By Bruce Pannier/Antoine Blua
A Kazakh opposition figure, Mukhtar Abliyazov, was arrested earlier this week on charges of embezzlement and abuse of office dating back to his former posts as head of the country's electric company and later energy minister. The arrest has drawn protests from the Kazakh opposition, which claims the charges are merely an attempt by the government to silence its critics.
Prague, 29 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Is it a case of a former government official finally being brought to justice for his sins of the past? Or another instance of the government leveling charges at a prominent opposition figure who has become a political nuisance?
These are the questions being asked in Kazakhstan following this week's arrest of Mukhtar Abliyazov, a former energy minister who is now a leading member of the opposition Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) movement as well as the head of a major Kazakh bank. Abliyazov has been placed in police custody pending trial.
The case against Abliyazov dates back to the late 1990s when he was the head of KEGOC, the national electricity company (1997-98); and then minister of energy, industry, and trade (1998-99).
Abliyazov, whose arrest was made public on 27 March, is charged with abuse of office and "illegal entrepreneurship." The head of the country's financial police, Bolatbek Bulgakbaev, said yesterday that Abliyazov and other officials are guilty of embezzling funds from KEGOC and devising a debt-payment scheme that siphoned millions of dollars from state coffers.
Bulgakbaev said Abliyazov's trial could start as early as next month. The police head also denied that Abliyazov's case was politically motivated. He stressed the investigation into Abliyazov's alleged wrongdoings was opened in 1999 -- long before he joined the opposition movement.
Authorities justified Abliyazov's detention, citing the risk that he could flee the country if allowed to remain at large until the investigation was concluded. But some observers remain skeptical of the official reasons given for Abliyazov's detention and arrest. They say the former minister angered the government in co-founding the DVK movement late last year, and that the charges against him are politically motivated.
The case is reminiscent of that of Kazakhstan's former prime minister, Akezhan Kazhegeldin. Kazhegeldin, who stepped down from his post in 1997, lived peacefully for a year. But after declaring himself a candidate for the Kazakh presidency in late 1998, he suddenly became the target of a government investigation into his financial dealings while serving as premier. Having fled abroad over three years ago, Kazhegeldin now faces charges of embezzlement, tax evasion, and arms possession at home.
At a press conference today in Almaty, members of Ablyazov's DVK movement and other opposition groups said Kazakh police yesterday attempted to arrest a second DVK leader, Galymzhan Zhaqiyanov. Zhaqiyanov, a former regional governor, lost his post shortly after joining the political opposition, and has since come under investigation. Sources at the press conference said police failed to arrest Zhaqiyanov, who is now "out of Kazakh territory." Serikbolsyn Abdildin, a member of the Kazakh parliament attending today's press conference, said Zhaqiyanov had taken harbor in a foreign embassy in Almaty.
Just yesterday, Zhaqiyanov had been among the speakers at another DVK press conference held to dispute the charges against Abliyazov and accuse the government of concocting the charges in order to silence a prominent member of the opposition. Reading a group statement, Zhaqiyanov accused Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev of giving government and law-enforcement officials free reign to crack down on opposition figures.
"The public declaration by President [Nursultan Nazarbaev] -- with its direct threats against leaders of the opposition and the independent media -- has become an order to act for all police services and organs of executive power. So the fabricated accusations have resulted in a criminal case against the leaders of the democratic opposition, [myself] and Abliyazov. Our deputies and aides have been arrested. A regime of total repression has come down against the country's independent media. We appeal to all citizens of Kazakhstan, for the sake of the country, to speak as one against the arbitrary rule and violence of the authorities, to defend their right to a dignified life."
Independent Kazakh television station TAN TV yesterday ran into troubles of its own. Speaking at today's press conference, the station's director said a group of armed men entered TAN TV's transmission facilities and destroyed equipment. The director said it will take nearly a week for the station to resume its broadcasts.
Some observers believe the attack was linked to TAN TV's planned broadcast of an antigovernment demonstration called by DVK to be held tomorrow in Almaty.
Other media outlets have also come under government fire in recent weeks. Shortly before Abliyazov's arrest, a Kazakh court ordered the immediate suspension of two independent newspapers, "Delovoye Obozreniye Respublika" and "Vremya Po," for alleged technical violations of media regulations.
Earlier this month, Nazarbaev pushed for the establishment of a state advisory council to monitor and regulate Kazakh media outlets. Speaking on 12 March at the Congress of Journalists, the president urged the media not to fall under the influence of undesirable elements.
"We should be wary of internal and external enemies. We should steer clear of potential internal messes and chaos. We should be able to stand up to our external foes. If that is not understood by our nation, our writers, our intellectuals, then all we have managed to achieve [during independence] will be lost."
Presidential opponents have criticized Nazarbaev's initiative, calling it a clear attempt to strengthen government control over mass media. Media observers suggest Nazarbaev may be eager to prevent the country's independent media from publicizing the so-called "Kazakhgate" scandal stemming from allegations that the president and other top officials in 1999 accepted bribes from American oil conglomerates.
The Kazakh government has tried to sweep the matter under the rug. But the issue resurfaced earlier this month when two parliamentary deputies, Abdildin and Boris Sorokin, -- both members of DVK -- sent a letter to Prime Minister Imangali Tasmagambetov asking for more information about alleged payoffs and Swiss bank accounts connected to the 1999 incident.
It is this renewed interest in "Kazakhgate," DVK's Zhaqiyanov said yesterday, that prompted Abliyazov's arrest.
"[Abliyazov's] case hadn't moved forward three years. And now that newspapers and deputies are talking about Nazarbaev's billions of dollars in Swiss banks, all of a sudden Abliyazov has been arrested. This means there is political motivation [for the arrest]. There are hundreds, thousands of criminal cases [in Kazakhstan], and no one is ever arrested or convicted. I think Ablyazov is innocent. If he did something wrong, they should have said that and proved it three years ago or two years ago. They didn't. Now it's like looking for dirt under the rug."
Aldar Kusainov, writing in "Eurasia View," says local observers in Kazakhstan have expressed concern that recent developments could put the country on a "confrontational path" leading to the same violent clashes that rocked southern Kyrgyzstan earlier this month following the January arrest of a popular opposition figure, Azimbek Beknazarov.
Kusainov cites a Kazakh Foreign Ministry official as saying the ministry is preparing a rapid-response strategy to deal with any potential civil disturbances.
(Edige Maguin of the Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)