Wednesday, 24 April 2002

KAZAKH OPPOSITION OVERPLAYS ITS HAND, FACES REPRESSION

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By Alima Bissenova (4/24/2002 issue of the CACI Analyst)

BACKGROUND: Political tensions in Kazakhstan have been escalating since last November when  reform-minded officials and prominent businessmen founded a new political movement, the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan. Several senior Kazakhstani government officials were subsequently fired including deputy Prime Minister Uraz Zhandosov and Labour Minister Alikhan Baymenov, as a result of their participation in Democratic Choice. Their sacking precipitated the current government crisis.

BACKGROUND: Political tensions in Kazakhstan have been escalating since last November when  reform-minded officials and prominent businessmen founded a new political movement, the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan. Several senior Kazakhstani government officials were subsequently fired including deputy Prime Minister Uraz Zhandosov and Labour Minister Alikhan Baymenov, as a result of their participation in Democratic Choice. Their sacking precipitated the current government crisis. Growing economic prosperity in Kazakhstan was a major factor in creation of the DCK and its pressuring Nazarbayev to open up the political system. The founding of DCK seemed to prove the old rule that those who have accumulated wealth also seek a share of political power, as many prominent business leaders also embraced the movement.  Among them were the chairmen of the three major Kazakh banks: Nurzhan Subkhanberdin, Chairman of the Kazkommertzbank conglomerate, Muhtar Ablyazov, chairman of the Temirbank, and Yerzhan Tatishev, Chairman of the TuranAlembank.  Stating that the political reforms are dragging behind the economic transition, DCK leaders advocated judicial and electoral reforms, the direct election of local government, and freedom of the press. The emergence of the new party heated up the political atmosphere in the country and also revitalized the activity of older oppositional parties, three of which—the National Congress, Azamat, and former Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin’s Republican Party—announced their merger into the United Democratic Party (UDP). The party has formulated a detailed program, “Kazakhstan without Nazarbayev,” the goal of which is the establishment of a parliamentary form of government. A coalition between oppositional forces became feasible when all parties joined with the DCK to stage a large political rally in Almaty on January 19. The rally was broadcast live by a local television channel, TAN, and for five hours Almaty citizens could see unprecedented and extensive criticism of government policy and Nazarbayev personally.

IMPLICATIONS: The specter of the alliance between DCK and Kazhegeldin’s opposition unnerved Nazarbayev’s regime, which did its best co-opt the Democratic Choice members.  Nazarbayev after January 19th called for “strict measures” to end the unconstructive criticism of the government that he said would destabilize the country. The government has since extended considerable effort to divide DCK. As a result of government pressure, most DCK leaders joined a new moderate party “Akzhol,” which declared it would work on reforms with Nazarbayev.  Following the President’s warning to businessmen not to engage in politics, several business leaders, initially in support of  DCK,  also hurried to distance themselves from the movement. Tatishev and Nurlan Smagulov, head of the Kazakhstan Food Corporation, have announced they will cease all political activities. “The very decision to join the DCK was originally taken by all banks somewhat spontaneously,”  Tatishev said in an April 1 television interview. “Taking part directly or indirectly… in various political movements is not correct with respect to the professional form of business.” As a concession to the DCK,  Nazarbayev nevertheless dismissed his son-in-law Rakhat Aliyev from  the government. Many DCK leaders were weary of Aliyev’s blunt use of his connection with the president to silence both political and business competitors.  However, cutting the DCK down to size did not address the challenge posed by the rejuvenated old opposition.  The government therefore has resorted to harsh reprisals against the DCK’s two remaining founders, beginning with the arrest of former Minister of Trade and  Economy Mukhtar Ablyazov on March 27. On March 29, another DCK leader Ghalymzhan Zhakyanov, former governor of the Pavlodar region, took refuge in the French embassy, creating an unprecedented diplomatic standoff. Zhakyanov left the embassy only when he received assurance from the authorities, as well as the American, British, French and German diplomats, that he would not be arrested before the trial.  An arrest warrant for Zhakyanov had apparently been issued shortly after he returned to Kazakhstan from a March trip to Paris, where he met with Kazhegeldin to discuss a political alliance against Nazarbayev.  Kazhegeldin remains the major irreconcilable rival for Nazarbayev, able to garner support both at home and abroad. After Kazhegeldin came forward with his candidacy in the 1999 Presidential elections, a criminal prosecution was initiated against him. He was forced to flee the country but was tried in absentia on corruption charges and convicted to 10 years of imprisonment. Kazhegeldin, in turn, also publicly accused Nazarbayev of corruption and  managed to conduct a broad campaign to dilute the President’s authority, drawing public attention to an investigation of his and his family’s alleged Swiss bank accounts. Kazakhstani officials long refused to comment on the charges of appropriating public funds and taking bribes from the oil companies, but incumbent Prime Minister Tasmaghambetov recently had to come up with an answer to the Parliament’s inquiry about the alleged secret bank accounts. He admitted the existence of a secret government fund in Switzerland but denied that Nazarbayev has any personal bank accounts or holdings abroad.  The Prime Minister said that a secret foreign national bank account was established in 1996 after the Kazakh government received $1billion from the sale of a 20 percent stake in the Tengiz oil field. According to Tasmaghambetov, transferring those funds to Kazakhstan at the time would have created  massive inflation. The Prime Minister said that this secret national fund was used to pay pensions and to withstand the Russian ruble devaluation in 1998.

CONCLUSION: Analysts close to the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan say it has lost the momentum as a party created to represent the interests of the national entrepreneurial class interest. “They should have worked gradually,” says an opposition newspaper editor. “They cannot change Nazarbayev’s regime at once. Now they went too far and lost everything…in terms of the political process we are now behind the point from where we started last November.” According, Erlan Karin, Director of the Central Asian Agency of Political Research, the regime also played against itself by prosecuting the DCK opposition,  thus pushing them into the alliance with Kazhegeldin, although the party initially did not want to be associated with Kazhegeldin.  In spite of their pledged dedication to democratic values, the opposition is unlikely to find support from the West. Given recent events in Afghanistan, fears of further instability in Central Asia will make Western democracies, the U.S. in particular, unwilling to support any process that might destabilize Kazakhstan. Moreover, the frequent argument of the leadership about Kazakhstan’s stability and prosperity compared to the harsh economic and political situation in neighboring countries may actually appeal to much of a population for whom the DCK leaders are just “the new rich” who didn’t get enough of the pie.  

AUTHOR’S BIO: Alima Bissenova is a media specialist with the Eurasia Foundation in Central Asia. She is a former editorial assistant to the Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst.

Copyright 2001 The Analyst. All rights reserved

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