Domestic critics of President Nursultan Nazarbayev's administration in Kazakhstan are rising again. The opposition's revival may create an internal challenge for Nazarbayev and increase international attention on Kazakhstan's democratization process, as Astana prepares to lead the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2010.
The opposition has made its voice heard in two ways in recent days. At an October 13 news conference, two major opposition parties in Kazakhstan announced a merger, their leaders expressing a desire to reinvigorate the domestic political discourse and present a clear alternative to the governing Nur Otan party. Meanwhile, Kazakhstan's largest city, Almaty, has become the scene of weekly protests, with civil society activists demonstrating against what they say was an unfair trial that ended with the conviction of prominent human rights advocate Yevgeniy Zhovtis on a vehicular manslaughter charges.
The leaders of the two merging opposition parties, Azat and the National Social Democratic Party (known by its Russian acronym ODSP), said Kazakhstan needed a more open political system. The political process, they add, has come under the increasing domination of President Nursultan Nazarbayev's administration and the Nur Otan party that he heads.
"A new force, a new party, a new alternative is needed," Azat leader Bolat Abilov told a news conference in Almaty. "The path of the authorities -- the path offered by Akorda [the administration] and Nur Otan -- is one leading into the middle ages, a reverse path. We are offering a path forward: into the 21st century, to progress, justice and freedom, to a country where the rights and freedoms of every citizen will be respected."
With Nur Otan holding every elected seat in the lower house of parliament and dominating national and local executive bodies, opposition parties need to offer a credible political counterweight, argued Amirzhan Kosanov, OSDP deputy leader. "The authorities are now trying ever more to concentrate not only state power but also political power in the hands of Nur Otan," he told journalists. "In order to become more fruitful and effective and to achieve real practical successes in the political arena in the fight with Nur Otan, we must unite. We have no alternative."
The new party, to be called Azat OSDP, is to vote at a congress later in October on a platform and leadership, with Abilov and OSDP leader Zharmakhan Tuyakbay poised to assume top positions, possibly as co-leaders.
This merger is the latest in a long line of unions formed by Kazakhstan's opposition forces. An umbrella grouping contested the 2005 presidential elections -- when Nazarbayev was re-elected with 91 percent of the vote -- with Tuyakbay as its candidate, but that coalition later broke up. Azat and the OSDP joined forces during the last parliamentary election in 2007 before splitting up again. They came in second in the poll but failed to clear the 7 percent barrier required to win parliamentary seats. Nur Otan was the only party to clear the 7 percent threshold, which is a higher barrier to parliamentary representation than in many European Union countries with party-list voting systems.
Opposition leaders attribute their 2007 election performance to electoral falsification and media manipulation, a charge that the Nazarbayev administration denies. Some commentators say the personal ambitions of opposition leaders hindered the development of a cohesive and effective coalition. Administration officials also tout the premise that opposition disunity was primarily responsible for the former coalition's disappointing results.
While Azat OSDP will bring together some 400,000 members, not all opposition forces in Kazakhstan approve of the merger. Vladimir Kozlov, leader of the unregistered Alga! DVK party, told EurasiaNet on October 14 he does not believe the opposition should reduce its room for maneuver so that "instead of four players on the field, one remains."
Rumors have been circulating in Kazakhstan that a snap election may be called in order to prevent the awkward situation of Kazakhstan having a one-party parliament at the time it takes the OSCE's helm in January. The prospect of a poll before January now seems slim. Even so, Azat OSDP leaders felt compelled to say that the merger had nothing to do with a possible vote. "We are not going to wait and see if there are elections or not," Tuyakbay said. "Our main goal is to step up work to win the minds of people through joint efforts."
The opposition has been galvanized into action by several recent developments in Kazakhstan, including the imprisonment in September of prominent human rights activist Yevgeniy Zhovtis. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Since his imprisonment, small protests have been organized every Wednesday on Almaty's main pedestrian thoroughfare, Zhibek Zholy, with activists standing on a fountain unfurling placards reading: "Today Zhovtis, Tomorrow You!" and marching down the street. Public protest is rare in Kazakhstan, where it is tightly restricted by a law on public assembly. Activists contend that the public assembly law violates constitutional provisions on freedom of expression.
Protests escalated on October 14. After the weekly rally over Zhovtis's case -- at which some 50 people turned out to chant "Freedom for Zhovtis!" -- there was a second protest over freedom of expression which saw police move in to detain Kozlov. The protest took place at BTA Bank's Almaty headquarters over a libel case brought by the bank against the Respublika newspaper. Respublika lost the case over reporting in the wake of the bank's forcible nationalization by the state in February, and was ordered to pay $400,000 in damages -- a sum the editors say will force its closure. Kozlov, who was at the helm of the protest, was forcibly removed by police officers after resisting arrest on the grounds that the constitution grants him the right to freedom of expression.
Another factor that has energized the opposition is an initiative to make Nazarbayev president for life, which is being widely discussed in Kazakhstan. Opposition leaders are scathing about the prospect of exempting Nazarbayev from elections, with Tuyakbay characterizing it as "medieval despotism" and Abilov describing it as a "blind alley for the country." [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The idea appears to be gaining ground, and observers are watching to see how it develops in the run-up to Astana's OSCE chairmanship. With the spotlight on democratic freedoms and human rights in Kazakhstan, the opposition considers these months to be crucial in making its case for a liberalization of the political process.
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.