On June 7 the prominent opposition journalist Batyrkhan Darimbet died in Taraz, southern Kazakhstan. He had been hospitalized since June 2 after a car accident near Taraz city, where he reportedly had gone to set up local branches of Alga, DVK! (Forward, Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan!), a public movement he founded as a substitute for the banned Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan party. Darimbet, a former journalist for Radio Liberty’s Kazakh service and the founder of the popular Azat newspaper, was one of the opposition leaders who organized several public campaigns demanding the release of Galymzhan Zhakyanov, the jailed leader of Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan. Darimbet was also a member of the political council of the For a Fair Kazakhstan opposition movement.
Apparently realizing that the death of such a prominent political figure might trigger public anger, the police promised to carry out a thorough investigation of the circumstances surrounding the accident. Conspicuously enough, the incident drew mixed comments from political observers and journalists. Bigeldy Gabdullin, chief editor of the Central Asia Monitor, ambiguously noted that Darimbet’s death, “Teaches us that we should demand from the authorities strict observance of the laws, and from policymakers who call themselves democrats the real protection of people’s interests” (Central Asia Monitor, June 10).
The Russian-led opposition’s restrained reaction to Darimbet’s death points to the widening rift in the opposition camp along ethnic lines. Darimbet, an ardent advocate of the Kazakh language and culture, never enjoyed significant popularity among the Russian-speaking opposition. His death is the latest in a long chain of mysterious road accidents involving journalists. Last year the independent journalist Askhat Sharipzhan was hit by a car in Almaty. In November 2002 the editor of the Altyn Gasyr newspaper, Nuri Muftakh, who also worked for Azat, was run over by a bus in Shymkent. In January 2002 the journalist Alexei Pugayev, who was working with the Kazakhstani branch of the international Bureau on Human Rights, died in a similar car accident, and the editor of the independent Talap newspaper, Yuri Baev, was found dead in Uralsk, eastern Kazakhstan. The editor of Vecherny Atyrau, Zhumabay Dospanov, narrowly escaped death when he discovered that someone had tampered with the brakes of his car. In May this year, journalists from Pavlodar sent a petition to the city police chief asking for protection following brutal attacks on 10 reporters over the last two years. Investigations into all of these cases have resulted in no trials, much less convictions. That fact leads many observers to believe that the authorities are deliberately targeting journalists critical of the Nazarbayev regime (Respublika, June 2).
Harassment and persecution of journalists are likely to intensify as the country nears the 2006 presidential elections. After an extensive libel case, the opposition newspaper Soz had to pay the National Security Committee $37,600, and the court confiscated all of its printing facilities. The newspaper concluded a contract with another publisher to resume publication, but the court ruled the contact invalid. The Security Committee seems bent on ruining the newspaper (Epoha, June 10).
Another media-related row broke out between President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, and Altynbek Sarsenbayev, the former information minister, former ambassador to Russia, and now one of the most popular opposition leaders. In an October 2004 interview with Delovoye Obozrenie Respublika, Sarsenbayev said that Nazarbayeva controls an entire chain of powerful media outlets. Later he reiterated his assertions saying that half of the shares of Khabar state television, presumably controlled by Nazarbayeva, are owned by other private companies including Kaztsentr TV, Kazakhstan radio and television broadcasting company, and the Eurasia, NTK, and KTK television networks (Zhas Alash, June 2). The scandal prompted parliament member Zauresh Battalova to demand clarification from the prime minister over the alleged diversion of public money to finance the first channel of Eurasia TV.
What appears to be an intricate court case or the inadvertent death of a journalist in reality is part of the ongoing battles between the opposition and the regime in the aftermath of the popular uprisings in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan. Speaking at the Asar Party Congress on June 7, Nazarbayeva expounded on “a new form of expansion, exported revolution, forced democratization from the outside and inner destructive forces” (Interfax Kazakhstan, June 7).
Quite logically, in contrast to their public image of self-composure and their declared readiness to embrace democracy, all authoritarian rulers of Central Asia are haunted by fear of popular revolution. At a press conference following a meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization states, Tajikistan Foreign Minister Talbak Nazarov said that his country has no fertile ground for “color revolutions,” adding that the Tajik leadership closely watches the situation in the region. Ironically, his assurances came amid protests by international human rights organizations concerned over the fate of Jumobay Tolibov, an independent journalist jailed in Tajikistan for “hooliganism and insulting the authorities” (Central Asia Monitor, June 10). All signs indicate that Kazakhstan is retreating from its promises of democracy and freedom of the press. Using political stability and the need to prevent Kyrgyz-style “chaos” as plausible excuses, the authorities are getting a free hand to deal with opposing views. There seems to be no force, external or internal, to reverse that dangerous trend.