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Wednesday, 18 June 2003

DOES LAND REFORM MEAN NEW PASTURES FOR PRESIDENT NAZARBAYEV?

Published in Analytical Articles

By Michael Denison (6/18/2003 issue of the CACI Analyst)

BACKGROUND: Tasmagambetov appeared to have been ‘out of the woods’ on the land reform issue after his government survived a vote of confidence held by a joint session of parliament on 19 May. Calling the vote in the first place had been a political manoeuvre by Tasmagambetov aimed at securing the adoption of the government’s version of the draft land code without the 500 amendments to the bill tabled by deputies of the Majilis (lower house). The issue of land privatization has engendered an extraordinary coalescence of the disparate factions making up the political opposition.
BACKGROUND: Tasmagambetov appeared to have been ‘out of the woods’ on the land reform issue after his government survived a vote of confidence held by a joint session of parliament on 19 May. Calling the vote in the first place had been a political manoeuvre by Tasmagambetov aimed at securing the adoption of the government’s version of the draft land code without the 500 amendments to the bill tabled by deputies of the Majilis (lower house). The issue of land privatization has engendered an extraordinary coalescence of the disparate factions making up the political opposition. Some of the objections have been purely ideological or sentimental. The Communist Party opposes private land ownership in principle. Nationalist groups, such as the Alash party, maintain that Kazakh land is a national inheritance, and should not be bought and sold. The Attan-Kazakhstan movement declared that private property was contrary to Islamic law. More detailed objections were raised by rural anti-privatization groups clustered around the Committee for the Protection of Kazakh Land, and their concerns have been articulated by many Majilis deputies. The government insists that the private ownership of land, either through outright purchase or 49 year inheritable leases, is a precondition for creating a dynamic class of commercially oriented small and medium-scale farmers, capable of delivering increased production in the country’s inefficient agricultural sector. However, many farmers do not see it this way. Embittered and wary after the industrial privatization program of the previous decade succeeded only in enriching a few regime insiders at the expense of everyone else, they envisage the government’s scheme to be the green light for larger commercial enterprises to muscle household farmers out of their livelihoods. The ferocity of both parliamentary and grass-roots opposition to the draft code shocked the government. Unable to accept the Majilis amendments, Tasmagambetov engineered a confidence vote. Under the rules of the constitution, if the opposition does not obtain a two-thirds majority in both the Majilis and the Senate, the government is entitled to present its original, unamended bill for presidential ratification. The Senate, packed with handpicked Nazarbayev loyalists, bailed out the government and Nazarbayev then signed the bill in to law. However, Nazarbayev is a shrewd enough political operator to know that such constitutional sleight of hand would be insufficient to assuage opponents of the measure, hence the further cosmetic exercise of asking the (again handpicked) Constitutional Council to affirm the legal validity of the land code. They duly obliged on 10 June, which effectively triggered Tasmagambetov’s decision to resign, his work done but his political authority now plainly dependent on presidential patronage and goodwill.

IMPLICATIONS: The selection of Akhmetov as Tasmagambetov’s successor illustrates the increasing regard in which the 49 year old ex-construction engineer is held by Nazarbayev. Formerly Governor of two northern regions and a Minister of Agriculture, Akhmetov was chosen to deal with the political fallout of the imprisonment of former Governor of Pavlodar, Galymzhan Zhakiyanov in July 2002. Zhakiyanov had been instrumental in setting up Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan in late 2001 and run afoul of Nazarbayev, who then saw to it that Zhakiyanov was prosecuted for corruption. Akhmetov comes to office on a mandate of continuity, but it would seem that his immediate principal objective is to lend the land reforms greater political credibility and effectively sell them to the Majilis. Part of that process may involve making some gestures towards the reformers. The heavy endorsement of Akhmetov’s appointment by 70 out of 77 Majilis deputies clearly reflects their expectations, and the government promised to take a fresh look at the code on 13 June. One solution might be to hold a national referendum on the issue, but that would be a political gamble for Nazarbayev. Should his rural support base desert him, and urban Kazakhs take the opportunity to demonstrate their weariness of the Nazarbayev clan’s rule, then the political consequences for the president might be highly damaging. The dispute illustrates that, despite Nazarbayev’s best efforts to manipulate the legislature, the Majilis is prepared to defy him and assert its limited constitutional role. Another option, if resistance to the reforms continues, would be to call fresh parliamentary elections. However, Nazarbayev dissolved one uncompliant parliament in 1995 on the flimsiest of pretexts. To do so again would confirm both domestic and international suspicions that Nazarbayev’s priority is to preserve his own political dominance ahead of a consensual solution to an issue affecting over 40% of the population. This tactical dilemma captures the essence of an emerging political dynamic in the country. Nazarbayev appears to be in the process of trying to remove himself from the design and process of daily policy issues, preferring instead to function as a more remote arbiter between elite factions. In that sense, he would not occupy a place in the political system in which particular policies are debated, but would preside over, and ultimately arbitrate between, competing elements. The focus of political activity therefore shifts to the legislature and Nazarbayev can disassociate himself from unpopular policies, whilst his own quasi-monarchical position remains largely unquestioned.

CONCLUSION: It is ironic that Nazarbayev’s attempts to initiate genuine land reform have been derailed as much by the distrust of political elites caused by the effective theft of state assets in the 1990s, as by the content of the proposals themselves. Had Nazarbayev’s clan not been so greedy in the past, he may have been given the benefit of the doubt to fundamentally restructure the agricultural sector now. It is difficult to recall an issue that has so polarized Kazakhstan’s political classes from its population since the country became independent. Although Akhmetov, like his predecessors, will remain to a large extent politically dependent on Nazarbayev, the episode may mark the beginning of the president’s long march from active policy prescription to a form of managerial autocracy. Should the legislative branch of government exploit the resulting political space effectively, this will help determine whether it will be possible to build a more mature, open and genuinely democratic political system in the country.

AUTHOR BIO: Michael Denison is a PhD. Candidate at the University of Leeds, United Kingdom.

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