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The 1999 Elections

In the past five years, Kazakhstan’s political development has been marked by the government’s moves to close political space and shield itself from public scrutiny and competition from credible rivals among the domestic political opposition. The three major developments that defined this trend were the 1999 presidential and parliamentary elections, the government’s response to the “Kazakhgate” oil scandal – which implicates President Nursultan Nazarbaev and some of his close associates in the illicit transfer of oil profits into their personal bank accounts – and the government’s repressive response to the emergence of a major political movement, the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK). In the run-up to the 1999 elections, the government sought to discredit serious political opponents by prosecuting them on unfounded misdemeanor charges, and closing down or suspending private newspapers known for their links to the political opposition. In January 1999, President Nazarbaev won reelection. Nazarbaev was Kazakhstan’s leader during the 1980’s, until the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.Parliamentary elections in October 1999, delivered Nazarbaev a wholly compliant parliament. Both elections fell far below international standards.5 In the months that followed, journalists, editors and opposition politicians critical of the government became prey to increasing attacks and politically motivated criminal charges. Those who exposed instances of official corruption were particularly subject to attack.6

One of those targeted in the lead-up to the 1999 elections was former prime minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin, then a serious contender to President Nazarbaev.7 Persecution of Kazhegeldin began in 1998, when a politically motivated misdemeanor offense (referred to as an “administrative offense” in Kazakhstan) prevented him from contesting the 1999 presidential elections.8 Fifty thousand Russian-language copies of his book, Kazakhstan: Meeting the Challenges Ahead, which calls for wide-ranging political reforms, were confiscated and burned, and the Kazakh-language edition was halted altogether.9 In the months preceding the 1999 elections, Kazhegeldin and his associates also suffered physical assault by unknown assailants, harassment by law enforcement agents, and arbitrary misdemeanor charges.10

During the elections, Kazhegeldin fled the country, fearing prosecution on charges of tax evasion and abuse of office.11 He continues to direct his the party, the Republican People’s Party of Kazakhstan (RNPK), from abroad, and it remains dynamic and well-funded, even though it is unregistered and therefore formally illegal.12 One of President Nazarbaev’s most bitter opponents, he supports a popular and critical opposition website.13

Kazhegeldin has been detained at least twice in airports in Russia and Italy on requests from Kazakh judicial authorities. On September 6, 2001, the government convicted him in absentia and sentenced him to ten years of imprisonment. Local and international human rights organizations concluded the trial was flawed.

Other RNPK founding members have also been convicted on political grounds, including Sergei Duvanov and Amirzhan Qosanov (both documented in this report), and well-known political scientist Nurbulat Masanov.


While the Kazakh government has a record of preventing strong opposition movements from challenging it in elections, its actions against the RNPK and subsequently DVK should also be understood in the light of struggles among the political elite for control of financial and natural resources. The Kazakhgate oil revenue corruption scandal figures prominently among these disputes.

In July 2000, opposition media outlets supported by Akezhan Kazhegeldin and Mukhtar Abliazov,15 who would later become cofounder of DVK, began to publish allegations that high-level government officials, including President Nazarbaev and his close associates, received kickbacks from foreign oil companies, and that the funds were held in held Swiss bank accounts. [Fn 17 should be moved to here]. Subsequently, information emerged that government officials, including President Nazarbaev, secretly controlled a Swiss bank account holding U.S. $1.4 billion.

On April 4, 2002, two years after the initial allegations, Prime Minister Imangaly Tasmagambetov confirmed the existence of the account, and claimed that it was primarily earmarked for the founding of a national oil fund.16 Tasmagambetov left unanswered questions from the Kazakh parliament about the existence of personal Swiss accounts in the name of Nazarbaev and his relatives and totaling more than U.S. $100 million.

As a result of the Kazakhgate allegations, on April 2, 2003, a U.S. federal court indicted two American businessmen on charges of corruption in their energy deal transactions with Kazakhstan. The indictment alleges that James Giffen diverted more than U.S. $78 million in fees paid by oil companies to Swiss bank accounts controlled by two unnamed Kazakh government officials.17 On September 18, 2003, the second businessman indicted, former Mobil Oil Corporation executive J. Bryan Williams, was convicted and sentenced to forty-six months in prison on charges of tax evasion. The income Williams was indicted for not reporting included a kickback he allegedly received while a senior Mobil employee.18At the time of writing, ongoing Kazakhgate hearings in New York City continued to attract considerable international media attention.19 Opposition members in the Kazakhstan parliament, including a former prominent member of the DVK, have sought information from the Kazakh and U.S. governments.20

Since July 2000, efforts to disclose information and raise publicity in Kazakhstan about the corruption scandal have been led by members of the political opposition,21 and the media affiliated with it. Some journalists covering the scandal became victims of anonymous physical assaults.22 The government has closed media outlets and prosecuted journalists who covered Kazakhgate. The editor-in-chief of SolDat, Emurat Bapi, was sentenced in 2001 to one year in prison on libel charges after his paper reprinted two foreign press Articles on Kazakhgate.23 Following Vremia Po’s reprint of foreign Articles on Kazakhgate in July 2000, the government pressured a state-owned printer to stop producing the paper. In September 2000, when a Kazhegeldin-supported website posted Articles on Kazakhgate, the country’s two main Internet service providers blocked access to the website.24

The government’s sensitivity to the issue also spurred its incarceration of political opponents. In March 2002, DVK leader Mukhtar Abliazov was arrested, following publication of materials on Kazakhgate in media that he controlled. 25 Sergei Duvanov, who had published hard-hitting Articles on Kazakhgate and other government corruption issues, was convicted on suspicious rape charges in January 2003.26 In addition, research conducted by Human Rights Watch in July and August 2003 indicated that journalists and editors have increasingly reverted to self-censorship.27

In 2001, in tandem with the opposition’s efforts to expose the Kazakhgate scandal, financial struggles intensified among the political elite—including several members of the Nazarbaev family.28 For example, in advance of an auction for the state’s share of Halyk Savings Bank, the country’s largest bank, Mukhtar Abliazov and his investment group, Astana Holding, began serious lobbying efforts to gain control of it.29 At the same time, Rakhat Aliev, President Nazarbaev’s son-in-law and, at the time, deputy head of the National Security Service (KNB), attempted to strip Abliazov of some of his holdings. 30

Also around the same time, the government revealed its continuing resistance to political reform and competition when Galymzhan Zhakianov, then governor of Pavlodar province, began to make public calls for reform, including direct elections for provincial governors.31 Major Kazakh media outlets, some of which were controlled by Aliev’s wife, Dariga Nazarbaeva, and another Nazarbaev son-in-law, Timur Kulibaev, responded with a television and Internet campaign to discredit Zhakianov.32 President Nazarbaev subsequently dismissed Aliev from the KNB and named him head of the presidential security service.33


On November 18, 2001, the day after Abliazov lost his bid for control of Halyk Savings Bank, he and Zhakianov founded the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK).34 The new organization’s platform issues included broadening the parliament’s powers, establishing direct elections of regional political leaders, instituting electoral and judicial reform, and expanding media freedoms. As of the end of 2003, it reportedly had about 32,000 members.35

The central government’s response to the establishment of DVK was to immediately dismiss its members who held government posts and to prosecute others. On November 20, just two days after the DVK’s formation was announced, Zhakianov was abruptly dismissed from his post as governor of Pavlodar.36 Other DVK founding members and principals who were also senior government officials—including a deputy prime minister, the deputy minister of defense, the minister of labor, and a deputy finance minister—were also dismissed.37 Zhakianov’s four deputies from the Pavlodar governor’s office were immediately fired, and almost twenty other Pavlodar provincial and local government members perceived as DVK supporters were alleged to have submitted “voluntary” resignations in the wake of the DVK’s founding.38

In late December 2001, state authorities brought charges of abuse of office against two of Zhakianov’s Pavlodar administration deputies, Sergei Gorbenko and Aleksandr Riumkin.39 A few days later, on January 4, 2002, the same charges were brought against Zhakianov.40

Confrontation between the DVK and the Nazarbaev government was heated during the early days after its founding. On January 19-20, 2002, the DVK joined forces with other opposition groups and led large-scale meetings in Almaty, attracting about 1,000 participants. 41 At the meeting, Zhakianov and other prominent political figures delivered speeches that criticized the Nazarbaev government, and Zhakianov called for a referendum on the direct election of regional political leaders. President Nazarbaev countered on January 25 with a speech criticizing the meeting, and demanded that law enforcement agencies take steps to stop “the buffoonery.”42

The government also moved to restrict information about the DVK and its calls for reform. Television stations that had covered DVK activities, including the Almaty-based “Tan”43 and Pavlodar-based “Irbis,” were abruptly taken off the air. Publishing houses came under pressure from the government, and, and a result, refused to print DVK materials. Committee for National Security (KNB) and other security officials interrogated meeting participants in at least five provinces.44 In the days that followed the Almaty gathering, criminal charges of abuse of office and financial mismanagement were brought against Mukhtar Abliazov.45 Then, on March 27, 2002, following publication of materials on Kazakhgate in Abliazov-controlled media, Abliazov himself was arrested.46

Five months later, both Abliazov and Zhakianov were convicted on charges of abuse of office and sentenced to six and seven-year prison terms respectively, during trials that international observers called grossly flawed.

5 See “Republic of Kazakhstan: Parliamentary Elections,” OSCE [online], (retrieved December 15, 2003). “The Republic of Kazakhstan: Presidential Elections,” OSCE [online], (retrieved December 15, 2003).

6 For more information, see “Freedom of the Media and Political Freedoms in the Prelude to the 1999 Elections” A Human Rights Watch Report, vol. 11, no. 11(D), October 1999.

7 Kazhegeldin was prime minister from 1994-1997.

8 Misdemeanor offenses are violations of the Kazakh Administrative Code. In Kazakhstan these are known as “administrative offenses;” for simplicity’s purpose this report refers to them as “misdemeanors” or misdemeanor offenses.” The offense was participation in an illegal public organization, in this case the Movement for Honest Elections. Two other presidential candidates were also excluded from the vote because of administrative offenses. See Human Rights Watch, World Report 2002 (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2002), p. 325; and “Freedom of the Media and Political Freedoms in the Prelude to the 1999 Elections” A Human Rights Watch Report.

9 Ibid., p. 28.

10 Ibid., passim.

11 Eurasianet [online], (retrieved October 14, 2003). In 2001, Masanov was convicted of “insulting the Kazakh people” on the basis of an audio recording of a private conversation, taped without his knowledge or consent. The recording was then spliced into a tape of a correspondent’s “interview” questions. A criminal investigation against Masanov on the basis of this tape was quashed, but became the subject of a subsequent civil suit against Masanov, which he lost. In 2003, he faced criminal charges for not paying the fine levied in connection with the civil suit. Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Evgenii Zhovtis, head of the Kazakhstan International Bureau on Human Rights and the Rule of Law (KIBHRL), March 10, 2004. See also International League for Human Rights (ILHR), “ILHR testimony to the EU-Kazakhstan, EU-Kyrgyzstan and EU-Uzbekistan Parliamentary Cooperation Committees of the European Parliament,” June 12, 2002; Bhavna Dave, “Kazakhstan” Nations in Transit (Washington, D.C.: Freedom House, 2002), pp. 216-17; and electronic communication from Kazis Toguzbaev, director, Kazakhstan International Foundation for the Defense of Political Prisoners, October 14, 2003.

12 The RNPK has an estimated membership of 14,000, located mainly in western and northern Kazakhstan, and in the cities of Atyrau and Almaty. Bhavna Dave, “Kazakhstan,” Nations in Transit (Washington, D.C.: Freedom House, 2003), p. 313; Viacheslav Schekunskikh, “U nas dva poliusa: rezhim Nazarbaeva i oppozitsionnie sily” (We have two poles: the Nazarbaev regime and opposition forces), Kazakhstanskie novosti (Kazakhstan News), February 4, 2002 [online] (retrieved October 28, 2003).

13 This website is

14 The name “Kazakhgate” is widely used in Kazakhstan and is derived from the Watergate political scandal in the U.S. in the early 1970s.

15 Abliazov had served as minister of energy from 1998-1999.

16 The government further said that the U.S.$1.0-U.S.$1.4 billion was in the account and used to pay pensions, offset government deficits, and that the remainder was put in an oil fund. However, the Economist Intelligence Unit reported that it was difficult to verify. Economist Intelligence Unit, "Kazakhstan: Country Report," July 2002, pp. 14-15.

17 United States District Court, Southern District of New York, Indictment, United States vs. James H. Giffen, April 2, 2003. The companies included companies cited in the indictment Mobil (now ExxonMobil), Amoco (now part of BP), Texaco (now ChevronTexaco), and Phillips Petroleum (now ConocoPhillips).

18 United States Attorney Southern District of New York press release, “American Businessman Charged with $78 Million in Unlawful Payments to Kazakh Officials in 6 Oil Transactions; Former Mobil Corp. Executive Indicted for Tax Evasion in Kickback Scheme,” April 2, 2003; The New York Times, September 19, 2003.

19 See, e.g., Joshua Chaffin, “Chevron Texaco Quizzed in Bribe Probe,” The Financial Times, September 11, 2003; on October 21, 2003, Erlan Idrissov, the Kazakh ambassador in London, was interviewed on the BBC television programme “Hard Talk” and questioned on Kazakhstan’s deteriorating human rights record, including government repression linked to Kazakhgate.

20 Appeals of parliamentary deputies Serikbolsyn Abdildin, Vladislav Kosarov and Tolen Tokhtasynov to the U.S. Department of Justice and the General Procuracy of Kazakhstan, October 1, 2003. Tokhtasynov was the chairman of the DVK political council. He left the DVK to become Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party on December 13, 2003. RFE/RL Newsline, December 16, 2004 Vol. 7, No. 235.

21 See, for example, following sections on the DVK and on Mukhtar Abliazov.

22 See below, section on Sergei Duvanov.

23 Bapi was found guilty of having insulted the dignity and honor of the president, a criminal offense under Article 318 of the criminal code. His conviction however fell under the general amnesty and he did not serve his sentence. At the time of writing, Bapi was due to stand trial once again, on charges of tax evasion. Human Rights Watch interview with Emurat Bapi, Almaty, August 8, 2003; RNPK press releases, “V Kazakhstane ozh idaetsa dva gromkikh politicheskikh sudebnikh protsessa” (Two Big Political Trials Expected in Kazakhstan), August 29, 2003.

24 Bhavna Dave, “Kazakhstan,” 2002, p. 217; CPJ “Kazakhstan,” Attacks on the Press in 1999.

25 RFE/RL Kazakh Service, March 28, 2002.

26 See section on Sergei Duvanov.

27 Human Rights Watch interviews with journalists and editors representatives in Almaty, Atyrau, Uralsk, Shymkent, and Aktiube, July-August 2003.

28 Bhavna Dave, “Kazakhstan,” 2003, p. 326; Aldar Kusainov, “Kazakhstan’s Critical Choice,” Eurasianet [online],, January 13, 2003 (retrieved January 1, 2003).


30 Rakhat Aliev is at present ambassador to Austria and Representative of Kazakhstan to the OSCE. He is also the husband of President Nazarbaev’s daughter, Dariga Nazarbaeva. Aldar Kusainov, “Kazakhstan’s Critical Choice.”

31 Executive power is concentrated in the office of the president of Kazakhstan. The president has the authority to propose constitutional amendments, dissolve parliament, appoint and dismiss the government, call referenda and appoint regional and municipal governors See Human Rights Watch, “Freedom of the Media and Political Freedoms in the Prelude to the 1999 Elections” A Human Rights Watch Report, vol. 11, no. 11(D), October 1999. Opposition movements have called for constitutional reform to broaden power-sharing.

32 Serge Enderlin and Serge Michel, “Kazakhstan sous la steppe des barils” (Kazakhstan Under the Steppe of [Oil] Barrels), Le Figaro [online], (retrieved July 21, 2003); Bhavna Dave, “Kazakhstan,” 2003, p. 317; Human Rights Watch interview with Andrei Sidirov, Almaty, August 8, 2003; Kazakstan 2001-2002 – Politicheskii krizis (Kazakhstan 2001-2002: Political Crisis) (Novosibirsk: Kania, 2002), pp. 5-7.

33 Zhakianov, Abliazov and parliamentary deputy T. Tokhtasinov made these calls, for example, “Address by Parliamentary Deputy T. Tokhtasinov to President Nazarbaev, October 10, 2001 [online], (retrieved October 23, 2003); Kazakstan 2001-2002 – Politicheskii krizis, p. 7.

34 Aldar Kusainov, “Kazakhstan’s Critical Choice,” January 13, 2003.

35 Interfax-Kazakhstan, December 1, 2003.

36 He was replaced by Daniel Akhmetov. Akhmetov was named as prime minister on June 13, 2003, immediately after the May-June 2003 land reform bill controversy. RFE/RL Newsline, June 13, 2003.

37 These were Uraz Jandosov, a deputy prime minister, Jannat Ertlesaova, deputy minister of defense, Alikhan Baumenov, minister of labor, and Kairat Kelimbetov, a deputy finance minister. RFE/RL Newsline, November 19-26, 2001; Kazakstan 2001-2002 – Politicheskii krizis, 2002, p. 8.

38 Rozlana Taukina, Associated Press, “V poslednie dni ukhodiaschevo goda v Kazakhstane” (The last days of the outgoing year in Kazakhstan), December 31, 2001 [online] (retrieved June 28, 2003). Taukina strongly suggests that the “voluntary” resignations were in fact coerced.

39 RFE/RL Kazakh Report, December 28, 2001; “Obvinaiutsa v prevyshenii polnomochii” (They’re accused of abuse of office), Kazakhstanskaia Pravda, January 5, 2002. The accusations involved an illegal exchange of state warehouses, a charge which would later constitute one of those laid against Zhakianov in July 2002.

40 Khabar news agency, January 9, 2002. See below for details regarding the charges against, and trial of Zhakianov

41 Some estimates put the number of participants at 5,000. According to Mukhamedkali Ospanov, one of Zhakianov’s Pavlodar administration deputies and a DVK activist at the time, the numbers of demonstrators could have been substantially higher had the meeting been held in the center of the city. Since authorities denied permission to hold it directly downtown, the meeting location was changed at the last minute and the gathering was held in the city’s circus building outside the city center. Human Rights Watch interview with Mukhamedkali Ospanov, Moscow, May 23, 2003. The meeting was broadcast live on Tan TV, which, according to a former employee, further exacerbated the authorities’ displeasure. Human Rights Watch interview with former Tan TV employee Marzhan Elshibaeva, Almaty, April 19, 2003. Also DVK videocassette, “19-20 January 2002: Meeting of the Democratic Opposition and DVK Meeting.”

42 “Report on the criminal prosecution on the grounds of his political activities, of the leader of the political movement ‘Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan,’ Galymzhan Zhakianov,” delivered to Human Rights Watch in April 2003.

43 Owned by Abliazov. “Tan” began rebroadcasting in September 2002. CPJ, (CPJ), “Kazakhstan,” Attacks on the Press in 2002 [online], (retrieved July 5, 2003).

44 Joshua Machleder and Ivan Sigal, “Independent Media and Alternative Narratives in Central Asia,” paper presented at 4th Annual Central Eurasian Studies Society (CESS) Conference, Harvard University, October, 2003; “V Pavlodare prekratil veschane telekanal ‘TV 6X6’” (T.V. “6X6” Shut Down in Pavlodar), Internews News Bulletin No. 137, May 2002 [online], (retrieved October 28, 2003).For example, DVK supporters in Karaganda, Alkmolinsk, Pavlodar, Western Kazakhstan, and Kostanai provinces who attended the January 2002 meeting confirmed to Human Rights Watch in March and April 2003 that they and others who had attended had been summoned by these officials for “conversations.”

45Kazakstan 2001-2002 – Politicheskii krizis, p. 9. Also at this time, dissension within the DVK led to the founding of a new political party, “Ak Zhol” (Bright Way) by several members of the party executive. They included former prime minister Uraz Jandosov, former minister of labor Alikhan Baumenov, and former parliamentary deputy Bulat Abilov. “Ak Zhol” obtained registration in December 2002 and is considered “moderate” opposition.

46 RFE/RL Kazakh Service, March 28, 2002.

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April 2004