Reports that Russia is uncomfortable with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) stepping into banking are nothing new. In particular, Moscow’s quiet efforts to block the creation of an SCO development bank that would funnel largely Chinese credit into Russia’s backyard have featured at the organization’s meetings in recent years.
But a thought-provoking analysis by Alexander Gabuev of the Carnegie Moscow Center, published last week by Russia in Global Affairs, suggests the Kremlin is mistaken, placing fears about appearing to be a junior partner over a sound geopolitical strategy that could give it a measure of control over China’s Central Asia policy.
The SCO – which groups China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – has tried hard to convince the world it is more than just a club for dictators. China’s push to include economic initiatives on the SCO agenda was a part of this process, Gabuev notes, and a development bank has been on the table at SCO powwows since 2009.
In the corner of a small pizzeria in central Bishkek, an experiment is unfolding. Central Asia’s first and only bitcoin ATM converts dollars into the world’s most popular cryptocurrency. The machine – which looks like one of the city’s ubiquitous electronic pay terminals – offers a way to convert hard currency into a digital medium that is increasingly used in online transactions.
That could impact how Kyrgyzstan’s estimated one million migrant workers transfer their earnings home, says the machine’s owner, Emanuele Costa, an Italian financial analyst. The World Bank estimates that last year migrant remittances totaled the equivalent of 31 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s GDP. Most of that money, several billion dollars, was transferred through expensive, fee-based services like Western Union and Zolotaya Korona. Costa, a former analyst with Goldman Sachs, sees bitcoin as a low-cost, secure and confidential alternative.
Bitcoin, invented by a group of anonymous Internet users in 2009, is the first and most prominent digital cryptocurrency to gain wide circulation. Not controlled by national governments or banks, bitcoin offers a peer-to-peer encrypted payment system that can be readily converted into cash or, increasingly, used in exchange for products or services. Fees, when they exist, are agreed upon by users and are usually nominal. Bitcoin’s value fluctuates based on supply and demand; one bitcoin is currently worth about $642.
Though Costa is a staunch believer in bitcoin’s potential, he admits that it faces some hurdles. Foremost is a lack of understanding.
Kazakhstan’s central bank is appealing for calm as rumors that some financial institutions are in trouble following last week’s currency devaluation have provoked a run on three banks.
On February 19 the National Bank sent text messages to the public urging people to disregard the “false information” and not succumb to panic.
“All Kazakhstani banks have sufficient funds in national and foreign currency,” the messages read; people should not submit to “provocations” and “keep calm.”
Large queues formed at some banks in the financial capital, Almaty, for a second day on February 19 as customers rush to withdraw funds, fearing a bank collapse.
A EurasiaNet.org correspondent witnessed a line spilling out onto the street at a downtown branch of Kaspi Bank, where around 30 people were waiting to enter and more were lining up inside – underlining that, as rumors circulate fast on social networks, they risk becoming self-fulfilling.
Kaspi Bank – which has offered a 100 million tenge ($540,000) reward for information on the origin of the rumors – issued a statement around lunchtime on February 19 saying that sums five times greater than usual had been withdrawn in cash on that day alone, but that the bank was meeting all its obligations.
Three women arrested for wearing panties on their heads were among nearly three dozen protesters hauled through the courts in Almaty this weekend, as last week’s devaluation of the tenge brought demonstrators out onto the streets of Kazakhstan’s commercial capital.
Zhanna Baytelova, Yevgeniya Plakhina, and Valeriya Ibrayeva were arrested at an anti-devaluation protest on February 16 after putting lace panties on their heads and trying to place them on a monument to Kazakhstan’s independence.
They were immediately tried on hooliganism charges and fined around $100 each. Their quirky protest was inspired by obscure regulations, due to come into force in July, that will govern the level of moisture absorption in underwear sold in Customs Union member states Kazakhstan, Russia and Belarus.
The action, Plakhina told EurasiaNet.org “is a symbol of the absurdity which is taking place in our country, including the recent tenge devaluation.”
“In Russian we have a saying, ‘giving one’s last underpants,’ which literally means becoming poor,” she explained. “This was a symbolic action.”
The three women were among five people arrested at the small anti-devaluation rally that drew around 30 people on Republic Square. That followed a larger rally the previous day, which riot police broke up after some 200 protesters marched to Republic Square.
Up to several dozen protesters demonstrating against Kazakhstan’s recent devaluation of the national currency were arrested on February 15 in the commercial capital, Almaty.
Riot police swooped down on as many as 200 protesters as they marched to city hall from their original venue nearby, where they had held a small unsanctioned rally against this week’s 19-percent devaluation of the tenge. Demonstrators urged government action over mounting socioeconomic problems and inflation.
Kanagat Takeyeva, who was designated spokeswoman among protesters who besieged the National Bank headquarters on February 12, was among the detained. “They’re taking me away,” she shouted into her telephone, as riot police grabbed her arms and marched her to a police truck amid what appeared to be targeted arrests of specific protesters.
It was not immediately clear how many arrests were made; EurasiaNet.org witnessed six, but witnesses spoke of up to 30. Three trucks containing detainees drove off.
The security forces moved in as the protesters attempted to reach Republic Square in front of Almaty’s city hall. Police formed a cordon to enclose protesters and chased down some who had escaped.
A prosecutor speaking through a megaphone warned the demonstrators to disperse and cautioned them that they were breaking Kazakhstan’s strict law on public assembly, which requires protesters to obtain official permission 10 days before a rally. Demonstrators breaching that law face fines or up to 15 days in jail.
Protesters in Kazakhstan’s commercial capital, Almaty, forced their way into the National Bank on February 12 to confront the country’s top financial officials over the sudden devaluation of the tenge, which wiped a fifth off the value of the currency in one fell swoop the previous day.
A group of around 50 people – including low-paid workers, worried mortgage holders, and pensioners – gathered outside the bank in freezing temperatures, demanding a meeting with National Bank chief Kayrat Kelimbetov to address concerns about spiraling inflation that analysts say is certain to result from the devaluation.
“What are the people to do? How should they act in this situation? What is the way out? We want to know this!” Zhasaral Kuanyshalin, a prominent activist who was taking part in the protest, told EurasiaNet.org.
Police stood by as irate protesters barged into the National Bank’s lobby. Riot police reinforcements were summoned, but management moved to deflate tension by inviting the demonstrators inside.
At a turbulent meeting with National Bank Deputy Chairman Kuat Kozhakmetov, Kanagat Takeyeva, a designated spokeswoman for the protesters, put forward demands ranging from a meeting with Kelimbetov (who is in Astana, the capital) to jobs and tackling the rising cost of housing and mortgages.
Kozhakmetov’s explanations that the government had pledged to rein in inflation (which is inevitable as the price of hard currency-denominated imports rockets in the wake of the devaluation) were met with cries of “Lies, lies!” “Why do you deceive us?” and “Kelimbetov, resign!” The meeting broke up inconclusively, with Kozhakmetov promising to consider the demands.
Kazakhstan allowed a rapid-fire devaluation of the tenge on February 11, causing the currency to lose a fifth of its value.
The National Bank announced the devaluation without notice to forestall panic buying and currency speculation. In a statement the bank said it had decided to stop its costly policy of propping up the tenge and let it slide to a new currency corridor of 185 tenge to the dollar, plus or minus 3 tenge. That is 19 percent lower than the official National Bank rate of 155.5 tenge early on February 11.
The news caused public outrage, particularly since the devaluation comes just a month after National Bank Chairman Kairat Kelimbetov denied – again – that Kazakhstan would be forced to stop pouring reserves into propping up the currency.
Social networks were abuzz with consternation about the devaluation, with users incensed that their tenge-denominated salaries and savings will be worth around a fifth less in dollar terms, and that sharp rises in the prices of imports (on which Kazakhstan is heavily dependent for everything from food to consumer goods) will follow.
“The government of my country just broke my heart,” commented one user, Zauresh Amanzholova.
At a stormy press conference, Kelimbetov fought off resignation calls, defended the devaluation, and said Astana would strive to keep inflation within the now ambitious target of 6-8 percent this year.
Fugitive Kazakhstani oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov should be extradited to Russia or Ukraine to face charges of fraud and embezzlement, a French court ruled on January 9, effectively rejecting his argument that long-standing corruption charges are politically motivated.
The ruling deals a major blow to the flamboyant former banker. The court dismissed arguments from Ablyazov’s lawyers that sending him to Russia or Ukraine (both close allies of Kazakhstan) would endanger him and expose him to onward extradition to Kazakhstan, where they believe he would not face a fair trial.
The court ruled that Russia should be given priority for extradition over Ukraine, ITAR-TASS news agency reported. (Kazakhstan has also lodged an extradition bid for Ablyazov but has no extradition treaty with France.) Ablyazov’s lawyer immediately said he would appeal the ruling.
In the last five years Ablyazov has turned from successful billionaire businessman to fugitive, pursued across Europe by private detectives and arrested in a dramatic raid on a luxury mansion on the French Riviera last July.
The corruption charges against Ablyazov center on his management of BTA Bank, which he headed and – as he told EurasiaNet.org in a 2009 interview – owned through an undeclared stake. He fled Kazakhstan when the government forcibly nationalized the bank at the height of the global financial crisis. He denies wrongdoing.
Fugitive oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov, who has been on the run from police in Kazakhstan and Britain, has been captured in the south of France, according to a report in the Financial Times.
Ablyazov was arrested on July 31 by French special forces near the billionaires’ playground of Cannes, the FT quoted an unnamed family lawyer as saying. It did not specify on what charges Ablyazov had been detained: Kazakhstan has been pursuing him for alleged financial crimes that Ablyazov denies, and he also has a case to answer in Britain, where he escaped a jail sentence for contempt of court last year by going underground.
Ablyazov formerly chaired Kazakhstan’s BTA Bank, which he also owned through an undeclared holding until it was forcibly nationalized in 2009. Ablyazov fled to London, where he was sued by his former bank for allegedly defrauding it of some $6 billion.
After years of legal wrangling, Ablyazov – who accuses Astana of pursuing him for political reasons and has asylum in the United Kingdom – fled to an unknown destination when the London High Court ordered him jailed for “deliberate and brazen” deception (concealing assets he had been ordered to disclose in the fraud case). Ablyazov was later debarred from fighting the case and the courts ordered his assets sold to compensate BTA Bank.
Kazakhstan’s troubled BTA Bank, formerly run by fugitive oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov, is still crippled by bad loans more than four years after Astana grabbed the financial institution and sent Ablyazov fleeing abroad, a new study shows.
A staggering 81 percent of BTA Bank’s credit portfolio is made up of non-performing loans (those on which payments are 90 days late or more), according to research by Kazakhstan’s Kursiv business newspaper.
As the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has pointed out over and over again, bad loans are the plague of Kazakhstan’s financial system: The IMF said in June that non-performing loans make up around 30 percent of the total in Kazakhstan’s financial system.
But BTA Bank has by far the highest total, not only in terms of ratio to its credit portfolio but also in monetary terms: Its non-performing loans total 1.7 trillion tenge (around $11 billion), Kursiv’s study, based on data from June 1, shows.
Alliance Bank had the second-largest ratio of bad loans in its credit portfolio (47 percent), followed by ATF Bank (46 percent). Kazkommertsbank had the second largest in monetary terms: 660 billion tenge ($4.3 billion), or 28 percent of its loan portfolio.
BTA Bank was forcibly nationalized in 2009 and Ablyazov, who chaired it and owned it through an undeclared holding, fled to London. There he was sued by his former bank for allegedly defrauding it of some $6 billion.