Officially, Kazakhstan’s Ministry of the Interior (MVD) claims to have crushed the power of organized crime in the country. This assertion appears partly supported by the considerable reduction in the number of gangland killings since the 1990s. Nevertheless, Karavan newspaper reported on November 2 not only contrary evidence suggesting that organized criminal groups remain very active, but suggested that these groups may have infiltrated state agencies.
According to information received by Karavan, around ten organized criminal groups rule in Astana and Almaty and have divided their “spheres of influence” throughout the regions. Most notorious of these is a group known as the “Four Brothers,” but, unlike in the 1990s, they now largely appear in the guise of legitimate businessmen, while engaging in racketeering, extortion, murder, and drug trafficking. The latter, most obviously, brings them to the attention of the National Security Committee (KNB), as they smuggle drugs across Kazakhstan from Afghanistan, destined for the streets of Russian cities (Karavan, November 2).
However, a new twist in these gangland activities is placing them under greater KNB scrutiny, namely their efforts to gain access to the power structures. Currently, these efforts are concentrated on gaining seats within the regional legislatures (maslikhat). The KNB discovered that a member of the Krykbayev Group recently fielded a candidate in elections for the maslikhat in western Kazakhstan, using forged documents. The “candidate” was allegedly under police investigation at the time.
According to the authorities, this latest tactic by organized criminals may be the result of “turf wars” in western and central Kazakhstan. Achieving and maintaining their authority over rival groups compels their leaders to seek innovative ways of securing their position. This is also taking place, reportedly, in the context of increased “cooperation” with Russian mafia “colleagues.”
Sixteen criminal cases opened in Almaty within the past week, involving 12 members of the Krykbayev, Saydakhov, and Ayshuak Zhantugel organized criminal groups. All charges against them related to firearms and explosives; some 404 firearms were seized, including a small number of Kalashnikov assault rifles. The authorities also discovered 4.5 kilos of explosives and seven explosive devices, including one grenade. Such trends suggest that these networks are preparing to play out a more violent campaign of settling differences, should it be deemed necessary.
The nexus between organized crime and terrorism is well established in theory, but not as well within Kazakhstan. But the presence of explosive materials in the possession of these individuals suggests that a future bombing in the tranquil cities of Almaty or Astana might arise from gangland warfare, not terrorism. Despite the international dividend accrued to Astana for its support for the war on terror, Kazakhstan’s principal security concerns are still internal.
High-profile corruption cases continue to cause concern, political embarrassment, as well as an ongoing challenge to state security bodies. Zhaksylyk Umirzak, first deputy head of the financial police of Zhambyl region, was arrested on November 7 on suspicion of extortion. He allegedly received more than 18 million tenge (around $150,000) in return for preventing close scrutiny of the financial and economic activities of the Zhambyl electric power station (Interfax-Kazakhstan, November 7).
Advocates of close cooperation with Kazakhstan point to such cases as evidence that the authorities are making “progress” in tackling corruption, which is proven by the mere fact that such cases are reported. What is not known is the extent of corruption within state agencies, its level, scope, aims or connections.
Many NGOs currently active in Kazakhstan endeavor to expose corruption and abuse of power in order to make policymakers aware of the issues and challenges confronting them. A new public association, Law and Justice (Zan zhane Adildik) has recently been formed. It intends to protect the constitutional rights of Kazakh citizens and reduce corruption in state agencies. It also hopes to cooperate closely with the authorities, sign a memorandum of understanding with government agencies, open offices in eight cities, and post information on the Internet about bribery and corruption (Kazakh Television Channel 1, November 6).
In this setting, the links between corruption and organized crime inside Kazakhstan require even more exposure. Equally, Kazakhstan’s foreign partners should encourage Astana to pursue systemic security sector reform, which will equip its law-enforcement agencies to adequately tackle the most serious challenges presented by such groups. Western assistance to Kazakhstan in these areas, often largely restricted to high-profile military cooperation, must also enhance the capabilities of the security sector. Some Western help currently exists, notably from the United States, which has an FBI liaison office in Almaty that cooperates with the KNB. Similarly, with the OSCE seeking greater cooperation from the authorities in election monitoring, these examples of criminal penetration of local elections need to be addressed.