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.
Opposition leader Vladimir Kozlov has been jailed for seven and a half years on charges of fomenting fatal unrest in Zhanaozen last December and plotting to overthrow the administration of President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Kozlov, the leader of the unregistered Alga! party, was sentenced on October 8 after a trial lasting nearly eight weeks.
His co-defendants, political activist Serik Sapargaly and Akzhanat Aminov, a former oil worker from Zhanaozen, got off more lightly with suspended sentences. The defendants have the right to appeal.
The ruling effectively left Kozlov taking the political rap for violence which erupted on December 16, sparked by a protracted oil strike that Astana now acknowledges was mishandled.
Prosecutors’ arguments hinged on the existence of a criminal conspiracy in which Kozlov acted in cahoots with fugitive oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov – currently on the run from British justice in a fraud case – to politicize the oil strike in a bid to overthrow Nazarbayev, Ablyazov’s foe. Speaking to Russia’s Pervyy Kanal the day before the verdict, Nazarbayev himself blamed “puppet masters” for the violence.
The judge refused to allow Ablyazov – who has denied being behind any such plot – to testify for the defense over Skype.
How did an oil-rich region in western Kazakhstan end up with a $100-million hole in its budget?
According to investigators from Astana, this giant hole in public funds in Atyrau Region was caused by massive fraud perpetrated by a man who was a member of Kazakhstan’s national parliament and who just happened to be the brother of the regional governor, acting in cahoots with corrupt officials and construction firm bosses. Speculation is rife in Kazakhstan about whether this corruption scandal is the product of political infighting, but the bare facts are as follows.
On October 1 charges were brought against Amanzhan Ryskali, brother of recently fired regional governor Bergey Ryskaliyev, on one count of fraud, but police are investigating a total of 13 corruption cases involving theft to the tune of 16 billion tenge (a little over $100 million).
Although the scandal had been brewing for weeks, investigators did not manage to charge Amanzhan Ryskali (who uses the Kazakh form of his surname, while his brother uses the Russian form) in person -- He has long since disappeared, along with his brother. (After initial reports that ex-Governor Ryskaliyev was under house arrest, police have confirmed that he is not wanted and has not been questioned over the case.)
As Swiss and Swedish investigators probe allegations of corruption and money-laundering involving Uzbekistan, one name is increasingly appearing linked to the cases: Gulnara Karimova, the eldest daughter of strongman President Islam Karimov.
Leaked documents (whose authenticity is not confirmed) relating to the Swiss money-laundering inquiry suggest that investigators have identified the suspect at the heart of the probe as an associate of Karimova’s and designated the case politically sensitive.
A French-language letter (carried by regional news site Centrasia.ru) purportedly sent by anti-laundering investigators to the Swiss Office of the Attorney General suggests the Uzbek government -- perhaps inadvertently -- sparked the money-laundering probe that is now coming uncomfortably close to Karimova.
The letter states that the probe was launched after investigators received notification from Geneva-based bank Lombard Odier (acting under its legal obligations) that one of its clients was on the Interpol wanted list for alleged fraud.
That client was Bekhzod Akhmedov, former director of the Uzbekistan subsidiary of Russian cellphone company MTS. Tashkent declared him wanted after he fled the country amid a row between the firm and the government that culminated with Tashkent seizing MTS’s assets this summer.
Uzbekistan is facing a second corruption investigation in Europe, as Swedish police open a graft probe into claims that Swedish-Finnish telecoms giant TeliaSonera paid hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes for the rights to operate in Uzbekistan. The case is allegedly linked to a money-laundering investigation in Switzerland.
TeliaSonera (whose largest shareholders are the Swedish and Finnish states) said that Swedish police are investigating allegations of “bribes and money laundering” involving Uzbekistan. The allegations surfaced in a September 19 documentary on Swedish broadcaster SVT.
“We can confirm that the Swedish police has collected information from TeliaSonera regarding Uzbekistan,” TeliaSonera – which owns the Ucell mobile phone company in Uzbekistan – said in a statement on September 26. It said that the company had already announced an external review “regarding the allegations of bribes and money laundering” and that now the Swedish Prosecuting Authorities’ anti-corruption unit had launched its own probe, “which we welcome.”
TeliaSonera has denied any wrongdoing but pledged to “cooperate fully” with the Swedish investigation, which follows SVT’s allegations that the firm paid hundreds of millions of dollars to “a small, one-woman company in a tax haven” for the rights to operate in Uzbekistan. The company, Takilant Limited, is run out of Gibraltar by Uzbekistan national Gayane Avakyan.
Kazakhstan got a new prime minister on September 24 after President Nursultan Nazarbayev accepted the resignation of premier Karim Masimov and promoted Masimov’s former deputy, Serik Akhmetov.
Early in the day, Masimov tendered his resignation and Nazarbayev immediately asked the rubberstamp parliament – which contains no opposition parties – to vote on Akhmetov’s candidacy for the job. Deputies obliged with a unanimous vote in favor.
Masimov, who served for nearly six years, is Kazakhstan’s longest-serving prime minister since independence. His removal was long rumored amid suggestions that he had carved out a political powerbase that Nazarbayev – who guards his own enormous power jealously -- might see as a threat.
But Masimov – an affable character credited with steering Kazakhstan through the credit crunch – did not depart in disgrace: Nazarbayev praised his premiership, and Masimov got a powerful new job as head of the presidential administration, making him Nazarbayev’s gatekeeper. Masimov thus retains the influence that has led some analysts to tip him as a possible presidential successor.
Kazakhstan’s government is moving to prevent state media outlets diverging from the official line when covering emergencies -- from terrorist attacks and accidents to earthquakes and, it seems, labor unrest.
New agreements with editors of state media would prevent “the dissemination of alternative information through all distribution channels – TV, newspapers, the Internet,” Minister of Culture and Information Darkhan Mynbay said in comments carried by Tengri News this week.
That would include flagship TV channels Khabar and Kazakstan, which play a major role in forming public opinion, as well as radio stations like Kazakhskoye Radio and newspapers such as Kazakhstanskaya Pravda.
The minister said Astana was in the process of reaching agreements with editors of state media outlets “on not permitting the distribution of unofficial information and a negative interpretation of official information which casts doubt on the veracity of information, or the competence of the speaker, or calls on citizens to commit some actions.” He did not specify what actions he had in mind.
Mynbay added that the government was forming a pool of approved journalists to which it would pass information during emergencies.
US-based watchdog Freedom House has published a report documenting alleged abuses of due process at the trial of opposition leader Vladimir Kozlov and two others charged with fomenting fatal unrest in Zhanaozen last December which left 15 dead.
The report alleges violations of the rights to a fair trial of the three defendants—Kozlov, opposition activist Serik Sapargaly and former oil worker Akzhanat Aminov, who was prominent in a labor strike that preceded the unrest. Kozlov and Aminov face three charges of fomenting social unrest; calling for the forcible overthrow of the constitutional order (tantamount to calling for the overthrow of the state); and setting up a criminal group. Sapargaly faces the first two counts.
The abuses documented by Freedom House include the denial of a defense motion to question individuals whose names have been mentioned frequently at the trial; the inclusion of testimony from prosecution witnesses whom the defense has not questioned; and the “possible falsification of testimony.”
Five suspected terrorists have been shot dead in a security operation in Kazakhstan’s oil-rich west, following a blast in the city of Atyrau last week in which one man died.
The shootout with police took place in the town of Kulsary, 230 kilometers from the energy hub of Atyrau, Tengri News reports. Another suspect and one police officer were injured.
Security forces moved in on suspects “involved in the activity of a terrorist group” on September 12, Tengri News quoted the prosecutor’s office as saying, and shot the five dead after they reportedly exploded some devices and opened fire on police.
The incident follows a September 5 explosion in an Atyrau apartment in which one man died. Investigators believe he was making explosive devices in order to attack the security forces and have arrested four suspected accomplices.
Once-calm Kazakhstan experienced a spate of extremist-related incidents in 2011, and – after what appeared to be a lull in terrorist activity in the first half of 2012 – incidents are again occurring with frequency.
On July 11 an explosion in the village of Tausamaly outside Almaty killed four adults and four children. Investigators believe the blast was an accidental detonation in a house being used to make bombs. Then, on July 30, six men suspected of murdering two law-enforcement officers were shot dead by police in Almaty.