The Peace Corps "Sharp Incident" in Kazakhstan

The Peace Corps Sharp Incident in Kazakhstan

There were a number of factors in Peace Corps' decision to suspend its program in Kazakhstan in November 2011 including a rash of terrorist attacks in recent months, four rapes or sexual assaults of Peace Corps Volunteers in the past year, and work related issues that have made it increasingly difficult for volunteers to conduct their work. However new information from US diplomatic cables reveals that there are elements in the "pro-Russian old-guard at the Committee for National Security (the KNB, successor to the KGB) aimed at discrediting the Peace Corps." One incident that provides insight into Peace Corps relations in Kazakhstan that has remained unreported until now, was the arrest and trial of Peace Corps Volunteer Tony Sharp who was sentenced to two years imprisonment in 2009 after "what appeared to be a classic Soviet-style set-up" by elements in the Kazakhstani government that want to damage bilateral relations with the United States.

The Peace Corps "Sharp Incident" in Kazakhstan

The Peace Corps "Sharp Incident" in Kazakhstan

by Hugh Pickens


As previously reported in the article "Sexual Assaults and Terrorism Are Factors Leading Peace Corps to Suspend Program in Kazakhstan" the Peace Corps' decided in mid-November 2011 to suspend its program in Kazakhstan and remove the 117 Peace Corps volunteers serving in the country. There were a number of factors in the decision to suspend the program including a rash of terrorist attacks in recent months, four rapes or sexual assaults of Peace Corps Volunteers in the past year, and work related issues that have made it increasingly more difficult for volunteers to conduct their work.

New information reveals that relations between Peace Corps and the government of Kazakhstan have been strained for several years and that according to US diplomatic cables there are elements in the "pro-Russian old-guard at the Committee for National Security (KNB) aimed at discrediting the Peace Corps and damaging bilateral relations."

One incident that provides insight into Peace Corps relations in Kazakhstan that has remained unreported until now, was the arrest, trial, and imprisonment of Peace Corps Volunteer Tony Sharp in 2008 "in what appeared to be a classic Soviet-style set-up."

Part 1: Background


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Caption: Central Downtown Astana, Kazakhstan.

"Kazakhstan is extremely different from the other countries of Central Asia. It's Eurasia, not Central Asia," says US Ambassador to Kazakhstan Richard Hoagland. "It's much more developed in many, many ways. The degree of its "human capacity" is truly impressive. It's a regional leader and an emerging world player." A meeting ground between Europe and Asia for more than 2,000 years, Kazakhstan and Central Asia was the place for ancient east-west trade routes (known collectively as the Silk Road) and, at various points in history, a cradle of scholarship, culture, and power. Kazakhstan lies at the heart of the great Eurasian steppe, the band of grasslands stretching from Mongolia to Hungary that has served for 1,000 years as the highway and grazing ground of nomadic horseback people. The Kazakhs remained largely nomadic until well into the 20th century and, as a result, have left no ancient cities or ruins. The name Kazakh is said to mean "free warrior" or "steppe roamer."

In 1989, as part of the new processes of perestroika and glasnost, Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev appointed a Kazakh, Nursultan Nazarbayev, to replace an ethnic Russian as the head of the Kazakh Communist Party. In early 1992, Nazarbayev was elected president of the country by popular vote. Nazarbayev insisted that he and other Central Asian leaders be considered "founding members" of the new Commonwealth of Independent States. Nazarbayev still serves as president and advocates a secular Western- oriented regime, like that in Turkey, under centralized leadership.

With independence, there has been a rise in Kazakh nationalism. The government adopted Kazakh as the official language of the country and required that civil servants eventually master the language. However, Russian is still the working language of Kazakhstan and the other Central Asian republics. While the government continues to promote Kazakh nationalism, it also seeks to assure the Slavic and other ethnic communities that they have a place in the nation.

Kazakhstan's government is a parliamentary democracy, headquartered in the newly founded capital of Astana. It has three branches: presidential, legislative, and judicial, as well as a constitutional court. The majority of political power is concentrated in the presidential branch of the government, headed by President Nazarbayev. On the regional level, Kazakhstan is broken up into 14 provinces, or oblasts, each with a mayor, or akim. All oblast akims are appointed by the president. Provinces are further divided into rayons (like a county in the U.S.) and cities, each with presidentially appointed leaders.

Peace Corps Program in Kazakhstan

Peace Corps Online

Since the first Peace Corps Volunteers arrived in 1993, almost 1,000 Volunteers have served in Kazakhstan. The first group consisted of 50 English language and economic development Volunteers. Peace Corps/Kazakhstan's objective is to increase the knowledge and improve the skills of Kazakhstani citizens, strengthening their ability to compete in the global marketplace. Volunteers meet this objective by participating with Kazakhstanis in community work and life, focusing on two program areas-education and youth development.


In Kazakhstan, English is viewed increasingly as a tool to help students get access to information and technology, achieve broader academic goals, and pursue more diverse professional opportunities. Peace Corps/Kazakhstan assisted the Kazakhstani Ministry of Education by improving English language education throughout the country. Education Volunteers were placed in village schools where students have had little chance to tap into the kinds of learning to move them up the economic ladder.

Outside the classroom, Volunteers became involved in a range of activities, depending on their their community's needs as well as their interests and skills. Volunteers worked with their local counterparts to organize summer camps, environmental clubs, student-run companies, and HIV/AIDS training to name a few.

Youth Development

Youth development is a growing sector in Kazakhstan. Youth development Volunteers worked with youth nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), schools, extracurricular educational institutions, and local government officials. The program had three pillars, including Healthy Lifestyles, World of Work, and Leadership. Youth development Volunteers focused their efforts in the three pillars on three levels of beneficiaries. Volunteers worked directly with youth, with front line youth workers, and with organizational managers to improve youth development program delivery. To accomplish their goals, Volunteers used tools for participatory analysis for community action (PACA), project design and management, lesson planning techniques, interactive extracurricular activities, appropriate approaches to working with orphans and special needs youth, as well as effective organizational management, grant writing and fundraising, and facilitation techniques. As it is with all Volunteers, building community relationships was especially important for youth development Volunteers.

The Mining Community of Ridder

Peace Corps Online

Caption: Ridder, Kazakhstan.

The mining town of Ridder where many of the events in the Sharp case took place, has a population of 60,000 and is located in northeastern Kazakhstan near the border with Russia and China. Close to the Russian and Chinese borders, Ridder seems almost like a living relic of the Soviet Union. There has been little change to the town's infrastructure since Kazakhstan became independent. No new buildings have been built in Ridder, the same mines continue to fuel the city's economy and pollute the environment, and Russian remains the dominant language. The most significant changes since Kazakhstan's independence have been the installation of ethnic Kazakhs in positions of power throughout the city, and the introduction of the market economy, which has led to significant growth in trade with China. Partially as a result of the influx of cheap Chinese goods, Ridder's cost of living is half of that in Astana or Almaty, although low wages outside of mining and high unemployment pose serious economic challenges. Residents say that the global economic crisis is hitting the city hard. Ridder's inhabitants say they are eager to learn English and interact with foreigners, and many report that they travel frequently to Russia and China. Overall, most residents of Ridder seem attached to their small border town, but many express concern about the pollution from mining and metallurgy, on which their city depends.

Emphasizing its roots as a Russian and later a Soviet pioneer settlement, many residents still prefer to call the town by its former name, Leninogorsk. In many ways, Ridder seems frozen in time. Mostly Soviet-made "Lada" cars ply streets named after Soviet World War II heroes and giants of Russian literature. Mines and factories belch out smoke. In the center of the city, housing consists mainly of concrete Soviet apartment blocks. In stark contrast to Astana or Almaty, visitors do not observe any new construction. Most locals still call Ridder's main thoroughfare, Independence Street, by its former name — Lenin Street. Surrounding Lenin Street is a large, central town-square, with a monument to the many citizens of Ridder who gave their lives during the Great Patriotic War on one side. On the other side is the the Palace of Culture, which, based on old photos in the Ridder City Museum, also appears to have remained unchanged from the Soviet period.

A visit by a Political Officer from the US Embassy in April, 2009 disclosed that many residents of Ridder have a positive view of the Peace Corps Volunteers who have served in Ridder over the years. "For those interested in English, The Political Officer's interlocutors praised the role of the Peace Corps in providing Ridder's youth with opportunities to develop their English. The Political Officer observed that residents gathered every Sunday in the local library to practice English with all the foreigners in town. The Political Officer also met with three families who had hosted Peace Corps volunteers, all of whom said that the Peace Corps Program is critical to helping the people of Ridder. One local resident, who sold fish out of a container truck in the local market, reminisced at length about her close personal relationship with the young woman who had lived with her family. She said that it was because of this experience that her son, who is studying English and Chinese in Ust-Kamenogorsk, already speaks excellent English, and had even interpreted for an ambassador visiting the region."

Tomorrow, Part 2 - A Peace Corps Volunteer is Arrested in Kazakhstan.