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

Kazak Authorities Fear Opposition Unity

Government attempts to frustrate opponents' efforts to set up a united front.
By Sholpan Ibysheva

The Kazak authorities are trying to undermine attempts by the opposition to create a new alliance in which the former prime minister is keen to play a leading role.


Former prime minister-turned-critic, Akezhan Kazhegeldin, who lives in Western Europe, is seen as being one of the main proponents of the emerging alliance between his own party, the Republican People's Party, RPPK, the Democratic Choice of Kazakstan, DCK, movement and several other opposition groups.


The coalition, which was initiated at the end of last year soon after the DCK was formed, is seen by the authorities as a serious threat.


Since its inception, the opposition coalition has been subjected to intense government pressure, which culminated last month in the detention of DCK members in the run up to an international investment conference.


Mukhtar Abliazov, a former minister for energy, industry and trade, is still in police custody, while Galymzhan Zhakiyanov, an ex-governor of the Pavlodar region, remains under house arrest. Both were accused of abusing their positions.


Kazhegeldin is seen as President Nursultan Nazarbaev's main political rival. Prime minister from 1994 to 1997, he is thought to have been forced into exile after falling out of favour with the president for being too ambitious and independent-minded.


From his base in London, Kazhegeldin has been mounting a vocal campaign against the Kazak leadership. Tried in absentia for abusing his former office, he now faces long-term prison sentence should he return.


Opinion is divided as to how much political influence Kazhegeldin actually wields. While supporters credit him with the ability to unite disparate opposition groups, others dismiss him as a self-seeking publicist.


Well-known politician Nurbulat Masanov, a critic of Kazhegeldin during his premiership, has been won over by the dissident and is now a RPPK member, saying the trained economist is not only the acknowledged leader of the democratic opposition but also fulfils an important role in conveying its grievances to the outside world.


"He's become a kind of minister for foreign affairs in exile. He's actively lobbying for the importance of democratic reforms for our country in the public consciousness of the West," he said.


It is Kazhegeldin's ability to bring different factions together which is now scaring the government into taking harsh measures, argues Masanov, "Nazarbaev decided to arrest Zhakiyanov, after his meeting with Kazhegeldin in Paris on March 28."


But some DCK members who remain loyal to the government are not so keen on working so close with Kazhegeldin's RPPK. A few have even left to form their own political grouping, the Ak Zhol party.


Naming no names, Ak Zhol member, Alikhan Baimenov, said, that the DCK's move to work with more radical opposition groups has compromised the movement's moderate policies.


Other critics of Kazhegeldin question his motive for backing the alliance. A senior official at the State Analytical Centre, a leading government think-tank, who wants to remain anonymous, says he's interested in self-promotion. "His pledge to celebrate his next birthday in his homeland is nothing but propaganda," he said.


Naturally, Prime Minister Imangali Tasmagambetov is dismissive of the exiled dissident. "Kazhegeldin is not at present a political opponent of the president - he's a criminal sentenced to ten years imprisonment," he said during a parliamentary session at the beginning April.


But making such statements is in itself significant, says Tlepov Bolat, an analyst from the independent think-tank the Strategy Centre. "The comments of the prime minister are evidence that the top level of leadership in Kazakstan recognises the danger presented by its opponents, united by Kazhegeldin," he said.


Indeed, in Kazakstan it is widely perceived that the volume of publicity generated by recent events has boosted Kazhegeldin and given momentum to opposition groups, with Zhakiyanov and Abliazov seen as martyrs.


Attempts to step up repression only appear to be adding to their popularity.


DCK parliamentary senator Zauresh Batalova has reported the formation of a strike committee in western Kazakstan and said a 17-person delegation from the north-eastern Semey region, seeking to travel to Almaty to support Zhakiyanov, was prevented from leaving the city under pressure from authorities.


In northern Kazakstan, according to an open letter from the Forum of Democratic Forces, the authorities banned peaceful meetings in support of the detained opposition politicians.


Sholpan Ibysheva is an IWPR contributor