It's the second time in three weeks that leaked recordings have threatened to embarrass the government of President Nursultan Nazarbaev, after earlier tapes in which officials purportedly discussed silencing a prominent former official.
Authorities have already labeled as fakes the latest recordings, which appear to contain conversations about the financing of the president's ruling Nur-Otan party.
The telephone conversations purportedly involve senior officials shaking down prominent people -- including one of the country's richest men -- for millions of dollars each.
One of the speakers, said to be Nazarbaev, appears to order the head of presidential affairs, Bulat Utemuratov, to ensure the money is collected.
Utemuratov is purportedly heard saying he has a list of 20 business people and officials as well as the amounts of money some should contribute. The websites claim that Utemuratov elicits such "sponsorship" from Astana Mayor Askar Mamin.
Judging by the context, the recordings appear to have been made sometime ahead of the August 18 parliamentary elections that handed every legislative seat that was being contested to Nur-Otan.
The opposition websites involved don't explain the origins of the tapes. But much of the speculation is fixed squarely on Rakhat Aliev, the president's embattled former son-in-law who has successfully fought one Kazakh extradition request.
The first batch of recordings, posted in October, was purportedly of government officials discussing ways to keep Aliev -- a former deputy security chief and ambassador to Austria -- from making statements that could harm former and current officials. Aliev reportedly evaded the direct question of whether he was responsible for that leak.
He has not commented on the new material. At least two opposition websites, kub.info and inkar.info, are carrying the recordings. Neither points the finger at Aliev, who was once the second-in-command at Kazakhstan's National Security Committee, as the source.
A court in Almaty began the trial in absentia of Aliev and more than 20 co-defendants on November 9, less than 48 hours before the recordings were posted. The charges include abduction, financial wrongdoing, and abuse of office.
Aliev remains in Vienna, where he has threatened to hand over damaging evidence of corruption in the Kazakh government to Austrian authorities.
He singled out Kazakhstan's bid to chair the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2009 as a target. OSCE foreign ministers are expected to vote on that long-standing bid at a meeting on November 29-30. Critics of Astana's bid most frequently cite a lack of democratic reform and the absence of the rule of law in arguing for a "no" vote.
The head of Nur-Otan's analytical center, Sharipbek Agabaev, declined to comment on the recordings to RFE/RL's Kazakh Service on November 13, other than to say that prosecutors and the Interior Ministry have called them bogus.
The Prosecutor-General's Office has ordered a probe into how they were made, how they made their way onto opposition websites, and whether posting them violated the privacy of the purported interlocutors.
Aimed At Audience Abroad?
Even government critics concede that the latest recordings are unlikely to have any immediate impact on Kazakh society.
Yermurat Bapi, a former editor in chief of several opposition newspapers who is currently banned by a Kazakh court from practicing journalism. He told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that low Internet usage, officials' blocking of undesirable websites, and a craven state-run media suggest there will be little impact on Nazarbaev or his government's image at home.
Kazakh political analyst Dosym Satpaev echoes that sentiment, adding that the domestic public has no illusions about the country's leadership. "Many people understand from the start that our leaders are not cuddly and fuzzy," he says. Satpaev also speculates that the recordings were intended for an international, and not domestic, audience.
Azimbai Gali, an Astana-based independent political analyst, calls the release of the tapes and any discussion they might spark a healthy sign.
"In general, these types of scandals happen in every open society," Gali says. "I call it the 'background noise of a democratic society.' It's good we are getting accustomed to hearing about this. That way, society will become more mature -- both the elite and the public will become more mature, whether they (the tapes) are genuine or not. The appearance of that sort of information merely adds to raising society to a higher level."
However, when the first spate of recordings appeared in October, authorities quickly shut down the websites that were carrying them. In this new case, computer users must be sufficiently well versed in using the Internet to allow them to access the proxy servers that are carrying the content.
It is a familiar pattern, and one that is likely to make discussion about these purported conversations beyond the reach of your average Kazakh voter.
(RFE/RL Kazakh Service Director Merhat Sharipzhan contributed to this report)
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