The former owner of Kyrgyzstan’s largest newspaper — which has tacked away from its formerly sparky reporting style since a court-ordered takeover in 2015 — is being targeted for arrest.
After nightfall on March 17, a group of officers with the finance police attempted to forcibly detain 70-year old Alexander Kim at his apartment, but their efforts were foiled following a public uproar.
The move comes against the backdrop of mounting intimidation of independent press and attempts by state prosecutors to seek crippling libel damages from critical outlets, such as Zanoza.kg, which is owned by Kim.
The State Service for Combating Economic Crimes has said it is investigating Kim over suspect financial activity when he was the director of the holding company that owned Vecherniy Bishkek newspaper.
Shortly after the arrival of the finance police squadron at Kim’s apartment, civic society and rights activists rushed to the scene. After a standoff lasting several hours, finance police relented but left a summons for Kim to present himself to the authorities on March 22.
Vecherniy Bishkek, a daily newspaper, has had a complicated and troubled past, having changed beneficiaries repeatedly through nebulous means.
Its current owner, Alexander Ryabushkin, previously had a degree of control over the paper, but argued that it was illegally wrested out of his hands. A court in September 2015 ordered that ownership of the newspaper be transferred from Kim to Ryabushkin.
Kim argued that the court decision was politically motivated and engineered by people close to the presidential administration.
Kazakhstan’s government knew what it was getting when Yerlan Sagadiyev was appointed education minister in February 2016.
The US-educated 50 year old, an economist by training, has long been a crusader for the radical modernization of schools in Kazakhstan and, in particular, the need for all the nation’s children to learn English.
Almaty resident Natalia Galiakbarova speaking to Channel 31 about the compensation being offered for the compulsory purchase of her home. (Photo: Channel 31 screengrab)
Barely a week passes in Kazakhstan without the authorities somehow creating a public uproar around land-related issues.
This time it is residents of an area of the business capital, Almaty, that have come out in protest over what they say is the paltry compensation being offered to them for the compulsory purchase of their homes.
Over the weekend, privately owned Channel 31 reported that some residents are being offered as little as 300,000 tenge ($1,000) for their homes and land, which lie on the route of a planned ring road.
Almaty has for many years been plagued by chronic traffic jams, prompting the authorities to embark on several ambitious road building projects to alleviate the problem. Doing so, however, has required them to pursue the demolition of swaths of often ramshackle homes that sprung up around the city limits in the years following independence.
This latest route has been designed “strategically important” and is intended to link to the northern districts of Almaty to the center. The bulk of traffic coming in that direction currently runs along one single road — Seifullina — and invariably cars get horrendously clogged up at peak hours.
Plans for the new road has been on the drawing table for many years, although work is only now going ahead.
After working out valuations for the houses set for removal, the city government sent out sale agreements that in some instances ranged between 300,000 and 700,000 tenge ($1000-$2,200) — an amount that would pay for only a few months of apartment rental costs in the city.
Following the formal end of national discussions in Kazakhstan on constitutional reforms intended, if only on paper, to rebalance authority away from the president toward the executive and the legislative, President Nursultan Nazarbayev has ruled the issue should be considered further in parliament.
Speaking at a working group devoted to the reforms, Nazarbayev noted on March 1 that public feedback indicated that there were numerous shortcomings in the proposed amendments on the table.
Quashing one contentious issue from the get-go, however, the president suggested that an amendment that might notionally have opened the way for foreign nationals to buy property should be struck down. Authorities are still rattled by the wave of anti-land privatization protests that shook the country last year and are not eager to see a repeat.
The government outreach exercise to instruct the public about the details of the reforms, which consisted in a large part of members of the upper house of parliament traveling across the country and delivering talks to large halls, wrapped up on February 26, as previously advertised.
Presidential chief of staff Adilbek Dzhaksybekov said the public had submitted more than 6,000 suggestions on possible reforms to 63 out of the constitution’s 98 articles. As things stand, 23 articles of the constitution are due for revisions.
In the teeth of opposition from the public, the government in Kazakhstan has revived costly plans to build what it is billing as a “national pantheon” — a mausoleum to house the remains of the country’s great and good and dead.
Finance Minister Bakhyt Sultanov announced on February 21 that just one phase of the project alone will set the state coffers back $5.3 million. The final cost will likely be much greater, possibly running into the hundreds of millions, if the earlier blueprint was anything to go by.
A spot has been allocated for the mausoleum in a location around 20 kilometers outside the capital, Astana, next to an existing building housing the tomb of 18th-century Kazakh warrior prince Kabanbai Batyr. Sultanov was unable to offer more specifics, inviting reporters instead to put their questions to the mayor’s office.
Decisions of who is to be buried at the national pantheon are to be taken by President Nursultan Nazarbayev himself. The intended site for the mausoleum is already the resting place to numerous departed public figures whose importance was acknowledged by the president.
In 2013, Nazarbayev decreed that the first person to be buried there should be the late member of parliament Oral Muhamedjanov — “for his massive contribution to the development of the state.” Kazakhstani poetess Fariza Ongarsynova; Sayahat Konakai, the younger brother of Nazarbayev’s wife; former Supreme Court chairman Maksut Narikbayev; and writer and scholar Abish Kekilbayev are among others buried there. The site also allows for Christian burials, like that of Sergei Dyachenko, a former deputy speaker of the lower house, who died last year.
Unguarded comments made by Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev in remarks to Euronews while on a visit to Brussels have been greeted with dismay in neighboring Kazakhstan.
The flare-up has once again illustrated the persisting underlying tensions within the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union trade bloc, which has to date fallen far short of the hopes of its backers.
A recurrent criticism made by EEU objectors stems from the perception that the trading bloc has been designed to serve primarily Russian interests. Asked about this point by a Euronews interviewer, Atambayev deflected the blame elsewhere.
“We have to trade with somebody, we have to work with our neighbors somehow. If we had not entered the Eurasian Economic Union we would have been at risk of a blockade. In 2010, when Kazakhstan blockaded us for one and a half months, we even had casualties,” he said. “We have six million people. What are supposed to do — shut ourselves off and survive like we’re in the jungle or something? We have to develop, we need a market.”
It is not entirely clear what casualties Atambayev was alluding to, and requests for clarification filed by reporters with the presidential administration have shed no light on the matter.
But media in Kazakhstan appear to have gone out of their way to whip up some ill-will by, for example, writing headlines about the interview such as “The president of Kyrgyzstan accuses Kazakhstan of claiming human casualties.”
Kazakhstan’s National Security Committee, or KNB, is set to receive more powers.
Under a government-initiated draft bill now under consideration, the KNB could be authorized to investigate suspected cases of corruption by certain government departments, including the anti-corruption services and the military.
First deputy Prosecutor General Johann Merkel on February 15 described this provision as laying the ground for greater balance among investigative organs, although the KNB appear to be gaining the upper hand in this arrangement.
The evolution of the KNB into the battering ram of the government’s stated goal to stamp out corruption has been taking place for some weeks already. Placing the anticorruption agency under the KNB’s watch, therefore, represents a formal confirmation of an already existing situation.
Another contentious section of the same legislative package envisions a stiff increase in fines for people found guilty of harassing — even if not physically molesting — law enforcement officers — up to 11 million tenge ($34,000).
Even the speaker of the Majlis, the lower house of parliament, Nurlan Nigmatulin, was moved to describe the proposed fine as “mind-numbing” and suggested that it perhaps be revised downward.
Despite this unusual grumbling, MPs waved the bill through its first reading, thereby readily confirming the reputation of the Majlis as a rubber-stamping adjunct of the government. A review on the size of the fines is expected during the second reading.
Anti-corruption officials on February 10 detained the editor of one of Kazakhstan’s few surviving independent news publications on charges of corruption, once more arousing anxieties about the fast-vanishing space for free media in the country.
Authorities are accusing Zhanbolat Mamay, editor of Tribuna newspaper, of involvement in fraudulent schemes with fugitive banker and government foe Mukhtar Ablyazov.
The Anti-Corruption Service said in a statement that they suspect Mamay of using his publication to launder money allegedly embezzled from BTA Bank by Ablyazov and his associate Zhaksylyk Zharimbetov.
Ablyazov is accused of defrauding BTA Bank, which he used to run, of billions of dollars between 2005 and 2009. Kazakhstan has sought but failed on repeated counts to secure Ablyazov’s deportation from either the United Kingdom or France.
Anti-corruption officials have said they are running searches for documentation possibly confirming allegations of money-laundering.
A journalist for Tribuna, Inga Imanbai, published video footage on her Facebook account of the moment when the anti-corruption officers arrived to search the newspaper’s offices. Imanbai said that the same officers had previously also visited Mamay’s apartment.
Unlike most media in Kazakhstan, Tribuna is not a beneficiary of the “state order” system, whereby the government either finances outlets outright or pays for the publication of material publicizing state policies and initiatives. It focuses primarily on social issues and has a line that tends toward robust criticism of the government and provides a platform for the few opposition politicians remaining on the scene.
Authorities in Kazakhstan have responded to the moral panic about the widely reported online suicide games by proposing fresh restrictions on access to social media websites.
The scare originally had its roots in Russia, where media outlets — primarily the liberal-leaning Novaya Gazeta — last year whipped up a hysteria over claims that shadowy individuals on the internet were egging on youngsters into taking their own lives. Novaya Gazeta came in for strong criticism for creating a hype on the basis of scant evidence of a real major threat.
Out of the blue, however, at the end of January, several Russian-language outlets in Central Asia almost simultaneously took up the mantle of reviving the scare.
In Kazakhstan, the charge was led by privately owned television channel KTK, which ran a lurid and skimpily sourced report claiming the grisly fad had spread from Russia.
The hype was given a fresh kickstart this week following reports that a 19-year old girl in the city of Karaganda had committed suicide. Media reports claimed to cite her parents as saying they found strange hashtags in messages on their daughter’s phone that indicated she may have been lured into one of the much talked-about suicide games.
Suggestions of a link between online games and this suicide were swiftly scotched by police, however. Interior Ministry representative Almas Sadubayev said on February 7 that investigations into the death were still ongoing, but that “information about the suicide being committed under the influence of social media websites is incorrect.”
Sadubayev said there had been no confirmed cases of any teenage suicide as a result of online games.
Self-immolation has in recent times become a recurrent gesture of ultimate despair in Kazakhstan.
In the latest such case, a ex-employee of the Atyrau regional prosecutor’s office, 37-year old Leila Smadyarova, set herself alight in front of her former place of work, local newspaper Ak-Zhaiyk reported.
Smadyarova’s responsibilities at the prosecutor’s office consisted of ensuring state detention facilities were properly ensuring the rights of prisoners. In August, a court in the Atyrau, which is situated in western Kazakhstan, issued an order for Smadyarova to be placed under house arrest pending investigations into allegations that she had taken 3 million tenge ($9,200) in bribes. She denied the accusation.
Trial proceedings have since got underway. Prosecutors have argued that Smadyarova, who was an assistant to the regional prosecutor, took the bribe in two parts.
Ak-Zhaiyk cited unnamed sources as saying Smadyarova was driven to the act of self-immolation to draw attention to her plight. She maintains that she never took any bribes and that she is the victim of a smear campaign undertaken by people that she had previously brought to justice. Other than witness statements from those individuals, prosecutors have no evidence, Smadyarova has reportedly said.
Smadyarova was taken to a local hospital with burns to her face and lower leg. Doctors have said she is no immediate danger to her life and that she is fully conscious.
The case has shocked the public not just because the gesture is an extreme one, but because it has occurred so many times.
Activist Baurzhan Aldybergenov said the incident should serve as a clarion call for greater solidarity.