New Repression in Kazakhstan
By Peter Baker
Washington Post Foreign Service
June 10, 2002
ALMATY, Kazakhstan --
The message could not have been clearer even without the note. In
the courtyard of Irina Petrushova's opposition newspaper office, a
decapitated dog was hung by its paws, a green-handled screwdriver
plunged into its torso with a computer-printed warning attached to
"There won't be a next time."
The dog's missing head was left along with a
similar note at Petrushova's house. Three nights later, someone
threw three molotov cocktails into her office and burned it to the
ground. The political climate in this oil-rich former Soviet
republic has taken a decidedly ominous turn in recent weeks, ever
since the revelation that the country's president, Nursultan
Nazarbayev, secretly stashed $1 billion of state money in a Swiss
bank account six years ago. As the scandal blossomed, opposition
leaders were suddenly arrested, newspapers and television stations
shut down, and critical journalists beaten in what foes of the
government consider a new wave of repression.
What inspectors and
regulators have not accomplished, mysterious vandals have. One of
the country's leading television stations was knocked off the air
when its cable was sliced in the middle of the night. Shortly after
it was repaired, the cable was rendered useless again when someone
shot through it.
"Everything that's been
achieved over the last 10 years, it's been wiped out," Petrushova
"This political system we have is still Soviet," said
Yevgeny Zhovits, director of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for
Human Rights and the Rule of Law. "By its spirit, by its nature, by
its attitude toward personal freedom, it's still Soviet."
The tale of intrigue
emerging in Kazakhstan, while familiar across the former Soviet
Union, takes on special significance in Central Asia, a region that
has become far more important to the United States as it fights a
war in nearby Afghanistan. The case also sheds some light on the
tangled world of oil, money and politics in a country with massive
The U.S. Embassy and the
State Department have issued statements condemning the pattern of
events and fretting about the state of democracy in a country still
run by its last Communist boss. But many reformers in Kazakhstan
worry that the West has effectively turned its eyes away from human
rights abuses to maintain the international coalition against
"All this is happening
with the silent consent of the West," said Assylbeck Kozhakhmetov, a
leading figure in Democratic Choice for Kazakhstan, an opposition
party founded last year. Until Sept. 11, Nazarbayev's government
worried about offending the West, he noted, but not anymore. "The
ostrich party of Western democracies actually unties the hands of
Nazarbayev, a burly,
61-year-old former steel mill blast-furnace operator, has run this
giant, dusty country of 17 million people with an authoritarian
style. Nazarbayev was a former member of the Soviet Politburo who
took over as head of the republic in 1990, became president after
independence in 1991, and continued to dominate Kazakhstan through
uncompetitive elections and a referendum extending his term.
His relationship with
oil companies has prompted investigations in Switzerland and the
United States as prosecutors in both countries probe whether an
American lobbyist helped steer millions of dollars in oil
commissions to him and other Kazakh leaders.
questions about such transfers and rumors of foreign bank accounts
erupted into a full-blown scandal in April when Nazarbayev's prime
minister admitted to parliament that the president diverted $1
billion to a secret Swiss bank account in 1996. The money came from
the sale that year of a 20 percent stake in the valuable Tengiz
offshore oil fields to Chevron.
The prime minister,
Imangali Tasmagambetov, said that Nazarbayev had sent the money
abroad because he worried that such a large infusion of cash into
Kazakhstan would throw the currency into a tailspin. Although he
never disclosed the secret fund to parliament, Nazarbayev used it
twice to help stabilize the country during subsequent financial
crises, Tasmagambetov said.
In an interview last
week, a top government official dismissed the significance of the
revelation and the resulting furor.
Kazakh-gate, the government officially explained this," said Ardak
Doszham, the deputy minister of information. "There was a special
reserve account set up by the government. It's a normal account that
can be managed by officials appointed by the government. It's not
managed by individuals. The money that goes into it is state money,
and it's supposed to be used to meet the needs of the state."
Asked who knew about it, Doszham could
identify only three men, Nazarbayev, the prime minister and the
chairman of the national bank. Asked why lawmakers were never
informed, he said, "It was impossible to raise this issue before
parliament because it would have elicited many questions."
But opposition leaders
and journalists said Nazarbayev finally revealed the account this
spring only after they pushed Swiss prosecutors for information. The
opposition and journalists said they believe the president announced
the $1 billion fund only as a smoke screen to obscure other matters
still under investigation by the Swiss and U.S. prosecutors.
"All around there is
bribe-taking and stealing and mafia," said Serikbolsyn Abdildin, the
head of the Communist Party and one of two parliament deputies whose
information request to prosecutors preceded the announcement.
"There's corruption in the top echelon of power." The disclosure of
the $1 billion Swiss fund was designed to "fool public opinion," he
The disclosures have
coincided with an escalating series of troublesome incidents for
those who do not defer to the government. Just days before
to parliament, Kazakh authorities arrested
opposition politician Mukhtar Abilyazov, while his colleague,
Ghalymzhan Zhaqiyanov, avoided a similar fate only by fleeing into
the French Embassy here in Almaty, the former capital, two days
After assurances from
Kazakh authorities, he left the embassy, and promptly was also taken
into custody. The government insisted it was pursuing embezzlement
charges against the two, both founding members of Democratic Choice.
The opposition called it blatant harassment.
Other opposition figures
began to feel the heat as well. While independent media in
Kazakhstan have often experienced difficulty in the decade since
independence, a string of frightening episodes convinced many
journalists that they were being targeted. The government began
enforcing a five-year-old law requiring television stations to
ensure that 50 percent of their broadcasts were aired in the native
Kazakh tongue, a language that in practice remains secondary to
Russian here. Most television stations cannot afford to develop such
programming and prefer to buy off-the-shelf material from Russia,
including dubbed Western television shows and movies. As government
agents swarmed in and began monitoring
this spring, they began seizing licenses of those stations
that did not comply. Similarly, inspectors
showed up at newspaper offices demanding to see registration papers
and suspending those publications that did not have everything in
order. Some that did not list their addresses properly were abruptly
shut down. Printing houses began refusing to publish other papers,
and one printing house was burned down in unclear circumstances.
president of the International Foundation for
Protection of Speech here, said about 20
newspapers have been forced to stop publishing and about 20
television stations have been shut down or face closure.
"It appears the Swiss
accounts are the reason for a terrible persecution against free
speech," she said. Added Rozlana Taukina, president of the Central
Asia Independent Mass Media Association, "The country is turning
into an authoritarian regime."
Doszham, the deputy
minister, denied any political motivations behind the recent
actions. Television stations had been flouting the language law, he
said, and the government has suspended about seven or eight, and
gone to court to recall the licenses of another six or seven.
Similarly, he said, newspapers had been violating requirements. "The
law is harsh," he said, "but the law is the law."
Even more harsh,
however, has been an unofficial but often violent crackdown. It is
not known who is orchestrating it. Bakhytzhan Ketebayev, president
of Tan Broadcasting Co., whose Tan TV station was among the best
known in Kazakhstan, has been off the air for two months following
repeated attacks on his cable. Even after it was repaired following
the gunshots, it was damaged yet again when someone drove three
nails in it. "Once it's an accident, twice it may be an accident,"
he said. "But three times is a trend."
At the newspaper Soldat,
which means soldier in Russian but is also a play on words in Kazakh
meaning "that one demands to speak," the assault was more personal.
One day in late May, four young men burst into the newspaper office
and beat two workers there, bashing one woman's head so hard she
remains in the hospital. They also took the computer equipment.
Bapi, the editor, said the attack came the day
before the weekly was to run the second of two installments
reprinting a Seymour Hersh piece from the New Yorker about oil and
corruption in Kazakhstan. "This is the last warning against you," he
said the assailants told his staff. Other journalists have been
physically attacked as well.
And then there was
Petrushova and the headless dog. Like Soldat, her newspaper, the
Republic Business Review, had written about the scandal. Then the
mutilated animal was found May 19, and finally the newspaper office
was set aflame on May 22.
state security agencies were behind the incidents but cannot prove
it. "The throne started to waver, and in order to hold it in place,
all sorts of measures are being used," she said. Now she works out
of borrowed offices at Tan TV headquarters, putting out the
newspaper on her own typographical machine and stapling each issue.
"It's just like it was in the time of the Soviet Union."