Less than a few weeks after participating with the European Union’s foreign policy and security chief in a summit on strengthening ties with the West, authorities in Astana have embarked on a campaign to shut down independent media outlets critical of the government of longtime president Nursultan Nazarbaev. Officially, the opposition outlets – including newspapers, websites, and television stations – are accused by prosecutors of fomenting unrest and calling for the overthrow of the government, all stemming from a brutal government crackdown against large-scale protests in the western Kazakh oil city of Zhanaozen last December. However, some observers say the move is a power-grab by the government, using the protests as a pretext.
After seven months of protests and a general strike seeking better wages and working conditions for workers at the state oil company, Kazmunaigas, Nazarbaev ordered the provincial government to put an end to the protest, by force. At least fifteen people were killed as troops opened fire on the unarmed strikers. “[We] watched how people were running and falling, running and falling,” said one anonymous witness. Another adds, “We saw with our own eyes how police were literally showering the people with bullets.” The region marks the one-year anniversary of the crackdown this week.
Kazakh free-speech advocate Tamara Kaleeva, head of the international foundation Adil Soz, says, like the crackdown, the government’s campaign against opposition media is an overreaction to Zhanaozen. “Our authorities were so frightened by this massive, protracted protest staged by oil workers in defense of their labor rights that they are taking steps at all levels and in all spheres in order to prevent similar unrest. They are panicking,” Kaleeva said.
Earlier this year, authorities won a conviction against one opposition leader in connection with the protests. Vladimir Kozlov, who headed the Algha! (Forward!) and People’s Front opposition movements, was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison for his alleged role in inciting the strike and seeking to overthrow the government. Another vocal critic, media tycoon Mukhtar Ablyazov, has been on the run since 2009 after a falling out with Nazarbaev. Now, the state is seeking the closure of eight newspapers and twenty-three Internet outlets linked to one of the two opposition figures.
But Astana’s zeal to paper over the events in Zhanaozen does not end there. Having effectively marginalized opposition to the government, officials in the region are seeking to literally remove the city from the map by changing its name. A proposal by a council of elders within Zhanaozen’s province requests that the city be renamed after a local 18th century Sufi philosopher. If approved by the provincial governor, the final decision on the name change would be made in Astana.
Kazakhstan’s geographic location bridging Europe and Asia, its inheritance and good stewardship of nuclear materials after the breakup of the Soviet Union, and most importantly its rich oil and natural resource wealth, have gained it a prominent place on the international stage. Nazarbaev is a regular attendee at international meetings on nuclear security, and even had an op-ed published in the New York Times earlier this year weighing in on the Iranian nuclear program.
Domestically, however, Kazakhstan remains stuck in the past. Nazarbaev has exercised near-dictatorial powers since becoming the nation’s first and still only president in 1991. He has used the nation’s newfound oil wealth to build a glorious capital city gleaming with monuments to Kazakh culture, but no doubt equally intended to celebrate and solidify his own rule. He even had a holiday declared – First President of the Republic of Kazakhstan Day – for the anniversary of his election. Nazarbaev rules Kazakhstan in the best tradition of the old Soviet Commissars.
The government cannot ban enough newspapers and Internet domains to make its violent suppression of peaceful protests and denial of basic political freedoms acceptable. Kazakhstan’s people would be better served by a full airing of the grievances that led up to the unrest, and an independent examination of the government’s actions. These require a leadership concerned first and foremost with the welfare of the people, sadly lacking in Astana. While Kazakhstan is nominally a democracy, Nazarbaev’s tight control of the press and shuttering of critical sources of information and opinion hamper the country’s development.
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