Wednesday, 28 November 2012

KAZAKHSTAN’S OPPOSITION MEDIA RISK CRACKDOWN

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By Georgiy Voloshin (11/28/2012 issue of the CACI Analyst)

On November 21, the local prosecutor's office of Kazakhstan's Almaty region officially requested the provincial court to order an administrative closure of over forty print and online media outlets, including the Russian-language Respublika web-portal and the popular Vzglyad newspaper. The complaint also included the names of two television channels (K-Plus and Stan.tv) whose frequent reporting on Kazakhstan's domestic politics are widely considered as the most outspoken source of criticism of the country's President Nursultan Nazarbayev and his government, especially after the December 2011 bloody events in Zhanaozen.

According to the prosecution, eight newspapers published by Respublika as well as 23 web-sites regularly posting their content and providing a platform for public commentary are in breach of Kazakhstan's Constitution, as they are supposedly attempting to instigate social unrest and advocate forceful regime change. On the same day, Almaty's law enforcement authorities filed another complaint, asking the court to recognize as extremist groups two opposition movements, the unregistered Alga party and the umbrella public association known as The People's Front. Should this interpretation be finally adopted by judicial authorities, both organizations' rank-and-file members could be facing trials and their personal property would risk seizure.

Earlier on November 19, the Mangistau region's appeals court confirmed a previously pronounced judicial ruling sentencing the now-famous opposition politician Vladimir Kozlov to seven and a half years in prison. Despite unanimous condemnation from the U.S. Department of State and the EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy as well as multiple human rights organizations, such as Freedom House and Human Rights Watch, Kazakhstan's judiciary insisted on Kozlov's affiliation with Mukhtar Ablyazov, who is considered as the principal sponsor of opposition activities in Kazakhstan.

As regards Ablyazov himself, his situation became even more complicated after London's High Court of Justice supported the case brought up by Kazakhstan's BTA Bank against its former chairman, currently exiled in Europe. BTA went bankrupt back in 2009, when the total volume of its liabilities reached US$ 13 billion. In February the same year, the debt-ridden institution was overtaken by Samruk-Kazuna, a state property management holding controlling as much as 60 percent of the country's GDP. Later in March 2009, Samruk-Kazyna acquired a 78 percent stake in the bank, with BTA's top managers recently announcing a complete takeover by the end of this year. At the same time, the first restructuring scheme finalized in September 2010 permitted to reduce the bank's overall debt to US$ 3.7 billion, while repayment periods were extended from five to twenty years. Ablyazov, who had been repeatedly accused by the Kazakh Government of misappropriating US$ 5 billion worth of assets, was ordered to pay a compensation of US$ 2.1 billion, which could now be partially derived from the seizure of his UK property estimated at almost US$ 70 million.

While Ablyazov's legal proceedings will most likely seriously undermine his long-term capacity to further sponsor opposition groups based in Kazakhstan, the closure of media outlets critical of the current government would directly violate such fundamental liberties as the freedom of speech. The chairman of the Kazakhstan Union of Journalists, Seitzaky Matayev, already condemned the official attack upon his fellows, promising to provide all the necessary support for their legal defense. Concurrently, Tamara Kaleyeva, who chairs an Almaty-registered media monitoring organization, said that the eventual disappearance of professionally operating news and analytical resources dedicated to Kazakhstan's politics could encourage the population to increasingly use clandestine outlets, including extremist websites. Earlier in October, the Union of Journalists and the Chief Editors Club, responsible for the formulation of editorial policies in all major newspapers and broadcast media, already adopted the Code of journalism ethics, which enacted certain informal restrictions on the activities of Kazakhstan-based media.

Following the submission of its request to the court, the prosecutor's office also had to clarify its position with regard to such information tools as Google, Facebook, Twitter and Livejournal, promising that access to their websites would not be restricted. At the same time, it should not be excluded that the court might order the removal of some controversial material posted by anonymous users, all the more so if closed opposition media decided to transfer the bulk of their investigative and critical publications to social networks. In August 2011, Livejournal was already closed by a court decision referring to the propaganda of terrorism and extremism by certain individuals. Although access to the website was partially and then fully restored later in the year, some Internet users still encounter difficulties while trying to access the web-resource via official channels, including Kazakhstan's main state-controlled provider, KazakhTelecom, which is 51 percent owned by the Samruk-Kazyna Sovereign Welfare Fund. orgia and ensure support for the separatist regimes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

With reference to Zakareishvili's statement, the November 19 report from Abkhazia's

Foreign Ministry stated that "Whatever promises are made ... giving us 'everything except recognition,' ... [or] 'opening a railway link via Abkhazia,' ... we are quite well-informed to avoid falling into all kinds of political and diplomatic traps, which some would like to place around Abkhazia." The language can be considered a message to the new Georgian government that Abkhazia will not consider any initiatives except ones relating to the region's international status.

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