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).
Forbes Kazakhstan has published a list of the petro-state’s 50 wealthiest people. Unsurprisingly, a number of the country's multimillionaires swim close to President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
According to the list, published in the magazine's May issue and not available online, Kazakhstan’s richest man is copper magnate Vladimir Kim, who is worth a cool $3.5 billion.
He is followed by mining boss Alidzhan Ibragimov, part owner of the ENRC resource group, with $2.9 billion. (Ibragimov’s partners Aleksandr Mashkevich and Patokh Shodiyev are excluded from the list as they hold foreign passports).
So far, so predictable – Kim and Ibragimov feature as Kazakhstan’s wealthiest people on the international Forbes rich list too – but from here the rankings diverge.
The world rich list features mining and banking entrepreneur Bolat Utemuratov as Kazakhstan’s third wealthiest person – but, according to Forbes Kazakhstan, Utemuratov’s wealth of $1.6 billion is surpassed by oil magnate Rashid Sarsenov’s $1.8 billion. Sarsenov is best known as the one-time business partner of Rakhat Aliyev, the Malta-based disgraced (and wanted) son-in-law of the president.
Sarsenov’s sister Sofya Sarsenova also features (at number 12), with a fortune of $660 million, which she made after acquiring a majority stake in Nurbank from Nazarbayev’s eldest daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva in 2010.
Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has launched a broadside against the West, warning in a TV interview of the dangers of seeking to export Western values to states with different traditions.
Speaking to Russia’s state-run Rossiya 24, Nazarbayev identified the West’s use of media spin to manipulate public opinion and generate protests as a “threat.” He attacked the West for attempts at “implanting their own ideas with the aim of influencing states’ domestic policy, creating people who are pro-protest.” Though he did not name a Western state, the position jives closely with his allies’ in Moscow.
“What is needed is evolution not revolution,” Nazarbayev added, repeating one of his favorite mantras.
Nazarbayev believes revolutions bring poverty in their wake, adding that “permanent revolution” in neighboring Kyrgyzstan (which has seen two presidents overthrown since 2005) was not making people’s lives better.
Even before Middle Eastern leaders started toppling like dominoes last year, Nazarbayev had made improving the lives of ordinary people in Kazakhstan a stated cornerstone of policy. In his interview he named poverty and unemployment as the chief causes of the Arab Spring – but added that “external forces” also played a role.
This was the second time in a week that Nazarbayev had condemned the Arab Spring: On April 20 he described the events as an “erosion of international law” that had shown that “society is not ready to accept the value reference points of the Western mass media.”
Prime Minister Karim Masimov has topped a new ranking of Kazakhstan’s movers and shakers published by the Vlast online magazine.
Masimov, Kazakhstan’s longest serving premier (he has headed the cabinet since 2007), managed to come top since the study did not include President Nursultan Nazarbayev. As Vlast put it, “it is obvious that in terms of level of influence not a single participant in the ranking could compare [with the president].”
Nazarbayev is by far Kazakhstan’s most influential figure, but Vlast’s take on who else wields power, formed by polling 90 experts, makes interesting reading.
Timur Kulibayev, a son-in-law of Nazarbayev who has been tipped as a possible successor, was in third place: After Masimov came Aslan Musin, head of Nazarbayev’s administration and a gray cardinal on Kazakhstan’s political scene.
Another presidential relative featured on the list: Dariga Nazarbayeva, the president’s eldest daughter, who has recently staged a political comeback by winning a parliamentary seat.
Kulibayev and Nazarbayeva are joined on Vlast’s ranking by other influential people mooted as possible presidential successors: Nurtay Abykayev, the 64-year-old head of the domestic intelligence service, is at number four; Akhmetzhan Yesimov, the 61-year-old mayor of Almaty, is at number 10.
Yesimov’s influence is outranked by two younger contenders tipped as possible future presidents: 43-year-old Deputy Prime Minister Kayrat Kelimbetov at number six; and, on his heels at number seven, Imangali Tasmagambetov, the 55-year-old mayor of Astana.
Given all that’s gone on in the past year in Kazakhstan, some of Astana’s most ardent well-wishers in Washington are hoping that President Nursultan Nazarbayev grapples with the always delicate issue of succession planning.
The subject of a stable leadership transition came up several times during an all-day conference in Washington, DC, on January 31, hosted by the Atlantic Council. The meeting was designed primarily to laud Kazakhstan’s economic achievements over the past 20 years, as well as celebrate a strong US-Kazakhstani partnership.
Nazarbayev, a septuagenarian who has been at the helm of the Kazakhstani government since the Soviet collapse in 1991, has given no indication that he wants to leave the political stage. He seems in robust health, yet it was revealed in 2011 that he spent time at a German hospital.
Kazakhstan likes to portray itself as open to dialogue with the West – but is it open to criticism?
After observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) slammed Kazakhstan’s January 15 parliamentary vote as fraudulent, President Nursultan Nazarbayev has announced that in future certain “experts” voicing critical views will be banned from attending Kazakhstan’s elections.
“We are no longer going to invite to Kazakhstan experts hired by someone who criticize our elections,” Nazarbayev said on January 18.
He did not name the OSCE or any other organization or individual, but his remarks came two days after the OSCE-led observation mission issued a stinging critique of Kazakhstan’s poll, which it said “did not meet fundamental principles of democratic elections.”
Nazarbayev, on the other hand, said the vote was “unprecedented in terms of transparency, openness and honesty.”
He pointed out that most international observers had found the vote to be free and fair, which is true – cooperative regional bodies such as the Russia- and China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Commonwealth of Independent States (a club of former Soviet countries) gave the election a ringing endorsement, right on cue.
Balloons in the state colors, which also happen to be the ruling Nur Otan party's colors, grace a polling station in Almaty.
Kazakhstan is voting in parliamentary elections in which the ruling Nur Otan party, led by President Nursultan Nazarbayev, is set to win a landslide, just one month after security forces opened fire on protestors in western Kazakhstan, killing at least 17.
Residents of Zhanaozen, the epicenter of the December 16 violence, were casting their ballots under a state of emergency, with restrictions on freedom of movement, freedom of assembly and access for journalists. Independent international election observers were granted access to the town.
As voters trickled into less-than-bustling polling stations 1,500 kilometers away in Kazakhstan’s commercial capital, Almaty, the Zhanaozen violence – sparked by an industrial dispute in the oil sector – appeared to have had minimal impact. Citing the need for stability, voters overwhelmingly said they would elect Nur Otan.
“I want only peace and quiet,” said pensioner Zukhra Akhatova after casting her vote for the ruling party. Had events in Zhanaozen influenced her choice? No, she said, someone had “stirred up” the strikers and provoked the violence.
“I think the [oil] company management treated them wrongly, but [the management] aren’t people from the [ruling] party,” said retail trader and Nur Otan voter Alibek.
This prevalent mood suggests the administration’s tactic of blaming the unrest on mysterious third forces and oil executives is paying off.
As Nur Otan heads for a landslide, the pro-business Ak Zhol party, led by Azat Peruashev and seen as close to the administration, is tipped to come a distant second.