Astana is slashing growth expectations and cutting its budget revenue forecasts as Kazakhstan eyes its gloomiest economic outlook for years, sources in parliament report.
The government intends to cut this year’s GDP growth forecast to 1.5 percent (against its previous forecast of 4.8 percent) and reduce budget spending by a whopping $7 billion, sources in the ruling Nur Otan party told Vlast.kz following a presentation to parliament by National Economy Minister Yerbolat Dosayev on January 16.
Such growth would represent a significant slowdown on last year’s 4.3 percent, and would be Kazakhstan’s lowest since 2009, the height of the global credit crunch.
As President Nursultan Nazarbayev acknowledged last week, Kazakhstan is facing a litany of economic problems, from low prices for oil and metallurgical output to the knock-on effect of Western sanctions against Russia and pressures on the tenge as a result of the ruble’s precipitous fall.
The government is cutting the oil price on which its budget is based from $80 to $50 in its revised budget (which will have to be approved by parliament), Dosayev confirmed, after global prices dipped below $50 this month.
Kazakhstani soldiers take part in exercises against "extremist, terrorist and separatist organizations." (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
Kazakhstan's armed forces are carrying out exercises against "separatists," citing "geopolitical shifts" as the justification. But while the reference to separatists may make the Kremlin a bit uneasy, the scenario seems to be oriented toward Chinese separatists, rather than Ukrainian.
The exercise is being conducted from January 15-17 by land forces command staff. "According to the scenario of the joint staff training, groups from extremist, terrorist and separatist organizations, disguised as refugees, infiltrate the territory of a hypothetical government," according to a release from the Ministry of Defense. "During the course of the training the soldiers blocked and destroyed illegal armed formations and repelled the invasion."
The "relevance of the training" was the result of "contemporary geopolitical shifts," the MoD added. So what geopolitical shifts is Astana worried about?
The last line seems to point to a Ukraine scenario; as Ukrainian website depo.ua suggests, "ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan complain about 'oppression' and eagerly await the arrival of 'little green men' from Russia." While Kazakhstan has clearly been rattled by the events in Ukraine, and has undertaken serious efforts to shore up its statehood as a result, ethnic Russians are hardly begging for Moscow's intervention.
Stephen Kotkin, a Princeton historian and author of a new biography of Joseph Stalin, sees similarities in the former Soviet dictator’s leadership style and that of Russia’s incumbent strongman, Vladimir Putin.
Speaking at the Open Society Foundations in New York on January 15, Kotkin acknowledged some of the parallels between Stalin and Putin that have been pointed out by reviewers of his recently released book. “We are not talking about a figure on the scale of Stalin,” Kotkin stressed, referring to Putin. But “there’s an uncanny resonance in some of the history.” [Editor’s note: EurasiaNet.org operates under the auspices of OSF].
Stalin’s image has enjoyed a revival in recent years in Russia. During the January 15 discussion, Kotkin listed four factors that made Stalin’s ruthless dictatorship possible: geopolitics, institutions, ideas, and personality. He then noted modern-day parallels in two of those areas – institutional structure and ideology.
“You have a country [Russia] that has a special role in history. At the very least, it needs to play a leading role in the world … and that makes it very difficult for them to integrate with other countries,” Kotkin said. “The second piece that’s uncanny is they [Russians] are constantly struggling for a strong state, and they end up building a personalized regime.”
According to Kotkin, two ideological tenets provide a foundation for Russian exceptionalism today -- anti-Americanism and social conservativism. “Conservative nationalism is a full package of ideas,” one that is eagerly reinforced through textbooks and media, Kotkin said.
Shortly after an Islamic State propaganda video featuring Kazakh-speaking children called for the slaughter of infidels, a new clip has emerged in which one of those children appears to execute two “spies” with possible Kazakhstan links.
The latest video sparked a denial from Kazakhstan’s intelligence service that the two men are Kazakhstani citizens—even as reporters unearthed possible links.
The video shows the men, speaking in Russian, supposedly confessing to being spies for Russian intelligence. The video then seems to show them being shot by a young boy closely resembling a child who appeared in the previous video. One of the men claimed to hail from Kazakhstan.
There is no independent confirmation that the events took place as depicted in the video, which analysts say could be a montage designed and acted out for propaganda purposes.
It has been “authoritatively established” that two alleged spies are not Kazakhstani citizens, the National Security Committee (known as the KNB) said in a statement. The KNB did not rule out the possibility that they could have roots in the country.
One of the men in the video identifies himself as Zhanbolat Mamayev and states his place of birth as Kazakhstan’s southern Zhambyl Region, where RFE/RL tracked down two people who remembered a boy by that name studying at a school in a village called Oytal (the school’s deputy principal and a former pupil). RFE/RL also located social networking sites that could belong to the same man, linking him to Kazakhstan’s Zhambyl Region.
Four of the five Central Asian states have failed to meet basic fiscal transparency standards, according to the U.S. State Department’s latest Annual Fiscal Transparency report. The study does not appear to affect whether a country receives U.S. government funding, however.
In addition to ascertaining whether countries meet State’s minimum standards (such as publishing receipts and expenditures in publicly available national budget documentation and bidding and contract information for natural resource extraction), the study assesses progress—or lack thereof.
Published by the Office of Monetary Affairs since 2008, the report only includes “those governments it anticipated would receive bilateral allocations of assistance” in fiscal year 2014. The latest version of the report was released January 14.
This year, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan were all judged to have made “no significant progress” toward meeting minimum fiscal transparency standards, joining 35 other countries in that category. Overall, 50 fell below the minimum-standards threshold.
Kyrgyzstan, which has harnessed international assistance from USAID and other donors to improve public access to state budgets was judged to have met minimum transparency standards for the second year running.
In 2012, Tajikistan made significant progress toward the benchmark. It has slipped over the last two years, however.
Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, which routinely rank at the bottom of Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, have never glittered in this report.
For a landlocked country, Turkmenistan is getting into the seafaring spirit: Ashgabat’s new showpiece ferry Berkarar has been shuttling its way around the Caspian Sea – defined by geographers as an inland lake – making trips to both Azerbaijan and Russia so far this year.
The ferry was built in the Uljanik Shipyard in Pula, Croatia – which has produced ferries for the Caspian littoral states since communist times – and delivered to the reclusive Central Asian country in December. Ashgabat has also commissioned a second, smaller ship, Bagtiyar, which is scheduled to arrive this summer. They carry both freight and passengers.
Azerbaijani newswire Trend.az gushed about Berkarar’s latest voyage, from Turkmenbashi to the Azerbaijani capital: “The ferry impresses with its dimensions; it has a length of 155.8 meters, width of 17.5 meters, and height of 12.2 meters,” Trend reported on January 14.
Berkarar can carry “56 trucks loaded with 40-foot containers,” according to News Central Asia’s detailed report on the vessel.
So, provided there are enough goods to fill them, the ferries could help expand regional trade across the contested waters of the Caspian.
A Turkish company is currently modernizing Turkmenistan’s Turkmenbashi port, a commission that is expected to finish in 2017.
The move by the U.S. Congress to deny secondhand warships to Turkey could portend an "arms embargo" from Washington, some military officials in Ankara are warning.
Last month, Congress approved the transfer of several naval frigates to Mexico and Taiwan, excluding Turkey -- which had been slated as one of the original recipients -- over concerns about its policies toward Israel and Cyrpus.
While the ships would have been of use to Turkey only as the source for spare parts, the move nevertheless has raised alarm in Ankara, according to Hurriyet Daily News.
“These are almost useless vessels of no strategic importance for the Turkish Navy,” one senior defense official in Ankara told the newspaper. “The Americans know that the ships would not be great naval assets for Turkey. We think the decision not to transfer the ships to Turkey may be reflecting the likelihood of a broader embargo in the future.”
Another official, also speaking anonymously, suggested that the reprisal could go the other way:
A defense procurement official in Ankara said any further U.S. move “that may look like an embargo due to political rifts” would trigger reaction and risk U.S. defense business in Turkey.
“The unfriendly U.S. move came at a time when our U.S. [and European] allies are trying to convince us that going for a Chinese solution in our air defense program is not a good idea. The timing of the frigate decision is puzzling. The Americans know very well which contracts potentially involving U.S. defense business in Turkey could be jeopardized and how much harm that may make to U.S. industry,” said the official.
A Russian soldier who allegedly massacred an Armenian family is expected to stand trial in Armenia, not Russia. Armenian General Prosecutor Gevorg Kostanian on January 15 made this clear to outraged citizens, who were worried that Armenia would defer justice to its Russian big brother.
The January 12 slaughter of six people in the northwestern town of Gyumri, the site of Russia’s 102nd army base, could not have come at a worse time for Armenia. Just ten days previously, its controversial membership in the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union had become official. The sign-on took place amidst heavy criticism of Yerevan’s economic and security dependence on Russia.
The Gyumri murder now has put Armenia’s policies toward Russia further to the test. Angry Gyumri residents have demanded the handover of the alleged culprit, Private Valery Permyakov, and accused the authorities of mollycoddling Moscow.
Russia’s ambassador to Armenia, Ivan Volynkin, appears aware of the risks of such sentiments. In January 15 comments to the state-financed Russian news outlet Sputnik (picked up by Armenian news outlets), he expressed condolences for the tragedy, but emphasized that “this problem must not be politicized."
"Crime has no nationality, especially in this case," he emphasized.
Armenia’s small Heritage Party, the most outspoken of Armenian political party against economic integration with Russia, so far has called only for a transparent investigation into the crime.
The Russian soldier accused of killing six members of an Armenian family was captured and will be prosecuted under Russian jurisdiction, in spite of the fact that the base agreement between the two countries appears to give Armenia that right.
Valery Permyakov, a Russian conscript, deserted his guard post at the 102nd military base in Gyumri, Armenia, and shot six members of the Avetsiyan family while they slept. About 24 hours, he was captured near the Armenia-Turkey border and reportedly confessed to the crime.
Russian border guards patrol the border between Armenia and Turkey, and it was officers from that force who arrested Permyakov. Armenian authorities announced shortly thereafter that he would be prosecuted by Russia, not by them:
“Valery Permyakov suspected of the crime is a Russian citizen and has been placed under the control of Russian law enforcement agencies, that is under the Russian jurisdiction. Thus, handing over Valery Permyakov to Armenian law enforcement bodies is not discussed considering the ban enshrined in paragraph 1 of Article 61 of the Russian Constitution, which speculates that the Russian citizen cannot be handed over to another country," according to a press release from the office of the General Prosecutor of Armenia.
Tajikistan has sent an award-winning human rights lawyer to prison on charges his supporters say are meant as a warning to critics of the authoritarian regime.
A court in Dushanbe sentenced Shukhrat Kudratov to nine years in a penal colony for bribery and fraud on January 13, Asia-Plus reported.
Kudratov’s real crime, it appears, was defending opposition activist Zaid Saidov in 2013. That year, Saidov, a local businessman and former official, was swiftly arrested after starting a political party and charged with, among other things, polygamy. He received 26 years in prison. The politician’s supporters said they had received death threats.
Last year, another one of Saidov’s lawyers, Fakhriddin Zokirov, was arrested on forgery charges. He was released after eight months and promised he would no longer defend Saidov.
The cases against the lawyers are widely seen as politically motivated. Steve Swerdlow of Human Rights Watch called Kudratov's jailing "a serious setback for the freedom of expression and the independent legal profession in Tajikistan."