On April 12 dozens of opposition activists picketed the Department of Justice office in Almaty, demanding the immediate registration of Alga (Forward), an opposition party intended as the successor to the banned Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan. Police forces watched calmly and did not interfere as protesters shouted slogans and unfurled banners accusing the Ministry of Justice of deviating from democratic norms.
A small group of demonstrators broke through police lines into the ministry building to deliver a petition with a list of demands to the minister of justice, but he refused to talk to them. Instead the group left the petition with his office manager. No one was detained and police authorities carefully avoided an escalation of the conflict. The chief prosecutor of Almaty used a bullhorn to urge the protesters to disperse, saying that the mayor of Almaty had not authorized the rally. Protesters ignored his demands, but the rally ended peacefully. Opposition leaders believe the whole scene was likely videotaped by plainclothes police officers, and some protesters are likely to be questioned by law-enforcement bodies.
The decision to seek registration of the Alga People’s Party was adopted at the movement’s founding conference, held on September 10, 2006. Since then the Ministry of Justice has repeatedly refused to register the party, arguing that the process takes many months to complete. However, under the existing law a political party or public association should be registered within one month. An Alga press release stated that, over the last five months, party leaders have submitted 17 applications to the Ministry of Justice asking for permission to hold a peaceful rally, but every time the ministry either turned down the request or did not respond at all (www.algadvk.info, April 12).
Opposition leaders hoped to use the Alga registration issue to win back public sympathy, but have had little success. Similar protest actions in support of Alga were simultaneously staged in several regions, but only a handful of party activists came out to voice their demands.
The standoff between opposition forces and the authorities symbolizes the government’s deep contempt for citizens’ right to free assembly. Article 32 of the current constitution of Kazakhstan safeguards citizens’ rights to hold peaceful rallies. However, the same article stipulates that these rights may be curtailed to ensure state security or public order. The authorities effectively used this constitutional loophole in the run-up to the 2005 presidential election to ban demonstrations and rallies, and the tight control over opposition activities has not been relaxed since then.
Yevgeni Zhovtis, the director of the International Human Rights Bureau in Kazakhstan, said the Alga party supporters did not violate the law and had acted within their constitutional rights. At the same time, he believes the existing constitution should be amended to grant citizens more civil liberties and to remove legal obstacles to street rallies. According to him, human rights activists have drafted a set of laws concerning peaceful rallies and freedom of expression, including amendments to the constitution (Respublika, April 13).
However, very few people hope the opposition will succeed in pushing the proposed draft law through parliament. There are many reasons for skepticism. Kazakhstan’s opposition is too weak and the rifts among the numerous factions are too wide to work out a single comprehensive strategy. Political parties are hopelessly alienated from wide sections of the population and do not enjoy genuine public sympathy. Members of the pro-presidential Nur Otan party hold most of the seats in parliament. The prevailing view among pro-presidential forces is that the West has actually distorted the idea of democracy, turning it into a bargaining chip in world politics and imposing alien rules of political conduct on Kazakhstan (Respublika, April 8).
At the same time Kazakhstan’s bid for the presidency of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2009 could accelerate the process of political reforms in the country, including the introduction of amendments to the constitution, the adoption of an improved media law, the election of executive power structures at regional and district levels, financial transparency in government offices, and accountability of governing bodies before the people.
Some political observers from the opposition camp hope Kazakhstan’s turn at the helm of the OSCE would bind the ruling regime to its commitments to observe civic rights and carry out all-encompassing political reforms. However, the international community should not be too optimistic about the pace of political reforms in Kazakhstan. The political establishment has considerably consolidated its position after the ill-fated democratic revolution in neighboring Kyrgyzstan by offering a blend of presidential and parliamentarian forms of governance as a democratic model for Kazakhstan. In a recent television interview, President Nursultan Nazarbayev said Europe had not abandoned its attempt to mentor Kazakhstan, advancing almost exclusively political demands, while Kazakhstan tries to maintain good relations with Europe.