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

Triumphal Welcome for Freed Kazak Politician

There is a vacant job as leader of the opposition, and Galymzhan Zhakiyanov could be the man to fill it now he is out of prison.
By Askar Shomshekov
The release from prison of a leading Kazak political leader, Galymzhan Zhakiyanov, has given the opposition a much-needed boost a month after Nursultan Nazarbaev defeated all comers in the presidential election.



Arriving back in Almaty after his release on January 14, Zhakiyanov was met by over 1,000 well-wishers at the railway station. His triumphal arrival in the former capital which is still the centre of political activity in Kazakstan suggested he was set to take centre stage in the opposition movement.



In the first interview he gave after his release, Zhakiyanov made it clear he planned to resume public life as a politician.



Until 2001, Zhakiyanov was part of Nazarbaev's administration, serving as governor of Pavlodar region in the north of Kazakstan. But he fell from grace when he and a number of other high-profile political and business figures called for wide-ranging political reforms.



The same year, Zhakiyanov and former energy, industry and trade minister Mukhtar Ablyazov jointly founded what became the leading opposition force of the day, the Democratic Choice of Kazakstan, DCK.



But a year later, in 2002, both men were sent to prison for crimes they had allegedly committed while in office. Zhakiyanov got seven years and Ablyazov six, following separate court cases that international human rights organisations said were clearly driven by political motives.



In May 2003, Ablyazov won early release after petitioning President Nazarbaev. Once freed, he did not re-enter political life.



Zhakiyanov sought no such clemency and was granted none. The possibility of his release arose only in October 2005, when by law he became eligible for parole because he had served half his sentence.



Given the political sensitivities about his case, and the fact that Nazarbaev was just about to go into an election, Zhakiyanov's release was a touch-and-go affair.



On December 14, a court in Ekibastuz, the nearest town to Zhakiyanov's prison, ruled that he should be freed. But on 23 December, the day before he was scheduled for release, the prosecutor responsible for penal institutions in Pavlodar region filed an objection with the Ekibastuz court, on the grounds that Zhakiyanov had breached prison regulations.



Yevgeny Zhovtis, director of the Kazakstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, told IWPR that of nine infractions cited in the objection, eight had been annulled and were thus not legally relevant, while the ninth consisted of a claim that Zhakiyanov leaving his workplace to put on warmer clothes, which was insufficient cause to deny him his freedom.



Opposition supporters suspected that the delay was created to avoid adverse publicity ahead of Nazarbaev’s inauguration on January 11, a time when international media attention would be on Kazakstan.



Three days after the president began his new term in office, the court dismissed the prosecutor’s objection and ordered Zhakiyanov's immediate release.



Supporters of the jailed politician present at the hearing say they were initially doubtful that the court would rule in his favour, but they were encouraged when the doors were opened to anyone who wished to be attend. The OSCE – which had more than once asked the Kazak government to release Zhakiyanov – sent an observer from its Almaty mission.



The final ruling was greeted with rejoicing. In the courtroom, Zhakiyanov’s supporters rushed to congratulate him with tears in their eyes.



Opposition members say Zhakiyanov’s return to politics will give the whole anti-Nazarbaev movement a boost, at a time when repression of its activity seemed to be getting worse rather than better.



Fears that the terms of his conditional release might be worded to curb his political activity have receded, as he is bound only by general parole conditions.



In the time that Zhakiyanov has been in jail, the DCK has since been somewhat eclipsed by the newer Ak Jol party, but that has in turn been weakened by a split last year that left two parties in place of one – the original and the Real Ak Jol.



All these opposition groups have been dogged by the government's refusal to grant them registration, which means that for the purposes of elections and other political events, they do not officially exist. The DCK has tried without success to get round the problem by renaming itself Alga – "Forwards".



Standing somewhat apart from these centrist, pro-market parties is the leftist Kazak Communist Party, the only opposition group to be officially registered.



On the other side of the political divide are an array of parties that support President Nazarbaev including Otan, the biggest, and his daughter Dariga's Ashar party.



Although these opposition groups have shown a tendency for schism, they also appear to have recognised the need for a unifying figure. Their most recent attempt to identify one resulted in the nomination of Zharmakhan Tuyakbay, a former speaker of parliament, as the common opposition candidate in last month's presidential election. Tuyakbay came a distant second after Nazarbaev - but ahead of the three other candidates.



Bulat Abilov, one of the leaders of the Real Ak Jol, says Zhakiyanov’s release is of historic significance for the opposition, “This is a major event for all of us. I think that Galymzhan has shown with all his recent activity that he is a great person, a great politician. That is a huge support for the opposition, for all of us.



"I think that with Galymzhan, we will be more active, more unified and we will have greater solidarity.”



Leading Communist Party member Tolen Tokhtasynov agreed, saying, “I think that Galymzhan’s release on probation is an event which the whole of society in Kazakstan was waiting for. I think that the political process will now progress more intensively.”



The opposition parties currently have few avenues for dialogue with the government. Although many problems persist, Zhakiyanov's release removes one of the opposition's main objections to taking part in the government-sponsored National Commission for Democratisation and Civil Society. And analysts say the authorities will no longer be able to simply ignore their opponents if these include a heavyweight like Zhakiyanov.



“A new policy will be developed for the opposition's interaction with the authorities, and more systematic work will be conducted with the public," said Guljan Ergalieva, a senior member of the Movement for a Fair Kazakstan. "Now that Zhakiyanov has returned, the regime will no longer be able to ignore the opposition's very existence, as it did in the recent presidential election.



"Zhakiyanov’s participation in a civilised dialogue between the regime and the opposition will be of immense importance. I think that it's not only the active people in society who hope this, I think the international community will also be watching this closely.”



The task for Zhakiyanov, if he is offered and accepts the leading role in the opposition, will be to get a grip on the diverse political forces and ambitions that make it up.



“Zhakiyanov does not have much room for manoeuvre," said Dosym Satpaev, director of the Risk Assessment Group, a Kazakstan think-tank.



Satpaev believes that if Zhakiyanov is to be successful, he must address key problems facing the opposition parties, including their weak organisational structures and lack of strong, ideology-led leadership, plus the authorities' continuing refusal to register them. As a result, he said, Zhakiyanov faces a situation where "there are many groups within the opposition which have divergent views on tactics and strategy. He will have to coordinate his own ambitions - if he has any - with those of other partners in the opposition.”



Sabit Jusupov, the head of the Institute for Socioeconomic Information and Forecasting, believes Zhakiyanov will try to steer these forces to more central ground so that they are seen as a constructive opposition rather than as radically anti-Nazarbaev.



“There is currently no one occupying the niche of a constructive opposition, and all the signs are that Galymzhan will go for this niche," said Jusupov. "That will increase his authority immensely… [His] return will undoubtedly provide new stimulus to the opposition, but in my opinion to the constructive part of the opposition.”



Askar Shomshekov is an independent journalist in Pavlodar.