The inauguration ceremony of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, held in Astana on January 11, witnessed more than the expected national display of Nazarbayev’s tight grip on power. According to sources within the Foreign Ministry, it also conveyed the impression that Kazakhstan is now the leader of the Central Asian region. “The Kazakh president’s inauguration ceremony and the respectable composition of its participants have confirmed our country’s solid international standing and its status as the leader in the Central Asian region,” observed Foreign Ministry spokesman Yerzhan Ashykbayev (Interfax-Kazakhstan, January 11).
Ashykbayev defended his comments during a press briefing in Astana on January 16, asserting that foreign delegations had “assessed highly Kazakhstan’s diplomatic achievements in ensuring global and regional security.” Of course, Nazarbayev has long harbored ambitions to make Kazakhstan the unrivalled leader in the region and that this precedence should be reflected in Astana’s dealings with the international community. Should Nazarbayev’s current term of office be denoted by the formulation of policies to support the assertion of regional leadership, the regime itself will face key challenges in the energy sector, as well as in proving its continued worth as a reliable security partner.
Many of the security reforms carried out in Kazakhstan have been structural and designed to show an aptitude for change within the existing structures, while cautiously inching towards genuine internal reform. The focus on supporting domestic security structures tasked with combating “soft” security threats ranging from money laundering by organized criminal groups to drug trafficking through Kazakhstan’s porous borders still faces the critical test of how to route out internal corruption.
Police corruption, notorious within the country, plagues the regime, as the very structures responsible for close cooperation with intelligence and border personnel suffers from a host of corruption issues. The case of three police officers from the criminal investigations department of the city Interior Affairs Directorate in Ust-Kamenogorsk (East Kazakhstan Region), who had been accused of abuse of power, finally came to an end after running for more than a year. On January 19 the three officers were sentenced to six years in prison, after the court heard eyewitness testimony concerning summary beatings and forced confessions.
The whole process was drug out since the police themselves conducted the initial investigation. They could not find enough evidence to prosecute their colleagues. Consequently, the case was then transferred to the Kazakh National Security Committee. Later, in line with East Kazakhstan Region prosecutor’s decision, the Kazakh Financial Police assisted in the investigation. Marat Tabanov, the head of the South Kazakhstan regional department for economic and corruption-related crimes, explained, “The investigation into the case presented considerable difficulties. First of all, because we received the case two months after the events happened. Undoubtedly, evidence, details, and circumstances were lost. The investigation team had to gather the required evidence in order to reconstruct the events” (Khabar TV, January 19).
Police Major-General Raimkhan Uzbekgaliyev was found not guilty of slander by a court in Shymkent, the administrative centre of South Kazakhstan Region. A local firm manager, allegedly already known to the police, had accused him of slander. Such cases reveal the often-complex inter-relationship existing between local police officials and business interests in the country. Uzbekgaliyev headed the regional internal affairs department in South Kazakhstan Region from April 1999 to March 2005, and at present he heads the internal affairs department in West Kazakhstan Region (Interfax, January 21). If security reform is to yield tangible benefits in Kazakhstan, these instances of corruption and scandal surrounding the domestic security bodies must be tackled systematically.
Though security reform may enable Nazarbayev to deliver a more stable and safer business environment, he is also keen to eliminate the covert monopolies in a number of strategic sectors and to further develop the non-energy sectors of the economy. “To ensure the development of the non-energy sector of the economy it is necessary to destroy the covert monopolies that exist in metallurgy, the banking sphere, insurance, the chemical industry, and some other sectors by creating attractive conditions and simplifying the administrative and norm-setting procedures for new companies, both Kazakh and foreign, to enter these sectors of the economy,” Nazarbayev explained to parliament on January 18 (Interfax, January 18).
In another recent development, Kazakh border guards detained two female Kyrgyz citizens at the Auyl Zheleznodorozhnyy (Railway Village) checkpoint in East Kazakhstan Region attempting to smuggle 2.7 kg of heroin to Russia. The Kazakh National Security Committee’s Border Service reported on January 17 that the women had tried to cross the Kazakh-Russian border on a train running from Almaty to Novosibirsk. Such examples of the real security challenges facing Kazakhstan’s over-stretched security agencies remind the regime that attracting foreign investment and building strong international ties with the West will be tested in sensitive and weak areas such as these. Nazarbayev may need to take steps unpopular at a local level, breaking through the culture of corruption and nepotism, if he is to show his neighbors and the international community that Kazakhstan can provide high-quality security.
Until then, Nazarbayev’s political aspirations remain subject to the limitations and restrictions placed upon him through his acceptance of “covert” corruption within security circles.