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.
Actor and producer Anuar Nurpeisov addressing his critics in a Facebook video.
A famous actor and entertainment producer in Kazakhstan has waded into a recurrent controversy about language after appearing to endorse the view that it is not always necessary to know Kazakh.
The outcry began when Anuar Nurpeisov posted a video on his Facebook account in which he discussed his recent visit to Singapore and how he was struck there by how many people he heard speaking English. Why, he wondered, could people not be as relaxed in Kazakhstan toward those, including ethnic Kazakhs, that prefer to speak in some other language?
The remarks drew heated criticism online, where champions of the Kazakh language condemned Nurpeisov for frequently speaking in Russian — instead of his native Kazakh — in his television appearances and elsewhere.
Society in Kazakhstan was split over decades of imperial Russian and then Soviet rule into two linguistic camps.
Typically, urban Kazakhs were forced to rely on Russian as their main language of communication and many continue to do so to this day. By the estimates of a researcher with the Institute of Ethnography at the Academy of Sciences of the Soviet Union, Olga Naumova, around 40 percent of Kazakhs no longer spoke their own language by the late 1980s. Naumova found that nearly three-quarters of Kazakhs living in cities did not use their native languages.
Kazakh critics of such people refer to them disparagingly as “Shala Kazakh,” which means “half Kazakh.” At the more militant end of this contingent are those commonly termed “national-patriots,” sometimes mockingly abbreviated to “Natspaty.” Ardently patriotic outlets regularly argue for the need to preserve native Kazakh culture and uphold the supremacy inside Kazakhstan of the “titular language.”
The editor Qazaq Uni newspaper, Kazybek Isa, said Nurpeisov had missed the point in his Facebook complaints.
Under a newly approved law, authorities in Kazakhstan will from this summer have the power to remotely disable mobile telephones that are not registered in a state database, Tengri News has reported.
Officials say the measure has been adopted as part of the fight against terrorism.
Major mobile phone service operators Kcell and Beeline say that since the start of the year, the Information and Communications Ministry has been actively working on creating a register of International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) numbers, which are unique to every mobile device.
Under the new law, mobile operators will be required to block all mobile phones that have not been registered. The rule on registration will come into force on July 1, 2017.
Nur.kz news website has reported that the Information Ministry formed a working group together with law enforcement and mobile phone service provider representatives to draw up the specific rules on registration within the coming months. Although the details have not been worked out to date, the law is already on the books.
Service providers have said that similar requirements — albeit intended to reduce phone theft — are in place in several countries, including Turkey, Azerbaijan and Ukraine.
IMEI numbers are distinct from SIM cards and can be used in some cases to trace the whereabouts of stolen phones and, if necessary, block them.
The editor a prominent newspaper has received a suspended five-year jail term after confessing to charges of fraud.
The specialized inter-district criminal court in Astana on January 24 ruled to allow Bigeldi Gabdullin, the 61-year old chief editor of the Central Asia Monitor newspaper and the executive director of Radiotochka.kz news website, to be released from custody and for a freeze of his assets to be lifted.
Gabdullin was detained in mid-November on what investigators said was the suspicion that he was using media under his control to intimidate officials into paying him money to avoid negative coverage.
While the journalist has escaped prison time, his criminal record means he will be denied the right to hold office in local government departments for a period of up to 10 years. He will also be denied the right to relocate from his current place of abode without prior permission from the authorities.
Several high-ranking officials gave testimony as injured parties during the trial. The Kazakhstan edition of Forbes magazine reported prosecutor claims that Gabdullin threaten to publish defamatory material about the head of Zhambyl region, Karim Korkebayev, the deputy mayor of Astana, Yermek Amanshayev and Energy Minister Kanat Bozumbayev among others unless they provided his publications with contracts under a system known at the state order. That system is used by the government to finance state media or place articles about state policies in nominally independent media.
Press freedom advocates had initially cast Gabdullin’s case as another instance of state pressure on the media.
A brawl broke out in a contested section of the border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan over the weekend — the latest of many such incidents caused by failure to forge a solution on joint use of the area.
As usual, the picture has been muddled by duelling accounts of precisely what happened.
On January 21, the head of Kyrgyzstan’s Batken region, Kenesh Salikhov, told media that a representative of the Tajik police came informed him that some villagers from the Kyrgyz village of Kok-Tash had assaulted a citizen of Tajikistan. Despite the nominal border, the two communities have homes side by side, in what is sometimes described as a chessboard configuration, so dust-ups can break out apparently trivial matters.
Salikhov said that his information led him to disbelieve the Tajik police account.
“Later, we found out this person was not assaulted by our citizens and the Tajik police had no case to make, but on the next day, the victim summoned about 15-20 people and came to our village for a showdown,” he told Zanoza.kg.
The bout of verbal sparring from both sides then escalated into stone-throwing. As a result, the informal village leader of Kok-Tash, Raziya Osorova, was injured and had to be taken to a hospital for severe head injuries.
Turmush.kg news website reported this dispute involved around 20 residents from the Kyrgyz village and nearly 100 residents of the Tajik side. Witness accounts of such events, however, should be treated with caution since either side typically inflates the size of opponent contingents in the interests of their narrative. One house and four cars are said to have been damaged in the fighting.