Kazakhstan’s Crackdown on Rumors Fails to Prevent their Spread

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 12 Issue: 112

Respublika media portal (Source: review.easycounter.com)

On January 1, 2015, the new Criminal Code, which was approved by President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s July 2014 decree, took effect in Kazakhstan. Hailed by the authorities as a means to modernize the domestic penal system in line with international standards, it introduces a number of novelties aimed not only at “humanizing” the law but also at translating sentences into real economic benefits for the state. For instance, the government is no longer allowed to seize private property in connection with 45 types of crimes excluding the gravest ones; this measure was previously practiced as an additional form of punishment (Tengrinews.kz, January 4; Nur.kz, January 2; Zakon.kz, July 3, 2014).

At the same time, the revised Criminal Code has put in place a differentiated system of fines for corruption, together with a ban on convicted corrupt officials from working in the civil service―in some cases permanently. Thus, bribes worth less than $540 are hence punished with fines 20 times bigger than the actual amount of the kickback; those worth between $540 and $32,150 entail fines that are 30 times larger; those under $107,000 are followed by fines worth 40 times the initial bribe and, finally, all other illicit payments of greater value entail penalties that are 50 times higher. This is what recently happened to the former head of Kazakhstan’s Antimonopoly Agency, Murat Ospanov, who was ordered in February to reimburse to the state budget almost $6 million for so-called “large-scale corruption” (Nomad.su, February 13; Kursiv.kz, January 3).

Still, the most innovative—and by many accounts controversial—novelty of the new Criminal Code is a provision concerning the “deliberate propagation of false information,” a legal concept more commonly understood as “spreading rumors.” The dissemination of such unsubstantiated information in the media and on social networks may be subject to fines as high as $54,000 or, as an alternative, community work or a jail sentence up to five years. In the most serious cases considered as a threat to national security, an individual indicted for spreading rumors could face a decade in prison (Nv.kz, January 4; Kazpravda.kz, January 2; Lenta.ru, April 1, 2014).

Last spring when the anti-rumors provision was actively debated in parliament, Deputy Prosecutor General Iogann Merkel said that its main purpose was to prevent situations similar to the one of February 2014, when, following the 19-percent tenge devaluation, two mid-sized banks, Alliance Bank and Kaspi Bank, suffered substantial losses prompted by their panicky clients’ massive cash withdrawals. Days prior, both had been targets of anonymous text messages sent from various mobile phone numbers “predicting” their forthcoming bankruptcy. As a result, Kaspi Bank had lost over $216 million worth of retail deposits in less than a week, which compelled the National Bank of Kazakhstan to provide it with last-minute liquidity in order to avoid a real-life collapse (Newskaz.ru, April 1, 2014; Total.kz, February 20, 2014).

Later, in January 2015, Kazakhstani police arrested a 25-year-old inhabitant of the southern province of Zhambyl who had been spreading Internet rumors about the death of former Prime Minister Serik Akhmetov. After a short stint as defense minister in April–October 2014, Akhmetov had been arrested at his home in Karaganda province, where he has since been accused of large-scale corruption and abuse of power. Although the unlucky prankster is still under investigation, his case may set a legal precedent, especially for a certain category of media outlets that often publish rumors-based reports about Kazakhstan’s leading politicians and even the president himself. The Russia-based Respublika online portal (Respublika-kz.info) is a good illustration of this new reality (Matritca.kz, May 8).

Since its founding in September 2008, Respublika has been closely associated with the chairman of BTA Bank, Mukhtar Ablyazov, who fled Kazakhstan in early 2009 after being accused of fraud amounting to $6 billion. In July 2013, the exiled banker was arrested in the south of France and currently awaits his extradition to either Russia or Ukraine, with the approval of a French appeals court. Ablyazov’s incarceration has since forced Respublika to make regular calls for donations from the readership to an online money account offered by a Russian payment service. The recent changes in the Kazakhstani Criminal Code have further led its editors to rename the “Rumors” section on the website to a more neutral “Letters from our readers” (Fergananews.com, August 1, 2013; Gazeta.ru, December 23, 2012).

It should, however, be noted that against all odds, the web-based journal has become even more active in publishing rather sensitive materials about Kazakhstan’s political elite, being more or less selective in its choice of targets. Since April, Respublika has been running a series of articles about Prime Minister Karim Massimov: from his family trips to Paris and Singapore to his purchases of luxury goods and correspondence with foreign leaders. All of this was presumably retrieved from email messages exchanged between the current prime minister, his assistants and third parties. Other notable articles include pieces about Defense Minister Imangali Tasmagambetov, who is widely considered one of the most serious contenders for President Nazarbayev’s succession. In May, for instance, Respublika wrote that Tasmagambetov had received Vladimir Putin’s endorsement to be the potential next head of state of Kazakhstan (Respublika-kz.info, June 10, May 13, May 6, April 17).

Although Respublika also regularly sounds critical of Moscow, especially of its involvement in Ukraine, the mere fact that it operates from Russia, which remains Kazakhstan’s closest partner in the post-Soviet space, may indicate that it is actually part of a broader political game. In the absence of evidence, to say that it is somehow connected to the Russian security services would be no more than a baseless rumor. Yet, the journal’s access to privileged information, including scans of emails, addresses and price tags, sounds more than suspicious in the context of 21st century information warfare—even more so in light of the eventual implications of the presidential succession in Kazakhstan for Russia and Moscow’s Eurasian geopolitical ambitions.