Kazakhstan's credentials as a haven for religious freedom and tolerance are in the spotlight again, this time following a raid on a Protestant church where authorities reportedly found communion drinks spiked with an unidentified hallucinogen earlier this month. The bizarre find comes just a few weeks before religious groups in the country are to undergo mandatory re-registration.
Forum 18, the Oslo-based religious freedom watchdog, reports that police raided Astana’s Grace Church on October 3. Back in July 2011, a local woman accused the church of harming the health of her daughter, congregation member Lazzat Almenova, and filed a complaint with the police. It’s unclear why authorities waited until now to make the swoop.
According to an October 10 report by Tengrinews, the raiding officers had found traces of hallucinogenic substances in a “red drink” served during services at the Grace Church. The psychoactive ingredients are said to induce a state of euphoria and relaxation.
The cops collected samples of the drink for analysis and took blood from 11 members of the congregation to test for any illicit substances. One parishioner said the volunteer donors included a mystery couple who had only been attending services for a month – seeming to suggest they’d been planted there to discredit the church.
“Extremist” literature also turned up during the search, with copies of a book called “Worthy Answers,” written by two Kazakh Protestant converts, Galymzhan Tanatgan and Zhomart Temir, confiscated along with computers, DVDs and some gold.
Ever since Kazakhstan threw in its lot with Russia and Belarus to start their new Customs Union in 2010, smugglers on the Kyrgyzstan border have had to devise creative ways to keep their businesses operational. As Kazakh authorities build mile after mile of concertina-wire fence above ground, these traffickers have gone underground – literally – to evade the authorities and the new customs duties.
Tengrinews reported on October 18 that Kyrgyz authorities have unearthed an improvised pipeline pumping ethyl alcohol (ethanol) from Kazakhstan.
The 12-meter-long rubber hose, found only one kilometer from a border checkpoint, is believed to have delivered more than 100 tons of ethanol since 2008 from Kazakhstan's Zhambyl Region to Kyrgyzstan's Chui Province. Ethanol has a number of industrial uses and can serve as a base for bootleg liquor. It was only discovered when a trucker, nabbed by Kyrgyz border guards with the illicit cargo, spilt the beans.
This isn’t the first unofficial channel for costly liquids to turn up this month.
On October 2, Bishkek’s Knews.kg reported that an illegal fuel pipeline had been discovered in the same vicinity. This one was being used to transport petroleum products, again into Kyrgyzstan (where petrol is more expensive), from Kazakhstan. Authorities discovered a tanker with 10 tons of diesel that had been illegally pumped under the border. It is not known how long this smuggling operation had been in action.
There are many things the Central Asia countries can’t agree on – but water often tops the list. Now Turkmenistan, which generally allies with inflexible Uzbekistan on water issues, is risking Tashkent’s wrath as it seeks to attract foreign investment to expand and modernize its thirsty cotton industry.
Reuters reports that Textile Industry Minister Saparmyrat Batyrov told an investment conference on October 17 that Ashgabat is seeking more than $1 billion to develop new textile plants by 2016.
Cotton already plays an important role in Turkmenistan’s economy. The country ranks as the world's ninth-largest producer of cotton according to a recent US government estimate.
Turkmenistan's prized “white gold” is used to produce jeans and other cotton products that are exported internationally. The Ashgabat-based Turkmenbashi Textile Complex claims Wal-Mart, Calvin Klein and JC Penney among its clients.
Two issues which blight the cotton industry in Central Asia remain obstacles to these ambitious plans, however -- the abuse of child labor and the region’s scarce water supplies.
Internet users in Uzbekistan have long circumnavigated draconian restrictions with the help of proxy servers – online pit stops that allow users to access blocked pages by concealing their IP addresses. But Tashkent has caught on.
Uznews reports that Uztelecom, the state telecommunications service, has started targeting proxy servers, too. Uztelecom, which controls access to all international phone and Internet connections, has begun denying access to websites with “proxy” in their URL addresses by blocking requests that use that word.
With one eye on the social media-led events in the Arab world, Tashkent has become increasingly wary of the Internet’s potential threats and has set its cyber police to work overtime. The cyber cops are, in turn, monitored by a secretive body -- the Expert Commission on Information and Mass Communications. This body was identified in Freedom House's Freedom of the Net 2012 report, in which the UzNet was described, unsurprisingly, as "not free."
The closing of the proxy route leaves Internet users depending on more technically advanced options to beat the blockers (or, for now, proxy servers that don't use the word "proxy" in their name). One option is Tor, free software that allows anonymous browsing. But Tor's site is also blocked in Uzbekistan.
With the aroma of money-laundering lingering around Gulnara Karimova, what better time for the designer-cum-pop diva to introduce her latest venture – fragrances for men and women?
On October 8, Googoosha, as she likes to be known, unveiled to the world Mysterieuse and Victorious. French perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour created the scents for Karimova's GULI brand.
But upstaging her latest triumph, fresh allegations have surfaced linking Karimova, eldest daughter of Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov, to Uzbek businessman Alisher Ergashev, who is currently being held in Switzerland in a money-laundering probe. On October 11, Radio Free Europe produced documents signed by the pair for property purchases in France.
Last week, we reported on alleged links between the Karimov family and Bekhzod Akhmedov, former director of the recently seized Uzbekistan subsidiary of Russian cellphone company MTS. Akhmedov fled the country following a row between MTS and the government. His disappearance sparked the Swiss investigation after Tashkent put him on Interpol's wanted list. Oops.
As investigators close in on the Karimov clan, perhaps Mysterieuse will throw them off the trail. It’s a fragrance for the “sensuous Eastern woman,” evoking, as Duchaufour puts it, "the smells of all the flowers you can find in the East." Victorious, "is meant for strong men."
The movers and shakers of the global oil and gas industry, currently in Astana for a trade conference, now have no reason to fear Kazakhstan might go green on them.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s son-in-law, Timur Kulibayev, has pointed out that he’s prioritizing short-term profit over long-term environmental concerns. Speaking at a press conference at the Kazenergy Eurasian Forum on October 2, Kulibayev announced that Kazakhstan will continue to exploit its vast hydrocarbon resources rather than develop alternative energy supplies.
This is bad news for the green brigade, of course, but not all is lost. Kulibayev, who is an influential figure in the country's energy sector, didn’t say he’d never consider renewable energy. He added that Kazakhstan would wait for the cost of alternatives like wind and solar power to become more affordable before getting too committed.
Some might find the announcement confusing, since the trade body Kulibayev heads -- the Kazenergy Association -- promises, on its website, that it is committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and to the “realization of the Kyoto Protocol and post-Kyoto agreements.”
In terms of fauna, Kazakhstan is commonly associated with horses galloping across the grassy steppe and camels galumphing through the desert. So, understandably, this week some Temirtau residents were surprised when they chanced upon a sack containing a crocodile and a python in their yard.
The reptiles were part of a group that had gone missing from an exhibition of exotic wildlife in Temirtau, home to an ArcelorMittal steel plant, on August 29. The crocodile and python were returned to the town's botanical gardens on September 3. Despite a lack of food and water, they were said to be unharmed by the ordeal.
The fate of the other missing animals, a second python, four turtles and a rabbit, remains unknown. An investigation into the possible theft of the animals continues. It’s unknown if investigators have considered checking the stomachs of the crocodile and python that have just been returned to captivity.
It's not the first time that exotic wildlife has hit the headlines this summer in Kazakhstan. In July a tiger from Russia named Kesha caused a buzz when, instead of performing a trick, he lifted his leg and urinated on a group of VIPs.
With the dust now settling on the London Olympics, Kazakhstan has emerged as the undisputed Central Asia champion, finishing a laudable 12th in the overall medal table, up from 29th four years ago in Beijing. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan also made it to the winner’s podium.
But besides the considerable costs of training and putting athletes forward for Olympic glory, what have the wins cost Central Asia’s thin pocketbooks? Leaders across the region promised more than fame to athletes who could score a medal in London, including cash prizes, apartments and luxury cars.
In Kazakhstan’s case, the cash prizes to be doled out total over $2 million – $250,000 for each of seven golds, $150,000 for one silver, and $75,000 for each of five bronzes. Uzbekistan will fork out $100,000 to its gold winner, 120-kilogram freestyle wrestler Artur Taymazov, and $50,000 to each of three bronze winners. It’s not clear what Tajikistan was offering its bronze winner, however. President Emomali Rakhmon set the prize for gold at $63,000. But the Dushanbe mayor and the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party each promised female boxer Mavzuna Chorieva – who won a bronze – an apartment.
When Genghis Khan’s army emerged from the Mongolian steppe back in the 13th century, one of the keys to his success was an equine postal system that enabled messages to travel across his vast and growing empire in a matter of days. He oversaw the establishment of a network of horse stations that allowed riders to exchange their exhausted steeds for fresh mounts and keep on moving.
Now, following in the hoof steps of the Khan’s hordes comes a modern-day take on the 13th-century's information superhighway – the Mongol Derby. Billed as the world's longest horse race, this grueling 1,000-kilometer marathon will retrace ancient routes across the rolling steppe with 25 horse stations set up at 40-kilometer intervals.
This year, the race, which has been held annually since 2009, gets underway on August 10. Competitors aim to complete the course on semi-wild mounts in an exhausting seven to ten days. The event aims to raise money for economic development charity work in Mongolia. It’s the brainchild of The Adventurists, the group that is also behind the annual Mongol Rally, a race from London to Ulaanbaatar in a vehicle with an engine size of one liter or less.
For the riders in this extreme equine test, the keyword is “adventure.” There's no route as such: It's up to participants to make their way between the horse stations as quickly as they can. At the stations each must pick up fresh horses. Accommodation is basic: Competitors either share a ger, a round felt tent, with a nomadic family or sleep under the stars in the wilderness.
Team Kazakhstan hasn’t bothered with anything but gold at the London Olympics, doubling its haul of first-place medals over the weekend to place fifth in number of gold medals per capita.
Former husband-and-wife team Ilya Ilin and Svetlana Podobedova triumphed in the weightlifting arena. Ilin set a new world record when he hefted 418 kilograms, a 12-kilo improvement on his gold-winning lift in Beijing in 2008. The two-time Olympic champion attributed his success to the supplies of kazy – smoked horsemeat sausage – that Kazakhstan brought to London.
Podobedova triumphed in the 75-kilogram division for her adopted country. She left her native Russia in 2007 after she was cut from the national weightlifting team for a doping offense. The Russian authorities refused to allow her to compete for Kazakhstan in the 2008 games, but now she has gotten revenge by narrowly beating Russia's Natalya Zabolotnaya to take the gold.