Prosecutors have moved to silence some of the few dissenting voices left in Kazakhstan’s tightly controlled political arena, seeking to muffle media and opposition groups for allegedly calling for the overthrow of the state in the run-up to fatal violence in Zhanaozen last December.
A statement by the prosecutor’s office on November 21 accused two vocal opposition forces -- the unregistered Alga! party and the People’s Front organization, consisting of Alga! and the Communist Party of Kazakhstan -- of extremist actions and said it had filed a court case to ban them, along with a host of media outlets.
Alga! is led by Vladimir Kozlov, who on November 19 lost his appeal against a seven-and-a-half year prison sentence over the Zhanaozen unrest. Critics -- including international human rights organizations and the US government -- fear Kozlov’s imprisonment was designed to silence Kazakhstan’s battered opposition.
“The authorities are themselves radicalizing dissent, pushing it out of the legal field,” Amirzhan Kosanov, deputy leader of another -- still tolerated -- opposition party, OSDP Azat, commented on his Facebook page.
A court in Kazakhstan has rejected the appeal of opposition leader Vladimir Kozlov, who was jailed last month in a trial widely condemned as politicized.
Tengri News reports that Kozlov lost the November 19 appeal against his seven-and-a-half-year prison sentence. He had been found guilty of stoking unrest that left 15 dead last year in Zhanaozen, according to official figures, and plotting the overthrow of the state.
Kozlov, leader of the unregistered Alga! party, has taken the political rap for violence which erupted on December 16 as Kazakhstan marked its 20th anniversary of independence. The authorities allege he urged violence by politicizing a protracted oil strike that Astana acknowledges was mishandled.
Ahead of his appeal state television aired a vitriolic program accusing Kozlov of being a manipulative criminal who allegedly channeled millions of dollars into Kazakhstan from Mukhtar Ablyazov, a fugitive Kazakh oligarch who is on the run from British justice, in a bid to destabilize the state.
Kozlov and Ablyazov deny the accusations, and Kozlov has argued that he only engaged in legitimate political opposition.
“Money for blood: Their weapons are dirty games and provocations, their business is unrest and social conflicts.” It sounds like a trailer for an exciting new movie, but it is actually an advert for a state TV “documentary” in Kazakhstan sullying the names of political opponents of President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
The program, broadcast on Khabar TV on November 15 ahead of an appeal hearing by jailed opposition leader Vladimir Kozlov, consists of a 20-minute diatribe against Kozlov and alleged accomplices, including fugitive oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov. They are portrayed as greedy criminals who stoked deadly unrest in the town of Zhanaozen last December to make money.
The “documentary” -- which has echoes of the “Anatomy of a Protest” aired on Russian TV to slur Russia’s opposition -- is entitled “Amoral Alga!rhythm,” a play on words with the name of Kozlov’s unregistered political party, Alga!. The party is described as “a criminal group,” a secretive network that funneled money from Ablyazov into Kazakhstan to foment unrest.
As Kazakhstan, the breadbasket of Central Asia, struggles with a disastrous grain harvest this year due to drought, Astana has accused local officials of massaging statistics. It’s all reminiscent of the Soviet-era tradition of overstating production to meet central government plans.
Deputy Agriculture Minister Muslim Umiryayev said discrepancies had been revealed between satellite monitoring data on the harvest and preliminary figures supplied to the government by Kazakhstan’s three northern grain-growing regions: Kostanay, Akmola and North Kazakhstan.
He said there was a discrepancy of 1.4 million metric tons.
Umiryayev added that Astana was receiving desperate appeals from farmers being forced by local governments to overstate production. “This fact is confirmed by the presence of appeals reaching the minister’s blog from agricultural producers, in which they indicate that local government employees are in a number of cases asking them for false reports overstating productivity,” he said in comments carried by Bnews.kz.
In the Soviet Union, local officials often distorted economic output figures to Moscow in order to conceal poor production, as well as corruption. In the 1980s, for example, Kazakhstan’s neighbor Uzbekistan was rocked by scandal when Moscow accused Communist Party officials of skimming off billions by submitting distorted reports on cotton harvests.
As the anniversary of last December’s killing of 15 protestors in Zhanaozen approaches, a lobbying war is heating up in Washington that looks set to focus new attention on the Kazakhstan violence.
A group of Kazakhstani activists, with the support of a New York-based human rights watchdog, has been pushing for sanctions on officials they deem responsible for the shootings, from President Nursultan Nazarbayev on down. That’s upset one associate of the Nazarbayev administration, who has sent the rights group a letter threatening legal action.
The letter to the Human Rights Foundation (HRF) was penned by lawyers for Alexander Mirtchev, a businessman who chairs the Krull Corp. Krull describes itself as a “global strategic solutions provider” and is linked to Kazakhstan’s administration through Mirtchev’s position as an independent director of the country’s sovereign wealth fund. Mirtchev also sits on various think tanks in the US and UK that critics say are lobbying organizations.
Mirtchev’s lawyers take issue over allegations made by Kazakhstani civil society activists in an open letter HRF helped publish last month that Mirtchev is a “fixer” who was among people who “enriched themselves while serving a ruthless tyrant that ordered oil workers killed” in Zhanaozen, and “peddled the lie that Kazakhstan is the story of a ‘young democracy’… rather than a totalitarian police state.”
Religious life in Kazakhstan features a glaring dichotomy these days. Officials in Astana tout the country as a bastion of toleration, yet they are making it harder for those practicing what are deemed non-traditional faiths to worship openly.
In the latest twist in the long-running saga of Russian cellphone operator MTS in Uzbekistan, a Tashkent appeals court reportedly has made a landmark ruling and promised to return the company to its Russian owners. Tashkent had shut down the billion-dollar firm this summer.
Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency quoted a “source close to the company” as saying that MTS had been told verbally that the appeals court had overturned a September ruling granting Tashkent the property of O’zdunrobita, MTS’ Uzbekistan arm, following a months-long dispute over alleged legal violations and tax evasion charges that the company vehemently denied.
Vedomosti newspaper quoted another source “close to one of the sides in the proceedings” as confirming the news, but said that the court had ruled that the company should pay Tashkent “the monetary equivalent of the cost of its assets -- around $600 million.” The report said MTS had declined to comment.
If confirmed, the ruling would signal an abrupt about-face by Tashkent that could suggest it has bowed to pressure from Moscow, which -- although not too vocal in its criticism -- has made it clear that it does look kindly on the treatment meted out to one of its oligarchs, Vladimir Yevtushenkov, owner of MTS.
Fugitive Kazakh oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov has been dealt a serious blow in a massive fraud case brought against him in London’s High Court by Kazakhstan’s BTA Bank: Ablyazov has been debarred from fighting BTA’s accusations that he pilfered $6 billion, reports The Lawyer.
Barring a successful appeal, the November 6 ruling sounds the death knell for Ablyazov’s hopes of clearing his name. His reputation also took a hit from the judge’s condemnation of Ablyazov’s attitude to the court: “It is difficult to imagine a party to commercial litigation who has acted with more cynicism, opportunism and deviousness towards court orders than Mr. Ablyazov.”
Ablyazov left Kazakhstan for London in 2009 after Kazakh authorities forcibly nationalized BTA Bank, which he headed and owned through an undeclared stake.
BTA sued Ablyazov for embezzlement in London. The oligarch went on the run after the High Court in February handed him a 22-month prison sentence for contempt of court for concealing assets. His whereabouts are unknown.
If Ablyazov loses his planned appeal, BTA can move to seize his assets, which – according to the British press – include a $29-million nine-bedroom mansion on The Bishop’s Avenue, a London street so exclusive it is dubbed Billionaires’ Row.
International pressure is mounting on Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of Uzbek President Islam Karimov: Already associated with two corruption investigations in Europe, now Russian media are reporting that an apartment she owns in Moscow has been seized by court order.
The Lenta.ru website on November 2 quoted Interfax news agency as reporting that Karimova’s luxury apartment in downtown Moscow -- said to be worth $10 million -- had been seized as part of an antitrust case launched by Russian telecommunications company MTS after its business in Uzbekistan was appropriated this summer.
Observers interpreted the unconfirmed report -- which cites an anonymous law-enforcement source and has not been officially confirmed -- as bad news for Karimova. “Leaks to the media about Karimova’s apartment are a sign to her that a war has started against her [in Russia],” Daniil Kislov, editor-in-chief of Fergananews.com, was quoted as saying by the Bfm.ru website.
He pointed to the MTS conflict as the cause. This summer, Tashkent first suspended the operations of MTS’s Uzbekistan subsidiary O’zdunrobita (accusing it of legal violations that the company denied) and later ordered its assets seized, forcing MTS to write off over $1 billion in losses.
Oil-rich Kazakhstan has embraced bling with open arms -- the capital Astana, with its dazzling silver-and-gold skyline, could even be described as bling personified at the state level.
For a country that enjoys flaunting its petrodollars, an ordinary elite-status golden credit card isn’t enough. Luckily for the oil-rich oligarch who wants to stand apart from the crowd, there’s now a gold card with a difference on offer in Kazakhstan: This one is made from the real thing, crafted out of solid gold and encrusted with 26 diamonds -- just to drive the point home that this card will fall only into the hands of the very, very rich.
Not for nothing is Visa billing its Infinite companion card as “the world’s first jewel-encrusted solid gold” card -- though who knew that people needed this glittery status symbol, being offered through Russia’s Sberbank branches in Kazakhstan, before now?
Lucky customers invited to own a gold card might wish to use it to snap up a few choice bits of bling at upmarket US department store Saks Fifth Avenue, which opened its doors in Almaty on September 30 amid much hype -- another sign that Kazakhstan has embraced luxury consumer consumption with alacrity.
The solid-gold card won’t be available to just anyone: Only the bank’s “top 100 customers” will be invited to own what one Visa executive calls a “coveted piece of luxury” and “the ultimate status symbol.”