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

Questions Over Kazakstan "Terror Plot"

Allegations seem designed to blame exiled opposition figure Mukhtar Ablyazov for all that is wrong with Kazakstan.
By Alexandra Kazakova
  • Exiled banker and government critic Mukhtar Ablyazov. (Photo: Serik Kovlanbaev)
    Exiled banker and government critic Mukhtar Ablyazov. (Photo: Serik Kovlanbaev)

As the authorities in Kazakstan try to implicate exiled banker and government critic Mukhtar Ablyazov in an alleged terror plot, analysts are trying to figure out why the allegations have been made, and why now.

One obvious reason for trying to nail Ablyazov, they say, is that unlike other political figures in exile, he has a presence inside Kazakstan through his links to an opposition group and local media outlets.

Accusing Ablyazov of terrorism is designed to tarnish his reputation – and that of his associates, too – in the eyes of the international community.

Secondly, raising the alarm about a threat to public security may serve as a useful distraction from the embarrassment which the government suffered after violence in the western town of Janaozen in December, in which its police force is accused of opening fire on protesters, killing 14 and injuring over 100.

The Kazak prosecution service issued a press statement on March 28 stating that the authorities had foiled attacks that were planned by associates of Ablyazov in the country’s second city, Almaty. One of the would-be attackers is said to have turned himself in to the police four days before the announcement.

The suspected plotters were named as Muratbek Ketebaev, a leader of the Alga party who is currently abroad, and Ablyazov’s security chief Alexander Pavlov, now in the UK. The statement said several people were under arrest, without giving more details.

Although Ablyazov was not accused in person, the allegations seem designed to place him in the frame as the ultimate mastermind.

In an interview published on the Respublika news website on March 9, Ablyazov said the allegations against his associates were unfounded.

Pro-government media outlets then carried what purported to be a leaked video of one of the suspects being questioned, and reported that the terrorism charges were to be expanded to include an attempted coup.

Ablyazov made international headlines when he was sentenced to 22 months in jail in Britain in February for contempt of court. He is accused of embezzling billions of US dollars from the BTA bank in Kazakstan.

He denies the claims made against him in this case, saying it is designed to rob him of his assets and silence him as an opponent of President Nursultan Nazarbaev.

Ablyazov and a number of his associates abroad are linked to the Alga party as well as to the Golos Respubliki newspaper and its sister website Respublika. Ketebaev also founded another opposition newspaper, Vzglyad, and is head of the Civic Activism foundation.

Golos Respubliki is now under pressure. The director of its parent company, Daniar Moldashev, was detained in Almaty on March 28, and two of its reporters were questioned by the Kazak security service.

Vzglyad’s chief editor, Igor Vinyavsky, was arrested earlier this year but released last month.

The latest allegations follow earlier suggestions that Ablyazov instigated the trouble in Janaozen, a charge he also denies.

When those allegations surfaced, Yermuhamet Yertysbaev, political advisor to President Nazarbaev, accused Ablazov of bankrolling opposition media and using them as an instrument to overthrow the government through “revolution, mass unrest, chaos and violence”.

Alga party leader Vladimir Kozlov is facing trial along with a number of oil industry labour activists and opposition members, accused of “inciting social discord”. They were not involved in the Janaozen violence, but had expressed support for striking oil workers in the town over the preceding months, and helped set up an independent inquiry to look into the December shootings.

Independent political scientist Rasul Jumaly is sceptical about whether there is any substance to the terror plot allegations.

“Of course, if it was indeed the case and our security services managed to foil a terrorist threat, then they are due all respect and praise,” he said, adding that “the security services should have provided more convincing evidence that talks took place [between the alleged organisers and attackers], and that an explosive device existed.” .

As allegation follows allegation, the authorities seem dead set on eliminating Ablyazov’s capacity to exert any influence in Kazakstan.

Viktor Kovtunovsky of the non-government Civil Society group put it, “The authorities are now trying to kill two birds with one stone by shifting the blame for Janaozen onto someone else, and by clamping down on the opposition.”

He noted that having accused opposition figures of incitement after Janaozen – a serious offence in itself – the authorities faced a strong negative reaction from the international community, and now seemed determined to raise the stakes.

“The authorities thus see it as expedient to accuse Ablyazov of more dangerous things – for example terrorism – as a way of bolstering their position,” Kovtunovsky said.

As for the reaction in Kazakstan, Kovtunovsky said media coverage and discussions on social networking sites suggested that most people were not overly concerned about the terror allegations directed against Ablyazov.

“These allegations are raising lots of questions both inside the country and abroad,” he said. “It’s evidence of scepticism, as people have developed a healthy mistrust towards anything emanating from the authorities.”

Kovtunovsky said he did not believe the political opposition had any interest in dabbling in violence, not least since terrorism always resulted in societies and their governments drawing together to face a common enemy.

“Such methods are more typical of radical groups that have come into Kazakstan from outside. And even then, their radicalism is fuelled by persecution by the authorities,” he said, referring to the growing influence of Islamic extremist groups among some marginalised groups in Kazakstan.

Kovtunovsky wondered whether the plot might also reflect an effort by the security services to show Nazarbaev that they were doing their job. After the violence in Janaozen, the law-enforcement agencies and local government officials were accused of allowing the situation to slide out of control.

“It’s possible that one of the possible reasons why the National Security Committee is cooking up this case is to rehabilitate itself in the president’s eyes,” he said.

A terrorist threat hanging in the air could also make it easier for the government to justify greater restrictions on freedom of assembly and expression. It could also facilitate the conduct of trials of oppositionists behind closed doors.

“The atmosphere of fear surrounding Ablyazov and groups that support him is intensifying, and is also sensed by the public in general,” Kovtunovsky said.

Jumaly questioned the overall trend towards blaming external factors for all of Kazakstan’s ills.

“There’s a tendency these days to lay the blame for the problems facing Kazakstan on outside forces, whether it’s Ablyazov, religious extremists, or other countries, for example the United States,” he said. “I personally believe this is the wrong approach, as the root causes should be looked for inside the country.”

Alexandra Kazakova is IWPR Kazakstan director.

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