Over the last few years, Astana has tried to diversify Kazakhstan’s economy away from the extractive industries. Fearful of over-relying on a sole export, officials have promoted tourism, textiles, construction materials and food processing. It’s not just about oil and gas anymore, at least on paper.
So it’s fortunate that the fertile meadows around the banks of the River Ural (Zhayyk in Kazakh) in West Kazakhstan Region provide ideal growing conditions for another commodity valued abroad, a recent television report noted.
Licorice production has a long tradition in the region, stretching back to the days when Scythian nomads used to sell the processed root as medicine to the ancient Greeks. As the ancients knew, licorice is not only about the flavor: It is widely recognized to treat a range of ailments from the common cold to lung disease.
In Uralsk, the Licorice Kazakhstan Company began to revive this antique industry in 2006, opening its own facility to produce licorice root extract early this year. All the company's production is currently exported to Russia and China, where it is used to flavor candy, tobacco and perfume. The plant hopes to ramp up to 800 metric tons of the sticky black extract per year.
With such a wide range of uses, then, could Kazakhstan be set for another black gold rush?
A giant bird is causing a sensation in its former stomping ground -- Kazakhstan. Working with fossilized pieces of jawbone, a team of scientists, led by Darren Naish at the University of Southampton, has constructed a picture of this oversized fowl, Samrukia nessovi, which lived some 80 million years ago.
Scientists named the Cretaceous creature after the samryk, a mythical phoenix-like bird that features prominently in Kazakh legends, and Lev Nessov, the Soviet palaeontologist who discovered the fossilized remains on one of his forays into the Kyzylkum desert in the 1970s.
The remains somehow found their way to a museum in Belgium where a scientist spotted the unusual pieces on display. In August 2010 Naish and his colleague Gareth Dyke were enlisted to help identify what the bird may have looked like.
The scientists are undecided if the samrukia could fly, but from the size of the jaw, which measures just over 30 centimetres, they have speculated that it may have been a condor-like creature with a massive 4-meter wingspan. If it were flightless, then it may have been 2-3 meters tall and weighed about 50 kilos.
Flags are flying in downtown Almaty to welcome delegates to the upcoming Cooperation Council of Turkic-Speaking States summit. But hang on a minute. You thought there were six Turkic-speaking states? Why, then, are only four flags on display?
Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkey, who jointly set up this “Turkic Council,” are taking part. Where are Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan?
President Nursultan Nazarbayev will host the October 21 summit in Kazakhstan's commercial capital. Kyrgyzstan's Roza Otunbayeva and Azerbaijan's Ilham Aliyev have RSVP’d their plans to attend, along with representatives from Turkey—Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pulled out on October 19 after violence at home.
The Council was set up in Nakhchivan, Azerbaijan, in 2009, with the aim of enhancing links in areas such as trade, energy, education, agriculture and tourism.
In 2010, following the Heads of the Turkic Speaking States summit (yes, another grouping), Ashgabat embraced the Turkic Council enthusiastically, but it has since melted away and is not taking part this week. Tashkent has struck its usual go-away-and-leave-us-alone pose.
So, with delegations from perpetual spoilers Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan out of the picture, could we witness something meaningful come out of the summit? Or will it be just another photo op?
Move over, CO2. Activists in Kazakhstan are joining a global initiative to promote alternatives to the fossil-fuel emissions their country helps pump into the atmosphere. On September 24, events focusing on clean energy and climate change will be held all over Kazakhstan as part of the global Moving Planet rally.
Kazakhstan has prospered over the last decade by exploiting its extensive oil and gas reserves. SUVs long ago replaced horses as the chief means of getting around this vast country.
But many Kazakhstanis are planning to switch to two wheels for the day. The online cyclist community Baiga.kz is organizing races in 25 cities, expecting 10,000 participants to compete in prize categories such as most stylish biker, craziest stunt, and youngest and oldest cyclists.
In Almaty, the Velo Almaty campaign will hold two events focusing on the next generation of bikers: cycling competitions for kids aged 3-7 in the city's central stadium and a painting contest for 3-17-year-olds on the theme of biking as a clean form of transport.
There's also a focus on removing garbage from towns and cities. A group called On the Trail of Cleanliness is gathering volunteers to help spruce up Kazakhstan's garbage-strewn towns and cities by resurrecting the Soviet-era subbotnik, a volunteer cleanup of public spaces.
New evidence annuls Kazakhstan's claim to be the place where horses were first domesticated. Archaeologists in Saudi Arabia have uncovered evidence that pushes back the date of horse-taming by some 3,500 years.
A 2009 dig in Kazakhstan unearthed proof that horses had been tamed in the area some 5,500 years ago. The discoveries suggested that the horses were ridden and milked by the people living in the area at that time, around 1,000 years earlier than humans previously were believed to have used horses.
But now, DNA and carbon dating tests have revealed finds at Al-Maqar in Saudi Arabia to be 9,000-years old. Prince Sultan bin Salman, president of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities, says these discoveries prove Saudi Arabia is the true birthplace of horse husbandry.
The once-nomadic, horse-loving Kazakhs might be outraged that the Saudi's have usurped their position. A cradle of Kazakh national identity, horse-related sports and food products are widespread in Kazakhstan. Kokpar, a furious version of polo played with a headless goat carcass, is popular in rural areas. Kumys -- fermented mares' milk -- remains a favorite springtime tipple and no Kazakh feast is complete without thick slices of kazy (horsemeat sausage) liberally adorning the table.
After being named and shamed earlier this year as the worst offender for unpaid parking tickets in London, Kazakhstan's diplomats have finally buckled and agreed to settle up almost $60,000 for 627 parking violations.
But that’s only a fraction of the Kazakhs’ debt to the city. In January authorities identified Astana’s representatives as owing $300,000 generated from 1,715 tickets. One Kazakhstani diplomat was singled out as the most prolific offender: The BMW 318i driver clocked more than $85,000 in unpaid fines with 471 tickets.
London’s Westminster Council, which is chasing more than $1,500,000 in unpaid tickets from diplomats, has had huge problems trying to get the cash from the embassy community, where 'diplomatic immunity' is often cited as a defense for violating parking regulations.
"No one likes getting a parking ticket but most motorists play fair and either pay the fine or follow the appeals process. It's time these diplomats started to respect the rules of the road in the UK, and stopped thinking they can do what they like at the expense of our taxpayers,” said Westminster's parking supremo Lee Rowley.
It looks like cyclist Alexandre Vinokourov's long career may have come to an abrupt end. Kazakhstan’s star 37-year-old Tour de France competitor crashed out of the race on July 10 in spectacular fashion, while having one last try at cycling's most coveted prize. With him, Kazakhstan’s dreams of a win were firmly dashed, for this year.
Vinokourov spoke of his disappointment in a statement on the Team Astana's website: "I never expected such a dramatic end on the Tour de France. This is a terrible disappointment to me, I am so sad tonight. But I want to reassure me by telling me that it could have been much worse. The injury will stop me for quite a long time, and I will follow the Tour on television to support the entire Astana team. I know my friends of the team won’t forget me and they will do everything to win at least one stage."
The Team Astana leader was at the head of the pack when he was driven into a ravine during a steep mountain descent. He ended up with a fractured right thighbone after he was forced off course by another rider's crash as they were rounding a slippery corner.
Astana's Republican Velodrome: Could this become Sting's hornet nest? (Photo: Paul Bartlett)
Last year, Sting found himself embroiled in a media controversy for reportedly accepting over $1 million from “dictator’s [other] daughter” Gulnara Karimova to perform at a $1,000-plus-per-head event in Tashkent. Though he later repudiated the regime of “medieval, tyrannical” Islam Karimov, the former Police front man is now heading back to Central Asia for what’s certain to be another lavish affair.
This time, the destination is Astana, where Sting will perform July 4 to celebrate the anniversary of Kazakhstan’s nouveau capital. Astana goes into party mode around this time of year with three days of public holidays culminating in the July 6 anniversary of the city becoming the seat of government in 1998. And by a remarkable coincidence, July 6 also happens to be President Nursultan Nazarbayev's birthday.
Nazarbayev loves to throw a big birthday/anniversary party with headliner concerts. Artists who have performed for the Leader of the Nation in the past include Placido Domingo, Julio Iglesias, and Whitney Houston, who gave an unforgettably awful performance in 2008. Sting will perform in Astana's Republican Velodrome, a futuristic building shaped like a pro-cyclist's helmet.
The concert is part of Sting's ongoing Symphonicity world tour, which has been on the road since 2009. Sting will be performing a selection of his old favorites, rehashed with a symphony.
English-language learners in Kazakhstan now have a novel way to increase their word power. The British Council, the UK’s international cultural relations body, has teamed up with Kcell, Kazakhstan's largest mobile network operator, to provide subscribers with English vocabulary lessons by SMS text message.
For five cents a day, learners receive a new word in their inboxes. The word arrives with Kazakh and Russian translations and a sample phrase. At the end of the week users -- who can choose among three difficulty levels -- get a progress test.
The new scheme feeds into Astana's “Trinity of Languages” program, which envisages all school graduates able to communicate equally well in Kazakh, Russian and English. Kazakhstan is keen to promote itself as open to international investment and sees a multilingual workforce as essential to those credentials.
The authorities in Astana are facing an uphill struggle to promote the uptake of Kazakh, the country’s official language, however. Maybe they could take a leaf out of the British Council's book and use similar innovative methods to popularize Kazakh among the legions of cellphone-savvy adolescents.
Grigoriy Marchenko, chief of the National Bank of Kazakhstan, has emerged as a surprise contender for the hot seat at the International Monetary Fund. The previous head, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, stepped down this week amid allegations he attacked a hotel maid in New York.
The CIS Heads of Government Council put Marchenko's candidacy forward at their summit in Minsk on May 19 as the preferred candidate on behalf of the post-Soviet Union bloc. He received further endorsement from Kazakhstan's Prime Minister Karim Masimov at the EBRD's annual gathering in Astana on May 20.
Marchenko, 52, is a career banker who has done time inside both state and private banks. At the helm of the Kazakhstan's central bank since January 2009, and from 1999 to 2004, CIS bank chiefs see him as a safe pair of hands. Since resuming that position, he has carefully steered the Kazakh economy through the global financial crisis and overseen a series of controversial bank bailouts.
Given the basket-case economies of the other CIS member states, Marchenko looks like a rational choice. Though by tradition the IMF's top job is reserved for a European -- with the World Bank top slot reserved for Americans -- there have been some calls to break this European stranglehold. A candidate from Kazakhstan, which straddles both Europe and Asia, could provide a suitable compromise.