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Monday, February 20, 2017
- Kazakhstan, an oil-rich ex-Soviet nation in Central Asia best known for voluntarily forsaking the world’s fourth-largest nuclear arsenal, is carrying out an unprecedented media crackdown that will leave it virtually without any opposition newspapers for the first time in its 21-year history as an independent nation.
Last week, agents of the KNB secret police swarmed the offices of Respublika, a weekly with a strong focus on economic analysis and investigative reporting on corruption that was founded in 2000, when the country’s economic boom began. They confiscated much of the equipment and closed the office.
A court found the paper guilty of “extremism” and banned its dissemination, even online, its managing editor, Tatyana Trubacheva, told IPS in a Skype interview Wednesday.
The paper has a Facebook page and it is unclear how the government could close that, she added.
“Some of our reporters have been publishing stories in Azzat,” a long-dormant title resuscitated as a weekly for the occasion, she said. “We don’t know how long that will last.”
Ultimately, she said, Respublika, which had survived multiple attacks from government institutions, will publish only on its web site, which the government has blocked since 2009.
“We’ve been educating our readers on how to use proxy servers to get to our site,” she said. “It works quite well.”
On the same day last week, other security agents closed the offices of Stan.kz, a video news company that posts its reports on Youtube and sells them to K-Plus, a satellite television station based in London that focuses on news about Kazakhstan and whose broadcasts are officially banned in Kazakhstan, though they are widely watched on Youtube. Stan.kz and Respublika were ordered dissolved as companies.
The video reporting teams work partly from home, in Internet cafes or in the offices of a related production company, said Elina Zhdanova, Stan.kz’s director. The ban, she said, will not deter them from conducting interviews and reporting independently on the news, even if they can’t get paid.
“The government thinks we only write about corruption because we’re paid to do it, they think that if we can’t pay our staff, they will stop,” she said in another Skype interview. “But of course, we do it because we care.”
The crackdown came shortly after both Respublika and Stan.kz devoted considerable resources to the first anniversary on Dec. 16 of an explosion of violence in the impoverished western town of Zanaozen, when police fired at unarmed demonstrators.
Both accused the government of covering up the true number of casualties and ignoring evidence of agents provocateurs, as did several human rights organisations.
Yevgeniy Zhovtis, the dean of human rights activists in Kazakhstan, attributes the crackdown to a gradual weakening of the system of personal guarantees instituted by the long-time president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who is 72.
“We’re in a period of uncertainty and lack of confidence, no one feels safe any more” as different business groups manipulate the government and the courts in unpredictable ways, he said.
“The big question is, will Nazarbayev be replaced by another strongman, or will the elite produce a system of institutional guarantees like in a Western democracy, which is what the opposition has been calling for all along,” he said.
Trubacheva, of Respublika, said the crackdown might be related to the succession in another way. Nazarbayev, who single-handedly built Kazakhstan into a relatively well-managed, vibrant economy, remains broadly popular despite wide discontent over the growing corruption that puts Kazakhstan in 133rd place out of 174 countries polled in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index.
“The next president is probably going to be less popular, especially if he’s not elected democratically,” Trubacheva said. “They may not want to allow open criticism of that process.”
Respublika, Stan.kz, K-Plus and Vzglyad, another opposition weekly banned earlier, have one thing in common: all are widely believed to be financed by Mukhtar Ablyazov, a former energy minister turned fugitive banker who has become Nazarbayev’s bête noire.
Ablyazov built up Kazakhstan’s BTA Bank, spent a year in jail for co-founding a technocratic opposition party, re-took the reins of BTA and grew it to become Kazakhstan’s biggest in assets before it defaulted in 2009 and was taken over by the government.
He fled to London, claiming the government gutted the bank for political reasons, while the government sued him over claims he stole five billion dollars from BTA before fleeing. Last month, the London court ordered him to pay 1.6 billion dollars to the bank.
Ablyazov has been in hiding, reportedly in France, since February and regularly gives interviews blasting Nazarbayev’s rule. Zhdanova and Trubacheva both deny they receive any funding from him.
“Things have suddenly become very harsh and nobody knows exactly why,” says former journalist and media analyst Yevgeniya Plakhina. “We’ve become like Turkmenistan,” whose founding leader, Sapparmurat Niyazov, built a personality cult second only to North Korea’s before dying of natural causes six years ago.
“They’ve even appropriated a slogan from Nazi Germany,” she said, referring to Kazakhstan’s new motto, “One Fatherland! One Destiny! One Leader!”, which brings to mind Hitler’s “One People, One Nation, One Leader!”
But, she added, “People here are more educated, so I don’t think closing all the opposition media is going to have any effect except to radicalise more people, especially Muslims. The corruption is stifling, it’s getting worse and worse, and people have no way to get the government to work for them.”
The reaction from the West has been muted because the United States and the other NATO countries have been using Kazakhstani roads to get war equipment out of Afghanistan, said Jeff Goldstein of the Open Society in Washington.
Also, Nazarbayev has built a reputation as a champion of denuclearisation that has muted criticism of rigged elections, assassinations of political opponents and repression of critical media.
That reputation, according to diplomats and historians, rests on the false notion that Kazakhstan had taken possession of SS-18 nuclear missiles with 1,200 warheads left behind when the Soviet Union dissolved. In fact, these were always under the control of Russian forces, which eventually withdrew them with U.S. financing. They were never Kazakhstan’s to give up.
The disappearance of the weeklies Vzglyad and Respublika means the only media independent of government censorship available to people who don’t use computers are Radio Azzatyk, a unit of America’s Radio Liberty, and the Russian service of the BBC, as well as K-Plus for those with a satellite dish.