Smoking gun points to Kazakhstan’s political rot

The pistol tucked into a tuxedo to illustrate an article titled “VIP security” in the latest edition of a glossy Kazakh magazine evokes the mood of fear that has gripped Kazakhstan since the murder of a leading member of the opposition to the regime of President Nursultan Nazarbayev.

The brutal killing of Altynbek Sarsenbayev, the co-chairman of the True Bright Path, on February 13, sent shock waves through Kazakhstan. Internationally, the scandal has tarnished Mr Nazarbayev’s image as a strong leader fully in control of the most stable and prosperous republic in central Asia. Dick Cheney, US vice-president, will hope for reassurances about political and energy security when he meets Mr Nazarbayev in Astana, the Kazakh capital, on Saturday.

Kazakhstan is Washington’s only strong ally in central Asia and US investors are involved in all the big Kazakh oil projects.

A rapid official investigation revealed that the country’s first high-profile political murder had been organised by a prominent Senate official. Six security forces officers were named as accomplices. The impression is that Mr Nazarbayev is not fully in control of the structures of power.

Yevgeny Zhovtis, director of the Kazakhstan Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law, said: “A rubicon was crossed with the murder of Mr Sarsenbayev. Killing is no longer taboo. This is going to make different groups in the elite very nervous. Infighting will get more dangerous.”

Mr Zhovtis is among many who believe the gloves are now off in what will be a fierce struggle over who will succeed the 67-year-old Mr Nazarbayev. Unless the constitution is changed, Mr Nazarbayev cannot stand for re-election in 2012. By then Kazakhstan will be pumping enough oil to be counted among the world’s major oil powers. The stakes are high.

The elite, dominated by Mr Nazarbayev’s family and close associates, monopolises Kazakhstan’s wealth. Events in Russia have shown that even a regime change orchestrated by the elite can lead to a dramatic redistribution of property grabbed during questionable privatisations in the 1990s. The imprisonment of Mikhail Khodorkovsky by the Putin regime and the dismemberment of Yukos, his oil company, haunts Kazakhstan’s rich.

One option might be for Mr Nazarbayev to anoint Dariga Nazarbayeva, his daughter, as successor. Ms Nazarbayeva has her own political party and is the wife of Rakhat Aliyev, a one-time chief of the security services who now serves as deputy minister of foreign affairs. Precedent for the smooth transfer of power from an ageing leader to his offspring has been set in Azerbaijan, another oil-rich former Soviet republic. Ilham Aliyev succeeded his father Geydar Aliyev in 2004.

Mr Nazarbayev, a former member of the Soviet Politburo who has ruled Kazakhstan since independence in 1991, has promoted enlightened economic reforms in the republic. But his repeated promises to introduce democracy are beginning to sound hollow. A December election in which Mr Nazarbayev carried off 91 per cent of the vote was deemed less fraudulent than earlier polls but still fell short of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s standards. Kazakhstan’s judiciary is corrupt. The independent media is stifled.

Mr Zhovtis said: “Democracy in Kazakhstan is a facade. Mr Nazarbayev’s priority is to hold on to power and money.”

Compared to the totalitarian regimes in neighbouring Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, Mr Nazarbayev’s brand of authoritarianism is soft. Recent remarks by US diplomats that it is unrealistic to expect “instant democracy” in central Asia suggest Mr Cheney will soft-pedal during discussions with Mr Nazarbayev about the US desire to promote democracy in the region. If pushed, Mr Nazarbayev can offer comforting assurances that Kazakhstan will route more oil exports west to Europe in pipelines that bypass Russia.

US patience with Kazakhstan’s democratic shortcomings frustrates the opposition. Oraz Jandosov, the co-chairman of True Bright Path, said: “Why should central Asia be seen as a black hole where democracy disappears?”

One reason is the prevalence of political apathy in Kazakhstan where, as Mr Zhovtis says, it is still customary “to vote for the leader because he is the leader”. Thanks to high oil prices, living standards are improving, bolstering support for Mr Nazarbayev.

Another may be that it is becoming too dangerous to challenge the regime. Mr Jandosov has just hired a bodyguard. But he admits: “If someone puts out an order for your life, there is nothing you can do to stop it.”

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