Diplomatic Row Over Kazak Politician

French embassy under pressure from Kazak authorities to hand over prominent local opposition leader.

Diplomatic Row Over Kazak Politician

French embassy under pressure from Kazak authorities to hand over prominent local opposition leader.

A diplomatic crisis is brewing in Kazakstan after one of the leaders of the country's main political groups sought refugee last week in the grounds of the French embassy in Almaty.

Galymzhan Zhakiyanov, leader of the Democratic Choice of Kazakstan, DCK, opposition movement, and ex-governor of the Pavlodar region, claims he's trying to escape a campaign of persecution by the Kazak authorities.

Many observers say the government pursued him after he attempted to organise meetings and public actions in support of the recently arrested ex-minister for energy, industry and trade, Mukhtar Ablyazov, who is also a DCK leader.

Ablyazov was arrested on March 27 in Almaty by the republic's finance police agency and is being held in a remand prison in the city, accused of abuse of power and illegally taking part in entrepreneurial activities.

Representatives of his DCK movement allege that the campaign to intimidate Zhakiyanov began after he came forward with proposals for changing the constitution so that local and regional governors are elected rather than appointed by President Nursultan Nazarbaev.

A senior political analyst, who preferred not to be named, said the government is very concerned that Zhakiyanov may now try to leave the country. "The authorities fear if he gets out he'll form an alliance with ex-premier Kazhegeldin," he said. "Such a union would provide a strong counterbalance to the current president and the political regime as a whole."

Akezhan Kazhegeldin, premier from 1994-1997, has been living in exile in western Europe since he fell out of favour with President Nazarbaev. The latter, it seems, felt the ambitious prime minister was becoming too independent for his taste.

A number of senior Kazak officials have met the French ambassador Serge Smessov over the past few days to try and secure the handover of Zhakiyanov.

The embassy has so far refused to make an official statement on the issue, but there have been reports quoting Smessov as saying that while he hoped Zhakiyanov would not remain at the embassy much longer he would not be surrendered to the authorities.

There has been a mixed international reaction to Zhakiyanov's actions. A European Union statement criticised him for using the diplomatic offices of an EU country in domestic political struggle.

But the US embassy in Almaty said it was "surprised and concerned" over the incident.

"It is all evidence of attempts to frighten the leaders of the political opposition and the independent mass media," the US embassy said in a statement. "We call for the political leadership of Kazakstan to investigate these events and to carry out appropriate measures for the defence and promotion of democratic development, a free mass media and the provision of the rule of law."

The American criticism could hamper attempts by Kazakstan to develop a closer relationship with Washington, something it has been putting increasing amounts of energy towards since Washington set up military bases in neighbouring countries in the wake of September 11.

The political analyst interviewed by IWPR said the crisis will only be resolved peacefully if the authorities sit down with the opposition and agree to implement reforms or hold early presidential elections. The alternative, he believes, is an "explosion" of political dissent.

Yuliana Zhikhor and Gaukhar Beketova are IWPR contributors

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