On the oil-rich steppes of Kazakhstan the return of Stalinist show trials is destroying central Asia's most promising countryby / December 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2002 issue of Prospect Magazine
The struggle for control of the 21st century’s oil resources underlies, in part, both the bloody Russian war against Chechen separatism and the possible war with Saddam Hussein. It also underlies a struggle less violent but, in its own way, just as significant in Kazakhstan, the biggest new oil province since Alaska opened up 30 years ago.
The main players of the Kazakh drama are Nursultan Nazarbayev, the autocratic president, and Galymzhan Zhakiyanov, a former supporter who is now the imprisoned leader of the most serious opposition movement in post-Soviet central Asia. Zhakiyanov used to be the governor of Pavlodar, a grimy industrial province on Kazakhstan’s northern border with Russia. Today he sits in a former Soviet gulag on the bleak Kazakh steppe, surrounded by common criminals, many suffering from TB, HIV and other contagious diseases. He has been in jail since August when he was sentenced to seven years in what diplomats describe as a typical Soviet-era show trial.
His real crime was to have been the co-founder, with businessman and former energy minister Mukhtar Ablyazov, of a new opposition group called Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DCK) and to have openly denounced the corruption of Nazarbayev’s regime. (Ablyazov was also jailed for six years.) An earlier opposition movement got similar short shrift when its leader was forced into exile and denied the chance to stand against Nazarbayev in rigged elections three years ago.
In an interview before his arrest, Zhakiyanov, who was a communist youth leader before becoming rich by developing a coalmine in the early years of independence, told me that the DCK was formed not to openly challenge the president but to persuade him to open up the system, to the rising generation of younger, better educated technocrats and businessmen.
It was a na?ve premise, Zhakiyanov now admits. The launch of DCK a year ago came just days after the president arrested his son-in-law Rakhat Aliyev, then deputy head of the secret police. Aliyev, who made a fortune through control of the sugar market, is married to the president’s favourite daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva who runs most of the printed and electronic media.
For the president, the decision to arrest his own son-in-law, now in gilded exile as ambassador to Austria, was a big concession. He expected thanks from the reformers. Instead, to his rage, he was faced with a revolt of the “young Turks” led by Zhakiyanov and Ablyazov. His Soviet training told him that weakness was fatal and that if he wanted to regain the initiative he had to act quickly and harshly.
Within days, members of the DCK with government jobs were sacked and media outlets owned by Ablyazov were closed. The daughter of an outspoken editor was found dead in a police cell. Last month Sergei Duvanov, an opposition journalist, was arrested on the eve of his departure to address US civil rights groups. Meanwhile the regime continues to beat up journalists and denounce the opposition at Soviet style mass rallies with rent-a-crowd supporters bussed in from the provinces.
Interviewed after the arrest of Zhakiyanov and Ablyazov, the president claimed he was powerless to intervene and could do nothing for the two men until they confessed their guilt. If they did so, he said, he would be able to consider a presidential pardon. His calculation appeared to be that a grovelling apology would destroy their credibility. To achieve this his critics fear he is prepared to risk the health and even the life of the two prisoners, with Zhakiyanov, who has the stature of a future leader, as the main target.
Hot and mosquito-prone in summer, the prison camp is now subject to the howling winter blizzards which sweep across the treeless Kazakh steppe. Inside the jail, food is poor and disease rife. A rare three-day visit from Zhakiyanov’s wife last month was cut short on the pretext of the need to impose a quarantine regime on the jail.
Just as Chechnya is a running sore for Putin, the reversion to Stalinist repression in Kazakhstan casts a shadow on the real achievements of the Nazarbayev regime. The stocky 62 year old, a former worker at the giant Karmet steel works (now owned by Lakshmi Mittal) is the most able politician in the region. Gorbachev had planned to appoint him prime minister of the entire Soviet Union. Nazarbayev was a passionate supporter of the union treaty drawn up by Gorbachev to recreate the Soviet Union as a looser federation with greater autonomy for all 15 Soviet republics.
For Nazarbayev, brought up a Soviet citizen, independence for this vast country of former nomads and autocratic Khans, bordered by Russia and China and with the unstable Islamic world to its south, was a frightening unknown. He rejected Yeltsin’s original plan to replace the multi-ethnic Soviet Union with a loose alliance of predominantly Slav states and won a place for Kazakhstan in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) which eventually emerged.
His nightmare was that ethnic Russians, who formed a majority in the northern cities, the Caspian region and the former capital Almaty, would opt for union with Russia, taking with them the oil and the fertile land. This would have encouraged China, Uzbekistan and Iran to claim border areas, leaving the Kazakhs with the dreary steppes.
Nazarbayev sees himself as the father of modern Kazakhstan and fears that losing control would jeopardise his creation-symbolised by the brash new capital Astana in the heart of the country. Under his leadership, Kazakhstan has become a functioning state within secure, internationally recognised borders. Its economy, after a 40 per cent decline in GDP in the early post-Soviet years, is the strongest in the central Asian/Caspian region.
The president enjoys the trappings of power, and the wealth generated by oil and some of the richest mineral reserves in the world. He and his family are currently under investigation by US and Swiss investigators looking into bribes allegedly paid by US oil companies. There is no doubt that the president, his family and a group of cronies have become very rich. But much of the new oil wealth is being invested inside the country or poured into the reserves. Billions of dollars have been spent on Astana and transforming Caspian ports such as Atyrau and Aktau. The standard of living is rising. Last year, GNP grew 13 per cent, thanks to a 5m tonne increase in oil production to 45m tonnes. This is the result of growing investment by US and European oil companies. They expect to spend another $20 to 30 billion over the next 15 years developing Kashagan, Tengiz and Karachaganak, the three largest oil fields to have been discovered since Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay, over 30 years ago. To crown it all, the international rating agencies have just made Kazakhstan the first CIS country to achieve an investment grade rating for its sovereign debt.
Nazarbayev is neither Joseph Stalin nor Robert Maxwell. But he remains an autocrat of the old school. Having established the new state and laid the basis of a modern economy, he is unwilling to open up the political system. The danger is that the regime will relapse into an oil-based kleptocracy.
This would be a tragedy for the only country in central Asia which, thanks to its oil, mineral and human resources, could develop into a modern industrial democracy. But if Zhakiyanov or Ablyazov were to die in jail, an already radicalised opposition would harden its position, with the risk of a spiral into violence and further repression. It is time for some creative diplomacy aimed at getting the two sides to talk and to compromise before it is too late.