VIENNA, Austria | On a late September afternoon, four Russian-speaking gunmen tried to kidnap Kazakhstan's former intelligence chief off a sidewalk in the heart of this normally low-crime capital.
Authorities said it was the third attempt this year against Kazakh political exiles in Austria, and it was bold: Assailants pressed a gun to the man's forehead and broke his translator's nose before cries from passers-by prompted the attackers to flee -- all within view of a local police station.
The former official, Alnur Musayev, said he thinks the men were hired by agents of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev as part of a vendetta against associates of Rakhat Aliyev, the president's former son-in-law. Once a senior diplomat, Mr. Aliyev antagonized the president early last year by vowing to challenge Mr. Nazarbayev in the Central Asian country's next elections.
Opposition and human rights groups said the incident in Vienna fits a pattern of efforts by the Nazarbayev regime to muzzle rivals. This is especially troubling, they say, because Kazakhstan is to chair the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), an intergovernmental body devoted to security and democracy, in 2010. Foreign ministers from the 56-nation group meet Thursday and Friday in Finland.
Kazakhstan, situated between China and Russia, has blossomed into the region's biggest economy. Its strategic location, secular government and substantial mineral and energy reserves have prompted the United States to seek closer ties. But critics say that rigged elections, severe restrictions on the media and systemic corruption have hamstrung the country's transition to a democratic state.
Mr. Aliyev, 45, a businessman who has served as ambassador to Austria and the OSCE, was dismissed in May after criticizing Mr. Nazarbayev's move to amend the national constitution to enable him to be president for life.
Kazakh officials then issued an arrest warrant and extradition request, citing Mr. Aliyev's purported involvement in the January beatings and abductions of two bank officials in Kazakhstan -- a charge Mr. Aliyev denies as politically motivated.
Austria has refused to extradite Mr. Aliyev, fearing that he would not be given a fair trial.
The Kazakh government nonetheless convicted Mr. Aliyev and Mr. Musayev in absentia, along with 14 others, in a closed military trial on charges of seeking to overthrow the state, sharing state secrets, running an organized-crime group and "abuse of power."
According to a recent report by Amnesty International, supporters and employees of Mr. Aliyev were arbitrarily detained and held "incommunicado in pre-charge and pre-trial detention facilities" where they were "tortured or otherwise ill-treated with the aim of extracting 'confessions' that they had participated in the alleged coup plot."
"I believe that we witnessed another display of Kafkaesque justice in the case of the secret trial against the group, which is indicative of President Nazarbayev's continued unwillingness to treat his political opponents in a civilized and fair manner," said Peter Zalmayev of the Eurasia Democracy Initiative, a nonprofit organization based in New York.
The Kazakh Embassy in Austria declined a request for comment. An official at the Kazakh Embassy in Washington said that the press spokesman was traveling and could not be reached.
Kazakh authorities have charged that Mr. Aliyev abducted two managers at Nurbank, a bank under his control plagued by financial irregularities, and then threatened to shoot them if they did not sign over assets.
Some observers have said that Mr. Aliyev turned vengeful after losing what they called ill-gotten media and banking assets, as well as his marriage to Mr. Nazarbayev's eldest daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, also an influential politician, which had ensured his place in the inner circle of power.
In a recent interview overseen by a bodyguard at a busy downtown cafe, Mr. Aliyev said he came from a system that was far from perfect, and that it was his nascent efforts to combat corruption and push for reforms that got him into trouble.
Mr. Aliyev said he was the first to propose that Kazakhstan seek the OSCE chairmanship, an idea the president initially rejected but then embraced when he realized it would confer prestige.
"Kazakhstan has a party of one; there is only the president," Mr. Aliyev said. "He controls the election commission and the judicial system. Senior officials are in his back pocket. Anyone who challenges the system becomes a target."
In 2005, Mr. Nazarbayev received 91 percent of the vote in an election that international observers judged to be flawed. The observers included monitors from the OSCE, which to date has never endorsed a Kazakh election as free and fair.
The falling-out has been costly for Mr. Aliyev: His marriage was annulled, and he has not seen his wife and three children for years. Fears over his personal security are near-constant, and while he lives in reasonable comfort, most of his assets in Kazakhstan have been appropriated by the state.
Other critics of the Kazakh regime have fared far worse.
In November 2005, Zamanbek Nurkadilov, a former minister who threatened to go public with information about high-level corruption, was found dead at his apartment in Almaty, the commercial capital, three weeks before presidential elections.
The government ruled his death a suicide, even though police reports said he was shot three times, twice in the chest and once in the head.
Three months later, the body of another leading opposition figure, Altynbek Sarsenbayev, was found along with those of his driver and bodyguard. A group of top-level officers from the Kazakh intelligence service, the KNB, later confessed to the slayings.
Alexander Krainov, who worked for Mr. Aliyev at the Kazakh Embassy in Vienna at the time of Mr. Aliyev's dismissal, said his two daughters back in Kazakhstan were detained for several months to force him to testify against his former boss.
He said Kazakh authorities repeatedly tried to lure him to the embassy premises in what he is convinced were attempts to abduct him.
"It's a regime of personal power. This is what we must live with for not being obedient," Mr. Krainov said.
At least two of the attackers involved in the assault on Mr. Musayev were reportedly former agents of communist East Germany's notorious secret service, the Stasi. Austrian authorities have said they are investigating whether a foreign country was behind the kidnapping attempt.
Mr. Nazarbayev also was tarred several years ago by a corruption scandal involving an American businessman and former adviser, James Giffen, who allegedly paid tens of millions of dollars in bribes to the president and to a former minister of oil and gas.
In a story published July 22 in the Wall Street Journal, Mr. Aliyev said the president and his aides siphoned off millions when state industries were privatized and collected kickbacks from foreign companies seeking to do business in Kazakhstan.
These and other suspicious activities alarm critics as the OSCE chairmanship approaches.
Rights groups have said that the Kazakh government has made no progress on commitments to improve media freedoms or election laws and that the OSCE chairmanship would damage the organization's integrity.
Martin Nesirky, a spokesman for the body, acknowledged some of these concerns while pointing out that the position is decided by member states and that the chairmanship can be a means of promoting reform.
In July, Richard Boucher, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Central and South Asia, said the Kazakh government had made "slow and uneven progress" and must show a greater commitment to reform by the end of this year.
By Andrew P. Napolitano
The president's men trash the Constitution to pursue antagonists
Independent voices from the TWT Communities
First over-the-counter column approved for fast and effective relief from even your worst media-induced headache.
Opinion, analysis, and musings on politics, pop culture, reinvention, and the resultant flotsam and jetsam floating around the right-of-center quadrant of the Left Coast.
Consummate traveler Todd DeFeo explores the unique stories that make destinations worth going to.
We welcome you to the intimate and personal thoughts on the news and events we, as editors, watch, read, and discuss with our writers every day.
Benghazi: The anatomy of a scandal
Vietnam Memorial adds four names
Cinco de Mayo on the Mall
NRA kicks off annual convention