The Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, the country's main opposition movement, is preparing to renew the political offensive against President Nursultan Nazarbayev's administration. In recent weeks, the movement, or DCK, has taken steps to reinforce its ranks. Opposition leaders promise a "hot" autumn in Kazakhstan, saying they intend to utilize an ongoing bribery scandal to discredit Nazarbayev and press for the president's resignation.
DCK leaders announced that up to 150 delegates from across Kazakhstan would gather in Almaty on October 20 to hold the movement's second conference. They provided no precise time and location for the meeting, apparently in an effort to hinder possible government efforts to disrupt the gathering. Earlier, the DCK's Political Council announced that Akezhan Kazhegeldin, the former prime minister and a chief political rival to Nazarbayev, had been granted membership in the movement, a significant milestone in efforts to consolidate opposition forces.
The DCK conference will concentrate on harmonizing the various points of view among opposition leaders with the aim of establishing a united front against the president, organizers say. In recent months the DCK has struggled in the face of an intensifying government crackdown, underscored by the arrests and convictions of two DCK leaders, Mukhtar Ablyazov and Galimzhan Zhakiyanov. [For background see the EurasiaNet Business and Economics archive].
Following the emergence of the DCK in late 2001, opposition leaders were divided over whether or not they could work with Nazarbayev to liberalize Kazakhstan's political system, and broaden decision-making authority. Now, consensus seems to be building that Nazarbayev's ouster is necessary for the opening of the country's political life.
In an interview with EurasiaNet, Tolen Tokhtassynov, the acting chairman of the DCK's political council, staked out an aggressive position on Nazarbayev's future. "Nazarbayev should step down," he said. "Immediately."
Assylbeck Kozhakmetov, another member of the DCK Political Council, said Nazarbayev had lost the "moral right" to govern oil-rich Kazakhstan. "This has to do with 'Kazakhgate' and the political prisoners [Ablyazov and Zhakiyanov], as well as the fact that the country has some of the highest [economic] indicators in the region, but it does not share [the wealth] with its population," Kozhakmetov said. "Only between 3 percent and 5 percent of the total population, and probably major international investors, have access to the country's wealth, while the majority of the population lives in poverty."
"Kazakhgate," which Kozhakmetov referred to, is the commonly used term in Kazakhstan for a bribery scandal that reportedly involves the payments into secret Swiss bank accounts controlled by the president and his associates. Government officials have denied any wrongdoing by the president. In April, Kazakhstani Prime Minister Imangali Tasmagambetov announced the possible existence of secret Swiss accounts in the president's name, but he indicated that Kazhegeldin, who was prime minister at the time, was responsible for establishing the slush fund without Nazarbayev's knowledge. [For more information see the Eurasia Insight archives].
According to Tokhtassynov and others, the government has acted to quash public discussion of Kazakhgate, retaliating against individual journalists and mass media outlets that publish articles containing information about the scandal. To support their claims, opposition activists point to a June incident in which the daughter of the editor of the opposition weekly Respublika reportedly hanged herself under mysterious circumstances while in police custody. The group Reporters Without Borders said the young women was subjected to police beatings. Authorities claimed the victim was a drug addict who killed herself during a period of severe despondency. The incident occurred days after the Respublika editor published an article concerning Kazakhgate. Prior to that incident, the newspaper's offices were damaged by a suspicious fire.
Tokhtassynov said Kazakhgate would play a key role in the DCK's strategy to force Nazarbayev from power. He indicated that the opposition is planning an information initiative to promote public awareness of the scandal. "We aim to inform the people of Kazakhstan. We want them to know the truth," he said.
Nazarbayev critics complain that the president, along with family members and associates, have sought to increase their control over Kazakhstan's political and economic life. [For background see the EurasiaNet Business and Economics archive]. Kazakhstan's current circumstances require strong executive authority, Nazarbayev maintains. In his Constitution Day address in August, he defended his strong presidency as the "form of rule that supports the building and consolidation of an independent state, the implementation of political and economic reforms
Justin Burke is the editor of EurasiaNet.