Kazakstan: Regime Quashes Dissent

By Eduard Poletaev in Almaty (RCA No. 143, 3-Sep-02)

Kazakstan: Regime Quashes Dissent

By Eduard Poletaev in Almaty (RCA No. 143, 3-Sep-02)

Monday, 14 November, 2005

The country was fast approaching a political crisis before the attacks, but President Nursultan Nazarbaev calculated that he could crack down on internal dissent without incurring the wrath of the West, so long as he backed the US-led campaign against Islamic extremism.

"The Bush administration was prepared to turn a blind eye to Kazakstan's human rights violations in exchange for Astana's partnership in the 'war against terrorism'," said Kazak political analyst Marjan Kalpykova.

"Nazarbaev knew America wanted his presidency to be secure in order to strike a strong alliance, reliable air corridors and, of course, the country's oil interests," said writer Amantai Akhetov.

The president - one of the first Central Asian leaders to express support for the US campaign - now seems to think that he has carte blanche to suppress civil freedom in the name of the anti-extremist struggle and political stability.

Nazarbaev has in effect been able to neutralise internal opposition, which had reached a dangerous pitch just prior to the atrocities in the US.

The fact that the president's relations and loyal officials openly controlled much of the nation's political, economic and social activity was causing much discontent, culminating in a furore over media revelations about Swiss bank accounts allegedly linked to him and some associates.

Nazarbaev's son-in-law Rakhat Aliev was deputy chairman of the National Security Committee, NSC - successor to the KGB - and controlled a major financial empire, as well as Alma Media, a wide-ranging media company.

His wife Dariga Nazarbaeva chairs the board of Khabar news agency, and is considered an influential figure. The president's other son-in-law Timur Kulibaev and his nephew Kairat Satybaldy control the oil and gas industry, Kazakstan's main source of hard currency.

The political crisis began when Aliev's opponents - mainly high-ranking government officials and business tycoons - claimed he abused his powers when he began to put pressure on his business and political rivals.

They were so enraged that they set up a new opposition party, the Democratic Choice of Kazakstan, DCK, which took a stand against Aliev and appealed to Nazarbaev for

democratic reforms.

In a bid to diffuse the mounting tension, the president sacked his son-in-law - along with officials who had joined the DCK. Aliev has since assumed a more low-profile post as the country's ambassador to Austria.

Assuming this would settle the conflict, Nazarbaev sought to repair his international image, apparently calculating that support for the US-led campaign against extremism would restore his reputation - a strategy that seems to have worked.

During an official visit to the US in December, at the personal invitation of President George Bush, Nazarbaev offered the use of Kazak airspace, hinting at the possibility of airbases for the allied forces.

In return for such loyalty, the Senate, which had earlier lambasted the Kazak leadership for human rights violations and political repression, passed a resolution praising the country for its cooperation in regional security.

Feeling that he was immune to international criticism, Nazarbaev went back to stifling political opposition and civil liberties. "They are trying to turn Kazakstan into a police state," Jemis Turmagambetova, assistant director of Kazakstan's International Office for Human Rights and Rule of Law, told IWPR.

In early January, the president asked parliament to speed up the passage of several controversial bills, including one on combating extremism and another that would grant the authorities greater surveillance powers. The deputies obliged and also approved legislation reinforcing government control of religious affairs.

Subsequently, long prison terms were handed down to DCK leaders Mukhtar Abliazov, former minister of industry, power and trade, and Galymzhan Zhakianov, ex-governor of the Pavlodar region this summer - both for "abuse of power" charges which DCK members claim were politically-motivated.

"We have come to the conclusion that the sole purpose of the trial of Abliazov and Zhakianov was to punish them for their political dissent and opposition activity," said the Kazak human rights body.

The media also came under severe pressure. "Journalists are being beaten, arrested, framed, imprisoned, threatened and censored. Kazakstan is about to reduce its press to the same subservient status it has in Belarus or Uzbekistan," said Oleg Panfilov, director of the Centre for Extreme Journalism at the Press Union of Russia.

The opposition channel Tan has been off-air for months, and a number of newspapers have been threatened: a human skull was found nailed to the door of Ak jaiyk; a decapitated dog was tied to a window on the premises of Delovoye obozrenie Respublika; and a number of SolDAT journalists have been intimidated.

Meanwhile, Kazakstan and the US have cemented their partnership. Astana received nearly eight million dollars from Washington earlier this summer for military purposes and a memorandum allowing allied planes to use Almaty airport for emergency landings and refuelling has been signed.

In the longer term, most analysts believe that America's interests in Kazakstan primarily concern its energy resources, especially Caspian oil, as Washington seeks to diversify its sources of fuel.

By strengthening its presence in the region, the US would also gain an outpost next to the Chinese border and could seek to lessen the influence of Russia, the area's former colonial overlord.

Ultimately, the events of September 11 have enabled the Kazak regime to suppress basic freedoms while waving the banner of the struggle against extremism.

The opposition has been decimated and the legislature and judiciary are in Nazarbaev's hands, so the government's relentless quest to bring Kazakstan's economic and political life under its full control appears assured of success.

Political analyst Nurbolat Masanov said starkly, "Our political leaders are now convinced they can get away with anything."

Meanwhile, the world's only superpower - for reasons of its own national interest - chooses to look the other way, preferring a stable, authoritarian regime to democratic change.

Eduard Poletaev is IWPR editor in Almaty

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