WARSAW -- Muratbek Ketebaev used to spend his days fighting high-level corruption in the Kazakh government. In some ways, life hasn't changed that much. He's still fighting corruption -- he just does it while learning Polish on the side.
"It's hard," Ketebaev admits with a rueful laugh. "I'm like a dog. I can understand almost everything, but I can't say a word."
Elsewhere, he says plenty. Ketebaev, who grew up as a member of the Kazakh elite, has for years been one of its most vocal critics. Even now, living in self-imposed exile in Warsaw, the former journalist and opposition party leader maintains lively correspondence with fellow activists, and fills his Facebook page with tart observations about Kazakh political life.
One perpetual topic of interest is the country's autocratic leader, 73-year-old Nursultan Nazarbaev, whose advanced age and reported ill health have fueled heated speculation about who will be next to rule the massive, energy-rich nation.
"No one knows who his successor will be," says Ketebaev, whose father was a high-ranking communist official and who himself served as Nazarbaev's deputy economy minister before breaking ranks and heading into opposition politics. "Nazarbaev doesn't know himself who it will be. He's afraid to die, afraid of a successor, afraid of everything. The best way to ruin a politician's reputation right now would be to point at him and say he's Nazarbaev's successor. Nazarbaev would start to torment him right away."
Ketebaev, 57, has faced his fair share of torment. The Almaty-born activist fled Kazakhstan in 2010 amid an increasingly violent pressure campaign against independent media such as "Respublika," where Ketebaev had published numerous articles detailing government cronyism and graft.
By 2011, he had settled in Poland, and was speaking regularly to the European Parliament and other international organizations about Nazarbaev's repressive regime, including the Zhanaozen crackdown
on protesting oil workers that left at least 16 people dead.
Displeased to find himself the target of negative international attention, Nazarbaev lashed out at opponents at home and abroad. Ketebaev was charged in absentia with inciting social discord and fomenting a government overthrow for supporting media outlets that reported on Zhanaozen. (His ally Vladimir Kozlov, with whom Ketebaev had founded the opposition party Alga, was sentenced to 7 1/2 years in jail on the same charges; he is currently being held in a penal colony outside Almaty. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and other rights groups have denounced the case
as politically motivated.)
Kazakh prosecutors later upped the ante, accusing Ketebaev of funding a planned terrorist attack they said was meant to hit Almaty in March 2012. The charges targeted not only Ketebaev but his former ally
Mukhtar Ablyazov Kazakh billionaire-in-exile who had angered Nazarbaev by investing heavily in opposition media, including "Respublika," with the aim of unseating the regime.
Ketebaev was arrested on an Interpol warrant in the Polish town of Lublin in June 2013. acknowledging the political nature of the case, Polish officials quickly released him and moved to block his extradition. By December, he had received political refugee status and now appears safe from further potential persecution.
Former cohorts have been less lucky: Ablyazov -- whose alleged embezzlement of $6 billion in holdings from Kazakhstan's former BTA Bank has made him a high-value target for Astana -- is currently in detention in France, pending extradition. So too is Ablyazov's security chief, Aleksandr Pavlov, who has been held in an isolation cell in a Madrid prison for more than a year. A fellow associate, Tatyana Paraskevich, was released from a Czech detention center earlier this year after receiving a one-year guarantee against extradition.
Rights groups -- including the Warsaw-based Open Dialog Foundation, which has provided legal advice for Ablyazov and his circle -- have argued that the detainees risk abuse or possible death if returned to Kazakhstan, which has a proven record of torture.
According to Ketebaev, the years of crackdowns have had a chilling effect on Kazakhstan's younger political generations.
"During the past decade -- the battles with Mukhtar Ablyazov, with me, with other members of the democratic opposition -- the repressions were so profound that people now aren't willing to step up," he says. "Yes, in private conversations, you'll meet a lot of unsatisfied people. But the situation is reminiscent of the Soviet Union. Everyone complains in their kitchen, but no one will go out on the square."
'The Way Things Are'
Dozens of high-profile politicians and activists have fled Kazakhstan in the past 20 years, including former Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin, businessman and opposition leader Galymzhan Zhakiyanov, and Nazarbaev's former son-in-law, Rakhat Aliev, who is currently facing murder charges
in Austria that he says were concocted by the Kazakh leader to punish him for opposing the regime.
The wholesale silencing of Nazarbaev's critics may have set back Kazakh activism, but Ketebaev says it may eventually hurt Nazarbaev himself.
Kazakhstan's energy-fed economy has shown signs of vulnerability
, with the government ordering a currency devaluation and ratings agencies predicting a decline in annual gross domestic product due to reduced oil output.
"Nazarbaev needs investment, but he's gotten rid of all our own businessmen, like Ablyazov," Ketebaev says. "Russian investors have their own country to deal with. So now he's looking west. But to convince Western investors to come in, you have to do something to make Kazakhstan work better."
Until that happens, Ketebaev says he's growing used to his new life in Poland -- even as he keeps one eye trained on developments far away, back home.
"I'm not the usual Kazakh in the sense that I've always traveled a lot and lived in a lot of countries," he says. "The main problem with being here is that my parents' graves remain back in Almaty. But nothing else really bothers me, because on an everyday basis, living in Europe is much easier and simpler."
So he's satisfied? "No, it's not that," he says. "I'm just prepared to accept the way things are. Given the situation in Kazakhstan, it will be at least 10 years before I can ever go back."