Kazak Media Battle

An increasingly public battle over the Kazak media is widely seen as the first stage in country's next presidential race.

Kazak Media Battle

An increasingly public battle over the Kazak media is widely seen as the first stage in country's next presidential race.

The President of Kazakstan's son-in-law and political heir apparent has come under fierce attack for seizing control of such a large slice of the country's media, in what many see as the first skirmish of the next presidential race.

The open season on Rakhat Aliev began on October 10 when an opposition deputy publicly called on President Nazarbaev to investigate the activities of Aliev, his son-in-law and first deputy chairman of the state security body, the KNB, successor to the old KGB. Speaking on behalf of a group of deputies, Tolen Tokhtasynov read out a list of well-known television channels, newspapers and news agencies which he said had come under Aliev's direct ownership.

That Aliev and his wife, Dariga Nazarbaeva, the president's daughter, have gained a virtual monopoly over Kazakstan's media was no revelation. The surprise was that such an attack should be publicly aired in parliament.

The couple's media empire is extensive. Nazarbaeva is managing director of the news agency Khabar, whose reports are carried throughout Kazakstan and she profits from the advertising revenue on the ORT-Kazakstan channel.

The TV channels NTK and Europa Plus Kazakstan receive broadcast frequencies from Khabar in several regions without competitive tendering. It is also rumoured that Aliev has taken over the newspaper Novoye Pokolenie (New Generation) one of the main weeklies with highest circulation.

In May 1999, reports surfaced that Aliev had bought Informika Ltd, the largest media holding in Kazakstan, worth 18,000,000 US dollars, along with the radio station Karavan, the weekly magazine Karavan and the publishing house Franklin. The commercial TV channel KTK was also said to have joined the Aliev's media portfolio. The pattern of accusations launched against Aliev casts a little light on Kazakstan's murky internal power struggles. One day before Tokhtasynov's speech, the governor, or akim, of the north-eastern region of Pavlodar, Galymjan Jakianov, sharply criticised KTK and those behind this TV station.

The opposition followed up on the akim's speech on October 11, with a press release reporting an emergency press conference by the governing body of KTK held to discuss the sale of shares owned by the channel's editorial board, a sale that the governors claimed was the result of external pressure.

The general director of KTK, however, countered this manoeuvre by announcing that the big new shareholders in the station were, in fact, several large oil companies and 113 private individuals and that Aliev had no known connection to any of them.

The increasingly public battle over the media is widely seen as the first stage in Kazakstan's next presidential race. Although elections for the post of head of state are not due until 2007, there are indications that President Nazarbaev may not complete his full term.

Corruption scandals, allegedly involving American companies, and persistent reports of the president's ill health are among the reasons cited for a possible early poll.

In the coming race, Aliev enjoys several advantages if he tries to succeed his father-in-law. He has the media in his hands, the resources of the KNB at his disposal and enough money from his business interests.

He is ambitious, strong and attractive. At the same time he is cunning and ruthless towards anyone who challenges the power of Nazarbaev family.

Opposition members accuse him of employing "police tactics" to control his media empire. The opposition journalist Sergei Duvanov says if reports are correct that Karavan newspaper and the KTK channel are controlled by Aliev, "many things become clear".

"KTK and Karavan journalists scarcely differ from secret policemen," he said. "They do not break bones or write threats on the walls. They don't eavesdrop on telephone conversations and don't ban meetings. But libelling innocent people, sullying reputations and spitting into people's souls is also a kind of terrorism."

Aliev's growing influence poses a clear threat to other major contenders for the president's throne. Aliev and Jakianov are obvious rivals. Although Aliev has greater political influence, Jakianov has the lead in business.

The long-standing head of the Pavlodar regional administration started out in politics in the mid-1990s under former prime-minister Akejan Kajegeldin, the main political opponent of President Nazarbaev. He was forced to resign in 1997 after four years in government and now lives in exile in London.

Jakianov, born in 1956, belongs to a new generation of Kazak politicians, known as Young Turks. Some are Western-educated technocrats, while others are successful businessmen for whom politics is the next step in strengthening their business interests.

Most people consider Jakianov as ambitious, strong and active as his rival. He is seen as tough rather than compromising, quite attractive and fairly competent.

He has already proved a skilful politician, ready to change his political loyalties to further his career. Although Kajegeldin helped his rise, he has attacked his former patron.

And in spite of Kajegeldin's fall from favour and the disappearance of most people associated with him, Jakianov survived and moved up the career ladder.

As Aliev tries to raise his public profile, he has courted opposition from all those who resent the deputy head of the KNB's ambitions.

Several key political figures have joined this bloc, united solely by dislike of Aliev. As the power structures controlled by Aliev and his wife widen his sphere of influence, individual opponents know it is useless to combat his power on their own.

The full extent of the group opposed to the Aliev remains unclear. But as questions arise over how long Nazarbaev will remain as president, the akim of Pavlodar region might emerge as the leading opponent of his son-in-law's bid for power.

Akhmet Esenbaev and Olga Artamonova are pseudonyms for journalists in Kazakstan

Support our journalists