Demolition work has begun on central Tashkent's Bank Land, a failed, futuristic business center that has stood empty since its completion in 2005. With its brown marble façade and gold columns, the building was one of the most ridiculed architectural achievements – though it had ample competition – in Uzbekistan’s capital.
Work started on the building in 2002. But by the time it was completed, Uzbekistan’s business climate had turned moribund: In the aftermath of the Andijan massacre in May 2005, foreign investment in the country dried up and the owners of Bank Land were left with a costly, and empty, white elephant.
As the years passed and still no tenants moved in, Bank Land lost its shine and became just another post-Soviet eyesore. Recently, workers set up fences decorated with forest scenes around the building and the demolition began.
Bank Land must have been an expensive folly. Local journalists’ attempts to track down who actually owned the building drew blanks, however. Business directories list the center, but the web pages contain no information.
When the gaudy building first appeared, its name written in English, jokes started doing the rounds that Bank Land would house a theme park dedicated to the banking industry. At the time, ATMs were a rare sight in Tashkent and even banks seemed to belong to the future. Bank Land would be the place where people could see ATMs and modern banking in action.
Visitors to Kazakhstan know the country’s roads are not the world’s safest. Speeding, widespread drunk driving, and just plan bad street sense cause carnage on the best of days. But in the west of this vast country, there’s another hazard to be on the lookout for – stray camels.
On April 3, the 23-year-old driver of a speeding Opel Vectra managed to kill himself and one camel when he collided with a herd of these galumphing ships of the desert. His three passengers absconded from the scene and were later apprehended when they turned up at a hospital seeking treatment.
The accident occurred in Aktobe Region in Western Kazakhstan, where camels are still prized as a mark of wealth – one camel can be worth upward of $3,000. Camel meat is popular, as is shubat, fermented camel milk. With one ungulate dead and six injured, it was an expensive and tragic night out for all concerned.
“The Liquidator,” the latest offering by hotshot Kazakh director Akan Satayev, hits screens across Kazakhstan on April 7. The $2 million feature, shot on location in Almaty, tells the story of a bodyguard who uncovers foul play in his brother's untimely death.
Producers snagged British bruiser Vinnie Jones to add a menacing edge to the film and boost its international appeal. The ex-soccer-star-turned-actor plays a mute assassin on assignment in Kazakhstan. Jones brings solid credentials as an on-screen thug with appearances in Guy Ritchie's “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch.”
Jones, who has a bad boy reputation in real life thanks to his many bar room brawls over the years, is an ideal fit for Satayev, who came to prominence with his debut 2007 feature “Racketeer,” which told the story in graphic detail of Almaty's violent 1990s underworld.
Satayev's last movie, “Strayed,” was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film category in this year's Oscars. This thriller sees a family stranded overnight on the steppe. In the morning the husband awakes to find his wife and son have mysteriously disappeared.
Aisultan Nazarbayev, grandson of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, has joined Kazakhstan soccer club Lokomotiv Astana. The 20-year-old striker, son of Dariga Nazarbayeva and Kazakhstan's Public Enemy No. 1, Rakhat Aliyev, is widely seen as his grandfather's favorite and his presence should give a boost to the capital’s team.
The younger Nazarbayev, who recently graduated from the UK's Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, has previously represented his country at an under-17 level. He will start out in the reserves of the soccer team that was founded two years ago from the merger of two clubs in Almaty, Kazakhstan's commercial hub.
Soccer is something of a kingly sport in Central Asia. Rustam Emomali, son of Tajik president Emomali Rakhmon, set up his own club Istiqlol Dushanbe, which, as striker, he led to victory in the Tajik league.
Kazakhstan Temir Zholi, the state railroad company, bankrolls Lokomotiv Astana, but until now the capital has been unable to unseat the country’s traditional soccer powerhouses in Aktobe and Kostanay. With the all-powerful Nazarbayev brand on board, the playing field looks a little less level.
Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, has been taking a British tabloid beating over the controversial links he has cultivated in his role as a trade envoy. Touring the world for years drumming up business for the United Kingdom with assorted dictators and despots, the underemployed prince seems to roll with a motley crew, including some movers and shakers in Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan.
Earlier this week Andrew managed to cling on to his envoy role despite his links to convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. This furor seems not to have bothered the “Prince of Sleaze,” as he’s come to be known. Even as his position was under intense scrutiny on March 7, he was lobbying a member of Britain's parliament to promote business links with Azerbaijan, a country he has visited on numerous occasions. He is said to be a frequent dinner guest of President Ilham Aliyev.
Kazakhstan is patting itself on the back after the Asian Winter Games came to a close on February 6 and its athletes topped the award table with a haul of 70 medals. Officials -- pointing to their success as both host and competitor -- already have their hearts set on hosting the Olympic Winter Games.
“We have learned to understand each other better. I believe this is the main achievement of these Games”, announced President Nursultan Nazarbayev, speaking at the closing ceremony in Almaty. He added that the games showed to the whole world that Kazakhstan has the infrastructure and facilities to host a major international sports competition.
Kazakhstan picked up 32 gold medals, 21 silver medals and 17 bronze medals, well ahead of its nearest rivals Japan and South Korea. China placed a disappointing fourth at the medal table. Kazakhstan cleaned the board in a new event for these games, ski orienteering, winning eight golds. It also won the inaugural bandy competition, crushing Mongolia 16-2 in the final. Only three teams took part in the tournament, which gave Kyrgyzstan a rare chance to pick up a bronze medal.
Kazakhstan pulled out all the stops as the country's latest PR project -- the Asian Winter Games -- got under way in the capital on January 30. The games opened with a lavish ceremony in the covered Astana Arena in front of a crowd of assorted dignitaries and thousands of local spectators, who had paid up to $100 for the privilege of being there.
The opening ceremony featured a colorful music and dancing show based on Kazakh epics and a parade of athletes from the 27 countries taking part in the games. It culminated with the lighting of the Olympic flame and an extravagant firework display.
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev was on hand to declare the games officially open, strongly hinting he would like to host the Olympic Games in the future: “Today the Olympic Games are threads of friendship which unite peoples and countries. I am convinced that the spirit of the Asian Games will bring us closer together on the native Kazakh land,” he said.
Athletes from countries as diverse as Iran, Nepal, Bahrain and Singapore will be competing in 11 disciplines, with the events shared between the flashy new capital Astana and the country's commercial hub, Almaty, over the next week.
Almaty is bracing itself for traffic chaos. The city's main arteries will be closed January 12 as officials parade the Olympic flame through Kazakhstan's financial hub in the run up to the seventh Asian Winter Games, to be held in Astana and Almaty from January 30 to February 6.
After touring Almaty, the flame will travel across Kazakhstan and will arrive in the capital on January 30 for a grand opening ceremony. The torchbearers will be mostly young athletes, with 1,020 involved in the relay. A television crew will follow the torch on its procession around the country, documenting its daily progress.
Even President Nursultan Nazarbayev may don his tracksuit and run with the flame, as he did with the Olympic torch when it passed through Almaty in 2008. He surely won't miss this chance to interact with his adoring public -- he's currently riding a wave of popular love after more than a quarter of the country's population signed a petition calling for a referendum to do away with pesky presidential elections until 2020.
As 2010 draws to a close and Kazakhstan’s chairmanship of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) winds down, the country is shifting the focus of its image-shaping efforts from politics to sports. The country’s next big project – hosting the seventh Asian Winter Games -- will run from January 30 to February 6.
Kazakhstan is joining an illustrious bunch by avoiding the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony today in Oslo. This year the award goes to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. But despite their invitations, the likes of Kazakhstan, China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Cuba and Sudan will not attend.
Mr Liu will also not attend, as he is serving an 11-year prison term for his human rights activism.
When pressed about the visible absence, Kazakhstan Foreign Ministry spokesman Ilyas Omarov said that the diplomatic representative accredited in Oslo was unable to attend the ceremony due to a previously arranged business trip.
The awarding of the prize to Liu Xiaobo for co-authoring a document calling for political reforms, has caused widespread controversy, with China accused of behind the scenes arm-twisting to encourage countries to boycott the event. Of the 65 diplomatic outposts invited to send representatives, 44 have agreed, 19 have declined and two have abstained.
China, which shares a land border with Kazakhstan, has significant investments in the country's oil and gas sphere. Astana, in turn, is a staunch supporter of Chinese foreign policy. Democratic reforms are also a touchy subject in Kazakhstan, which has a one-party parliament and a long-serving president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who can stay in the job for as long as he likes while reveling in his official title, Leader of the Nation.