Kazakhstan Comes On Strong

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Former President Bush, left, greets Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev as he arrives at his home in Kennebunkport, Maine, on Tuesday.

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But there are no illusions about who holds the power. Nazarbayev has been in charge since 1989, when he first became the Communist Party boss. Before that, he had served as Prime Minister since 1984. Last December, he gained another seven years in office, having won a carefully orchestrated election claiming 91% of the vote. He says it will be his last term.

Key opposition leaders, who are all former allies and top officials of Nazarbayev, have not fared well. Former Energy Minister Mukhtar Ablyazov was jailed in 2002 for embezzlement and misuse of state funds. A year earlier former Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin, who played a crucial role in liberal economic reform, was forced into exile and tried in absentia for financial abuses, was sentenced to 10 years and had his property confiscated. Last November, Zamanbek Nurkadilov, a former regional Governor and Emergencies Minister who had become a strong critic of Nazarbayev and opposition leader, was found dead from multiple gunshot wounds. The official inquiry said it was suicide. However, people still wonder how he could have managed to inflict several mortal wounds on himself and then shoot himself in the back of the head.

The opposition sustained a serious blow last February when its key leader, Altynbek Sarsenbayev — who had been Nazarbayev's Information Minister, secretary of the Security Council, and ambassador to Moscow — and two associates were murdered by a group of officers belonging to the National Security Committee (KNB), heir to the Soviet-era KGB. Late last month, a court found Yerzhan Utembayev, the former Senate chief of staff, guilty of putting out the contract on Sarsenbayev "for reasons of personal enmity," and sentenced him to 20 years. Nine others received sentences ranging from three years to life for complicity in the murder.

Hoping to slowly add more democratic elements to a system that now rejects them, analyst Asylbek Bisenbayev suggests holding transparent elections at the local level, and gradually expanding them to regional and national bodies. Right now, however, the trend is in the opposite direction: district and town heads to be selected next month will be nominated by regional governors and elected by local legislators, rather than nominated by the people and elected through universal suffrage. And this democratic deficit has big repercussions, even according to the President's own daughter. "Launching a more sophisticated and competitive economy requires a much freer political system," concludes Dariga Nazarbayeva. Without it, Kazakhstan will remain, for all its achievements, a raw-materials export economy, shored up by high oil prices.

For now, Papa remains firmly in charge, and has little incentive to change. Might Bush give him a lecture in democracy this week? An administration official insists that the White House wants Kazakhstan to "accelerate itself down the path of democracy." But Nazarbayev seems more interested in the prestige value of his meeting. "We're now a key ally of the United States in Central Asia," said Nazarbayev in 2004, when Bush sent him a letter of gratitude for "Kazakhstan's continued assistance in the war on terror." Kazakhstan's abundant oil, political stability, and a foreign policy friendly to the West outweigh its human-rights and democratic shortcomings, and will ensure that Nazarbayev's visit to the U.S. is largely a friendly one.

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