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Kazakhstan and the Nazarbayev Kleptocracy

07 June 2003

IHRC's S. Janomohamed surveys the corruption and nepotism that characterises today's Kazakhstan.

Kazakhstan and the Nazarbayev Kleptocracy

Since its 1991 independence from the Soviet monolith, Kazakhstan has been mired in a succession of political crises. Kazakhstan has witnessed serious human rights abuses and the denial of fundamental freedoms. Under the reign of Nursultan Nazarbayev, attacks on the political opposition and independent media have become routine. Arbitrary arrests, detentions, torture and extrajudicial killings have been a feature of Nazarbayev’s regime.

Thus Nazarbayev suffers a crisis of legitimacy, derided as a corrupt, ineffectual and unpopular leader. With a 2002 international survey ranking Kazakhstan as amongst the world’s top twenty most corrupt countries, it is the regime of kleptocracy that Nazarbayev has fostered which underpins increasing moves towards a police state.

Censorship of Islam

Nazarbayev’s regime, as with his fellow Central Asian dictators, has sought to target Islamists, perceived as the greatest threat to their collective authoritarian hegemony. Nazarbayev has sought to control Islam through one national Muslim body, headed by a state-appointed Mufti. Those independent Muslim organisations outside the scope of this state body run the risk of invoking the ire of the state. However, the intolerable situation that Nazarbayev presides over prompted the Mufti to resign in June 2001.

In June 2001, Nazarbayev attacked the proliferation of mosques and other religious places of worship. This was followed by a September 2001 Foreign Ministry pronouncement ordering all Kazakh men pursuing Islamic studies abroad to promptly return to Kazakhstan.

Nazarbayev comments of “religious extremism, radicalism and fanaticism in the region”, to the November 2002 Central Asian Co-operation Organisation sets the tone for action against Islamists. Against the backdrop of such statements, the Kazakhstan Defence Minister, Col. Gen. Mukhtar Altynbayev raised the prospect of using the army in domestic situations. This was followed by the initiation of new special forces, placed under the direction of the secret services, KNB, the Kazakh successor to the feared Soviet KGB.

A brief survey of State anti-Islamist violence reveals the initiation of a gradual clampdown. In 1999 police beat 70 members of an Islamic group from Taraz who were temporarily detained. In late 2001 and 2002 two dozen members of the non-violent Islamist group, Hizb-ut-Tahrir, were arrested for distributing leaflets. Members were sentenced of up to four years, whilst others were given heavy fines. Uzbek citizens affiliated to the group were deported to Uzbekistan, where they were sentenced to long prison terms. A disturbing case in November 2001 saw an alleged Hizb-ut-Tahrir member, Kanat Beiembetov, die in hospital following beatings in detention. According to signed statements by Beiembetov and his family, he was beaten by arresting KNB officers. The Beiembetov family have claimed that the KNB have placed them under surveillance, with their children subjected to intimidation.

Faced with enormous opposition, Nazarbayev has exploited US support and the hyperbolic war-on-terror to crack down on the opposition, especially those suspected Islamists. If need be, a fictitious Islamist threat will suffice.

Witness the rise of the Central Asia’s robber baron state

Kazakhstan is being systematically plundered, its resources viewed as a blank cheque by its self-edifying plutocracy. This institutionalised kleptocracy is ossified in the hands of the Nazarbayev family. A network of cronyism and nepotism presides. Kazakhstan should read ‘Nazarbayev and Sons Ltd’. The Nazarbayev family and key associates control key economic and government sectors. An examination reveals that
Dorigo, Nazarbayev’s daughter, controls huge sways of Kazakhstan’s print and broadcast media. Running Khabar TV, she also chairs the Congress of Kazakhstan’s Journalists. Whilst Rakhat Aliev, Nazarbayev’s son-in-law controls vital areas such as special services, tax and customs. And Timur Kulibayev, another son-in-law, predominates in the banking, oil and gas sectors.

The financial activities of the Nazarbayev family have been declared a state secret. The explosive scandal, ‘Kazakhgate’, reveals the extent of corruption. Government oil and gas revenues, along with secret bribery payments from US oil company ExxonMobil, amounting to $1 billion were diverted to secret Swiss bank accounts controlled by Nazarbayev and other senior Kazakh autocrats.
Following the freezing of Swiss bank accounts, Nazarbayev made a January 2003 trip to Switzerland, speculated to ensure his immunity from prosecution in return for testimonials against other senior Kazakh government officials.

Nazarbayev's Assault on Kazakhstan's Political Opposition

Harassment of opposition is routine. The government monitors the movements and communications of opposition activists. Political opponents have been jailed and prominent opposition leaders have fled into exile. Through the 1999 elections Nazarbayev secured another term, obtaining a subservient parliament. Alleged was government manipulation of vote counting and executive interference. In June 2001 Nazarbayev was afforded lifetime post-office privileges allowing him retain an active role in state and parliamentary affairs.

Constitutional and Legal efforts to frustrate opposition

Nazarbayev has repeatedly introduced measures to actively hamper the opposition’s attempt to provide effective accountability. 1998 ‘Amendments to Law on Elections’ enabled Nazarbayev's regime to disqualify prominent opposition members from standing in elections. In the same year, article seven of the constitution saw religion-based parties banned, a measure designed to frustrate Islamist political organisation. In October 1999 constitutional amendments were introduced to frustrate party registration. The plethora of regressive measures included; new compulsory Kazakh language test for candidates; a non-refundable down payment of $130,000; and requirement of 170,000-signature petition for registration. Throughout 2002 further measures were implemented. In June the ‘Law on Political Parties’ was passed, requiring political parties to have a minimum 50,000 membership to achieve recognition. This effectively saw the banning of the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DCK) and the Republican National Party of Kazakhstan (RNPK). In the October Senate elections opposition candidates were refused registration in addition to other procedural violations.

Intimidation of Opposition

But Nazarbayev’s attempt to marginalise the opposition is not limited to constitutional and legal efforts. As with the Islamist experience violence and intimidation has been a prominent feature of the regimes campaign.
A brief reverse chronology of events is testimony to this. In January 2003 the Republican People’s Party (RPP) lost its official status. The RPP failed to meet new tough registration requirements brought in at the beginning of the year. Later tax and forgery charges were brought against RPP chairman, Amirjan Kosanov, in retaliation for RPP refusal to be co-opted by Nazarbayev’s regime. Madel Ismailov, Worker's Opposition Party leader was jailed for "offending the honour and dignity of the President” and for participation in non-violent demonstrations. Akezhan Kazhegeldin, former prime minister and leader of RNPK, was charged with weapons possession and later faced tax charges. In May his Moscow-based press secretary, Igor Poberezhskii was stabbed in an apparent assassination attempt.
Nazarbayev’s regime has shown its ingenuity in attempting to physically curtail the opposition activities. A number of prominent opposition activists were sealed into their apartments in early morning raids. These include RNPK leader Amirzhan Kosano and Seidakhmet Kuttykadam, leader of the Orleu party. Additionally, organisers of anti-government protests have had their homes attacked. In late 2001 politically motivated prosecutions against DCK leaders, Galymzhan Zhakiyanov and Mukhtar Ablyazov took place. In March 2002 Zhakiyanov took refuge in the French embassy. In 1999 opposition activist, Aleksei Martynov, was beaten in custody and forced to flee in 2001 after death threats
The prospect of further violence is raised by the Ministry of Interior’s contemplation of ‘rapid response’ to civil disturbances.

Attacks on the independent media.

The regime has unsurprisingly widened its scope to Kazakhstan’s independent media outlets, who have been subjected to severe violence. Nazarbayev has further attempted to regulate media content through the establishment of a ‘journalists’ advisory council’. A litany of violence scars Kazakhstan’s media landscape.
Late 2001 saw suspension of newspapers: ‘Delovoye Obozreniye Respublika’ and ‘Vremya Po’ following their coverage of ‘Kazakhgate’. In March 2002 the independent Tan TV station was attacked by unidentified gunman. In early 2002, prominent journalist Nuri Mufakh, editor-in-chief of ‘Altyn Ghasyr’, was hit by a vehicle, dying from his injuries. Reportedly en route to deliver allegations of Kazakh government involvement in ‘Kazakhgate’. Around this time Kazakhstan’s first independent radio station, Rifma, was closed for failing to broadcast a minimum 50% of programmes in Kazakh.
May witnessed an outburst of violence. The offices of ‘SolDot’ newspaper was attacked, its employees severely beaten and equipment stolen. They were warned not to publish anymore corruption stories. ‘Respublika’ newspaper offices were firebombed. Later its co-founder, Muratbek was briefly detained. Prior to the firebombing, Respublika’s editor, Irina Petrushova, was sent funeral wreaths and a decapitated dog with a death threat. Later, Petrushova was given a suspended sentence for ‘illegally’ working in Kazakhstan.
In June 2002 Leila Baiseitova, daughter of independent journalist Lira Baiseitova was abducted. She reportedly hanged herself in police custody after been subjected to beatings. The newspaper, SolDat, had published a corruption article by Baiseitova over ‘Kazakhgate’. Lira Baiseitova had herself been attacked by unknown assailants in 2000 and 2001.
In August 2002 TV presenter Artur Platanov was severely beaten by assailants identified as former policemen. Duvanov had investigated Nazarbayev corruption and the death of Leila Baiseitova
In October 2002 Sergei Duvanov, a journalist was arrested before he was to leave for a series of lecture tours on media repression in Kazakhstan. Subsequently jailed for three and half years for rape, his arrest and trial was one of the very few cases to receive any sort of international attention In August he had been beaten unconscious by suspected state-agents over his article on ‘Kazakhgate’.

Detention and torture

Torture in detention is widespread, with police brutality a common feature. The Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law reported beatings, choking, rapes, suffocation techniques and sleep deprivation. Despite government admissions to the existence of widespread torture, they have refused to take action against its perpetuators.
In 2001 law enforcement officials admitted that one third of all detentions were illegal. In the first quarter of 2001, 3,500 people were detained without cause. A further 4,300 languish in pre-trial detention centres.

Hope for Kazakhstan under Nazarbayev’s hegemony

Without international pressure, Nazarbayev’s hegemony is likely to continue unabated, bar internal factionalism. Crucial to Nazabayev is US implicit consent to his regime. According to US Congress Senator, Chris Smith, "Washington's desire for good relations guarantees him impunity, no matter what he does". Following his meeting with US vice-president, Dick Cheney, Nazarbayev claimed that “They congratulate us on our achievements and we received support from the US leadership”. During his visit to Washington, Nazarbayev signed agreements with US President Bush and US Secretary of State Colin Powell guaranteeing US support in areas such as oil exports and military/security issues.

Extent of US co-operation with the Nazarbayev regime

US co-operation with Nazarbayev is deep. The US has established long-term military bases in Kazakhstan, complimenting its other Central Asia military presences. Kazakh Special Forces have received US training, with the Kazakh Defence Minister welcoming the prospect of US arms and training. US Central Command holds 30 military exercises in Kazakhstan, as part of the US International Military Education and Training program and Foreign Military Financing program.

In October 2002 the Pentagon announced several dozen million dollars of military equipment to Nazarbayev’s regime. This was followed in November 2002 by a private meeting between US Commerce Secretary Donald Evans and Kazakhstan’s Deputy Prime Minister to discuss oil contracts and the role of US oil company ChevronTexaco Corp.

All of this raises the fear of the further entrenchment of the Nazarbeyev regime and the glaring absence of international condemnation of its actions. There needs to be an immediate halt to the assault on Kazakhstan’s independent media and democratic opposition. This sentiment is accompanied by the concern that Kazakhstan’s democratic and general political growth is severely hampered by the irresponsible support the Bush administration has lent to the Nazarbeyev regime. It is time that Washington was pressurised to rescind its position and take the appropriate steps to remove Central Asia policy making from the hands of the Pentagon.

S. Janomohamed is a researcher currently working on Central Asia and the Caucuses, at the Islamic Human Rights Commission in London, UK.

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