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Kazakhstan: Nazarbayev Campaign Cruises, but Potential Mine Lies Ahead

President Nursultan Nazarbayev's reelection campaign is cruising in Kazakhstan. But an ongoing corruption case in a US federal court could create complications for the president following the vote.

Recent polls peg Nazarbayev's voter support in the 70 percent range, with the four other contenders in the December 4 election splitting the remaining 30 percent. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Nazarbayev has been acting like a candidate assured of victory. In a speech marking the opening of a new Kazakhstani senate session, Nazarbayev outlined policy priorities for his next seven-year term, pledging to boost industrial and agricultural production, to improve living standards and to expand civil rights. "It is necessary to fulfill all these tasks through innovation and by attracting new technologies to the educational and scientific spheres," the Kazinform news agency quoted Nazarbayev as saying.

Supporters Nazarbayev's highest profile opponent, Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, say that president has enjoyed an unfair advantage during the campaign regarding broadcast media access and advertising. An election agency – the Public Committee for Monitoring the Presidential Election – was dismissive of the Tuyakbai camp's complaint, according to a report broadcast by Channel 31. However, an interim report on the campaign prepared by the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights noted that Nazarbayev "received the biggest share" of television coverage. The report, which covered the period from October 27 to November 16, also said that some television channels, including Khabar and Channel 31, portrayed Tuyakbai's campaign "with a certain degree of distortion."

Meanwhile, a case making slow progress in a Federal Court in New York has the potential to make bombshell revelations that could weaken Nazarbayev politically, and hamper his ability to implement his agenda. The case, involving oil consultant James Giffen, is now slated to open in April 2006. The indictment against Giffen accuses of violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act by channeling $84 million in bribes in the mid 1990s to two Kazakhstani officials, subsequently identified as Nazarbayev and former prime minister Nurlan Balgimbayev, to secure oil deals for Western conglomerates, including Mobil Oil Corp. and Texaco Inc, which have both subsequently merged with other entities. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].

A chief pillar of Giffen's defense rests on his contention that US government officials were aware of his actions, and tacitly condoned them. Giffen acted in the belief that he was an agent of the US government and was seeking to promote a US foreign policy interests by maintaining a cordial relationship between Nazarbayev's administration and Washington, defense lawyers argue. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

According to a recently unsealed court document – a June 1996 summary of a classified intelligence report – the US government welcomed reports supplied by Giffen. Information from the defendant concerning corrupt business practices in Kazakhstan "has been particularly well received," said the summary, which is among court papers submitted by Giffen's defense team to bolster his case.

A defense brief submitted in the case maintains that Giffen disclosed to US officials that Nazarbayev authorized oil-bribe money to be deposited in off-shore bank accounts, and that the accounts were controlled directly by the Kazakhstani president. Giffen also told US authorities that Nazarbayev "wanted the accounts, and the movement of money to them, to be kept secret," according to the brief.

US prosecutors are seeking to exclude the evidence linking Giffen to US authorities, arguing that the documentation submitted by the defense does not prove that the oil consultant ever had US government approval to arrange bribes for Kazakhstan leaders.

The corruption case has not figured prominently in the presidential campaign. Nazarbayev's leading opposition challengers, Tuyakbai and Alikhan Baimenov, have sought to focus voter attention on Nazarbayev's conduct in what is known locally as the "Kazakhgate" scandal. But they have largely failed to arouse public anger over the bribery case. That could change, however, if the trial ever opens in New York. Some observers suggest that the legal proceedings could provide embarrassing details about the workings of the US and Kazakhstani governments.

Kazakhstan: Nazarbayev Campaign Cruises, but Potential Mine Lies Ahead

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