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Death in Kazakhstan

Joanna Lillis
22 February 2006

The bodies of a prominent Kazakh opposition figure and two of his aides were found in a car in the foothills near Almaty, Kazakhstan's largest city and former capital, on 13 February 2006. Altynbek Sarsenbayev, along with his driver and bodyguard, Baurzhan Baibosyn and Vasily Zhuravliov, had been shot dead in a clinical operation.

Sarsenbayev was a former government official who broke ranks and enlisted with the opposition in 2003. Before joining the opposition Ak Zhol (Bright Path) party, Sarsenbayev had been a senior official, government minister and ambassador to Russia. When the Ak Zhol party he co-chaired splintered, Sarsenbayev and his supporters formed a new party, Nagyz Ak Zhol (True Bright Path), in April 2005.

Sarsenbayev is the second high-profile politician to have died suddenly in Kazakhstan in the last three months. Zamanbek Nurkadilov, another former official turned dissident, was found dead at his home on 15 November 2005. The official police investigation found that the cause of death was suicide. It was not only Nurkadilov's supporters who had difficulty accepting this verdict: there were two bullet-wounds in Nurkadilov's chest and one in his head.

Joanna Lillis is a freelance journalist based in Kazakhstan. She previously worked for nearly four years for BBC Monitoring in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

Also by Joanna Lillis in openDemocracy:

"Kazakhstan's pre-election media war" (November 2005)

"Kazakhstan's political landslide" (December 2005)

A political crime?

This sequence of events, as well as the circumstances of Sarsenbayev's killing, meant that the Kazakh rumour-mill started working at full strength virtually before the blood had dried. Many among the opposition were quick to accuse the regime of Nursultan Nazarbayev, reinvigorated by its December election victory, of high-level complicity.

The early official response to these accusations was predictably dismissive; but a week on, the investigation took a dramatic turn with the arrest of six people in connection with the murders, five of whom worked in the elite Arystan combat division of the Kazakh security services. On 20 February, interior minister Baurzhan Mukhamedzhanov – whom Nazarbayev had ordered to take direct control over the investigation – told the press that the five were being questioned in Almaty on suspicion of carrying out the murder, along with a sixth person suspected of organising it.

A day later, the National Security Service (the KNB, Kazakhstan's successor to the Soviet-era KGB) issued a press release saying: "Five soldiers from the Arystan service of the KNB of the Republic of Kazakhstan who are suspected of involvement in this crime have been arrested."

The arrests cast a fresh light on officials' explanations of the likely range of motives for Sarsenbayev's murder: business, personal and what they coyly term "extremism". Mukhamedzhanov's deputy, Kalmukhanbet Kasymov had suggested that "the murder of a person in order to destabilise the situation in our country" could not be ruled out. Mukhamedzhanov himself, after questioning the suspects, said that the five men accused of committing the murder were each paid $25,000.

The short statement of Nursultan Nazarbayev, broadcast by Khabar TV on 21 February, pledged that whoever is behind the crime would be brought to justice. The president drew a political message from the incident: "The cruel murders of Altynbek Sarsenbayev, Baurzhan Baibosyn and Vasily Zhuravliov are primarily, of course, a dreadful loss for their near and dear … I consider that a challenge to the whole of society and to the authorities standing behind this. This is a challenge to the image of our country. The criminals wanted to sow fear and mistrust between people. Someone strongly dislikes the peace, order and stability in our native home. Irrespective of who stands behind this crime and of who is the executor, who is the organiser and who is the contractor of these murders, they will all stand before a court and will receive the most severe punishment."

Kazakhstan funeral processionThe funeral procession near
the Academy of Sciences.
© Joanna Lillis

The short-term political fallout continued with the resignation, on 22 February, of the head of the KNB, Nartay Dutbayev. Dutbayev told the press: "As you know, during the criminal investigation into the murder of Sarsenbayev and others, a group of staff members from the Arystan service of the KNB was exposed which – betraying the interests of their service (and) of the people – had entered into a criminal plot and was involved in this appalling murder. In this situation, I do not consider that I have the moral right to head the KNB, and I have submitted my resignation."

The murder of a second opposition politician within three months has caused a furore outside as well as within Kazakhstan, and Nazarbayev plainly needs to be seen to be taking action – even to the extent of accepting FBI assistance in the murder inquiry. The arrests, statements and resignations that have followed the 13 February murders not just contrasts with the secrecy that still surrounds Nurkadilov's killing on 15 November, but indicates the Kazakh regime's awareness that the death of opposition politicians is putting its own reputation on the line in the eyes of the world.

A sleepless protest

From the moment Sarsenbayev and his colleagues' bodies were found, most members of the Kazakh opposition have been sceptical of the official versions of what might have happened, and consistent in the view that his dissident activities led to his death.

These sentiments were vividly on display before Sarsenbayev's funeral at Almaty's Kensay cemetery on 15 February. A 500-strong crowd gathered in grief and protest outside the academy of sciences building, some carrying banners declaring "No to the regime's bloody 'democracy'", "Let us save our country from executioners", and "No to dictatorship and murderers".

A succession of speakers – including opposition orators, and the politician's friends and relatives – denounced Sarsenbayev's murder as a political crime. The prominent journalist Sergey Duvanov was one of those who identified a chain of suspicious killings that links Nurkadilov's and Sarsenbayev's deaths to others: Askhat Sharipzhanov, a journalist with the opposition Navi (now Mizinov) website, who died in a car accident in 2004 (the very day he had interviewed Nurkadilov and Sarsenbayev); and Oksana Nikitina, the 14-year-old daughter of an activist working for opposition presidential candidate Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, whose body was found on 20 December 2005 after she had been missing for nearly two months.

"People are being killed for their views", Duvanov told the mourners and activists; referring to the size of Nazarbayev's electoral victory on 4 December 20o5, he declaimed: "Everyone is afraid to say who is behind it, but I am not afraid: Mr 91%!"

Among openDemocracy's articles on the politics of central Asia:

Nathan Hamm, "Andijan and after: what future for Uzbekistan? "
(May 2005)

Deniz Kandiyoti, "Andijan: prelude to a massacre" (May 2005)

David Coombes, "A different kind of revolution in Kyrgyzstan"
(June 2005)

Anora Mahmudova, "Uzbekistan's window of opportunity"
(July 2005)

Hamish Nixon, "Afghanistan's election world"
(September 2005)

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Sergey Duvanov (himself given a three-and-a-half-year prison sentence in March 2003 for raping a minor, a charge he says was sparked by his criticism of Kazakh officials) voiced a theme that is becoming common among the Kazakh opposition: that the Kazakh authorities are allowing "terror" to reign. The Communist Party leader, Serikbolsyn Abdildin, found himself in unlikely agreement with the liberal-democratic politicians around him: "We have to rebel against this politics of fear, creeping terror and now political extermination."

A former prime minister, Akezhan Kazhegeldin – who leads the Republican People's Party from his exile and in his absence was sentenced to ten years in prison for corruption – echoed the argument in a statement published on Mizinov: "Terror is the brother of corruption. It is used to settle scores with businessmen who defend their affairs, with journalists who uncover the scale of corruption and with politicians who go into open warfare with the system."

Kazhegeldin even compared modern Kazakhstan to the Soviet Union under Stalin: "Altynbek Sarsenbayev was a leader of the generation of 40-year-olds who reached manhood in the years of independence. Ancient logic dictates that he and his colleagues should in time take over the country's driving-seat. However, the authorities are shooting the most worthy people – just as (Soviet-era Kazakh leader) Filipp Goloshchekin did in the 1930s."

The information and culture minister Yermukhamet Yertysbayev, a former aide to the president and considered close to him, attempted to use a 1930s analogy against the opposition by warning against jumping to conclusions about responsibility for the murder: "If the opposition hurries to declare a political murder whose every thread leads to the corridors of power, this will be no different from the verdicts of the 'trios' (the closed court of three judges at the Stalinist show trials)."

But the opposition's determination to see the truth of the Sarsenayev killing exposed will if anything be spurred by the five KNB officers' arrest. The opposition group For A Fair Kazakhstan has already called for a special parliamentary session to debate the murder and questioned Nazarbayev's ability to "(safeguard) people's lives and rights". Kazakhstan's rulers may not yet be sleeping uneasily, but the week since Altynbek Sarsenbayev's killing shows that they can no longer command the automatic consent of their people.

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