On April 14 Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev signed a new presidential decree on stepping up the fight against corruption and strengthening discipline in state bodies. However, even the president’s own entourage gave lukewarm support to the new campaign.
Understandably, corrupt government officials could hardly be happy about the decree, which threatens to stem the tide of bribes and other illegal income by allowing the media and public representatives to participate in the Disciplinary Committee, a body ostensibly created to fight economic crimes among regional government officials but popularly regarded as an institution invented to shelter high-ranking officials from legal prosecution. There is nothing to indicate that Nazarbayev’s latest anti-corruption decree will be any more successful than his innumerable previous efforts to convince the OSCE, European Union, World Bank, and other international institutions of Kazakhstan’s earnest intention to build a transparent and crime-free society. Sarybay Kalmurzayev, chairman of the government Agency for Fighting Corruption, said that in Kazakhstan the very definition of corruption is something vague and law-enforcement bodies have no idea about “whom and what should we fight” (Kazakhstan TV, April 15).
His words suggest that the Agency for Fighting Corruption is not willing to shoulder all the responsibility for implementing the presidential decree in a society where every sphere of economic life is pervaded by impropriety. Last year over 800 corruption cases were reported and 83 high-ranking officials were brought to account. Quite recently financial police accused the state Customs Office of embezzling 5 billion tenge ($38 million) of public money, but the head of the Customs Office, Berdybek Saparbayev, brushed off these accusations while admitting that five customs officials had been sacked in the first three months of this year for bribe-taking. At a recent session of parliament, Dariga Nazarbayeva, daughter of the president, asked the minister of education about the mysterious disappearance of large sums of money allotted by the Asian Development Bank to print school textbooks (KTK TV, April 20).
Not long before the anti-corruption decree appeared, entrepreneurs from Almaty region sent a letter to President Nazarbayev asking him to sack the regional governor, Shalbay Kulmakhanov, and the mayor of Taldykorgan, Saken Zhylkaydarov, for exerting financial and moral pressure on business people. More than 3,000 local entrepreneurs signed the petition Kazakhstan TV, April 16).
The anti-corruption measures outlined in the presidential decree should be implemented in the years 2005 and 2006. Notably, the state program for fighting corruption, although expected to be ready this spring, will in fact not go into effect before 2006, the year presidential elections are to take place. This timing raises suspicions that the decree on fighting corruption and economic crimes is a pre-election move calculated to restore public confidence in a president who is increasingly being criticized for closing his eyes to economic crimes in the top echelons of power.
The innovation in the latest presidential decree, which is likely to strike a popular chord, is the promise to make the investigation and prosecution of economic crimes more transparent by involving the media and public organizations. But Ak Zhol Democratic Party leader Alikhan Baimenov, who claims that the president hijacked the idea of transparency from the Ak Zhol program, has expressed strong doubts about the feasibility of the anti-corruption measures within the current political system. He believes that fighting a shadow economy that erodes the foundations of society would yield more results than launching a verbal anti-corruption campaign (Kazakhstan TV, April 16).
Ak Zhol, the mainstream opposition force, seems set to capitalize on charges of corruption and widespread bribe taking within government offices in the upcoming presidential election campaign. During an April 6 press conference, Ak Zhol leaders Alikhan Baimenov and Ludmila Zhulanova announced that party activists have set up a Public Committee for Fighting Corruption as an alternative to the state Agency for Fighting Corruption.
Opposition and state bodies agree on at least one point, namely admitting that corruption and economic crimes can be tamed only through wider public awareness and involvement. But it is too early to say whether the state is serious about its stated intentions to eradicate bribe taking and corruption. The governor of Almaty, who urged entrepreneurs not to pay bribes to government officials (thus implying that entrepreneurs and ordinary people who do give bribes are more to blame than bribe takers), doubts that corruption can be eradicated by simply punishing corrupt officials (Liter, April 16).
It is hard to expect that the new presidential decree will produce palpable results in the prevailing atmosphere of skepticism and disappointment with previous failures. At the same time, Kazakhstan needs to reap some short-term results in fighting economic crimes if it hopes to win the OSCE chairmanship in 2009, a matter of high political prestige. At the same time, Kazakhstan has not yet joined the UN Convention on fighting corruption. This policy inconsistency shows that economic crimes, which have entangled top officials, cannot be uprooted overnight.