16 февраля 2024
Paolo Sorbello, photo by Almas Kaisar.

The Week in Kazakhstan: Garage Sale

Air Astana goes public, a Karakalpak activist is detained, feminists demand freedom of assembly

The Week in Kazakhstan: Garage Sale

Akylbek Muratbai, an activist of the Karakalpak diaspora, was detained in Almaty on the night of February 15. According to human rights defenders, the arrest is linked to an official request from neighboring Uzbekistan. The Uzbek government had violently repressed a popular protest in July 2022 in the north-western region of Karakalpakstan and many activists had left Uzbekistan in fear of reprisals. Muratbai has lived in Kazakhstan for more than a decade and chronicled pressure on his fellow Karakalpak activists on social media.

Kazakhstan failed to comply with OPEC+ restrictions on oil production in January, the ministry of energy said on February 14. OPEC+, a group of oil exporting countries beyond the original OPEC members, sets production quotas for each signatory country in an effort to keep prices at a high and stable level. Not without contradiction, the ministry said it plans to “compensate” the excess in the following three months, while at the same time promising to increase total oil production for 2024.

Nurlan Sauranbayev, the chairman of the national railway company Kazakhstan Temir Zholy, told the press of February 15 that he is unable to raise wages, despite local protests and strikes. Sauranbayev said that the wage increase would impact ticket prices and that the striking workers' demands are unrealistic. In January, railway workers had come out in solidarity with striking oil workers in nearby towns in the Mangistau region.

Around 250 workers at the oil sector subcontractor Mobile Service Company went on strike on February 11, demanding that the company reinstates dismissed workers. The striking workers said some of their colleagues were dismissed earlier in February after joining an independent trade union. Mobile Service Company, headquartered in Aktau, the capital of the Mangistau region, operates at the Karazhanbas field, 250 kilometers to the north-east.

During a state visit to Doha on February 15, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev spoke about the decision to remove the Taliban from the list of banned organizations. Tokayev said that the move allows Kazakhstan to continue developing ties with the Afghan government and send aid to the population.

Qatar-based Lesha Bank said on February 14 that it had entered into a preliminary agreement with national holding Baiterek for the purchase of a local bank. All signs point to Bereke Bank, which Baiterek bought from Russia’s Sberbank in 2022. In October last year, Madina Abylkassymova, the head of the Agency for regulation of the financial market, told the press that a Qatari investor was interested in buying Bereke.

Power International Holding, a Qatari investor, could buy Mobile Telecom Service (MTS), a subsidiary of state-owned Kazakhtelecom, the national operator said on February 14. Kazakhtelecom had planned for months to sell MTS, which controls the Altel and Tele2 brands. The company is now sure the deal should be reached by the first half of this year.

The IPO earned Air Astana $370 million, the company said on February 15. Air Astana listed its shares and securities in Almaty’s KASE, the Astana International Financial Center, and the London Stock Exchange. Samruk-Kazyna, the national holding, sold a 10% stake and retained 41% of the shares. Britains’ BAE Systems sold most of its previous 49% stake, keeping a 15.3% participation. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) bought a 5% stake for $42 million. Kazakhstan’s Single Pension Fund invested $55.6 million for a 6.5% stake.

SCAT, a local airline, has obtained the trust management of the airport in Shymkent, Kazakhstan’s third-largest city, local authorities told the press on February 16. The 10-year trust management agreement was under negotiation behind closed doors since November last year. SCAT is building a new terminal in the airport building.

After an additional court decision on February 13, the prison sentence against Arystanbek Mukhamediuly, a former minister of culture and sport, was increased from eight to 11 years. Mukhamediuly was sentenced in June last year for embezzlement. The court now found him guilty of trying to bribe officials to obtain an early release from prison.

Selftanu.kz, a website sharing health and relationship advice for minors who identify as LGBT+, was shut down by the authorities on February 12. The ministry of culture and information said that it could harm the health and development of children. The law on the protection of children has frequently been used to block websites in Kazakhstan. Selftanu.kz founders said that, if the decision is not reversed, they are ready to appeal in court.

Amid a number of pickets organized by feminist activists in recent weeks in Almaty, a group of veteran activists organized a an anti-LGBT+ rally on February 13. Feminist activists from various organizations have been asking for months to get permission to hold a rally on March 8. Anti-LGBT+ activists said the movement poses a threat to society (more on this in the latest newsletter, sign up here).