The six-week-old trial of defendants charged with the murder of Kazakh opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbaev initially followed in the footsteps of innumerable courtroom proceedings all over the world. The two chief defendants recanted their confessions and pleaded not guilty. And daily eyewitness and expert testimony soon settled into a lulling rhythm punctuated by occasional hints of something more interesting, but nothing concrete. That all changed on August 2, when a key defendant began to testify of a conspiracy and coup attempt involving top-level Kazakh officials.
Defendant Rustam Ibragimov is a former law-enforcement officer charged with killing Sarsenbaev, his driver, and a bodyguard at the behest of Erzhan Utembaev, the former head of the Senate administration. Ibragimov pleaded not guilty when he took the stand, then went on to testify of senior involvement in a conspiracy and coup attempt.
Who's 'Protecting' Whom?
The bodies of Sarsenbaev, his driver, and a bodyguard were discovered outside Almaty on February 13.
Ibragimov testified that on February 15 he spoke with Utembaev, who prosecutors allege paid him to commit the murder to settle a personal grudge against Sarsenbaev. As Ibragimov told the story, Utembaev told him that the opposition leader was to have met on February 11, just days before the killing, with the speaker of the Senate and Utembaev's former boss, Nurtai Abikaev; the head of the Kyrgyz National Security Committee, who stepped down in the wake of the Sarsenbaev killing, Nartai Dutbaev; and the former leader of the presidential administration's religious affairs section, Aleksei Kikshaev.
A transcript by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service shows that Ibragimov suggested that all three men -- Abikaev, Dutbaev, and Kikshaev -- were "protecting" Utembaev. What's more, Ibragimov charged that the three sought to "remove the president of the Republic of Kazakhstan, [Nursultan] Nazarbaev, in two or three years and putting Abikaev in his place."
In a bizarre footnote, Ibragimov also insinuated that one of the men, Kikshaev, has ties to "the CIA and the Vatican."
The individuals named by Ibragimov did not respond publicly to the allegations against them. But in an interview with the independent Russian-language daily "Liter" on August 4, an adviser to speaker Abikaev made a number of intriguing comments in his defense. Dastan Kadyrzhanov described Abikaev, a longtime ally of President Nazarbaev, as a member of the "old presidential guard." He said Abikaev has supported what he called "the president's policy of checks and balances in society."
Thanks to that approach, Kadyrzhanov said, "the concept of a 'clan standoff' never rose to the top of the political agenda." He stressed Abikaev's loyalty to Nazarbaev, and charged that current "attempts...to lower his actions to the level of intra-clan warfare are pointless."
Kadyrzhanov's focus on clans is not accidental. Clans, or influence groups, have occupied a central place in the fallout from the mysterious murder of Sarsenbaev. Speculation about the murder and attempts to benefit from it followed the lines of the influence groups that play a key role in Kazakh politics. In the weeks after murder, Dutbaev's departure from the National Security Committee and the weakening of Abikaev -- whose subordinate was charged with ordering the murder -- came as a blow to the influence group headed by President Nazarbaev's son-in-law, Timur Kulibaev. At the same time, the influence group headed by presidential daughter Darigha Nazarbaeva and her husband, Deputy Foreign Minister Rakhat Aliev, appeared to be gaining ground.
Darigha Pushed Aside
The picture has changed in the intervening months. Previously, Nazarbaeva had wielded influence through the pro-presidential party that she headed and the state-held Khabar television network, which she reportedly controlled.
But more recently, Darigha's influence has receded on both fronts. In early May, recently appointed Information and Culture Minister Yermukhamet Yertysbaev told parliament that the state needs to reassert its control over Khabar. The move came amid reports of tension between Darigha and her father. Then, in early July, Darigha's Asar Party merged with another pro-presidential group, the Otan Party. The move effectively dissolved her party in the larger entity and deprived Darigha of an independent political springboard.
Meanwhile, the rival group of Timur Kulibaev -- who is married to Nazarbaev's second daughter, Dinara -- has been consolidating its influence. Only days before Darigha Nazarbaeva's political party vanished into her father's, Kulibaev was named chairman of the board at national oil and gas company KazMunaiGaz. That is no mean post in light of Kazakhstan's oil wealth.
Kulibaev had previously served as KazMunaiGaz's vice president. But the new appointment pointed to consolidated clout. The chairman of the nongovernmental Network of Independent Observers, Dos Koshim, told RFE/RL that Kulibaev's new post suggested that his influence was growing in comparison to that of Darigha Nazarbaeva and her husband. Koshim said that the move "looks like [President] Nazarbaev's attempt to base his powers not on Darigha and Rakhat, but on his second son-in-law."
The connection between these clan conflicts and the testimony Ibragimov presented on August 2 is obscure. We have no way of judging the veracity of Ibragimov's testimony or his motives in presenting it at this stage in the trial.
But the reaction of Abikaev's adviser, who immediately related Ibragimov's allegations to "intra-clan warfare," is telling. For while Ibragimov's charges of a conspiracy and coup d'etat do little to clarify the circumstances of a killing that shook the Kazakh political establishment, they come as further confirmation that the fallout reflects a broader struggle between the influence groups that remain the real power brokers in Kazakhstan's political system.