Kazakhstan’s political life has entered a somnolent mood after both chambers of parliament wrapped up their legislative work on July 5 until September and President Kassym-ZhomartTokayev subsequently took his first vacation—albeit only for four days (July 22–26) and without going any farther than the Caspian coast. The unprecedented protest wave that met Tokayev’selevation to the presidency as Nursultan Nazarbayev’s permanent successor—first in March and then in June—has by now subsided. However, passions are still running high. Several reports, emanating mainly from online social media, have recently targeted high-profile Kazakshtanipoliticians, raising the stakes of what looks like a new era of inter-elite struggles following Nazarbayev’s surprise resignation on March 19 (Turantimes, July 22; Sputnik News, July 5).
First, Baurzhan Baibek, the now-former mayor of Almaty, Kazakhstan’s first capital but still largest city, came under fire from two highly active Telegram channels—“Strashnyy Zhuz” and “Uzyn Qulaq.” Telegram is a popular encrypted messaging service created by a cofounder of Vkontakte, the Russian equivalent of Facebook. These two channels, whose true administrators are unknown, asserted that, during Baibek’s time at the helm of Almaty, his family had accumulated no less than $1 billion in net assets. Baurzhan Baibek was appointed mayor in August 2015. He was reconfirmed in this role by President Tokayev on June 17, 2019. But on June 29, former president Nazarbayev, who has retained the chairmanship of the ruling Nur Otanparty, made him his first deputy (Kz.expert, T.me/strashniyzhuz, June 30; T.me/s/Uzynqulaq, June 27).
“News” of Baibek’s supposedly enormous wealth, highly suspicious for someone who has purportedly spent his whole professional life in civil service, quickly spread across the web, materializing in a dozen related YouTube videos posted between June 30 and July 16. Still, as is often the case with anonymously circulated compromising information, no evidence has emerged of either how he has been able to make so much money or, to begin with, the actual size of his net worth today (Baibek was not included in a local Forbes ranking, for example). Instead, the “Strashnyy Zhuz” channel, which had initially posted this allegation, simply referred to “an analysis” of Baibek’s family’s unspecified ownership interests. Meanwhile, a full-fledged article on the same topic published by Kz.expert, a self-proclaimed analytical platform that usually limits itself to rehashing political news, republished material from two old articles dating back to 2015 and 2017. That reporting had shed some light on the Baibek family’s assets, based exclusively on open-source information (Kz.expert, T.me/strashniyzhuz, June 30, 2019; Kazday, June 8, 2017; Total.kz, August 24, 2015).
The next media attack on a member of the Kazakhstani political elite targeted Daniyar Akishev, the governor of the National Bank of Kazakhstan (the country’s central bank) from November 2015 to February 2019 and Nazarbayev’s advisor since April 9, 2019. Another Telegram channel alleged that law enforcement authorities were looking into Akishev in connection with purportedly illegal activities relating to trading in stocks of Kazatomprom, the national uranium champion whose shares were simultaneously listed in London and Astana in late 2018. In addition, the former central banker was accused of having personally profited from tengeexchange rate fluctuations. Similarly to the Baibek case, no specifics were ever disclosed. The General Prosecutor’s Office was forced to respond to the ensuing media frenzy, firmly dismissing all allegations of an ongoing probe into Akishev’s track record as head of the National Bank. The First President of Kazakhstan’s office, where Akishev is currently employed, also echoed these denails (Forbes Kazakhstan, Zakon.kz, Sputnik News, July 3).
Most recently, former culture minister Arystanbek Mukhamediuly, whom President Tokayevappointed, on July 10, as the new director of the National Museum, was compelled to disprove rumors regarding his present salary. Writing on his Facebook page, Mukhamediuly said that he would be earning 172,436 tenge ($448) in gross monthly income, not 3 million tenge ($7,794), as unspecified sources had alleged. It is possible that the allegation initially originated on Telegram; but to date no particular channel has been identified as the source. While it may seem convenient to blame inter-elite competition for the sensationalist rumor mill, a more prosaic explanation is likely: Over the years, Kazakhstan has deprived itself of almost every single independent media outlet capable of satisfying public interest in the private lives of domestic political celebrities. To understand why a given individual was promoted whereas someone else fell out of grace, it previously sufficed to read newspaper columns. But those are no longer available (Informburo, July 12).
The rumor mill is all that is left of Kazakhstan’s once-vibrant media landscape, currently dominated by the state and powerful business groups closely affiliated with elite political circles. In early 2017, the news portal Radiotocha.kz shut down because of financial difficulties. Its hallmark reporting focused on analysis of publicly available corporate data concerning asset ownership by Kazakhstani government officials and their next of kin. None of those publications ever drew on private sources of information. And yet, Radiotochka.kz met with strong informal opposition from various influential detractors. Back in 2015, new legislation criminalized the so-called “spreading of rumors,” leading multiple media outlets to remove the word “rumor” from their website rubrics but also making it exceedingly difficult for local journalists to speak to well-informed individuals on the condition of anonymity (Kaznews.kz, April 17, 2017; Zakon.kz, January 3, 2015).
Alongside the clampdown on politically sensitive reporting and the logical proliferation of anonymous Telegram channels lumping authentic news and scoops together with outright lies, the significance of both mainstream and non-mainstream media for inter-elite relations cannot be understated. “Character assassination”–style reports have always been and will continue to be used by competing groups to settle individual scores and influence public opinion. What is increasingly evident today is that the authorities have no technical means to crack down on Internet chatrooms, short of forbidding all access to the worldwide web, and will have to contend with recurring waves of speculation. This could prove especially dangerous in times of crisis, with Kazakhstan still grappling with the consequences of the post-2014 economic slowdown.