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Kazakhstan: Apparent Rift Opens Within Nazarbaev Family

Darigha Nazarbaeva at an Asar party meeting in November 2005 (RFE/RL) The six months since Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev's reelection have not been easy for the country's leader. Soon after the February murder of an opposition leader, speculation arose about the possible involvement of Nazarbaev family members in the killing. Darigha Nazarbaeva, the president's eldest daughter and a parliamentarian, made some controversial statements while her husband, Rakhat Aliev, sued over allegations that he was involved in the assassination. Observers have suggested that relations between Nazarbaev and his daughter -- who was seen as a potential successor -- have soured.

PRAGUE, May 19, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Nazarbaev might have expected a quiet winter after his reelection for another seven-year term on December 4. But the following months were anything but quiet.

On February 13, the bullet-riddled bodies of Altynbek Sarsenbaev and two aides were found in the Almaty outskirts.

The killing of Sarsenbaev, a leader of the opposition Naghyz Ak Zhol (True Bright Path) party, came only three months after another opposition leader, Zamanbek Nurkadilov, had been found shot dead in his Almaty residence.

Political Undercurrent

In both cases, the opposition claimed the murders were politically motivated and demanded independent investigations.

Authorities ruled that the chief of the Senate administration, Erzhan Utembaev, masterminded Sarsenbaev's killing. They cited "personal enmity" as the motive for the murder. Several officers of the National Security Committee (KNB) were arrested for carrying out the killing.

Meanwhile, media reports appeared concerning the possible involvement of President Nazarbaev's family members in Sarsenbaev's assassination. His daughter, Darigha, and her husband, Rakhat Aliev -- a former KNB deputy chief -- were the primary targets of the allegations.

A former intelligence officer, Arat Narmanbetov, alleged to journalists that Aliev had ordered the killing. Aliev, who is also a deputy foreign minister, sued the retired colonel for slander. With neither Aliev nor Nazarbaeva appearing in the courtroom, Narmanbetov was found guilty and sentenced to one year in prison on May 11.

Controversy Follows Darigha

Meanwhile, controversy grew around Darigha Nazarbaeva following her article "Deja vu" in the March 10 issue of the daily "Karavan."

"In her article 'Deja vu,' Darigha disclosed family secrets that had been told at a family dinner," Rozlana Taukina, the head of the Journalists In Trouble public association, tells RFE/RL about the controversial piece. "She also made public information about an official's report to the president. The most important information was that her husband was one of the suspects."

In "Deja vu," Nazarbaeva criticized security services, citing KNB chief Nartai Dutbaev's "raving" report to President Nazarbaev. Dutbaev, Nazarbaeva wrote, had told the president that "one of his family members -- either Rakhat Aliev, [another Nazarbaev son-in-law] Timur Kulibaev, or Kayrat Satybaldy, Nazarbaev's nephew -- was behind Sarsenbaev's murder."

Opposition Momentum

The opposition immediately picked up on the story -- speculating that Dutbaev likely possessed evidence about the Nazarbaev family's involvement in the killing.

Dosym Satpaev, head of the Almaty-based analytical center Risk Assessment Group, tells RFE/RL that Nazarbaeva's article caused serious concerns.

"Many said the article was the beginning of Darigha Nazarbaeva's new assault on the competing groupings within the ruling elite and could lead to yet another political crisis," Satpaev says.

Nazarbaeva said that since publishing the article she has had to deal with numerous questions from the media about why she wrote it. She responded that she was in a "negative psycho-emotional state" at the time she wrote it.

Taukina says President Nazarbaev was displeased with the development.

"This first-hand information from a presidential family member seriously undermined the president himself," Taukina says. "The fact that she rashly disclosed awkward information angered him."

Government Counteroffensive

Taukina says Nazarbaev responded to the situation around his eldest daughter and son-in-law in part by setting Information and Culture Minister Yermukhamet Yertysbaev on the media outlets owned by Darigha Nazarbaeva.

In a May 3 speech in parliament, Yertysbaev said the state should take over Khabar, the country's leading television station, which is reportedly owned by Nazarbaeva.

The minister also targeted Kazakhstan TV Channel and Commercial Television of Kazakhstan (KTK).

The chief of the state-owned Kazakhstan TV Channel was sacked for reportedly unbalanced coverage of Islamic issues. Upset by the decision, dozens of employees resigned from the station after holding a strike.

Yertysbaev accused KTK, also believed to be controlled by Nazarbaeva, of violating legislation on the state language and threatened to revoke the station's license.

In response, Kazakhstan's Congress of Journalists, also headed by Nazarbaeva, demanded the minister's resignation.

Observers see the bickering between the minister and Nazarbaeva's media outlets as President Nazarbaev's way of punishing his daughter and son-in-law. Many say the politically ambitious Nazarbaeva is attempting to become more independent.

However, analyst Satpaev says Nazarbaeva is unlikely to move against her father.

Fall From Grace?

Nazarbaeva -- once seen as a possible successor to her father as president -- appears to have fallen from grace and, consequently, her political rivals seemed to have benefited.

Satpaev says that Timur Kulibaev, a long-time rival of the Nazarbaeva-Aliev grouping, has since been gaining financial power along with growing publicity.

"In the future, especially when the time will come for a leadership change and for President Nazarbaev to step down, tension will rise primarily between Timur Kulibaev's group and the group led by Darigha Nazarbaeva and Rakhat Aliev," Satpaev says.

Analysts say recent developments demonstrate that Nazarbaev remains the strongest political figure in the country and, like a skillful puppeteer, he controls various political groupings to maintain a balance among them in order to ensure his own power.

Satpaev says that as the political system gets more complex and more players appear on the scene, it becomes more difficult for Nazarbaev to maintain his power as his family members are becoming more independent.

Most observers agree that the question of a political successor remains open in Kazakhstan. Darigha Nazarbaeva, now seemingly distanced from her presidential father, may regain her position as the favorite to succeed him.

But Satpaev suggests that it is unlikely she will be Nazarbaev's choice.

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