Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Kazak Heavyweight Takes on President
Zamanbek Nurkadilov, until recently a senior regime figure in Kazakstan, has launched a public campaign against his former boss President Nursultan Nazarbaev.
Nurkadilov, a former mayor of Almaty who resigned as emergencies minister last month, has set up a “public commission” which will gather evidence on Nazarbaev’s activities as president.
He already knows what outcome he is seeking – “I will seek the president’s resignation and the announcement of a new presidential election,” he told IWPR.
The commission, which met for the first time on April 28, includes representatives of opposition groups such as Democratic Choice of Kazakstan, DCK, the Communist Party, and the influential pensioners’ movement Pokolenie.
There are also two people from the Republican People’s Party, whose head, ex-prime minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin, is a former regime insider now in opposition, just like Nurkadilov. But when Kazhegeldin fell out with Nazarbaev, left office and went into exile in 1999, Nurkadilov was one of his fiercest critics.
Nurkadilov is now trying to engage the disparate parts of the opposition in his single-issue campaign to force the resignation of President Nazarbaev, whom he accuses of “wasting” the country’s rich mineral resources, and of establishing a “feudal state”.
Since he resigned as emergencies minister last month, Nurkadilov has come out strongly against the president. At a meeting on April 10 in support of jailed DCK leader Galymzhan Zhakianov, he shocked other opposition members – who wanted to stick to the agenda – by calling for Nazarbaev to be impeached.
Ten days later, Nurkadilov brought a law suit against Nazarbaev in an Almaty court, accusing him of wrongdoing because of the Kazak government’s former relationship with James Giffen, an American businessman now on trial in the United States for his alleged role in a corruption scandal involving foreign oil companies and senior Kazak officials.
Nurkadilov appears entirely focused on removing the president, rather than any wider political agenda. He has not joined any of the parties calling for broader political and economic reforms, such as the DCK or the more moderate Ak Jol.
“DCK and Ak Jol have their own aims,” he said. “Their ultimate goals [do not coincide] with my objectives. Apart from the Communist Party, none of them has demanded the resignation of the president himself.”
Nurkadilov’s wife, the well-known singer Makpal Junusova, has joined the DCK, creating an indirect political link.
For their part, the opposition parties are still wary of a man fresh out of President Nazarbaev’s team, and initial speculation that he might position himself as a leader has yet to materialise.
Apart from the fact that Nurkadilov is now hostile to the president, it is far from clear what he stands for or why he is pursuing such a public campaign.
Nurkadilov, 60, belongs to the old guard of politicians who made their name during the Soviet era and kept their grip on power after independence. He occupied important positions as mayor of Almaty while it was still the capital, and then governor of the surrounding province, before taking the less powerful position of head of the agency for emergencies.
Until his defection he was seen as an ally and staunch supporter of President Nazarbaev.
Nurkadilov’s profile sets him apart from the opposition, many of whom are much younger and emerged in the Nineties either in the new business classes or in pro-democracy political groups.
Local analysts and politicians are still arguing about what prompted Nurkadilov to jump ship. One strong theory is that – as a powerful politicians supported by one faction within the administration – he felt sidelined in a cabinet reshuffle in which Nazarbaev gave other politicians the important posts of speaker of parliament and head of the presidential office.
Nurkadilov is a strong character, with many supporters and as many critics. Those who have aligned themselves with him in his new-found role praise his long political experience and skills. “He has charisma, political influence, a lot of connections within the establishment, and popularity. He expresses the interests of traditionalists,” said political analyst Nurbulat Masanov, who is now seen as close to Nurkadilov.
What puzzles many observers most is that – so far at least – Nurkadilov has got away with it, apart from receiving an official warning that he must not make slanderous statements about President Nazarbaev.
Some believe this is because he is a more powerful figure than either Kazhegeldin or Zhakianov, who ended up in jail. Pessimists warn that it’s just a matter of time before the authorities make their move.
Last month Nurkadilov called off a publicity tour of a number of western capitals at the last minute. “I could have been killed during my trip abroad,” he told IWPR, suggesting that he might have been the target for a contract murder.
Nurkadilov is adamant that no amount of pressure would force him into exile.
“Kazakstan is my home. I am a patriot. Why should I leave?” he told IWPR. “Let’s wait. Nazarbaev is not going to be president for long, I think.”
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