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Kazakhstan: A Shaken System

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev celebrates his reelection in December 2005 (file photo) (epa) The brutal killing of Altynbek Sarsenbaev has sent waves of shock through Kazakhstan's political establishment and triggered waves of speculation in the media. So what does the killing of a man who was once an ally of President Nursultan Nazarbaev and then a leading opponent say about Kazakhstan's political establishment?

The hit was brutal. Altynbek Sarsenbaev, Vasily Zhuravlev, and Baurzhan Baibosin were discovered on a desolate stretch of road outside Almaty on February 13, their bodies riddled with bullets and their hands bound behind their backs. But the murder was shocking for more than its brutality. Altynbek Sarsenbaev was one of Kazakhstan's most prominent politicians, twice a minister, a onetime ally of President Nursultan Nazarbaev who joined the opposition in 2003 and most recently a co-chairman of the opposition party Naghyz Ak Zhol (True Bright Path).

Zhuravlev, his driver, and Baibosin, his bodyguard, were the collateral victims of a killing that has sent shock waves through Kazakhstan's political establishment. But while Sarsenbaev's murder might at first glance suggest tension along the familiar fault lines of opposition and authorities, the events and revelations of the last two weeks point to tensions that run deeper than this simple division and call into question the seeming stability of what had been considered Central Asia's most successful and least volatile political system.

The Investigation

Altynbek Sarsenbaev (RFE/RL)

The post-Soviet landscape is littered with unsolved contract killings. The investigation of Sarsenbaev's murder, however, quickly produced suspects, arrests, surprising revelations, and high-level resignations.

On February 20, a week after the bodies were discovered, Interior Minister Baurzhan Mukhamedjanov announced the arrest of six suspects in the crime, five of them directly involved and one of them an "organizer." Mukhamedjanov said that the organizer of the crime agreed to pay $25,000 for the kidnapping and murder of "a certain businessman." In his remarks on February 20, the minister declined to reveal the suspects' names but said that they were confessing.

The next day, February 21, the National Security Committee (KNB) announced that five of the six arrested suspects were members of the KNB's elite Arystan (Lion) special forces unit, a descendent of the Soviet Union's legendary Alfa Squad, best-known for an operation in Kabul in 1979 that killed Afghan President Hafizullah Amin and set the stage for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. On February 22, KNB head Nartai Dutbaev resigned, telling journalists he lacked the "moral right" to head the agency in light of the situation. Seitzhan Koibakov, the head of the Arystan unit, also submitted his resignation (it was accepted on February 28).

The events of the following day, February 22, included the arrest of Erzhan Utembaev, a former deputy prime minister currently serving as head of the administration of the Senate, the upper chamber of parliament. Also arrested was Vitaly Miroshnikov, later identified as a former Arystan officer, fingered by police as the driver of the car that took Sarsenbaev, his bodyguard, and driver to the place where they were executed.

At a briefing in Astana on February 27, Interior Minister Baurzhan Mukhamedjanov announced that the investigation had established a "clear picture" of the crime and presented journalists with preliminary findings based on the confessions of individuals in custody.

In his briefing on February 27, reprinted in part by Khabar news agency, Mukhamedjanov presented the following version of events:

The interior minister said the breakthrough in the case came when two of the special-forces officers stole cell phones from the murder victims and gave them to a wife and a girlfriend, who made calls that were traced by police.

"Personal enmity" had prompted Utembaev, the head of the Senate's team of administrators, to contract the killing after Sarsenbaev published an article that Utembaev felt damaged his career. In October 2005, Utembaev met with a former law-enforcement officer, Rustam Ibragimov, who appears to be the 'organizer' arrested along with the five special-forces officers, and asked him to have Sarsenbaev beaten up. Ibragimov tailed Sarsenbaev, reported back that the politician never moved without a bodyguard and driver, and suggested to Utembaev that it would be easier to kill Sarsenbaev.

Utembaev "gave the matter some thought and agreed," Mukhamedjanov said. To cover the costs, Utembaev took out a $60,000 loan from an unidentified bank and gave the money to Ibragimov. For his part, Ibragimov contacted the five Arystan officers and offered them $25,000 to kidnap a businessman.

On February 11, the five Arystan officers snatched Sarsenbaev, his bodyguard, and driver, and handed them over to Ibragimov and Miroshnikov. Ibragimov and Miroshnikov drove the three men to a deserted area outside Almaty, where, Miroshnikov says, Ibragimov executed all three with a handgun. Ibragimov then called Utembaev to tell him the job was done.

The interior minister said the breakthrough in the case came when two of the special-forces officers stole cell phones from the murder victims and gave them to a wife and a girlfriend, who made calls that were traced by police. Mukhamedjanov closed his account of the investigation's progress with the caveat that it will continue for several months and may yet bring new facts to light.

'Influence Groups'

President Nazarbaev (file photo)

The murder and its rippling aftershocks have triggered a frenzy of analysis, speculation, and guesswork inside and outside Kazakhstan. Since virtually all of the reactions focus on the behind-the-scenes moving forces in Kazakh politics, a brief overview of that context is in order.

A November 2005 report by the Almaty-based Eurasian Center for Political Research and the Epicenter Agency for Social Technologies provides a useful, if hardly complete, survey of what it terms "influence groups" in Kazakh politics. The report defines an influence group as "an organized group that uses its financial-economic might and/or lobbying capability to acquire, or try to acquire, means of systemic influence on the legislative and executive organs of power in order to advance certain interests or forces."

In other words, an influence group is an informal alliance of individuals held together by kinship, personal affiliation, and/or common interest. During the Soviet period, such groups existed in Kazakhstan and other republics, but they came into their own in the post-Soviet period with the breakdown of state power and scramble to gain control of material resources that had once belonged to the centralized state. In Russia under President Vladimir Putin, the influence group broadly known as the "siloviki" has drawn significant attention.

In Kazakhstan, "shadow politics predominates over public politics."

In Kazakhstan, observers have often noted the importance of "tribal" connections in the form of kinship ties and "zhuz" (clan, horde) affiliation. The report suggests that the "tribal factor" has declined in influence since the 1990s. It states: "Current influence groups are formed along the principle of personal loyalty and affiliation and interact with each other on the basis of hard, pragmatic interests."

The report orders influence groups in a hierarchy, with President Nursultan Nazarbaev's own group at the top of a pyramidal structure. The president's group differs from other groups, however, in that the president himself is the focal point of the power structure and so all groups compete for influence over him. As the report puts it, "the political struggle between [influence groups] takes place not for the electorate, but for influence over the head of state." One consequence of this is that "shadow politics predominates over public politics." Another is that the president's own group is somewhat diffuse, since all top groups must maintain links to the president. Additionally, while the president holds supreme power, the report cautions that "supreme power can destroy an individual influence group, but it cannot exert decisive influence on the system."

The president, then, is both a player and a referee, and while he can stretch, suspend, and break the rules of the game, he cannot change them permanently. His power is vast, but it is limited by the need to maneuver between influence groups and maintain a balance between them.

The report identifies four top-level influence groups. The first is that of Darigha Nazarbaeva, the president's eldest daughter, and her husband, Rakhat Aliev, currently deputy minister of foreign affairs. The Nazarbaeva/Aliev group controls significant media assets, giving it an advantage in public politics, but its financial resources are somewhat limited, as it lacks major assets in the raw-materials sector. Moreover, Rakhat Aliev's aggressive maneuvering in the past has earned him numerous foes in political and business circles.

The second group is that of Timur Kulibaev, another son-in-law of the president. The report claims that this is the largest and most influential group and that its assets, which are concentrated in the raw-materials sector, overlap with those of the president.

The third group is that of Nurzhan Subkhanberdin, also known as the "Kazkommertsbank" group since Subkhanberdin chairs Kazkommertsbank, Kazakhstan's largest private financial institution. The report describes the Kazkommertsbank group as linked to the Kulibaev group but not a part of it. The Kazkommertsbank group also provides a forum for elements in business and political circles that are dissatisfied with the status quo.

The final top-level group identified in the report is the so-called "Eurasian" group, which brings together the businessmen Aleksandr Mashkevich, Patokh Shodiev, and Alidzhon Ibragimov. The Eurasian group, whose leading figures are not ethnic Kazakhs, has significant holdings in the metals industry. But the report notes that other top influence groups view the Eurasian group as "foreign," and that the group needs the support of Nazarbaev to avoid being "squeezed out" by its competitors. By the same token, Nazarbaev uses the Eurasian group as a counterbalance to influence groups tied to his immediate family.

The report also details second-level influence groups, some of them structured around financial-industrial groups, others around less prominent relatives of the president, still others around individual politicians. It notes that the second-level groups may be where Nazarbaev is looking for a suitable successor. Third-level groups often function on the regional level.

What the report stresses is that Kazakhstan faces an "emerging conflict of elites" and an increasingly acute issue of succession, with age and constitutional restrictions limiting Nazarbaev's likely term in office to 2012. Nazarbaev's 91 percent victory in the December 2006 presidential election -- assumed by the report, which appeared in November, as a foregone conclusion -- merely set the stage for the upcoming "conflict of elites" and a succession struggle. And these will be hard fought, since, the report indicates, "Kazakhstan does not yet have a systemic and stable mechanism for resolving intra-elite contradictions that would function on the level of political institutions, and not the currently predominant informal interrelations of individual clans or political figures."

More To The Story?

Interior Minister Baurzhan Mukhamedjanov providing an update on the Sarsenbaev investigation, 20 February (RFE/RL)

Analytical reactions to the murder have largely concurred on two points, both of which imply that the roots of the murder extend into the clan structure detailed in the November 2005 report. The first is that while the murder eliminated a prominent opposition figure, this was in all likelihood not its primary goal. Nazarbaev scored an overwhelming and easy victory in the December 2005 presidential election, and though the opposition charged fraud, it did not hold any significant protests and does not appear to pose a threat to the ruling elite. Political analyst Erlan Karin expressed a widespread view in the newspaper "Respublika" on February 24, arguing that the murder marked the beginning of a succession struggle among various clans. Bakhtiyar Sagandykov made a similar point on the political-news agency APN on February 26, stating that "intra-clan conflict in Kazakhstan has entered the 'hot,' shooting phase." In other words, Sarsenbaev fell victim to a conflict between forces more powerful than the country's beleaguered opposition.

The president's daughter called Sarsenbaev's murder a "carefully and skillfully planned operation to discredit President Nursultan Nazarbaev and the entire existing system of state authority."

The second point of agreement is that the chain of responsibility for the murder may go beyond Erzhan Utembaev, who has been arrested and identified by Interior Minister Baurzhan Mukhamedjanov as the individual who contracted the killing. Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, head of the opposition group For a Just Kazakhstan, told a press conference on February 23 that Utembaev's "personal and professional qualities" suggest that he "alone was not capable of taking such a decision independently, planning, organizing and committing such a monstrous and unprecedented crime," Interfax-Kazakhstan reported.

In an open letter to Prosecutor-General Rashid Tusipbekov and Interior Minister Mukhamedjanov published in "Svoboda Slova," on February 23, Tuyakbai, who also heads an independent opposition commission investigating the Sarsenbaev murder, urged police to interrogate the following highly placed individuals: Rakhat Aliev, first deputy foreign minister and son-in-law of Nazarbaev; Darigha Nazarbaeva, a parliamentary deputy and Nazarbaev's daughter; Kairat Satypaldy, first deputy president of the national railway company and Nazarbaev's nephew; and businessmen Aleksandr Mashkevich, Patokh Shodiev, and Alidzhon Ibragimov (the three men identified by the Eurasian Center for Political Research as the leaders of the "Eurasian" group).

In a February 23 statement reported by "Kazakhstan Today," Darigha Nazarbaeva also implied that the chain of responsibility does not end with Utembaev, and may even be part of a broader attempt to seize power. She called Sarsenbaev's murder an "attempt [at political assassination] on the president" and a "carefully and skillfully planned operation to discredit President Nursultan Nazarbaev and the entire existing system of state authority." Nazarbaeva warned that there are "destructive and influential forces, both in the opposition and in power, that are unhappy with the results of recent elections," referring to Nazarbaev's 91 percent share of the votes in December 2005. Nazarbaeva stated that "these forces want a review of the results of the presidential election and a new division of power." Nazarbaeva stressed that the involvement of special-forces officers in the Sarsenbaev killing suggested that "very influential forces" were behind the murder.

The Fallout

Police arrest an opposition demonstrator, 26 February (RFE/RL)

The fallout from the murder investigation has already had an impact on one of the influence groups identified above, namely that of presidential son-in-law Timur Kulibaev. As an article in Respublika on February 24 noted, the removal of KNB head Nartai Dutbaev and the arrest of Utembaev are "two blows" against Senate speaker Nartai Abykaev, since Dutbaev was Abykaev's ally, and Utembaev his subordinate. Abykaev, whose post technically puts him next in the chain of command should the president be incapacitated, is a former head of the National Security Committee (KNB) and reportedly an ally of Kulibaev. Russia's "Kommersant" also noted on February 26 that the "scandalous revelations" that have followed Sarsenbaev's murder have inflicted damage on members of the Abykaev-Kulibaev group.

Abykaev himself issued a statement on February 24, a day after opposition leaders expressed concern that he might try to influence a murder investigation focused on his subordinate. Abykaev responded that he has no "moral, human, and official right" to influence the investigation of Sarsenbaev's murder and called Utembaev's arrest "a great surprise and shock," Kazinform reported. Abykaev remains speaker of the Senate, but was not present when Nazarbaev addressed a joint session of parliament on March 1 and has now been hospitalized with "heart pains," "Kazakhstan Today" reported, citing the Senate's press service.

The fact that one influence group's loss is another's gain has not gone unnoticed. The February 24 article in "Respublika" noted that the "losers" in the wake of the Sarsenbaev murder have been opponents of Rakhat Aliev. A number of opposition newspapers and websites published lurid allegations derived from "cui bono" speculation along these lines, with one weekly featuring an interview with a "retired security officer who, citing sources close to the investigation, alleged the murder was instigated by Aliev," AP reported on February 26.

Rakhat Aliev and Darigha Nazarbaeva have let it be known that they are in no mood to shrug off the insinuations. Aliev issued a strongly worded statement on February 28, "Kazakhstan Today" reported, condemning a "stage-managed smear campaign to accuse me and other well-known people in Kazakhstan of purported involvement in the murder of Altynbek Sarsenbaev." Calling the reports a "hideous lie" intended to "destabilize our society," Aliev warned that his lawyers are gearing up for legal action against the "authors and disseminators of this libel." In a statement on March 1, Nazarbaeva fumed that various media "are knowingly disseminating false information about the involvement of close relatives of the president in this crime," "Kazakhstan Today" reported. She closed: "I consider it necessary to issue a resolute warning to the authors of such libelous publications, in whatever public outlet or country they have appeared, that not one of these actions will be left without the inevitable legal consequences provided for by law, including international law."


Scene from the funeral of Altynbek Sarsenbaev, 15 February

One issue for now resists even the most preliminary conclusions, and that is the question of ultimate responsibility for Sarsenbaev's brutal murder. The official investigation may be moving quickly, but it has raised as many questions as it has answered. The stated price of the killing is suspiciously low, and Utembaev's purported bank loan to pay for a hit is, at the very least, intriguing. The claim that highly trained special-forces commandoes would give cell phones swiped from a crime scene to their wives and girlfriends seems highly implausible. And the doubts that Utembaev would embark alone on so bold a crime out of "personal enmity" are valid.

Nevertheless, the events of the past two weeks do suggest a number of conclusions. Sarsenbaev's murder could provide Kazakhstan's battered opposition with a rallying point amid popular revulsion not only at the cold-blooded killing, but also the rampant speculation in print and electronic media about underhanded warfare between factions within the elite. On February 26, Sarsenbaev's comrades in the opposition gathered a crowd estimated at up to 4,000 people in Almaty to honor Sarsenbaev's memory. Denied a permit to meet in the city center, and greeted when they gathered by blaring music apparently organized by the authorities, demonstrators burst through a police cordon to hold a rally on Republic Square. The rally's organizers were subsequently sentenced to fines and jail terms of up to 15 days, "Vremya Novostei" reported, but they have vowed to press on.

The current imbroglio in Kazakhstan strongly suggests that it remains an open question whether Kazakhstan is more structurally secure than its post-Soviet brethren.

The second conclusion is that the murder and subsequent events have confirmed the darker implications of the November 2005 report on influence groups, which depicts a clan-ridden power structure in which "shadow politics predominates over public politics." The murder itself, whoever committed it, drives home the lack of a "systemic and stable mechanism for resolving intra-elite contradictions that would function on the level of political institutions." Moreover, the bulk of speculation about the murder, as well as apparent attempts to derive benefit from it, has broken down along the lines of the influence groups the report identifies. The departure of Dutbaev from the KNB and the weakening of Abykaev are, by virtually all accounts, a boon to the Nazarbaeva/Aliev group and a detriment to the Kulibaev group. And the sheer volume and range of speculation the Sarsenbaev murder has generated point to an obvious lack of transparency in the political system.

The final conclusion is that reports of Kazakhstan's stability have been somewhat exaggerated. Critics of President Nursultan Nazarbaev's 91-percent reelection in December 2005 pointed to evidence of "managed democracy," in the form of media manipulation and administrative interference. Critics of managed democracy maintain that it is an inherently unstable system because it mimics democracy's form while gutting its content, making politics the exclusive preserve of a ruling elite that cannot, and will not, be held accountable even as it resolves issues of crucial national importance through murky, backroom deals. When those deals go bad, they sometimes turn bloody.

The instability of managed democracy, with its muscular informal groups and anemic formal institutions, has been most evident in the spectacular breakdowns that brought about regime change in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. But crises come in more than one color, and elections are only one possible flashpoint. The current imbroglio in Kazakhstan does not yet have the makings of a full-fledged systemic crisis, but it strongly suggests that despite Kazakhstan's undeniable economic progress and record of stability, it remains an open question whether it is more structurally secure than its post-Soviet brethren.

RFE/RL Central Asia Report

RFE/RL Central Asia Report

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