Murder Widens Political Gulf in Kazakstan

Even though the government is trying to show its investigation is scrupulously fair, colleagues of murdered opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbaev say the true story remains untold.

Murder Widens Political Gulf in Kazakstan

Even though the government is trying to show its investigation is scrupulously fair, colleagues of murdered opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbaev say the true story remains untold.

The murder of a leading political figure in Kazakstan has developed into a major row that threatens to widen the already huge gulf between the government of President Nazarbaev and the embattled opposition parties.

The sheer violence of what looks to have been a professional hit against Altynbek Sarsenbaev has shocked the country, and threatens to shake the image the Kazak government has nurtured of a safe, trouble-free society.

As Sarsenbaev was one of the co-leaders of the Naghyz Ak Zhol party, his opposition colleagues placed the blame squarely on the government. For their part, the authorities have denied any part in the killing, and have moved quickly to make arrests.

The revelation that the suspects are members of an elite security service unit will bolster the suspicions of the opposition – who are now asking who ordered the murder - but also reflects the authorities’ position that they are doing their utmost to clear the matter up and will not protect anyone found to be involved.

Sarsenbaev – sometimes referred to as Sarsenbay-Uly, a Kazak form of his name – was found dead on the outskirts of Almaty, Kazakstan’s second city, on the morning of February 12. The bodies of his driver Vasily Zhuravlev and bodyguard Baurzhan Baibosyn were found nearby. Sarsenbaev had been shot in the back and, presumably to ensure the job was done, in the head. Initial reports that he died in a hunting accident were quickly discounted.


Sarsenbaev, 43, had an eventful political career, first as a Nazarbaev ally and later an opponent. At 30, he became the youngest serving cabinet minister and was in charge of the press and information ministry for eight years.

In 2001 he moved up to become secretary of the Security Council, a body that works closely with President Nazarbaev. The following year, he became ambassador to Kazakstan’s strategic ally Russia, but resigned in 2003 to join the newly formed Ak Zhol (Bright Path) party.

In 2004 he was briefly coopted back into government as information minister, but stepped down after just three months in protest at the September parliamentary election.

Some of Ak Zhol’s leading lights including Sarsenbaev, Oraz Zhandosov and Bulat Abilov, broke with the party in spring last year to form Naghyz (the real) Ak Zhol. Sarsenbaev also sat on the steering board of the umbrella opposition group the Movement for a Fair Kazakstan.

Many saw him as a uniquely influential figure who provided intellectual and strategic direction for the opposition. He also spoke out stridently against government corruption, naming many important names – and no doubt making a few enemies along the way.


As the rumour-mills got going, it was clearly important for the government to take a stand on such a highly sensitive political issue, and to be seen to be taking real action in as transparent a manner as possible.

“Regardless of who is behind this crime, those who carried out, organised and ordered these murders will all stand before a court and receive the harshest punishment,” said President Nazarbaev, adding he had “immediately issued strict orders to the law-enforcement agencies to involve all forces in solving this crime.”

Interior Minister Baurzhan Mukhametjanov and Chief Prosecutor Ilyas Bakhtybaev were personally placed in charge of the investigation. Their officers were reported to be looking into three different possible motives for the murder: a business fall-out, a domestic dispute and a plot designed to create political instability.

At a February 16 briefing, Mukhametjanov announced an unprecedented reward of 10 million tenge (about 75,000 US dollars), for information leading to the arrest of the culprits. He also said that on the president’s instructions, FBI experts had been called in to help.

On February 22, the National Security Committee or KNB announced that five of its own men had been arrested in the case. The five all served with Arystan, a special paramilitary unit within the security service. The KNB said the men were arrested after mobile phones belonging to Sarsenbaev’s dead driver and bodyguard were traced.

The same day, police on the Sarsenbaev murder squad arrested a senior politician in connection with the case. Erzhan Utembaev, who was head of the administrative office in the Senate or upper house of parliament and was formerly a deputy prime minister, was detained in the capital Astana. It is not known what police want to talk to him about.

Also the same day, KNB chief Nartay Dutbaev announced his resignation. There has been no suggestion that he was implicated, and his decision to step down is instead a clear sign of the government’s wish to show that senior officials will be held accountable for the actions even of rogue elements.


None of this was enough for opposition politicians, shaken by what they see as a brutal premeditated attack on one of their own. To signal their lack of confidence in any official investigation, they set up their own unofficial, independent investigative commission led by For a Fair Kazakstan chairman Zharmakhan Tuyakbay, who as a former chief prosecutor has some credibility.

Sarsenbaev’s funeral turned into an opposition protest meeting at which some harsh words were addressed to the government. Communist Party leader Serikbolsyn Abdildin spoke of “a policy of elimination, violence and reprisals against dissidents”.

News of the KNB men’s arrest fuelled rather than defused their suspicions about the government’s intention to see the investigation through.

The general secretary of the Movement For a Fair Kazakstan, Tulegen Zhukeev, cast doubt on the official story, suggesting that it was not the whole truth and more people may have been involved.

“Despite the recent news of the arrest of criminals, the direct killers of Altynbek Sarsenbaev have not yet been found,” he said. “There is no doubt that those under arrest only carried out part of the contract killing.”

Jukeev said the opposition investigative commission also wanted to have a chance to talk to the FBI agent who had now arrived in Kazakstan to help the authorities, “We’ll naturally aim to meet him. He needs to question not just individuals made available to him by the [official] investigative team, but also people whom we identify - starting with ourselves.”

The opposition campaign continued with a February 22 meeting of the independent commission which issued a statement saying “the police have not yet identified the contractors, the real organisers, and the murderers – all of whom are still at liberty”. The commission also urged the Kazak authorities to interrogate a list of senior political figures with whom Sarsenbaev had been at odds in recent years.


Sarsenbaev’s death follows uncomfortably close on the heels of the murder of another senior opposition politician. Zamanbek Nurkadilov was found dead at his home in November last year, shortly before the presidential election. Nurkadilov, like Sarsenbaev, spent many years as a heavyweight in the Nazarbaev regime, only to fall out with the president and join the opposition.

Mayor of Almaty for nine years, when it was still the country’s capital, Nurkadilov stepped down as emergencies minister in April 2004. Although he took a strong stand against the president – even calling for impeachment – he differed from Sarsenbaev in that he failed to win a leading role in the opposition.

An official investigation said that he committed suicide with his own gun, but the opposition raised questions about the nature of his injuries, which suggested he received bullet wounds to the chest before the final head shot.


Whatever official investigators find out in the Sarsenbaev case, his death leaves supporters of the opposition in shock as they ask themselves who might be next.

“Kazakstan’s opposition has been beheaded,” said Adil Jalilov, who heads the MediaNet centre for journalism.

However, Jalilov believes the opposition will get through this crisis and may come out stronger. “It’s unlikely that this murder will intimidate the opposition - it will probably do the reverse,” he said.

In the past, he argues, the most the opposition – both active and potential members – had to fear was that the authorities would punish them by seizing their property through quasi-legal means. “Now they have very strong reasons for standing together to oppose the direct threat of elimination,” he said.

Jalilov believes it is the government which will have to work hard to dispel widespread public suspicions, despite its efforts to show it is being completely frank about this murder case. In particular, he said, the KNB has lost a lot of public confidence, “The special services will have to make titanic efforts for years to come to repair their image even partially.”

Gulmira Arbabaeva is an independent journalist in Almaty.

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