By Roger N. McDermott (03/08/2006 issue of the CACI Analyst)

BACKGROUND:On February 11 Sarsenbayev was stopped in a Toyota Camry car at around 9 PM in an Almaty district. He was kidnapped along with his driver and bodyguard, and taken to the city district known as Malaya Stanitsa. All three individuals were murdered shortly afterwards. As the investigation into these events unfolded, it became known that five individual allegedly involved were officers in the Arystan special unit. When this was publicly disclosed by the NSC press service on February 21, resignations were inevitable, despite its later clarification that that this involvement relates only to the kidnapping itself not the murders.

Dutbayev, 50, in his role as NSC chairman reported directly to the president. Since his appointment in December 2001, Nazarbayev has relied on Dutbayev to head the agency tasked with protecting the country from international terrorism. His resignation, coming suddenly in the middle of the publicity surrounding these events, has rocked the usually steady inner circle of the Nazarbayev regime.

During an interview broadcast on Khabar TV on February 22 Dutbayev explained, “I believe that I have no moral right to head the NSC in the current situation and therefore tendered my resignation and the resignation was accepted. I would like to say that these werewolves will certainly get the severest punishment in accordance with the law. However, in general, the NSC\'s service and NSC officers have always been devoted to the people of Kazakhstan and to our independent country and carry out their military work with honour and dignity.” Understandably, Dutbayev wanted to defend the NSC and attempt to distance the scandal itself from the organization. Koybakov’s post, which he held since 2002, was already untenable, evoking little surprise when he offered his resignation on February 22; Nazarbayev finally accepted this departure on February 28.

Nazarbayev made speedy efforts to present him in control of the crisis. Speaking on Khabar TV on the same day news broke of the involvement of the Arystan officers Nazarbayev said forcefully, “As is known I immediately gave firm instructions to our law enforcement agencies to attract all forces to solve this crime and I am carefully monitoring the course of the investigation. The first results have been received. Irrespective of the fact who behind this crime is and who the executor, the organizer and the client of these killings are, all of them will appear before court and get the severest punishment.”

IMPLICATIONS:Nazarbayev wanted to expunge any possible trace of political involvement between his own office and the murder of Sarsenbayuly. Achieving this meant selling the idea that the officers were acting on their own, without any guidance from above, to the embarrassment of Dutbayev. The head of the Kazakh parliament’s (upper chamber) Senate apparatus, Yerzhan Utembayev, was also detained during the current investigation. Utembayev has held various posts including being deputy head of the presidential administration and deputy prime minister, and he headed the state agency for strategic planning and reforms. He was appointed to his current post in March 2004. Nonetheless, key to protecting presidential integrity in the crisis is not to concentrate on the rogue element within the Arystan, but to attack the structure itself.

The timing of Koybakov’s resignation coincided with a fierce attack on the Arystan unit from an unexpected source. Dariga Nazarbayeva (President Nazarbayev’s eldest daughter), deputy of the Majlis (the lower chamber) of the Kazakh parliament, told journalists in Astana that it is necessary, in her view, to disband the Arystan unit and sack the current leadership of the NSC. “I believe that it is necessary not only to disband the Arystan special unit but dismiss the NSC’s leadership. In this case, the service (Arystan) discredited itself. If this is a contract killing (the murder of politician Altynbek Sarsenbayuly) which it went for and used all its existing resources and professional training to fulfil such a task, which is clearly criminal, then there is something wrong with our national security service agencies,” Nazarbayeva noted.

Arystan’s unwanted attention, thrust into the spotlight for the wrong reasons, exposes the elite Kazakhstani unit to ridicule and raises serious questions concerning the operational capabilities of Kazakhstani intelligence. Based on the Soviet KGB, there persists within the NSC a culture of corruption and privilege that leaves enormous potential for abuse of power and wrongful use of the intelligence agencies. The recent high profile resignations could presage a more deep-seated crisis within these agencies, as they struggle to reform and cope with the aftermath of the scandal. These are the very agencies at the forefront of Kazakhstan’s anti-terrorist capabilities, which simply cannot afford the risk of protracted upheaval and a sense of crisis.

Disbanding the Arystan unit will entail careful planning and consideration of how its role and personnel will be replaced, and reconsideration of its purpose and its operational tasks. It would be a mistake to view it as a knee-jerk reaction to the present crisis, or as a mechanism for deflecting political criticism from the Nazarbayev leadership.

CONCLUSIONS:Within Kazakhstan’s military and security structures, the wrong people are often placed in key posts without adequate skills and knowledge or professionalism to carry out their job effectively. Thoroughness and high standards of professional conduct are sacrificed for family- or clan-based reasons. Dutbayev in his resignation took moral responsibility for the Arystan officers, yet how many more officers within the ranks of these agencies are prepared to abuse their position? Apparent damage has been done to the reputation of the NSC and a question mark now hangs over the future of the Arystan unit itself.

More than four years into the War on Terror and Kazakhstan taking an active role in Iraq through the deployment of its peacekeepers, Kazakhstan has displayed a genuine need for widespread security sector reform, going well beyond Nazarbayev’s commitments to reform the Kazakhstani military. Dariga Nazarbayeva has thrown down the gauntlet by admitting “there is something wrong with our national security service agencies.” Analysis of the various faults, as well as the possible remedies must be formulated painstakingly if such terrible events are to be avoided in future. There is a great deal at stake, since these agencies play such a crucial part in Kazakhstan’s national security. Sarsenbayev’s murder may provide the catalyst for reform.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Roger N. McDermott is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Kent at Canterbury (UK) and a Senior Fellow in Eurasian Military Studies, Jamestown Foundation, Washington, D.C.