The government in Kazakhstan has set a rare precedent by backing down over the planned land sales that sparked off a wave of major protests across the country.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev announced on May 6 that he was imposing a moratorium on changes to the land code that were making the sales possible.
In a related development, National Economy Minister Yerbolat Dosayev, who has been tasked with explaining aspects of revised land legislation to the public, resigned his post.
Minor pickets in Astana and Almaty in April escalated into a major demonstrations in several cities all over Kazakhstan, badly spooking the authorities.
Amendments to the law approved in November extended the period for which farming land could be rented to foreigners from 10 to 25 years and set the terms for land auctions, open only to Kazakhstani citizens, to be held from July onward. Objections to these changes ranged from suspicions that long-term land leases to foreigners might in practice end up with renters becoming de facto owners to concerns that corrupt officials could pocket the proceeds of land rentals and sales.
While acknowledging defeat in this standoff against an increasingly disgruntled population, Nazarbayev sought to blame the tension on a misinformed general public.
“We should have explained to a misunderstanding people that there was no talk of selling farming land,” he said. “The people who should have been addressed didn’t understand the essence [of the land law amendment]. The mechanisms and norms of this law were not discussed with the public and the fears and concerns of the people were in many respects justified.”
A reshuffle in Kazakhstan has brought a veteran insider back to lead the government amid fears of trouble on the domestic and international fronts.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev reappointed former Prime Minister Karim Masimov late on April 2. In a swift sequence of events, Prime Minister Serik Akhmetov resigned, Nazarbayev nominated Masimov, and Kazakhstan’s rubber-stamp parliament unanimously approved the move.
The affable and charismatic Masimov previously served as head of government for nearly six years, making him Kazakhstan's longest-serving prime minister since independence. Nazarbayev replaced Masimov in fall 2012 with the colorless technocrat Akhmetov.
The reshuffle comes as no surprise: Nazarbayev had hinted on several occasions that he was not happy with Akhmetov and in February, after a currency devaluation that caused an economic shock to many in the country, he threatened to sack the entire government.
Presenting Masimov as his candidate to parliament, Nazarbayev thanked the outgoing Akhmetov but also damned him with faint praise, noting that his government had not “permitted any particular failure” and had “worked in the measure of its experience and possibilities.”
How did an oil-rich region in western Kazakhstan end up with a $100-million hole in its budget?
According to investigators from Astana, this giant hole in public funds in Atyrau Region was caused by massive fraud perpetrated by a man who was a member of Kazakhstan’s national parliament and who just happened to be the brother of the regional governor, acting in cahoots with corrupt officials and construction firm bosses. Speculation is rife in Kazakhstan about whether this corruption scandal is the product of political infighting, but the bare facts are as follows.
On October 1 charges were brought against Amanzhan Ryskali, brother of recently fired regional governor Bergey Ryskaliyev, on one count of fraud, but police are investigating a total of 13 corruption cases involving theft to the tune of 16 billion tenge (a little over $100 million).
Although the scandal had been brewing for weeks, investigators did not manage to charge Amanzhan Ryskali (who uses the Kazakh form of his surname, while his brother uses the Russian form) in person -- He has long since disappeared, along with his brother. (After initial reports that ex-Governor Ryskaliyev was under house arrest, police have confirmed that he is not wanted and has not been questioned over the case.)
A crackdown on Kazakhstan’s political opposition, activists and media critical of Astana is continuing: Less than a week after opposition leaders were jailed for rallying in Almaty without permission, more protest participants have been taken to court while other political activists face separate, more serious charges over December’s violence in Zhanaozen.
Youth activist Zhanbolat Mamay was charged on February 3 with inciting social discord in Zhanaozen, a charge carrying a jail sentence of up to 12 years. This is the same charge faced by Vladimir Kozlov, the leader of the unregistered Alga! party who has been in detention since January 23, and activists Ayzhangul Amirova and Serik Sapargali. Outspoken theater director Bolat Atabayev is an official suspect on the same charge, though not yet indicted.
OSCE Parliamentary Assembly human rights committee chair Matteo Mecacci has described Kozlov and newspaper editor Igor Vinyavskiy, arrested in a separate case on the same day as Kozlov, as “political prisoners” and called for their release.
As the shooting of unarmed protestors by Kazakh security forces in Zhanaozen remains unexplained nearly six weeks after the violence, one young Kazakh poet has penned an emotional verse about the tragedy.
The buck for the killings should stop somewhere, Bauyrzhan Khaliolla suggests in the poem – perhaps with the ruling party, President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s Nur Otan, freshly re-elected with a landslide in a vote international observers deemed rigged?
“Hey, insidious traitors of Nur Otan, why did you open fire on innocent people?” Khaliolla asks. “For seven months, you ignored the orphaned nation, why did you get bogged down in such great guilt?”
The poet is referring to the months that an industrial dispute dragged on in Zhanaozen’s energy sector without the intervention of Nur Otan, which throughout the labor dispute was the only party represented in the rubberstamp national parliament and which also dominated Zhanaozen’s local council.
Khaliolla’s poem was broadcast on the K-Plus satellite TV station on January 19, four days after Nur Otan stormed to victory with 81 percent of the vote despite the debacle in Zhanaozen – where, to the consternation of some observers, it won 70 percent.
“Who issued the order from on high, to open fire on proud people from an assault rifle?” the poem continues. “I don’t believe that you yes-men could move without Nureke [Nazarbayev]. Will people forget this day?”
Kazakhstan's much-vaunted political modernization, which President Nursultan Nazarbayev said was launched by this month’s parliamentary election, has kicked off just a week after the vote with a raid on one of the country’s most vocal opposition parties.
Early on January 23 National Security Committee (KNB) agents stormed the Almaty headquarters of the Alga! party (which was unable to stand in the January 15 election because authorities will not register it) and the home of its leader Vladimir Kozlov.
The Guljan news website quoted Kozlov’s wife, Aliya Turusbekova, suggesting the search was linked to last month’s shooting of protestors in the western oil town of Zhanaozen, which Nazarbayev has blamed on mysterious third forces.
“We’ve been banned from speaking on the telephone,” she told the website. “The only thing I can say is that a search is underway by KNB forces, and it is linked to events in Zhanaozen.” She added that the intelligence officers were confiscating computer equipment and documents.
The homes of three other people linked to the Alga! party – accountant Guljan Lepisova, head of security Askar Tokmurzin and activist Mikhail Sizov – were also reported raided, as was that of youth activist Zhanbolat Mamay.
Kazakhstan likes to portray itself as open to dialogue with the West – but is it open to criticism?
After observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) slammed Kazakhstan’s January 15 parliamentary vote as fraudulent, President Nursultan Nazarbayev has announced that in future certain “experts” voicing critical views will be banned from attending Kazakhstan’s elections.
“We are no longer going to invite to Kazakhstan experts hired by someone who criticize our elections,” Nazarbayev said on January 18.
He did not name the OSCE or any other organization or individual, but his remarks came two days after the OSCE-led observation mission issued a stinging critique of Kazakhstan’s poll, which it said “did not meet fundamental principles of democratic elections.”
Nazarbayev, on the other hand, said the vote was “unprecedented in terms of transparency, openness and honesty.”
He pointed out that most international observers had found the vote to be free and fair, which is true – cooperative regional bodies such as the Russia- and China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Commonwealth of Independent States (a club of former Soviet countries) gave the election a ringing endorsement, right on cue.
OSDP co-leader Zharmakhan Tuyakbay (right) and deputy leader Amirzhan Kosanov (center) leaving a rally in Almaty where they called on Astana to annul the results of the January 15 parliamentary election.
Kazakhstan’s main opposition party has held a small rally in Almaty, calling for the results of the January 15 parliamentary election to be annulled and a new election held this August. While the opposition was standing out in the cold, authorities had blocked another critical website run by one disqualified opposition candidate.
The OSDP party was shut out of parliament after failing to clear the 7-percent electoral threshold to win seats. The ruling Nur Otan party won a landslide, but opposition leaders – backed by international observers – say the vote was rigged.
Election day “was a black day in the calendar of the whole history of Kazakhstan,” OSDP deputy leader Amirzhan Kosanov told a crowd of less than a hundred supporters gathered on Almaty’s Republic Square in a blizzard. “On that day democracy was killed, just as in Zhanaozen our peaceful citizens were killed with machine guns.”
Kosanov was referring to mid-December unrest in western Kazakhstan, when at least 17 protestors were shot dead.
The OSDP, the only genuine opposition party in an election which saw most dissident voices excluded, said the results should be annulled – a call Astana is certain not to heed.