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Three Years On, Kazakh Politician's Killing Haunts Nazarbaev Regime

Altynbek Sarsenbaev, in a photograph taken on February 8, 2006, a few days before his murder
Altynbek Sarsenbaev, in a photograph taken on February 8, 2006, a few days before his murder
Three years ago today, Kazakhs were shocked by the news that the leader of the opposition Naghz Aq Zhol (True Bright Path) party had been found dead in an Almaty suburb. Altynbek Sarsenbaev and two associates had been shot execution-style, with their hands tied behind their backs.

Thousands of city residents -- intellectuals, activists, students, and others -- came out into Almaty's central square to express their grief and anger.

Sarsenbaev, a former information minister, Security Council secretary, and ambassador to Russia, had been considered the leading potential challenger to President Nursultan Nazarbaev, the former head of the Kazakh Communist Party who has served as the country's president since 1991.

But what happened next was even more shocking.

Erzhan Utembaev, the administrative chief of the Kazakh Senate, was charged with ordering the murders. The authorities did everything possible to persuade the public that the killings were not politically motivated. Utembaev and nine men from the Kazakh National Security Committee were tried and convicted of murder. Officially, the motive was simply a personal disagreement.

But neither Sarsenbaev's family nor his colleagues were convinced by this version of the tragedy.

Sarsenbaev's Nemesis

Shortly after the killing, many observers began suggesting that perhaps Nazarbaev's son-in-law, Rakhat Aliev, might have been involved.

At the time, Aliev headed the National Security Committee and was widely known as Sarsenbaev's nemesis. Although no one could imagine such a thing at the time, the powerful Aliev soon had a falling out with Nazarbaev and fled the country. He now lives in self-imposed exile in Austria.

Last year, Aliev was tried and convicted in absentia of the January 2007 kidnapping of three top executives of Almaty's Nurbank, which Aliev owned at the time. One of the managers was later released and the other two are still missing and presumed dead. After that trial, journalists and politicians in Kazakhstan began hoping for additional probes into Aliev's alleged activities and, possibly, revelations about the Sarsenbaev case.

On February 11, Kazakh activists marked the third anniversary of the killing by gathering at Sarsenbaev's grave in Almaty. They issued an appeal to Nazarbaev calling on him to review the case and urging him to question Aliev in connection with the matter.

However, it is highly unlikely the president will reopen the Sarsenbaev investigation.

For one thing, shortly after the murder, Nazarbaev was shown on state television reading from a letter purportedly from Utembaev, in which he confessed to the killings.

"It was a personal affair that could happen to anyone," Nazarbaev commented.

Another Politician Murdered

The appearance was part of the official campaign to deny any political motivation behind the murders and, if it were now revealed that there had been a cover-up, Nazarbaev himself would be deeply implicated.

Also, Sarsenbaev's murder came just three months after another prominent Kazakh politician was killed in his own home. Zamanbek Nurkadilov, a former mayor of Almaty, governor of Almaty region, and emergency situations minister, was found shot dead in November 2005 -- two bullets in his chest and one in his head. The official explanation was suicide.

Nurkadilov came out in opposition to Nazarbaev in March 2004 and was a vocal critic. He often called Aliev "the main guardian of the Nazarbaev family interests." If the Sarsenbaev case is reopened, then calls to reopen the Nurkadilov probe will also intensify. Because Nurkadilov was accusing Nazarbaev personally of nepotism, corruption, and dictatorship, opening up that can of worms again is hardly in Nazarbaev's interests.

Finally, Aliev is in Vienna and is apparently in a position to reveal damaging information about the president. As a former insider, it is widely believed that Aliev knows quite a bit about the inner workings of the Nazarbaev clan. Some observers believe he might even be able to implicate Nazarbaev in the Sarsenbaev killing and, possibly, the Nurkadilov case as well. Earlier this month, Aliev told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that Nazarbaev and former National Security Committee officials know more about the Sarsenbaev murder than he does.

All this means it is a safe bet that the third anniversary of Sarsenbaev's death will pass without any official notice. After all, in less than a year, Kazakhstan will take over as chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Hardly the time for embarrassing questions.

Merhat Sharipzhan is senior editor of Headline News at RFE/RL and the former head of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.