Kazakhstan: Astana Casting Government Critics as Zhanaozen Troublemakers

Government opposition leader Vladimir Kozlov was recently arrested for inciting unrest. (Photo: Dean C.K. Cox)

Kazakhstan’s parliamentary election was billed as a prelude to political liberalization in the energy-rich Central Asian state. But just the opposite has occurred in the days since the voting.

Authorities in Astana now appear to be in full crackdown mode. On January 23, Vladimir Kozlov, leader of the unregistered Alga! opposition party, and Igor Vinyavskiy, editor of the Vzglyad newspaper, were arrested amid raids on their Almaty homes and offices. Other critics of President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s administration were detained for questioning. The ostensible reason for Kozlov’s and Vinyavskiy’s arrests was suspicion of helping to stoke unrest in the western city of Zhanaozen. At least 17 people were killed in Zhanaozen-related violence.

Investigators remain tight-lipped about their probe into circumstances that led police to shoot unarmed demonstrators in Zhanaozen, which is under a state of emergency until January 31. But the January 23 arrests suggest authorities are intent on blaming Nazarbayev administration opponents for fomenting unrest, which erupted on December 16 when a longstanding industrial dispute spilled into deadly violence.

Kozlov is suspected of inciting social unrest, and if convicted on such a charge, could face a 12-year prison sentence. Natalya Sokolova, a lawyer advising striking oil workers in Zhanaozen, was jailed for six years on that charge last August, and Alga! activist Ayzhangul Amirova is in detention in west Kazakhstan on the same charge.

Vinyavskiy, who has published stinging criticism of Nazarbayev’s administration over the Zhanaozen violence, was detained on suspicion of advocating the forcible overthrow of the existing constitutional order, an offense punishable by a seven-year prison term.

“Now the security services are strenuously seeking enemies,” Vinyavskiy declared prophetically in his last editorial before his detention, published January 18. He accused intelligence agents of pointing the finger at former oil-sector workers, civil society activists and opposition politicians over the unrest, rather than trying to uncover the genuine causes of the tragedy.

In Zhanaozen, 33 people are under criminal investigation in connection with the riots, Kazakhstan’s ambassador to the United States, Erlan Idrissov, stated on January 18.

Youth activist Zhanbolat Mamay and Bolat Atabayev, a theater director known for his outspoken views, were also hauled in for interrogation at the National Security Committee (KNB), then released, as were three other Alga! figures – its leader in Almaty, Mikhail Sizov, accountant Guljan Lepisova, and chief of security Askar Tokmurzin.

As pressure mounted on Alga! another beleaguered opposition party jumped to its defense. Instead of analyzing mistakes in Zhanaozen, said Bolat Abilov of the National Social Democratic Party (OSDP), Astana “is now engaged in destroying its political opponents.”

Abilov co-leads the OSDP, the only opposition force that was eligible to stand in the January 15 election. The opposition party did not win parliamentary seats in a vote deemed by international observers to have fallen short of democratic standards, and party leaders have pledged to stage a protest over the results in Almaty on January 28.

Journalists from the online Stan TV station have also been summoned for interrogation, prompting Rozlana Taukina of the Journalists in Danger foundation to accuse Astana of “tightening the screws” on the media.

Observers see a common thread in the arrests and interrogations: Alga! and Stan TV (and other media outlets, including Respublika newspaper and K-Plus satellite TV) have been publicly linked by Nazarbayev’s adviser Yermukhamet Yertysbayev to London-based oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov. The London exile left Kazakhstan in 2009 after the bank that he ran, BTA, was forcibly nationalized. Ablyazov, now a fierce critic of Nazarbayev’s administration, is fighting a London High Court battle with BTA.

Yertysbayev has suggested that Ablyazov played a role in fomenting unrest in Zhanaozen, an allegation he firmly rejects. “This simply shows the authorities’ assessment of whom they estimate as their most dangerous political opponent,” he told EurasiaNet.org by telephone from London, accusing Astana of seeking to “discredit” him.

The investigation into the circumstances that led security forces to fire live rounds on protestors has remained shrouded in secrecy as the bereaved marked a traditional mourning ceremony on January 24, 40 days since the deaths.

Astana has not followed up on an initial pledge to find an international role for its Zhanaozen probe. Kazakhstani investigators, meanwhile, have yet to react publicly to video posted on YouTube appearing to show police shooting retreating protestors in the back. An investigation into possible police abuse of firearms was opened on December 27, but remains under wraps. Nazarbayev has publicly exonerated the security forces’ use of weapons.

Human Rights Watch has alleged that torture in custody resulted in one death. The prosecutor’s office said in December that members of a commission formed to investigate had concluded that allegations of abuse were “unsubstantiated.”

Opposition leaders who sought access to detainees during a recent trip to Zhanaozen were denied visits, Abilov said. He added that they were told by investigation chief Serik Karamanov that those injured in the violence must be guilty of crimes since otherwise they would not have been present at the protest.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, Nazarbayev accused demonstrators of receiving payments of $135 from unidentified third forces for participating in the unrest. He later offered more conciliatory remarks on the violence, suggesting on January 16 as he celebrated his ruling Nur Otan party’s election landslide that “ordinary people and oilmen have nothing to do with it.” Nazarbayev said 70 percent of Zhanaozen residents had voted for Nur Otan.

Astana has pledged compensation for the bereaved and wounded, and allocated $19 million for rebuilding Zhanaozen. Job-creation programs are being implemented, and officials say 80 percent of oil workers dismissed over the industrial dispute have applied for new jobs.

Nevertheless, few heads have rolled over the violence: Nazarbayev fired two oil company executives; his son-in-law Timur Kulibayev, who was in charge of overseeing the oil firms; and the local governor.

Prime Minister Karim Masimov, whose government critics believe should have intervened in the spiraling dispute before it turned violent, was re-appointed on January 20. He immediately pledged political reform for Kazakhstan, echoing Nazarbayev’s promise of political “modernization.” Three days later, the post-election roundup of opposition leaders, journalists and activists occurred.

Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.

Kazakhstan: Astana Casting Government Critics as Zhanaozen Troublemakers

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