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.
With each sip, beer drinkers in Kazakhstan can now help their country’s endangered fauna. One of Kazakhstan’s major breweries is donating two tenge (about 1.3 US cents) to the protection of golden eagles with the purchase of each souvenir can of its Karagandinskoye Pivo.
Clearly, Kazakhs like their beer: Since July the campaign has raised more than 2.6 million tenge ($17,220) to support the activities of the Almaty-based Sunkar Raptor Sanctuary and the Institute of Zoology of Kazakhstan, the company says.
The distinctive, limited-edition cans are decorated with a colorful golden eagle, the endangered bird of prey that has iconic status in Kazakhstan. An eagle adorns the national flag and eagle hunting is an important Kazakh tradition. The golden eagle is also the symbol of the Karaganda-based brewery behind the promotion.
The campaign's proceeds are helping the Institute of Zoology identify existing eagle habitats and pinpoint why numbers are declining. A survey conducted in four mountainous regions in mid-2012 found over 650 golden eagle couples, and scientists estimate the total number of pairs in Kazakhstan to be around 1500.
However, golden eagles numbers in the wild have been falling in recent years as a result of illegal poaching and habitat destruction.
One of Central Asia's favorite sporting pastimes, kokpar, is set to go mainstream in Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan's Association for National Sports has floated plans to professionalize the rough-and-tumble sport and establish purpose-built stadiums across the country.
In a game of kokpar, a distant cousin of polo, two teams of mounted players struggle to take a headless goat carcass into the opposing team’s goal. Kokpar – which often translates as “goat-grabbing” – is better known as “buzkashi” in Afghanistan and Tajikistan.
Sadybek Tugel, the Association’s vice president, told KazTAG on January 15 that the aim is to move kokpar to a professional club system with 16 centers across the country. Tugel also envisages setting up a National Sports Center and training college in the capital, Astana, to promote indigenous sports such as kokpar. Affiliated schools will open in Almaty and in Kazakhstan's 14 regional centers.
Kokpar games have been known to last for hours. To make the sport more television-friendly, the Kazakhs might think about adopting the Afghan Olympic Committee's rules for championship buzkashi: They limit the game to two 45-minute halves, like in soccer.
Tradition or not, kokpar still courts controversy. As EurasiaNet.org reported last year, animal-rights activists are pushing to introduce plastic dummy goats to replace the bloody carcasses. Some, though, might find the game a tad pedestrian without the pre-match slaughter.
Walking into Tashkent's Affresco Restaurant recently, I could have been entering an upscale Italian establishment just about anywhere. The inviting dining area, equipped with comfortable leather chairs and polished wooden tables, is decorated with copies of famous frescoes. On the serving counter stands a vintage copper and brass espresso machine; bottles of Italian wine adorn the bar.
In the basement, however, a whole other world awaits very important clientele. The restaurant sent local artist Bobur Ismoilov on an inspiration-seeking trip to Italy. Upon his return, he let his imagination run wild, decorating a series of VIP rooms according to a hodgepodge of Italian themes and clichés.
The walls of one room, for example, are adorned with black and white photos of singers and actors from yesteryear – stars like Sophia Loren, Audrey Hepburn, and, of course, Frank Sinatra – wolfing down plates of spaghetti. Another room features a mural showing a traditional Sicilian street scene.
Things start to get strange, however, when you enter the “Mafia Room,” which is decked with mug shots of infamous Mafioso figures and posters from Hollywood gangster classics such The Godfather and Donnie Brasco.
But the pièce de résistance is the clammy VIP chamber that recreates Al Capone's Alcatraz cell. It’s the full prison experience: The room’s metal door is made of bars, from which dangle a pair of handcuffs. There’s also a red velvet couch.
Affresco's menu tends toward standard Italian fare, but cooked with more accomplishment than is usually achieved in Central Asia's Italian eateries. The prices are higher than average for Tashkent, but the food -- homemade pastas, hearty risottos and crisp pizzas -- is quality.
Tashkent is maintaining a stony silence over the fate of wrestler Soslan Tigiev. This week, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) stripped the Uzbek of his Olympic bronze medal after he tested positive for a banned substance. Thus far, official media outlets in Uzbekistan have failed to cover the story.
Private media outlets, including olam.uz and gazeta.uz, have carried the IOC press release detailing the facts, but have refrained from making any comment. While these outlets are privately owned, they toe the official government line when it comes to reporting. Uzbek government mouthpiece Narodnoye Slovo and the Foreign Ministry's information agency, Jahon, have studiously ignored any reference to the embarrassing case.
Tigiev took bronze in London this summer in 74kg freestyle wrestling, adding to the silver he won in Beijing in 2008. The IOC reported on November 7 that it was stripping Tigiev of the London medal after he tested positive for the prohibited substance methylhexaneamine in an August 10 urine sample. The IOC asked for the immediate return of his medal, diploma and medallist pin.
Since July, Astana and Beijing have engaged in an emotional rivalry over Olympic gold medalist Zulfiya Chinshanlo. During the London games, Chinese media were adamant that the weightlifter was about to return to the People’s Republic, claiming that Chinshanlo was born Zhao Changling in a remote mountainous area of Hunan Province and had been loaned to Kazakhstan in 2008 for a five-year period.
But Chinshanlo told Kazakh press after earning Kazakhstan a gold that she was committed to the Central Asian republic. Moreover, Chinshanlo’s biography on the official Web page for the 2012 Olympic Games lists her birthplace as Almaty. (Others report she was born in Kyrgyzstan.)
Now Chinese media have quoted her saying she’s returning to China.
China Radio International's English website reported on October 24 that the champion weightlifter was spotted in Hunan applying for papers to return to China.
She had a different story to tell Kazakh media, however, claiming on October 26 she was merely paying a visit to her former coach in Yongzhou, Hunan, where a Caravan.kz article says she took up weightlifting as an 11-year-old.
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.