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Opposition Turmoil in Kazakstan

A highly public split on election strategy has led to chaos in Kazakstan’s main opposition party.
By IWPR Central Asia

A public rift in Kazakstan’s leading opposition party following months of rumours of internal dissent has led to fears the party will be undermined ahead of a presidential election due at the end of the year.


Ak Jol openly split on February 14, when two factions of the party held separate press conferences at different venues, during which they traded insults.


Tensions had been building for months over whether Ak Jol should form a united opposition front with other parties, similar to the successful challengers in the “orange” and “rose” revolutions of Ukraine and Georgia.


But the clashing ambitions of the various party co-chairmen are also said to have played a role, and analysts note that differences between the main protagonists – former labour minister Alikhan Baimenov and former information minister Altynbek Sarsenbay-uly – had been evident for some time.


Ak Jol’s split is likely to influence the upcoming presidential elections, as the party is the largest opposition group.


Opinion is divided over whether the party’s split augurs well for an opposition movement struggling to prepare for the elections.


“Any rift within the opposition hampers its effort and potential,” Andrei Chebotarev, coordinator for the Institute of National Studies told IWPR.


But others believe the rift may lead to one faction breaking off to form a broader-based opposition movement better able to contest the elections on a single ticket.


“We saw Saakashvili, Burjanadze and Zhvania unite and win,” said Ak Jol co-chairman Sarsenbay-uly, referring to the three Georgian opposition politicians who combined forces to triumph in the 2004 Georgian elections, the so-called “rose revolution”.


Sarsenbay-uly’s drive for a broader-based coalition is supported by Ak Jol co-chairmen Bulat Abilov and Oraz Jandosov. Alikhan Baimenov and Liudmila Julanova now openly oppose them, accusing “certain party leaders” of putting personal ambition before the party’s welfare.


The Baimenov-Julanova faction had convened an emergency meeting of Ak Jol’s main committee on February 13 during which they announced that a party split was “imminent”.


Meanwhile the Abilov-Jandosov-Sarsenbay-uly faction denounced the move as “subversive” and a “low blow”, accusing Baimenov of “usurping power”.


Ak Jol was founded in March 2002 by a group of politicians from the Democratic Choice of Kazakstan, DCK. The DCK’s two co-chairmen were imprisoned shortly afterwards and the party has since been denied legal status.


At its inception, Ak Jol was billed as a “moderate, constructive” opposition and represented the reformist elements within the Kazak business community. As the leading opposition party, it won 12 per cent of the vote at the last parliamentary elections and claims to have 180,000 members.


But despite its significant share of the vote, Ak Jol won only one of the 77 parliamentary seats at the last election. The Abilov-Jandosov-Sarsenbay-uly faction argue that if they are to win the presidential election, they must combine forces with other opposition parties.


That strategy was developed through the Coordinating Council of Democratic Forces, CCDF, an opposition umbrella group.


In January the CCDF formed a working group headed by Abilov which would pave the way for a new national movement called For a Fair Kazakstan, with the intention of rallying fragmented grassroots support.


Independent journalist Seidahmet Kuttykaddam is concerned over the latest opposition crisis.


“What’s happening with Ak Jol does not bode well for the opposition or for Kazakstan’s future,” he told IWPR.


Abilov accepted that the split could be exploited by Ak Jol’s opponents in the government, warning that, “the regime will capitalise on the Ak Jol crisis to buy time and arrest the opposition’s unification drive”.


Others think the split is positive.


“Disputes within Ak Jol show that the party is progressing and not standing still,” said political commentator Oleg Sidorov


Whatever happens, few believe the rift can be repaired, although the Ak Jol leadership has down-played it, calling it a “disagreement over an important issue”.


“You cannot have diametrically opposing strategic views and opinions within the same party,” said political scientist Nurbulat Masanov.


Chebotarev agrees. “At worst, Abilov, Jandosov and Sarsenbay-uly will leave the party and focus on the movement For a Fair Kazakstan that is now being formed,” he said. “On the other hand, Baimenov and his supporters might leave and start another party.”


Eduard Poletaev is IWPR’s Kazakstan project director in Almaty. IWPR contributor Zamir Korjanov in Almaty and Inna Liudva, IWPR project assistant in Kazakstan, also contributed to this article.