Political activists in Kazakhstan say a recent gathering of opposition parties, as well as the staging of a large political rally, marks a pivotal step in the country's civil society development. The fact that authorities ultimately allowed the political events to take place as scheduled has raised hopes among opposition leaders that President Nursultan Nazarbayev is becoming open to more political give-and-take in Kazakhstan.
It was not exactly easy for organizers to hold the gathering of political parties. At the last moment, the proprietors of the Auezov Theater in Almaty, the original venue for the congress, sought to void their agreement with opposition leaders to host the event. However, the meeting went off as planned January 19.
An indication that the gathering gained at least the government's grudging approval was its unprecedented live television coverage by a local channel, TAN. For five hours, viewers could watch and hear extensive criticism of government policy. Since Kazakhstan gained independence, the Kazakhstani government has exerted considerable influence on the content of television news and current events programming. Previously, opposition politicians had been excluded from expressing opinions on television that ran counter to the official view.
Representatives of opposition parties, movements and non-governmental organizations from all across the political spectrum attended the conference. Only pro-governmental parties, including Otan (Fatherland) and the Civilian and Agrarian parties did not participate. Meanwhile, Kazakh nationalists who are considered to be loyal to Nazarbayev held a competing rally on the same day.
The leader of the Communist Party, Serikbolsyn Abdildin, served as the moderator of the gathering. Other prominent political leaders and non-governmental activists in attendance included: Yevgeny Zhovtis, Director of the Kazakh International Human Rights Bureau; Nurbolat Masanov, the Coordinator of the Forum for Democratic Forces of Kazakhstan (FDF); Ghalymzhan Zhakiyanov, ex-governor of the Pavlodar Region, and the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DCK) co-founder; and Peter Svoik, a leader of the Azamat Party.
The chief result of the meeting was a resolution endorsing Zhakiyanov's proposal for the direct popular election of regional governors. The resolution called for a nationwide referendum to be held on the question. Under the current system, Nazarbayev appoints regional governors. Zhakiyanov was among a group of DCK leaders who were sacked in November. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archives]. According to local media reports on January 9, authorities were planning to charge Zhakiyanov with abuse of power during his tenure as governor of the northern Pavlodar region.
Growing economic prosperity in Kazakhstan is a major factor in the increasing pressure on Nazarbayev to open up the political system. The founding of DCK is just one sign that those accumulating wealth also seek a share of political power.
DCK is considered a party of young reform-minded politicians and businessmen. Among its leaders is the chairman of the Kazkommetrsbank conglomerate, Nurzhan Subkhanberdin, and the chairman of the Temirbank, Muhtar Ablyazov.
Another indicator of the larger demand for more political openness is the recent merger of three opposition parties - the National Congress, Azamat, and former Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin's Republican Party of Kazakhstan - into the United Democratic Party (UDP). The party has formulated a detailed program "Kazakhstan without Nazarbayev," the aim of which is the establishment of a parliamentary republic in Kazakhstan.
According to Masanov, the prospects for the further consolidation of opposition parties, specifically a merger of the UDP and DCK, are low. Substantial differences divide the two movements. "UDP has its structure in place in the regions, its own electorate, and advocates the priority of the political reforms over the economic program," Masanov said. "As for DCK, it is a new party still going through the stage of formation. It has a strong economic program but weakly articulated political platform."
"DCK will not ally with UDP because they don't want to be associated with Kazhegeldin," added Nurlan Ablyazov, editor of the opposition Globe newspaper.
Another very important point, Masanov said, is that the DCK doesn't criticize the president. "DCK is trying to advance reforms within the framework of the system of which they are product, while UDP is against the system itself." However, Masanov noted that if DCK leaders continue to face criminal prosecution, they might assume a more radical anti-Nazarbayev stance.
DCK staged a mass rally January 20 to build support for the new movement. Political rivals and the government sometimes portray DCK as a party of the new rich without any popular support. However, the rally undermined that assertion. According to ex-deputy prime minister Oraz Zhandosov, about 5,000 people attended the DCK gathering at Altynsarin Park in Almaty.DCK leaders advocated judicial and electoral reforms, the direct election of regional governors and other civil society-related issues. However, DCK representatives avoided criticizing Nazarbayev directly.
Ablyazov, the newspaper editor, suggested that the DCK political strategy, especially its advocacy of electing governors, could be easily frustrated by incumbent authority.
"The election of akims [governors] will not solve any problems of corruption. The idea can be easily discredited by the government through half-measures, such as electing lower akims but not regional ones, or introducing elections in an environment when the election commissions are appointed by recumbent akims," Ablyazov said. "After agreeing to a minimum compromise the government will concentrate on trying to crash the DCK so that [it] will loose its support if the idea doesn't work."
Alima Bisenova is a freelance journalist based in Astana, Kazakhstan.