Publication: Prism Volume: 3 Issue: 21

A leader of Kazakhstan’s opposition says the opposition has much to gain, even if it loses the next presidential election

By Petr Svoik

Thanks to Caspian Sea oil and the country’s location between Russia, China and the Islamic world, Kazakhstan is fated to face close international scrutiny of its internal political life and to have very influential forces play an active part in its affairs. The general interest in long-term stability is usually linked with the figure of President Nursultan Nazarbaev. According to the Constitution, however, new elections must be held no later than the year 2000. The president may even, for reasons I will outline later, have to call them before that date. In any case, it is already clear that the era of no alternatives to Nursultan Nazarbaev is over. This is mostly thanks to the "Azamat" movement.

In translation from the Kazakh language, the word Azamat means both "citizen," and "real man." In a word — "gentleman." The movement was founded at the beginning of last year by seventy influential scholars, writers, artists, and well-known politicians. Since its creation, the movement has progressed from intellectual criticism of the president’s reforms to open opposition to Nursultan Nazarbaev’s regime of personal power.

On November 6 one of Azamat’s three co-chairmen, Murat Auezov, spoke of the need for new presidential elections and declared himself a candidate for the post. Auezov is a well-known politician and scholar. A former member of parliament and ambassador to China, he is the son of a writer who is extremely highly respected in Kazakhstan. Another of Azamat’s co-chairmen, Galym Abilsiitov, is also, according to our plan, a candidate for the presidency. Abilsiitov is a prominent physicist and a former minister and deputy prime minister. He heads the organizational committee of the new "Popular Front" political bloc, which seeks to unite all left-wing parties around a platform of democratization of the political system and demonopolization of the economy. The Popular Front plans to hold its founding congress next spring and, at the congress, a single presidential candidate will be nominated. The third co-chairman of Azamat is the author of this article, Petr Svoik, a power engineering specialist and economist, former member of parliament and minister, and the only ethnic Russian politician in Kazakhstan commanding a consistently high rating in the opinion polls.

President Nazarbaev has no rivals in the system he has created. He stands a head higher than any of his comrades and has complete control over the parliament, government, and the force structures. Nazarbaev is a master of the art of "divide and rule." He has used this tactic to "atomize" both government and society and to make himself invulnerable and indispensable. This is both the secret and the fatal weakness of Nazarbaev’s authoritarianism, which has no forms and mechanisms of self-realization other than democracy, glasnost and competition, which undermine and weaken it. Nazarbaev has replaced the former corporate cohesion of the state bureaucracy with personal dependence. He has abolished the labor collectives and permitted the development of new trade unions. He has plunged the whole country — cities, villages, enterprises, families and individuals — into a situation in which they have to fight for survival, weighed down by their own problems and interests. Therefore, Nazarbaev has no reason to fear either clan rivalry or organized mass resistance. But Nazarbaev’s regime will not be able to withstand open, personal competition in fair elections.

Over the period of his unlimited rule, Nazarbaev has scrapped three constitutions, three parliaments, and four governments in pursuit of two main goals.

The first is to transform the corporate party-bureaucratic apparatus which he inherited from the USSR into a regime of personal power. This was the point of his countless reorganizations of central and regional institutions, his merging, dividing, renaming and redistributing of the functions of ministries, departments, state enterprises, regions and districts, and his endless shuffling of bureaucrats from chair to chair. The main reason for moving the capital was the need for the head of the regime to have another base of support for "his" people and his personal presence.

The second goal is the redistribution of finance, property and natural resources to benefit the ruling nomenklatura, national comprador groups and transnational corporations. Both of these goals are close to being reached, but the creator of this system has turned out to be its hostage and, the further he goes, the more problems he will have with material and ideological security, and, in general, in maintaining the stability of his rule.

There is now no executive branch, in the sense of a more or less united "team." The presidential chain of command reminds one of a Russian matryoshka doll. Even the president’s own appointments are "his" people only in a relative sense, and the "president’s policy" is being carried out in words only. In reality, officials know that they are bound to be reshuffled in two or three years and, for this reason, pursue their own personal or group interests. The same goes for their appointees, all the way down the line to the bottom.

Nazarbaev has largely lost his base of support in society. At the beginning of his rule, the president embodied the hopes of almost all of Kazakhstan’s diverse, multi-ethnic electorate, but little is left of that now. He has lost the "Russian-speaking" voters. The ethnocentrism of the regime and the "Kazakhization" of government and business are obvious to everyone. The rhetoric about equality of civil rights does not work anymore. The representation of ethnic Russians in the government is scanty, in terms of both quality and quantity. The ethnic makeup of the Nazarbaev regime has led to clear polarization. The Kazakhs, who are divided into approximately three thousand clans, are historically divided into three zhuz (hordes). The Greater zhuz, in alliance with the Lesser zhuz, are the traditional rivals of the Middle zhuz. Nazarbaev, on the threshold of the third millennium, has restored that medieval balance. Key posts are held almost exclusively by his relatives and people with whom he grew up, and he has given the important post of premier, the auxiliary post of chairman of the lower house of parliament, and the decorative post of vice president to representatives of the Lesser zhuz.

In general, however, if one excludes a narrow stratum of "briefcase-carriers" and Kazakh businessmen, it is the Kazakhs themselves who have suffered most from Nazarbaev’s reforms, especially those in rural areas. Nazarbaev’s regime is in profound and deepening financial crisis. It does not have enough money even to satisfy the appetites of its own base of support — the administrative and force-ministry apparatus — to say nothing of quenching smoldering social indignation over the non-payment of salaries, the absence of heat and light in homes, and the mass impoverishment of the population.

The regime’s last and best hope of restoring material stability is therefore to bring the oil pipelines to Europe, to the South, and to China, on line as soon as possible. This is the reason behind Nazarbaev’s active appeals to the US and his appointment of a new prime minister. But it is clear that the presidential elections will come before the regime gets its influx of petrodollars.

Prolonging Nazarbaev’s government, as a pledge for the safety of the capital, resources, and spheres of influence amassed in Kazakhstan, is a vitally important interest of very influential forces, both within Kazakhstan and far beyond its boundaries. But since there is no objective reason to create a dynasty in Kazakhstan, elections, even if purely formal, are inevitable. And since that is so, it does not benefit Nazarbaev to postpone them. Falsification of the election returns is inevitable, and international observers are the only ones who can stop it. This will be a key test for the US, whom many in Kazakhstan suspect of observing "double standards."

If one looks at the left-democratic opposition from the point of view of financial and organizational resources, it is not yet strong enough to stand up to the Nazarbaev regime. But the strength of Azamat and its allies lies in the fact that society’s hopes are, to a significant degree, pinned on them, and in their carefully worked out program of transforming the regime of personal power into a democratic state with the rule of law. Azamat‘s leaders are demanding that the government go where, in the end, it will end up having to go, and this is a win-win situation for them. Murat Auezov, in a speech pointing out the illegitimacy of the 1995 referendum, called for fresh presidential and parliamentary elections. He also proposed that city and regional governments and judges should be elected, and that public officials be required to disclose the property they own. In postponing such measures, the government is increasing the opposition’s authority, and further postponement will add to Azamat‘s strength.

It is still too early to predict the date and the outcome of the future presidential elections. The Popular Front candidate will not, most likely, replace Nazarbaev as president. Nonetheless, Azamat will "win" in the next elections. It will win simply because elections will have taken place. It will win because, even if the elections are rigged, its candidate will still get a substantial number of votes. And Azamat’s influence will be strengthened by the fact that Nursultan Nazarbaev will, one way or another, be forced to democratize his regime. And, who knows — Azamat may even win in reality — the prospect is not that far-fetched!

Translated by Mark Eckert

Petr Svoik is one of the leaders of the Kazakhstani opposition. An engineer by training, he headed the Uralsk Power Plant from 1988 to 1990. In 1993, he was appointed head of Kazakhstan’s State Anti-Monopoly Committee. Dismissed from that post in 1995, he became co-founder of the country’s most vocal oppositional movement, Azamat. The views expressed here are the author’s own.


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