The Crimea crisis is putting pressure on Kazakhstan’s long-standing, multi-vectored foreign policy, which has sought to balance the competing interests of Russia, China and the United States in Central Asia. In forcefully backing Russia’s annexation of Crimea, many in Kazakhstan worry that President Nursultan Nazarbayev could be setting himself up for separatist woes of his own.
Hot on the news that Gulnara Karimova, daughter of Uzbekistan’s strongman president Islam Karimov, is a formal suspect in a Swiss money-laundering investigation, embattled Nordic telecommunications giant TeliaSonera has become the target of a related corruption probe in the United States.
“TeliaSonera has been informed that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has an ongoing investigation regarding TeliaSonera’s transactions in Uzbekistan,” the company said in a March 17 statement. “The DOJ has sent a request for documents to TeliaSonera. In addition, TeliaSonera has received a request from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to submit documents and information related to Uzbekistan.”
The company made the announcement five days after revealing that two of its daughter companies, TeliaSonera UTA Holding B.V. and TeliaSonera Uzbek Telecom Holding B.V (the holders of TeliaSonera’s operations in Uzbekistan, where it operates the Ucell brand), are under investigation in The Netherlands in a bribery and money-laundering case.
“Dutch authorities have requested collateral for any financial claims which may be decided against TeliaSonera UTA Holding BV,” TeliaSonera said on March 17, adding that the request for collateral stands at 10-20 million euros.
Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev has strongly endorsed Vladimir Putin’s strategy in Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, despite the uncomfortable precedent Russia’s military adventure has set for other post-Soviet republics with large ethnic Russian populations. Like Kazakhstan.
Nazarbayev told the isolated Russian president during a telephone conversation on March 10 that “Kazakhstan, as a strategic partner, treats Russia’s position, protecting the rights of national minorities in Ukraine, and also the interests of its security, with understanding,” his office said in a statement released after the call.
Kazakhstan is one of Russia’s closest allies, but the endorsement still raised eyebrows given that Nazarbayev’s remarks could be taken as carte blanche for Russia to intervene on behalf of Russian speakers across the former Soviet Union—including in Kazakhstan, where the ethnic Russian minority constitutes 22 percent of the population.
Crimea is set to hold a Russian-backed snap referendum on March 16 that will determine whether it stays part of Ukraine.
While backing Russian intervention abroad to protect minority rights, Nazarbayev also called for a “peaceful settlement of the crisis in Ukraine on the basis of the preservation of sovereignty in line with the norms of international law,” and hoped all sides would show “restraint” and resolve the crisis through negotiations.
A lone protester in Kazakhstan used International Woman’s Day on March 8 to draw attention to the fate of a group of children who were detained along with their mothers in Astana last week.
Schoolteacher Yelena Akhmetova staged her one-woman protest in downtown Almaty with a banner reading: “Our children are not criminals.”
She was remonstrating against heavy-handed police actions at a housing protest in Astana on March 6, when police rounded up a group of children while detaining their mothers for protesting over housing rights. Video from Radio Azattyk showed shocking scenes of screaming children being herded into police buses as their mothers were detained under strict laws regulating the right to public assembly in Kazakhstan. All were later released without charge.
Akhmetova said she was protesting “against all those who use force against our children.”
“We are not criminals, and this [country] is not a prison,” she added, defending her right to protest. An Almaty city hall official who was present warned her that she was breaking the law on public assembly, but Akhmetova suggested that the police watching her would do better to tackle issues such as bribe-taking in schools than infringing the rights of citizens to freedom of expression.
Another woman who had planned to protest, Dilnar Insenova, was arrested beforehand and immediately tried under public assembly legislation (which requires protesters to obtain official permission from the authorities by applying 10 days in advance of their action). Insenova, a campaigner on housing issues, was fined approximately $500 for her calls to protest.
After offering a coldly efficient example in Ukraine of the use of hard power, Russia’s paramount leader Vladimir Putin is turning his attention to shoring up Moscow’s soft power capabilities, namely keeping his vision for Eurasian unification on track. There are signs, however, that his Eurasian aspirations will be more difficult to fulfill than his Crimean land-grab.
The Russia-Ukraine crisis is having a profoundly unsettling effect on authoritarian-minded governments in Central Asia. On the one hand, they are keen to keep the forces unleashed by the Euromaidan movement at bay; on the other, they appear unnerved by the Kremlin’s power play.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s administration in Kazakhstan has weathered the tempest stirred up by the devaluation of the country’s currency earlier in February. But officials now face a longer-term test as they confront an erosion of public trust.
Central Asia’s autocrats were no doubt watching askance as Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich fell from power this weekend. But regional media coverage of the dramatic developments in that other volatile former Soviet republic, while generally cautious, has presented a few surprises.
Of course, given the unpleasant parallels between Yanukovich’s governing style and the rule of Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan and Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov in Turkmenistan, those countries’ tightly controlled media have maintained a studied silence on popular protests that overthrew an entrenched leader.
However, one Uzbek website that sometimes takes a maverick stance did broach the topic – pooh-poohing the idea of a Ukraine-style scenario playing out in Uzbekistan.
The circumstances in the two countries do not bear comparison, argued a commentary published February 25 on Uzmetronom, a site believed to have links to the powerful SNB domestic intelligence agency. Karimov is not susceptible to Western pressure, said editor-in-chief Sergey Yezhkov, and it is more in his nature to make a last stand than to give up power.
Officials also know where their bread is buttered, Yezhkov continued, and take the view that “better a bit of bread and butter today (being in power guarantees this) than uncertainty in the future.” Finally, ordinary people have something to lose: “It is paradoxical, but [even] with serious restrictions on political and civil liberties [and] a difficult economic situation… [still] no harbingers or signs of a rebellion are observed in Uzbekistan.”
Security officials in several Central Asia states are playing up the threat posed by Islamic militants returning to the region from Syria. While authorities warn of potential problems ahead, analysts are struggling to assess the real risk level.
Kazakhstan’s central bank is appealing for calm as rumors that some financial institutions are in trouble following last week’s currency devaluation have provoked a run on three banks.
On February 19 the National Bank sent text messages to the public urging people to disregard the “false information” and not succumb to panic.
“All Kazakhstani banks have sufficient funds in national and foreign currency,” the messages read; people should not submit to “provocations” and “keep calm.”
Large queues formed at some banks in the financial capital, Almaty, for a second day on February 19 as customers rush to withdraw funds, fearing a bank collapse.
A EurasiaNet.org correspondent witnessed a line spilling out onto the street at a downtown branch of Kaspi Bank, where around 30 people were waiting to enter and more were lining up inside – underlining that, as rumors circulate fast on social networks, they risk becoming self-fulfilling.
Kaspi Bank – which has offered a 100 million tenge ($540,000) reward for information on the origin of the rumors – issued a statement around lunchtime on February 19 saying that sums five times greater than usual had been withdrawn in cash on that day alone, but that the bank was meeting all its obligations.