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Upheaval in Kazakhstan creates uncertainty for Astana team

LE GRAND-BORNAND, FRANCE - JULY 17: Alexander Vinokourov of Russia Team manager Astana Pro Team / during the 105th Tour de France 2018 / Stage 10 a 158,5km stage from Annecy to Le Grand-Bornand 943m on July 17, 2018 in Le Grand-Bornand, France. (Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images)
Astana Qazaqstan team boss Alexander Vinokourov (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

Following a flurry of violence and the collapse of the government in Kazakhstan last week, the UCI has reiterated an apolitical approach to world matters while also calling for restraint and a peaceful resolution.

The Astana Qazaqstan team declined to comment on the situation when contacted by Cyclingnews. However, the political turmoil could cause some unease for the WorldTour squad, which is heavily dependent on state backing.

The now-former prime minister Askar Mamin is also believed to have intervened last summer to restore former rider Alexander Vinokourov to his role within the setup, weeks after he was removed in an internal dispute.

Last Wednesday, Mamin and his government resigned from office following an escalation of protests. These had been triggered by a sharp rise in fuel prices and led to widespread unrest, including in the country’s largest city Almaty.

Government buildings and vehicles were set on fire and there were violent clashes between authorities and protestors. The latter alleged widespread corruption and also cited poor living standards and joblessness as reasons for their dissatisfaction. Officials in Almaty said on Thursday that 353 police and security forces personnel had been injured and a dozen killed.

President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev pledged a tough response, and last Friday said he personally gave the order to security forces and army to “open fire with lethal force.”

Over 2,000 troops from Russia and elsewhere travelled to the country and were part of the pushback against the protests. 

On Sunday, authorities said that 164 people had died, including three children, while the interior ministry announced on Monday that nearly 8,000 people had been detained.

UCI takes 'apolitical' stance

The Astana team was created in 2006 after the collapse of Vinokourov’s then-Liberty Seguros squad due to the Operacíon Puerto doping scandal, prompting companies from Kazakhstan to step in and create a team around their national hero.

It is funded and owned by the state sovereign wealth fund Samruk Kazyna, which owns the country’s oil and gas firm, as well as the national banking, telecoms, and uranium companies, as well as national airline Air Astana, and more.

Given the country’s close links with the WorldTour team, Cyclingnews sought comment from the UCI about matters in Kazakhstan. They responded by saying that their mission is to develop and promote all forms of cycling and that the sport “can play a positive role in building a better and healthier world, with more inclusive and more sustainable societies.”

“The subject of human rights is of major importance to the UCI… However, we play no role in politics and do not engage in political debate. We firmly believe that sport and politics should not be mixed and will therefore make no comment on the current situation in Kazakhstan.

“We are of course following the situation with concern and also calling for restraint from all parties and a peaceful resolution of the situation.”

With Mamin now out of office, Vinokourov and others will also be closely monitoring the political developments. It is not clear if the resignation of the government could have any knock-on effect on the team’s backing, but the matters of last week will at the very least be an unwelcome distraction at the start of the 2022 season.

Vinokourov ran for parliamentary election in the past and is also an honorary colonel in the Kazakhstani army.

Last June, Vinokourov was removed as the team principal of Astana-Premier Tech amid reports of a power struggle within the squad. He was then dramatically reinstated in August, days after co-owner Premier Tech said it would prematurely end its links with the team at the end of 2021. Former Team manager Yana Seel, who clashed with Vinokourov, was hired by Lotto Soudal as Chief Business Officer, as the Belgian team looks to find new sponsors and secure its place in the WorldTour for 2023.   

Premier Tech president and CEO Jean Bélanger told Canadian publication La Presse that Vinokourov’s return was the reason for Premier Tech to relinquish its 50 per cent ownership.

“The prime minister [Askar Mamin] forced him to come back,” he said at the time.

The team will be led this year by riders such as Alexey Lutsenko, Miguel Angel López, Vincenzo Nibali and Gianni Moscon with Vinokourov as general manager.

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