- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 2, 2006

ALMATY, Kazakhstan — When the govern-ment announced two years ago that it wanted to serve a rotating one-year term as chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2009, there were grounds to think that President Nursultan Nazarbayev was ready to carry out his promises to democratize this Central Asian republic the size of Western Europe.

After all, he was known as the shrewdest of the post-Soviet leaders, a man of peace who had earned U.S. plaudits for encouraging the removal of Soviet nuclear weapons from his country and founded an international organization designed to foster religious tolerance — a hallmark of his rule over a country that is half Russian Orthodox, half Sunni Muslim.

Winning the chairmanship would have been a remarkable feat of persuasion because the OSCE is the region’s premier democracy-fostering organization, and only member countries with impeccable democratic credentials had been elected — always by consensus — to the position.

For the past two years, Mr. Nazarbayev had made the chairmanship a top priority of his foreign policy, along with joining the World Trade Organization. The controlled Kazakh press regularly trumpets these goals.

“Every time I go to the Foreign Ministry, they want to talk about the OSCE,” said a senior Western diplomat who declined to be identified.

Today, Kazakhstan’s candidacy to lead the OSCE is in shambles. “They have virtually no chance,” said Victor-Yves Ghebali of Geneva’s Graduate School of International Studies, who closely follows the OSCE.

Opposition foiled

Gone with the candidacy, which is to be announced in December, are Western hopes that it would have emboldened the few pro-democracy senior officials in high government posts and prodded Mr. Nazarbayev, 65, into taking a tolerant attitude toward his opposition, as European and American diplomats have been urging for years.

Mr. Nazarbayev received the first blow to his hopes in the September 2003 parliamentary elections. The president had lured a longtime former information minister, Altynbek Sarsenbayev, to return to his old job, promising that the election would be free and fair.

Mr. Sarsenbayev, 43, was one of a dozen young senior officials the president had hired in the 1990s to implement the successful economic reforms that turned a moribund economy into a powerhouse in just more than a decade.

In 2001, some of these officials, angry at perceived abuses by Rakhat Aliyev, husband of Mr. Nazarbayev’s daughter Dariga, charged that Mr. Aliyev used his post in the successor of the communist State Security Service to amass a business empire.

These foes of the president’s son-in-law created an opposition focused on bringing Western-style democratic reforms and curbing corruption. Some were fired. Others, like Mr. Sarsenbayev, held on for a while and eventually quit.

But the parliamentary election, far from an improvement, was riddled with fraud, according to the OSCE, which is the world’s largest and most sophisticated election-monitoring organization.

Instead of bringing an increase of opposition members of parliament, it resulted in their complete shutout, and Mr. Sarsenbayev left the government a second time.

International doubts

In November, Zamanbek Nurkadilov, an older opposition leader and former mayor of Almaty — Kazakhstan’s former capital, where most foreign embassies remain despite the 1998 shift of government to Astana — was found dead at his home, with two flesh wounds to the chest and one, fatal, to the head.

The verdict of suicide met with broad skepticism, notably because Mr. Nurkadilov had threatened to reveal “deathly compromising” documents implicating the president.

Then came the December presidential election, which Mr. Nazarbayev had promised would be a major step forward. But instead of the 70 percent victory pollsters had expected, the official results gave the president 91 percent. The OSCE found that 42 percent of polling places failed to count ballots transparently.

“What do you do with a man who steals an election that was already his?” asked an exasperated European diplomat.

In January, the OSCE candidacy was still alive. The U.S. position was that although it had not made a final decision, “the OSCE chairmanship must be held by a nation with demonstrated leadership” in implementing democratic practices.

The White House, say diplomatic sources, has resisted requests for an official visit by Mr. Nazarbayev to Washington — the first in six years. Still, the Bush administration made a conciliatory gesture by sending Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns to Mr. Nazarbayev’s inauguration.

Britain and the Netherlands were among European powers advocating nonrecognition of Kazakhstan’s December elections, while France and Germany were hedging, diplomats said. The European Union is expected to eventually take a common position.

Although Kazakhstan’s chairmanship of the OSCE would not give it the means to influence the election-monitoring unit that has given it failing grades for the past 15 years, OSCE conflict resolution could be impaired in case of trouble in Central Asia.

OSCE officials had tried hard to get President Askar Akayev of Kyrgyzstan, one of Kazakhstan’s neighbors to the south, to negotiate with the growing opposition to his rule before his overthrow on March 24 last year.

“But I can hardly see a Kazakh envoy doing that when Kazakhstan routinely harasses its own opposition,” Mr. Ghebali said. “And of all the 55 OSCE countries, the Central Asian ones are the most unstable.”

Killings ‘investigated’

It was in this context that the Feb. 1 slaying of Mr. Sarsenbayev, the former information minister active in the opposition, sent shock waves across Kazakhstan.

He, his driver and his unarmed bodyguard were forced to lie down in a snow-covered apple orchard outside Almaty before they were shot without resistance, police said.

Nothing like that had ever happened in modern Kazakhstan.

Within days, police had arrested five members of the elite Arystan unit, a sort of Kazakhstan SWAT team. They admitted kidnapping the three but said they turned them over to Rustam Ibragimov, the former military officer who hired them. Kazakh authorities say Mr. Ibragimov drove Mr. Sarsenbayev and the two others to the orchard and pulled the trigger.

“If they come up with a credible person who ordered these murders, they can still salvage the [OSCE] chairmanship,” said a European diplomat at the time.

Instead, the authorities announced the arrest of Yerzhan Utembayev, a mild-mannered economist with reformist views who served as chief of staff of the country’s second-ranking official, Senate President Nurtai Abykayev, who is Mr. Nazarbayev’s most trusted aide.

The economist, in remarks that echoed the show trials of the Stalin era, confessed to having acted alone in commissioning the killing of Mr. Sarsenbayev and his two aides for $100,000. He reportedly said he had done it because Mr. Sarsenbayev had offended him in an article. The interior minister said the investigation was complete.

Heavy-handed threats

Interviews with Kazakh citizens and respected political commentators such as Yevgeny Zhovtis, president of the Kazakhstan International Bureau of Human Rights, suggest the Utembayev confession has few believers.

Then, opposition Web sites began circulating a text, thought to be written by people close to Mr. Utembayev’s boss, the Senate president, saying the five soldiers had been ordered to carry out the kidnapping by none other than Mr. Aliyev, the president’s son-in-law.

Mr. Aliyev circulated a response, hotly denying the charges.

On Tuesday, six opposition figures were jailed for five to 15 days on charges of having held an unauthorized demonstration Sunday — a memorial service for Mr. Sarsenbayev at the same place where he had lain in state before his funeral.

In a speech Wednesday, Mr. Nazarbayev said that integration with Russia was the main objective of his foes. He called on the security forces to be “even more severe” with “strong-willed, ambitious men” who threaten Kazakhstan’s democracy.

After the speech, prosecutors appealed the five-day sentence imposed on one of the opposition leaders, Bulat Abilov, and the judged raised it to 15 days.

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