kazakhstan experienced its first suicide bombing in May 2011. Since then, terror-related incidents have left at least 67 dead, mostly suspects and law-enforcement officers. This September Astana announced a new state program to fight terrorism and extremism amid fears of growing links between homegrown radicals and international terror groups. Kazakhstan's intelligence services estimate around 100 Kazakh citizens are waging jihad in foreign countries.