A football club from Karaganda in central Kazakhstan has made history by becoming the first Kazakh team to enter an elite European competition.
The 5-3 aggregate victory over Albanian champions KF Skënderbeu on August 6 guarantees Shakhter Karagandy, champions of Kazakhstan's Premier League for the past two seasons, a place in the group stages of UEFA’s Europa League. If Shakhter makes it through the playoff round at the end of August, it could even advance to the exclusive Champions League.
Shakhter travelled to Albania with a three-goal lead from the first of two games. Within the first 30 minutes of the second game, the Albanians were back on level terms, but Shakhter struck back, winning 3-2, and advancing to the playoff round, which will be drawn on August 9.
Kazakhstan is the only Central Asian country to play its soccer in Europe. It joined UEFA – the Union of European Football Associations – in 2002, after competing for 10 years in the Asian Football Confederation, where Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan play their international football.
The elevation of a Kazakh team to Europe's elite will give the country’s regularly disappointed fans a welcome boost. The national team, ranked 150th in the world, has not fared well since joining UEFA. It again failed to qualify for the FIFA World Cup, the 2014 match in Brazil. It is currently fifth in its qualifying group, having scored only one point in the last six matches.
Kazakhstan has found a novel way to combine two of its passions du jour, green energy and cycling. Astana is hosting a group of intrepid cyclists who have spent the last seven weeks or so racing from France to Central Asia on vehicles fueled by pedal power, with a little help from the sun.
The race, known as “The Sun Trip,” is the brainchild of Florian Bailly. The pioneer of solar-assisted cycling made his own way from France to Japan in 2010, a 10,000-kilometer trip relying solely on pedal and solar power. For Astana, the Sun Trip is a way of publicizing EXPO 2017, which it promises will focus on renewable energy.
Solar bikes, which use a combination of a pedal-powered machine with a solar-fueled battery, allow riders to travel long distances at greater speeds than on conventional bicycles.
Thirty-three competitors set off from Savoy on June 15 on a variety of machines – including conventional bicycles with trailers transporting the solar gear, along with a tandem or two and a tricycle.
On July 23, Raf van Hulle wheeled into Kazakhstan's capital first, 37 days after leaving Savoy, France. The Belgian’s grueling 7,500-kilometer journey took him through Italy, Croatia, Hungary, Romania, Moldova, Ukraine, Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.
Authorities in Kazakhstan are again undermining religious freedom with the detention of a Protestant pastor and a Baptist leader on unrelated charges, a watchdog says.
Pastor Bakhytzhan Kashkumbayev of Astana's Grace Church was detained May 19 on vague charges related to how he said his prayers. Forum 18, the Oslo-based religious freedom watchdog, reports that Kashkumbayev was questioned on May 17 and two days later remanded for two months' pre-trial detention on “unclear charges, apparently including praying and singing.”
In an unrelated case, in early May Baptist leader Aleksey Asetov from Ekibastuz in northeastern Kazakhstan spent three days in jail for failing to pay a fine imposed for holding a worship meeting without state permission. In 2011, Astana introduced legislation vastly curbing the activities of unregistered religious groups in the country.
The Astana police told local media on May 18 that Pastor Kashkumbayev was detained on suspicion of committing an offence under Article 103 of Kazakhstan's criminal code, which can carry a sentence of between three and seven years’ imprisonment.
The Grace Church had a run-in with the authorities last October when it was bizarrely accused of spiking its communion wine with unidentified hallucinogens.
The exact nature of the charges against Kashkumbayev are unclear, but members of the church who attended his arraignment told Forum 18 he was detained, not for the wine, “but for praying in tongues and singing.”
Spoilt for choice with shopping malls mushrooming all around them, Almaty's shopaholics now have an option that harks back to earlier times, when shopping was a more refined experience, with the opening of a GUM department store in Kazakhstan’s commercial capital.
GUM (pronounced goom) is short for Glavnyi Universalnyi Magazin, or main department store. The original in Moscow is an iconic landmark for Russian shoppers. Almaty's four-story shopping and dining complex is modeled on the ornate original in Moscow, which was built in the nineteenth century and survived through the Soviet era as the State Department Store.
Almaty's GUM has no connections with the Moscow original, but is trading on the famous brand. The Kazakhstani version is calling itself GUM Talipoff, with GUM here standing for Guldala Univermag, a partner company whose name translates as "flower of the steppe." The general director of the Almaty store is prominent Kazakh businessman Yerlan Talipov.
This new development is bucking the trend of ever-bigger mega malls that – like they have in Moscow – have proliferated around Almaty in recent years.
Almaty's GUM does not have such a prime location as the one in Moscow, which faces the Kremlin and stretches along one side of Red Square, but the development is expected to catalyze regeneration in a formerly rundown area of Almaty close to the Green Bazaar and the city's main mosque.
The complex opened its doors to the public in April but is very much a work in progress with construction workers still putting the final touches to its elegant brick façade.
Kazakhstan's Education Ministry has enlisted the secret police to monitor students studying abroad on a government-sponsored scholarship program. The KNB, successor to the Soviet-era KGB, will ensure the students return home to serve the motherland.
“The ministry, jointly with the National Security Committee [KNB] has fully adopted the 'student abroad' program. The return of our graduates to the homeland will now be strictly tracked,” Education Minister Bakytzhan Zhumagulov told a cabinet meeting in Astana on April 16, News-Kazakhstan reports.
In exchange for the scholarship, which covers all tuition fees and living expenses for the duration of a student's course, alumni of the Bolashak (“Future”) program are expected to return to Kazakhstan to work in any sector for five years after completing their studies.
The minister did not present any figures for non-returnees, so it is unclear how much work is cut out for Big Brother. A 2008 diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks quotes government statistics claiming that only 29 out of some 4,500 students sent abroad on the program by that time had failed to return.
Since its implementation in 1993, Bolashak has sent around 10,000 students from Kazakhstan to educational institutions across the globe. Initially the focus was on undergraduate students, but following the opening of the Nazarbayev University in Astana in 2010, the program has turned its attention to Ph.D. students.
World Cup fever is gripping Uzbekistan, where tempers flared this week as some 1,500 football aficionados queued for tickets for an upcoming group game match at Tashkent’s Bunyodkor Stadium. The BBC's Uzbek Service reported that police used force to disperse the disorderly crowd.
The excitement is understandable: A first for Central Asian football, Uzbekistan's national team stands on the verge of qualifying for the game’s top contest, to be held in Brazil next year.
The Uzbekistan Football Federation website reported the supporters flooded Bunyodkor's ticket offices on March 18, expecting tickets to go on sale at 2 p.m. When ticket windows failed to open, disgruntled fans started revolting. The police moved in with batons and made several arrests, according to the kun.uz website.
The 12news.uz website claimed 6,000 tickets were sold later in the day, but a fan commenting on the story claimed that only 200-500 tickets had been sold after 18.30 and that enthusiasts were unhappy with the process.
Fans will now have to wait until after the Navruz holiday to get their hands on the precious tickets, which will go on sale again March 22. The tickets, which cost between 15,000 and 30,000 sum ($7.50 to $15.00 at the official exchange rate), are limited to two per person.
Wedding Plov comes with slices of kazy (horse sausage) at the Plov Center in Tashkent.
Each day around lunchtime, Tashkent’s plov cognoscenti start gathering in the shadow of the city's landmark TV tower. Theirs is an open secret: the best plov money can buy.
Follow the groups of men, or your nose, to the appropriately named Plov Center for a fix of Uzbekistan's beloved rice-based dish.
In Uzbekistan plov rules supreme – the country practically runs on this hearty staple, which is based on rice simmered for hours in a broth of seared meat chunks, carrots, onions, garbanzos, garlic, dried fruit and spices. The Plov Center does not disappoint. In an outdoor kitchen, five cauldrons bubble away over wood fires, permeating the air with the scent of cooked meat, rice and spices.
Forget about fancy surroundings or over-attentive service: At the Plov Center the food is the draw. The Center's cavernous hall, which can hold about 500 people, is no-frills. Clusters of men, interspersed with a few families, peck at shared platters of plov with forks, though fingers – the traditional utensil – are acceptable.
The Plov Center specializes in variations of Wedding Plov, a rich blend, which, as the name suggests, is usually served on special occasions. You can have Wedding Plov with the meat of your choice – lamb or beef. Slices of kazy, smoked horsemeat sausage, are optional, though no true celebration is complete without a serving of Central Asia’s favorite ungulate.
The platter of plov is accompanied by small roundels of nan bread and a choice of two salads – diced tomatoes and onions or pickled vegetables. Pots of green tea help with digestion.
With prices ranging between 4,500 sums and 8,900 sums ($2.25 - $4.50 at the official exchange rate) for a generous serving, at the Plov Center your belt may need loosening but your finances will not take much of a hit.
Chief Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili faces the press at the Iran P5+1 Iran talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan on February 27.
Kazakhstan seems to be the winner after the first round of renewed talks concerning Iran's nuclear ambitions.
There were fresh signs of life in the deadlocked process on February 27 as Iran and the P5+1 group – the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the United States, China, Russia, Britain and France) plus Germany – agreed to meet again in Almaty, Kazakhstan's commercial hub.
Talks on technical issues will be held in Istanbul March 17-18 and the P5+1 will reconvene in Almaty on April 5 and 6, delegates announced at a closing press conference.
Negotiations broke down last June over seemingly irreconcilable differences: Iran demanded an immediate end to sanctions, without preconditions. Before any sanctions relief, the P5+1 wanted an immediate end to medium-level enrichment and the closure of the Fordow underground enrichment facility.
At the Almaty talks, delegates were tight-lipped about details of new proposals the P5+1 put on the table. Chief Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, avoided specifics at his closing press conference. He said that the P5+1 had moved closer to Iran's position on some issues but reiterated that there was still a long way to go before reaching any consensus.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who chairs the P5+1, refused to go into detail on any new proposals relating to sanction-easing, saying only that “We are looking now for the Iranians to have the opportunity to study” the new proposals before April.
While not giving much away about proceedings, the negotiators were effusive in their praise for their Kazakh hosts. Ashton thanked Kazakhstan for creating a comfortable environment for the talks. An official Iranian statement praised Kazakhstan for its “warm hospitality.”
Kazakhstan is experiencing a betting boom. Bookmaker's offices are mushrooming across the country, allowing just about anyone to gamble on international sports matches. And, as if to tempt every last ludomaniac, thousands of electronic kiosks – in shopping arcades, pedestrian underpasses, and gas stations – are standing by to take your bets.
The situation looked dire for Kazakhstan's gamblers six years ago when authorities forced casinos to relocate to two purpose-built betting zones – Shchuchinsk in the north and Kapshagay in the south. The move was designed to help regulate and tax this somewhat shady business and confront gambling addiction.
While the exclusive casinos are keeping the high-rollers happy, in recent months a number of nationwide bookmaker chains have sprung up to cater to small-time punters who wish to gamble on international soccer and hockey matches and the like. While casinos require visitors to purchase between $300-500 in chips, in these state-licensed bookmakers, which are often attached to bars and restaurants, the minimum stake is 500 tenge ($3.30). At parlors like Bet City, Fair Play and Profit, it's never been easier to place a bet.
Today there are hundreds of such licensed bookmakers operating in Kazakhstan. Olimp, the biggest network, has 267 branches, with 86 in Almaty and 61 in the capital, Astana.
For those who like a little after-hours gambling, online betting is also gaining ground. Bets can even be made at ubiquitous QIWI payment terminals (usually used for topping-up mobile phones and paying utility bills). Across Kazakhstan there are 10,000 such reverse-ATM machines just waiting to inhale your cash.