Follow-Up February 2006

Murder in Kazakhstan

Two of the men Paul Starobin interviewed for his December Atlantic piece on Kazakhstan's autocratic president have since been killed. Starobin comments

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.

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Paul Starobin is a contributing editor of The Atlantic. From 1999 to 2003, he was the Moscow bureau chief for BusinessWeek.

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