‘The First Political Trial in Kazakhstan’

by Casey_Michel on 9/5/2012 · 2 comments

Vladimir Kozlov

Ten months later, the events of Zhanaozen still cloud the politics of Kazakhstan. There’s been, for better and often worse, little respite for the Nazarbayev regime — little let-up from dissident circles, little staunch in the demands from international councils for a proper examination of the events surrounding the riots of Kazakhstan’s 20th anniversary. Despite Nazarbayev’s wishes otherwise, Zhanaozen’s proven to be an issue he can’t simply paper over with autocracy and oil money.  

The trials and restitution that followed the massacre have been marred by stiff-lipped verdicts that have become far too typical of Central Asian politics. Instead of attempting any transparency, the regime trumpeted international malefactors and subversive individuals as the ones leading the riots, the ones looking to upset the established order. Astana claimed that a few rotten apples — some monied, some talented — were looking to ruin what Nursultan’s so carefully crafted over the past two decades. That was the reason for the riots. That was the reason for the shootings. And that’s the reason Vladimir Kozlov, pictured above, is currently sequestered in a clear-glass court cube, boxed as a prisoner by his own words and his long-known political dissidence.
Kozlov, for those who’ve not followed the story, is the face of the unregistered Alga! (Forward!) party. He was picked up in Januarycharged with a trio of transgressions: fomenting social unrest, setting up a criminal group, and calling for the forcible overthrow of the constitutional order. The first two carry potential sentences of 12 years, with the latter set up to seven years. All of the charges, which Kozlov’s thus far denied, carry a suitably Stalinist ring — and precedent — and it takes only a cursory glance to realize that, after years of suffering Kozlov’s critiques, authorities are only fashioning reasons shut the man’s maw. 
Per the charges, authorities claim Kozlov enjoys correspondence with the bulbous Mukhtar Ablyazov, the erstwhile Kazakhstani oligarch now pursued by both Kazakh and British authorities. Ablyazov occupies a certain mystique in Kazakhstan. He’s the shadow figure behind any of Kazakhstan’s ills, a now-foreign agent looking to destabilize the regime that’s brought such fortune to the former Soviet republic. He’s become the Moriarty to Nazarbayev’s Sherlock; he’s the SPECTRE to Nursultan’s Bond. And Kozlov is being pitched as Ablyazov’s man in Kazakhstan, with authorities claiming the former scoured a series of one-horse towns to try to recruit anyone interested in tenge and riots to give rise to Ablyazov’s malfeasance. Kozlov, says Astana, gives Ablyazov a local voice, allowing the oligarch to discredit all the progress and all the safety Nazarbayev guarantees. And that voice, especially now that Ablyazov’s anarchy has flowered, cannot be allowed to continue.
But past Astana’s veneer comes a trial, which began August 16, ringed in questionable tactic. Kozlov’s facing dozens of years for little more than editorial critique — dozens of years for having the temerity to not be the lapdog that joining Nazarbayev’s Nur Otan party would allow. (For context, the sole six security officers indicted in the 15-fatality massacre earned a combined 35 years in prison, while three times as many protesters are serving time and nearly eight times as many were convicted. Rayon authorities, meanwhile, saw no time behind bars.) Moreover, as details of the case leak, a specter of pre-judgment begins to rise. The 52-year-old received his formal charges, 1,300 pages in all, with only a handful of days to prepare for his defense. This crunch was compounded by the fact that Kozlov speaks no Kazakh, the language in which the charges were detailed.*
*FWIW, it’s still a bit strange that Kozlov runs a party with a Kazakh name, yet professes to speak only Russian. If anyone can share the reason for this, I’d love to hear it. 
There are two others picked up alongside Kozlov — Serik Sapargaly, a politician and activist of Khalyk Maydany (People’s Front), and Akzhanat Aminov, a trade union leader and activist during the strike at Zhanaozen. But Kozlov has become the public face of the newest round of courtroom politicking. As such, it is his hearing that Central Asian observers will utilize to gauge the current state of Astana’s affairs. It is with Kozlov that we can ascertain that, indeed, the regime’s hardening and self-delusion has continued, and it is through Kozlov that we examine the continued trend of who-me? responsibility Nazarbayev favors post-Zhanaozen. And it is with Kozlov’s sudden public-light thrust that we can discuss, once more, an opportunity slipped for Nazarbayev to cultivate a bit of international legitimacy. 
It is also, on a broader scale, an opportunity for international observers to continue calling attention to the soft-autocracy tactics that crop so often in the post-Soviet sphere. In light of the recent Pussy Riot populism, it’d seem that publicizing Kozlov’s plight would be easier, and that all those who carried Pussy Riot’s cross would be more than eager to shout jeremiads about Kozlov’s current plight.

But then, as all the slacktivism commentary predicted, there’s only so much room, only so much interest, for Western punditry in examining post-Soviet dissidents — despite the locals’ determination otherwise. Whereas the women, with goldfish pouts and young children now motherless, earned their acclaim through deliberately offensive technique — seriously, have you examined some of Pussy Riot’s more scatological efforts? — Kozlov has struck to a more traditional tack.* His words, his editorials, and his efforts have all cut at the Nazarbayev regime. In lieu of scream-down protests, Kozlov’s remained behind his computer, opting for word and logic rather than anything priapic.

*Plus, what would Kozlov’s supporters display instead of those technicolor balaclavas? Glasses? A bald crown and a collared shirt?
So, no, don’t expect any embassy-based protests in Kozlov’s name. Don’t expect to see any American rockers stenciling Kozlov’s profile on their shirts, or assume, despite Washington’s watchful eye, that any international media will pick up the story. Kozlov, alas, offers none of that supine sex appeal, none of that pout-faced progressivism, that Pussy Riot maintained. His work is far too staid for anyone other than small circles of Kazakh-philes to notice. Despite the efforts of those watching — and despite the actual weight of the entire affair — Kozlov will never move into pop-cult status, and will never have Madonna offering her eternal support. 
But that doesn’t lessen the trial’s import. There is, of course, little public evidence that Kozlov is anything more than a fall guy. And while that’s perhaps to be expected, it’s still a disappointment. Kozlov’s voice was one of the few independent streaks in the nation’s newspapers. His silencing is another blemish on Nazarbayev’s legitimacy, and another reason to declaim Astana’s current state. 
One of the publications covering the prosecution noted that the proceedings present ‘the first political trial in Kazakhstan.’ And while that may be a bit of a stretch — Kozlov’s merely the latest step in Zhanaozen-related fallout — it’s worth emphasizing that this trial actually means something. Kozlov’s been arrested, and is being tried, on the basis of neither threat nor calumny. He’s facing a decade away for merely offering a bit of backbone. 
As Kozlov write prior to his arrest,
The dawn of another stage in the political inquisition is obvious. There is no doubt that [Nazarbayev’s office] has this time decided not to restrict itself to cosmetic purges and threats. The course has been set to totally root out any possible threats and irritating factors.
Nazarbayev’s boots have begun rounding up the voices that, diffuse though they may be, have somehow remained outside Astana’s grip. He’s seemingly begun the process of following in Putin’s, following in Karimov’s, following in Niyazov’s footsteps. Even though he pegs vulgar language and abandoned gum as the nation’s primary ills, it’s no stretch to see where the nation’s punitive priorities lie.
With Kozlov, the specter of post-Zhanaozen fallout seems to be reaching its apogee — or its nadir, depending on your point of view. And while this may not be the first political trial the nation’s ever seen, it is rapidly becoming one of the most important. We would be remiss to ignore it — even if it means stowing our balaclavas for a spell, and publicizing someone whose work actually owns some substance. 

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This post was written by...

– author of 29 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Casey Michel is a graduate student at Columbia University's Harriman Institute, focusing on Eurasian political and social development, and he has worked with both International Crisis Group (Bishkek) and as a Peace Corps Kazakhstan volunteer. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, RFE/RL, Al Jazeera, The Moscow Times, The Diplomat, and Slate. You can follow him on Twitter at @cjcmichel.

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Dr. Dianna Wuagneux September 13, 2012 at 10:09 am

Hello Casey,
I have read your posts with some interest. For those of us in the West who are following events in KAZ, can you please explain an expression lost to me? What does it mean to refer to “colored balaclavas” or “stowing our balaclavas?”
I know what balaclavas are, but feel that I am missing some connection to which you refer.
Also, I would like your impressions about a few issues there, if you would be open to corresponding.
My thanks in advance,

Casey September 13, 2012 at 11:31 am

Hi Dr. Wuagneux,

When mentioning the balaclavas, I was referring to the colored masks the women and attendant supporters have turned into a symbol of Pussy Riot’s plight. (A photo can be found here: http://blogs.voanews.com/russia-watch/files/2012/08/AP78010826848.jpg.) As for stowing their balaclavas, it was just a (typical) overwritten way of saying that we should put those symbols of Pussy Riot behind us in order to better focus on Kazakhstan’s current trial.

And please feel free to shoot me an email at casey.michel@gmail.com.

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