"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.
A few hours after this encounter, I joined with Sarsenbayev at a restaurant in the Ankara. Both of us were somewhat amused by this meeting, which was not our first. Several years earlier, when he was Nazarbayev's loyal ambassador to Russia—and I was based there as a bureau chief for Business Week—we met for an interview at the Kazakh embassy in Moscow. He struck me, at that time, as pleasant and bland, as diplomats tend to be when they converse with a journalist armed with pen and notebook. (Our talk focused on oil pipelines, not the verboten subject of internal Kazakh politics.) But now, in much-changed circumstances, Sarsenbayev was a different character entirely. He was casually dressed and seemed relaxed, as if feeling the liberty of no longer being under Nazarbayev's thumb. And even with his bald dome, he looked younger than his 43 years. I easily warmed to him.
Sarsenbayev's killing, eight months later, was unambiguously a politically connected murder. On February 11, he was found shot to death in a mountainous area outside of Almaty. His driver and bodyguard, their hands tied, had also been killed by gunshots. Kazakh authorities soon afterward arrested six individuals for carrying out the execution-style murders. Five of those arrested were members of the Arystan (Tiger) group, an elite state intelligence unit. Nazarayev's interior minister recently said a senior official in parliament had planned the hit because of "personal enmity" toward Sarsenbayev.
Our conversation began with Sarsenbayev denying a tidbit I had heard—that he was a distant relative of the president he was opposing. "Honest," it's not the case, he told me. The rest of our talk focused on his mostly optimistic reading of the political climate. "Nazarbayev is very worried" about the political opposition, and has reason to be, Sarsenbayev said, because "we will continue to fight." He said "every sector of the economy is under pressure from the [Nazarbayev] family" and "when Nazarbayev leaves the country"—as opposition leaders believe will one day happen—"all secrets will be revealed" about the family's hidden control of the economy.
In my conversations with the Kazakh opposition, I often heard the complaint that the Bush Administration, its pro-democracy agenda notwithstanding, was fearful of antagonizing Nazarbayev because of his control of oil resources. Sarsenbayev's point on this score was that Washington was making a strategic mistake. "Just imagine if we had democracy in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan," he said, naming four of Central Asia's former Soviet republics. Add Afghanistan to this picture and "Iran would be surrounded by democratic, Western-friendly countries," he said, and these countries would all be open to oil-pipeline routes favorable to Western interests. And if the West continues to support an authoritarian regime in Kazakhstan, Sarsenbayev warned, the political opposition will take on an increasingly Islamic cast. Even with the oil bounty, he noted, most Kazakhs are poor.
Opposition leaders aren't buying the "personal enmity" explanation of Sarsenbayev's murder put forward by the Kazakh interior minister. Suggesting broader motives, they're calling on police to question both the president's daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, who is active in national politics, and her husband, Rakhat Aliyev, also a powerful inside political player. Nazarbayeva has said the murder was "a carefully planned action aimed to discredit" her father and "throw the country into chaos." Nazarbayev himself has decried the execution of his onetime aide as "a challenge to the whole of society."
The killings of the two opposition leaders may prove a spark for a grassroots rebellion against Nazarbayev. On February 15, thousands of mourners turned out in Almaty for the funeral for Sarsenbayev, many wearing yellow scarves, the color of the political opposition, and some bearing placards with slogans such as, "We won't be intimidated." Western media coverage of the event was generally sparse, but Bagila Bukharbayeva reported for the Associated Press that the funeral procession traveled along a prominent city street, the head of Sarsenbayev openly resting on a bed of yellow tulips. On February 26, protesters scuffled with riot police at a rally in Almaty to commemorate Sarsenbayev's death. Kazakh television didn't show the incident, according to Reuters.
Revolutionary moments seldom last long; it's possible this one will pass. The corruption of their political and business elites is for ordinary Kazakhs a fact of daily life; many, perhaps most, are prone to stay on the sidelines. It seems, after all, the safest place to be.