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KAZAKSTAN


 

 

Key Economic Data 
 
  2003 2002 2001 Ranking(2003)
GDP
Millions of US $ 29,749 24,205 22,400 60
         
GNI per capita
 US $ 1,780 1,510 1,350 119
Ranking is given out of 208 nations - (data from the World Bank)

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Update No: 381 - (26/02/13)

Kazakhstan is the world's ninth largest country enjoying vast natural resources which have helped it become a thriving economy in the post-Soviet sphere. It is unfortunate that much of the country's wealth is concentrated in the hands of the leader Nursultan Nazarbaev -who has run the country since 1991- and a highly concentrated political elite. The country has a poor record on corruption, ranking 133rd, alongside Iran and Russia, in Transparency International's annual Corruption Perceptions Index, published in December of last year. It has also garnered international attention for rights violations. The riots by oil workers in December 2011, in which 16 protestors were shot dead by soldiers, have proved an ongoing pretext for the authorities to snuff out the opposition. A recent sweeping crackdown on press freedom has alarmed media outlets. There are also growing security concerns around border control and the possibly of terrorist cells, in particular the banned group Jund al-Khilafah (Soldiers of the Caliphate) operating with increasing vigour.

Opposition publications are routinely banned or restricted in Kazakhstan. The publication of more than 100 copies of any print media requires registration at the Information Ministry. Recent months have proved particularly active in terms of government censorship. In the state's largest city, Almaty, there have been a series of confiscations. At the end of November all copies of weekly opposition paper Vzglyad (Viewpoint) were confiscated, despite having changed its name to "NeVzglyad" (Not-A-Viewpoint) in order to avoid fines, as the original edition is banned. The pretext for the confiscation proves a recurring theme - the alleged publication of "extremist" material. Just one day later it was revealed that a second newspaper, the weekly "Republic's News-Business Review", published by the Aman Saulyq (Good Health) nongovernmental organization, was suspended. A trial will determine whether the newspaper, which focuses on rights relating to healthcare, should be banned. The Azat (Free) newspaper was also confiscated on November 30 on the basis that it had re-printed articles from the opposition "Golos respubliki" (Voice of the Republic) weekly. The editor of the latter was fined $100 on December 12 for placing her written material in the "Azat" (Free) newspaper on November 30. When the team behind "Golos respubliki" began printing a new paper - "Ripablik" - editor Tatyana Trubacheva received another fine.

The onslaught continued in December when Kazakh prosecutors requested that around 30 newspapers, internet sites, and television channels, as well as the unregistered Algha! (Forward!) and People's Front opposition movements, be banned for allegedly propagating extremism and seeking to overthrow the government. On the morning of December 25, a court ruled that the opposition newspaper "Respublika," along with its websites and eight of its supplements must be closed. In January a nail in the coffin of press freedom came when Kazakhstan's leading media rights group, A Just Word, announced its decision to stop monitoring free speech issues in the country due to insufficient funds. With no one to survey violations of freedom of speech from within the country, the onus will be entirely upon international organisations to draw attention to the media restrictions. Reporters Without Borders is one such group. In its 2012 Press Freedom Index, Kazakhstan proved to be the Central Asian country "characterized by the worst trend" last year. Johann Bihr, head of RSF's Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk, told Radio Free Europe that President Nursultan Nazarbaev appears to be moving "closer and closer to the ultra-authoritarian rule of his Uzbek neighbour."

The timing of the crackdown is no coincidence. Most of the media outlets involved had in some way covered the events of December 2011, and the government feared that the anniversary of the massacre would prove an opportunity for further media coverage. Mainly thanks to its relative wealth and living standards - Kazakhstan is Central Asia's largest economy, with 5-6% growth expected next year - dissent is not widespread. One key rallying point for the opposition is, however, the events of Zhanaozen, the memory of which keeps hostility to the government alive. Members of the local community still complain that those who fired the fatal shots have not been punished, whilst numerous workers involved remain incarcerated. The Zhanaozen oil strike proved a useful pretext for stifling anti-government sentiment. Vladimir Kozlov, leader of the opposition Algha! party was recently sentenced to 7 1/2 years in prison on charges of calling for the overthrow of the government during the oil workers' strike. The trial was viewed as an example of political persecution. Aleksandra Zernova, a lawyer with the U.K.-based Solicitors International human rights group, which observed the Kozlov trial, says none of the evidence presented during Kozlov's trial suggests that the activist could in any way be held accountable for inciting the events.

His period in incarceration has been one of isolation. When two Polish politicians tried to visit him in a labour camp in the northern city of Petropavlovsk, permission was denied. On December 8, rights activist Vadim Kuramshin was sentenced to 12 years in prison for extorting a bribe; another trumped up charge, say his supporters. Supporters of those imprisoned are routinely harassed. In December it was reported that a rights advocate who filed lawsuits on behalf of the citizens claiming police abuse during last year's unrest was sentenced to 12 days in jail - some claim to prevent her from marking the anniversary.

The international community has expressed concern. At the end of November, the new EU special representative for human rights, Stavros Lambrinidis pledged to tackle rights issues in a meeting with deputies in Astana. Human Rights Watch has denounced Kozlov's prison sentence as "a blow to freedom of expression and political pluralism," while the United States has accused Kazakhstan of using its justice system "to silence opposition voices." The Norwegian Helsinki Committee has also lambasted the media crackdown as "a dramatic step in the wrong direction" and warned that a court ban on independent media would represent "a serious blow to Kazakhstan's reputation internationally."

Kazakhstan enjoys friendly relations in its near abroad, partly due to similarities in regime (Freedom House has described Eurasia as “one massive sea of not-free countries"), but also due to shared trade and security ties. Kazakhstan is part of a customs union with Belarus and Russia and is a willing participant in what Hillary Clinton has called Moscow's attempts to "re-Sovietize the region.” Russia and Kazakhstan cooperate specifically on the Baikonaur cosmodrome, the Kazakhstan-based launch site for Russian space missions. There have been some tussles over the future of the cosmodrome between Moscow and Astana as Kazakh environmentalists are apparently worried about the number of test launches that Moscow would have take place on the leased base. The two countries have now (it would seem), come to an agreement on the base's future. Russia may end the lease, for which the Kremlin currently pays $115 million annually, in favour of an on-going Russian-Kazakh administration. The two countries recently signed a document to establish a joint regional air-defence system in order to improve the security of Kazakhstan's airspace, as well as Russian border areas.

Security concerns in the Central Asian state are numerous. At the start of December, Kazakhstan’s National Security Committee acknowledged for the first time that the outlawed terrorist group Jund al-Khilafah (Soldiers of the Caliphate) is a threat to that country's security. The committee's deputy chairman, Kabdulkarim Abdikazymov, announced to journalists in Astana on December 4 that "a certain number of Kazakhstani citizens and Kazakhstan-born individuals" are members of the group, which is based on the Afghan-Pakistani border. In 2011 the group claimed responsibility for bombings in the western city of Atyrau and attacks against police in the southern city of Taraz. A spate of incidents has indicated that there may be inadequate policing of the country's border. The reputation of the border service suffered a blow last May, when a 19-year-old border guard was found guilty of murdering 14 of his colleagues. He was said to have suffered from military hazing, a fact of military life which apparently also resulted in the desertion of a number of conscripts from the Tersairyk border post. Following the May massacre, heads rolled within the border service and its head, Major General Nurzhan Myrzaliev was replaced by Colonel Turganbek Stambekov, who was ordered to reform the service. On December 25, Stambekov, along with 29 other people, was killed when his military transport plane crashed in the southern city of Shymkent, just north of the Uzbek border. Officials have been keen to rebuff any rumours of foul play, but the event has certainly plunged the border control service into disarray once more. Many have argued that the problems within the service stem from its lack of independence, and suggest it need to regain its autonomy. The border, which accounts for vast amount of contraband and also the flow of drugs from Afghanistan to Russia, is a major security issue. With corruption rife within the customs and defence sphere (there have been two convictions for bribe-taking within the upper echelons of these ranks in January alone), concerns about the functioning of this sector are perhaps well-founded.

One area in which Kazakhstan has a more respectable reputation is within the nuclear sphere. The state is the world's largest uranium producer and plans to increase its production to incorporate all stages of the nuclear cycle. Given its concerns about terrorism, this might seem to be an infelicitous endeavour. However the state has prided itself on a responsible attitude towards nuclear armament. At the end of the Cold War, the country apparently inherited a cache of weapons-grade uranium sufficient for production of more than 100 additional nuclear weapons, as well as a large nuclear arsenal. It was recently revealed by the former foreign minister Qasymzhomart Tokaev that in 1993, Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi contacted the Nazarbaev government through “diplomatic channels” in an attempt to procure Kazakhstan's nuclear arsenal. Nursultan Nazarbaev, to his credit, refused to accept Qaddafi's proposition on an armament deal; as a “national leader” he possessed the “political and moral right to head a global anti-nuclear movement.” In an attempt to diminish the possibility of proliferation, the country has offered to host an international nuclear fuel bank under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency that would regulate states' access to low-enriched uranium for civilian purposes. This offer won the praise of former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who noted that “few countries can be compared to Kazakhstan in terms of its experience in non-proliferation.” Continuing in this vein, Kazakhstan will play host to the next round of nuclear talks between representatives of the "six" (Russia, US, China, France, Great Britain and Germany) and Iran, with whom it shares friendly relations.

Whilst there are positive developments in these terms, within the world of domestic politics the situation remains murky and disheartening. Nazarbaev's rule, is, as many have pointed out, becoming increasingly authoritarian, with citizens crushed under the weight of a despot's ego. Recent reports said that a state-controlled group in Kazakhstan has proposed that the nation's capital, Astana, be renamed after the leader. This is just one example of the kind of autocracy the President seeks to cement. Reports that he has tasked scientists with the job of finding an elixir to prolong life will discourage any who hope that the 72 year-old will relinquish his throne soon.

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