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Calls For Protests Against Kazakh 'Dictatorship' Fall Flat In Astana, Almaty


Mukhtar Ablyazov, former head of BTA Bank, who lives in France and positions himself as a political opponent of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev.

Calls for protests against Kazakhstan's authoritarian ruler by an exiled opposition leader on the 20th anniversary celebrations of Astana's establishment as the Kazakh capital appear to have fallen flat.

Security was tight late on July 6 at concerts marking the country's "Day of the Capital" in both Astana and the city it displaced as the seat of government, Almaty.

Police checked bags and identification documents of citizens entering a square in Almaty where a concert was taking place, and security officers remained out in force as the festivities continued late into the evening.

Mukhtar Ablyazov, a critic of longtime President Nursultan Nazarbaev who lives in exile, had called on followers in a Facebook posting to protest against what he called "the paranoid dictatorship" during the festivities, which coincided with Nazarbaev's birthday on July 6, when he turned 78.

But there were no signs of protests at the public events in either Astana or Almaty. Any demonstrations would have been illegal unless they were officially authorized by either the city or national government.

Ablyazov, a fugitive banker who established the opposition Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) movement, has previously attempted to stage protests in Kazakhstan from a distance.

PHOTO GALLERY: Rising From The Steppe: Kazakhstan’s Capital Turns 20 (click to view)

An effort last month led to scores of citizens being detained in Almaty en route to the intended site of the demonstration.

A court in Kazakhstan banned the DVK movement in March, branding it an extremist organization.

Kazakhstan's crackdown on political opposition has left Ablyazov -- who was last year sentenced in absentia to seven years in prison on fraud charges -- as one of Nazarbaev's only notable political opponents.

During the celebrations on July 6, Astana hosted games of kokpar (a nomadic game played with a goat's carcass), an international music festival, and other events.

The city's International Financial Center threw open its doors to the public on July 5, with Nazarbaev presiding at a ceremony. The center is intended to attract international businesses and investment to Kazakhstan's energy-rich economy.

While the center is not expected to rival such global financial hubs as Hong Kong or Singapore anytime soon, Nazarbaev views it as vital to buffering Kazakhstan's economy from the booms and busts that derive from its heavy reliance on the volatile oil sector for growth and revenues.

The strongman has described the financial center as unique in the ex-Soviet region of Central Asia, since it will operate according to an independent legal structure based on English common law and will be overseen by Lord Harry Woolf, a former chief justice of England and Wales.

Glitzy Astana was Nazarbaev's brainchild. The city's main airport took his name last year, indicative of a pervasive leadership cult in the republic of 18 million people.

Nevertheless, many of Astana's 1 million residents compare the northern city unfavorably with the southern city of Almaty, citing its harsh cold winters and its geographical isolation, located not far from Russia's Siberian region.

The Financial Times newspaper earlier this year referred to Astana as a "bizarre" and "hastily built" vanity project, prompting a letter of denunciation from Kazakhstan's ambassador to Britain, Yerlan Idrissov.

With reporting by AFP
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