Kazakhstan elects new leader, as hundreds arrested in protests

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Police officers detain opposition supporters during a protest against presidential election, in Almaty, Kazakhstan, June 9, 2019. (REUTERS)
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Police officers detain an opposition supporter during a protest against presidential election, in Almaty, Kazakhstan, June 9, 2019. (REUTERS)
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Police officers detain an opposition supporter during a protest against presidential election, in Almaty, Kazakhstan, June 9, 2019. (REUTERS)
Updated 10 June 2019

Kazakhstan elects new leader, as hundreds arrested in protests

  • The interior ministry said around 500 people were arrested on Sunday, with deputy minister Marat Kozhayev blaming “radical elements” for holding “unsanctioned” rallies

ALMATY, KAZAKHSTAN: Kazakhstan on Sunday elected the hand-picked successor of former president Nursultan Nazarbayev with 70 percent of the vote, exit polls showed, as police arrested hundreds of opposition protesters.
The victory of career diplomat Kassym Jomart-Tokayev was never in doubt after he received the blessing of powerful Nazarbayev, who had led the Central Asian nation for the last three decades.
Tokayev, 66, took just over 70 percent of the vote, according to the government-approved “Public Opinion” pollster. His nearest opposition rival Amirzhan Kosanov had around 15 percent.
But the day was marked by the biggest protests the Muslim-majority country has seen in three years, as demonstrators urged a “boycott” of what they said was a fixed election.
The build-up to the vote saw an intensifying crackdown on the opposition with courts sentencing protesters to short stays in jail and police raiding activists’ homes.
The interior ministry said around 500 people were arrested on Sunday, with deputy minister Marat Kozhayev blaming “radical elements” for holding “unsanctioned” rallies.
Two AFP journalists were among those detained in largest city Almaty, where police broke up a protest involving several hundred people.
Protesters shouted “shame, shame, shame!” and said “police come to the side of the people” as officers moved in on the crowd.
One AFP correspondent was taken to a police station before being released while another had video equipment confiscated.
Journalists for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and an independent local news site were also arrested, as was a representative of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee rights NGO. They were all later released.
Dimash Alzhanov, a noted civic activist and political analyst, was arrested and was still being held on Sunday evening.
Turnout in the election was around 77 percent, the Central Election Commission said earlier in the day.

Nazarbayev’s announcement in March that he was stepping down from the presidency and naming Toyakev interim leader shocked Kazakhs who had lived under his rule since Soviet times.
But the 78-year-old, who turned the country of 18 million people into an energy powerhouse while governing with little tolerance for opposition, is still expected to call the shots from behind the scenes.
As he voted, Tokayev told reporters in the capital Nur-Sultan that Nazarbayev was “still in power in the capacity of chairman of the security council... and other capacities.”
Marat Sagyndykov, a 65-year-old retired civil servant told AFP he had voted for Tokayev “in order to continue the course of the Leader of the Nation,” referring to Nazarbayev’s constitutionally designated status.
“I think in 30 years we have had some successes. There have been negatives, too, but they exist in all countries,” he said.
Aslan Sagutdinov, a video blogger who was detained last month for holding up a blank placard at a protest, told AFP in an email he was not taking part in the election.
“If you vote in unfair elections you are allowing them to say they are fair,” said Sagutdinov, who lives in the northwestern town of Uralsk.

Four years ago Nazarbayev scored nearly 98 percent of a virtually uncontested vote where the official turnout was 95 percent.
No Kazakh vote has ever been recognized as fully democratic by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which sent more than 300 observers to monitor this election.
One of Tokayev’s first acts as interim president was to propose that the capital Astana — which Nazarbayev transformed from a steppe town into a million-strong city — be renamed “Nur-Sultan” in honor of his mentor.
The change went ahead without public consultation.
There was only one candidate who was openly in opposition in the race, journalist Amirzhan Kosanov, who has criticized the government.
However, even his criticism was vague, rather than directly attacking either Tokayev or Nazarbayev.
Human Rights Watch called the prospect of a genuine political transition “an illusion” and noted the persistence of rights abuses under Tokayev’s interim presidency.
“Kazakh authorities routinely break up peaceful protests, forcibly round up participants... and sanction them with warnings, fines, and short-term imprisonment,” the watchdog said.


US officials push to revive Afghan peace talks

Updated 22 October 2019

US officials push to revive Afghan peace talks

  • High-level delegations in Kabul meet government, Taliban

KABUL: Top US officials including Defense Secretary Mark Esper and House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi are pushing for the revival of Afghan peace talks, despite President Donald Trump abruptly declaring the peace process dead.

Esper, who was making his first visit to Afghanistan as defense secretary, met President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Dr. Abdullah Abdullah.

“The aim is to still get a peace agreement at some point, that’s the best way forward,” Esper told reporters who were traveling with him.

Multiple rounds of talks to end the fighting have been held between the Taliban and diplomats in a process led by US Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad, with the Afghan government excluded at the insurgents’ insistence.

Pelosi, after meetings with Ghani and Abullah that were also attended by diplomats and the top US military commander in Afghanistan, said she had discussed the issue of peace talks with the Taliban.

“Our delegation received briefings from (US) Ambassador John Bass and other top diplomats on reconciliation efforts with the Taliban … We underscored that the women of Afghanistan must be at the table for reconciliation talks.”

Ghani discussed the Sept. 28 presidential election, bilateral matters and the peace process with Esper and Pelosi, his office said. 

“Peace is a priority for us, a peace which is led and owned by Afghans and the values of the constitution and women are protected in it,” a presidential palace statement cited him as saying.

Abdullah said he was backing the revival of talks and was ready to make a sacrifice for “real peace.”

“During a fruitful meeting with Pelosi, we exchanged views on the credibility of Afghan elections, credibility requisites, prospects for peace/political settlement. Peace is one of the priorities of the Afghan people and we are supporting these efforts and I am ready for any kind of sacrifice for gaining real peace and for the cessation of war.”

He, unlike Ghani, did not emphasize the need for the peace talks to be owned and led by Afghanistan, but stressed on keeping the gains made since the Taliban was removed from power.

Trump tasked Khalilzad with finding a peaceful solution to the war and the eventual withdrawal of US troops from the country. However the process was thrown into chaos when the president tweeted last month that he was canceling peace talks with Taliban leaders at Camp David after the group claimed responsibility for a Kabul attack that killed a US soldier and 11 other people.

Khalilzad made a surprise stopover in Pakistan earlier this month at the same time that Taliban delegates were on a visit to the country and, according to foreign media reports, discussed the revival of peace talks with the group which the US had toppled from power more than 18 years ago.

Waheed Mozhdah, an analyst who knows the Taliban’s leaders, said the US had already established contact with the group and was keen to sign a deal but was concerned about a potential political crisis between rivals Ghani and Abdullah who are the main candidates in the presidential poll.

The vote was twice delayed, while the initial results of the ballot have not yet been disclosed due to technical issues.

“Now everything has to wait for the result of the election … it seems the Americans are concerned that if it signs the deal with the Taliban now and a crisis begins due to the election, then it will make America’s position weak,” he told Arab News.

“Through these trips, American officials are trying to persuade both sides (Abdullah and Ghani) to respect the result of the election so that when the time of intra-Afghan dialogue starts with the arrival of a new government, the Taliban does not argue that there is a crisis with the government.”

He said Esper’s comments about troop withdrawal was part of the deal Khalilzad had discussed with the Taliban before Trump’s interjection. 

“Americans are confounded since Trump has come to power. First he pushed for the talks, then he canceled the talks and now wants them to be resumed,” he said.

Zubair Shafiqi, another analyst, said troop drawdown was a Trump goal that was aimed at his domestic audience and his re-election campaign next year.

He said Washington had come to the conclusion that the presidential election in Afghanistan would go to a second round, and that the visits by top US officials in recent weeks was aimed at telling leaders in Kabul that they had to brace for the formation of a broad-based interim set-up which should involve the Taliban too.

“I think Americans think that with the low turnout based on (last month’s) election, there will be no strong government in Afghanistan, so it is trying to convince the key sides that they have create a government in understanding with the Taliban,” he told Arab News.