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.
Kazakhstan’s capital has the reputation of a conformist city of bureaucrats, loyal to the man who made it the seat of government and micromanaged its construction, President Nursultan Nazarbayev – but it seems that not everyone is banging the drum for the Leader of the Nation.
Some of the less fortunate inhabitants of the glitzy city took to the streets one freezing evening this week to complain about their lot and demand social justice, reports KTK TV.
“Who are the rulers?” footage broadcast from a dark Astana street showed a man with a megaphone yelling at a small crowd.
“Dozens” of people gathered on January 16, KTK reported – hardly the type of large, unruly street protest that has twice helped overthrow presidents in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, but still revolutionary stuff for this most conformist of capitals.
The main organizers were residents of a hostel on Astana's outskirts that is slated for demolition to make way for a power station. Some inhabitants have refused the compensation package offered by the authorities and say they will be left without affordable housing – a major bone of contention in Astana, where Zauresh Battalova, a former senator and now prominent campaigner, spearheads the For Decent Housing movement to fight for accommodation for the underprivileged and low paid.
The rally gathered protestors with wide-ranging demands, some urging timely payments of salaries and others calling on the local authorities to do a better job of clearing the snow that blankets Astana in winter.
Officials in northern Kazakhstan have taken President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s zero-tolerance policy toward anti-social behavior to heart, jailing a man for making a rude gesture at an official motorcade.
The unidentified 22-year-old resident of Pavlodar was thrown behind bars for giving the middle finger to the cortege of Kayrat Mami, speaker of the Senate (the upper house of parliament), Tengri News reported on January 14.
The man pleaded guilty on hooliganism charges and was given a five-day jail sentence for “insulting the human dignity of a public figure, thus allowing disrespect for those around and violating public order and the peace of individuals,” court spokeswoman Umut Zhumatayeva said.
The jailing is in line with a policy Nazarbayev announced last fall, when he used a parliamentary address to rail against graffiti, garbage and public drunkenness, surprising observers who thought Kazakhstan had more pressing problems to tackle. Nazarbayev also has a Singapore-style fixation with chewing gum and dirty cars in his model capital city, Astana.
The news of the harsh treatment meted out to the Pavlodar man sparked vituperative reactions on the Tengri News site, suggesting that many of Nazarbayev’s fellow citizens do not share his concerns. “Where the hell is democracy?” asked user West. “He was only expressing his opinion.”
A court in Kazakhstan has banned the outspoken independent newspaper Respublika, amid what critics see as a year-long political crackdown following fatal unrest in the town of Zhanaozen last December that has seen an opposition leader jailed, his party shut down, and media outlets critical of the administration of President Nursultan Nazarbayev closed.
On December 25 the court ordered Respublika to shut down its print version and all associated print outlets and websites containing the word “Respublika,” Almaty-based media freedom watchdog Adil Soz reported. The ruling was issued four days after a key opposition party, Alga!, was closed.
Respublika – which has long operated under pressure in Kazakhstan, and once had the corpse of a decapitated dog pinned to its wall as an apparent threat – was among around 40 media outlets targeted for closure by prosecutors who allege their coverage of the Zhanaozen unrest was “extremist” and contained calls to overthrow the state. Prosecutors say the outlets are funded by fugitive oligarch and Nazarbayev opponent Mukhtar Ablyazov (who is on the run from British justice in a separate fraud case).
The unregistered Alga! party, one of Kazakhstan’s only genuine opposition forces, has lost its legal battle against closure, it announced by Twitter today.
On December 21 a court in Almaty declared Alga! “extremist” and ordered its closure, the party said. It had been battling the closure bid since last month, when prosecutors announced they were seeking to shut it over allegations that it was involved in inciting fatal unrest in Zhanaozen last December.
Alga! leader Vladimir Kozlov is serving a jail term on charges he fomented that violence and sought to overthrow the administration of long-time President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Kozlov denies the charges and argues that he and his party -- which the authorities have for years refused to register to operate legally -- engaged only in legitimate opposition activity. Independent watchdog groups called the trial a sham.
“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 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.”
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.
As President Nursultan Nazarbayev took to the podium September 3 to address parliament, observers sat back ready to hear what he had to say about the troubles that have plagued Kazakhstan over the last year, from terrorism and deadly unrest to two mysterious mass murders this summer.
Instead, what they got was a diatribe against graffiti and garbage: Nazarbayev used his speech to rail against anti-social behavior, including cussing and public drunkenness. (This is not a new fixation: In April the president instructed police in the capital, Astana, to arrest people who leave chewing gum at street crossings.)
Nazarbayev also urged parliament to adopt laws to promote economic growth and improve ordinary people’s lives -- quite sensibly, since the investigation into the turmoil in Zhanaozen on Independence Day last December that left 15 dead acknowledged social grievances as a contributing factor.
The president noted that “at my instruction, last year, by the 20th anniversary of independence, every town and village was to have become a model of comfort and orderliness” -- though his message had obviously not reached Zhanaozen, if the official investigation findings are to be believed. Nazarbayev did not mention the violence or its aftermath.
For some observers, his speech was long on style -- buzzwords included “social modernization” and “green economy” -- and short on substance.
“Evidently, the president simply has nothing to say,” opposition leader Bolat Abilov told the Guljan website, accusing Nazarbayev of ignoring “serious topics.”
Star of stage and screen, fairy-tale hero – Kazakhstan’s Leader of the Nation is now getting his place cemented in the history books with the publication of his first official biography.
The tome offers a “historical retrospective” of the life and times of Nursultan Nazarbayev, the first (and so far only) president of independent Kazakhstan, under whose astute tutelage the country’s “dramatic” march forward will be viewed.
Being billed by state media as the first attempt at “a historical biographical study of the life and activity” of Nazarbayev, the book, overseen by the president’s office, follows “his path from simple rural guy to national leader.”
If the territory sounds familiar, it is: The early stages of this rise to power and glory were charted in last year’s movie Sky of My Childhood, and Nazarbayev’s life has also featured in a hagiography written by disgraced former British MP Jonathan Aitken (after Aitken served time in a British jail for perjury).