Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Could Kazaks Go the Way of Kyrgyzstan?

The Kazak government appears blasé about Kyrgyz regime change but is paying attention, while opposition groups develop a new self-confidence.
By IWPR Central Asia

Both government and opposition in Kazakstan have been galvanised into action by the thought of a "domino effect" from the regime change in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan.


While the authorities officially voice unconcern at the political turmoil in the Kygyz capital Bishkek, they are quietly taking steps to achieve even greater control over the political process than they have now.


The summary ousting of President Askar Akaev will have come as a particular shock to his Kazak counterpart Nursultan Nazarbaev, since the two men were on friendly terms, cementing the long-standing good relationship between their republics, which is based partly on cultural similarities.


Speaking on President Nazarbaev said, "It is impossible to call what happened a revolution", describing it instead as "banditry and looting".


But in a sign he may be resigning himself to a fait accompli, he has spoken by phone with the new Kyrgyz prime minister and acting head of state Kurmanbek Bakiev.


The public show of indifference to events just over the border even extended to the parliament, which rejected a proposal to debate the matter, arguing it had no relevance to Kazakstan.


Other moves, however, suggest that minds have been concentrated by the possibility of future unrest.


New amendments have been introduced to a draft law on elections ahead of its second reading in parliament, scheduled for April 8, which would make it illegal to hold demonstrations or any other kind of public assembly between the end of campaigning and the publication of the final ballot results.


The measure is clearly designed to head off the kind of protests which were the catalyst for political change in Georgia, Ukraine and now Kyrgyzstan in the wake of discredited election results.


If the political mainstream has remained largely silent, two smaller political groups loyal to Nazarbaev launched a stinging attack on their Kyrgyz neighbours on March 25, the day after the government building was stormed in Bishkek.


The Agrarian and Civic parties, which form a bloc called AIST, claimed at a press conference that the political change in Kyrgyzstan had been "staged from abroad", and urged the Kazak authorities to “take all necessary measures to prevent similar events in our country”. They also announced they were establishing a "people’s democratic front" to ward off revolution in Kazakstan.


Neither party is a major player like the pro-government Otan, for example, but analysts say the position they have assumed cannot simply be dismissed as marginal.


"It could be that the presidential administration is behind these statements by the Civil and Agrarian parties," said Andrei Chebotarev, coordinator of the National Research Institute. "In this way, it [the administration] is acting through an ostensibly independent political structure, yet at the same time sending a signal that it enjoys the support of political parties in Kazakstan."


Such an approach, said Chebotarev, would leave the authorities more room for manoeuvre than if they took a hardline stance themselves. “They will be able to publicly disagree with some of the harsher statements made by AIST, so as to confuse the opposition and show that they do not support extreme measures, even those intended to suppress revolutionary processes…. So they demonstrate a willingness for dialogue with the opposition.”


Instead of confronting their opponents head on, the authorities may instead seek to assert control of the agenda by creating new political institutions.


For example, an existing presidential body charged with making Kazakstan more democratic has now stepped into the foreground. The National Commission for Democratisation and Civil Society issued a statement on March 30 saying, “We call on political parties, public movements and all citizens of Kazakstan, regardless of the differences in our views and positions, to be involved in this [political reform] process. We must build our own future ourselves!”


Adil Nurakishev, director of the Institute for Future Policy, said, “This latest statement looks like an attempt by the authorities to divert the revolutionary impulse into a place [where the talk is] of political harmony and social stability in society."


Nurakishev thinks more moves of this kind will follow, as the authorities try to create at least a semblance of pluralism through "additional political institutions and structures that, taken as a while, form a kind of mechanism that compensates for the euphoria about events in Kyrgyzstan”.


"Certainly, the regime will try to find a mechanism to avoid a repeat of the Kyrgyz events in Kazakstan," said political scientist Sanat Kushkumbaev. "There is a lesson there for any regime - but will ours be able to draw the right conclusions?"


Nazarbaev's political opponents seem to have been encouraged by the success of their colleagues in Kyrgyzstan, although it is not yet clear how they might go about getting the same kind of mass support.


"The democratic forces of Kazakstan warmly welcome the triumph of freedom and democracy in fraternal Kyrgyzstan!” said a statement from Jarmakhan Tuyakbay, co-chairman of Ak Jol, the most important of the opposition parties. Tuyakbay hopes to stand against the president in next year's election.


On March 30, Tuyakbay and his party's other co-chairman Oraz Jandosov turned up in Moscow, where they gave interviews to the Russian media. No official reason was given for their visit, but commentators believe they were seeking to win support within the Russian political establishment.


The Democratic Choice of Kazakstan, DCK, meanwhile, announced plans for a relaunch to capitalise on the mood created by events in Kyrgyzstan.


The DCK lost its legal status as a political party in January, and now wants to start again with a new programme which, according to party official Asylbek Kojakhmetov will be like the old one only with "some new elements that take account of recent events in the post-Soviet region”.


The name the party has chosen for itself - Alga DCK! or "Forward DCK!" – is a curious choice since the original model, Alga Kyrgyzstan!, was a party created by Akaev supporters to help the regime sail through the recent elections, which instead went badly wrong.


There is no shortage of fighting talk among the opposition. “We will simply sweep away this regime, which is cowardly, weak and corrupt,” said businessman and opposition leader Bulat Abilov. "We see the situation realistically, we will go to the people and knock on every door."


Nurakishev thinks the opposition has sensed a change in public attitudes in Kazakstan following the Kyrgyz "revolution" and is trying to capitalise on it. "It's is very important for them to maintain the public mood that appeared after Akaev and his entourage were deposed in Kyrgyzstan," he said.


How realistic it is for the opposition to expect to replicate the Kyrgyz experience is another matter.


In Kazakstan, the government is strengthened by oil revenues and there have so far been no grassroots protests on as wide a scale as the anti-Akaev movement next door. Independent journalist Sergei Duvanov recently told IWPR that all the circumstances were different: weaker opposition parties, middle classes benefiting from the improving economic conditions, and a population unwilling to get involved in politics.


Following the events now termed Kyrgyzstan's "tulip revolution", the authorities in the Kazak capital Astana swiftly removed rows of tulips which had been decorating the main streets for a public holiday. The flowers were artificial, but perhaps the authorities were in no mood to tempt fate.


Zamir Karajanov is an IWPR contributor in Almaty.