BACKGROUND: The recent origins of the current government crackdown can be traced to the domestic political crisis of November 2001. The President's son-in-law, Rakhat Aliev, who was then the deputy head of the Committee for National Security (successor to the KGB), became embroiled in business disputes with some of the younger, ascendant figures in the government hierarchy. Aliev, who was also allegedly behind a Russian internet site critical of Nazarbayev, was believed to have overreached himself. He was removed from his post and is now in "honorable exile" as Ambassador to Austria. Some of the younger technocrats, such as Trade Minister Mukhtar Ablyazov and Zhaqiyanov, used the affair to set up their own political movement, Democratic Choice Of Kazakhstan (DCK), which advocates regime transparency (presumably to prevent the likes of Aliev arbitrarily muscling in on their business interests) and greater regional democracy. In January 2002, some members of DCK split off to form Ak-Zhol, a party claiming to be part of the opposition but whose credentials as such appear weak. Elite opinion suggests that Ak-Zhol is actually controlled by Nazarbayev in an attempt to stage-manage the construction of a fictional multi-party democracy. Certainly, leading Ak-Zhol figures are remarkably sanguine about the new Law on Political Parties, approved by Nazarbayev in late July, which requires all political parties to re-register with 50,000 signatures within six months, a formidable total only thought to be within the grasp of regime sponsored parties and, perhaps, the Communist Party. Meanwhile, in Spring 2002, Zhaqiyanov and Ablyazov were indicted for financial irregularities occurring during their time in office. Lawyers and supporters of the pair were struck by how hastily and shoddily the prosecution cases were prepared and by the careless manner in which the bench intervened on the prosecution's behalf at certain points in the trials. Nevertheless, Zhaqiyanov received a seven year sentence and, in mid-July, Ablyazov was sent down for six years. It is difficult to escape the conclusion, given the rampant corruption pervading Kazakhstani political life, that the convictions were designed to finish off DCK as a political force and deter other would-be reformers in the elite ranks. When taken in conjunction with the intimidation experienced by independent journalists and the closure of opposition newspapers, and the imminent de-registration of opposition parties, the outlook for political pluralism in Kazakhstan might appear to be grim.
IMPLICATIONS: Perhaps surprisingly in view of their current difficulties, many leading opposition figures refuse to be disheartened by Nazarbayev's increasingly heavy-handed tactics. Some are veteran dissidents from the Soviet era and are inured to government intimidation. Others, such as those leading the Republican People's Party of Kazakhstan (RPPK), the dominant influence in which is exiled former Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin, have decided not to give the new law credence; they will simply ignore the re-registration requirements and continue RPPK as an underground movement. Most interestingly, it is becoming clear that the Zhaqiyanov and Ablyazov trials have prompted a fundamental reappraisal in the opposition ranks. For the first time since independence, the ideological opponents of the regime - advocates of Western democracy and human rights campaigners - are joining forces with wealthy regime "outsiders" to challenge Nazarbayev's rule. Kazhegeldin has publicly spoken up for Ablyazov. They share the same American lawyer. Sergei Duvanov, editor of Kazakhstan's Human Rights Bulletin has recently stood for election on an RPPK ticket. Leading human rights activists descended on Pavlodar and Astana to demonstrate solidarity with Zhaqiyanov and Ablyazov during their trials. A new political discussion forum in Almaty acts as an umbrella for these diverse strands, and also encompasses nascent civil society groups and representatives of Lad, the political party aiming to represent the interests of ethnic Russians. This coalescence of "ideas" and "business" arguably represents a new departure for Kazakhstani political life and, whilst it may not appear to be naturally cohesive, it can at least unite around one central premise - the (eventual) removal from office of President Nazarbayev and his family.
CONCLUSION: The Nazarbayev regime's tactics of mixing legal sanctions with physical intimidation to bulldoze opposition may not be having the desired effect. Instead, there are signs that it has merely prompted a reconfiguration within the hitherto splintered opposition ranks that may, in the long run, be more effective in mobilizing an alternative agenda than was the case before. Much will depend on their ability to accommodate clashing egos and field a credible, respected and moderate candidate at the next presidential election (the writer Murat Auezov may have the right credentials). A marriage between disillusioned or thwarted business elites and the radical opposition may not, at first sight, appear to be the most harmonious of arrangements but, when they do hold together, such alliances have been the political graveyard of many a personal ruler in the past.
AUTHOR BIO: Michael Denison is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Leeds, United Kingdom.
Copyright 2001 The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst. All rights reserved.