The major economic strides made by energy-rich Kazakhstan during President Nursultan Nazarbaev's nearly 30-year reign often overshadow reports chronicling an undemocratic, repressive tenure punctuated by jailings and the suspicious deaths of opposition leaders, activists, and journalists.
In power since the 1980s, Nazarbaev surprised many Kazakhs and outside observers on March 19 when he announced an abrupt end to his presidency.
The one-time steelworker and former Communist Party apparatchik leaves behind a legacy of economic progress striped with despotic rule that squelched democratic norms, shuttered independent media outlets, and suppressed protests or virtually any hint of opposition to his government.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) says in a recent report that the Kazakh government "heavily restricts" freedom of assembly, speech, and religion, while democracy watchdog Freedom House calls Kazakhstan a "consolidated authoritarian regime." Its annual reports conclude that the country has become less democratic and more repressive over the past decade.
Reporters Without Borders ranked Kazakhstan 158th out of 180 countries worldwide in press freedom in 2018, while the religious-freedom watchdog Forum 18 says Kazakhstan "restricts freedom of religion and belief." The Oslo-based organization said it has recorded "increasing numbers" of people jailed for their religious beliefs.
Nazarbaev's presidency was marked by numerous suspicious deaths -- many of them unsolved -- of journalists, activists, protesters, businessmen, and politicians, as well as others who were detained or imprisoned, often on what rights activists describe as trumped-up, politically motivated charges.
In November, the Open Dialogue Foundation named at least 40 people in Kazakhstan whom it considered to be either political prisoners or living under restricted freedom, many of them bloggers.
Disappearances And Deaths
Here are some of the frequently forgotten disappearances and mysterious deaths since Nazarbaev came to power in 1989:
Nuri Muftakh, 66, was a well-known journalist who was run over in a bizarre incident at a bus station parking lot in a small town during a stop by his bus on the Taraz-to-Almaty route in 2002.
Aleksei Pugaev, a journalist focused on human rights and the publisher of the opposition Eurasia newspaper, was killed in a hit-and-run car accident in central Almaty in 2002.
Askhat Sharipzhanov, 40, a prominent independent journalist and brother of then-RFE/RL Kazakh Service Director Merhat Sharipzhanov, was found bloodied and unconscious with a fractured skull in central Almaty in July 2004. He died a few days later. Police said he had been hit by a car, but friends and colleagues said his injuries suggested he had been struck in the head before being hit by a car.
Just days before he was killed, Sharipzhanov had interviewed opposition leaders Altynbek Sarsenbaiuly and Zamanbek Nurqadilov as part of an investigative report. That report, which was nearing publication, was never found, nor were the interviews with the two men -- both of whom died of gunshot wounds months after Sharipzhanov.
Yuri Baev, the chief editor of the newspaper Talap, died after being struck by a car in the western city of Oral in 2004. He had been writing articles about an oil-kickback scandal known as Kazakhgate.
Erzhan Tatishev, 37, the head of Kazakhstan's largest bank, Bank Turan Alem (BTA), died in December 2004 while hunting for wolves in what officials said was an accident. But several politicians said suspicious circumstances surrounding his death pointed to an assassination. Exiled former BTA bank Chairman Mukhtar Ablyazov was found guilty in absentia in November 2018 by a Kazakh court of organizing Tatishev's murder.
Batyrkhan Darimbet, 54, a member of the opposition Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan’s political council and a former correspondent for RFE/RL's Kazakh Service who also served as the head of the opposition newspaper Azat, died six days after a suspicious car crash in the southern Zhambyl region in 2005.
Zamanbek Nurqadilov, 60, a former government minister and Almaty mayor who joined the opposition in 2004 and accused President Nazarbaev of corruption, was found dead at his home in Almaty in 2005, three weeks before the presidential election and shortly after saying he would publicize documents proving high-level corruption. He had been shot twice in the chest and once in the head. His death was officially ruled a suicide.
Anastasiya Novikova, 23, was a news moderator at the NTK TV station in Kazakhstan and purported girlfriend of Nazarbaev's son-in-law, Rakhat Aliev. Novikova died violently under mysterious circumstances in 2004 in Beirut, where she reportedly went to give birth. Novikova's friends and relatives formed the group Justice For Novikova and accused Aliev of being behind her death.
Oksanna Nikitina, 14, the daughter of opposition activist Yelena Nikitina, disappeared in Almaty in October 2005 and was found dead weeks later. Yelena Nikitina, deputy chief of a group supporting opposition presidential candidate Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, had been questioned and pressured several times by police seeking information about the For A Just Kazakhstan political party shortly before her daughter's disappearance.
Altynbek Sarsenbaiuly (aka Sarsenbaev), 44, was a former Kazakh ambassador to Russia who also had served as information minister under Nazarbaev. Sarsenbaiuly was the co-chairman of the opposition Naghyz Aq Zhol (True Bright Path) party and was seen as a political rival to Nazarbaev. Sarsenbaiuly, spokesman Bauyrzhan Baibosyn, and driver Vasily Zhuravlyov disappeared on February 11, 2006. They were found dead two days later outside of Almaty with their hands tied behind their backs and shotgun wounds to their heads.
Saken Tauzhanov, 37, was a blogger known for his online articles critical of Nazarbaev. His last article, published on kub.kz, compared the Kazakh administration to the exploits of the movie character Shrek. Tauzhanov was hit by a large truck as he crossed a street in Almaty in 2007, five days after he wrote that article. Police declared his death a routine traffic fatality.
Oralghaisha Omarshanova, 39 when she was last seen, was a reporter for the Russian-Kazakh weekly newspaper Law And Justice until she disappeared in late March 2007, shortly after investigating clashes between ethnic Chechens and Kazakhs in southern Kazakhstan. Omarshanova was investigating a reputed political connection to the clashes. Twelve years later, Omarshanova is still missing.
Rakhat Aliev, 52, Nazarbaev's former son-in-law, was found hanged in a cell in a Viennese prison in February 2015, a few days before he was to testify in the trial of two slain Kazakh bank executives. Aliev had been married to Nazarbaev's eldest daughter, Darigha, until allegedly being forcibly divorced from her in 2007 after falling out with Nazarbaev.
Aliev was a close ally of his father-in-law for many years and held several top posts in the Kazakh government, but the relationship collapsed after Aliev publicly criticized Nazarbaev in 2007 and announced he would run in the next presidential election.
Aliev's father, who had also fled to Europe about the same time as his son in 2007, died of an undisclosed cause in Kazakhstan one month before his son was found dead in prison. Although Rakhat Aliev's death was ruled a suicide by Vienna's coroner, an internationally known forensic specialist concluded that he had been strangled before he was hanged.
Nurbank Vice President and Chairman Zholdas Timraliev and bank manager Aibar Khasenov were reported missing in Almaty in early 2007 and their mutilated bodies were discovered years later in a metal drum at a waste dump. The disappearances came weeks after Timraliev and another Nurbank official said they had been kidnapped and beaten for 24 hours by Rakhat Aliev to pressure them into selling an Almaty bank building to Aliev. Aliev was later charged by Kazakh officials of direct involvement in the bankers' murders, but Austrian officials refused to extradite him.
At least 14 oil-industry workers and their supporters demonstrating for higher wages and improved working conditions were shot dead by OMON riot police in the western oil town of Zhanaozen in December 2011. Demonstrators say dozens were killed in the incident, while state officials maintain that 11 died.
Detained, Harassed, Imprisoned
Dozens of former high-ranking officials, businesspeople, journalists, and activists have been detained, imprisoned, and harassed, with many of them fleeing Kazakhstan during Nazarbaev's tenure.
These are some of the most noteworthy:
Mukhtar Ablyazov, the former BTA bank chairman, was Kazakhstan's energy, industry, and trade minister and is the founder of the opposition Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan. He fled Kazakhstan for the United Kingdom in 2009, where he eventually received political asylum. He was accused of embezzling billions from BTA and detained by French officials at Kazakhstan's request for three years before being released. Ablyazov's former security chief, Aleksandr Pavlov, was also sought by Kazakhstan and was detained in Spain for more than one year as he fought extradition on charges of terrorism and embezzlement.
Akezhan Kazhegeldin was prime minister from 1994 until turning critical of Nazarbaev in 1997, citing the president's autocratic ways, and resigning from his post. Kazhegeldin was prevented from taking part in the 1999 presidential election and was later accused of plotting a coup against Nazarbaev. He fled to the West in 1999 and is currently based in London. After Nazarbaev's resignation, he told Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA, that he would be willing to stand in a presidential election in Kazakhstan if it were free and fair.
Mukhtar Dzhakishev was a businessman and former head of uranium giant Kazatomprom, a position he held until 2001, when he became deputy energy and mineral resources minister. He returned as head of Kazatomprom in 2002 but was sacked and charged with embezzlement in 2009 on charges that many observers said were politically motivated. Dzhakishev received a 14-year prison sentence in 2010.
Tatyana Paraskevich, former head of the Eurasian Investment and Industrial Group, where she worked with Ablyazov, fled to the West in 2012 and settled in the Czech Republic, where she was detained for nearly two years as she fought extradition to Kazakhstan. Kazakh authorities have charged her with embezzlement and abuse of funds.
Galymzhan Zhakiyanov, a former governor, businessman, and opposition leader, was jailed from 2002-06 on abuse-of-office charges. He was declared a political prisoner by international rights groups. He left Kazakhstan for the United States after serving his term.
Vladimir Kozlov was a journalist and politician who founded the Algha opposition party in 2005. He was a presidential candidate in 2011 but was prevented by officials from running. Kozlov was charged in 2012 with inciting social hatred for supporting striking oil workers at Zhanaozen and given a 7 1/2-year prison sentence. He was released in 2016.
Muratbek Ketebaev was Kazakhstan's deputy economy minister and later was a leader of the opposition Algha party. He fled in 2010 after a violent pressure campaign against independent media outlet Respublika, where he published articles about corruption and cronyism within Nazarbaev's government. He was accused of preparing terrorist attacks. He settled in Poland, where he was granted political asylum.
With reporting by RFE/RL's Bruce Pannier and Merhat Sharipzhanov