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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 it. "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 lamented. "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 energy reserves.

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 terrorism.

"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 dictators."

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.

The long-brewing 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.

"The so-called 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 said.

The disclosures have coincided with an escalating series of troublesome incidents for those who do not defer to the government. Just days before Tasmagambetov's speech 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 later.

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 channels 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.

Tamara Kaleyeva, 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.

Ermurat 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.

Petrushova suspects 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."

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