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Kazak Ex-Premier Falls From Grace

Prosecuting Serik Ahmetov will help president show he’s serious about corruption, even though the problem is systemic.
By Gaziza Baituova

The prosecution of a former prime minister of Kazakstan six months after he was removed from government office has caused less of a stir than might have been expected.

Serik Ahmetov’s fall from grace came as preparations began for the April 26 election in which President Nursultan Nazarbaev is standing for yet another term in office. Some commentators believe the case is meant to show voters that their leader – who is in any case the sole candidate – is really serious about tackling corruption.

Last month, Ahmetov was charged on six criminal counts for embezzlement, taking bribes, abuse of office and unlawful business activity. Prosecutors claim that the total loss to the state comes to over one billion tenge (about 5.4 million US dollars).

Prosecutors said they had been building a case for five months, which suggests they launched it around the time Ahmetov was dismissed as defence minister, a post he held from April to October last year. Before that, he had served as prime minister for a year-and-a-half.

Sergei Akimov, a leading political commentator, does not believe the prosecution was actually timed to coincide with Nazarbaev’s election campaign, but it will certainly be exploited to that end.

“This election is unique. On the one hand, there is absolutely no competition involved in it, and on the other, it’s taking place at a time of serious economic problems,” he told IWPR. “That latter fact makes it difficult to pack the president’s election manifesto with welfare pledges. So they’re having to resort to ideological rhetoric – nation-building, state governance reforms, and the war on corruption. So the Ahmetov case turns out to be pertinent. What the average person will take away from official pronouncements on the case is, ‘This time the war on corruption is in earnest. Nazarbaev intends to defeat this evil.’”

Rozlana Taukina, who heads the Association of Journalists with Equal Rights, agrees that the case is being pursued to demonstrate the government’s anti-corruption credentials.

“Once the election is over, the criminal case may be put on ice,” she said.

“The arrest of a former prime minister of Kazakstan hasn’t caused much of a stir. The public response has been passive,” Taukina said, explaining that this was because people did not believe Ahmetov was any worse than other officials.

“The president can take any official and send him to court,” Taukina said. “The web of corruption is on such a large scale that officials can’t operate – let alone have a career and rise to high office – unless they abide by the unwritten rules. The wealthiest people in Kazakstan are officials, not businessmen and bankers…. There are exceptions when some official ends up in the dock after falling victim to some plot, and becomes the object of censure and punishment.”

The Ahmetov case is the first of its kind, as the only occasion on which a former prime minister has been prosecuted in person. Akezhan Kazhegeldin, who was prime minister between 1994 and 1997, was convicted of embezzlement in 2001, but that trial was in absentia as he had already gone into exile.

Another difference between the two is that in 1998, Kazhegeldin tried to stand against Nazarbaev – he was disbarred as a candidate – whereas Ahmetov has never shown any sign of disloyalty.

Economist Galymbek Akulbekov doubts that Ahmetov incurred Nazarbaev’s wrath by making a move against him.

“That would be unlikely given that elite groupings including the former prime minister’s team spent years winning the president’s favour with the single aim of reaping immense dividends,” he said. “Nazarbaev needs the loyalty of the elites, and vice versa.”

Akimov argues that prosecuting Ahmetov is also an opportunity to send out a message to the various political and business factions that jostle for power not to rock the boat. When Ahmetov was appointed in September 2012, he and his allies rapidly expanded their sphere of influence and gained the ascendency. This kind of imbalance is a risk to the stability of the system.

“The stand-off among Kazakstan’s elite groupings has reached a state of both reasonable stability and, at the same time, tension. All sectors and spheres have been divided up. It’s extremely difficult to expand one’s area of influence, while any loss of influence is catastrophic,” Akimov said. “The current players are powerful and smart, and they aren’t prepared to let in any new competitors.”

Gaziza Baituova is an IWPR contributor in Kazakstan.