Kazakhstan: Nazarbayev Friends and Foes Sling Mud
As the anniversary of last December’s killing of 15 protestors in Zhanaozen approaches, a lobbying war is heating up in Washington that looks set to focus new attention on the Kazakhstan violence. A group of Kazakhstani activists, with the support of a New York-based human rights watchdog, has been pushing for sanctions on officials they deem responsible for the shootings, from President Nursultan Nazarbayev on down. That’s upset one associate of the Nazarbayev administration, who has sent the rights group a letter threatening legal action. The letter to the Human Rights Foundation (HRF) was penned by lawyers for Alexander Mirtchev, a businessman who chairs the Krull Corp. Krull describes itself as a “global strategic solutions provider” and is linked to Kazakhstan’s administration through Mirtchev’s position as an independent director of the country’s sovereign wealth fund. Mirtchev also sits on various think tanks in the US and UK that critics say are lobbying organizations. Mirtchev’s lawyers take issue over allegations made by Kazakhstani civil society activists in an open letter HRF helped publish last month that Mirtchev is a “fixer” who was among people who “enriched themselves while serving a ruthless tyrant that ordered oil workers killed” in Zhanaozen, and “peddled the lie that Kazakhstan is the story of a ‘young democracy’… rather than a totalitarian police state.” The lawyers demanded a retraction and an apology. But HRF President Thor Halvorssen is defiant. “We’ll see Alexander Mirtchev in court,” he responded in a November 13 blog post on Forbes, describing Kazakhstan as “exhibit A in what HRF calls the ‘post-modern dictatorship.’”The October 17 open letter from 15 Kazakhstani activists urged a travel ban on a “Zhanaozen List” of over 40 officials and members of the security forces, from former Prime Minister Karim Masimov and intelligence service head Nurtay Abykayev to local officials and police officers and Nazarbayev himself.The signatories urge action similar to efforts to impose sanctions on a Magnitsky List of Russian officials allegedly involved in the 2009 death of Russian lawyer Sergey Magnitsky. The “Zhanaozen List” was published in The Washington Examiner (a free newspaper distributed in the D.C. area), accompanied by a hard-hitting advertorial headlined “This is Nursultan Nazarbayev, Dictator of Kazakhstan” attacking a “tyrant” who “holds sham elections” and “crushes worker strikes.”That prompted a sharp reaction from Kazakhstan’s Washington embassy, which described the allegations as “baseless and biased.”Backers of the “Zhanaozen List” include theater director Bolat Atabayev and newspaper editor Igor Vinyavskiy (both arrested over the Zhanaozen violence but later released) and award-winning journalist Lukpan Akhmedyarov, who recently survived a murder attempt. Some observers see in the “Zhanaozen List” the hand of exiled political opponents of Nazarbayev such as fugitive oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov and Rakhat Aliyev, Nazarbayev’s disgraced former son-in-law.In their letter, Mirtchev’s lawyers singled out Aliyev for slurs against their client and accused him of “crimes of violence” (of which he was convicted in Kazakhstan, but denies). Aliyev and Mirtchev, who once reportedly fell out over lucrative business interests, are sworn foes and have long been embroiled in mutual mud-slinging.The vitriol is probably not how Nazarbayev would like to mark the Zhanaozen anniversary, as it will only draw more attention to the tragedy. Unfortunately for him, Mirtchev – whom critics accuse of airbrushing Kazakhstan’s image – has waded right in.
Joanna Lillis is a journalist based in Almaty and author of Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan.
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