Marking a year this week since the start of a political crackdown, Kazakhstan has entered 2013 with a transformed political landscape, the opposition effectively decimated and independent media muzzled.
Under the strongman reign of 72-year-old President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has been in power for over two decades, Kazakhstan has never willingly opened its arms to criticism. But critics say last year witnessed an unprecedented attack on dissenting voices, leaving the political scene bereft of any meaningful platform from which to hold the administration accountable.
The crackdown began on January 23, 2012, with the rounding up of opposition figures and journalists a month after fatal unrest in Zhanaozen, a western oil town.
The anti-dissent campaign culminated in December court rulings that shut down approximately 40 independent media outlets (including outspoken newspapers Respublika and Vzglyad) and Kazakhstan’s most vocal opposition party, Alga! (whose leader Vladimir Kozlov is serving a jail term on charges of fomenting the Zhanaozen violence and plotting to overthrow the state).
Alga! and the media outlets were declared extremist and accused of inciting the Zhanaozen violence, which spiraled out of a protracted oil strike that the government acknowledges was mismanaged.
The scale of the crackdown appeared to shock even seasoned observers of Kazakhstan’s often stifling political scene. “I would call 2012 the year of brain-washing,” journalist Sergey Duvanov (a critic of Astana who has served a prison sentence on rape charges that he says were politically motivated) commented in an interview published on January 4. The interview was carried on Respublika’s Facebook page, where the newspaper – which has long operated under intense political pressure – continues publishing, defying the court ban which its journalists decry as a reprisal for their hard-hitting reporting.
The closure of media outlets sparked a wave of approbation from international watchdogs, with Human Rights Watch’s Mihra Rittmann last month describing it as “a blatant attempt by the government to muzzle critical voices in Kazakhstan,” and Reporters Without Borders calling it an “unprecedented blow to pluralism.”
“President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s administration is in the process of completing its transformation into an extremely authoritarian regime,” Reporters Without Borders warned.
Washington expressed concern over efforts “to use the legal system to silence opposition voices,” reminding Astana that “a vibrant, independent civil society is a key ingredient of a stable and functioning democracy.”
Yet Nazarbayev – who has never won an election deemed free and fair by credible international observers – says his country is well on the way to democracy. “Step by step our society is approaching the highest standards of democratization and human rights,” he said in his state-of-the-nation address on December 14.