After a yearlong standoff between democratic organizations and the governor of Aktobe region in western Kazakhstan, Yermek Imantayev was relieved of his post by presidential decree. He was replaced by Eleusin Sagyndykov, a 57-year old senator who is quite popular in Aktobe. The removal of an appointed governor amid wide public protests is unprecedented in Kazakhstan. Even more remarkable, Imantayev was removed during the run-up to elections to Majilis (lower house of Parliament) scheduled for September 19.
Imantayev became governor in April 2002 and quickly won a reputation as an iron-fisted ruler. During his brief term he was repeatedly lampooned in opposition papers for persecuting the founders of the Diapazon newspaper and the leaders of the pro-democracy Ak Zhol party. Blatantly ignoring public outcries, he launched a witch-hunt against his opponents.
In late June democratic activists from Aktobe set up a public committee to demand the dismissal of the governor. They issued a statement accusing Imantayev of financial impropriety and cronyism. One of his most autocratic and offensive policies was his effort to pressure journalists. According to the petition circulated by the committee, the governor had forced the owners of the local television channel Rika-TV and the newspaper Evrika to sell their media outlets to the director of a government-favored media company for a ridiculously low price. The chief editor of Diapazon, Marina Vasilyeva, told journalists that as soon as the committee statement appeared in Diapazon, officials from the regional government began buying up all copies of the paper from the distributors in order to prevent citizens from reading it (Epoha, July 2).
Press reports said that police used intimidation methods against the committee members who had collected signatures for the petition. “People in civilian clothes and police uniforms destroyed four signature collecting centers,” witnesses said. “They told the women who collected signatures to clear off and overturned the tables” (Epoha, July 2). Shortly after the police crackdown, a citizens’ action group sent an official letter to the parliament, denouncing the lawlessness. A parliamentary majority supported this appeal, prompting President Nursultan Nazarbaev to replace Imantayev.
But the row is not over yet. The public committee, which has collected 30,000 signatures from Aktobe residents, is resolute in its determination to file suit against the former governor on charges of corruption and abuse of power. “He must answer before the law for all the lawlessness he perpetrated,” said Zhasaral Kuanyshali, one of the committee’s founders (Ak Zhol Kazakstan, July 16).
Unfortunately for Imantayev, all the victims of his persecution and despotism have rallied behind the public committee. The victory of pro-democratic forces and public movements in Aktobe region may trigger off similar actions in other parts of Kazakhstan. But it remains to be seen whether or not the Prosecutor’s Office will yield to public demands and launch an investigation into the charges against the former governor. Until now no official of this rank has been held accountable for his crimes. Most likely, Imantayev will get off with little more than a slight reprimand from his superiors.