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Explainer: From stability to turmoil – what’s going on in Kazakhstan

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Dozens of people have died and thousands have been detained in Kazakhstan over the past week during the worst violence seen in the Central Asian nation since it became independent in the early 1990s.

Security forces appeared to have reclaimed the streets of the country’s main city on Friday, a day after Russian paratroopers arrived to help quash the uprising.

Here is a snapshot of Kazakhstan, its economy and political system.

WHERE IS KAZAKHSTAN AND WHY DOES IT MATTER?

Kazakhstan, located between Russia and China and also sharing borders with three other ex-Soviet republics, is the largest economy in Central Asia, with rich hydrocarbon and metal deposits. It has attracted hundreds of billions of dollars in foreign investment since becoming independent in 1991.

Strategically, it links the large and fast-growing markets of China and South Asia with those of Russia and Europe by road, rail, and a port on the Caspian Sea. It has described itself as the buckle in China’s huge ‘Belt and Road’ trade project.

Kazakhstan is the top global producer of uranium and this week’s unrest prompted an 8% jump in the price of the metal that fuels nuclear power plants. It is the world’s ninth biggest oil exporter, producing some 85.7 million tonnes in 2021, and its 10th largest producer of coal.

It is also the world’s second largest miner of bitcoin after the United States. Bitcoin’s “hashrate” – the measure of computing power of machines plugged into its network – dropped by over 10% on Wednesday after Kazakhstan’s internet was shut off, according to crypto mining firm BTC.com.

WHY ARE PEOPLE ANGRY?

The uprising began as protests in oil-rich western regions against the removal of state price caps on New Year’s Day for butane and propane, which are often referred to as ‘road fuels for the poor’ due to their low cost.

The reform, aimed at easing oil shortages, quickly backfired as prices more than doubled. The protests spread, tapping into a wider sense of discontent over endemic state corruption, income inequality and economic hardships that have all been compounded by the coronavirus pandemic.

Although the richest of the Central Asian republics in per capita income, half of the population in Kazakhstan – the world’s ninth largest country by territory – live in rural, often isolated communities with poor access to public services.

While the country’s vast natural resources have made a small elite incredibly wealthy, many ordinary Kazakhs feel left behind. About a million people out of a total population of 19 million are estimated to live below the poverty line.

Annual inflation is running at close to 9%, the highest in more than five years, prompting the central bank to hike interest rates to 9.75%.

WHO IS IN CHARGE?

Career diplomat Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, 68, was elected president in 2019 on promises to continue the broadly pro-business policies of his long-serving predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbayev. But Nazarbayev, a former Soviet Politburo member who led Kazakhstan for nearly three decades, was widely seen as the real power behind the throne.

Tokayev has used the protests – which have sometimes targeted symbols of the Nazarbayev era including statues – to fire the 81-year-old former president from his post as chief of the powerful Security Council.

Nazarbayev has made no public comments or appearances since the protests erupted and it remains unclear to what extent the uprising will weaken the considerable influence he and his family have continued to wield in politics and business.

Tokayev also sacked Nazarbayev’s nephew, Samat Abish, as second-in-command of the security police. Nazarbayev’s eldest daughter Dariga, a former speaker of the Senate and still a lawmaker, has been spoken of in the past as a possible future president.

ECONOMIC PROSPECTS

Kazakhstan’s per capita gross domestic product in 2020 was $9,122, World Bank data show, slightly above that of Turkey and Mexico but below its annual peak of nearly $14,000 in 2013.

Tokayev’s government introduced a stimulus package worth 6% of national output to help smaller and medium-sized businesses weather the COVID-19 pandemic.

The World Bank has forecast economic growth of 3.5% in 2021, rising to 3.7% this year and 4.8% in 2023. It has urged Kazakhstan to boost competition and limit the role of large state-owned enterprises in the economy, tackle social inequality and create a more level economic playing field.

HUMAN RIGHTS AND FREEDOMS

Western countries and rights groups have long criticised Kazakhstan for its authoritarian political system, its intolerance of dissent, curbs on media freedoms and lack of free and fair elections, though it has also been viewed as less repressive and volatile than its ex-Soviet neighbours.

Amnesty International said this week’s protests were a result of the authorities’ “widespread repression of basic human rights” and it called for the release of all those arbitrarily detained and for investigations of past state abuses.

“For years, the government has relentlessly persecuted peaceful dissent, leaving the Kazakhstani people in a state of agitation and despair,” said Marie Struthers, Amnesty’s Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

 

(Compiled by Gareth Jones; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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Hundreds of thousands of Canadians are travelling abroad despite Omicron – CBC News

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Despite growing concerns across the globe last fall over the new COVID-19 variant, Omicron, Sandy Long and her husband departed on Nov. 28 for a 10-day vacation in Mexico. 

Long said they felt comfortable travelling, because they planned to take strict safety precautions. Plus, the couple hadn’t gone abroad for two years due to the pandemic and were yearning to get away.

“Life is short,” said Long, 58, of Richmond, B.C. “We needed to feel some warmth [and] we really missed Mexico.”

It appears many Canadians have a similar attitude toward travel these days despite Omicron’s fast and furious spread, which prompted Canada to repost its advisory against non-essential international travel last month.

Statistics Canada tallied 742,417 Canadian air-passenger arrivals returning home from abroad in December. 

When adjusted to account for recent changes in tracking air travel, that total is almost six times the number of arrivals for the same month in 2020, and more than half the total for pre-pandemic December 2019.

The increase in international travel is likely to continue: there were 216,752 Canadian air-passenger arrivals to Canada during the week of Jan. 3 to Jan. 9, according to the latest data posted by the Canada Border Services Agency. 

Lesley Keyter, owner of The Travel Lady Agency in Calgary, said clients are booking trips despite the threat of Omicron because they want to return to travelling. (submitted by Lesley Keyter)

Travel agency owner Lesley Keyter said that, since October, the number of clients booking trips has jumped by between 30 and 40 per cent compared to the same time last year. 

She said popular destinations for her clients, most of whom are aged 50 or older, include Europe, Mexico and Costa Rica. When Omicron cases started to surge in December, Keyter said some clients cancelled their trip, but most kept their travel plans. 

“People are saying, “Listen, we only have a limited time on this planet.… We’ve put off travel for two years now, I don’t want to put it off anymore,” said Keyter, owner of The Travel Lady Agency in Calgary.

She said travellers also feel confident with the added protection of their COVID-19 vaccine and booster shot. Because Omicron is so transmissible and more able to evade vaccines, even vaccinated people may get infected, however, they’re less likely to wind up in the hospital.

Risk of testing positive abroad

But even if infected travellers only experience mild symptoms, they’ll still face hurdles returning home.

To enter Canada, air passengers must show proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of departure. If a traveller tests positive, they must wait at least 11 days before boarding a flight home.

Brennan Watson of Milverton, Ont., tested positive for COVID-19 while on vacation in Ireland. (submitted by Brennan Watson)

Brennan Watson, 26, of Milverton, Ont., tested positive on Dec. 28 while travelling in Ireland. 

He was set to fly home the following day, but instead had to find a place to self-isolate in Belfast. Due to Canada’s rules at the time — which have now changed — Watson had to wait 15 days before he could fly home. 

“It was very stressful in the beginning,” he said. “It was a bit of a panic just to think that I’m stuck here.”

Brennan said the delay cost him: he missed 11 days of work as an electrician and spent $2,000 in added expenses, including another plane ticket home. 

“There’s nothing you can really do about it,” he said. “It’s just something I didn’t even think would happen.”

WATCH | Canada once again advises against travel abroad:

Canada warns against non-essential travel abroad as Omicron spreads

1 month ago

Duration 3:14

The federal government is urging Canadians to stay home or, if they must travel, to plan ahead for quarantine and ensure they have travel insurance coverage. 3:14

Travel insurance broker Martin Firestone said travellers can avoid such unexpected costs by purchasing trip-interruption insurance. He said most of his clients now opt for the coverage that will reimburse travellers for some or all of their costs if they test positive and must extend their trip. 

“Trip interruption — which used to be a very rarely [purchased product] — is now being added to all the emergency medical plans, because clients worry terribly about testing positive,” said Firestone with Travel Secure.

“That’s the new world we live in right now with the pandemic.”

Flight cancellations

Another hurdle travellers may face is unexpected flight cancellations. 

Since December, thousands of flights in Canada and the U.S. have been cancelled for pandemic-related reasons including crew members out sick due to the virus. 

This month, Air Canada Vacations announced it will suspend some flights to sun destinations between Jan. 24 and April 30. After cutting 15 per cent of its January flights, WestJet announced on Tuesday it will cancel 20 per cent of its February flights.

Long said she and her husband enjoyed their trip to Mexico so much, they had planned to return again in the upcoming weeks. However, the couple recently nixed their plans due to concerns over flight cancellations.

“It’s the uncertainty right now,” said Long. “I don’t want to get down there and then be stranded.”

However, she’s still optimistic about a trip the couple has booked in May to Spain. 

Despite testing positive while travelling, Brennan hopes to return to Ireland this summer — even if the pandemic hasn’t waned by then.

“I spent a year and a half of my life not seeing family, not seeing friends,” he said. “I’m not going to stop living my life.”

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Immigration: Canada border tragedy a sign of what's ahead – CTV News

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PEMBINA, N.D. —
The discovery of four people who perished in the cold trying to cross the Canada-U.S. border could put a new twist on the immigration debate in the United States.

The group, which included an infant and a teen, were found Wednesday near Emerson, Man., just metres from the Canadian side.

U.S. officials allege they were part of a larger group of Indian migrants trying to cross into the U.S. from Canada.

Border expert Kathryn Bryk Friedman, a University at Buffalo law professor, calls it a troubling sign that the country’s immigration challenges are getting worse.

Friedman says the discovery is likely a “warning shot” that more people are willing to put their lives on the line to enter the U.S., even on foot in the dead of winter.

Florida resident Steve Shand is to appear in court Monday in Minneapolis to face human smuggling charges.

“I do think it’s a warning shot,” said Friedman, who remarked about the enduring appeal life in the U.S. seems to hold for people all around the world.

Indeed, the crush of South American migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border has become a defining characteristic of American politics in recent years, most notably during the tenure of former president Donald Trump.

Nor is Canada a stranger to the problem: thousands of asylum seekers crossed the border in Quebec each year while Trump was in office, though the numbers have dropped precipitously since then.

But an organized effort to sneak groups of people into the U.S. from Canada is a new one on Friedman.

“It just demonstrates the allure still — maybe the enduring allure — of trying to get to the United States. It’s really kind of fascinating,” she said.

But a single incident isn’t likely to prompt either country to seriously rethink the way they manage and defend their shared frontier, she added.

“This sounds terrible, but I think it’s going to take more than four people dying at the border to really galvanize action on the part of Canada and the United States.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 22, 2022.

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Omicron's potential peak has experts cautiously optimistic – CTV News

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Canada’s top doctor has said the latest wave of COVID-19 driven by the Omicron variant may have reached its peak.

But while the modelling appears encouraging, experts say the news should be interpreted with cautious optimism.

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Theresa Tam told reporters on Friday that there are “early indications that infections may have peaked at the national level” based on daily case counts, test positivity, the reproduction number and wastewater data.

“I hope we’re at or nearing the peak, but the problem that I have is where we’ve got some uncertainty in the counting now since we don’t do as much PCR testing as we once did,” Dr. Ronald St. John, former director-general of the Public Health Agency of Canada’s Centre for Emergency Preparedness and Response, told CTV News Channel on Saturday.

Due to the shortages in PCR testing capacity, many people who develop COVID-19, particularly if they’re not in a high-risk group and have mild or no symptoms, have been unable to get PCR tests.

“We can’t count people who are asymptomatic, so we have to look at other datasets (like) wastewater concentration, things like that, to try to get an understanding of where we are.” St. John said.

Dr. Jason Kindrachuk, an infectious disease expert at the University of Manitoba, says the news shows “some optimism that things will slowly get back to normal, what they were like prior to Omicron.”

However, Tam said that hospitalizations and ICU admissions are still climbing across Canada and health systems remain under “intense strain.” Kindrachuk says it’s unclear how quickly we might start seeing hospitalizations and ICU admissions start to decrease.

“I think we’ve learned over and over again from the pandemic is that you know, cases rise and then hospitalizations lag behind … and that trend also stays in place when cases start to recede,” he told CTVNews.ca over the phone on Saturday.

“You may be able to slow down that hospitalization rate over time, but you are still going to have pressure on a health-care system that that has been pushed to its limits.”

Dr. Christine Palmay, a Toronto-based family physician, says the hospitalization and ICU data also leave out a lot of patients dealing with debilitating symptoms. She and her colleagues have seen numerous patients who have tested positive for COVID-19 and are struggling with the virus at home.

“They’re not captured by ICU stats. They’re not necessarily accessing ER, but they’re not functioning,” she said.

PROVINCES BEGIN EASING RESTRICTIONS

Several provinces have also reported that Omicron may be peaking or close to peaking. In Ontario, Health Minister Christine Elliott said cases are expected to peak this month, followed by a peak in hospitalizations and ICU admissions. Quebec also reported that hospitalizations declined for the third straight day on Saturday.

Wastewater data in B.C. and Alberta have also shown signs that the virus may have peaked. However, health officials in Manitoba and Saskatchewan say it’s too early to tell.

When COVID-19 cases began to reach unprecedented highs throughout Canada last month, provinces and territories imposed numerous health measures affecting restaurants, movie theatres, gyms, in-person schooling and more. Now, some provincial and territorial governments have plans to life some of these restrictions.

Kindrachuk says these restrictions, on top of the rollout of booster shots, appear to have helped plateau cases. However, as these restrictions start to ease, he notes that cases have the potential to rise again.

“When you start to remove those safety breaks, you have the potential that things could start to build back in the opposite direction. So, we have to do it very methodically and certainly with a lot of oversight,” he said.

St. John says he’s also worried about health measures being lifted too quickly.

“We have to wait and stick to our public health measures as long as possible until we can be absolutely sure that we’re coming out of the woods, and I’m not sure that we are yet,” he said.

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