"Sultan of the Steppes" (December 2005)
Is he a new Khan? A Muslim progressive? An economic modernizer? A vainglorious despot? Kazakhstan's Soviet-schooled dictator has enough oil to make himself into anything he wants. By Paul Starobin
Last June, The Atlantic dispatched me to Kazakhstan in former Soviet Central Asia to gather material for what ran as a 5,000 word article, "Sultan of the Steppes," in the December issue. In America, Kazakhstan is known for pretty much one thing—its vast pools of oil. But this piece focused on the country's autocratic president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, and his political opponents, who were seeking to end his rule and establish a genuine parliamentary democracy.
Certain events warrant an update—namely, the killings of two prominent leaders of the opposition: Zamanbek Nurkadilov, in mid-November (by which time the article had already been published); and Altynbek Sarsenbayev, in mid-February. In between, in early December, Nazarbayev won re-election to a third consecutive seven-year term with an officially recorded 91 percent of the vote. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which had observers on the ground, declared the election flawed by faults including intimidation of opposition campaigners.
During my visit to Kazakhstan, I met separately with Nurkadilov and Sarsenbayev—as it happened, on the same day, June 14, at a five-star hotel, the Ankara, in Almaty. I was probably the last Western journalist to interview them at any length, and in light of their deaths, these meetings seemed worth reviewing. I've pored back over my interview notes. What were the states of their minds? Was there anything to suggest that they viewed themselves as targets?
Nurakadilov's death is still a mystery. On the evening of November 12, his wife came across his dead body on the floor of the billiards room of the family compound on the outskirts of Almaty, Kazakhstan's largest city. A family lawyer described two gunshot wounds to the chest and one in the head—and said police had recovered a pillow that could have been used as a silencer. Nurkadilov's colleagues in the opposition viewed his killing as a politically motivated murder, but the authorities, following an investigation, made no arrests and suggested suicide.
My notebook from my June trip records that I found Nurkadilov waiting for me in the hotel lobby, anxiously drawing on a cigarette. I jotted: "A bit nervous—bad stomach?" He was short and stocky with a red face and a thatch of black hair. I was barely able to introduce myself before he launched a lengthy monologue, starting with his biography (sixty-two years old, with a son, two daughters, and six grandchildren; an engineer by training; a former mayor of Almaty; the Minister of Emergency Situations under Nazarbayev until their parting of ways, in 2004). He segued into a rambling recounting of the "lots of arguments" he had had with Kazakhstan's president over the course of their twenty-five year acquaintance. Before the relationship soured in the early 1990s over disagreements about how to privatize state-owned property, "we were almost like brothers," Nurkadilov said.
Over the course of our conversation, Nurkadilov's accusations against Nazarbayev—and members of the president's extended family—became progressively wilder. He suggested that Nazarbayev was responsible for valuables that had been stolen from his house; for the inability of his wife, a famous singer, to get on television; and for the embezzlement of tens of billions of dollars of assets in real estate, metals, construction, and other sectors. "He is a thief," Nurkadilov said of Nazarbayev. And this could be shown, Nurkadilov said, by "secret documents" in Switzerland that he had seen. He wound up by accusing Nazarbayev of conspiring with a corrupt Russian oligarch in Moscow to start the Chechen war in the early 1990s.
My head was spinning even before Nurkadilov got around to the Chechen war. At the time, and even on later reflection, it was easy enough to file his comments under the category of a bitter man with one Moby Dick of a personal grudge against a former "brother." Intense animosities are common enough in politics, and Nurkadilov provided, at least to me, no proof for any of his accusations. I didn't cite his charges in "Sultan of the Steppes." Still, I didn't altogether dismiss his rant, either. After all, the main theme—the entrenched corruption of the Nazarbayev regime—came up in nearly all of my interviews in Kazakhstan, and not just with opposition leaders.