Kazakhstan recently experienced its Pussy Riot moment. But in sharp contrast to the torrent of international criticism that followed last summer’s conviction of three mischievous punk rockers in Moscow, the guilty verdict against a prominent opposition politician in Kazakhstan generated just a trickle of disapproval in the West.
Vladimir Kozlov, the leader of the unregistered Alga! party and a vocal critic of Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev, received a seven-and-a-half-year prison term on October 8. Kozlov was found guilty of seeking to overthrow the government and fomenting unrest in the western city of Zhanaozen last December. His co-defendants, political activist Serik Sapargaly and Akzhanat Aminov, a former oil worker from Zhanaozen, received suspended sentences. The official death toll from Zhanaozen-related unrest reached 15.
The court also ordered all Kozlov’s assets seized, including Alga! party property that is registered under his name. This will effectively silence one of the few remaining political forces in Kazakhstan offering robust opposition to Nazarbayev and his administration.
Alga! “will most likely cease to exist,” Rico Isaacs, a lecturer in International Studies at the UK's Oxford Brookes University specializing in Kazakh politics, told EurasiaNet.org. “Alga! is the only party which provides regular scrutiny and oversight of the Kazakh authorities” at a time when other opposition forces “are marginalized,” Isaacs said.
Rights activists expressed outraged over the verdict. It “strikes a blow to freedom of expression and pluralism of political voices in Kazakhstan,” said a statement issued by the global watchdog Human Rights Watch.
“Kozlov is paying a heavy price for publicly criticizing the Kazakh government,” said Mihra Rittmann, HRW’s Europe and Central Asia researcher, accusing Astana of “silencing an outspoken opponent and muzzling the Alga! party, one of Kazakhstan’s few alternative political voices.”
Washington officially protested Kozlov’s jailing, though it tempered its criticism with some flattering remarks. “The United States deeply values our strategic partnership with the Republic of Kazakhstan and its commitment to greater openness and democracy,” a US Embassy statement said. “It is in this spirit that we note our concern regarding the prosecution of Vladimir Kozlov and the apparent use of the criminal system to silence opposition voices.”
Astana was quick to hit back. “I categorically disagree with all politically motivated insinuations about the alleged absence of a fair and impartial decision by the court,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Altay Abibullayev. The open trial was conducted “carefully, comprehensively, objectively,” he insisted, rejecting “calls from any country or international organization to influence the course of justice.”
Some regional observers contend that the United States often tempers its criticism of Kazakhstan (and other Central Asian states such as Uzbekistan) because its security interests relating to the Afghan war trump concerns about political freedoms in Central Asia.
Isaacs suggested that the muted Western response to Kozlov’s conviction was rooted in “apathy” and a desire not to disturb the status quo as US and NATO troops work to complete their withdrawal from nearby Afghanistan by 2014. Kazakhstan represents an important cog in the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), a network of road, rail and air links that will be used to take military supplies and materiel out of Afghanistan.
“The United States and other international actors will not want to put too much pressure on Kazakhstan over the trial of Kozlov in fear of jeopardizing Kazakhstan’s place in the [NDN] network,” Isaacs said.
Washington’s careful approach was evident during US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s early October meeting with newly appointed Kazakhstani Foreign Minister Yerlan Idrisov. Clinton had plenty to say about Kazakhstan’s contribution to regional security, praising the country as “a critical link in the Northern Distribution Network.”
Clinton had nothing whatsoever to say about Kozlov’s trial, but -- in remarks apparently crafted to please Nazarbayev, ever keen to project an image as an elder statesman -- she praised Kazakhstan as “not just a regional presence, but a global leader.”
Kozlov’s trial has raised questions about Kazakhstan’s commitment to political freedoms. Prosecution arguments hinged on allegations that Kozlov acted in a criminal conspiracy with fugitive oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov in a bid to overthrow Nazarbayev, Ablyazov’s political foe, by politicizing a protracted oil strike in Zhanaozen (which the government acknowledges was mishandled).
To prove Kozlov’s guilt, prosecutors relied on circumstantial evidence and resorted to tactics such as calling an expert witness who testified that the opposition politician was a “bohemian personality.” That witness was cited in a report last month by the US-based non-profit National Democratic Institute (NDI), which compared proceedings to a “Stalin-era political trial.” NDI and US-based watchdog Freedom House have alleged numerous violations of due process during the trial. Astana vigorously disputes the allegations.
Kozlov denied the charges against him, characterizing them as an attempt to criminalize legitimate political opposition to Nazarbayev’s administration. Kazakhstan officials insisted that Kozlov’s assertion was off-base. “The legal basis for political pluralism is fully in place in Kazakhstan,” asserted Abibullayev, the Foreign Ministry spokesman.
The government says it is learning lessons from Zhanaozen, taking measures to resolve industrial disputes more effectively and solve socioeconomic problems in Zhanaozen and other depressed towns.
Seventeen civilians and six police officers have already been jailed for their roles in the Zhanaozen unrest, and Astana hopes this final trial will allow it to draw a line under turmoil that dented its international image and undermined Nazarbayev’s personal reputation.
Nevertheless, the political repercussions look set to reverberate. “The imprisonment of Kozlov further limits a narrow political landscape in Kazakhstan and sends a chilling effect to others who might want to criticize the government and its policies,” said Rittmann of Human Rights Watch.
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.