Political Turmoil Hits Kazakhstan as Nazarbayev Sacks Top Officials
Kazakhstan's political establishment is reeling after reports of several intrigues, including an assassination plot, prompted President Nursultan Nazarbayev to carry out an extensive purge of top government officials. The source of the turmoil, according to some experts and opposition political observers, is a growing difference of opinion among members of the political and economic elite over Kazakhstan's development course.
Nazarbayev on November 21 sacked several senior government officials, including Deputy Prime Minister Uraz Djandosov and Deputy Defense Minister Zhannat Ertlesova, after they had participated in the formation of a new reformist movement named Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DCK).
DCK representatives on November 22 met with Nazarbayev and declared that the new movement does not seek confrontation with the incumbent administration. One of the movement's leaders, Kazakh Commercial Bank chairman Nurzhan Subkhanberdin said, "I told the head of state that the establishment of the DCK public movement was a normal phase in the formation of a political system in our country and that the ideas contained in the movement's declaration were in full conformity with our president's policy of modernization."
Kazakhstan's economic outlook looks bright. A mid-November analysis published by the Kazakhstanskaya Pravda newspaper said the country's oil and gas sector -- which is responsible for up to 40 percent of the tax revenue and half of Kazakhstan's foreign currency receipts -- was poised to boom. Annual oil production was expected to grow to 60 million tons in 2002, and reach 100 million tons by 2010.
Some experts say it is this prospect of prosperity that is increasing pressure on Nazarbayev's administration to give the new economic elite a greater voice in political decision making. Nazarbayev has publicly lauded the aims of the DCK, but the dismissals of government members associated with the movement indicate that the Kazakhstani president is reluctant to loosen his stranglehold on political power.
According to Nurbolat Masanov, the coordinator of the Forum of Democratic Forces (FDF) in Kazakhstan, the mid-November political crisis is an indicator that the existing political balance can no longer function properly. The leader of the FDF is exiled Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin.
"A bunch of liberal-minded officials who had worked for Nazarbayev many years left [to join the DCK] expressing disagreement with the current course of the president. It clearly shows that system has a problem, as one cannot do much even being inside the system." Masanov said.
"It doesn't matter what is their motivation-even if it is struggle for influence and financial resources-as long as their work advances the process of democratization. It is useful for this country to have an opposition," Masanov added.
The mid-November political storm is intertwined with an apparent crisis within Nazarbayev's own family, which wields considerable influence over key media outlets in Kazakhstan. On November 14, Nazarbayev's son-in-law, Rahat Aliyev, resigned as deputy chairman of the National Security Committee. A falling out between Nazarbayev and Aliyev over the latter's estrangement from the president's daughter, Darigha, was a supposed catalyst for the resignation.
At the time of Aliyev's resignation, several founders of Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan had been engaged in a public relations struggle with Aliyev, using media outlets under their control to warn against Aliyev's monopolization of media market. Aliyev reportedly controls "Alma media" holding that contains the popular weekly Kazaravan, the news agency Kazakhstan Today and national TV channel KTK. Meanwhile, Darigha Nazarbayeva runs the leading national TV channel and news agency Khabar.
On November 17, Nazarbayev appeared to reconcile with Aliyev, appointing his son-in-law a deputy commander of the Presidential Guard. Speaking on national television that same day, Nazarbayev vigorously defended his son-in-law, delivering a clear message to Aliyev's opponents. Nazarbayev emphasized that his children and relatives should enjoy the same rights as any citizen to "do business, as well as public service." In the same appearance before national TV, Aliyev said he had proven his "innocence" - without elaborating on the specific charges made against him.
According to Nurlan Ablyazov, editor-in-chief of The Globe weekly newspaper, Aliyev's resignation from the Security Council post raised hopes among progressives in the government that Nazarbayev would open up the political process. Many inside the government were weary of Aliyev's use of political connections with the president to silence both political and business competitors. However, the reconciliation of the president and his son-in-law shattered the progressives' hopes and prompted them to go public with the formation of DCK.
In its founding declaration issued November 18, DCK expressed concern "that reforms in Kazakhstan have stopped." The movement also voiced a desire to deepen economic reforms, decentralize political power and promote an independent judiciary.
The administration responded harshly on November 20, when Prime Minister Kasymzhomart Tokayev accused Djandosov, Ertlesova and others of intriguing against the president. The prime minister also announced that at least two assassination plots against Nazarbayev had been uncovered in recent months. He provided no additional information concerning the plots.
Masanov characterized Tokayev's announcement as a populist show staged by Nazarbayev in order to provide a pretext to oust the DCK members from the government. One of the sacked officials, Pavlodar Governor Galymzhan Zhakiyanov, has vowed to file suit against Tokayev for slander. Other leaders say they are preparing for the worst, including government attempts to open criminal proceedings against them.
TV and newspapers controlled by Nazarbayev's family have portrayed recent political events as a power struggle among oligarchs. This formulation has been widely accepted by the general population, which largely ignores politics as a business for privileged insiders. Because of the lack of independent news sources in Kazakhstan it will remain difficult for outsiders to figure out what is really happening in power circles.