Thursday, August 31, 2006

Ibragimov gets the death penalty; Utembayev gets 20 years. Any comments?

The court trying the alleged killers and conspirators in the Altynbek Sarsenbayev murder has laid its verdict. Ibragimov was given a sentence of death, and the court ordered the confiscation of his property. Utembayev was given a sentence of 20 years in a maximum security prison, and the court ordered the confiscation of his property. Eight others received sentences from 3 years to 20 years in prison and loss of property.

When it was announced that Sarsenbayev had been killed on February 13, 375 internet readers on the Kazakhstani site (then felt compelled to comment, mostly in dismay and shock. In response to the news of the sentences on the same website over six months later, there are only 75 comments, most of which no longer display shock, but also do not believe that justice was done. What do you think? Was justice done?

“Uzbek” buys “Kommersant” and related media holdings, in what some are saying is the biggest print media deal to date in Russia

Yesterday, it became known that an Uzbek oligarch in Moscow, Alisher Usmanov—apparently known in Moscow as merely “Uzbek,” purchased “Kommersant” and its related publishing house for approximately 300 million US dollars. “Uzbek” is heavily involved in the mining industry, and he is also General Director of GazPromInvestHolding, a sister company of GazProm.

Usmanov is a powerful player in Moscow, and some connect him to long time Kremlin insider under both Yeltsin and Putin, Sergey Yastrzhembskyi, who studied with Usmanov in Moscow in the 1970s. There are also allegations, however, that Usmanov, or “Uzbek,” is closely associated with many more unsavory characters from Russia and Central Asia. , for example, lists his associates as including such criminal figures as alleged Uzbek narco-mafia leaders Gafur Rakhimov (nicknamed “Gafur”) and Salim Abduvaliev (nicknamed “Salim”) as well as the infamous alleged Russian organized crime figure Alimjan Tokhtakhunov (or “Taiwanchik”), who was implicated in the 2002 Olympic figure skating scandal .

Generally, initial analysis of the purchase of “Kommersant” by Usmanov focuses on its importance in the Russian political arena. This makes sense, given that Usmanov is also identified closely with the re-organization of “GazProm-Media,” which includes the expansive media holding of NTV. If Usmanov has demonstrated that he can help control NTV, he can likely be trusted with “Kommersant” this close to the next presidential elections in Russia.

However, one must also wonder how the new ownership of “Kommersant” may affect the political situation in Uzbekistan. Rumors suggest that Usmanov is favored by Putin as a possible “Moscow man” to take over the helm from Karimov at some point. If this is true, control of a newspaper like “Kommersant” could be a very good weapon for the “Uzbek” as he faces political competition in his homeland of Uzbekistan.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Nazarbayev's Visit to the U.S.: Do Oil and Democracy Mix?

As President Nazarbayev gets ready to make his sixth visit to the U.S. and his first official visit in five years, the U.S. press is already analyzing the meaning of this trip to the formulation of President Bush's schizophrenic foreign policy. As a piece in today’s Washington Post boldly states, “the upcoming Nazarbayev visit… offers a case study in the competing priorities of the Bush administration.” Peter Baker, the author of the Post piece, is, of course, referring to the conflict between Bush’s aggressive posturing on what he calls the “Freedom Agenda” of promoting democracy world wide and the administration’s tendencies towards “good old boy” realpolitik, especially when it involves oil rich states and the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT).

This contradiction in the Bush administration’s foreign policy was particularly pronounced when Vice President Cheney denounced Russian backsliding on democracy one day prior to visiting Astana, where he praised the political reforms (sic) of Kazakhstan. It is a contradiction that plagues U.S. diplomats and other government workers involved in furthering what they must portray as a coherent and unitary “foreign policy.” In the context of Kazakhstan, for example, the mixed messages of the Bush administration’s aggressive statements about “the march of freedom” and “democracy rising” around the world and the administration’s generally conciliatory position in relation to Nazarbayev’s government create a situation that only strengthens the position of those Kazakh elites opposed to reform. The “old guard” anti-reformers are able to point to Bush’s democracy statements as evidence of the ulterior motives and “colored revolutionary” aspirations of the U.S. in Kazakhstan, while these statements are not reinforced with any actions to hold Kazakhstan accountable for its reluctance to reform or its direct actions to forestall U.S. democracy promotion in Central Asia.

While a case can certainly be made in relation to the importance of Nazarbayev’s visit to U.S. foreign policy debates (and only such an argument will secure the visit a front page spot in the Washington Post this early in the game), the trip and its results may be more important to the increasingly divided Kazakh elite. As I have noted elsewhere, President Nazarbayev is quickly becoming a “lame duck” leader in Kazakhstan as people continue to speculate on who will become his successor. As one might expect, this situation has increased the competition within the Kazakh elite as was witnessed in the political battles that have emerged around the murder of opposition politician Altynbek Sarsenbayev and that went public with Dariga Nazarbayeva’s now infamous article Déjà vu.

While not the only front in the internal power struggle within Kazakhstan’s elite, questions of democratic reform and relations with the west definitely play a role in the succession battle. Not long ago, for example, a person who self-identifies as one of “Nazarbayev’s people” told me of the necessity for the U.S. to push the Kazakhstan president on democratic reforms when he visits Washington in the fall. He noted that playing soft-ball with Nazarbayev on this question will get the U.S. nowhere, but the President will listen if the U.S. is stern and straightforward. Others in the Kazakhstan elite, of course, hope that the question of democratic reform is buried during this visit and that the status quo can be maintained through any succession to President Nazarbayev. As Nazarbayev readies for his visit, therefore, he will likely be hearing different opinions from his own advisors concerning the importance of democratic reforms to Kazakhstan’s relationship with the U.S. At the same time, President Bush will be hearing conflicting arguments about the same question from different corners of the U.S. foreign policy community. The only thing that is certain is that continued cooperation in the economy of oil will be a critical topic of discussion when meetings finally transpire both with G.W. Bush in the White House and with G.H.W. Bush by the ocean in Kennebunkport, ME. The question is how oil and democracy will mix in this latest reaffirmation of U.S.-Kazakhstani friendship. With the trip still about a month away, it is probably too early to say.

Friday, August 25, 2006

What is China's goal in Central Asia?

Martha Brill Olcott’s recent testimony before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission
on China’s role in Central Asia is a well documented discussion of the positive aspects on this engagement. Olcott appropriately points out that China has carefully pursued its economic goals in Central Asia, and it has done so often through fair competition with other international investors (or as fair as such competition can be in Central Asia). Dr. Olcott, however, ignores the more human aspects of China-Central Asian relations in her testimony.

As I pointed out in a recent post about joint Kazakhstan-China joint “anti-terrorist” exercises, there is serious distrust of China among Central Asians. Furthermore, my friend Edil Baisalov of Kyrgyzstan added a brief comment to that post noting that this “distrust of China is millenia old.” Those who have spent significant time in the region, and in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in particular, are well aware of this distrust, which is widespread through virtually all parts of society. There is also reason for this distrust that goes beyond historical vendetta. Central Asians fear the size of China and its apparent thirst for territory. Even if China is not to attempt to violate the territorial integrity of the Central Asian states in the upcoming decades, there is understandable fear that Chinese will do so through mass migration—something that is all too well known by much of Southeast Asia. Also, it is obvious that China’s massive energy needs will be increasingly important to the country in the upcoming decades and could eventually supercede any concerns of recognizing the sovereignty of neighboring states.

Furthermore, contrary to Dr. Olcott’s assertions that China only began to think about Central Asia economically in the last five years, Chinese businessmen in Central Asia have long had significant interest in entering and staying in the region. I remember talking to a group of Chinese businessmen in 1997 who told me quite bluntly that they thought it easy to take advantage of the Kazakhs due to their limited short-term perspective. As one of the businessmen said with a grin, “the Kazakhs only see the tenge; they do not see the dollar that lurks behind it.”

Finally, China’s engagement in Central Asia has begun to change significantly in the last three years with the growing power of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and China’s apparent desire to take advantage of the Central Asian leaders’ fear of “colored revolutions” that are seen as western-inspired plots. For the first time since the fall of the U.S.S.R., there is a sense that China wants to become politically involved in the events of Central Asia. This may be, as Dr. Olcott suggests, merely a reaction to the establishment of U.S. military bases in Central Asia, but it may also be a play to gain favor in the region vis a vis the United States and Europe.

I do not post these opinions in order to suggest that China is an imminent threat to Central Asia and western involvement in the region, but I do believe that the Chinese engagement in the region is less benign than Dr. Olcott suggests. Perhaps Dr. Olcott is correct that the United States has no need to worry about China’s involvement in Central Asia, but this is for reasons other than those she has stated. Rather, the U.S. has no need to worry because Central Asians will continue to be wary of China for both historical and more recent reasons. The question is whether the Central Asian states can continue their balancing acts of international interests enough to prevent a complete dependency on China in the next thirty to fifty years.

"Tianshan-I (2006)": More bad news for Uyghurs and other "dissenters"

Chinese news sources have confirmed that China and Kazakhstan are presently involved in joint “anti-terrorist” drills in the regions of Almaty and the city of Yining (or Kuldja) in the northwest Xinjiang province of China. According to the Chinese People’s Daily , this is the first joint exercise of its kind involving both China and Kazakhstan. Given the geographical location of the exercise, it is obvious that the Chinese are looking at how they could utilize Kazakhstan’s assistance (as a partner in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization) to put down any unrest among the Muslim Uyghur minority of China, which considers the Xinjiang province to be its historical homeland.

The motivation for Kazakhstan in taking part in such an exercise, however, is less clear. It should be noted that the People’s Daily article characterizes the exercises on the Kazakhstan side of the border as utilizing “gunship helicopters, armored anti-riot vehicles and other military equipment.” The use of “anti-riot vehicles” makes the exercise appear to be focused at least in part on preventing civil disorder/dissent as much as on containing terrorism. Regardless, it is particularly interesting to note that the Kazakhstani media is not covering the exercises as closely as China’s media. This is somewhat understandable given the general distrust of China held by many Kazakhstanis as a hold-over from the intense anti-Chinese propaganda during the Sino-Soviet split. Nonetheless, the exercises would have to be characterized as a significant event, especially given China’s growing influence in Kazakhstan.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Will there be early presidential elections in Uzbekistan (and new parliamentary elections in Kazakhstan)?

In Central Asia, the most regular aspect of electoral cycles has historically been their irregularity. While the countries' constitutions and electoral legislation appear to mandate for regular terms and elections, they also have enough ambiguity to allow for interpretation. Kazakhstan has notoriously been the home to “early elections,” particularly the last two presidential elections that were both moved up about a year from their expected dates. Given President Nazarbayev’s overwhelming victory last year in an early election, the legitimacy of which was hardly even questioned by international organizations, it would not be entirely surprising if President Karimov were to follow suit and move up his elections as well.

While there have been no official statements to that effect, rumors in Tashkent emanating from fairly reliable sources suggest that President Karimov has exactly that in mind for next year. These rumors say that a decision has already been made to move up the presidential elections expected for December 2007 to January 2007 (well, at least they will still be in 2007). One wonders why Karimov would need to do this given that he has never allowed any credible candidates to run against him. The events of May 2005 in Andijan, however, show exactly how uncomfortable the present government is with any hint of political discord. In that context, Karimov may feel that early elections as soon as possible would take advantage of what appears to be a lull in the storm of Uzbek dissent. Such an act would also ensure that those who might want to disrupt the next presidential elections in the country would have less time and less warning in order to plan any moves. After all, if Karimov were to run (which he is fully expected to do), it would be unthinkable that he could lose. All he really has to fear are efforts to disrupt the actual election.

At the same time, there are further rumors about the early parliamentary elections in Kazakhstan that I had discussed in a post a few weeks ago . On the Kazakhstani website, an article reports on the constitutional changes to the structure and authority of the parliament proposed by the state commission on democratization. According to these proposed changes, the lower house of the Kazakhstan parliament would almost double in size, and half of it would be made up of proportionally elected “party-list” candidates. While this would certainly offer an excuse for new parliamentary elections, it is unclear whether these changes (and other related changes) could be made to the constitution in time to call elections in December of this year (as formerly rumored). Of course, stranger things have happened in Kazakhstan.

If anything is clear, it is that election rumors will keep everybody guessing in both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan until the respective governments show their hands and make a play to call elections. I suppose the best rule of thumb is to “expect the unexpected.”

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Will the murder of Altynbek Sarsenbayev have changed anything in Kazakhstan?

In February, when I first heard about the murder of Kazakhstan opposition politician Altynbek Sarsenbayev, many of my friends suggested that the murder would be mostly forgotten by the people of Kazakhstan within two weeks. It was assumed that, just like the mysterious death of Zamanbek Nurkidilov, this murder would briefly cause alarm only to disappear into the past with little notice (especially by the media). That was not what happened. Those who have been following the political machinations that have surrounded the investigation and court proceedings know that the murder of Altynbek Sarsenbayev has had significant impact on Kazakhstan over the last six months. It appears to have kicked up a storm of political intrigue that has resulted in the liquidation of Dariga Nazarbayeva's political party and in what appears to be the ongoing dismantling of her media empire. Various parties have publicly accused high ranking officials of being involved in the murder, including the president's son-in-law, Rakhat Aliyev, the former head of the KNB, Nurtai Dutbayev, and the present speaker of the senate, Nurtai Abykayev. Even through the summer months, which are notorious lulls in political activity, public attention has remained at least somewhat fixated on the murder trial of the former politician.

As the court case against the men accused of the murder winds down, however, it seems like that attention is in danger of waning. The accused this week refused to acknowledge their guilt. With various versions of what might have happened continuing to float around cyberspace, most people following the case (and especially the victim's family) are unsatisfied with the official story that is still being presented by the government. In general, it seems that there is something missing, and probably something being covered up. Furthermore, given the widespread uncertainty about who was behind this killing among highly connected individuals, it would seem that the cover-up must be at a very high level.

So, the question is--next week, when the court announces its final decision, what will be the reaction of people in Kazakhstan? Regardless of whether the accused are sentenced or not, one would expect that there should be an outcry that justice has not been completed served—every stone has not been overturn, and every motive has not been sufficiently examined. If history is any indication, that is not likely to happen. Perhaps people will accept whatever is the final decision of the court, or at least they will learn to live with it. Even a deathly silence from the public, however, will not mean that Kazakhstan has not changed as a result of this murder. It has changed, but we probably will not completely understand the impact it has had for sometime to come—at least until the next election.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

President Nazarbayev's Trip to the US and the New "Borat" Film

Having just moved back to the U.S., I have found that more Americans are aware of Kazakhstan than four years ago when I last lived in the United States. The increased knowledge of Kazakhstan, however, is not due to the country’s economic successes or its role as a U.S. ally in the “war on terror.” Instead, most Americans who have heard of Kazakhstan have heard of it through a satire of a Kazakh journalist named Borat. Most people reading this are probably at least nominally aware of Borat, but if they are not, they can learn more on his official “homesite”. Borat’s popularity as a satirist has been increased with the attention paid to him by the Kazakhstani government, which has protested that the character does not reflect the reality of Kazakhstan, its citizens, or its journalists. The Kazakhstani government was particularly upset about Borat’s behavior when he hosted the MTV European music awards earlier this year. It was this event that led to the closing of Borat’s former “homesite” that had been hosted on a Kazakhstani “kz” domain. For those who follow Kazakhstani politics, the government’s reaction is understandable since the Kazakhstani government and its president of fifteen years, Nursultan Nazarbayev, have always sought to improve the country’s public image abroad. Borat certainly does not promote an image of Kazakhstan that is in sync with that which the government and its leader would like to promote abroad. As the old adage goes, however, “there is no such thing as bad publicity.” If that is true, Borat is bringing much more publicity to Kazakhstan than the hired guns of Patton Boggs have accomplished.

As a recent piece in New York magazine points out, there may even be a split in the Kazakhstani elite over Borat and his role (both positively and negatively) on the image and name recognition of Kazakhstan in the United States. The short article also suggests, however, that the real test of the tenuous relationship between Borat and the Kazakhstan government will emerge in the upcoming weeks as the public relations blitz being planned by the Kazakhstan government to publicize the country in the U.S. in the run-up to President Nazarbayev’s long awaited trip to Washington clashes with the advertising blitz ongoing to promote Borat’s new film, ”Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan".

In an attempt to help fuel this potential public relations “battle royale,” I wrote a letter today to Borat through his ”my space” page asking him for an exclusive interview that, if granted, would be published as a podcast right here as part of the Roberts Report. I will let readers know if he responds.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Will Kazakhstan become the world's largest producer of uranium?

There has been significant attention paid to the importance of Kazakhstan's oil reserves in the world of energy, but there has been far less attention paid to the uranium reserves in the country. A recent piece on the financial analyst website points out that Kazakhstan is in the middle of a serious Asian competition for scarce reserves of uranium. As Kazakhstan readies for the visit of Japanese prime minister Koizumi, some international financial analysts are suggesting that an important aspect of Koizumi's trip will be his efforts to ensure that Kazakhstan will begin to look towards Japan more than towards China as a partner in its mining of uranium. While several Japanese companies are interested in attaining uranium mining rights in Kazakhstan, none are presently partners with the state-owned uranium monopoly in Kazakhstan, Kazatomprom. Kazatomprom, however, already has joint ventures with international partners from Canada, France, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine, and China.
The Bloomberg article also notes that Kazakhstan is presently the third largest producer of uranium in the world, after Canada and Australia, and it wants to become the largest producer of this valued resource by 2010. Given that the price of uranium has quadrupled in the last three years and is presently approaching $50 a pound, Kazakhstan's sales of uranium could become an increasingly important sector of its economy. This is especially true in the context of Asia's present intrest in nuclear energy. Not only are Japan and China in competition in this realm, but India and Korea are also extremely interested in accessing uranium reserves to assist them in meeting their energy needs. If Kazakhstan's oil development is any indication of how uranium mining might progress in the country, Kazakhstan can be expected to use this competition to its advantage and include as many interested international partners from as many different countries as feasible.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Who controls KazakhMys?, the British investing website, recently highlighted the stock of KazakhMys, which went public earlier this year. As the article points out, KazakhMys is an interesting experiment on the London Stock Exchange. As the annual report of KazakhMys points out, the company is the first in the CIS to be featured on the prestigeous FTSE 100, which is an index of the 100 largest companies on the London Stock Exchange, and it is the tenth largest miner of copper in the world. What makes KazakhMys particularly interesting, however, is that it is one of several large holdings in Kazakhstan that have gone public despite a history of "less than transparent" ownership and business dealings. A person who had been involved in the infamous privatization process of Kazakhstan once told me without reservation that KazakhMys was owned by none other than Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Andrey Grozin, a Russian analyst of Central Asian Affairs and head of the Central Asian and Kazakhstan Section of the Institute of the Countries of the CIS, however, had suggested last November that the company is controlled by Nurtay Abykayv (as the head of a "Korean Clan" within Kazakhstan's elite). The only thing that seems certain is that very few people believe that the company's official owner, Vladimir Kim, really controls the company. Furthermore, there is apparently an increasingly close alliance/relationship between whoever actually controls KazakhMys and the extremely powerful Eurasia Group of Alexander Mashkevich. As the article from notes, almost simultaneous with the public offering of KazakhMys on the London Stock Exchange, the Eurasia Group offered an exclusive deal to Vladimir Kim to buy 25% in a holding company that controls much of Eurasia Group's fortune. If the board of KazakhMys agrees, this share in the Eurasia Group can be transferred to the shareholders of KazakhMys for a 10% markup, allowing Kim (or whoever is behind Kim) to make a cool 39 Million Pounds Sterling by selling stocks back to his own company.

Whoever controls KazakhMys, a few things are clear: 1) it is controlled by very important people who have no interest in hindering its growth; 2) it is quickly becoming a legalized vehicle for moving and sharing capital within Kazakhstan's elite; and 3) it is making alot of people very wealthy. Given these factors, even recent accusations against Nurtay Abykayev with regards to his involvement in the murder of Altynbek Sarsenbayev are unlikely to hinder this company. But, if there ever is a significant change in leadership in the country, it may also be KazakhMys that is among the first assets to be contested. Until then, as notes, the company is also making alot of new international shareholders fairly happy.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Blogging break until next week/ Who is behind

I won't be able to enter any posts for the rest of the week as I am attending my sister's wedding festivities (an affair that takes up the better part of a week). I plan to get back to posting next week.

In the meantime, is there anybody out there who can tell me who is behind the website I have been watching it ever since the presidential elections campaign in Kazakhstan, and I cannot figure out who is its owner/patron. If anybody has an idea, please post your theory in the comments to this post.

Until next week...<

Monday, August 07, 2006

Have Central Asian watchers been watching the wrong daughter politician?

For some time now, western journalists and political commentators have made much of Dariga Nazarbayeva's political emergence. Many of them have been suggesting with over-simplification that Dariga has been cultivated as the successor to her father. While such a scenario is not out of the realm of possibility, it does not look as likely today as it did perhaps a year ago. Once again, Dariga and her husband, Rakhat Aliyev seem to be "on the outs" in Kazakhstan's inner circle. In the meantime, much less has been written in the west about the political aspirations of Islam Karimov's daughter Gulnara. Gulnara is well known for her very public divorce and custody battle in New Jersey, and her business empire has also drawn attention. Her political aspirations, however, have not received much attention Nonetheless, there were rumors last month that she was in line to become the new Prime Minister--a move that, as the rumors suggest, did not receive the good graces of other elites around the president. Still, she is certainly one of the major players in Uzbekistan today, and she seems intent upon improving her image., for example, reports that Gulnara (using the stage name "Googoosha" that was apparently an affectionate name given her by her father when she was young) is presently promoting her image through music, an approach also used formerly by Dariga Nazarbayeva. According to, Googoosha already has one music video out that is playing constantly on Uzbekistan's homegrown version of MTV -Markaz-TV.

Despite Gulnara's wealth, her emerging musical career, and her family pedigree, it is questionable whether she could really make a play to succeed her father as president in the patriarchial environment of Uzbekistan. Nonetheless, she is somebody to watch in the often opaque but intense political struggles within Uzbekistan's elite. If Dariga's political position in Kazakhstan has fallen, Gulnara's still seems to be on the rise in Uzbekistan.

Will there be parliamentary elections in Kazakhstan in December of this year?

For several weeks if not months, there have been rumors that Kazakhstan will have early parliamentary elections in December. The assumption is that the Commission on Democratization will introduce constitutional amendments that affect the form of the parliament. As a result, there will be a need for yet another early election in Kazakhstan. In the political community, some are merely saying that there will be elections soon, but others are stating confidently that the elections will be in December to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the Kazakh nationalist protests in Alma-Ata of 1986. Early elections would not be something new for Kazkhstan, but this time the stakes may be much higher than in the past.

The political competition in Kazakhstan since last year’s presidential elections (also held early) has been quite intense. It has almost felt as if President Nursultan Nazarbayev became a “lame duck” leader immediately upon his election to his most recent term. Within days of his election, important political figures in the country were already speaking about the succession process. While Dariga Nazarbayeva almost immediately noted that her father would probably begin considering his succession in a “few years,” presidential advisor Ertysbayev noted that he not only expected the President to fulfill his term, but he thought it very possible he would be able to stand for another term after 2013. It seemed that a battle of powerful elite groups was being initiated even before President Nazarbayev had been inaugurated once again.

Two high profile opposition politicians, one during the presidential election campaign and one shortly after, have died under very odd circumstances, the details of which are still not clear. It is assumed by many, however, that these were political murders somehow connected to the growing struggle within Kazakhstan’s elite for positioning around the succession to Nazarbayev. During the weeks after the murder of Altynbek Sarsenbayev, these battles briefly came into public view, with Dariga Nazarbayeva’s now infamous Déjà vu article in Karavan newspaper. As a result of Dariga’s public “airing of dirty laundry,” the last few months have seen an on-again/off-again battle between Ertysbayev (now Minister of Information) and Dariga and her husband, Rakhat Aliyev (presently Deputy Foreign Minister). Furthermore, the on-going trial of the accused in the Sarsenbayev murder crime seems to be shedding more light on the different players in the battle (see the post from August 2 below). Still, much is not entirely clear as to how various power groupings in Kazakhstan will line up in what is proving to be an introductory fight to the yet unscheduled battle royal of succession.

One thing is for sure—if there are parliamentary elections this December, it will be another opportunity to peer into the alignment of Kazakhstan’s elite power groupings and to start wagers on the heir apparent to the presidency. If past parliamentary elections are any indication, however, one should not hold his or her breath that the competition will be free and fair. In fact, it would seem that most of the competition in Kazakhstani elections have historically taken place behind the scenes long before ballots are cast. As recent activity in the political party sector indicate, the jockeying for position is definitely already underway. Still, if there are no constitutional amendments adopted this year and no new parliamentary elections, that should also not come as a shock. Afterall, it would also not be the first time that rumors of early elections turned out to be false. Whoever actually calls the shots on when elections take place in Kazakhstan likes to keep observers and participants alike always guessing.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Does Kyrgyzstan need to choose between the US and Russia?

When a broad coalition of politicians, civil society actors, and others almost accidently deposed Askar Akayev in March 2005, the rallying call was democracy and increased liberalism. Since that time, it has been a difficult road for the "revolutionaries" who took over the helm in Kyrgyzstan. The west has shown interest in helping the struggling democracy develop, but western powers do not seem to be forthcoming with serious money. Actual reforms are slow, and organized crime has moved into the forefront of politics. Unlike in Georgia and Ukraine, Russia surprisingly has been the most forthcoming of allies to the new leadership. The result is that there seems to be a growing movement within the Kyrgyzstan leadership against the west. This was most obvious during the prolonged negotiations on the continuation of the Manas airbase, but it has come to a head more recently with an exchange of diplomatic expulsions.

According to, two American diplomats were sent out of Kyrgyzstan July 11 of this year under the request of the Kyrgyz Government, which alleged that the two were inappropriately interfering in the internal affairs of the Kyrgyz state. The same source suggests that the US government took retailiatory measures and expelled two Kyrgyz diplomats from the U.S. last week. The reasons for this sudden turn of events are not clear, but it suggests that there is a growing rift between Kyrgyzstan and the US, which does not seem to be in the interest of either country. also reports that US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher will be visiting Kyrgyzstan later this week. If this is true, one would assume that the changes in US-Kyrgyzstan relations will likely be discussed.

If the Kyrgyzstani internet readers' comments to the news that the Kyrgyzstan Government had expelled two US diplomats from the country are indicitive of the feelings of people in the country, many Kyrgyz consider the cooling of relations between the US and Kyrgyzstan to be part of a warming to Russia. If a country like Kyrgyzstan needs to choose between the US and Russia in its foreign policy, the results for the country could be very unfortunate. Rather than being able to enjoy the good will and alliances of various power centers, being reliant on only one is likely to lead to dependancy. Is this indication of difficult times to come in the tri-relations between the US, Russia, and all of the Central Asian states? Have the years of speculation about the "new great game" in Central Asia finally begun to correspond to reality?

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Will somebody higher up the ladder fall for the death of Altynbek Sarsenbayev?

Anybody who follows politics in Kazakhstan knows that the death of Altynbek Sarsenbayev was a serious blow to the country in many ways. As an important thinker, a person who cared about the future of Kazakhstan, and an astute politician, Sarsenbayev was almost universally seen to be critical to the further development of Kazakhstan as the country's next generation of politicians begins to emerge to take over the helm. Beyond the death of an important politician and potential leader, however, the death of Sarsenbayev also marks an opportunity for the state of Kazakhstan to actually deal with a critical issue fairly through the justice system. Despite bringing in the FBI to assist with forensics and going after people affiliated with the Committee for National Security (KNB) in connection with the case, most people observing the invstigation and trial are dissatisfied. In fact, it seems to be fairly obvious that there is a cover-up in the case that is intended to shield some important figures yet to be officially implicated in the murder. Americans are familiar with the potential grave consequences of covering up a political crime--afterall, hiding the truth brought down President Richard Nixon in the mid-1970s when coming clean on certain campaign "dirty tricks" immediately may not have been as leathal for the president's career.
Of course, one of the biggest problems about a "cover-up" is that it becomes more leathal the longer it is maintained. Hence, those involved in hiding the truth only seek to "cover-up" more and more. If they succeed, they may save themselves while living with a dirty secret until their grave; if they do not, the consequences are all the more grave.
So--the question remains, will the murder of Sarsenbayev lead further up the ladder than those who are presently charged with the crime? August 2, one of the accused, Rustam Ibragimov, made a shocking public declaration that he had brought Sarsenbayev to the scene of his murder to meet with none other than Nurtai Abykayev (the speaker of the senate and long time confident of the president), Nurtai Dutbayev (the former head of the KNB), and a mysterious Kalmyk Catholic with Russian citizenship by the name of Alexei Kikshaev, who had served as a presidential advisor on religious affairs in Kazakhstan.
According to Ibragimov, these three men were plotting a coup against President Nazarbayev with the intent of taking over power in the country (once again recent events awake deja vu from 2001!). While it is difficult to guess whether Ibragimov's words are true or not--both the presence of these three men at the scene of the crime and their intention to carry out a coup. But his accusations once again open up the question that continues to concern most who are following this case closely:
Will the actual organizers of the murder be punished, and are they higher up the ladder in the echelons of power than the men presently being tried in Taldy Kurgan?
Also, perhaps most importantly, how high up the ladder will/should the blame go? Or, will the truth just remain covered up? It is already telling that the nightly news on Channel 31 (usually the only station to report on such critical news items) remained silent about the latest scandalous news from the Sarsenbayev murder trial.

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