Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kajegeldin on Trial

Unable to lure him back from exile, the Kazak government is pushing ahead with the trial of a leading Nazarbaev opponent.
By IWPR
Kazakstan's former prime minister, Akejan Kajegeldin, faces a possible sentence of 12 years imprisonment and the confiscation of his property for "crimes against the people", in a trial which is going ahead in his absence.

Kajegeldin, who headed the Kazak government from 1994 to 1997, has refused to attend the hearing and remained abroad where he has been sheltering ever since he fell out of favour with President Nazarbaev a few years ago.

The charges against him include abuse of power, tax evasion, illegal possession of arms and taking bribes while in office. Some commentators say the case was brought by Nazarbaev to work off a few old grudges.

After the beginning of the trial on August 15, Kajegeldin issued a statement through the headquarters of his Republican's People's party in Almaty denying all charges and saying the trial was politically- motivated.

In a country where trial in absentia is very rare, the case is regarded by some observers as an attempt to destroy the political career of an ex-premier who became a highly effective leader of the political opposition.

Mukhametjan Adilov, a reporter with the Republic weekly, believes the government is trying to alienate Kajegeldin's supporters in the West, particularly, the United States, by exposing his past offences.

Kazak judicial officials say they had no choice but to try Kajegeldin in absentia. According to State Prosecutor Garifulla Utebaev, he ignored numerous summonses sent to him over the past three years. The last unsuccessful attempt to hand Kajegeldin a subpoena was made two months ago when he was attending a US Congress hearing on civil rights in Kazakstan and Central Asia.

Commentators loyal to the government accuse Kajegeldin of "betraying the people of Kazakstan" by selling key national assets to foreign companies at rock-bottom prices to further his own financial ends. One testified that Kajegeldin charged 10 per cent on every successful deal. In fact, he was nicknamed "Mr Ten Per cent" while in office.

Personal enmity between the president and the ex-premier goes back to Kajegeldin's days in office. A successful businessman from the north -east region, he caught the eye of Nazarbaev who made him vice-premier in 1992. His exceptional vigour led to him being appointed prime minister in 1994.

Nazarbaev gave Kajegeldin extensive powers to conduct reforms and make government appointments, functions previously performed only by the president. In return, Nazarbaev wanted assurance that Kajegeldin would never seek to become head of state.

By the mid-1990s, Nazarbaev had begun to feel the prime minister's independent economic policies and his rising reputation among foreign investors were making him a potential rival. The head of the presidential office, Ermukhamet Ertysbaev, said, "Kajegedin started to use his position as a springboard for the presidency." As a result, Kajegedlin was forced to resign in 1997.

Realising it would be better to have a dynamic politician of this kind on his side than as a rival, Nazarbaev tried to heal the rift with Kajegeldin. He offered to bring him back to office but, according to sources close to the head of state, Kajegeldin said he would return only if he were made vice-president. Apparently this was a step too far for Nazarbaev, and from that point the relationship turned into outright conflict.

Although Kajegeldin left the country after his dismissal, he still hoped for a political comeback. He founded his own Republican People's Party prior to the presidential election in 1999. He followed this by creating the Forum of Democratic Forces of Kazakstan , FDFK, an organisation which united opposition parties and several public movements previously loyal to the authorities.

Nazarbaev banned Kajegeldin from contesting the 1999 elections. After that the ex-premier concluded that to return to Kazakstan would be to face arrest. He decided to continue opposition from abroad where he managed to remain a considerable thorn in the president's side.

He created a new regional body, the Forum of Democratic Forces of Central Asia, FDFCA, to consolidate regional opposition forces. The group convened its constituent assembly this year in London. It also had meetings in the European parliament and the US Congress where it spoke of political suppression in Kazakstan and elsewhere.

Among common people in Kazakstan, Kajegeldin is still associated with the apparatus of power. "He is thief as all these bureaucrats are and that is why he is hiding from justice," said pensioner Roza Yafarova in a recent survey by the Kazak Association of Sociologists and Analysts.

One of the main Kazak weeklies, Vremy Po, said it was better to have a political opposition which appeals to the national dialogue than end up like Uzbekistan where President Karimov has to deal with the armed Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. "When the constructive political opponents are destroyed people will turn to a radical opposition," the magazine said.

As for the trial, with the defendants and prosecution having finished presenting their cases, it is expected that the court might reach its verdict next week.

Anar Maimakova is the pseudonym of a journalist in Kazakstan.