Kazakhstan’s capital has the reputation of a conformist city of bureaucrats, loyal to the man who made it the seat of government and micromanaged its construction, President Nursultan Nazarbayev – but it seems that not everyone is banging the drum for the Leader of the Nation.
Some of the less fortunate inhabitants of the glitzy city took to the streets one freezing evening this week to complain about their lot and demand social justice, reports KTK TV.
“Who are the rulers?” footage broadcast from a dark Astana street showed a man with a megaphone yelling at a small crowd.
“Dozens” of people gathered on January 16, KTK reported – hardly the type of large, unruly street protest that has twice helped overthrow presidents in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, but still revolutionary stuff for this most conformist of capitals.
The main organizers were residents of a hostel on Astana's outskirts that is slated for demolition to make way for a power station. Some inhabitants have refused the compensation package offered by the authorities and say they will be left without affordable housing – a major bone of contention in Astana, where Zauresh Battalova, a former senator and now prominent campaigner, spearheads the For Decent Housing movement to fight for accommodation for the underprivileged and low paid.
The rally gathered protestors with wide-ranging demands, some urging timely payments of salaries and others calling on the local authorities to do a better job of clearing the snow that blankets Astana in winter.
One of Central Asia's favorite sporting pastimes, kokpar, is set to go mainstream in Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan's Association for National Sports has floated plans to professionalize the rough-and-tumble sport and establish purpose-built stadiums across the country.
In a game of kokpar, a distant cousin of polo, two teams of mounted players struggle to take a headless goat carcass into the opposing team’s goal. Kokpar – which often translates as “goat-grabbing” – is better known as “buzkashi” in Afghanistan and Tajikistan.
Sadybek Tugel, the Association’s vice president, told KazTAG on January 15 that the aim is to move kokpar to a professional club system with 16 centers across the country. Tugel also envisages setting up a National Sports Center and training college in the capital, Astana, to promote indigenous sports such as kokpar. Affiliated schools will open in Almaty and in Kazakhstan's 14 regional centers.
Kokpar games have been known to last for hours. To make the sport more television-friendly, the Kazakhs might think about adopting the Afghan Olympic Committee's rules for championship buzkashi: They limit the game to two 45-minute halves, like in soccer.
Tradition or not, kokpar still courts controversy. As EurasiaNet.org reported last year, animal-rights activists are pushing to introduce plastic dummy goats to replace the bloody carcasses. Some, though, might find the game a tad pedestrian without the pre-match slaughter.
Officials in northern Kazakhstan have taken President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s zero-tolerance policy toward anti-social behavior to heart, jailing a man for making a rude gesture at an official motorcade.
The unidentified 22-year-old resident of Pavlodar was thrown behind bars for giving the middle finger to the cortege of Kayrat Mami, speaker of the Senate (the upper house of parliament), Tengri News reported on January 14.
The man pleaded guilty on hooliganism charges and was given a five-day jail sentence for “insulting the human dignity of a public figure, thus allowing disrespect for those around and violating public order and the peace of individuals,” court spokeswoman Umut Zhumatayeva said.
The jailing is in line with a policy Nazarbayev announced last fall, when he used a parliamentary address to rail against graffiti, garbage and public drunkenness, surprising observers who thought Kazakhstan had more pressing problems to tackle. Nazarbayev also has a Singapore-style fixation with chewing gum and dirty cars in his model capital city, Astana.
The news of the harsh treatment meted out to the Pavlodar man sparked vituperative reactions on the Tengri News site, suggesting that many of Nazarbayev’s fellow citizens do not share his concerns. “Where the hell is democracy?” asked user West. “He was only expressing his opinion.”
Polish BRDM-2s, a Kazakhstani version of which could be yours for $14,000.
A curious classified ad appeared recently in the Kazakhstan car website Koleso ("Wheels"): "GAZ-66, KamAZA3-4310, ZIL-131, Ural-4320, Ural-375, more than 200 vehicles, fully renovated. Most with zero mileage."
An enterprising reporter from Kazakh news service KazTAG, noting that those are all military trucks and transports of various kinds, called the number in the listing, and found that there were even unspecified types of armored reconnaissance and patrol vehicles (BRDM in Russian) for sale: "We're selling renovated military equipment," the seller told the reporter. "We also have BRDMs for sale. On average, a GAZ-66 military truck will cost 12-14 thousand dollars. The price for an BRDM will depend on configuration, but no more than 14 thousand dollars."
A military expert told the agency that "a BRDM can be useful not just to hunters, but also to extremists, for use in hard-to-reach regions and clashes with security structures. The armor on the machine is weak, but it can handle any small arms used in our special forces units. By virtue of its speed and maneuverability it's not easy to hit with a grenade launcher. Likewise, a BRDM travels well off-road, which is important for criminals in setting up arms caches in hard-to-reach places, as with the extremists in Aktobe."
The capital of Kazakhstan is well known for its outlandish and whimsical buildings, which include a pyramid and a shopping mall shaped like a khan’s tent. Now architects are planning a new surprise: an ice hotel of yurts, the traditional circular dwelling of Kazakh nomads (more often made of felt, which is much warmer than ice).
One unnamed Astana hotel is planning to erect the frozen yurt village as a novel take on the ice hotels that have become popular in Scandinavia, reports the Ekspress K tabloid, citing Vitaliy Enke, spokesman for an architectural firm (also unidentified) working on the project.
An ice hotel of yurts is certainly weird, but – with Kazakhstan keen to attract more tourists – it looks like a sure bet for those in search of that once-in-a-lifetime experience. Astana, often described as the world’s second-coldest capital, definitely has the climate for it: last month temperatures plunged to -40C (-40F).
Land for the ice yurts has already been allocated on the city’s prestigious Left Bank, the seat of government and home to most of the city’s landmark buildings. As well as the Norman Foster-designed Pyramid of Peace and the tent-shaped Khan Shatyr mall, which boasts a beach inside, they include a velodrome in the shape of a cyclist’s hat, an egg-shaped national archive, and a building nicknamed the Cigarette Lighter for its shape, which once made headlines by catching fire.
Nazarbayev during his November, 2012 visit to Paris, during which he signed a military transit agreement.
Kazakhstan has agreed to allow France to ship its military equipment from Afghanistan via a new transit hub at Shymkent, in southern Kazakhstan. President Nursultan Nazarbayev signed the agreement on Wednesday, and the plan is to fly the (non-lethal) equipment from Kabul to Shymkent, where it will be loaded on to trains and shipped via Russia to the Baltic Sea. As part of the deal, France has agreed to renovate some of the facilities in Shymkent. From Tengrinewws.kz:
France will fund construction of the needed infrastructure for the temporary bond storage and the area of enhanced customs control for the transshipment operations in Shymkent airport. France will also allocate funds for procurement or rent of loading equipment and vehicles for the railroad spur, construction of additional roads with hard surfacing of around 400 meters, protection of freights in the temporary storage and en route on Kazakhstan’s railroad.
Earlier Kazakhstan Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs Aleksey Volkov, who presented the draft law in the Parliament, said that the agreement on transit will help turn Shymkent into a beneficial international transport hub.
A couple of points to consider: Kazakhstan has been pushing the U.S. to use Aktau, on the Caspian Sea, in a similar fashion. So this deal raises the question, why hasn't Kazakhstan been pushing the U.S. to use Shymkent, or did Kazakhstan want France to use Aktau and the French wanted Shymkent instead?
Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales is the latest demi-celebrity to find himself embroiled in a Kazakhstan-related controversy. The widely celebrated creator of the non-profit, freely editable website closed a Wikipedia discussion on December 21, 18 hours after a user asked Wales to explain his upcoming visit to Kazakhstan in connection with Wikibilim, a local NGO working to develop the Kazakh-language Wikipedia.
“As far as I know, the Wikibilim organization is not politicized,” replied Wales. He maintained his belief that there are “no particularly difficult issues” with neutrality in the Kazakh-language Wikipedia, and promised to stress press freedom and openness during a visit to Kazakhstan in 2013.
The exchange is raising questions, again, about the Kazakh government’s efforts to control Wikipedia content. But it also points to a fundamental problem in the Wikipedia movement – source material.
One user, PhnomPencil, noted that Wikibilim received, according to another Wikipedia entry, 30 million tenge ($200,000) from the state investment fund Samruk-Kazyna in 2011 “for editing, digitalization, and author rights transfer.” PhnomPencil questions Wales’ connection to a group that appears close to the authoritarian government, and asks whether the Kazakh-language Wikipedia has been hijacked by Astana's paid propagandists.
A court in Kazakhstan has banned the outspoken independent newspaper Respublika, amid what critics see as a year-long political crackdown following fatal unrest in the town of Zhanaozen last December that has seen an opposition leader jailed, his party shut down, and media outlets critical of the administration of President Nursultan Nazarbayev closed.
On December 25 the court ordered Respublika to shut down its print version and all associated print outlets and websites containing the word “Respublika,” Almaty-based media freedom watchdog Adil Soz reported. The ruling was issued four days after a key opposition party, Alga!, was closed.
Respublika – which has long operated under pressure in Kazakhstan, and once had the corpse of a decapitated dog pinned to its wall as an apparent threat – was among around 40 media outlets targeted for closure by prosecutors who allege their coverage of the Zhanaozen unrest was “extremist” and contained calls to overthrow the state. Prosecutors say the outlets are funded by fugitive oligarch and Nazarbayev opponent Mukhtar Ablyazov (who is on the run from British justice in a separate fraud case).
The unregistered Alga! party, one of Kazakhstan’s only genuine opposition forces, has lost its legal battle against closure, it announced by Twitter today.
On December 21 a court in Almaty declared Alga! “extremist” and ordered its closure, the party said. It had been battling the closure bid since last month, when prosecutors announced they were seeking to shut it over allegations that it was involved in inciting fatal unrest in Zhanaozen last December.
Alga! leader Vladimir Kozlov is serving a jail term on charges he fomented that violence and sought to overthrow the administration of long-time President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Kozlov denies the charges and argues that he and his party -- which the authorities have for years refused to register to operate legally -- engaged only in legitimate opposition activity. Independent watchdog groups called the trial a sham.