A hearing in a bribery case with potentially far-reaching ramifications for Kazakhstan is scheduled for June 2 in a US federal court. Opposition leaders in Kazakhstan are hoping to capitalize on the corruption trial to enhance their chances in upcoming parliamentary elections. President Nursultan Nazarbayev, meanwhile, has already opened a campaign to limit the case's ability to inflict political damage on his administration.
The case centers on allegations that James Giffen, an American businessman and former Nazarbayev advisor who allegedly paid $78 million in bribes to unnamed Kazakhstani officials to secure contracts for Western oil companies. Giffen, who was indicted in 2003, is to be tried in Federal Court in New York. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Kazakhgate, as the bribery scandal has come to be known in the Central Asian nation, has the ability to exert considerable influence over Kazakhstan's parliament elections in October, local political analysts say. Depending on the evidence presented at the trial, it could also damage Nazarbayev's own re-election hopes. The president recently stated that he will seek another seven-year term in 2006.
Opposition leaders see Kazakhgate as the issue that offers them the best chance of wresting parliamentary control from pro-Nazarbayev forces, provided the upcoming elections are free and fair. Accordingly, opposition newspapers have aggressively covered the Giffen case. In March, former Emergency Situations Minister Zamanbek Nurkadilov called publicly for Nazarbayev¹s resignation, charging that he had used corruption to establish his family's extensive business interests. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
As the trial approaches, Nazarbayev has shown that he intends to be proactive in trying to frame the Giffen case for the Kazakhstani electorate. On May 14, the president discussed the case during a three-hour call-in broadcast on state television, downplaying the implications of the trial for Kazakhstani politics, and shifting blame away from his administration.
Nazarbayev maintained that "published materials" about the scandal "do not correspond to the facts." He also tried to tap into national pride, hinting that the Giffen trial may be designed to get Kazakhstan to either revise existing oil deals in a more conciliatory fashion, or be more pliant in negotiating new agreements. Kazakhstan and foreign oil conglomerates have clashed in recent years over energy-development deals, especially over taxation provisions. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"Some people want to put political pressure on the state in order to resolve their own problems," Nazarbayev said during the Khabar TV broadcast. "On the other hand, transnational companies want to resolve their own problems via pressure. But neither this nor that will work in Kazakhstan."
Nazarbayev emphasized that trial involved only Giffen, "and it is not against a single citizen of Kazakhstan, which is why I do not think it is important to follow the case." Nazarbayev went on to blame any wrongdoing on the Kazakhstani side on his erstwhile political ally, now arch-foe -- former prime minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Also during the call-in show, Nazarbayev urged citizens to vote for the pro-presidential Otan (Fatherland) Party in the parliamentary election. The specific endorsement of Otan was viewed as intriguing by some political observers, who noted that Nazarbayev's daughter, Dariga, heads another pro-presidential movement, Asar (All Together).
Some analysts believe that Dariga Nazarbayeva is seeking to carve out an independent political profile, perhaps out of a desire to follow her father as president. Nazarbayeva recently mounted a vigorous and, ultimately, successful campaign to block passage of a controversial media bill that had enjoyed the strong support of many members of the presidential administration. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Sensing an opportunity to sow division within the pro-presidential camp, a web site run by Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DCK), the country's leading opposition movement, recently publicized an embarrassing internal memo purportedly prepared by Asar. The site, Navigator, claimed to have received the document from an anonymous source. But a separate article posted by Navigator indicated that a source within the presidential administration leaked the memo, which outlines Asar's supposed parliamentary-election campaign strategy.
Though formed only recently, Asar already ranks as Kazakhstan's second largest political party, with at least 172,000 members. Recent opinion polls report that popular support for the party is twice that of Otan, the country's largest party. The alleged Asar campaign memo describes Otan, Nazarbayeva's nominal political ally, as "worn out" and "needing help." In addition, the memo characterizes Ak Zhol (Bright Path), a centrist party that has worked with both opposition groups and Asar, as "a party of oligarchs."
The memo clearly states that Asar seeks to control the political middle ground, drawing votes from both supporters and critics of the presidential administration. To do so, the party would supposedly "firmly squeeze" all opposition parties "within its political embrace." The memo suggests that Otan is Asar's main political competitor, rather than DCK. With a membership of 86,000, DCK ranks as one of Kazakhstan's smallest parties. After a three-year struggle with authorities, the DCK finally received its official registration as a political party on May 5. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. So far, the presidential administration has refrained from making any specific comments on the Navigator report.
Ibragim Alibekov is the pseudonym for a Kazakhstan-based reporter and analyst.