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

Nazarbaev Shuns Opposition

Civil unrest may break out in Kazakstan unless President Nazarbaev engages in meaningful dialogue with the opposition
By Slujan Ismailova

During US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's visit to Kazakstan this April, President Nursultan Nazarbaev, promised to finally sit down to talk to opposition parties. But so far, there have been no signs of any thawing of the regime's frosty attitude towards the opposition.

Dialogue is almost non-existent, and the regime takes little account of dissenting voices. In fact, Nazarbaev is notoriously dismissive of opposition figures, and makes no attempt to include them in decision-making processes. "I don't think he will ever sit behind the same negotiating table," says Gaziz Aldamjarov of the Republican People's Party. "He considers us to be his inferiors and regards us with utmost contempt - even though our leaders are highly educated people."

Given the undemocratic tendencies of the regime so far, some analysts believe there is a real risk of civil unrest unless meaningful dialogue is initiated soon.

The former prime minister Akejan Kajegeldin - now leader of the opposition Republican People's Party - first mooted the idea of a national dialogue last November, a week or so after Nazarbaev made vague remarks about co-operating with the opposition.

As Kajegeldin sees it, the dialogue would bring together representatives from the ruling party and the Forum for Democratic Forces, which represents a coalition of opposition parties and movements. Should Nazarbaev reject the proposal, a democratically elected body - the Constitutional Conference - should be convened in order to draw up a democratic Kazak constitution, to be discussed by the public and then put to a referendum.

The proposals were unsurprisingly supported by the Forum for Democratic Forces, who see the initiative as the only way to bring influence to bear on Nazarbaev's regime.

Nonetheless, aside from his promises to Albright, and his unguarded remarks of November last year, Nazarbaev has made absolutely no effort to change the status quo.

Observers both in Kazakstan and abroad attribute Nazarbaev's mention of co-operation to a tactical manoeuvre. In February, Republican Congressman, Len Burton, accused the president of making his remarks to alleviate American pressure during ongoing negotiations at the Joint US-Kazak Commission.

Analysts in Kazakstan have reacted with equal scepticism. Many have linked the president's apparent change of heart to a desire to score political points. As the new stance was announced just before a meeting of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE, in Istanbul where delegates were set to highlight infringements of electoral law in the Kazak parliamentary elections, their scepticism is probably grounded.

Political analyst Nurbolat Masanov believes the president is simply attempting to muddle the issues. He predicts two scenarios, the first a token attempt at dialogue, where low-ranking state functionaries with no decision-making power sit at the negotiating table. "The second possibility," he continues, "is that the president will invite figures from outside the Forum for Democratic Forces to take part in the national dialogue. It'll be another attempt to draw individual opposition members out of the political process."

Andrei Chebotaryov of the Central Asian Agency for Political Studies, does not expect to see any real attempt at democracy any time soon. "The authorities will initiate a heavily biased national dialogue - just like the pro-Nazarbaev Assembly of Kazak Peoples, which was created solely in order to legitimise Nazarbaev's authoritarian decisions."

Such pessimism is shared by most opposition politicians, pushing them to make their case directly to the international organisations and western countries on which Nazarbaev's regime is economically dependent.

As things stand, many observers believe that without the scrutiny of outside observers such as the OSCE, an opposition wouldn't exist at all.

Even now, attempts to bring pressure to bear on Nazarbaev seem doomed to failure. Undeterred, opposition politicians Vladimir Chernyshov and Baurjan Jarylgapov have launched a petition demanding President Nazarbaev's resignation. With Kazakstan's muddled legislation and constant interference from authorities, the petition is unlikely to be legally recognised. But Jarylgapov has other concerns. "We must wake people up," he insists.

Perhaps the oxygen of this kind of publicity will spark some kind of meaningful dialogue between the autocratic regime and opposition. But not many people are holding their breath.

Slujan Ismailova is a journalist for XXI century newspaper in Almaty.