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Qishloq Ovozi

Are Nursultan Nazarbaev (left, with his daughter Darigha) themselves prepared to step into the breach this time around?

A call went out to the people of Kazakhstan on March 20 urging them not to stand on the sidelines but to be active in helping the country's president and his government through a batch of pressing problems.

Aydos Ukibay, press secretary for the first president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbaev, announced that "Elbasy" (Leader of the Nation), who is also Nazarbaev, wanted "those who want and are able, to help the country" and donate to a special fund to help Kazakhstan in these difficult times.

The call could indicate how much officials fear the upcoming double impact on Kazakhstan of greatly reduced revenue from oil exports and the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, the first cases of which were announced in Kazakhstan on March 13.

As concerns the coronavirus problem, people certainly want to do something to help during a health crisis, and Ukibay said Nazarbaev considered it "important to support doctors, volunteers, servicemen, and police who are on the front lines in the battle with this dangerous infection."

Kazakhstan, a country of some 18 million people, had 80 coronavirus infections but no deaths as of March 25.

In the last major economic crisis Kazakhstan faced, which began in 2014, the government drew on its national fund to compensate for most of the country's financial shortfalls.

Largely due to its oil and gas wealth, Kazakhstan is considered the wealthiest country in Central Asia.

But for this economic crisis Nazarbaev -- who gave up his office in March 2019 after 28 years leading the country -- chose to use a spokesman to beg Kazakh citizens to donate to the state.

Calling For Gold

He asked his fellow citizens for money once before -- 21 years ago, to be precise.

And looking back at the situation then, there are some questions as to who should be first to contribute to this new social fund for Kazakhstan.

In June 1999, Kazakhstan's outlook was bleak.

The country had started pumping more oil but the average price, which had been under $20 per barrel for most of the 1990s, fell to under $12 in 1998 and increased only to some $16.5 per barrel by 1999.

The grain harvest in 1998 was the worst in 40 years (just 7.3 million tons), down some 44 percent compared to the previous year's harvest.

There were power shortages in the country, wages were not being paid, and workers were on strike.

In confused circumstances in early October 1998, the first presidential election in seven years was announced. The short campaign period was marred by the barring of the main opposition candidate and the January 10, 1999, election was harshly criticized for being fraudulent and patently unfair.

In February 1999, Prime Minister Nurlan Balghimbaev said Kazakhstan had posted a $1.7 billion trade deficit in 1998. That was nearly triple the January-May 1999 trade deficit of $664 million.

During the first months of 1999, the government slashed programs and trimmed the number of state employees. The National Bank allowed the national currency, the tenge, to float at the start of April and the rate fell from 88 tenges to $1 to about 131 tenge/$1 by the end of May.

In June 1999, the campaign Deposit Gold To The Golden Fund was started. Citizens were encouraged to hand over their gold and jewelry to the government so it could be sold and the money used to help bring Kazakhstan through the hard economic times.

The idea was modeled on what South Korea did in 1997, when the government asked its citizens donate gold to help the country pay off its debts.

Those in Kazakhstan who donated their gold were promised some compensation within a decade, though reports of how much gold and jewelry was gathered and the promised compensation that was to be paid were not divulged.

In early June 1999, Balghimbaev said some $10,000 worth of gold and jewelry had already been collected from the Karasai district in Almaty Province, which is where Nazarbaev's home village of Chemolgan is located. Some reports suggested that while many people were "donating," not all were doing so enthusiastically. There were reports of wages being garnished and employees being pressured by work managers to contribute.

Nazarbaev mentioned the fund on July 1, 1999, while attending the World Economic Forum in Salzburg, Austria.

"As for the gold and jewelry collection.... Of course, if ordinary citizens are eager to assist us in these very tough economic conditions, if they really want to make contributions to the social fund to help the needs of families with low incomes or many children, to support pensioners, I believe the government will not be against that," he said.

'Kazakhgate'

Kazakhstan's fortunes improved in 2000.

The price of oil increased to more than $27 per barrel that year and by 2005 it topped $50 and continued climbing over the next decade.

Kazakhstan was saved, financially, and the campaign for donating gold and jewelry faded away.

But a curious thing happened in April 2002.

Prime Minister Imangali Tasmagambetov told a session of parliament there was a "secret fund" in a Swiss bank. Tasmagambetov said that in 1996 the government sold 25 percent of its shares in Kazakhstan's Tenghiz oil field to Mobil for about $1 billion, and Nazarbaev had put the money into a Swiss bank.

Tasmagambetov said the secret fund had been used to help pay off pension arrears in 1997 and in 1998 was used to soften the impact the Russian financial crisis was having on Kazakhstan. He did not mention money from the account being used in 1999.

The revelation about the bank account came after two opposition deputies -- Boris Sorokin and Serilbolsyn Abdildin -- wrote to Tasmagambetov on March 13 asking for more information about "Kazakhgate."

Kazakhgate, in brief, was the scandal surrounding U.S. businessman James Giffen, who was accused of paying bribes to Nazarbaev and Balghimbaev so that Western companies would get contracts at the Tenghiz oil field. The two Kazakh parliament deputies wanted to know about government funds deposited into Swiss bank accounts that belonged to Nazarbaev, his friends, and family members.

First Family?

Now back to today's double punch of problems arising from the recent major decrease in oil prices and the oncoming coronavirus crisis.

Certainly, it appears to be a time of crisis.

Some people do want to help. Nazarbaev's press secretary, Ukibay, did say "those who are able" could do so. That seems to definitely be saying that those who do not want or are unable to financially will not have to.

Those best-placed financially to help Kazakhstan, as history shows, would seem to be Nazarbaev, his family, and his friends, as the reports of their wealth have become legendary in recent years. One must wonder how many "secret" accounts exist today.

The wealth accumulated by the Nazarbaev family can be counted by the mansions in the London area belonging to Nazarbaev, or to his eldest daughter Darigha, or her son Nurali.

Or maybe the castle in Switzerland or property in Spain's Costa Brava area that belong to Nazarbaev's second daughter, Dinara, and her husband, Timur Kulibaev.

This list is just the tip of the iceberg from what has been reported.

It seems Nazarbaev and some of those close to him might be the best-positioned people in Kazakhstan to set an example of the spirit of charity to their fellow citizens.

A passenger faces controls at Manas Airport outside Bishkek on March 18.

A glance at a global map tracking the spread of the coronavirus just one week ago would have shown a large blank space south of Russia, north of Iran, and west of China as an area completely free of the virus.

That blank space is the territory where the five Central Asian states -- Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan -- are located.

Until March 13, when authorities in Kazakhstan confirmed the country's first four cases, none of the Central Asian states reported any confirmed cases, despite being on the doorstep of two countries with the worst outbreaks in the world, China and Iran.

Two days later, Kazakhstan said there were five confirmed cases and Uzbekistan reported its first case.

By March 18, Kyrgyzstan confirmed its first three cases, all passengers on a flight arriving from Saudi Arabia.

Little Coordination

There has been little coordinated action globally in combating the coronavirus.

The World Health Organization is tracking the virus, reporting on its spread, and offering governments advice on how to slow the virus's transmission, but so far, every country is dealing with the virus as individual governments see fit.

Central Asia is no different, though in that region it often seemed like no government wanted to be the first to take measures that might give the impression the coronavirus was present on their territory.

So the reactions have been staggered, though gradually some are adopting the same tactics.

The Norouz holiday is coming on March 21. The celebration dates back to Zoroastrian culture, marking the start of spring, and for centuries it has been one of the holidays in Central Asia.

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon meets with scientists on March 18.
Tajik President Emomali Rahmon meets with scientists on March 18.

Kyrgyzstan was the first to call off its Norouz celebration. On March 9, the government specifically banned the large celebrations set for the holiday around the country and, on March 17, banned any gatherings of more than 50 people.

Three days later Kazakhstan announced a ban on all public celebrations, sport events, meetings, and conferences, a day before officials announced the first confirmed cases of coronavirus.

As recently as March 13, the Gazeta.uz website reported that Uzbekistan was planning to go ahead with Norouz, but just two days later, after Uzbek authorities confirmed the first case of coronavirus in the country, Prime Minister Abdullo Aripov announced all mass gatherings, including "large events connected with the celebration of Novrouz, were canceled."

Tajikistan -- where as of March 18 there are no reports of coronavirus infections -- is still going ahead with its plans to mark Norouz.

RFE/RL's Tajik Service, known locally as Ozodi, reported on March 13 that the central square in the capital, Dushanbe, was decorated and ready for the festivities, even if some of the people in country were not in festive moods and a huge event was planned in the northern city of Khujand, where President Emomali Rahmon is scheduled to attend the celebrations.

In Turkmenistan -- where officials have great difficulty even saying the word "coronavirus" out loud -- the government is better known for forcing people to attend state-sponsored gatherings and this year is no exception.

People around the country are again being called away from jobs and their homes to rehearse for this year’s Norouz celebrations.

Skip The Mosque

Similarly, the five governments have taken different approaches to their treatment of schools and mosques.

In Tajikistan, schools are open but at the start of March some imams in Dushanbe told the faithful to stay away from mosques and perform their prayers at home. One imam said the move was being made "for the prevention of the spread of the coronavirus."

In Kazakhstan, a March 13 declaration from the Spiritual Board of Muslims left mosques open but instructed them to skip the 30-minute sermon at the start of namaz, or the Islamic worship service, and advised performing ritual ablutions at home before coming to the mosque, wearing a mask when going to the mosque, avoiding handshakes, and leaving quickly after prayers end.

On March 15, Kazakhstan declared a state of emergency lasting until April 15 and, the following day, President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev said that meant schoolchildren would be on extended vacation and university students would work online.

The Spiritual Board of Muslims followed by announcing, "In connection with the government's declaration of a state of emergency, and with the great risk of spreading the illness, mosques will temporarily suspend Friday Prayers."

In Uzbekistan, all schools -- from preschool to university -- are closed for a certain vacation and during this time state television will run educational programming.

On March 16, Uzbekistan's Spiritual Board of Muslims temporarily canceled Friday Prayers at mosques and recommended the faithful perform their prayers at home.

Kyrgyzstan’s Security Council met on March 14 and ordered all schools and universities closed for three weeks starting on March 16, but kindergartens will remain open.

That same day, the Spiritual Board of Muslims of Kyrgyzstan followed Kazakhstan’s example and ordered Friday Prayer services be shortened and for the elderly, women, and children to stay at home, but on March 17, when authorities announced the impending closure of Kyrgyzstan's borders, the Spiritual Board ordered the temporary cancellation of Friday Prayers at mosques in the country and told people to say their five daily prayers at home.

By contrast, Turkmenistan has not canceled school at any level.

Mosques remain open and imams continue to lead prayers for the health of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov and his family.

Closing Borders

All five countries have canceled most or all flights to and from other countries and drawn up lists of foreign nationals who either are temporarily denied entry or must undergo a period of quarantine upon entry.

Turkmenistan -- which like Tajikistan has not officially reported any coronavirus cases as of March 18 -- had redirected all flights arriving from outside the country to the Lebap airport in the eastern part of the country, where authorities have established a quarantine area where at least dozens of people are being kept.

Tajikistan has taken a confusing path, first banning flights to and from 35 countries at the end of February but, on March 3, reduced that to just five countries -- China, Iran, Afghanistan, Italy, and South Korea.

On March 16, flights to Uzbekistan and Russia were canceled in response to those countries canceling flights from Tajikistan.

Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan closed their borders immediately after the first cases of coronavirus were confirmed.

Kyrgyzstan followed on March 17, announcing it was prohibiting foreigners from entering the country, though Tajikistan's border with Kyrgyzstan was still open as of March 17.

Kazakh authorities announced on March 17 that the country's two main cities -- Almaty and the capital, Nur-Sultan -- would be under quarantine starting on March 19. Checkpoints will be established to control movement in and around the two cities and as of March 18, troops from the Kazakh military's biological-defense units had already begun disinfection work.

A woman walks down a street in Almaty on March 18.
A woman walks down a street in Almaty on March 18.

Governments in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan continue to assure their citizens there is no reason for panic and that all basic goods will remain in sufficient supply and at fixed prices for everyone.

Despite these assurances, there have been reports of people in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan racing to stores and bazaars to stock up on goods in anticipation of future shortages, and reports of sharp price increases in all five countries.

Similar reports emerged from the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, on March 17 after the first cases of coronavirus were announced in Kyrgyzstan.

In a positive development, the presidents of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan discussed the coronavirus problem by telephone on March 18, one of the very few signs of regional cooperation in dealing with this common threat.

Turkmenistan has been in a severe economic crisis for more than four years, never admitting publicly there were any problems, and the government there continues to avoid any mention of the virus or problems with medicine or food supplies, which are a fact of life for Turkmen.

But President Berdymukhammedov did recently recommend to his citizens resorting to the traditional cure of burning the wild rue plant to ward off diseases.

Turkmenistan is surrounded by countries that have reported cases of the coronavirus, and southern neighbor Iran continues to be one of the world's hot spots for the virus.

Nevertheless, the Turkmen government is unlikely to confirm any cases unless the situation becomes extremely dire.

RFE/RL's Central Asian services -- Azattyq, Azattyk, Ozodi, Azatlyk, and Ozodlik -- contributed to this report. The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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