- The Washington Times - Monday, February 13, 2006

ALMATY, Kazakhstan — A top opposition leader, his driver and his bodyguard were found fatally shot yesterday in an apple orchard in the foothills outside Almaty, Kazakhstan’s main city.

The killing of a second opposition leader in three months is likely to tarnish the image of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, whose eyebrow-raising 91 percent re-election victory in December was met by congratulations, not criticism, from Washington.

Kazakhstan has emerged as the closest thing the United States has to an ally in Central Asia, after the expulsion of U.S. armed forces from a base in Uzbekistan.

Altynbek Sarsenbayev, 43, along with his usually unarmed bodyguard, Baurzhan Bekbosyn, and driver, Anatoly Zhurablyov, were killed “very professionally by one bullet to the back and one to the head,” said Oraz Jandosov, an opposition colleague who saw the bodies.

Mr. Jandosov, who with Mr. Sarsenbayev was a co-chairman of the main opposition party, Ak Zhol, said Mr. Sarsenbayev’s car was found late yesterday in Almaty.

Police said the deputy interior ministry had been put in charge of the investigation.

Three months earlier, a less-central opposition figure was found dead in his house with three bullet wounds.

Police suggested that Zamanbek Nurkadilov, a popular former mayor of Almaty married to a pop star, had committed suicide. He had threatened to disclose material proving presidential corruption, and a local journalist was fatally struck by a car after interviewing him.

This time, Mr. Jandosov said, “it seems to have been very brutal and organized, with no pretense of suicide or accident. There is no doubt that the motive was political.”

Under Mr. Nazarbayev, who has ruled Kazakhstan since 1989, the country has largely avoided the violence that plagues Russia, which colonized and occupied it for a century and a half. Until last year, no politician or journalist had been slain.

Mr. Nazarbayev took over the judiciary and parliamentary branches in 1995, retaining the loyalty of Mr. Sarsenbayev and Mr. Jandosov, who helped him implement one of the most thorough privatization programs in the former Soviet Union. Mr. Jandosov served as head of the central bank and deputy prime minister, and Mr. Sarsenbayev served as information minister, national security council chairman and ambassador to Moscow.

But abuses by Mr. Nazarbayev’s relatives, who with the president’s overt approval took control of vast swaths of the fast-growing economy and the security services, led several disillusioned Nazarbayev supporters to go into opposition.

Mr. Sarsenbayev, who once was considered among Mr. Nazarbayev’s closest allies, recalled in an interview two months ago that he had been the last of his group to break with the government.

He quit when two members of the reformist group, a governor and a former minister, were imprisoned on charges that were denounced as fabricated.

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