“Déjà vu Dva”: Has the Prince taken his final fall (and/or will the Family implode)?
First, I must say that I have been immersed in working on my house over the last six to seven weeks and have not been posting to the blog. I hope this has not chased my readers away, but it has been a necessary break. That being said….what is going on in Kazakhstan at the moment has motivated me to come out of hibernation (literally since I am presently in Siberia) and try to make sense of the potential ramifications of the most recent Nazarbayev family feud….
So, let’s start with the first sign of conflict. Last week, Rakhat Aliyev came out with a scandalous article in his own “Karavan” newspaper accusing various people of being behind a plot to discredit him. In particular, he named Almaty’s Akim Imangaly Tasmagambetov and the head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs Mukhamedzhanov as being his main enemies in a battle of shadows. Since Rakhat had already seemingly been exiled to Austria as punishment for the scandals around Nurbank and its Director, it initially looked like this was Rakhat’s way of deflecting attention from his own fall from grace. In retrospect, however, the article looks more like a preemptive strike against people who were about ready to put increased heat on Rakhat himself. This became more obvious on Wednesday of last week when it was announced that Rakhat was wanted by Kazakhstan’s authorities on criminal charges of kidnapping.
The announcement that Rakhat was wanted on criminal charges was big news indeed. While Rakhat and his wife Dariga Nazarbayeva have long been in and out of good graces with President Nazarbayev, nobody in the family or even the inner circle had ever been arrested (at least before they had already become part of the opposition). Kazakhstan’s “Vremya” newspaper found the event significant enough to run a headline stating (with a sense of surprise) “Everybody is Equal under the Law.” Russian media even went as far as to suggest that Aliyev’s arrest was being ordered directly by Nursultan Nazarbayev himself (a probability given the way things work in Kazakhstan).
Meanwhile, the government in Kazakhstan moved quickly to close down both the KTK television station and the Karavan newspaper, both owned by Rakhat, and President Nazarbayev officially decreed that Aliyev had been relieved of his positions as both Ambassador to Austria and Representative to the OSCE. Despite lacking access to his primary media mouthpieces, Rakhat struck back almost immediately with a statement condemning the closures of these media and directly criticizing his father-in law, President Nazarbayev, for his “usurpation” of power through recent constitutional amendments making him president for life (an act that the U.S. State Department interestingly declined to criticize…but that is another story). In fact, Aliyev noted that he planned to run for president in 2012 and believed that retaining Nazarbayev as president for life would be completely misguided. In Kazakhstan, of course, saying such things is the “kiss of death.” Since Aliyev had never in the past made such statements publicly, one must assume that he has now estranged himself from his father-in-law in ways that go far beyond past tensions.
While things have likely progressed even further by the time you are reading this post, the last news to come out of Astana and Vienna suggested that a delegation led by the prosecutor general’s office was on its way to Vienna to bring Rakhat “home” where he would be dealt with accordingly. It is all reminiscent of that scene in “Godfather I” where Al Pacino promises to send his brother-in-law to Las Vegas rather than kill him (just prior to having him shot in the back of the head). While Rakhat could potentially still escape a bullet in the back of the head and/or even a prison term, at this point things have gone too far to anticipate seeing him back in any ministerial post anytime soon. In fact, it could be more likely that he now becomes an opposition figure, especially given the tone of his statement on Tuesday.
Given Kazakhstan’s status as a mostly family-run autocracy, one cannot help but wonder if this implosion in the ruling family will translate into political instability, hence de-bunking the country’s image, so often touted by the U.S., as the bastion of stability in the region. Conventional wisdom offers two conflicting theories on this.
The first theory is that such blips in the intra-elite balancing act in Kazakhstan have always been (and presumably always will be) handled by Nursultan Nazarbayev in a way that is respected as fair in the context of Kazakhstan’s pyramid of patron-client relations. In other words, just as Tony Soprano’s decisions are respected when somebody needs to be “off’ed” from inside, the others within Kazakhstan’s elite will respect (and most will probably agree with) Nazarbayev’s moves to remove his son-in-law from the political arena. This theory is supported by the fact that similar blips in Nazarbayev’s management of the country’s elite have occurred in the past, and the country has quickly moved on. The first major event of this sort was the 2001 power struggle in which Rakhat was accused of being behind a coup plot against his father-in-law. As Dariga Nazarbayeva pointed out in her “Déjà vu” article in Karavan last year, a similar context emerged around the killing of Altynbek Sarsenbayev in which many accused Rakhat of taking part. And, now, we have a second “Déjà vu”…..”Déjà vu Dva.” Since past events of this kind have been quickly removed from public view and have had only brief impact on political stability, one might think that the same will be true now.
It is notable, however, that while history keeps repeating itself, the stakes also keep rising, exposing more and more of the “emperor’s new clothes.” Even if Rakhat is imprisoned, for example, what will be Dariga’s response? Will she seek revenge on her father (who according to popular gossip and rumors is neither her biological father nor any longer an actual companion to her mother). Most importantly, Rakhat and Dariga, as members of the president’s inner family, likely have heaps of compromising material waiting in the wings to be released. If Rakhat and Dariga are completely backed into a corner, it could open the floodgates of “kompromat” on the Kazakh elite and especially on President Nazarbayev. Since we are talking about Déjà vu, one can certainly draw numerous parallels with the last years of Sukharto’s Indonesia. In other words, it may just be a matter of time until the turmoil within the Nazarbayev family erodes their power to rule.
There, of course, could always be a third variation of the ways that events might unfold. Nazarbayev could try to diffuse the tension by bringing other elites closer to him. He could decide, for example, to suddenly repeal his appointment as president for life and form a coalition government of sorts that brings in some of his opponents such as Zhandosov and Zhakiyanov. And, he could initiate reforms that encourage the development of political parties towards 2009 parliamentary and 2012 presidential elections, promising that such elections will provide for free and fair competition. Such a move could isolate Rakhat and help discredit any of the information he might choose to leak before going down. It could also seal Nazarbayev’s legacy as a reformer. For that very reason, however, it may be too uncharacteristic of Kazakhstan politics.
At this point, therefore, it remains unclear how these events will play out and whether they will follow any of these scenarios suggested above. Regardless, the order for Rakhat Aliyev’ arrest seems to have ushered in a new stage in Kazakhstan’s intra-elite politics, raising numerous questions about succession at a time when President Nazarbayev was trying to shut that question out of public discourse. It also problematizes Kazakhstan’s bid to chair the OSCE at a time when the Kazakh government appeared to be gaining significant support on this question. In the meantime, watchers of Kazakhstan politics might want to keep their web-browsers open to the sites often attributed to Rakhat, such as Kompromat.kz, Caravan.kz, and Gazeta.kz. It is usually times like these when the juiciest bits of information leak out into cyberspace. Stay tuned….