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Kazakstan: Opposition Gagged at Key Economic Summit

Opposition prevented from venting criticism of the government at international conference aimed at attracting foreign investment
By Eduard Poletaev

Political activists were detained for up to six hours after trying to warn potential investors of the authoritarian nature of the Kazak government during the Eurasian Economic Summit in Almaty this week.


The high-level meeting, held under the aegis of the World Economic Forum on April 8 and 9, was the subject of unprecedented levels of security as the government attempted to stifle dissent following a series of recent challenges to its authority.


Compared to other Central Asian countries, Kazakstan has relatively good living standards and attracting further foreign investment to the oil and gas sectors is seen as crucial for economic growth and ensuring the survival of the current leadership.


Indeed, President Nursultan Nazarbaev estimates that to "protect the region from calamities ... it is necessary for Kazakstan to export up to 200 million tons of oil a year".


The international forum, nicknamed the Almaty Davos, became a political battleground as the government sought to keep the spotlight firmly on the attractiveness of its natural resources and the opponents tried to use it to give vent to accusations of authoritarianism, corruption and political persecution of dissenters.


Several representatives of Akezhan Kazhegeldin's Republican People's Party of Kazakstan, RPPK, who tried to express concerns over growing government repression to conference participants were detained in remand cells for a period of six hours and later fined the equivalent of five US dollars.


Outside, the main roads of the former capital had police officers, including cadets from the Academy of the Ministry for Internal Affairs, stationed every 50 to 100 metres. There were long tailbacks as the result of the restricted traffic movements.


Critical television channels and newspapers were closed down before the meeting while most of the invited opposition delegates proved to be very cautious.


Overall, observers say the Eurasian summit demonstrated that while opposition movements are hampering the Kazak authorities they are not strong enough to make foreign investors lose interest in the region.


Indeed presidential adviser, Ermukhamet Ertysbaev, breezily declared that "foreign investors don't care where they're investing money, be it in a dictatorship or a democracy."


He may well have been encouraged in this belief by the experience of neighbouring Uzbekistan where President Islam Karimov's authoritarian rule has not prevented significant financial aid from the United States.


The weeks leading up to the economic conference saw a harsh government crackdown on the opposition culminating in an unprecedented incident in which the leader of the newly formed Democratic Choice of Kazakstan, Galymzhan Zhakiyanov, sought refugee in the French embassy at the end of March.


The authorities accuse the former governor of Pavlodar of stealing state resources while he and his supporters claim they are the victims of a politically motivated witch-hunt.


The government became concerned in the lead up to conference when the president's main political opponent, Akezhan Kazhegeldin, called for a boycott of the event, with other opposition groups also urging people "not to support the dictatorship of Nazarbaev" by attending.


Kazhegeldin, a former Kazak prime minister who leads the opposition Republican People's Party, is currently in exile.


To the dismay of the authorities, the organisers of the conference invited delegates from across the political spectrum. And the well-known opposition figure Pyotr Svoik says the attendance of opposition representatives was in itself a significant event, "We were able to talk to a lot of people and to tell them of the events which are taking place in Kazakstan."


The message they were trying to get across to potential investors, he said, was "that authoritarianism has made Kazakstan the most unconvincing state in the region".


Bakytjamal Bekturganova, one of the few outspoken opposition delegates at the conference, argued that political repression is of little concern to those keen to exploit the country's economic potential.


"It is symbolical that the Eurasian summit is taking place exactly at the time when opposition in Kazakstan is under siege and is forced to protect itself. This means at least two things: first, international financial institutions and corporations are not against authoritarianism. Secondly, they express willingness to support authoritarian systems in exchange for their commercial interests," she said.


That the government still holds most of the cards was demonstrated when almost as soon as the delegates had left, Zhakiyanov, now under house arrest, was moved from Almaty to Pavlodar. The authorities said the move was connected with their investigation while his colleagues believe he is being isolated from supporters and European diplomats.


Eduard Poletaev and Oleg Sidorov are IWPR contributors in Kazakstan


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