Kazakhstan is patting itself on the back after a successful conclusion to the Universiade 2017 winter student games in Almaty.
“Universiade 2017 has proved to be a true festival of sport for all Kazakhstanis,” President Nursultan Nazarbayev said in a statement posted on his official website.
The games culminated with a boisterous closing ceremony which saw athletes parading through the 12,000-capacity Almaty Arena to a soundtrack of pulsating Kazakh music provided by the group Ulytau, 150 drummers and other stars from Kazakhstan.
“The 28th Winter Universiade has taken place at a high level, despite the modest budget input,” Prime Minister Bakhytzhan Sagintayev told the crowd at the closing ceremony.
“Over a billion viewers followed the Universiade. We have seen how sports, health and culture facilities, that are going to function for the good of our country's inhabitants, were erected in a short time. We are proud of our victories and we thank you all,” he said.
Nazarbayev offered further congratulations to Kazakhstan’s athletes on finishing second on the medal table with 11 golds, 8 silvers and 17 bronzes, behind only Russia who scooped up more than one-third of the gold medals on offer.
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.
Weeks after the government in Tajikistan announced an ambitious bond issue to help finance a bailout for several struggling banks, prosecutors have decided to start investigating the lenders.
The four banks being audited by the General Prosecutor’s Office are Tojiksodirotbank, Agroinvestbank, Tojprombank and state-owned Amonatbank.
Another troubled lender, Fononbank, is being spared the treatment because it was already audited last year over suspicions that it was somehow collaborating with the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT).
RFE/RL’s Tajikistan service, Radio Ozodi, reported that checks on the four banks are set to last six months. A representative for the General Prosecutor’s Office, Hotam Nazarzoda, said that the operation was being carried out at the request of the government to establish that the lenders were not being “mismanaged.”
If this explanation sounds unilluminating, it may be by design. Prosecutors have refrained from explaining quite what they mean by “mismanagement” or why this should be a matter for them to investigate.
But one unidentified source told Radio Ozodi this was primarily a reference to the way in which the banks issue loans. The source explained that some banks have been known to accept doors, windows, cows and other livestock as collateral for credit, immaterial of whether the customer was ever likely to be able to repay their debt. This sort of liberal credit-giving has, in the opinion of the authorities, led to lenders being driven to the verge of collapse.
“Animals have the habit of dying, and sometimes they do it early. And there have been cases when an apartment worth $50,000 could be displayed as being worth $100,000. These is called unguaranteed collateral,” the source told Radio Ozodi.
Photo: Mariusz Kluzniak via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/dbutrT
The protests that spread across Kazakhstan last spring forced authorities to backtrack on a land privatization agenda that had been quietly approved without consulting the public.
Concerns are now mounting among opponents of the idea of allowing the sale of land to foreign nationals that the government is seeking to achieve that aim by stealth through changes to the constitution.
Those suspicions center around the language in Article 26 of Kazakhstan’s founding law, which currently states that “Citizens of the Republic of Kazakhstan may privately own any legally acquired property.” Under the revised version of the constitution, this passage could be ambiguously amended to read “Anybody may privately own any legally acquired property.”
Zhanbolat Mamay, editor of Tribuna newspaper, conveyed the anxieties being expressed by many people online.
“This proposed change to Article 28 of Kazakhstan’s constitution has created strong discontent. Thousands of people are on social media expressing their deep unhappiness at these changes,” he wrote on his Facebook account. “What is most worrying is that any foreign citizen could buy our land. There is no guarantee that on this land they might build a village or even a city.”
This latter point sounds like a mischievous attempt to tap into popular fears about the specter of eventual mass Chinese resettlement in Kazakhstan. In fact, although it is true that the land privatization law passed in 2015 was adopted with little public consultation, it is not correct to say that the law would have legalized the sale of land to foreigners, as claimed by many objectors.
An embattled Israeli-Russian travel blogger was trotted in front of news crews in Baku on February 8 following his extradition from Belarus to Azerbaijan, where he is facing charges of illegal border-crossing and hostile activity.
News reports showed handcuffed blogger Alexander Lapshin emerging from a government jet in the Baku airport and escorted with gun-wielding guards in balaclavas. “The extradition of Alexander Lapshin is another testimony that Azerbaijan is capable of defending its national interests,” said Deputy Prime Minister Ali Akhmedov.
He remains in pre-trial detention, his next destination not disclosed.
The Russian-language blogger stands accused of unauthorized entry into Nagorno Karabakh, a breakaway territory from Azerbaijan controlled by ethnic Armenian rebels and Armenian military forces. Baku also accuses Lapshin of posting entries supportive of Karabakh’s independence on his Livejournal blog, Puerrtto.
Azerbaijan long has tried to coerce Karabakh back under Baku’s fold through international isolation; mainly by blacklisting foreign travelers to the territory. But this is the first time Azerbaijan had a foreign national arrested in a foreign country and then handed over to its control for such an offense.
One week after the European Parliament granted Georgia visa-free access to the European Union, the South Caucasus country has entered into a rivalry with Russia over laying a road to the EU for breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Parliament’s February 2 approval of the visa-free plan marks a big leap forward for Georgia in its long journey from the Soviet Union into Europe, and it wants its Russian-backed separatists to get Georgian passports and come along for the ride.
The separatists have dismissed Tbilisi’s advances as wishful thinking, but it appears that Moscow, which recognizes Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, and provides them with military and economic support, was put on guard.
It claims it can trump Tbilisi’s offer by convincing the EU to start accepting the breakaway regions’ own passports for travel.
In a February 7 remark, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin half-heartedly welcomed the EU’s decision to exempt Georgia from short-stay visas as a “positive act,” but advised that the EU should next start accepting visa applications from Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and “abandon its restrictions” for their “citizens.” Moscow, he said, will raise the matter with Brussels soon.
This might be the emptiest promise Moscow could make to its protectorates, as the EU is fairly strict about its policy of not recognizing the statehood of the Russian-backed breakaway regions.
It also is hardly in Moscow’s interest to let go of the two territories’ tight ties with Russia, which has backed separatism – in Ukraine, as well – as a way to curb the EU’s influence in the post-Soviet space.
The USS Porter transits the Bosphorus Straits on February 2 en route to the Black Sea, where it is conducting joint exercises with NATO. (photo: US Navy, Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Ford Williams)
NATO is conducting some of its biggest naval exercises ever in the Black Sea, even as a new administration in Washington has cast into doubt how much the United States is interested in confronting Russia.
The latest round of exercises, Sea Shield 2017, started February 1 and are scheduled to last until February 10. The exercises will include eight ships from Romania, two from Turkey, and one each from Bulgaria, Canada, Spain, and the U.S.
The drills are aimed at "demonstrating our continued commitment to security and stability in the region," said Commander Andria Slough, commanding officer of the USS Porter, the American ship in the exercises. "Our upcoming operations are meant to help us improve interoperability, sharing of information and experiences, and the ability to work together toward peace and prosperity."
That's pretty standard stuff for the past few years, since Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea prompted the U.S. and NATO to significantly step up their naval presence in the Black Sea. This is the third iteration of Sea Shield since the exercise started in 2015, and has been accompanied by a number of other such drills.
Officials in Uzbekistan are reportedly looking into ways of developing a domestic innovation sector and create the country’s own Silicon Valley.
Russian state-run news website Sputnik has cited an official with the IT and Communications Development Ministry as saying an innovation center could be set up within a free economic zone at the Inha University in Tashkent — an affiliate institution of South Korea’s Incheon-based Inha University.
As the ministry representative envisions the proposed center, it would serve as a hub for high-tech and locally developed IT products.
“Our idea is for Inha University in Tashkent to become the birthplace of a Silicon Valley in Uzbekistan,” Sputnik’s source said.
Uzbekistan is drawing on the experience of Belarus as a model.
As Reuters news agency reported last year, high-tech companies based in the capital of Belarus, Minsk, employ around 24,000 people and in 2015 exported technology worth $700 million. One notable famous Belarusian software export is the World of Tanks game, which is played by countless millions of people around the world.
There is little sense in thinking about developing innovation without the financial means in place, however. Limitations on the movement of money in and out of Uzbekistan — not to speak of within it — make the creation of a new export commodity from thin air a de facto impossibility.
Sputnik’s source said developers in Uzbekistan working with foreign clients currently circumvent restrictions by using payment systems based outside the country and then cash out through third parties.
While a mood of permissiveness has descended over some sections of Uzbekistan’s entertainment business, performers are still being warned to remain on their guard.
The head of the state-run Uzbeknavo performance agency, Odilbek Abdukahharov, told Uzbek newspaper Zhamiyat that any artists who post pictures or videos “of a pornographic bent” of themselves online could lose their performing license. This kind of behavior, said Abdukahharov, is a threat to the spirituality of the nation.
As Abdukahharov explained, in an article titled “Don’t Light Fires Under the Spirituality of the Nation,” it is wrong for performers to imagine that what they post online is their business alone.
“Every month, we work with artists on spirituality and we urge them to abide by the rules. Ever day, we monitor social media and we make artists take down improper photos and videos. If that doesn’t do the job, we are forced to revoke artists’ licenses,” Abdukahharov said.
The Zhamiyat reporter behind the piece, Nargiza Mehmonova, added her own two cents of menacing rhetoric.
“There are some Uzbek singers who, instead of trying to build audiences through their art, try to create a sensation on the internet with the help of photos and videos and through the appeal of their bodies. This fire under the spirituality and enlightenment of our people brings to mind the criminal acts of Herostratus, who sought fame by torching the Holy Temple of Artemis,” Mehmonova wrote.
Mehmonova concludes by appealing to the show business community to uphold morality and the traditions of the Uzbek people. Since their behavior is so closely followed by young people, entertainers are in a position to set a good example, the journalist argues.
As the winter editions of the World Student Games come to a close in Kazakhstan this week, questions are still being asked about what went wrong with the ticket sales.
The games, which started on January 29 and will conclude on February 8, have been eagerly anticipated since the city of Almaty won hosting rights in 2011. So much so, that in the days before the competition began, many lamented that they were finding it impossible to find any tickets. News website Nur.kz reported that ticket websites were informing customers they were sold out for multiple events, while ticket offices outside venues also pleaded lack of availability.
The games — which are commonly known in Kazakhstan by the preferred international name of Universiade — have been touted as a major prestige event on a par with the EXPO 2017 international fair taking place in the capital, Astana.
Preparations have been intense, at times absurdly so. Authorities stopped older cars from entering the city (to keep the air clean), shut some of the main bazaars for the duration of the games, ordered schools to close and advised citizens living near venues to refrain from hanging their laundry to dry outside.
Officials say the actions of unscrupulous ticket scalps have contrived to undo some of that hard work.
On January 31, police detained five touts carrying a total of around 120 overpriced tickets. A Nur.kz correspondent bought a 500 tenge ($1.5) ticket for for 6,000 tenge ($18.5) from one dealer.
Still, the numbers of tickets being sold by the touts is relatively small in the broader scheme of things.