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Central Asia Report: May 16, 2003

16 May 2003, Volume 3, Number 18

PRESIDENTIAL PARDON FOR KAZAKH OPPOSITION LEADER� On 13 May, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev signed a decree pardoning jailed opposition leader Mukhtar Abliyazov, the former energy, industry, and trade minister. The question was: Why?

Abliyazov, 39, originally a businessman, became one of the founding members in November 2001 of the opposition movement Democratic Choice for Kazakhstan (DVK). By the following July he found himself on trial at the Supreme Court in the capital Astana. He was charged with abusing his official position as minister and embezzling from the national power-grid company KEGOC. He was ordered to recompense the state to the tune of 557 million tenge ($3.63 million) and sentenced to six years in a labor camp (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 July 2002). Abliyazov had pleaded innocent. His lawyers and defenders maintained that the case was politically motivated, intended to silence critics of Nazarbaev's regime. In particular, they pointed out that Abliyazov was arrested in March 2002 shortly after media outlets close to him accused Nazarbaev of having stashed billions of dollars of public money in Swiss bank accounts (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 18 July 2002).

Opposition leaders since then have repeatedly demanded that Abliyazov be released, together with another co-founder of DVK, former governor of Pavlodar Oblast Ghalymzhan Zhaqiyanov. Prosecuted for similar crimes, Zhaqiyanov was sentenced only weeks later than his fellow oppositionist in August 2002. He is currently serving a seven-year jail term.

On 8 April, Abliyazov sent a letter to Nazarbaev requesting a presidential pardon (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 April 2003). According to AP on 13 May, Abliyazov was responding to an offer originally made by the president in March. The offer was to consider pardoning him and Zhaqiyanov if they confessed their guilt and formally asked for clemency. This proposal was reportedly criticized by opposition activists on the grounds that the two men's convictions were politically motivated and they should be released without being forced to beg for mercy. AP reported that Abliyazov did not dispute his conviction in his letter to Nazarbaev, but did not admit his guilt either. The president signed the release order nonetheless on 13 May, effective forthwith (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 May 2003). There is evidence that the decision was controversial within government circles. A report in the newspaper "Respublika" on 23 April said that both Prime Minister Imangali Tasmaghambetov and Nazarbaev's son-in-law Timur Kulibaev were adamantly opposed to releasing Abliyazov.

Released from the labor camp in northern Kazakhstan on the evening of 13 May, Abliyazov was met by his lawyer Gulam Mazanov and the two drove through the night to Almaty where they held a press conference on the following day. Abliyazov expressed his gratitude to Nazarbaev for the pardon, said he had experienced no physical or psychological pressure in prison, and claimed no negotiations had been conducted and no conditions had been set for his release, Kazakhstan Today news agency reported. RFE/RL's Kazakh Service added that he refused to answer questions about politics, stressing that he had been absent from Kazakh political life for over a year. But he did say, with regard to DVK, that he was "going to quit the leadership of the movement," explaining that "there is a lack of constructive ideas" behind DVK approaches which consisted solely of criticizing the government and making appeals to foreign countries. As for his own intentions, he planned to recover his health and return to business with his company Astana Holding. He also recalled that he still had to pay the large fine set by the Supreme Court. Quizzed about the fate of Zhaqiyanov, Abliyazov merely said that he wished him the earliest release possible.

There are several leading theories why Nazarbaev has decided to show leniency toward one of his political foes. They impute to the president various degrees of cunning. At the less devious end of the spectrum, Nazarbaev could genuinely be reacting to domestic and international calls to review the verdict against Abliyazov, widely regarded as unfair. Alternatively he may be responding to pressure to reform his autocracy by showing some political tolerance. As commented on 13 May, the pardon may have been intended to promote a rapprochement between the president and his more moderate political opponents. However, it is significant that Abliyazov, while apparently retiring from politics, is being permitted to return to his business without hindrance. Many prominent DVK figures are businessmen; in fact, many analysts have suggested that the DVK, posing as high-minded political opposition, was conceived essentially to defend its members' business interests against the encroachments of Nazarbaev and his circle. Moreover, top DVK members have reportedly signaled that they are now willing to call a political truce if the president will vouch for the security of their businesses, said.

The most cunning interpretation of Nazarbaev's actions is that, by taking this first, symbolic step toward making peace with DVK, he is looking to split and thus weaken his domestic opponents. The particular advantage of doing this now is so that he can have a freer hand to deal with the greater danger in coming months -- the scandal brewing on three continents popularly known as "Kazakhgate." According to some observers, the president has adopted a soft line toward the opposition since New York merchant banker James Giffen was accused in April of facilitating payments to top Kazakh officials by Western oil companies. All indications are that Nazarbaev is going to take some damaging hits abroad. Thus it makes sense to take some prophylactic measures to protect his flank at home. The president may have hoped that, by releasing Abliyazov and letting him go about his business, he might persuade other DVK members to quietly bow out of politics as well.

�BUT ZHAQIYANOV REFUSES TO SUE FOR CLEMENCY. Meanwhile, Zhaqiyanov made it clear that he would not be party to any presidential strategy of reconciliation if it involved begging for clemency. His lawyer, Elena Rebenchuk, told a news conference in Almaty on 12 May that her client had no intention of asking Nazarbaev for a pardon (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 May 2003). Rebenchuk said she obtained permission only with great difficulty to visit Zhaqiyanov in the labor camp where he was interned in the north of the country, and had seen him on 29 April, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported. Hearing that Abliyazov had applied for a pardon, she said she advised her client to do likewise on the grounds of poor health. Zhaqiyanov has reportedly developed a heart condition while in prison. However, her client had refused even to discuss asking for a pardon, she said.

Instead, Rebenchuk revealed that Zhaqiyanov planned to clear his name through the courts. She told journalists that on 5 May she had asked the Supreme Court to review the lower-court verdicts against her client, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Last summer Zhaqiyanov was pronounced guilty in Pavlodar City and Regional Courts of financial crimes and abusing his position as regional governor by privatizing various enterprises at artificially low prices (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 18 July 2002). As in the case of Abliyazov, Zhaqiyanov and his supporters insist that the charges against him were politically motivated.

The Supreme Court now has until 20 May to decide whether to hear the appeal. The authorities now find themselves between a rock and a hard place. If the court refuses to hear the appeal, human rights activists are likely to accuse the judiciary of being intimidated by the executive. On the other hand, if it does hear the case, there is guaranteed to be the same circus of international journalists commenting on the scant evidence against Zhaqiyanov or complaining against the lack of transparency of the proceedings. If the verdict against him is upheld, the accusations of a political trial and a non-independent judiciary will be repeated. If, astonishingly, the Supreme Court were to overturn his conviction, observers would most probably interpret the result as an admission that Zhaqiyanov's original imprisonment had been politically motivated after all.

KAZAKH PRIME MINISTER CALLS FOR VOTE OF CONFIDENCE. On 14 May, Kazakh Prime Minister Imangali Tasmaghambetov called for a vote of confidence in his government, which will be held on 19 May. The move represents the latest political maneuvering around the controversial Land Code, which, according to the original version drafted by the government, introduces private ownership of agricultural land. The code has been sharply criticized by opposition politicians and others who say it is designed to benefit the wealthy, and to make it possible to sell off land rich in oil, gas, and other mineral resources.

The Land Code was passed by the lower chamber of the Kazakh parliament, or Mazhlis, in late April. However, Mazhlis deputies adopted the law with so many hundreds of amendments to the government's original version that Tasmaghambetov protested the law had virtually been "torpedoed" (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 9 May 2003). But as the prime minister immediately made clear, he had a plan, and a back-up plan, to get the government's version back on track.

The first plan was to ensure that the upper chamber of parliament, or Senate, reversed the work of the Mazhlis and adopted the bill in its pristine form, stripped of the Mazhlis's amendments. The bill was scheduled for at least two readings in the Senate. The government was obviously confident that the senators would support its version of the code. However, when they began to discuss the code on 12 May, various foreign experts on land reform were invited to offer testimony and the majority of them urged the Senate to revise the law, RFE/RL's Kazakh bureau reported. For example, one German expert, Rolf Knigger, said the code violated some articles of the Kazakh Constitution and the law on mortgage loans.

With the winds against him in the Senate, Tashmaghembetov activated his back-up plan. This was to call for a vote of confidence in the government. He began laying the ground immediately after the Mazhlis gutted the Land Code, when he applied to the Constitutional Council for a ruling on whether the Mazhlis's intransigence justified his calling for such a vote. The answer came on 13 May when council member Qabylsayat Abishov obligingly confirmed that the prime minister had the right to call for the vote at any time during the Land Code's passage through parliament, RFE/RL's Kazakh bureau reported.

On the next day, Tasmaghembetov formally recalled the draft Land Code from consideration from the Senate. At the same time, he sent a letter to Mazhlis Chairman Zharmakhan Tuyakbai requesting for a joint session of the upper and lower houses of parliament to be summoned on 16 May to hold the vote of confidence, Kazakhstan Today news agency reported. Tasmaghembetov intends to declare the code adopted as originally drafted by the government -- ignoring the deputies' amendments -- if a vote of confidence is not opposed by the necessary two-thirds of parliament. If the confidence vote fails, the prime minister has said his government will resign (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 May 2003). In that case the Land Code will be resubmitted to the parliament for further consideration. Deputies tempted to vote their no-confidence in the government face a Catch-22 situation, though: According to RFE/RL's Kazakh Service on 14 May, the dissolution of the government gives Nazarbaev the right to dissolve the parliament.