Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Kazakhstan’

Eurasian Culture Week

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 3rd October, 2019

Chinghiz Aitmatov 1Last night I gave a talk about Oscar Wilde and the Central Asian writer Chinghiz Aitmatov, reprising a theme I focussed on in two presentations last December at two universities in Kazakhstan. Aitmatov (1928-2008) is revered in his home country of Kyrgyzstan and managed to assert his literary presence in Moscow during Soviet tomes despite the fact that his father had been purged as an Enemy of the People. He was thus an “outside insider”, just as Oscar Wilde, who came from Ireland, was able to conquer literary and social London before his downfall. Though the two writers were very different in many ways they both had a social mission and wrote about strong women and ambiguous aspects of human relationships, rejecting the white/black good/bad moral compass of both Victorian London and the USSR. Aitmatov’s writings are still not very widely known in Britain — with perhaps the sole exception of his story Jamila — though he was widely recognised in Germany, where he died. There is sure to be a big celebration when his centenary comes round in 2028.

AbaiAt the Eurasian Culture Week where I appeared, held in the Premiere cinema in the Mercury Centre in Romford, the main subject for literary attention was the Kazakh poet Abai Qunanbaiuly, with whom certain parallels have been drawn with the German master Goethe. Goethe himself, of course, was highly influenced by the Persian poet Hafiz, giving rise to his West-Eastern Divan. Such cross-cultural links have long intrigued me. The Eurasian Culture Week, organised by Marat Akhmedjanov and the Eurasian Creative Guild, also featured an exhibition of paintings by artists from Central Asia and displays of books and presentations by authors from the region. Earlier this year there was an Eurasian Film Festival, also at the Premiere cinema, so the cultural significance of the vast steppes is beginning to get its due notice, not just the hydrocarbon riches of the area.

Advertisements

Posted in Central Asia, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Wanted Man: Mukhtar Ablyazov

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 4th August, 2019

Mukhtar AblyazovWhen I first went to Kazakhstan in 1994, the fledgling nation was struggling to get on its feet. As the train I was travelling on trundled across the steppe from the then capital of Almaty to the frontier of Uzbekistan, old women wrapped up against the cold stood by the side of the track selling whatever they had managed to get their hands on. With US dollars, a visitor could live like a king for a pittance. But while the bulk of Kazakhstan’s population was having difficulties making ends meet, a smart but not necessarily honest minority were cannily seizing the opportunities offered by the disintegration of the Soviet Union to make fortunes for themselves. One such was Mukhtar Ablyazov, a Kazakh theoretical physics graduate from Moscow’s Engineering Physics Institute. In 1992 he started supplying different areas of the newly independent country with basic commodities such as salt, sugar, tea, chocolate and medicines, establishing a multi-sector private holding company, Astana Holding, He then moved into the energy sector, being appointed head of the state-owned Kazakhstan Electricity Grid Operating Company in 1997. After turning that into a profitable operation, in a rapid rise he was appointed Minister for Energy, Industry and Trade. For a while, at least, he enjoyed the favour of the then all-powerful President, Nursultan Nazarbayev. But that was not to last.

Mukhtar Ablyazov bookFast forward to 2005, by which time Mukhtar Ablyazov was Chairman of BTA Bank, which within three years had become the largest financial institution in the country. Blessed with colossal natural resources, from hydrocarbons to precious metals, Kazakhstan’s economy was starting to take off dramatically and oligarchs with the right connections were making huge fortunes. But all was not well with BTA. Auditors from Pricewaterhouse Coopers discovered a $10 billion shortfall in the bank’s accounts — and Mr Ablyazov was subsequently accused of embezzling a substantial chunk of that. He had meanwhile accumulated an impressive property portfolio on both sides of the Atlantic — including a mansion on Hampstead’s Bishop’s Avenue, “Billionaires Row”, and an estate in Surrey. BTA launched legal proceedings against their former Chairman in the British High Court; the judgment went against Ablyazov, but he managed to slip out of the country — using a false identity and a cheap bus to France, according to Gary Cartwright, a Brussels-based journalist and author of the slim volume Wanted Man: The Story of Mukhtar Ablyazov (Cambridge International Press, £9.95). In France, Ablyazov found himself the subject of an extradition order to Russia and spent some time in a French jail. Yet various human rights organisations as well as several members of the European Parliament campaigned to have that situation reversed on the grounds that he was the victim of political persecution and had a valid claim to asylum. He had indeed set up a putative opposition party and maybe even aspired to replace Nazarbayev one day in a fully democratic Kazakhstan.

BTA BankBut as Cartwright’s book outlines, the Ablyazov affair has murky tendrils that stretch into many countries, tax havens such as Luxembourg and networks of criminals and intelligence agencies. Ablyazov even stands accused of ordering the murder of his predecessor as Chairman of BTA bank, who was “accidentally” shot by a rifle when the car he was travelling in on a hunting expedition went over a bump in the road. The story is indeed worthy of popular fiction or a high-drama film and maybe one day that will happen. In the meantime, Ablyazov is assumed to be lying low in France, playing his guitar and hanging out with a close network of family and friends. Gary Cartwright’s book only skates over the surface of this extremely complex and intriguing affair, and it is very much the case for the prosecution (supported by some documentary evidence). As such, it whets the appetite rather than providing a definitive account. Presumably one day that will be written by someone, but for the present one is left with unsettling insights into the unseemly underbelly of not just Kazakhstan but of so much of the post-Soviet world, as well as elements of the support systems that dodgy oligarchs have been able to rely on across the EU, ranging from lawyers to false NGOs and sometimes gullible politicians. And in a world in which false news and alternative facts increasingly rule it may prove to be the  evil of a task to find out the whole truth.

Posted in book review, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Taking Oscar Wilde to Kazakhstan

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 20th December, 2018

01D71BDB-BC00-4005-8EF1-0221582BB0EFEarlier this month I did a whirlwind lecture tour of Almaty, Taraz and Kulan in Kazakhstan, in the company of the Aitmatov Academy’s Director, Rahima Abduvalieva. The trigger for the visit was the 90th anniversary celebrations of the esteemed Kyrgyz writer, Chinghiz Aitmatov, author of Jamila and other novellas and short stories, as well as evocative memoir. I had prepared a lecture on interesting parallels between Aitmatov and Oscar Wilde, which I delivered at Al-Farabi and TIGU universities. Though the two writers lived in different centuries, thousands of kilometres apart, they were both outsider-insiders, who had moved from the colonial periphery — Ireland and Kyrgyzstan — to the metropolis (London and Moscow) and won literary success. That was all the more remarkable in the case of Aitmatov, whose father was a victim of Stalinist oppression as an “enemy of the people”.

9326E15F-E174-4CA8-A6F2-71AACBE68C7CIn Almaty I gave master classes on Wilde’s life and work to both Kazakh and Russian language philology students and presented copies of my short biography of Oscar Wilde to the universities. I was interviewed in Kulan by a local TV channel, and on my return to London took part, with Rahima Abduvalieva, in a full-length programme on Chinghiz Aitmatov for the BBC Kyrgyz Service. Oscar Wilde was of course a major feature of my contribution then as well, and I like to think that he would have guffawed with pleasure at the thought of having been transported to the Kazakh steppes.

The BBC Kyrgyz programme is available on YouTube.

Posted in Oscar Wilde, Travel, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Dulat Issabekov at 75

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 3rd October, 2017

Dulat IssabekovThe Kazakh writer and playwright Dulat Issabekov is in London at the moment, as several of his works are being performed in the city to coincide with his 75th birthday. Celebrated in Kazakhstan, and well-known in much of the rest of the former Soviet Union, Issabekov is the author of numerous novellas and short stories, though it is probably his plays that have had the greatest resonance. Last night, at a dinner at the House of Lords, organised by Rahima Abduvalieva of the Aitmatov Academy and chaired by Lord (Ian) Wrigglesworth, guests were not only able to meet the playwright but also to hear brief extracts from his work. His themes are universal, dealing with subjects such as love and memory, even if their settings are Central Asian. Kazakhstan — a country I have had the pleasure to visit three times — is physically huge and ethnically diverse, despite its comparatively small population, and Issabekov’s work reflects some of his country’s cultural diversity. Tonight, at the Bridewell Theatre off Fleet Street in London, his play The Actress will be performed by the Korean Theatre of Drama & Music from Almaty (in Korean, with English surtitles), then tomorrow through to Friday, at the same venue, one can see his Song of the Swans, performed in English by London’s own Pajarito Theatre.

Posted in theatre review, Uncategorized, writers | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Norman Foster’s Peace Pyramid

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 28th April, 2015

imageimageOne of the most striking buildings in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana, is the Peace Palace, designed by Sir Norman Foster in the form of a pyramid. It was specifically constructed, at the behest of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, to house the triennial gatherings of lsaders of world and traditional religions — the pyramid being chosen as a concept that was religiously neutral. The pyramid was completed in 2006 but the first such gathering was in fact held in 2003 and the next is due this June. In between those summits, the building is used for concerts and other conferences and boasts a variety of different spaces, from a large classic style theatre to the circular meeting room right at the top of the pyramid, whose windows feature beautiful stained glass depicting white doves. Kazakhstan itself is a secular state, with large populations of Sunni Muslims and Russian Orthodox Christians, as well as Roman Catholics and other faiths, being ethnically very mixed. It also has good relations with the Jewish diaspora worldwide.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

A Night at the Opera

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 27th April, 2015

image imagePolling stations in Kazakhstan’s presidential election closed at 8pm last night, at which point I was installed in a full house at Astana’s Opera House for a performance of Mukan Tulebayev’s Birzhan and Sara, a sort of Central Asian Romeo and Juliet, with a cast of around 100 (including a full corps de ballet) and magnificent scenery, making full use of the theatre’s enormous and high tech stage. The music was an eclectic mix of Kazakh folk tunes and Russian romantic music, defiantly tonal and guaranteed to please the crowd, as were the sumptuous costumes and fine dancing. At the express wish of the omnipresent President, Nursultan Nazarbayev, the opera house has maintained the old Soviet practice of keeping prices low, so that high culture is within everyone’s reach. My excellent stalls seat cost 2,000 tenge — the equivalent of €10. The national TV had its camera just above my head, broadcasting the opera live in keeping with the celebratory mood of Election Day. I was fascinated to see that selfies are all the rage among Kazakhs in the theatre, but I did scowl when the woman sitting next to me actually answered her mobile phone during the performance. The opera house itself is magnificent, brand new but classical in style, with a beautiful marble hall outside the main auditorium for interval drinks.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

President Nazarbayev Goes to Vote

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 26th April, 2015

imageThis morning I joined journalists and TV crews from around the world at Astana’s People’s Palace (a name so redolent of the former Soviet Union!) to watch voting in today’s presidential elections, for which voters of all ages were indeed streaming into the polls. In keeping with the holiday mood in Kazakhstan’s capital loud dance music was being played through loudspeakers outside and there was a large cut-out of the kind one used to see at British seaside resorts, with a hole for people to put their head through for photos. There was a brand new red carpet running up the steps from the square, along which people were proudly marching — many hand-in-hand with their small children — though I imagine it was mainly there for President Nursultan Nazarbayev. He was due to come to cast his vote at 10am, but was fashionably late, being greeted with polite applause by the small queue of other voters that had built up. The voting process is identical to what happens in the UK, with officials checking off voters’ names from the electoral register before the voters go into a curtained booth to complete their ballot, which they then fold to put in a large ballot box (transparent Perspex here, unlike the black metal ones in Britain).

imageThe President turns 75 this year, but looks quite fit and not all that different from when I met him in London when he came to open independent Kazakhstan’s first embassy to the Court of St James’s, when Margaret Beckett was Labour Foreign Secretary. Mr Nazabayev has been Kazakhstan’s leader since independence and was Secretary General of the republic’s Communist Party for a short while in the Soviet twilight. He has his own party these days and one of the two candidates authorised to run against him is standing for the Communists. In stark contrast to Britain’s current general election, where no-one has a firm idea of the government that will emerge after 7 May, the result in Kazakhstan’s presidential poll is a foregone conclusion. Mr Nazarbayev usually gets over 90% of the vote and it would be astonishing if he didn’t this time as well.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Astana, Out of the Blue

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 25th April, 2015

imageWhen I first came to Kazakhstan in the spring of 1994, the newly independent country was in a pretty sorry state. Travelling from Nanjing in China, by train, I’d had to shift from a comfortable Chinese train, with bizarre but usually palatable food to a Russian (i.e. ex-Soviet) alternative, on the opposite side of the platform at the border. The delay involved took hours, and I had been warned by the Chinese that the Kazakh “customs” were extortionate, thieves — so I hid everything if any value deep in my luggage and instead left a BBC-branded pen lying on the table. The ruse worked. The Kazakh officials entered my single compartment and with glee seized on the BBC pen, grinning broadly, their mouths all white and gold, and they then made sure I got another single cabin on the post-Soviet replacement train (which had a wider gauge), to the fury of a down-graded British couple nearby who had not been quite so savvy. Of course, speaking fluent Chinese (then) and rusty Russian (learnt at school) helped. As the train then shuddered across Kazakhstan westwards to Uzbekistan (with a long layover in Almaty, for refuelling) I got the opportunity to experience not only warm, generous Kazakh hospitality but also the reality of their economic desperation. Babushkas, both ethnic Russian and Kazakh, lined the railway track, insistingly trying to sell sweet Soviet “champagne” at $1 a bottle or anything else they had to hand. It was exhilarating, but also tragic. I have been back since, but returning now, 21 years later, to Kazakhstan, the difference is stunning. It’s not just that the per capita GDP has shy-rocketed over the intervening period; Kazakhstan with its oil and gas and mineral riches not unrealistically is aiming to become one if the workd’s top 30 developed nation by 2050 — an extraordinary ambition for a nation of just 17 million people, yet living in a territory bigger than Western Europe. This is a member of the nest generation of BRICS — which is why so many Western countries are investing heavily here. Astutely, the Kazakhs have lifted visa requirements for nationals of potential FDI countries such as the UK. The capital, Astana, developed out of almost nothing since 1997, is thrusting with globally significant buildings by Norman Foster and others. I shan’t say this is paradise, which no country is, least of all in Cental Asia, cann be, but goodness me, it is a place to watch!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

What Next in Ukraine?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 8th April, 2014

Russian speakers in UkraineThe Global Strategy Forum can hardly have realised just how topical today’s lunchtime event at the National Liberal Club would be by focusing on “Crisis in Ukraine, Crisis in Russian-Western Relations: What Next?”. There was an interesting line-up of speakers, including my old BBC World Service colleague, Oleksiy Solohubenko, a SkyNews reporter and presenter, Andrew Wilson, a former British Ambassador to Moscow, Sir Andrew Wood, and Labour’s last Europe Minister, Chris Bryant MP. Diplomats from both the Russian and Ukrainian embassies also chipped in from the floor, not surprisingly seeing what has been happening recently in Crimea and eastern Ukraine very differently. The West is still protesting about the de facto annexation of Crimea by Russia, though unofficially accepting this as a fait accompli.  But the real concern is how much further Russian encroachment could go, in response to the declaration of “independence” by pro-Russian activists in Donetsk, unrest in other parts of Ukraine and indeed in other regions in Russia’s orbit, including Moldova (Transdniester), Belarus and maybe even Kazakhstan. Most speakers on the panel painted Vladimir Putin as the villain, though Chris Bryant told the rather chilling anecdote that a Russian diplomat had told him that Putin is “not yet mad”, the implication being that he could well become so if he sticks around much longer. In the meantime it does seem likely that Putin is now one of the richest men on the planet, if not the richest, though he manages to hide his assets from public view. Sir Andrew Wood made the point that Russia is weakened by the fact that it relies so heavly on hydrocarbons and indeed could at some stage run out of money. So even if Putin and his at the moment largely adoring compatriots may be on a roll at the moment, things may deteriorate for Moscow quite quickly. The panel side-stepped the question put by the Ukrainian diplomat as to whether the EU and US should now impose the third and far more serious range of sanctions it has threatened against Russia. Certainly, the limited sanctions against a small group of named targets have proved little more than a gentle slap on the wrist. But the ball is currently in the court of the Russians and their supporters in eastern Ukraine, and what they do will now determine what happens next.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »