If reports coming out of Astana are to be believed, corruption and mismanagement are eating away at the core of the Kazakh state. According to official information, bureaucrats -- from ministers on down -- have either been helping themselves to government funds or, at the very least, making ill-informed decisions that have incurred billions of dollars in losses. But some opposition figures believe the proliferation of corruption cases in Kazakhstan is an outgrowth of a behind-the-scenes power struggle.
A bevy of former officials are now confronting corruption charges. The most senior official to be arrested in the current drive has been Nurlan Iskakov, a former environment minister who went on trial on June 16 charged with embezzlement. Iskakov and his co-defendants -- who include two former deputy ministers, Alzhan Braliyev and Zeynulla Sarsembayev -- deny the charges.
Meanwhile, a former deputy defense minister faces trial over the acquisition of military hardware that has been found to be defective. Kazhimurat Mayermanov is being charged with exceeding his powers over defense contracts with two Israeli firms, Israeli Military Industries and Soltam Systems, to purchase artillery systems that were later found to be experimental rather than working models, causing an $82-million loss to the state. While in detention on June 9, Mayermanov injured himself by slitting his neck open to protest what he maintains are politically motivated charges. The scandal, some observers suggest, may have cost former Defense Minister Daniyal Akhmetov his job.
Akhmetov, a long-time loyalist of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, was prime minister from 2003 to 2007. He abruptly lost his Defense Ministry post in mid-June, prompting speculation that he too may soon face criminal charges. Akhmetov, some observers believe, can be considered a gauge of how far the prosecutions will go. If the former defense minister faces charges, "the Rubicon is crossed [and] any of the [president's] most faithful servants and associates" could be next, Petr Svoik, the opposition Azat party's deputy chairman, said in a commentary carried on the Zonakz.net website on June 29.
Meanwhile, cases against two of Kazakhstan's former top entrepreneurs are proceeding. Mukhtar Dzhakishev, the arrested former head of the Kazatomprom state nuclear giant, and Mukhtar Ablyazov, formerly BTA Bank's chairman of the board, stand accused of acting together to misappropriate uranium reserves worth billions of dollars. Ablyazov -- who is abroad on the run -- is also accused of turning BTA Bank into a criminal enterprise. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The Kazatomprom investigation has sparked widespread controversy. Relatives of Dzhakishev and his former colleagues who are being questioned allege irregularities in the conduct of the case. Law enforcement officials deny such allegations.
Speculation continues to surround investigations of three former Kazatomprom vice presidents, Malkhaz Tsotsoria, Askar Kasabekov and Dmitriy Parfenov. Law enforcement agencies have said they are witnesses, but their wives have expressed concern that authorities are targeting their spouses as suspects. "We are demanding a clear answer -- what are our husbands, suspects or witnesses? If they are witnesses, they should immediately be set free," Natalya Parfenova told a news conference on June 24.
A senior prosecutor's office aide denied allegations of irregularities at a briefing on July 2. "There are no violations in the investigation of this criminal case that would require prosecutorial intervention," Kulzyiya Kyukova said in remarks quoted by Interfax-Kazakhstan.
Relatives of the former Kazatomprom officials have also voiced concern over legal representation, saying independent lawyers are being denied the ability to participate in the case, supposedly because the case involves classified material. "The lawyers provided by the investigation to defend our husbands are not defending their interests," Marika Tsotsoria told the June news conference. She added that Kazakhstani authorities were "pressuring our husbands in order to make them give the [desired] testimony."
The arrests haven't been limited to the top echelons of business and the state machine. Mid-level officials have also found themselves caught up in controversy. Yury Yarosh, former deputy director of Astana's Construction Department, received a seven-year prison sentence in June after being found guilty on abuse of office charges, and his former boss, Askar Nurmagambetov, is under investigation over the awarding of tenders which reportedly caused roughly $7 million in losses.
Anatoly Ryabtsev, former chairman of the Water Resources Committee, is another former official facing charges over the awarding of tenders, while two former Statistics Agency deputy chairmen, Nurman Bayanov and Birlik Mendybayev, are under investigation over the alleged misappropriation of funds allocated for Kazakhstan's census earlier this year. A former middle-ranking Transport and Communications Ministry official, Khakimzhan Zhamburbayev, has been charged with stealing $620,000 of state funds.
As corruption cases grow in number, officials still in power are getting nervous, according to some commentators. "There is no joking in the corridors of Astana today -- it is dangerous," said one commentary published in the Respublika newspaper on June 19. "This is not so much to do with the pitiful financial and economic situation in the country . . . as with the atmosphere of fear that reigns in Kazakhstan's capital city, and is making officials constantly look over their shoulders."
Administration officials say the arrests are the result of an anti-corruption drive launched by Nazarbayev in 2008, but many commentators see infighting among Kazakhstan's elite as the main cause. "The fight against corruption frequently becomes a screen for intra-clan score settling," Amirzhan Kosanov, the deputy leader of the opposition National Social Democratic Party, told Respublika in remarks carried on June 19. "Everyone understands that the post-Nazarbayev period is approaching and every clan . . . is going to try, through reprisals against rival clans, to boost its [respective] economic and political position."
Ultimately, some commentators suggest, the corruption cases might have unpredictable consequences for Nazarbayev himself. "The strength of a regime [based on] personal power, after all, lies in the very capacity of the top figure to take advantage of the fight between groups, but what if some group starts taking advantage of him?" Svoik pondered in his Zonakz.net commentary.
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.