More and more active opponents of the current regime in Kazakhstan are dying in mysterious deaths. The latest victim is Altynbek Sarsenbayev, the 43-year-old co-chairman of the Naghyz Ak Zhol (True Bright Path) political party and one of the leaders of the “For a Fair Kazakhstan” opposition bloc.
Sarsenbayev, his bodyguard, and his driver were found on February 12 alongside a road near a farm located not far from Almaty. The three men had bullet wounds to the chest and head and their arms had been tied behind their backs.
Official media promptly declared that the three had been killed in a hunting accident. But the leaders of For a Fair Kazakhstan suspect it was a political murder. Around 5,000 people gathered for the funeral in Almaty, which turned into a huge protest rally condemning the persecution of political opponents and demanding that the murderers of opposition activists Sarsenbayev, Zamanbek Nurkadilov, and journalist Askhat Sharipzhanov — all killed in mysterious circumstances — be brought to trial (Panorama, February 17).
The Kazakh Interior Ministry division in Almaty did not attempt to prevent opposition leaders from holding a funeral rally, but in Astana the police denied them the permission to stage a similar action, asserting that the city administration does not authorize rallies. Nevertheless, Sarsenbayev’s death triggered a powerful response from political parties and civic movements, which unanimously condemned what was widely seen as a brazen attack on the right of assembly. For a Fair Kazakhstan announced its would set up an independent investigating commission incorporating public figures and independent lawyers. A group of entrepreneurs issued a strongly worded statement underlining that the death of Sarsenbayev was an “act of intimidation” that “challenges us all.” This is the first time the business elite have joined the opposition in condemning state pressure on democratic movements. The Political Council of the Asar party, which is led by presidential daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva, stated, “This tragic event should give the society cause for serious concern” (Central Asia Monitor, February 17).
Trained in Moscow as a journalist, Sarsenbayev made a brilliant political career in the Kazakh government as chairman of the National Media Agency in 1995, minister of information in 1997, secretary of the Security Council of Kazakhstan in 2001, and ambassador to Russia in 2002 and 2003. He surprised many observers when he joined the opposition in 2004, and since that time he became known as one of the country’s most enigmatic politicians. His opponents blamed him for a dramatic split in Ak Zhol’s ranks, but Sarsenbayev was generally recognized, even by his enemies, as a gifted public speaker and the best ideologist in For a Fair Kazakhstan.
A thorn in the side of the authorities and an uncompromising rival to some opposition leaders, Sarsenbayev had many enemies, and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that he was murdered. Some analysts linked his death to the murder of oil tycoon Ibrahim Dzhumagulov in 2004 in Moscow, when Sarsenbayev was posted there and allegedly shared some business interests with Dzhumagulov (Novoye pokolenie, February 17).
Law-enforcement agencies have tried hard to persuade the public that the authorities had no hand in this murder. Interior Minister Baurzhan Mukhamedzhanov, who was personally assigned to monitor the investigation, alleged that Sarsenbayev might have fallen victim to some business or family disputes or perhaps was murdered by “extremists who want to destabilize the situation in the country.”
The opposition clearly is trying to use this event to raise its popularity after last year’s election debacle and to regain attention from Western democratic institutions.
Evidently, the authorities are making face-saving efforts to forestall the opposition’s westward march. At a press conference on February 16 Mukhamedzhanov told journalists that the ministry had decided to invite FBI experts to conduct a joint investigation. The interior minister said the decision was taken to ensure the transparency of the inquiry. Earlier a group of entrepreneurs had demanded that foreign experts be included. The U.S. Embassy also urged Kazakh authorities to conduct an immediate and thorough investigation (Liter, February 17).
The interior minister’s flexibility suggests that the authorities fear international repercussions from this case that would damage Kazakhstan’s growing reputation as a developing democracy in Central Asia. At the same time, the government and most of the hand-picked members of parliament ignored For a Fair Kazakhstan’s demand to convene a special session of parliament to allow leaders of political parties, civic movements, and President Nursultan Nazarbayev to debate the political situation in Kazakhstan.
But developments took an unexpected turn on February 20, when Mukhamedzhanov announced that five suspected gunmen and the plot’s ringleader had been arrested. He did not disclose any names. On February 22 the chief of the National Security Committee, Nartay Dutbayev, appeared before the press and announced that he had submitted his resignation to President Nazarbayev. He added that investigators had discovered that some members of the Arystan special-task squad, a detachment of the National Security Committee, were involved in Sarsenbayev’s murder (Khabar, February 22). Surprisingly, these revelations came barely 24 hours after an FBI expert arrived in Almaty.
The issue at hand goes deeper than Sarsenbayev’s death. The Interior Ministry and the National Security Committee are rival organizations. For now the Interior Ministry is reaping laurels for unraveling the most scandalous murder case in recent Kazakh history, while leaving the security services with an irreparably tarnished reputation. Worse still, the involvement of security services in this dirty game badly erodes the prospect of constructive dialogue between the authorities and the opposition.