Days before New Year 2005 began, leaders of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan, Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, and Ak Zhol Democratic Party paid a visit to Kyiv to congratulate Viktor Yushchenko on his victory in the Ukrainian presidential elections. This symbolic gesture of solidarity between Kazakhstan’s political opposition and the Ukrainian Orange Revolution was complimented by the bold headline, “Georgia Yesterday, Ukraine Today, Kazakhstan Tomorrow?” in a recent issue of Azat, the mouthpiece of Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DCK).
These incidents hardly pose a real threat to the ruling regime in Kazakhstan. Bigeldy Gabdullin, once a fierce critic of the regime who spent several years in exile in the United States before returning to Kazakhstan with radically transformed views, thinks that Kazakhstan will not follow the Ukrainian example for a number of reasons. Most importantly, Kazakhstan’s opposition does not have the outside financial and moral support that helped bring Yushchenko to power. Furthermore, the opposition in Kazakhstan has only limited access to the media, and President Nursultan Nazarbayev, in stark contrast to Ukraine’s Leonid Kuchma, enjoys remarkable popular support at home (Central Asia Monitor, December 24). Nevertheless, developments over the last two months suggest that Kazakhstan’s authorities fear a local version of the Orange Revolution.
On December 28 the prosecutor’s office of Almaty brought a lawsuit against the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan party demanding its closure. The official charge was that DCK leaders had made an “unconstitutional” political statement at their second party congress, which the prosecutor’s office construed as a manifestation of “political extremism, instigation of animosity and discord between various social groups of the population” by urging people to engage in acts of civil disobedience (Kazakhstanskaya pravda, January 7).
The DCK statement called both the ruling regime and the recently elected parliament illegitimate. On January 5 the specialized district economic court of Almaty held its first preliminary hearing on the case, but the primary defendant was not present. DCK chairman Asylbek Kozhakhmetov was ill, although Almaty city prosecutor Sattibek Ongarbayuly accused Kozhakhmetov of spending his holiday “in one of the resort towns in Egypt” (Aikyn, January 8).
The opposition responded by protesting such “judicial persecution,” as the political bureau of the DCK party labeled the case. A large crowd of DCK members, who wore orange ribbons pinned on their coats and distributed leaflets of the same color, gathered outside the courthouse. Leaflets, among other things, mentioned the long-standing story of “Kazakhgate,” a high-level corruption scandal involving improper contracts with foreign oil companies.
On the first day of the trial, human rights activist Yevgeny Zhovtis told journalists that the very fact that the economic court had decided to consider the case, which should have been considered by an administrative court, violated the law. He added that any court decision made without testimony from Kozhakhmetov would be illegitimate. He indicated that DCK leaders planned to appeal to the Almaty city court if the district court ordered the liquidation of the DCK (Novoye pokolenie, January 7).
The Coordinating Committee of the Opposition Forces of Kazakhstan, which includes the DCK, released a statement condemning the “persecution” of public and political organizations. Ak Zhol released a similar statement, claiming that the lawsuit against the DCK ran counter to Article 5 of the Constitution of Kazakhstan, which allows ideological and political pluralism in the country.
Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan is not alone in its distress. One month ago the Almaty financial police launched a criminal case against the internationally renowned Soros Kazakhstan, charging the organization with tax evasion. The NGO rejected the charges as totally unsubstantiated. Opposition observers believe the suit against Soros Kazakhstan was an attempt to squeeze this organization, known for its active support of the independent press, out of the country (navi.kz, January 7).
On January 6, in defiance of opposition protests, the specialized district economic court of Almaty issued a ruling to liquidate the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan party. It took the court session slightly more than one hour to reach that verdict. Sixteen DCK regional affiliates will cease their activities. The only remaining option for DCK leaders is to appeal to Almaty city court within 15 days, a move with slim possibility of success (Kazakhstanskaya pravda, January 7).
These events support opposition arguments that the authorities in Astana fear a repeat of the Ukrainian scenario in Kazakhstan’s upcoming presidential elections. Maksat Muratov, a columnist for Soz, writes that Russia will do everything to manipulate presidential elections in Kazakhstan because it wants to ensure the winner is loyal to the Kremlin. To achieve this, Moscow, according to Muratov, might even be willing to deploy its army. “Ukraine was saved from such a fate by the European Union and the USA, but nobody knows who will save us” he wondered (navi.kz, December 30).
Perhaps the saddest point is that opposition forces are increasingly drifting away from fundamental social problems that would have greater public appeal in Kazakhstan. DCK also has been seriously weakened by internal strife within its ranks. In recent months many popular figures like Gulzhan Yergalieva, Petr Svoik, Karlygash Zhakiyanova (wife of imprisoned DCK leader Galymzhan Zhakiyanov) and others left the party. Under these circumstances, the authorities can dismiss the DCK as nothing more than a paper tiger—a shapeless, motley crew of power-hunger political adventurers.