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The Nazarbayev kleptocracy’s grip on Kazakhstan

S. Janomohamed

Since its independence from the Soviet monolith (1991), Kazakhstan has been mired in a succession of political crises. Kazakhstan has been the scene of serious human-rights abuses and the denial of fundamental freedoms. Under the rule of Nursultan Nazarbayev, attacks on the political opposition and independent media have become routine. Arbitrary arrests, detentions, torture and extrajudicial killings have been regular features of Nazarbayev’s regime.

So Nazarbayev is suffering a crisis of legitimacy; he is derided as a corrupt, ineffectual and unpopular ruler. An international survey last year ranked Kazakhstan as among the world’s top twenty most corrupt countries; that is because of the regime of kleptocracy that Nazarbayev has fostered.

Nazarbayev’s regime, like those of his fellow Central Asian dictators, has targeted Islamists because they are perceived as the greatest threat to their hegemony. Nazarbayev has tried to control Islam and the Muslims by means of one national body, headed by a state-appointed mufti. Those independent Muslim organisations that operate outside the scope of this body run the risk of the wrath of the state. However, the intolerable situation that Nazarbayev has created prompted the mufti to resign in June 2001.

In June 2001 Nazarbayev attacked the proliferation of mosques and other religious places of worship. This was followed by a foreign ministry pronouncement in September 2001 ordering all Kazakh men pursuing Islamic studies abroad to return to Kazakhstan.

Nazarbayev’s comments on "religious extremism, radicalism and fanaticism" to the Central Asian Co-operation Organisation, in November 2002, set the tone for action against Islamic activists. Col. Gen. Mukhtar Altynbayev, the defence minister, suggested using the army domestically, against the Islamic movement, for instance. This was followed by the initiation of new special forces, placed under the direction of the KNB, ie. the secret services (the Kazakh successor to the feared KGB).

A brief survey of state anti-Islamist violence reveals a gradual clampdown. In 1999 police beat 70 members of an Islamic group from Taraz, who were temporarily detained. In late 2001 and 2002 two dozen members of the non-violent Hizb-ut-Tahrir were arrested for distributing leaflets. Members were given sentences of up to four years; others were fined heavily. Uzbeks affiliated to the group were deported to Uzbekistan, where they were sentenced to long prison terms. In one disturbing case in November 2001, one Kanat Beiembetov, allegedly a member of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, died in hospital after beatings in detention. According to signed statements by Beiembetov and his family, he was beaten by the KNB officers who arrested him. Beiembetov’s family have claimed that the KNB placed them under surveillance, and intimidated their children.

Kazakhstan is being systematically plundered, its resources being treated as their private preserve by its plutocracy. This institutional kleptocracy is concentrated in the hands of Nazarbayev’s family. A network of cronyism and nepotism prevails; erhaps Kazakhstan should be renamed ‘Nazarbayev and Sons Ltd’. Nazarbayev’s family and key associates control key economic and government sectors. For instance, investigation reveals that Dorigo, Nazarbayev’s daughter, controls huge swathes of Kazakhstan’s print and broadcast media. She runs Khabar TV, and also chairs the Congress of Kazakhstan’s Journalists. Rakhat Aliev, one of Nazarbayev’s sons-in-law, controls vital areas such as special services, tax and customs; Timur Kulibayev, another son-in-law, dominates in the banking, oil and gas sectors.

The financial activities of the Nazarbayev family have been declared a state secret. One explosive scandal, ‘Kazakhgate’, reveals the extent of the corruption. In one instance, oil and gas revenues, along with secret ‘commissions’ from US oil-company ExxonMobil amounting to $1 billion, were diverted to secret Swiss bank-accounts controlled by Nazarbayev and other senior Kazakh autocrats. After some Swiss bank-accounts were frozen, Nazarbayev made a trip to Switzerland in January; there was speculation that he went to ensure his immunity from prosecution in return for his testimony against other senior Kazakh officials.

Harassment of opposition is routine. The government monitors the movements and communications of opposition-activists. Political opponents have been jailed, and prominent opposition leaders have gone into exile. In the elections of 1999 Nazarbayev secured another term. There were allegations of government manipulation of vote-counting. In June 2001 Nazarbayev was afforded life-time privileges that will enable him retain an active role in state and parliamentary affairs even when he is no longer in office.

Nazarbayev has repeatedly introduced measures to hamper the opposition’s attempts to obtain effective government accountability. In 1998 the Amendments to Law on Elections enabled the government to disqualify prominent opposition-members from standing in elections. In the same year, article 7 of the constitution banned religion-based parties. In October 1999 constitutional amendments were introduced to frustrate party registration. The plethora of regressive measures included a new compulsory Kazakh-language test for candidates; a non-refundable down-payment of $130,000; and requirement for a 170,000-signature petition before registration can take place. Throughout 2002 further measures were implemented. In June the Law on Political Parties was passed, requiring political parties to have at least 50,000 members. This effectively banned the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DCK) and the Republican National Party of Kazakhstan (RNPK). In the Senate elections in October opposition candidates were refused registration.

But Nazarbayev’s attempts to marginalise the opposition are not limited to constitutional and legal efforts. Violence and intimidation have been a prominent part of the regime’s campaign. A brief chronology of events demonstrates this. In January the Republican People’s Party (RPP) lost its official status, having failed to meet new registration requirements brought in at the beginning of the year. Later charges of tax irregularities and forgery were brought against Amirjan Kosanov, the RPP chairman, in retaliation for RPP’s refusal to allow itself to be co-opted by the government. Madel Ismailov, leader of the Workers’ Opposition Party leader, was jailed for "offending the honour and dignity of the President" and for participation in nonviolent demonstrations. Akezhan Kazhegeldin, former prime minister and leader of RNPK, was charged with possession of weapons, and later faced tax charges too. In May Igor Poberezhskii, his Moscow-based press secretary, was stabbed in what was apparently an assassination attempt.

Nazarbayev’s regime has also tried to curtail the opposition’s activities physically. A number of prominent activists were sealed into their apartments in early morning raids. These included RNPK leader Amirzhan Kosano and Seidakhmet Kuttykadam, leader of the Orleu party. In additional, the homes of organisers of anti-government protests were attacked. In 1999 opposition-activist Aleksei Martynov had been beaten in custody; he was forced to flee in 2001 after he was sent death-threats. In late 2001 politically motivated prosecutions against DCK leaders Galymzhan Zhakiyanov and Mukhtar Ablyazov took place. In March 2002 Zhakiyanov took refuge in the French embassy. The prospect of further violence is raised by the ministry of interior’s considering ‘rapid response’ to civil disturbances.

The regime has also extended its attentions to Kazakhstan’s independent media outlets. Nazarbayev has also attempted to regulate media content by the establishment of a ëjournalists’ advisory council’. A long record of violence scars Kazakhstan’s press and media.

In late 2001, two newspapers were suspended: Delovoye Obozreniye Respublika and Vremya Po, after their coverage of ‘Kazakhgate’. In March last year the independent Tan TV station was attacked by unidentified gunmen. Also in 2002, prominent journalist Nuri Mufakh, editor-in-chief of ‘Altyn Ghasyr’, was hit by a vehicle and died of his injuries; he may have been about to deliver evidence in support of allegations of Kazakh government involvement in ‘Kazakhgate’. Around this time Rifma, Kazakhstan’s first independent radio-station, was closed for failing to broadcast a minimum 50 percent of programmes in the Kazakh tongue.

The office of SolDot newspaper was attacked, its employees severely beaten, and equipment stolen. The staff were warned not to publish any more stories about corruption. The offices of Respublika were firebombed; later Muratbek, its co-founder, was detained briefly. Before the firebombing Irina Petrushova, editor of Respublika, was sent funeral-wreaths and a headless dog with a death-threat. Later Petrushova was given a suspended sentence for working in Kazakhstan ‘illegally’.

In June 2002 Leila Baiseitova, daughter of independent journalist Lira Baiseitova, was abducted. She allegedly hanged herself in police custody after being subjected to beatings. SolDat had published an article on corruption by Baiseitova over ‘Kazakhgate’. Lira Baiseitova had herself been attacked by unknown assailants in 2000 and 2001.

In August 2002 TV presenter Artur Platanov was severely beaten by assailants identified as former policemen. Duvanov had been investigating Nazarbayev’s corruption and the death of Leila Baiseitov. In October 2002 Sergei Duvanov, a journalist, was arrested when he was about to leave for a series of lecture-tours on media repression in Kazakhstan. Subsequently jailed for three and half years for rape, his case was one of the very few to receive any sort of international attention. In August he had been beaten and left unconscious after the publication of an article of his on ‘Kazakhgate’.

Torture in detention is widespread, and police brutality common. The Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law has reported beatings, choking, rapes, suffocation techniques and sleep-deprivation. Despite government admissions of widespread torture, no action has been taken against its perpetrators. In 2001 law-enforcement officials admitted that one third of all detentions were illegal. In the first quarter of 2001, 3,500 people were detained without cause. A further 4,300 were held in pre-trial detention-centres.

Without international pressure, Nazarbayev’s government is likely to carry on behaving like this. Vital to Nazarbayev is the US’s implicit consent to his rule. According to US Congress Senator Chris Smith, "Washington’s desire for good relations guarantees him impunity, no matter what he does". After his meeting with US vice-president Dick Cheney, Nazarbayev claimed that "They congratulate us on our achievements and we received support from the US leadership". During his visit to Washington, Nazarbayev signed agreements with US president Bush and US secretary of state Colin Powell, guaranteeing US support for Kazakh oil-exports and military/security issues, for instance.

The US’s cooperation with Nazarbayev is deep. The US has established long-term military bases in Kazakhstan, complementing its military presence in other Central Asian states. Kazakh special forces have received US training, with the Kazakh defence minister welcoming US arms and training. US Central Command holds 30 military exercises a year in Kazakhstan, as part of the US International Military Education and Training programme and Foreign Military Financing programme.

In October 2002 the Pentagon announced the sale or lease of several dozen million dollars’ worth of military equipment to Nazarbayev’s regime. This was followed in November 2002 by a private meeting between US commerce secretary Donald Evans and Kazakhstan’s deputy prime minister to discuss oil-contracts and the role of US oil-company ChevronTexaco Corp in Kazakhstan.

All of this raises the fear of further entrenchment of Nazarbayev’s regime and the glaring absence of international condemnation of its actions. There has to be an immediate halt to the assault on Kazakhstan’s independent media and democratic opposition. This demand is accompanied by concern that Kazakhstan’s democratic and general political growth is severely hampered by the irresponsible support that the Bush administration is giving to the Nazarbayev regime. It is high time for Washington to be made to take the appropriate steps to remove Central Asian policy-making from the hands of the Pentagon.

[S. Janomohamed is a researcher, currently working on Central Asia and the Caucasus at the Islamic Human Rights Commission in London, UK: www.ihrc.org & info@ihrc.org.]

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 32, No. 8

Rabi' al-Thani 16, 14242003-06-16

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