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.
Kazakhstan is not famous as a destination for gourmets, but a few chefs are trying to infuse a bit of excitement into a cuisine often accused of being unremittingly dull.
The country’s first international culinary competition brought together around 100 chefs from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Saudi Arabia, Ukraine and Russia last week in Kazakhstan’s commercial capital, Almaty. Alexander Tregubenko, president of the Chefs' Association of Kazakhstan, told Tengri News that the gathering gave emerging local talent a chance to experiment with new ideas from abroad.
This being Kazakhstan, where equine culture is a prominent part of the national identity, of course horse meat featured prominently on the menu. On the last day of competition, October 31, Kazakh chefs competed for the “Best Chef of the Year” title on the condition their main course included horse meat. Almaty-based Khalmurat Nurdinov took the prize with his fried horse meat seeped in a secret marinade.
It's not clear how this innovation will go down with traditionalists. Kazakhstan's national dish is known simply as kazaksha et, or “Kazakh meat.” It is also called beshbarmak -- or five fingers, because it was traditionally eaten by hand.
Officials in Kazakhstan are struggling to understand a wave of suicides that has horrified the country this year. One MP says “alien” western subcultures are to blame.
Galina Baimakhanova, a member of Kazakhstan's lower house of parliament, called the punk and emo movements “alien to our mentality” as she addressed parliament about adolescent issues this week. She blamed the subcultures for targeting emotionally unstable teenagers and said that punks were aggressive and emos preached “depression, withdrawal and general suicidal behavior.”
Defenders of emo – which grew out of the punk movement and is often characterized by expressive and emotive lyrics and writing – dismiss stereotypes that they are overly emotional or angst-ridden just because they sometimes wear black and can express an interest in morbid topics.
The suicide rate is high in Kazakhstan. A 2011 World Health Organization studyranked Kazakhstan third-place globally with 31.06 suicides per 100,000 people in 2008. Baimakhanova proposed setting up a nationwide project to combat the problem of teenage suicides and called for “a special ombudsman to protect the rights of children and teenagers in Kazakhstan.”
Kazakhstan was stunned earlier this year when two teenagers threw themselves off a twelve-story building in the commercial capital Almaty on May 28. Classmates said the couple had planned their double death and were members of online groups that discussed suicide.
Conservationists have pledged to begin coordinating efforts to save the snow leopard, the endangered cat that’s a mascot in some parts of Central Asia.
On October 22, participants at The Global Snow Leopard Conservation Forum, held in Kyrgyzstan’s capital, unveiled the Bishkek Declaration, a seven-year initiative that aims to coordinate conservation efforts in the twelve countries where these big mountain-dwelling felines are found.
Snow leopards, whose numbers are dwindling due to poaching and human encroachment on their habitats, live in the various mountain ranges jutting out from the Himalayas, such as the Tien Shan in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and the Pamirs in Tajikistan. There are believed to be somewhere between 4,500 and 7,500 left in the wild. Also known as “barys” in Kazakh, the cats loom large in Central Asia. Bishkek and Almaty, in Kazakhstan, both employ imagery of a snow leopard on their emblems. The snow leopard is the mascot of the upcoming Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia (they also live in the Altai Mountains in Siberia).
Delegates at the forum called for increased cross-border cooperation to help protect the threatened mountain ecosystems where the leopards roam and declared October 23 the Day of the Snow Leopard, with 2015 set to be the Year of the Snow Leopard.
The lights went out in more ways than one in Tashkent on September 10 as Uzbekistan was dumped from football's World Cup play-offs. Jordan edged past the home team 9-8 in a penalty shootout to advance to the next stage, after an embarrassing power outage plunged Pakhtakor Stadium into darkness on Tashkent's showcase night.
The marathon game, which lasted three and a half hours, was decided when Uzbekistan's hero of the first half, Anzur Ismailov, missed his penalty shot, shattering Uzbekistan's hopes of going to the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil. The teams took a remarkable 20 penalty kicks to finally break the deadlock.
Uzbekistan came into the game as slight favorites after securing a 1-1 draw in Jordan on September 6. The home team got off to a bright start with Ismailov scoring in the fifth minute before Jordan's Saeed Al Murjan got an equalizer at 42 minutes. After a scoreless second half, the teams were all square at an aggregate score of 2-2, triggering 30 minutes of extra time.
Uzbekistan's creaking energy system was put on display to viewers around the world in the first period of extra time when the floodlights died for 18 minutes. When the match resumed, the teams remained deadlocked, so it was left to a penalty shootout to decide who would advance to a meeting with a South American team for the right to play at the finals.
Back in June, Uzbekistan stood at the top of its qualification group with two matches to play. Then an own goal by Akmal Shorakhmedov condemned the Uzbeks to a 1-0 defeat in South Korea, who took over the top spot.
Rakhat’s “Kazakhstan.” Everyone wants a bite of Kazakhstan chocolate.
Foreign firms are lining up to take a bite out of Kazakhstan’s lucrative chocolate market. Beloved local chocolatier Rakhat is tempting a South Korean investor, while Turkey's Ülker has recently expanded its Kazakhstan candy operations.
In July, Seoul-based Lotte Confectionery announced plans to takeover Almaty's Rakhat, which EurasiaNet.org featured in March. The deal will see Lotte buy 76 percent of Rakhat's common shares for an estimated $157 million, valuing the company at $43.5 per share, a premium of around 30 percent on the current share price listed on the Kazakhstan Stock Exchange.
The Koreans are not the only ones moving into the Kazakh market. Ülker, a Turkish packaged food producer that has been active in the country for over 10 years, recently launched a rival to Rakhat's best-selling “Kazakhstan” chocolate bar with its own take on, yep, “Kazakhstan” chocolate.
Rakhat, which has operated in Almaty continuously since 1942, features on its packaging a golden eagle flying under a yellow sun on a blue background, a theme resembling Kazakhstan's national flag. Ülker's packaging echoes Rakhat's and features Bayterek, Astana's iconic tower, on a blue and yellow background.
Bayan Sulu, another local chocolate manufacturer, has also tapped into the growing appetite for patriotic-looking candy with its own “Kazakhstanski” chocolate: Its wrapper features a map of Kazakhstan.
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.”