On the Road

On the Road: 2002

Kazakhs' Season of Repression
President of Key U.S. Ally Puts Critics on Trial, in Jail
By Robert G. Kaiser
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 22, 2002; Page A01

ASTANA, Kazakhstan -- A supreme court justice sentenced a former government minister to six years in prison last week and denied him the right to appeal his conviction. Three days earlier, a former governor of one of Kazakhstan's biggest regions went on trial; his supporters say he, too, will be jailed. On July 9, the state security agency opened an investigation of a journalist and human rights activist suspected of insulting the honor and dignity of the president, Nursultan Nazarbayev -- one of many recent harassments of independent journalists.

This is a summer of political tension and repression in Kazakhstan, an oil-rich republic four times the size of Texas that occupies much of the vast steppe south of Siberia. At a time when Kazakhstan's economy is booming and its relations with the world's great powers, including the United States, are improving, Nazarbayev has turned against his critics and opponents with a harshness that has surprised many Kazakhs and foreign diplomats here.

The situation in Kazakhstan is sensitive for the United States, which has long considered this country an important future source of oil and more recently a key ally in the war on terrorism. The United States signed an agreement with Kazakhstan this month to allow use of this country's major airport for emergency landings by U.S. warplanes operating over Afghanistan, whose northern border is just 300 miles away.

"We have a big and broad relationship with Kazakhstan that is extremely important to the United States," said a senior U.S. official here.

This year the U.S. ambassador, Larry Napper, has met repeatedly with Nazarbayev to urge more political tolerance. The United States has frequently criticized repressive moves here, most recently at the State Department briefing on Thursday, but without visible effect.

"The president wants to maintain complete control," said a Western businessman who has been in Kazakhstan since soon after it became independent in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed. "That's why he is squashing these people so hard."

The two politicians on trial this summer, charged with corrupt abuse of power, had one thing in common: Both were prominent members of Democratic Choice, a political movement formed last November that provoked a furious reaction from Nazarbayev. Its founders -- insisting they wanted to democratize Kazakhstan, not confront the president -- included a deputy prime minister and several other members of the government. All were fired immediately after aligning themselves with Democratic Choice.

In an interview here in the new Kazakh capital he has built on the plains of the country's far north, Nazarbayev, 62, rejected all criticism of his policies. He said Mukhtar Ablyazov, the former minister of energy, industry and trade, who was convicted Thursday, and Galymzhan Zhakiyanov, former governor of the Pavlodar region, currently on trial, were "the most ordinary corrupt figures" who "used their stolen money to create a political party" in hopes this would protect them from prosecution.

In fact, both men had been the subject of corruption investigations earlier, but the cases had come to nothing until Democratic Choice was announced in November. Then Nazarbayev fired them from the jobs he had given them, and the government began actively prosecuting them.

November was a hot month in Kazakhstan's politics. Days before Democratic Choice was formed, Nazarbayev fired his son-in-law, Rakhat Aliyev, who was deputy minister of the committee for state security, local successor to the KGB. Soon afterward, numerous officials in that office and other "force" ministries, including defense and the police, also were replaced.

Politicians here said there were rumors that Aliyev and others might have been plotting against Nazarbayev, though no hard evidence of a plot has emerged. Today Aliyev lives in Vienna, where he is Kazakhstan's ambassador. His wife, Dariga Nazarbayev, the president's oldest daughter and a media baron, has not joined her husband in Austria, according to Kazakh sources. The president declined to discuss Aliyev's dismissal.

Some well-informed people here say Nazarbayev may be in serious political trouble for the first time in his nearly 11 years as president of independent Kazakhstan. Although he is famed for his political acumen and often compared to a chess player, Nazarbayev's latest moves have reached "a dead end," according to a banker with long experience in Kazakhstan and many friends in the government. Opposition to Nazarbayev has achieved "a critical mass," according to this man, who, like many interviewed for this report, asked to remain anonymous.

Nazarbayev was "a great chess player," said a businessman who has known the president for a decade. "But in the last few months it seems like he's turned the chessboard upside down and scattered the pieces."

"Our country is a super-presidential republic -- the president decides everything," said Tolen Tokhtasynov, an opposition member of parliament who expects his political career to end soon. "He got scared" by the appearance of Democratic Choice, Tokhtasynov added. "He doesn't want to give away any power."

The founders of Democratic Choice say it was intended to achieve a goal that Nazarbayev has often articulated and repeated in his interview: the further democratization of Kazakhstan. "We have declared that we are going to create a free country with democratic principles," Nazarbayev said in the interview.

"Perhaps we didn't calculate the influence of other people" around Nazarbayev, said Alikhan Baimenov, former minister of labor and social security, an original backer of Democratic Choice who now has helped found Ak Zhol, the Democratic Party of Kazakhstan. Baimenov, 43, is one of many young leaders who considered themselves proteges of Nazarbayev and now find themselves his opponents or targets of his wrath.

Baimenov and another founder of Ak Zhol, Bulat Abilov, said they expected Nazarbayev to enter a dialogue with the founders of Democratic Choice. Initially he met with several of them, but conciliation was not Nazarbayev's intention. Baimenov was fired from his ministry, and Abilov was expelled from parliament by the pro-Nazarbayev Otan faction to which he belonged. There was no legal basis for the expulsion, Abilov said.

Baimenov said some of the people around the president convinced Nazarbayev that the founders of Democratic Choice were opposing him personally. They deny this, saying their platform is completely consistent with Nazarbayev's past pronouncements. But key presidential aides "don't want democracy," Baimenov added.

Numerous sources here said Nazarbayev appeared much more sensitive to critics and opponents after his prime minister acknowledged to parliament in April that the president had put a $1 billion payment from Chevron Corp. into a secret Swiss bank account. Government officials insisted the account was used for official purposes only. Nazarbayev said in the interview that "not one kopeck went out of that fund. I give you my guarantee." Kopecks and rubles were the currency of the Soviet Union, which Nazarbayev served as a member of the ruling Communist Party Politburo until 1991.

Reports of corruption involving Nazarbayev's family have circulated for years. The president's daughter Dariga and both his sons-in-law have been active in business here. According to numerous diplomats, local journalists and politicians, Dariga Nazarbayev openly or secretly owns most of the country's news media, including the state television channel.

But President Nazarbayev denied that adamantly. "It is complete nonsense, completely untrue," he said when asked about reports that Dariga is the invisible owner of much of the mass media and keeps money in Swiss accounts. "It's all bluff."

She was, he said, simply the board chairman of one television company -- "not even the general director" -- and that was all. The suggestion that "she owns the mass media, no one has proven that," he said.

Although opponents describe him as hypersensitive to criticism, Nazarbayev denied it. Yes, he acknowledged, there was a law criminalizing "offenses against the honor and dignity of the president," but "no one has ever been accused under it. I always say, let them [critics] talk, no need to [use the law]."

This word apparently did not reach the committee for national security, which is investigating Sergei Duvanov, 49, under that law, Article 318 of the Kazakh criminal code. On July 9 security agents seized two computers belonging to Duvanov, as well as numerous personal documents, and told him subsequently that he could face charges based on an article he wrote for an Internet site that few Kazakh citizens can read. Duvanov said in an interview he expects to be imprisoned.

His article criticized Nazarbayev for opening the secret account in Switzerland, and said Kazakhs were "all afraid to tell the truth" about "the personality cult and cult of fear" in the country.

Yermurat Bapi, editor of the outspoken opposition newspaper SolDat, which is printed outside the country, was convicted under Article 318 last year. His one-year sentence was suspended under a general amnesty ordered by Nazarbayev.

Numerous independent media have been harassed in recent months. One newspaper's office was firebombed. Earlier this month authorities accused its proprietors of hiring arsonists to start the fire themselves. The fire destroyed all the newspaper's computers and other equipment. The daughter of another independent editor died in police custody under mysterious circumstances.

"Tragedies are occurring every second in this country," said Murat Auezov, a writer and son of a renowned Kazakh poet, who served as Nazarbayev's first ambassador to China. Now a critic of the regime, Auezov referred to the country's leaders as "temporaries" who "never thought about the past, are afraid to think about the future, and use the present to grab all they can."

Nazarbayev appears to be thinking about his opposition, however. His Otan faction in parliament hastily passed a law on political parties this month that will make it virtually impossible for opponents to register political parties. The law requires a party to have 50,000 registered members spread across the entire country. The United States criticized the law, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe denounced it, saying the measure "could mean the abolition of political parties." Nazarbayev signed the measure into law last week.

Bapi, the editor, and several politicians predicted that the government's next step will be to call early elections for parliament, and perhaps also for president.

Correction: The photo of President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan that accompanied a July 22 article should have been credited to the Kazakh presidential press service.
Articles on June 10 and July 22 misstated the circumstances of an oil sale in Kazakhstan, whose $1 billion proceeds were diverted by President Nursultan Nazarbayev to a secret Swiss bank account. The money came from the 1996 sale of a share of the onshore Tengiz oilfield to Mobil Corp.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company

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