Zhakiyanov sought refuge in the French Embassy after eluding a police arrest attempt at his residence during the night of March 28-29. French diplomats have rejected official Kazakhstani requests to hand over Zhakiyanov, a former governor of the northern Pavlodar regions and currently a leader of the opposition movement, Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DCK).
The incident involving Zhakiyanov is part of a broader crackdown against politicians, business executives and mass media outlets aligned with DCK. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Zhakiyanov is accused of abuse of power while in office in the Pavlodar region. Another DCK leader, former Energy Minister Muhtar Ablyazov, was taken into custody March 28 on similar abuse charges.
Authorities maintain the criminal charges against both Zhakiyanov and Ablyazov have no connection to a campaign against DCK. "Investigations are being carried out into similar, purely criminal cases brought against a number of other [officials] in corruption-related cases," said a statement released by the Kazakhstani Foreign Ministry. "There can be no talk of any prejudice.
"On the contrary," the statement continued. "The measures [against corruption and abuse of power] are aimed at strengthening democracy and freedom of speech."
In contrast to Kazakhstani government statements, OSCE officials noted a disconcerting rise in political tension, adding that security officers had used excessive force against journalists attempting to cover the embassy incident.
The OSCE's comments followed an April 2 incident outside the embassy during which security officers reportedly beat a member of the Kazakhstani Senate, Zauresh Battalova, while she was trying to prevent police harassment of television camera crews.
Representatives of independent media outlets report that they are under intense government pressure. Editors at TAN-TV said a transmission cable was cut by suspected government agents. The editorial offices of some newspapers, including Vrema Po, are under police surveillance, some journalists added.
The DCK's executive council has issued an appeal to European diplomats asserting that Zhakiyanov is a target of political repression, and that he should not be handed over to Kazakhstani authorities. The arrest warrant was issued shortly after Zhakiyanov returned to Kazakhstan from a late-March trip to Paris, where he met with former Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin to discuss a political alliance against Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
In a letter distributed April 1, Zhakiyanov declared that he would carry out a hunger strike and would seek to remain in the French Embassy until he received personal assurances from Nazarbayev that his basic rights would be upheld. He said the charges against him were politically motivated and friends and relatives had faced safety threats from authorities.
Political tension in Kazakhstan has been building since November, when DCK was formed. The opposition movement, which counts several prominent business tycoons among its leaders, originally pursued a non-confrontational policy towards Nazarbayev, in the hopes of sharing power with him, rather than replacing him. The president, however, has responded with repressive measures. In a speech to law enforcement officials on March 29, Nazarbayev issued a blunt warning to Kazakhstani entrepreneurs to stop meddling in politics.
"We need them [entrepreneurs] - both large businesses and especially small- and medium-sized businesses," Nazarbayev said. "We should and will support them in the future, too. But they should not interfere either directly or indirectly, through their people in power, in taking political decisions."
Since Nazarbayev issued the warning, at least one DCK leader - Yerzhan Tatishev, the chairman of a Kazakhstani bank - has announced he will cease political activities. "The very decision to join [the DCK leadership] was originally taken by all banks somewhat spontaneously," Tatishev said in an April 1 television interview. "Taking part directly or indirectly, through managers, in various political movements is not correct with respect to the professional form of business."
Aldar Kusainov is a Central Asia-based
reporter who employs a pseudonym out of fear of government