In a televised address to the nation on March 1, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev elaborated at great length on the country’s economic priorities, promising a solid package of social benefits to a large section of the population and reiterating his ambition to place Kazakhstan among the 50 leading countries of the world.
In contrast to the economic trump cards praised in his speech, political reforms merited only a few scant words. Nazarbayev noted that Kazakhstan remains committed to political reforms that should be carried out “taking into consideration the traditions of the society” and the mentality of the people. He went on to say that Kazakhstan had risked social destabilization for the first time in last year’s presidential election. The president called upon the people to “defend democracy,” disregarding criticism in the country and abroad, and he added that regime opponents had mistakenly interpreted the liberal attitude of the authorities as a sign of weak central power. Without naming any political group or party specifically, Nazarbayev said the authorities would revise legislation, if necessary, to hold people accountable for libel or bribery (Khabar TV, March 1).
Given the complexity of the behind-the-scenes intrigues in the presidential entourage and the ongoing challenges from the opposition following the scandalous political murder of one of its leading members, Altynbek Sarsenbayev (see EDM, February 23), it is not easy to see who is targeted by these threats. Sarsenbayev’s death provoked a string of sudden resignations by top politicians, including the chief of the National Security Committee, Nartay Dutbayev, and the commander of the Arystan special task squad of the National Security Committee, Serzhan Koybayev. The chief of the Senate’s administrative department, Yerzhan Utembayev, was also arrested.
Although law-enforcement agencies showed a laudable efficiency in this case, detaining the alleged perpetrators within a week, many questions still remain unanswered. Analysts are almost unanimous in believing that the president did not wish to eliminate his political opponent, who posed no real threat after the election, in this brutal manner, as it would tarnish his reputation. Yerzhan Utembayev, presented as the ringleader by official sources, is regarded by the opposition as a sacrificial lamb in the hands of influential groups. Presidential son-in-law First Deputy Foreign Minister Rakhat Aliev and presidential daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva line up on one side of the barricade, while parliamentary speaker Nurtay Abykayev and another presidential son-in-law, Timur Kulibayev, stand on the other side (Vecherny Kubistan, www.kub.kz, February 25).
Not surprisingly, Rakhat Aliev has angrily rejected the rumors of his involvement in Sarsenbayev’s case and has threatened to sue journalists for “vicious slander” damaging his reputation. Foreign Minister Kasymzhomart Tokayev has not interceded on behalf of Aliev, instead publicly calling the death of Sarsenbayev a “political murder.” That was a particularly bold statement that points to an emerging rift between various factions in the higher echelons of power. Deputy Prosecutor General Ilyas Bakhtybayev was quick to react and denied that political motives were behind the murder.
A group of members of parliament have demanded the dissolution of the Arystan special task squad, grimly dubbed a “death squad” by the media. Clearly, the five detained members of the Arystan special task squad, which is strictly subordinated to the National Security Committee, did not act on their own or in defiance of instructions. The dubious detentions and resignations of some scapegoats have only complicated the situation further. The independent commission for monitoring the investigation set up by the For a Fair Kazakhstan opposition bloc has loudly demanded that the inquiries of the National Security Committee and the Prosecutor-General’s Office include Dariga Nazarbayeva, Kairat Satybaldy, the first deputy chairman of the national railway company, as well as the founders of the Eurasian Industrial Group: Alexander Mashkevich, Patokh Shodiev, and Amedzhon Ibragimov (Delovaya nedelya, February 24).
In this tense situation, it will impossible for the government to implement any political reform with the participation of all democratic movements and parties. Moreover, it would be naïve to expect radical democratic changes in a country ruled by authoritarian leaders from the communist era who loathe the constant lectures by the West on civic freedoms and human rights.
Nazarbayev apparently seeks some sort of compromise between the Western model of political reform and his homegrown authoritarian type of democracy that would give the regime a free hand to deal with its opponents. The political content of Nazarbayev’s address to the nation shows that Astana regards freedom of speech and civil liberties as more for show than serious moves towards democratization. “Glasnost is a responsibility and not permissiveness,” Nazarbayev declared. He called on non-governmental organizations to become actively involved in implementing social programs jointly with the state—and advised them to steer clear of politics.