Kazakhstan: Opposition party tries to make a fresh start
text: Gazeta.kz , exclusively for Gazeta.kz
One of Kazakhstan’s leading opposition parties has re-branded itself, with a new name and a leadership shake-up. Party leaders hope that the makeover will inject new momentum into attempts to open up Kazakhstan’s political system. But, in this case at least, any expansion in Kazakhstan’s domestic political landscape may not bring welcome news to foreign investors.
Over the past year, President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s administration has tightened its hold over the country’s political life. Parliamentary elections in August 2007 gave the pro-presidential Nur Otan Party a virtual monopoly of the legislative process. Earlier in 2007, Nazarbayev engineered constitutional changes that enable him to become president-for-life.
Though down, the president’s political rivals are not counting themselves out. The former Nagyz Ak Zhol voted at a party congress on February 29 to rename itself Azat, which means freedom in Kazakh. The name selection was the result of a contest, in which party leaders selected two names to put to a vote out of some 300 suggestions received: Azat and Azamat, meaning citizen. Azat won overwhelmingly with 88 votes to Azamat’s 58. Other popular suggestions included Akikat (truth), Adal (honesty), and even the names of some political movements, which already exist, such as Adilet (justice) and Atameken (fatherland).
The new name will embody the party’s values of "independence, democracy, freedom and justice," said Bolat Abilov, who was unanimously elected the party chairman as the movement abandoned its policy of having three co-chairs. Another former co-leader, Tolegen Zhukeyev, was elected secretary-general, with responsibility for strategy. The third former co-leader, Oraz Zhandosov, remained without an official post but was tipped to become a deputy leader and will continue as the party’s chief economic strategist.
"Let’s be one big family as we have been all these years. … Let’s be worthy of this great name," said a jubilant Abilov after the vote. The name was especially suitable, he added, since read backwards it is the Kazakh word for clean or pure, taza. "Let’s be for the purity of the [political] process!" he told delegates.
The well-known Ak Zhol political brand has posed public relations problems since 2005, when the party experienced an acrimonious split on the issue of whether to engage the administration in a dialogue or not. Abilov, Zhandosov, Zhukeyev and Altynbek Sarsenbayev - who was brutally murdered in February 2006 - broke away to form Nagyz Ak Zhol (Real Bright Path), which remained in opposition. The Ak Zhol faction that adopted a softer line toward Nazarbayev was headed by Alikhan Baymenov.
The existence of two similarly named parties had been a source of confusion to voters, and Azat’s leaders are hoping they can finally put the split behind them and create a new brand that will have public recognition by the next parliamentary election, due in 2012. The new name has positive connotations for many Kazakhstanis: a movement called Azat was formed in 1990 and lobbied for independence from the Soviet Union.
Leaders of that movement, which still exists but is not active, condemned the decision to adopt the name. "We are surprised and perturbed that they have taken the name Azat, as if there weren’t any other words in Kazakh," the movement’s former chairman, Toleubek Seytkaly-uly, said during a March 4 news conference, as reported by the Interfax-Kazakhstan news agency. The party has no "moral right" to the name, he added. The movement’s leader, Khasen Kozha-Akhmet, said it would be lobbying the Justice Ministry to deny the party registration under the new name.
Party leaders were in buoyant mood and rejected suggestions that they cannot influence the political process after being left outside parliament following the last parliamentary election. "Authorities will always resist us and there is no guarantee that they will let us in [to parliament], but we don’t want to discuss it in terms of letting us in or not," Zhukeyev told EurasiaNet during a break in congress proceedings. "We will take part; we will fight."
He claimed that the parliamentary vote was marred by widespread fraud, an allegation backed up by election monitoring from the OSCE, which has never judged an election in Kazakhstan free and fair. Votes are regularly stolen from the opposition, Zhukeyev said. "We reliably get 30 percent to 40 percent [of the vote] in elections - reliably," he said.
The lack of any alternative voices in parliament stands to backfiring on the administration, Abilov told the congress, since Nazarbayev’s party now must take full responsibility for all policies and all problems. "Nur Otan has shown that it is not capable of reacting to the situation," Abilov said. "This parliament is terribly distant from the people, as if they live in a different world from the one we live in."
As Kazakhstan continues to be hurt by the effects of the global credit crunch, and as public dissatisfaction rises along with the country’s inflation rate, Abilov’s point that the party of power must take responsibility is not lost on many Kazakhstanis. Therein lies political opportunity, Abilov believes.
Azat’s leaders insist they don’t need seats in parliament to influence the legislative and policy process. Many initiatives that have become government policy, especially those tinged with a nationalist/populist element, were originally developed by the opposition, Azat leaders maintain. Among the co-opted policies is the government’s tough line on reviewing contracts governing foreign investors. "We consider the most important thing is that we are putting pressure on [Nazarbayev]," Zhukeyev told EurasiaNet.
Some analysts agree. "Although opposition parties are not in parliament, they have some grassroots backing," Maria Disenova, an analyst at the Institute for Economic Strategies-Central Asia, told EurasiaNet. "Therefore, it has probably always been the case that authorities did listen to the ideas presented by opposition parties and take them for their own".
Given the tougher economic times, more Kazakhstanis may turn in the coming months and years to the opposition for economic answers. "Now more than ever the authorities may be inclined to listen to opposition parties even though the latter have no formal levers of influence," Disenova said. "So, in fact, opposition parties do shape public opinion and influence the decision-making process in Kazakhstan."
Azat - which will now have to seek re-registration under its new name - plans to draw up a three-year political strategy and a longer-term program, Azat-2012, to prepare for the next election. It will be pushing for laws to improve the lives of ordinary people, Abilov said, singling out several priorities: making the terms of contracts with foreign investors developing Kazakhstan’s energy resources public; exporting gas at market prices; restricting the use of foreign labor; setting up a public-service TV channel; bringing laws on elections, the media and public assembly into line with OSCE commitments; introducing elections for all mayors and governors; and lobbying to join the Council of Europe.
The program is ambitious, but party leaders are in a self-confident mood. "We have a dream: a free Kazakhstan, a democratic Kazakhstan, an independent Kazakhstan and a just Kazakhstan," Abilov told applauding delegates.
Joanna Lillis. EurasiaNet.org
Editor’s Note: Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.
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