The dead bodies of 43 year-old co-chairman of True Ak Zhol party and one of the leaders of For a Fair Kazakhstan opposition bloc Altynbek Sarsenbayuly, his bodyguard and his driver with tied arms were found on February 12 on the roadside near a farm located not far from Almaty. Altynbek Sarsenbayuly and his companions had five bullet wounds to the chest and to the head. A previous version circulated by the media was that the three were killed in a hunting accident. But the leaders of For a Fair Kazakhstan flatly denied that allegation, claiming that it was a political murder. Around five thousand people gathered for a funeral ceremony held in Almaty and which virtually turned into a mass protest rally condemning the persecution of political opponents and demanding the trial of the murderers of opposition activists Altynbek Sarsenbayuly, Zamanbek Nurkadilov and journalist Askhat Sharipzhanov killed in mysterious circumstances.
The Interior Ministry department of Almaty did not dare to prevent opposition leaders from holding the funeral rally, but in Astana the police denied them the permission to stage a similar action arguing that the local government did not authorize rallies. Nevertheless, the death of Altynbek Sarsenbayuly triggered the most powerful response from political parties and public movements which unanimously condemned what is widely interpreted as a brazen onslaught on the democratic rights of citizens. The For a Fair Kazakhstan bloc announced its decision to set up an independent investigating commission on the case incorporating public figures and independent lawyers. A group of entrepreneurs issued a strongly-worded statement underlining that the death of Sarsenbayuly was an “act of intimidation” which “challenges us all”. The political Council of the Asar party led by the president’s daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva stated that ‘This tragic event should give the society cause for serious concern”.
Altynbek Sarsenbayuly, a Moscow-educated journalist, made a brilliant political career in government offices as Chairman of the National Agency for the Mass Media in 1995, minister of information in 1997, secretary of the Security Council of Kazakhstan in 2001 and Ambassador of Kazakhstan to Russia in 2002-2003. For reasons which surprised many, he joined the opposition in 2004 and was known since that time as one of the most enigmatic politicians. He was blamed by his opponents for a dramatic split in the ranks of the Ak Zhol democratic party, but he was generally recognized, even by his enemies, as a gifted public speaker and the best ideological brain in the For a Fair Kazakhstan bloc. A red rag to authorities and an uncompromising rival to some opposition leaders, Sarsenbayuly had many enemies, and there is plenty of evidence to indicate that he was murdered.
Interior Minister Baurzhan Mukhamedzhanov, who was personally charged with heading the investigation into the case, alleged that Sarsenbayuly might have fallen victim to some business or family disputes or might have been murdered by “extremists who want to destabilize the situation in the country”. It is clear that the opposition tries to use this event to raise its popularity, waning after last year’s election debacle, and to regain attention from western democratic institutions. Evidently, authorities are making face-saving efforts in order to forestall the westward opposition demarche. At a press-conference on February 16, Baurzhan Mukhamedzhanov told journalists that the ministry decided to call on FBI experts to jointly conduct the investigation into the case. The interior minister said the decision was taken to ensure the transparency of the investigation. Earlier, the invitation of foreign experts was demanded by a group of entrepreneurs. The U.S. Embassy also urged Kazakh authorities to conduct an immediate and thorough investigation.
The flexible behavior of the interior minister shows that authorities fear international resonance of the case, which stands to damage Kazakhstan’s reputation of a developing democracy in Central Asia. At the same time, the government and most of the hand-picked parliament members ignored the demand of the For a Fair Kazakhstan bloc to convene an urgent parliamentary session with the participation of the leaders of political parties, public movements, and the President of the country to debate the political situation in Kazakhstan.
The death of Altynbek Sarsenbayuly poisons the political climate at a time when the presidential power tries to reach some sort of truce or even partnership with political opponents in view of the uneasy relations with the OSCE and the Council of Europe. A few weeks before Sarsenbayuly’s death, president Nazarbayev had talks with Alikhan Baymenov, the chairman of the Ak Zhol party, and discussed prospects of partnership with him. But Baymenov is among the very few political leaders who share some common views with the ruling elite.