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Central Asia Report: April 4, 2002

4 April 2002, Volume 2, Number 13

CRACKDOWN ON POLITICAL OPPOSITION IN KAZAKHSTAN. The arrest of prominent opposition member Mukhtar Abliyazov on criminal charges on 27 March inaugurated a week of mounting political tension in Kazakhstan, which also saw an independent TV station vandalized, a protest rally on the streets of Almaty, and the dramatic pursuit of a second opposition politician, Ghalymzhan Zhaqiyanov, by Kazakh law-enforcement officials endeavoring to arrest him. Eluding the police, Zhaqiyanov took refuge in the French embassy in Almaty on 29 March. While the Kazakh authorities described their actions as legitimate attempts to bring accused criminals to justice, opposition forces charged them with orchestrating a political crackdown.

Thirty-eight-year-old Muhktar Abliyazov -- one of the founding members last November of the opposition movement Democratic Choice for Kazakhstan (DVK) -- was arrested in Almaty on 27 March. Currently serving as the director of a major Kazakh bank, he is accused of abuse of power and "illegal entrepreneurship" while head of the national power grid company KEGOC (1997-98) and minister of energy, industry, and trade (1998-99), RFE/RL's Kazakh bureau and Interfax reported. His trial could begin as early as April, the head of the country's financial police, Bolatbek Bulgakbaev, told journalists on 28 March. "Illegal entrepreneurship" is a euphemism for embezzlement. According to Bulgakbaev, Abliyazov, together with associates, lined their pockets by transferring property from KEGOC and the Ekibastuz-2 thermal power station to private companies they controlled. They also allegedly concocted a debt-paying scam in the way Kazakh utilities paid Uzbekistan for energy, bilking their country in total of approximately $6.6 million, Interfax-Kazakhstan said on 28 March.

The financial police chief denied that Abliyazov's arrest was politically motivated. He pointed out that the criminal case against him had been opened in October 1999 -- long before Abliyazov joined the opposition, Interfax reported on 28 March. Bulgakbaev explained the timing of the arrest by noting that Abliyazov, who had been instructed three years ago to remain in Almaty while the investigation continued, had recently contravened that order by making a trip out of town and could go into hiding. But this explanation was dismissed by another leader of the opposition DVK movement, former Pavlodar Oblast Governor Ghalymzhan Zhaqiyanov, at a DVK press conference in Almaty on 28 March, RFE/RL's Kazakh bureau reported. Instead, he drew a connection between Abliyazov's imprisonment and a recent revival in public interest in allegations that President Nursultan Nazarbaev, his family, top officials, and cronies have enriched themselves with kickbacks from American oil conglomerates. "Now that newspapers and deputies are talking about Nazarbaev's billions of dollars in Swiss banks, all of a sudden Abliyazov has been arrested. This means there is political motivation," Zhaqiyanov told RFE/RL on 28 March. He also read out a group statement at the press conference in which he accused Nazarbaev of giving government and law-enforcement officials free rein to crack down on opposition figures, and argued that "a regime of total repression has come down against the country's independent media." Simultaneously, Zhaqiyanov announced that a mass demonstration would be held in Almaty on 30 March to protest Abliyazov's arrest (see "Tensions High Following Arrest of Opposition Leader," 29 March 2002,

TAN TV, an independent television station that Abliyazov helped to create, promptly declared that it intended to broadcast the mass demonstration live. It may then have fallen victim to the very regime of repression Zhaqiyanov was talking about, as unidentified armed men broke into the station's transmission facilities late on 28 March and opened fire, damaged equipment and, in particular, severed the feeder cable linking the transmitter and antenna, without which the station cannot broadcast, RFE/RL and Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. According to the TAN TV director, repairs would take at least five to six days, during which time the station would have to be off the air. Consequently it would be unable to broadcast the protest as planned (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 March 2002).

ZHAQIYANOV FLEES TO FRENCH EMBASSY, DEFIANT� Next to be targeted was Zhaqiyanov himself, whom police tried to arrest on the night of 28-29 March, apparently at a hotel in Almaty, RFE/RL's Kazakh bureau and Interfax reported. The former governor, who was fired from his post in Pavlodar Oblast a few days after co-founding the DVK last November, escaped and temporarily disappeared. Initial reports by Kazakh Commercial TV on the following day suggested that he had fled the country. It subsequently transpired that he had sought sanctuary in the French embassy in Almaty. According to the account given to Khabar TV on 31 March by the French ambassador, Serge Smessow, Zhaqiyanov came to the embassy on the morning of 29 March for an unexceptional chat about current events, after which he took his leave of the ambassador. Only that afternoon did Smessow discover that, in fact, Zhaqiyanov had never left the embassy and was now refusing to do so, citing fears for his personal security. Smessow indicated that he was not offering Zhaqiyanov asylum -- on the contrary, he said the French "intend to observe strict neutrality. We do not intend to meddle in Kazakhstan's internal affairs" -- yet suggested that it would be against diplomatic ethics to expel Zhaqiyanov from the premises by force. Smessow said he was awaiting instructions from Paris.

Details of the prosecutor general's case against Zhaqiyanov emerged in the local media on 29-30 March. He is accused of abusing his position of governor by "issuing over 80 illegal decrees" and selling off state enterprises at knockdown prices, KTV reported -- presumably to companies he or his friends controlled, or in exchange for kickbacks. For instance, both the Peschanskii engineering-repair plant and the Tortquduq gold mining enterprise were sold for far less than their true value, Khabar TV said on 30 March. Allegedly, the former was sold for 40 times less than it was worth, and the latter for 11 times less. Interior Ministry documents charge Zhaqiyanov with costing the state tens of millions of tenge, the TV claimed. (But since "tens of millions of tenge" is less than $1 million, some of these numbers must be erroneous.) If found guilty of abuse of authority, he could face a 10-year sentence.

Supplementary charges brought against him by the prosecutor general's office are that he organized an illegal picket outside the financial police department on 28 March to protest the arrest of Abliyazov, and that he was preparing an illegal rally on 30 March (as he announced at the DVK press conference on 28 March). These acts of political defiance, a DVK spokesman said on 30 March, are the real reason for the authorities' "unfounded persecution" of Zhaqiyanov, and not dredged-up allegations of financial improprieties, RFE/RL reported. Another relevant consideration, noted by Eurasianet on 2 April, is that the warrant for his arrest came soon after he returned from a visit to Paris, where he met ex-Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin to discuss a political alliance against Nazarbaev. Kazhegeldin recently argued that it is pointless trying to effect democratic change in cooperation with Nazarbaev, whose aim is to retain unlimited power for an unlimited period of time. Kazhegeldin proposed a new opposition strategy that involved mobilizing mass popular support for change (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 March 2002).

Meanwhile, the U.S. Embassy in Kazakhstan released a statement on 29 March expressing concern over the recent political developments. It called for the release of Abliyazov from custody and worried about the possibility of Zhaqiyanov being arrested. The events of the last two days, together with the attack on the TAN TV station, indicated "an effort to intimidate political opposition leaders and the independent media," the press release said. However, a statement from the European Union issued from Brussels on 31 March condemned Zhaqiyanov's attempt to seek refuge in the French embassy, RFE/RL reported. It said that the EU wants to maintain excellent relations with Astana and "will not accept that its representation and that of its member states in Kazakhstan are used as political platforms." Nevertheless, on the following day Kazakh opposition leaders called on the embassies of the United States, Russia, and several European countries to support Kazakhstan's democratic movement.

Some 300-400 people demonstrated in front of the French embassy for two hours on 30 March expressing concern about the fate of Abliyazov and demanding an end to the authorities' "criminal prosecution" of Zhaqiyanov, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. RFE/RL added that pro-government demonstrators simultaneously gathered in a counterprotest. However, Kazakh TV's minimal coverage of the rally gave it a different spin. As the TV explained, the rally began in Republic Square in the center of Almaty, where pensioners were protesting scheduled increases in the prices for utilities as of 1 April, and it was diverted to the French embassy by DVK activists where it quickly broke up.

A public-relations battle ensued, with opposition forces saying that Zhaqiyanov, like Abliyazov, was being persecuted for political reasons, and the government denying it. The criminal proceedings are "not politically motivated," a statement from the Kazakh Foreign Ministry stressed on 1 April. It said that the measures being undertaken to address corruption and crime in Kazakhstan "do not contradict the democratic transformations underway in the country," Interfax-Kazakhstan reported: "On the contrary, the measures are aimed at strengthening democracy and freedom of speech," the statement said. On 1 April Deputy Foreign Minister Yerlan Idrisov told the same thing to French Ambassador Smessow, who arrived in Astana for consultations, Khabar TV said. Even more bluntly, Interior Minister Kairbek Suleimenov described Zhaqiyanov as "a primitive criminal," and vowed that he would not succeed in leaving the country (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 April 2002).

In turn, in a statement and press conference on 1 April, the Kazakh Unified Democratic Opposition -- an umbrella group including the DVK movement, the Azamat (Citizen) Party, the Republican People's Party of Kazakhstan, and others -- repeated its view that the criminal cases against its members represented a political vendetta by the regime, Interfax and AP reported. It called for a political dialogue with the government and a live, televised debate on the situation by a session of both chambers of parliament. Furthermore, it urged European diplomats not to give Zhaqiyanov up. Until these demands are met, opposition activists will continue to picket the building housing the French, German, and British embassies in Almaty, the statement said.

Zhaqiyanov drew attention to his own case on 1 April by writing an open letter to Nazarbaev. In the letter, distributed by the DVK press service, he said that the accusations against him were politically motivated and told the president to immediately end the illegal persecution of him by the National Security Commission, Interior Ministry, and Prosecutor-General's Office. Until that happened, he would be conducting a hunger strike and seeking sanctuary in the embassy building, he wrote. Zhaqiyanov did not demand, however, that the charges against him be summarily dropped. Rather, he said that they should be looked into by independent, DVK, or foreign legal experts, and that the financial transactions conducted by him as governor be audited by impartial foreign companies.

�BUT A MEA CULPA FROM THE LESS COMMITTED. The pressure on the DVK began to show when Khabar TV reported on 1 April that Yerzhan Tatishev, chairman of the board of TuranAlem Bank and a prominent DVK member, was pulling out of the opposition movement. Explaining his defection, he said that perhaps financiers such as himself had taken the decision to join the DVK rather precipitously, and that such a political affiliation was neither proper from a professional point of view nor in the interests of his bank's shareholders and clients. His remarks were eerily reminiscent of a harangue by Nazarbaev two days previously, also reported on Khabar TV, when the president warned people in business to stick to business. "Either directly or indirectly through their people they should not interfere in power -- in taking political decisions," Nazarbaev said.

KYRGYZ PARLIAMENT DISCUSSES LAST MONTH'S BLOODSHED. A plenary session of Kyrgyzstan's Legislative Assembly (the lower house of parliament, with 60 seats) opened in Bishkek on 1 April followed by the opening of the ninth session of the Assembly of People's Representatives (the upper house, with 45 seats) the next day, Kyrgyz radio reported. The clashes in Djalalabad Oblast's Aksy Raion on 17 March, which left at least five dead, were on the agendas of both houses.

Discussions were overshadowed by an appeal, signed by 55 deputies on 27 March and addressed to the Kyrgyz people, not to be "misled" by "intriguers" who seek to "foment tensions" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 March 2002). "The tragic event in Aksy Raion showed that only one small group of politicians is interested in stirring up disturbances in the country," the appeal said, as cited by Kabar news agency on 1 April. The language and sentiments closely mirrored those of President Askar Akaev and his ministers, who have contended that the riots were instigated by provocateurs among the political opposition in order to destabilize the nation. Parliamentarian Tursunbai Bakir uulu told RFE/RL on 30 March that many of the deputies signed the appeal under pressure from the government, which harassed them or threatened them with expulsion from the legislature. Parliamentarian and filmmaker Dooronbek Sadyrbaev concurred, and fingered Turdakun UsubAliyev as the deputy most instrumental in forcing his colleagues to sign (see "RFE/RL Kyrgyz News," 30 March, 1 April 2002). Sadyrbaev added that none of the 55 signatories had actually visited the site of the clashes or had any first-hand knowledge of what really happened. He and fellow opposition deputies said the appeal disgraced the parliament. On 1 April, Azimbek Beknazarov, whose inconclusive trial sparked the demonstration that led to violence and who is temporarily at liberty and serving again as a deputy, chastised the upper chamber's speaker for distributing the appeal and signing it himself before the tragedy in Aksy Raion had even been discussed in parliament, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported.

Contributing to the impression of government obstruction in the investigation of the tragedy, Sadyrbaev charged on 28 March on Kyrgyz TV that a videotape of the clashes, allegedly filmed by the security services, had temporarily gone missing but that a copy was now in his possession. He said that he planned to use it to make a documentary on the Aksy events, supplemented with interviews he had taped himself of wounded people and witnesses, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported on 28 March. But Asel Mambetalieva, chairwoman of the parliamentary commission formed on 19 March to look into the events, told the Legislative Assembly on 1 April that the videocassette had never been lost. She said she had it and anyone was welcome to watch it at any time, Kyrgyz radio said. Her commission, which visited southern Kyrgyzstan soon after the clashes, had also filmed witnesses and wounded, she said. Mambetalieva added that the commission's preliminary report would be presented on 4 April, not on 1 April as originally scheduled. However, Mambetalieva revealed some of her findings on 29 March, announcing that the Aksy district prosecutor, Abdykalyk Kaldarov, was responsible for the bloodshed since it was he who gave the original order to fire into the crowd (see "RFE/RL Kyrgyz News," 1 April 2002).