While President Nursultan Nazarbayev has stressed a need this year to liberalize Kazakhstan's economy, the same does not appear to apply to the country's political sphere. Although Nazarbayev's political position seems unassailable at present, authorities continue to keep pressure on opposition leaders.
On June 6, Kazakhstan's Supreme Court upheld an earlier lower court ruling that denied the opposition Alga (Forward) party registration. In the court's opinion, the party failed to prove that it had the 50,000 members needed to gain registration. The Alga party had been trying to evolve out of an earlier opposition movement, Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, which was banned in 2005. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The court decision is merely the latest in a long list of hardships endured by Kazakhstani opposition leaders in 2006. The most significant incident occurred in February, when a leading Nazarbayev political foe, Altynbek Sarsenbayev, was assassinated. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Since that time, other opposition leaders have come under extreme pressure. In late May, perhaps the country's highest-profile opposition entity, the True Ak Zhol Party, issued a statement denouncing "the intensification of repressive measures of the regime against the activists of democratic forces of Kazakhstan." The statement went on to list several instances of alleged government abuse of the judicial system to harass opposition activists.
"Against the background of numerous statements of the authorities about the need to start democratization of the political system and the modernization of the society ... such actions appear to be illogical," the statement said.
A co-leader of True Ak Zhol, Bolat Abilov, indicated that Kazakhstani authorities appear intent on squelching political debate inside the country, as well as preventing complaints about the existing system from reaching the outside world. In late April, Abilov and another leading opposition figure, Galymzhan Zhakiyanov, were part of a delegation heading for the European Parliament to report to the EU-Kazakhstan Parliamentary Cooperation Committee. Border guards, however, prevented Abilov and Zhakiyanov from departing Kazakhstan. "This was linked to our political activity," Abilov told EurasiaNet on May 31.
Attacking Kazakhstan's record on freedom of speech and fair elections, Abilov listed some opposition demands: changes to the constitution, limits on presidential powers, elected regional governors and a government formed by parliamentary majority. "We wanted to discuss all this in Brussels," Abilov added.
The Justice Ministry could not be reached for comment. However, various officials have repeatedly insisted that freedom of speech is protected under Kazakhstani law. In recent months, Nazarbayev has expressed a desire to transform Kazakhstan into one of the world's top 50 economies. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. And in a message to an international media forum, held in Almaty in April, Nazarbayev asserted that Kazakhstan had registered significant democratization gains since it gained independence in 1991: "Casting off the totalitarian past, we have in a short time successfully travelled the difficult route from a bureaucratic state economy to free competition, from the dictate of a one-party system to political pluralism, from the ideology of suppressing the individual to the universal values of human rights and freedoms."
The airport incident came days after Abilov had been summoned to his native city of Karaganda, where he was charged with assaulting a police officer. He had been anticipating problems with his EU trip. "Of course I thought they would arrest me and obstruct me," Abilov said, acknowledging that he had given a written pledge not to leave Kazakhstan pending further investigation of this case and several others. "I understood that it was very serious for them that the command had come right from the top, from Astana, so rank-andfile police officers and rank-and-file border guards were carrying out the command. I had no doubt about that."
The case involving the police officer hinging on events which took place in Karaganda in 2005 is "purely political", Abilov maintained. "The investigation accuses me of having insulted him, and also having hit him using violence; they say I hit him on the head. Naturally, this did not happen."
Abilov expects the case, in which he faces two charges, to go to court in mid-June; he is not optimistic about the outcome. "I think they will convict me, since they have started this," he said. "We understand that the courts in our country are very dependent on the executive. If the court was independent, it would exonerate me."
The Supreme Court chairman, Kayrat Mami, insisted that courts in Kazakhstan decide cases based on the evidence presented, and not according to executive preferences. "One of the key aspects of judicial reform has been eliminating the influence of the executive on the courts," he said in an article published in April in the Legal Reform in Kazakhstan journal.
This is not the first time Abilov has faced legal action. He has lost two libel cases since 2004, and the authorities continue to investigate two corruption cases against him involving charges of fraud, tax-evasion and irregularities in the sale of a land plot. Abilov describes the charges as "ridiculous." Earlier this year, Abilov served a short spell in prison for his role in organizing an unsanctioned rally to honor Sarsenbayev's memory.
Meanwhile, Zhakiyanov filed a lawsuit in connection with authorities' refusal to let him leave the country. In January, Zhakiyanov was paroled after serving four years on an abuse-of-power conviction that many observers saw as politically motivated. In his suit, he argued that the terms of his parole enabled him to travel freely, provided that he gave officials prior notice. Without his knowledge, however, his parole terms had been altered; instead of merely giving advanced warning, he was required to seek official permission to travel beyond Almaty's city limits. Ultimately, an Almaty city court upheld the legality of the secret switch in parole conditions.
"There is a political undertone in evidence here, and this is quite clear and it was clear both when I was tried and when I was serving my sentence," Zhakiyanov was quoted by the Svoboda Slova newspaper as saying after the hearing.
In early May, the effects of the new parole conditions were felt again when Zhakiyanov was refused permission to travel to the capital, Astana, for a meeting between US Vice President Dick Cheney and opposition leaders. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. He has also been refused permission to travel to Moscow for medical treatment. Writing on the Zonakz website, Zhakiyanov's lawyer, Petr Svoik, described the restrictions on Zhakiyanov's movements as "not only unlawful, but also foolishly absurd."
Some political observers in Almaty believe the pressure against Abilov and Zhakiyanov is part of the early stage of a political succession struggle in Kazakhstan. Although plans could certainly change, Nazarbayev has indicated he may retire at the end of his current presidential term in 2012. Aspiring successors within the governing apparatus may want to ensure that opposition movements are unable to gain political traction, so that they will not be a factor when Nazarbayev leaves the political stage.
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asian affairs.