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Каzakhstan: how to pass a test on democracy?

Lublin, 2 April, 2012. 

In early March 2012 the international community placed high expectations on Kazakhstan with regard to the amnesty of human rights defender Zhovtis and the editor of the ‘Vzglyad’  newspaper Igor Vinyavskiy, as well as for the conditional release of the lawyer of striking oil workers Natalia Sokolova. However, the most important event and the test of ‘democracy’ taken by the Kazakh authorities was conducting an open trial connected with the tragic events in the town of Zhanaozen in December 2011. All these events received wide coverage in the international and Kazakh press, giving reasons to think about the first steps of liberalisation of Kazakhstan’s internal policy aimed at restoring the positive image of Kazakhstan and its leadership.

But the situation began to change dramatically after the prominent opposition leaders: Igor Vinyavskiy, Alia Turusbekova (the wife of the arrested leader of the ‘Alga’ opposition party Vladimir Kozlov), Irina Petrusheva, the head of the ‘Respublika’ media holding and Muratbek Ketebaev, the head of the Social Fund “Civil Activity” paid a visit to Warsaw on the 21st to the 24th of March, 2012.

The purpose of their visit was to hold a press conference with the deputy of the European Parliament Piotr Borys, as well as to take part in personal meetings with members of the Polish Sejm, representatives of the OSCE, Polish NGOs and the mass media in order to discuss the investigation of the tragic events in Zhanaozen in December 2011, oppression of the of opposition and independent media.

The second wave of political oppression

Immediately after the return of the opposition delegation to Kazakhstan, the effect of January 2012 oppression ‘’déjà vu’ occurred, when, after the meetings in the European Parliament and European Commission a wave of arrests of public figures took place (searches were conducted in the office of the ‘Alga’ party and the ‘Vzglyad’ newspaper; Vladimir Kozlov, Igor Vinyavskiy, Serik Sapargali, Vadim Kuramshin and others were all detained).

The opposition is accused of terrorism

According to the press release, issued by the General Prosecutor’s Office of Kazakhstan on the 28th of March, 2012,” on the 24th of March, 2012, in the city of Almaty, the National Security Committee of Kazakhstan prevented acts of terrorism at the stage of their preparation. The organisers of the failed terrorist attack in the ‘Femeli’ park (what is interesting, city residents describe this area as a never-drying swamp, and for this reason, virtually deserted) were allegedly: Aleksandr Pavlov, the head of the fugitive oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov‘s personal bodyguard, and Muratbek Ketebaev, one of the leaders of the ‘Alga’ opposition party. According to the investigative data of the General Prosecutor’s Office, the main instigator of this averted tragedy is Mukhtar Ablyazov.

The presentation of Muratbek Ketebaev as an acvtivist of the ‘Alga’ opposition party is indeed interesting. According to Mr. Ketebaev, after he had left Kazakhstan, for more than three years now he has not participated in the activities of the party  whatsoever. The issuing of the press release by the General Prosecutor’s Office, in fact, coincided with the attempts to reclassify the case of Vladimir Kozlov and Serik Sapargali, who were primarily accused of creating an organised criminal group, but on the 28th of March, 2012, the charges were changed to creating a terrorist group. Thus, grounds were laid down for instituting criminal proceedings against the opposition on charges of conspiring to commit acts of terrorism  and the formation of an organised criminal group.

Independent media – accomplices of terrorists?

Importantly, on the same day, the 28th of March, 2012, in Almaty, Irina Mednikova, a journalist of the ‘Golos Respubliki’ newspaper and Yulia Kozlova, the head of the Newspaper Distribution Department, were arrested by officers of the National Security Committee, when leaving their apartments for work. As it later turned out, they were taken in to testify in a closed case. After more than four hours of questioning, the employees of the newspaper were released, after signing a non-disclosure order. Daniyar Moldashev, the president of the company which is engaged in publishing the ‘Golos Respubliki’ newspaper was also arrested.

To date, Moldashev’s residence has been unknown. We only know that Daniyar only managed to leave his parents a message, in which he apologises in advance and asks for forgiveness from all, including employees of the ‘Golos Respubliki’ newspaper, if special forces succeed in forcing him to give evidence, which is convenient to the investigation. Also, D. Moldashev informed of the threats of conducting the search in the apartment where his sick 74-year-old parents live, and doing physical harm to his children. Let us remind ourselves that a year ago, almost at the same time, Daniyar Moldashev disappeared for the first time.

On the 30th of March, 2012, representatives of the NSC again brought orders to report for questioning for Yulia Kozlova, the head of the Newspaper Distribution Department, and Irina Mednikova, a journalist. Apart from them, an order was also handed to Guzyal Baydalinova, the deputy director of the company – the publisher of the ‘Golos Respubliki’ newspaper. Interestingly, Igor Vinyavskiy, the editor-in-chief of the ‘Vzglyad’ newspaper, who was released under amnesty on the 15th of March, 2012, was ordered to report for questioning to the NSC as a witness on the same day.

These facts prove that, after the recent, apparent  positive hope in the eyes of the international European community, the Kazakh authorities have continued the attack on the freedom of speech and political freedoms. It is worth noting that the charges will be raised in the case of consiracy to commit a terrorist act by an organised group of persons, which makes it possible to hold a trial privately and to update the public with the ruling after it is made.

The court proceedings on the tragedy in Zhanaozen

 On the 27th of March, 2012, in the city of Aktau, the trial began on the events in the town of Zhanaozen and the village of Shetpe on the 16th and the 17th of December, 2011, during which, according to official figures, 16 people were killed. According to the Supreme Court, voiced by the official representative of the Supreme Court Oksana Peters, the case includes 37 defendants, 188 victims and 45 witnesses. In addition, 6 public prosecutors and 12 defense counsels are going to take part in criminal proceedings.  During four hearings (held since the 27th of March), the court examined approx. 40 victims in the unprecedentedly accelerated proceedings (the trial started at 10.00 and ended in the evening with just one two-hour break). It seems that the attempts are being made to end the proceedings as soon as possible. But with every meeting in Aktau, the situation is becoming increasingly tense.

Public admission of guilt by Sokolova

The opening of the hearing was preceded by a public confession to “inciting social hatred” by Natalia Sokolova, which was regarded both by human rights activists and independent media as “extruded by the authorities.” As for Sokolova’s press conference, which was held in Aktau, on the 26th of March, 2012, in an expensive four-star hotel named ‘Victoria’, the mystery still remains: by whom, and by what financial means was the event organised?
According to human rights activist Galym Galeuov, beside the “sincere confession of guilt and deep gratitude to the authorities of Kazakhstan”, Natalia Sokolova tried to convince the audience that “the judgment of the court and the plans made by the authorities regarding my release were made in a sovereign manner and were independent of the views of international human rights organisations, and my remorse here was of a greater value than any other factors”.

Recent evidence, in turn, gives reasons to consider holding a press conference initiated and profitable for the government with the aim to influence public opinion, which would promote the condemnation of the strikers, and justify the violent actions of special police units in the days of the tragedy, and, more importantly, minimise the role of the international movement on the liberation of the ex-lawyer of oil workers.

At the same time, according to G. Galeuov, “Natalia clearly confirmed that it is the employer who should have started the conciliation procedures and initiate the work of the commission on a parity basis. She said that the government, the employer and labour union leaders must learn to meditate and listen to each other during the negotiation process, and not to put pressure on their opponents. She also stated that the country needs strong, independent labour unions, which liaise with the employer on an equal footing.”

The Union of Journalists of Kazakhstan against the closed Zhanaozen court hearings

Also, expectations of the Kazakh and international community regarding the openness of the judicial process were not met. As soon as on the second day, on the 28th of March, 2012, the court made a ruling which it denied  possibility of conducting video and audio recording during the trials in the courtroom – both to journalists and international observers, including representatives of the OSCE (Asel Nurgaziyeva, a head of the Atyrau division of this non-governmental organisation was delegated to the court).

According to the chairman of the Union of Journalists of Kazakhstan Seitkazy Mataev, “a ban on filming and recording the progress of the hearings on charges of rioting in Zhanaozen (a city in Mangistau Province of Kazakhstan) is a violation of the law… and is connected with the reluctance of the court to allow public airing of “what is being said during the trials”.

Why did the aggrieved party refuse to file cases on the Zhanaozen events?

There are serious reasons to link the above named decision with the reluctance of authorities to make the public aware of the denial of small business representatives from the claims against the accused participants of the strike. “The injured party in the majority refused to file an action; they understand that these were not defendants that burned their yurts,” – Zhaymenov, a lawyer involved in the proceedings informed He explained that the previous management of Zhanaozen encouraged entrepreneurs to set the yurts and promised, in case of damage, compensation of 2 million tenge (approx 10 140 EUR). Also,  one of the aggrieved – Nurzhan Sarbopeev (a brother of Orak Sarbopeev, the former akim of the town  of Zhanaozen) declined damages in the amount of 25 million tenge (approx. 126 746 EUR).

Earlier, the Open Dialog Foundation published a scanned copy of the acknowledgment of the Akim of Zhanaozen, in which he declared his willingness to compensate to the owners of the holiday yurts to the full value of their property in the event of damage. This very fact gave reasons to suspect that the authority of the town anticipated, and even possibly planned the sad outcome.

The form of the participation of police officers who are the aggrieved party in the judicial proceedings, is also significant. More than 30 of them refused to testify in court and stated that their claim in the form of moral and physical damage will be attached to the criminal case, which is a serious violation of the rights for defence that the defendants (the oil workers) and young people have, as their lawyers will not be able to ask questions to the witnesses and the aggrieved.

Defenders of the accused will request the disqualification of the judge Aralbay Nagashibaev: during the recent meetings, he almost completely disallowed counsels the opportunity to thoroughly investigate the details of the crimes in which former employees of ‘Ozenmunaygaz’ and ‘Ozenenergomunay’ are accused, who are sitting on the defendant’s bench. Many clarifying questions of the lawyers are dismissed, and petitions are rejected. The court clearly supports the side of the public prosecutors. This is noted both by the relatives of the defendants present at the trial, and by public observers.

The dispute at the hearings flared up also in connection of the run-through of the video materials of the Zhanaozen tragedy. When investigating the riots and arson attacks carried out on buildings during the trial, the defence lawyers demanded to run-through video materials which were recorded by surveillance cameras, and amateur video footage. However, public prosecutors explained the rejection of their inclusion in the case by stating that ther were “too vast number of video materials,” and by their intention to consider solely the evidence “that they deem necessary.”

At the moment, the main prosecutorial agents in the proceedings are the BTA Bank and the ‘Ozenmunaygaz’ corporation, which are controlled by people close to the president of Kazakhstan.


Events in the social life of Kazakhstan give rise to talks about the beginning of the second wave of oppression aimed at discrediting and physical eliminating political opposition. The opening of the case on the preparation of terrorist acts, allegedly ordered by Mukhtar Ablyazov as well as by people close to him and the opposition representatives, gives grounds to prosecute members of all social movements and independent media, funding for which is credited to the disgraced politian. Thus, it will be possible to hold trials behind closed doors against the opposition leaders.
As for the release of Natalia Sokolova, Evgeniy Zhovtis and Igor Vinyavskiy, it should be considered  an act of PR of Acorda designed to improve its reputation in the eyes of Europe, rather than a desire to enter into a civilised level of dialogue between the government and opposition. This can be proven by the fact that orders to report to the NSC were given to the staff of the ‘Golos Respubliki’ and the ‘Vzglyad’ newspapers about two weeks after the adoption of the Resolution in the European Parliament and the decrease in the wave of interest in developments in Kazakhstan. It cannot be ruled out that Igor Vinyavskiy, the editor of the newspaper ‘Vzglyad will be re-arrested, but this time he will face more serious charges.

The denial of entrepreneurs to file claims against the strikers and the ban on recording of the courtroom events proves, above all, the innocence of those sitting on the defendant’s bench  today, as well as the fact that the Nazarbayev regime wishes to limit coverage of the judicial proceedings on the Zhanaozen events in order to make the opposition guilty and maintain its own innocence.
A Ukrainian publicist Vitaliy Portnikov very succinctly stated: “Zhanaozen should have become for one of the most sophisticated and artful politicians of the post-Soviet space (i.e. Nursultan Nazarbayev), a sign and proof that everything is rotten in the kingdom of Kazakhstan. But Nazarbayev chose to build a legal right decoration on the corpses of those killed in Zhanaozen – and to forget. To forget, however, does not mean to prevent a repetition of the Zhanaozen events in some other Kazakh city, with some other workers who do not receive the money they have earned. A few incidents like the one in Zhanaozen would mean the collapse of power: considering the social and national infrastructure of Kazakhstan, the country simply cannot afford the luxury of instability. Nazarbaev, its creator, knows this better than anyone else – but he habitually turns a blind eye to the need for a change in the state in order to prevent its collapse”.

Unfortunately, the political thaw in Kazakhstan did not come. At the same time, the prospect of being absorbed by Russia following the example of Belarus or to become north-western province of China, rich in raw materials are not very attractive for Kazakhstan. The only chance to find a balance between the two geopolitical giants is co-operation with Europe, the preservation and development of its share of investment participation (40%)), as well as compliance with all the appropriate standards of civil and human rights.

The resolution of the European Parliament showed that Europe is waiting for some specific fulfilments of promises and dialogue with the opposition. Still, an almost rhetorical, but  as ever important question remains open: can the Kazakh political elite find the strength to do this? The persistence of Europe in this matter will undoubtedly play a key role.