Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

No Let-Up in Pressure on Kazak Opposition

After President Nazarbaev’s easy election win, he might safely have ignored his opponents – but apparently he hasn’t.
By Gaziza Baituova
Although Nursultan Nazarbaev’s landslide victory in the December presidential election appeared to make his position more unassailable than ever, pressure on the opposition has been stepped up since then.

As Nazarbaev was inaugurated on January 11, he embarked on a seven-year term in office with no strong political rivals even on the horizon. So his administration might have been expected to show a little magnanimity towards an opposition that had effectively been marginalised for the foreseeable future.

But instead, in the weeks following the December 4 election the authorities have shown even greater determination than usual to slap down their opponents – and keep them down. Signs of the pressure include the failure to release one opposition figure Galymzhan Zhakiyanov, and attempts to prosecute another, Bulat Abilov.

Some observers say Nazarbaev is lashing out at opponents just to show who is boss. But others say the president is still wary of the opposition’s capacity to recruit disaffected officials from his entourage.

Abilov, who is co-leader of the Real Ak Jol party, found himself facing the second of two criminal investigations on December 18. The accusations have been made by Kazakstan’s financial police, who say the politician is suspected of illegal acts relating to land transactions, and also of deception.

Abilov dismisses the police’s case out of hand, saying the whole thing has been fabricated to drive him out of politics.

“It’s rubbish which will not stand up to closer examination,” he said. “These criminal cases and attempts at a prosecution are no more than a further step in escalating pressure on the opposition. There is just one reason for it – the political position which I occupy, and our harsh criticism of the outcome of the presidential election.”

Abilov is not the only opposition member facing legal problems. Alibek Jumabaev, who acted as election agent of losing presidential candidate Zharmakhan Tuyakbay in the southern Jambyl region, has been under arrest for over a month on charges of hooliganism, insulting the Kazak president, and organising disturbances.

Jumabaev believes his case, too, no more than political persecution.

In Shymkent, also in the south, opposition activist Asylkhan Batyrshaev has been under house arrest since December 3, the day before the election, again on charges of arranging disturbances.

Another opposition activist, Makhambet Abjan, was extradited on December 23 from Kyrgyzstan where he had sought political refuge.

The Juma Times, a leading national opposition newspaper, was ordered to suspend publication on December 20 after liquidation proceedings at a court in Kazakstan’s second city Almaty.

This followed a decision by a lower court to confiscate and destroy an entire print-run of the paper on December 8, once again for insulting President Nazarbaev, a serious criminal offence in this country. Juma Times had apparently been reprinting Russian and United States articles about the “Kazakhgate” scandal, the subject of an ongoing trial in New York relating to massive bribes allegedly paid to senior Kazak officials by western firms seeking oil contracts in the Nineties.

Rozlana Taukina, a free speech activist, said the liquidation proceedings came as a surprise to Juma Times owner Ermurat Bapi and the journalists who work on it.

“The court hearing was conducted in absentia, with no representatives of the editorial staff present,” she said. “This is yet another example of liquidation prosecutors going after independent media.”

Bapi said the legal action was likely to set a trend, “Having won a pyrrhic victory, Nazarbaev now wants to show the entire world that he is loved by 100 per cent of the people in Kazakstan. And he wants to prove this by one method – shutting the mouths of the independent press.”

Galymzhan Zhakiyanov, a former provincial governor who became one of the founding members of the Democratic Choice of Kazakstan, was scheduled for release on December 24, three years after he was convicted on what many observers say were politically-motivated charges.

Zhakiyanov had the right to seek release on probation after completing half his prison sentence in October, and, on December 14, a court ruled that he should be let out. However, penal officials stepped in and blocked the move, alleging that Zhakiyanov had committed breaches of regulations while incarcerated.

Yevgeny Zhovtis, director of the Kazakstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, says that eight of the nine infractions cited by the prison authorities had been annulled and were thus irrelevant, while the ninth consisted of Zhakiyanov leaving his workplace briefly to put on warmer clothes, which was hardly cause to deny someone release.

“Just as this case has been surrounded by pure politics before, so it continues to be,” Zhovtis told IWPR.

Opposition supporters say the whole abortive release process was staged in advance.

“The authorities have been looking for excuses to keep Zhakiyanov in prison until Nazarbaev’s inauguration is over, as his release could spoil the celebration,” said Gulzhan Ergalieva, editor of the Svoboda Slova newspaper.

Other moves against the opposition include a December 20 court ruling that the Real Ak Jol party is not entitled to establish a branch in the capital Astana, saying it could not come up with a long enough list of members; and somewhat predictably, the Supreme Court’s decision to throw out a case brought by the coalition movement “For a Fair Kazakstan”, which wanted the Central Electoral Commission to annul the election result because of statistical inaccuracies.

The Real Ak Jol has been unable to register as a national party since it formed in April last year, when Abilov and other politicians including, Oraz Zhandosov, Altynbek Sarsenbay-uly and Tulegen Zhukeev left the original Ak Jol. The other main opposition party, Alga, set up as the successor to the Democratic Choice of Kazakstan after it was banned in early 2005, has also been unable to obtain official registration, denying it the right to take part in elections.

But even if they cannot operate as legal political parties and their candidates are – according to official poll results - roundly defeated in election after election, these opposition groups still appear to worry the Nazarbaev administration.

According to Dosym Satpaev, director of the Risk Assessment Group, a Kazakstan think-tank, that is because so many of the opposition’s leading lights are defectors from the president’s camp.

“Although the authorities were convinced they would win the presidential election, they still treated the opposition with extreme caution, principally because it includes a large number of former senior officials. The president still fears that these political players could provoke a split within the elite,” said Satpaev. “That is why the authorities began pressuring the opposition on all fronts. The president had to show everyone that absolute power resides in his hands, and that he does not have a single serious opponent.”

Other observers, however, argue that the main reason the Nazarbaev administration is hounding its opponents is that it can.

“It’s happened precisely because the incumbent president won such a high percentage of the vote,” said Sabit Zhusupov, head of the Institute for Socioeconomic Information and Forecasting. “Sociologists had made the point that should Nazarbaev win an unassailable victory, some of the ruling elite would be inclined to stop regarding the opposition as a political actor of any weight. And if that happened, there would be no longer to engage in dialogue with them. That is what the authorities are trying to demonstrate with their harsh measures.”

Abilov shares this view. “All Nazarbaev’s words about modernisation, reform and the possibility of dialogue are nothing but words,” he said. “The authorities want a purge of Kazakstan’s democrats.”

Gaziza Baituova is an IWPR contributor in Taraz.