President Nursultan Nazarbayev took few chances with his political fortunes as December presidential elections approached, using state-controlled media to burnish his image and employing the many levers of his authoritarian government to crack down on opposition and independent news media. His government blocked the printing of several independent and opposition newspapers, seized entire press runs of publications that carried critical articles, shuttered a leading opposition weekly, and repeatedly blocked an opposition Web site. Nazarbayev, who has ruled Kazakhstan for 16 years, gained a third term in the December 4 vote. The national election commission said Nazarbayev took 91 percent of the vote; international observers said the election was marred by media and vote manipulation.
Nazarbayev said repeatedly that he did not fear uprisings similar to the Tulip Revolution in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, or the antigovernment protests in nearby Uzbekistan. Those countries, after all, did not enjoy the economic prosperity of Kazakhstan, he said. An oil-rich nation whose economy was further lifted in 2005 by rising world oil prices, Kazakhstan has boasted one of the highest rates of economic growth among the former Soviet republics, the news Web site Eurasianet reported. But the government’s actions betray a leadership determined to quell dissent and limit international influence.
Parliament, which is dominated by Nazarbayev’s party, Otan, moved up the presidential election a year from its originally scheduled date—a decision made just three months in advance of the rescheduled date. Analysts said the move was designed to catch opposition candidates off-guard and unable to put together viable campaigns.
State-controlled media provided no coverage of the four other presidential candidates but dutifully reported every visit Nazarbayev made to a hospital or factory and every speech he gave about improvements in health care or job creation, according to press reports. State dominance of the news media is nearly total. Every broadcast news outlet and most print outlets are owned and controlled by government allies or by the president’s daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva.
The few newspapers that did cover opposition candidates were subjected to harassment. Six opposition newspapers that had covered the presidential campaign of Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, the candidate of the opposition alliance For a Fair Kazakhstan, were blocked from publishing in late September. The private printing company Vremya-Print did not explain why it refused its services to Epokha, Svoboda Slova, Zhuma-Taims, Apta.kz, Azat, and Soz. The newspapers resumed publishing later in the fall, although authorities routinely confiscated copies.
CPJ research shows that Nazarbayev and his allies have long pressured printers not to publish independent and opposition titles, using politicized lawsuits, tax inspections, and criminal investigations as leverage. One week in October offered a particularly disturbing window onto press censorship in Kazakhstan.
On October 19, police in Almaty raided the offices of the Dauir printing house and seized the entire 50,000-copy print run of the weekly Svoboda Slova (Freedom of Speech), which carried an article headlined “A Regular Dictator.” The story recounted an exchange with CNN journalists in which the president was asked if he was a dictator. Prosecutors said the article damaged Nazarbayev’s honor and dignity, local reports said. On October 22, an administrative court in Almaty fined Svoboda Slova Editor-in-Chief Gulzhan Yergaliyeva 48,000 tenge (US$360) for printing falsehoods and defaming Nazarbayev, the press freedom group Adil Soz reported.
Almaty police raided Dauir again the next day, seizing the entire print run of the weekly Zhuma-Taims, local reports said. The move came without explanation but appeared to be retaliatory. In its previous edition, Zhuma-Taims had published an article on what came to be called “Kazakhgate,” an investigation into allegations that Nazarbayev and allies accepted bribes from U.S. oil companies in 2000. Since the first reports on the U.S. investigation appeared in opposition newspapers in July 2000, the Kazakh government has used tax inspections and regulatory lawsuits to harass and censor publications that have covered the story, CPJ research has shown.
On October 26, Almaty police confiscated the subsequent edition of Svoboda Slova without explanation, the paper reported. Editor-in-Chief Gulzhan Yergaliyeva said the issue carried an article on allegedly aggressive business dealings by Aliya Nazarbayeva, the president’s youngest daughter. She heads the major construction company Elitstroi.
Adil Soz, an Almaty-based organization, reported five separate instances in late October in the capital, Astana, and in the northern city of Kostanai in which police confiscated copies of opposition newspapers from vendors and other private citizens.
The same month, according to local and Russian press reports, Kazakh Internet providers moved several times to block the Almaty-based opposition news Web site Navigator, which had covered Tuyakbai’s presidential campaign. On October 13, the government-controlled Internet carrier KazNIK, owner of the “kz” domain, banned Navigator from using the Web address navi.kz and forced the site to move to another domain. Navigator took a new address in the “net” domain, but an Almaty district court ruled that Navigator could not use any combination of “Navi” or “Navigator,” on the Internet. When Navigator changed its address to mizinov.net to comply with the court decision, authorities pressured local Internet providers to block access to the site, according to the Moscow-based news Web site Ferghana.ru. The site was operational in late 2005.
Electronic harassment was in keeping with the government’s other censorship efforts. In May, the Kazakh Culture, Information, and Sports Ministry closed the leading opposition weekly Respublika Delovoye Obozreniye. The May 4 closure order arose from a civil lawsuit filed by a private citizen against the weekly’s parent company, Bastau. The plaintiff was reportedly angered by Respublika Delovoye Obozreniye‘s January publication of a transcript of an interview with Russian ultranationalist Vladimir Zhrinovsky in which he questioned the border delineation between Kazakhstan and Russia. The newspaper resumed publishing under the name Set.kz, but it was harassed for alleged registration violations, according to press reports.
Not two weeks earlier, on April 23, police in the Russian city of Volokolamsk detained Respublika Delovoye Obozreniye‘s exiled editor Irina Petrushova at the behest of Kazakh authorities who wanted to extradite her on tax-violation charges. The prosecutor general’s office in Moscow ruled that Petrushova, a 2002 recipient of CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award, had been held improperly on an expired Kazakh warrant and ordered her release after two days in detention.
Kazakh authorities have harassed Petrushova repeatedly. Although she has continued to edit the newspaper, Petrushova was forced to leave Kazakhstan in 2002 after enduring threats in retaliation for her reporting on high-level corruption. The paper has had to change its name several times—previous incarnations have been Delovoye Obozreniye Respubilka, Assandi Times, and Respublika—and has had to switch printers numerous times after government officials intimidated their printing houses.
Nazarbayev’s government moved on other fronts to silence dissent. In April, authorities enacted a law banning election-related street rallies. Opposition activists said the law was aimed at preventing the sort of popular uprisings that struck Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, the U.S. government-funded Voice of America reported.
But a measure adopted by Parliament in June to restrict the activities of international nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, was found unconstitutional by the Kazakh Constitutional Council, the Interfax-Kazakhstan news agency reported. The council determines whether proposed regulations comply with the country’s constitution. The law would have subjected the financing and spending of international NGOs to government screening and approval. Tax inspectors would have had the authority to review bank statements, leaving NGOs vulnerable to state control.
The prosecutor general’s office investigated more than 30 NGOs in the aftermath of Kyrgyzstan’s Tulip Revolution in March, according to the London-based Institute for War & Peace Reporting. NGOs protested the government’s actions as restrictive. The pro-democracy organization Freedom House called the legislative effort “a campaign against political opponents” that would worsen political and civil rights, Interfax said.