In late November, a court in southern Kazakhstan sentenced Mukhtar Ablyazov, a fugitive former banker and President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s most infamous foe, to life in prison after convicting him of a murder change. Of course, as with previous convictions of Ablyazov, the defendant was far from Kazakhstan’s grasp. A second trial in absentia and a second conviction may do little to materially affect Ablyazov, but in conjunction with other political news the news illustrates just how small and constrained Kazakhstan’s political arena is.
Kazakhstan has yet to hold an election judged free and fair by legitimate international observers. Nazarbayev, who has ruled the country since 1990, has emerged victorious against largely token opposition in all five of the country’s presidential elections. In both 2011 and 2015, presidential elections were held early. The next election is set for 2020, although some analysts suggest another early presidential election is in the offing.
With that possibility in mind, it certainly seems that the government has been clearing the arena.
Ablyazov posed perhaps the greatest threat to Nazarbayev, although a return to Kazakhstan was arguably impossible. As I noted in 2017, when his first conviction in absentia went through, “Sham or not, the conviction is the books in Kazakhstan.” Ablyazov resurrected his party — the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) — that year, but it was declared “extremist” in March 2018. Astana’s paranoia about Ablyazov led to the bizarre seizing of blue balloons (the color of the Kazakh flag) during Nowruz celebrations the same month.
Ablyazov’s murder sentence — for the 2004 killing of banker Erzhan Tatishev — came after Murathan Tokmadi, a businessman arrested in 2017 on racketeering charges, confessed to the killing and said that Ablyazov had ordered it.
Meanwhile, Ablyazov’s supporters have found it difficult to operate a party labeled “extremist.”
On November 30, a court in Almaty found Aset Abishev guilty of belonging to a banned political organization and funding a criminal group and sentenced him to four years in prison. As Joanna Lillis reported, “The prosecutor argued that while Abishev had not provided actual funds to DVK, he had in effect provided ‘information support’ by means of his online postings.”
Abishev’s trial followed other similar cases of DVK supporters finding legal trouble via their online support for the party. In September, Ablovas Jumayev was sentenced to three years in prison for his postings to a DVK Telegram group. His wife, Aigul Akberdi, is on trial on related charges.
Other opposition groups are not immune from pressure. On December 1, a court in Astana ruled that Syrym Abdirakhmanov, the leader of the unregistered Alash People’s Social Democratic Party, be held in pretrial detention for two months. Abdirakhmanov’s lawyer, Tolegen Shaikov, told RFE/RL that his client was “sued by an Astana city official and charged with distribution of false information, assaulting a public official, offending a public official, and obstructing justice.”
When Abdirakhmanov created the party in 2017 he took the name from Kazakhstan’s first political party, Alash. RFE/RL‘s Kazakh Service reported that at first Abdirakhmanov was criticized, with some viewing the party as a government initiative. Abdirakhmanov had previously been a Nur Otan member. Nur Otan is Kazakhstan’s dominant political party, the party of Nazarbayev. It’s not clear why Abdirakhmanov never registered his party, but party representatives said in a letter posted after his arrest that he’d been repeatedly detained without reason and subject to persecution.
Whether Kazakhstan has an early presidential election or not, it seems wildly unlikely for anyone outside of Nazarbayev’s orbit to make a real run at the office. New parties and associates of old foes alike have been unable to find traction that escapes the pressure of the authorities.