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Party Goes On and On in Kazakstan

Nur Otan party celebrates decade as unassailable party of government, although analysts say it enjoys little real power.
By Daulet Kanagatuly
Nur Otan, the political party of Kazak president Nursultan Nazarbaev, had plenty to celebrate when it marked its tenth anniversary. It is in an unassailable position, with all the seats in parliament and nearly three-quarters of a million members.



Yet for all that, analysts say Nur Otan hardly constitutes an independent ruling force, and exists merely as a vehicle to articulate the president’s ideas and policies.



The party marked its first decade at a congress held in the Kazak capital Astana on May 15.



President Nazarbaev, who is party chairman, used his keynote address to the 600 delegates at the congress to deliver a upbeat message about the state of the economy. Omitting references to the scale of the downturn in Kazakstan or to any failure of domestic policy, he ascribed the effects of global crisis to external factors alone and said effective anti crisis measures were already being implemented.



A party delegate who asked to remain anonymous said he was disappointed with the meeting, which reminded him of a Communist Party event from the Soviet period, complete with over-the-top style praise for Nazarbaev’s vision, and speeches full of indigestible economic data.



Another delegate said the overall tone was that “with this head of state, and with a nation like this, a crisis is nothing to us.”



Originally called Otan (Fatherland) in 1999 when it was forged out of a number of smaller pro-presidential parties and movements, the party added Nur (Light) to its name in 2006 when it swallowed up Asar, a party that had been set up by Nazarbaev’s daughter Dariga.



Of the seven political parties that ran in the 2007 parliamentary election, Nur Otan was the only one deemed to have passed the seven per cent threshold, and it took all 98 of the 107 seats in the Majilis or lower house that are earmarked for parties.



Its mergers with Asar and other parties swelled Nur Otan’s membership to the present 700,000-plus card-holders.



When it came to the future of the party itself, Nazarbaev was unambiguous, and appeared to banish any hope that past commitments to creating political pluralism might be honoured. He called for the groundwork to be done to ensure “Nur Otan’s domination of the political system in Kazakstan over the long term”.



This domination is already apparent. But many analysts see the party as something of an empty vessel, with few ideas generated from within and in their place, constant deference to the president.



According to political analyst Dosym Satpaev, director of the Almaty-based Risk Assessment Group, the only reason Nur Otan enjoys supremacy is that all possible competition has been cleared out of the way through elections that are neither free nor fair.



“Given that no such [fair] elections have taken place to date in Kazakstan, Nur Otan has no real experience of fighting [for votes], and has not had to prove itself in a competitive race,” he said.



It is only the patronage of Nazarbaev that grants the party a measure of power, said Satpaev, adding, “It isn’t for nothing that it is called the pro-presidential party and its leading members constantly refer to the authority of the head of state.”



Petr Svoik, deputy leader of the opposition party Azat, agreed that Nur Otan is not a political force in its own right, “The party does not have any strategy; one can only talk about the president’s strategy.”



In reality, he said, “The system of power is built around the president’s authority and on his entourage. The real power lies with this immediate circle, and the rest is either decoration or a supporting structure.”



Satpaev agreed that the only institution that carries weight is the presidency, saying, “This is very bad as it means Kazakstan’s entire political system has been created around one specific individual. If this person leaves office, the question will arise whether the system will still function.”



The analyst sees Nur Otan as merely another extension of the state, which officials in national and local government are required to join as a matter of course.



As Nazarbaev’s speech indicated, the party’s role appears to consist of checking up on the work of government institutions, even though their senior staff are Nur Otan members anyway.



“Of course it looks comical, one official monitoring another,” said Satpaev.



Gulnara Samenbekova, head of public relations in Nur Otan’s Almaty branch, acknowledges that the party plays a supervisory role, which she believes is fully justified.



“As the party that won the election, we take responsibility for the work of all state structures, as it is our programme they are implementing,” she said.



As an example, she cited an anti-corruption campaigns launched last month. Nur Otan has been told to monitor its implementation, although the initiative came not from the party, but in a decree issued by President Nazarbaev.



“We are open and effective, we are checking the activity of [government] institutions, we’re identifying flaws and violations, and we are helping people resolve these issues,” said Samenbekova.



Anton Morozov, an analyst with the Institute for Strategic Studies, which is linked to the presidential administration, believes Nur Otan has a role to play.



“Even when Otan was being set up, Nazarbaev said the party should become his right-hand man. That’s exactly what is happening,” he said.



Comparisons with the old Communist Party only go so far. Whereas the Soviet party was all-powerful and unchallenged, it did not depend on one individual. But analysts like Svoik say Nur Otan would not survive long without its current leader.



“It’s all a bit like going back to the USSR, although it’s more like a parody version,” he said.



Satpaev fears the absence of strong political institutions outside the presidential office could lead to instability down the line.



“If there is no political authority that could take on the role of supreme power in that event [a vacuum], then any elite that possesses some resources will join the power struggle,” he said.



Even now, said Satpaev, the monopoly of the political arena is holding the country back.



“The system leaves no room for debate or alternative methods of solving problems,” he said. “The authorities, and that includes Nur Otan, are not prepared to tolerate criticism, even though justifiable criticism makes for a more stable system.”



Daulet Kanagatuly is an IWPR-trained journalist in Almaty.

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