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Kazakhstan: President Tries To Calm Growing Political Crisis

Kazakh President Nazarabaev (file photo) (epa) When Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev came before a joint session of parliament on March 1, he focused on a familiar topic -- development priorities to make Kazakhstan one of the world's 50 "most competitive" nations. His appearance came at a turbulent time, only two weeks after the murder of opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbaev. In his speech on March 1, the president did not directly address the political turmoil that followed the killing. But through oblique hints, subsequent direct comments on the case, and the appointment of a new head of Kazakhstan's National Security Committee (KNB), Nazarbaev clearly demonstrated that he hopes to defuse a growing crisis within the country's political elite.

Although the bulk of the president's remarks on March 1 dealt with his ambitious plans for national development, a number of comments appeared to come in response to the fallout from the Sarsenbaev killing, which has included the arrest of five members of an elite special-forces unit and the head of the Senate's administration for involvement in the murder, the resignation of the chairman of the KNB, a large opposition demonstration in Almaty, and a flood of "leaked" materials, primarily in the opposition press, alleging the involvement in Sarsenbaev's killing of individuals close to the president.

'Permissiveness' Not Allowed

Nazarbaev stressed in his address that, while Kazakhstan will press on with democratic reforms, excessive "permissiveness" could destabilize the country, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. He added that "one of the reasons for the delusions we fall into is that the liberalism of the authorities is understood as a weakness and an inability to veto all manner of 'mischief' and 'caprices' of willful, ambitious individuals." The president noted: "Regardless of criticism inside and outside the country, we must ensure a fairly tough system of defense for this democracy even as we develop democratic traditions." Nazarbaev concluded that "we will continue to move toward democratization, the guarantee of further freedom for citizens, and liberalization. But for this we need discipline as well."

Nazarbaev also revealed on March 2 that the accused organizer of the Sarsenbaev murder has written to him personally with a confession, "Kazakhstan Today" reported.

The remarks seemed to carry two messages, one for the representatives of Kazakhstan's powerful influence groups, and another for the country's opposition. The passage about the "'mischief' and 'caprices' of willful, ambitious individuals" could be a simple reference to Erzhan Utembaev, the head of the Senate administration who has been identified as the organizer of the Sarsenbaev murder (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28, 2006). But it may also be read as a warning to rival influence groups within the Kazakh elite that have used the fallout from the murder to pursue their own ends, whether by pushing for personnel changes or spreading damaging information about their opponents. Nazarbaev let it be known that he is aware of the situation and will take measures to ensure that it does not get out of control.

Jail Sentences For Protest Organizers

The passage about a "tough system of defense" for democracy "regardless of criticism inside and outside the country" implies a warning for the opposition. An unsanctioned rally on February 26 to honor Sarsenbaev's memory drew several thousand participants who broke through police cordons to occupy Almaty's Republic Square. Two days later, a court sentenced the organizers, mainly activists from the For a Just Kazakhstan movement, to fines and jail terms of up to 15 days (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 1, 2006). The president's remarks suggested that the authorities will not hesitate to take action if unsanctioned demonstrations persist.

Mourners at Altynbek Sarsenbaev's funeral last month (RFE/RL)

The rapid jailing of the Almaty rally organizers and the president's condemnation of "permissiveness" are not the only signs that tough times may await the opposition.

The president's daughter, Darigha Nazarbaeva, and her husband, Deputy Foreign Minister Rakhat Aliev, have issued unambiguous warnings that they will take legal action against the perpetrators of what Aliev called a "stage-managed smear campaign to accuse me and other well-known people in Kazakhstan of purported involvement in the murder of Altynbek Sarsenbaev," "Kazakhstan Today" reported. The publications involved include several opposition newspapers and websites.

When the president addressed parliament, the Senate speaker, Nurtai Abykaev, was not in attendance. Abykaev had been hospitalized with "heart pains," "Kazakhstan Today" later reported. The speaker, whose position puts him in line to succeed Nazarbaev should anything befall the president, had suffered what a February 24 article in "Respublika" termed "two blows" in the lead-up to the president's address, with his subordinate Erzhan Utembaev arrested for the Sarsenbaev murder and his political ally Nartai Dutbaev removed from his post as head of the KNB. Against this backdrop, Abykaev's absence on March 1 raised eyebrows.

Nazarbaev In Control

But Nazarbaev affirmed his general confidence in the Senate's leadership on March 2, "Kazakhstan Today" reported. The president said, "We have no complaints about the leadership of the Senate. There should be no misunderstandings." The comment seemed to caution observers against reading too much into the speaker's hospitalization.

Nazarbaev also revealed on March 2 that the accused organizer of the Sarsenbaev murder has written to him personally with a confession, "Kazakhstan Today" reported. He said, "Utembaev has already confessed to law-enforcement agencies, and he's written me a letter in which he reported that he has fully acknowledged his guilt." Nazarbaev stressed that Utembaev wrote to him that "he decided on this deed without any pressure because the deceased [Sarsenbaev] impugned his honor."

The comments buttressed the official account of events presented by Interior Minister Baurzhan Mukhamedzhanov at a briefing on February 27 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28, 2006), and indicated that the president is, for now, satisfied that the chain of responsibility ends with Utembaev.

Finally, Nazarbaev on March 2 appointed Amangeldy Shabdarbaev, head of the president's own guard since 2002, to lead the KNB, Kazinform reported. Deutsche Welle reported on March 3 that "according to politicians and political analysts, Shabdarbaev does not belong to any of the 'influence groups' between which an open confrontation began after the murder of Altynbek Sarsenbaev." Viewed against the backdrop of Nazarbaev's most recent comments, Shabdarbaev's appointment indicates that the president has opted for a general clampdown on rising political tensions in the wake of the Sarsenbaev murder and specific measures to ensure that they do not give rise to an all-out battle between influence groups within the ruling elite.

RFE/RL Central Asia Report

RFE/RL Central Asia Report

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