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Kazakhstan: President Accused Of Ordering Opposition Leader’s Murder

Rakhat Aliev (file photo) (ITAR-TASS) October 26, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Rakhat Aliev, the controversial former son-in-law of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, has accused the president of ordering the murder last year of a key leader of the country’s political opposition.

In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL's Kazakh Service today, Aliev, speaking by telephone from Vienna, also said that he plans to release the results of his own investigation into the murder to Austrian authorities. Opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbaev, his driver, and bodyguard were shot dead in February 2006 outside Almaty. The Kazakh opposition blamed the regime for the killings, a charge the government denies.

In the interview, Aliev, a former member of the Kazakh elite who has never been in the opposition, said, "The order for the elimination of Altynbek Sarsenbaev was given from the territory of Austria, when President Nazarbaev was on holiday in Klagenfurt, Austria, in early February 2006, where [then-speaker of Kazakh's upper house of parliament Nurtai Abykaev] came just for a few hours."

Aliev’s accusation is the latest and most scathing one to date in a flurry of recent public feuding between him and authorities. Aliev, a former ambassador to Austria, where he now resides, is wanted in Kazakhstan for alleged abduction and corruption, among other charges. Attempts by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service to reach Nazarbaev’s office for reaction to his remarks were unsuccessful.

'War Of Blackmail'

Commentators have portrayed the public mudslinging between Aliev and authorities as a palace feud that has erupted into a “war of blackmail.” But for Astana, it is untimely, having thrown open a window onto the underbelly of Kazakh politics just as the country is hoping its improved image in the West will help win it backing to assume the chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), to which Aliev also once served, ironically, as Kazakh envoy.

"What this does is unpleasant from Astana's point of view,” Matthew Clements, a Eurasia expert at Jane's Information, says of the public feuding between Aliev and Nazarbaev. “They do not want this coming out because it kind of puts it at the forefront, really kind of brings out that these issues exist in Kazakhstan."

Last week, Kazakh authorities said they had found a body believed to be one of the senior bankers whom they accuse Aliev of abducting. This week, Kazakh authorities shut down four opposition websites after they posted wiretapped phone conversations allegedly between senior officials, implicating them in serious wrongdoing. All the downed sites recently ran stories about apparent government attempts to silence Aliev, a former confidant of Nazarbaev. They all also linked the closures to the posting of the phone transcripts, some of which discuss Aliev.

During RFE/RL’s broadcast of the Aliev interview today, the transmission quality suddenly dropped and became almost inaudible. RFE/RL’s broadcasts in Kazakhstan are carried by Kaztelradio, which is part of the Kazakh Ministry of Communications. Kaztelradio told RFE/RL the problem was due to technical difficulties.

President Nazarbaev has led Kazakhstan since independence (official site)

Aliev, who was until earlier this year married to Nazarbaev's eldest daughter, Darigha, is a former top security-service officer. Over the years, he amassed a fortune spanning media and banking -- a business empire that in recent months has come under attack by authorities. He is also believed to be privy to information that could implicate Kazakh officials, including Nazarbaev, of alleged wrongdoing.

"Well, this is part of the concept of the authoritarian, dictatorial regime of President Nazarbaev, who has held on to power for 16 years already,” Aliev said in the interview. “We all witnessed the president win 91 percent of the vote in the latest presidential election and saw [the pro-presidential party] win almost 100 percent [in parliamentary elections] in August this year. The president's greatest dream came true. He has obtained full control of all the branches of power: legislative, executive, and judicial."

Last month, two of Aliev's bodyguards in Vienna fled to Almaty and reportedly implicated their former boss in various criminal activities, including the abduction of two bank officials. In August, an Austrian court rejected a Kazakh extradition request for Aliev, saying Aliev would not receive a fair trial in Kazakhstan, where he's also wanted for alleged abuse of office.

Democratic Enough For The OSCE?

OSCE foreign ministers are due to meet in Spain in late November to vote on Kazakhstan’s bid to assume the Vienna-based organization’s rotating chairmanship in 2009. Although the OSCE dubbed the Kazakh parliamentary elections in August “neither free nor fair,” Astana is seen by many as having a good chance of getting the chairmanship, despite opposition to it by the United States and United Kingdom, who remained unconvinced of Kazakh democratic progress.

"The European ministers who are deciding on the OSCE [chairmanship] would actually like to a degree to pretend that Kazakhstan is better, that it's improving,” analyst Clements says. “They really want to engage with Kazakhstan, they want to get access to its gas, to its oil, and they want to sort of develop this cooperation and the OSCE is a really crucial way of doing it.”

But recent news, at the least, is unlikely to help Astana’s attempts to portray itself as an emerging democracy.

Speaking on October 25, after news that Kazakh authorities had closed the opposition websites, John MacLeod, a Central Asia expert at London’s Institute for War and Peace Reporting, said, "The actual timing, I think, is most unfortunate from the [Kazakh] president's perspective."

(RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier contributed to this report.)

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