On the oil-rich steppes of Kazakhstan the return of Stalinist show trials is destroying central Asia's most promising countryby Anthony Robinson / 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-…