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Norouz Bash's Bloated $1.3 Million Price Tag Enrages Kazakh City's Residents

Norouz celebrations in Shymkent led people to ask, "Where did all the money go?"
Norouz celebrations in Shymkent led people to ask, "Where did all the money go?"

SHYMKENT, Kazakhstan -- Turn out the lights, the party's over.

But for officials in the southern Kazakh city of Shymkent, the trouble may have just begun.

Some residents are demanding an investigation after the local government said it spent around $1.3 million on Norouz celebrations this month.

The statement on the public procurement agency's website sparked angry public criticism from people who want to know where the money went. They say the mostly online events were far more modest than previous years and didn't look like a million-dollar party.

The average monthly salary in Kazakhstan is a little over $500, according to CEIC Data, an economics website.

After the burst of public criticism, Shymkent city authorities belatedly said that the amounts represented all the funds set aside by the city for all of the year's celebrations. But an itemized list of the spending suggested otherwise, and the damage to public trust appears to have been done.

Shymkent's celebrations to mark the Persian New Year included music and poetry competitions, an event to mark the anniversary of a local magazine, and advertisements of local cultural sites, among other things.

Norouz events throughout the Central Asian state of around 19 million people on March 21-23 were heavily scaled down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. "Norouz celebrations were not as big as previous years. It invites the question: Where have all those funds gone?" one Shymkent resident asked.

She added that throwing parties during the pandemic wasn't necessary in the first place, and the "money should have been spent for more important purposes."

One Shymkent man told RFE/RL that he hadn't noticed a single major Norouz event in Shymkent this year.

Another resident agreed. "They installed several traditional yurts in the old town. Did that cost that much money?" he said. "It boggles the mind to waste [that much] public money. It's very irresponsible, it's recklessness with public funds."

Changing Sums

According to the public procurement agency's website, the Norouz expenditure included the equivalent of $188,000 for a music contest, $117,600 for an anniversary event of a popular magazine called Haikap, and about $54,000 for the promotion of cultural spots.

Another $94,000 was said to have been spent to organize the "aitys," a traditional song-and-poetry competition held between poets, known locally as "aqyns."

Local journalist Miyat Kashibai said he compared the Norouz events in Shymkent and the city of Taraz and found that Shymkent's authorities claimed to have spent a lot more money for a similar scale of events. "According to my calculations, Taraz spent about $35,000 for its aitys, which took place shortly before the event in Shymkent. The aitys competitions in both cities were exactly on the same level," Kashibai said.

City officials later said there had been a mistake and that the reported $1.3 million was the amount set aside for all of this year's celebrations.

Deputy Governor Shyngys Mukan did not respond to journalists' questions about the statement on the official website. But he said the city's Norouz budget was about $494,000 this year.

Meanwhile, the anti-corruption agency announced that it will probe the allegations of corruption.

Written by Farangis Najibullah based on reporting by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service
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