Sailors from Kazakhstan and Iran at a welcoming event for a flotilla of Iranian warships to Kazakhstan. (Photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
Iran's navy has made its first formal visit to Kazakhstan as Tehran continues to slowly build military ties with its Caspian neighbors.
Two Iranian warships, the destroyer Damavand and corvette Paykan, berthed at Kazakhstan's Caspian port of Aktau on April 12. It is the Iranian navy's first such visit to Kazakhstan, and follows 2015's first-ever visit to Azerbaijan. Iranian warships have made at least three visits to Russia's Caspian coast, the first in 2013 and the most recent in March.
In Aktau, the Iranians were greeted by the rocket-artillery ship Saryarka; the two sides will exchange visits to one another's ships and take part in some sort of joint exercise.
"The aim of the visit is the establishment of cooperation between the navies of the two countries, the role of which is significantly rising amid the need to ensure regional security, in particular in the Caspian Sea," the Kazakhstan Ministry of Defense said in a statement.
"The Iranian Navy's flotilla ... is slated to convey Iran's message of peace and friendship to Kazakhstan," Iran's Fars News Agency reported.
A representative for the Spiritual Directorate of the Muslims of Kyrgyzstan has said that four madrasas have been shut down over the past week for failing to obtain proper authorization.
Kushtarbek Mamatov told EurasiaNet.org that the schools were giving lessons without the correct papers and did not appear to know that they needed to register and obtain approval from a government commission.
“They have stopped their activities and sent children home. Now they are collecting all the required documents,” he told EurasiaNet.org.
Mamatov noted, however, that while the madrasas were operating without authorization, there is no evidence they were teaching anything improper.
“They only taught good and useful things there. Now it is simply a matter of legalizing it all. We explained everything to them,” Mamatov said.
The closure of several madrasas took place several days after a nongovernmental organization, the Bulan Institute for Peace Innovations published, a report detailing the need for a radical overhaul to religious education in Kyrgyzstan.
The report found that Kyrgyz madrasas often operate without proper permission and provide poor conditions for their students.
Religious affairs expert Orozbek Moldaliev said that the muftiate has repeatedly been petitioned to take action against delinquent madrasas, but has failed to do so.
“These are basically places that were opened by people who got funding and who are pretending to teach children. But if you barely have an education yourself, how are you going to start teaching others?” Moldaliev said.
Murat Imankulov, a member of a working group on the reform of religious education, said that many children finishing their studies in madrasas often find they are unable to enter the labor market.
The president of Kazakhstan published an article in a state newspaper on April 12 announcing a switchover to the Latin alphabet by 2025 — a stark change of tack from the vaguer and longer-term objectives set previously.
Nursultan Nazarbayev wrote in Kazakh language newspaper Egemen Kazakhstan that under government plans, all official documents, periodicals and books in Kazakh should be published in Latin letters by that date.
Work is already under way and a timetable for the transition will be ready by the end of the year, he said. That is the timetable being set for experts and the public to agree on a unified standard alphabet.
From 2018, education specialists will be tasked with compiling new textbooks for middle school.
Nazarbayev has advanced the latinization agenda before, but his article indicates a fresh urgency. In December 2012, the changeover of alphabet was included as part of the Kazakhstan-2020 national strategy.
In his piece, Nazarbayev argued that younger people would find no trouble adapting to a new alphabet, since they all now study English. During the adaptation period to the new alphabet, Cyrillic will be used all the same.
The president described the transition as an embrace of pragmatism and he said it was necessary to pursue the path of modernization.
“The state or the nation should not be like rigid metal, they should be living organisms capable of constantly evolving. You need to be able to change to keep up with life. Anybody that fails to understand this will always lag behind,” he wrote.
Russia’s energy behemoth Gazprom has revealed the amount it is paying in a mid-term deal for the delivery of natural gas from Uzbekistan, and it is not very much.
RIA-Novosti reported on April 12 that Gazprom Export, an affiliate of the Moscow-based company, said its five-year contract to supply 4 billion cubic meters of gas annually from 2018 is worth a total of $2.5 billion. That translates into $125 per 1,000 cubic meters delivered.
The deal struck at the start of April has been cast as historic for how long it runs before expiring — long enough to ensure some certainty of cash transfers in economically uncertain times, but not so long as to make the hedge feel semi-permanent. Gazprom has historically favored calculating gas supply agreements in Central Asia in decades rather than single years.
Despite that spin, the deal evidently signals a noteworthy withdrawal by Russia from the Central Asian market. Gazprom bought 6.2 billion cubic meters of gas from Uzbekistan in 2016 and is buying only 5 billion cubic meters this year, so the five-year deal represents another drop.
And Gazprom has recently reiterated that it has no intention of resuming gas supplies from Turkmenistan.
As to the question of why Gazprom is buying the gas when it has more than enough of its own, the explanation is offered succinctly by Mikhail Krutikhin, an analyst with RusEnergy, writing in Russian weekly magazine New Times.
Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev observes a presentation by Delta Telecom in 2010. Delta, the de facto state monopoly internet service provider, has been linked to a series of attacks on opposition media. (photo: Delta Telecom)
The Azerbaijani government appears to have taken yet another step to quash online opposition media in the country, who have responded by using a technique borrowed from Chinese dissidents in their escalating cyberwar with the authorities.
The internet freedom organization VirtualRoad reported on April 10 that it had found evidence a “dedicated appliance” aimed at “interfer[ing] actively with web traffic” in the infrastructure of Azerbaijan's de facto internet service provider monopoly. The device is being used to block three major opposition news sites: Meydan TV, Azadliq Qezeti, and Azadliq Radiosu, using a sorting technique called deep packet inspection.
By backing up their site on AWS, Azadliq Qezeti have forced the government’s hand, as Azerbaijan would now have to block all of AWS to block domestic access to Azadliq Qezeti. The potential consequences of this has so far stymied even those behind China’s famed Great Firewall, as it would mean everyone – including major corporations – using Amazon’s popular cloud computing system for apps, databases, management tools, and other services would lose access as well.
News that Kazakhstan’s parliamentarians have been given bumper pay rises of up to 50 percent of their salary is causing a stink.
The information leaked out to the media through deputies themselves. Bahytbek Smagul and Yekaterina Nikitinskaya told news outlets that the salary increases had taken effect as of March 1 and that MPs will now be earning around 600-700,000 tenge (around $2,000 to $2,200) per month.
While the amounts are hardly enormous, the outcry illustrates creeping frustration at stagnant improvement to the general economic wellbeing of the population.
The deputy speaker of the lower house of parliament, Vladimir Bozhko, said there was no grounds for clamor.
“We were the last among the civil servants to get a bump in our salary. This decision was taken four years ago. First the ministries [got the pay rise] and now, four years later, it is our turn,” he told reporters.
One MP, Nurlan Zhazylbekov, said he only gets around 500,000 tenge, which he said was not much when compared to the amount made by members of the government or some workers at state companies.
That only added fuel to the fire, since the divide between the average salaries of officials and those of the population at large is indeed not indifferent. According to official figures for 2016, average salaries in Kazakhstan stood at around 150,000 tenge ($480), although many online commentators argued that estimate too might be on the high side.
A man in northern Tajikistan has reportedly been arrested and potentially faces several years in jail for being slightly disrespectful to a poster of President Emomali Rahmon.
Akhbor news website reported last week that Hasan Abdurazokov, an unemployed father of three in the Sughd region, offended Rahmon ahead of the recent Nowruz holidays.
“In public view, he took a picture of Rahmon down from the wall, he threw it to the ground and said: ‘You have everything, you have a good life, and me, I have nothing with which to continue my life,’” an unnamed source familiar with the case was quoted as telling Akhbor.
At the end of 2015, Rahmon was officially named "Founder of Peace and National Unity, Leader of the Nation” — a status that gave him de facto powers for life. And last year, a law was added to the statute books making it an offense to in any way insult the Leader of the Nation.
If the prosecution goes ahead, it would be the first ever to be pursued under the law criminalizing insulting the Leader of the Nation, which is punishable by up to five years in jail. It is worth noting, however, that legislation already exists to make insulting the president punishable by prison, so Abdurazokov in effect violated two laws at the same time. However, while presidents may come and go, Rahmon will remain the only Leader of the Nation.
Authorities have avoided commenting publicly on Abdurazokov’s case and sources have said no lawyers have agreed to take up the case. Lawyers taking on cases on behalf of politically problematic figures have themselves ended up object of harassment and, in some instances, received draconian prison terms on flimsy charges.
A court in Kazakhstan has sentenced a trade union activist to two-and-a-half years in jail for his role in a recent labor dispute.
The presiding judge in the Almaty courthouse in the capital, Astana, Aizhan Kulbayeva, ruled on April 7 that Nurbek Kushakbayev had violated a law by encouraging workers to participate in an unauthorized strike.
Kushakbayev was charged for his involvement in strike mounted in December by several dozen workers at a company based in western Kazakhstan and called Techno Trading Ltd. The workers declared they were going on a partial hunger strike in a demand for improved working conditions and an increase in their wages. Kushakbayev is accused of giving strikers advice on how to formulate their demands.
“Kushakbayev offered them his consultation, gave them more effective tips on how to mount a strike, and specifically suggested that they declare a hunger strike, gather as many people as possible and not be afraid of the police,” prosecutor Kanat Daribay said in the opening hearing in late March.
Daribay said that the protest set Techno Trading Ltd back by around 25 million tenge ($79,000). It is not clear how this amount was calculated, but the court rule to also require Kushakbayev to pay that amount in compensation.
Uzbekistan’s president came away with some eye-catching investment deals with Russia from his state visit to Moscow this week, but the less flashy talks on labor migration may have represented the most important achievement of all.
Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s visit to Russia on April 4-5 marked his third trip overseas after Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan — a sequence that is telling about the new leader’s foreign policy priorities.
One of the first documents to emerge from the government-to-government meetings involved an agreement to create a clearer and more formal process for Uzbeks to resettle in Russia for short-term work contracts. Representatives offices will be established in one another’s countries to assist Uzbek migrants.
While this seems like a largely arcane bureaucratic fix, it actually represents a historic step for Uzbekistan, which has, perversely, never since gaining independence actually formally recognized the existence of labor migration.
This is not to say that Uzbek officials are not aware of the fact that their fellow citizens go abroad to work. On the contrary, in 2013, the late President Islam Karimov alluded at length to such people, only to refer to them as “lazy people” who “disgrace all of us.”
Even the concept of unemployment is barely acknowledged in Tashkent. The official unemployment rate is around 5 percent, which is a figure that bears no proper scrutiny.
Karimov’s remarks were particularly offensive in view of the vast amounts of money Uzbeks in Russia inject back into their home nation’s economy.
Indeed, Russia’s Central Bank noted last month that money transfers by individuals in Russia to Uzbekistan had hit $2.74 billion in 2016.
The area around the Emba missile test site in Kazakhstan, which Kazakhstan is taking over from the Russian military. (image: Google Maps)
Kazakhstan has shut down another Russian military testing site, as it steadily removes Moscow's Soviet-legacy military footprint.
On April 5, President Nursultan Nazarbayev ratified an agreement to take over the Emba missile testing site, in the Aktobe region of western Kazakhstan, from Russia.
When the agreement was first signed in October, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoliy Antonov presented it as just a bit of housekeeping: "After all, the weapons and equipment that are tested at these facilities, protect not only Russia, but Kazakhstan as well," he said. He described the move as an "optimization" of the use of Kazakhstan's land by the Russian military.
But there is an unmistakeable trend: in 2015 Kazakhstan got Russia to hand over another missile testing site in western Kazakhstan, Taysogan; in 2014 it got Russia to agree to the joint usage of another site, Balkhash, which had previously only been used by Russia. Astana also has gotten Moscow to cede more control over the Baikonur space launch facility. Russia now operates only three test facilities in Kazakhstan.
At a Kazakhstan parliamentary hearing last year, MPs complained that Russia was paying a pittance for the use of the various test sites it operates, about $24 million.
"I think that price is very low," MP Kuanysh Aitakhanov said at the time. "In theory, it should be no less than the price of the land that Kazakhs use for agriculture. Farmers pay 2,000 tenge per hectare to rent a plot, while Russia just 424 tenge. How is that possible? After all, in the current crisis Kazakhstan could be getting tens of billions in profit for this rent."