In the wake of last week’s democratic revolution in Kyrgyzstan, top officials in Kazakhstan have launched what appears to be a wave of spectacular political reforms, at least on the surface.
On March 29 the National Commission on Democratization and Civil Society convened in Astana. President Nursultan Nazarbayev created the commission last November to unite all political forces under the banner of political reform (see EDM, December 15, 2004). Official announcements reported that members of parliament, representatives of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, independent experts, and leaders of political parties all attended the meeting (Kazakhstanskaya pravda, March 30). Such a statement fully corresponds to the ruling regime’s desire to depict a harmonious political environment for the sake of preserving political stability and interethnic accord in the country. But in fact, the state-imposed National Commission, for all its high-minded stated objectives, has been boycotted by opposition parties since its inception and never gained any decisive political weight. This time, too, the National Commission pathetic statement calling on all political forces to “modernize” Kazakhstan’s political system was signed by only a hand-picked group of loyal forces, including Rukhaniyat, Otan, Asar, the Civic, Agrarian, Communist, and Democratic parties along with the officially recognized Federation of Trade Unions and Assembly of Peoples of Kazakhstan.
In reality, the National Commission’s activities reveal the deep division and polarization of Kazakhstan’s society. As a counterbalance to the pro-presidential National Commission, opposition forces have banded together under the “Fair Kazakhstan” banner. The Fair Kazakhstan movement unites prominent opposition figures such as Serikbolsyn Abdildin, Irina Savostina, Bolat Abilov, Petr Svoik, Asylbek Kozhakhmetov, and Zharmakhan Tuyakbay, the opposition bloc’s nominee for the presidency. Some political observers fear that in the run-up to the March 2006 presidential elections, Lad, representing the ethnic Russian community, and Zheltoksan, a Kazakh nationalist movement, might join the race and give the election campaign a hint of ethnic division (Zhas Qazaq, March 25). In multi-ethnic Kazakhstan this is a dangerous trend, and the Assembly of Peoples of Kazakhstan, a pliant structure imposed from the top that plays a purely nominal role, will be incapable of preventing possible interethnic conflict.
According to some analysts, Kazakhstan has many assets that might mitigate a repeat of the Kyrgyz scenario. Most importantly, the country has a relatively stable (albeit oil-dependent) economy, solid social structure, wages and pensions higher than in neighboring countries, and some remaining social benefits that allow the government to hold public protests at bay. Political analyst Dosym Satpayev believes that the regime can use Kazakhstan’s higher rate of economic growth to prevent the popular riots that swept Kyrgyzstan this month (Dala men Kala, March 25).
The government is already using this year’s presidential address to the nation, which promised substantial pension and wage increases and “step-by-step” political reform, as a trump card in arguments with the opposition. The theory that ousted Kyrgyz president Askar Akayev made a fatal mistake by accelerating political reform and neglecting economic growth has some validity. But Kazakhstan’s half-hearted and belated political reform efforts are not conducive to maintaining the already fragile stability either. Recently the Public Committee for the Protection of Press Freedom described the situation in the country as “depressing,” citing legal actions brought by the National Security Committee against the Zhas Alash, Zhuma Times, and Soz newspapers and blocked access to opposition websites. The Prosecutor’s Office in Almaty recently launched an unprecedented series of investigations against non-government organizations to verify that their activities conform to the laws of Kazakhstan. Notably only two of the 33 NGOs under investigation are Kazakh organizations. According to Yevgeny Zhovtis, director of the International Human Rights Bureau of Kazakhstan, this campaign suggests that the authorities are searching for evidence of foreign funding of opposition parties because they fear an “orange revolution” might be exported to Kazakhstan (Turan, March 18).
It is still too early to tell exactly how developments in post-Akayev Kyrgyzstan will affect political life in Kazakhstan. The acting head of the Kyrgyz government, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, has made a good-will gesture toward President Nazarbayev — who backed Akayev until the last hour — sending him a personal message praising the Kazakh leader for his efforts to maintain stability and security in Central Asia. Kazakhstan’s Foreign Minister Kasymzhmart Tokayev responded cautiously, expressing Kazakhstan’s readiness to render economic and technical assistance at Bishkek’s request, but at the same time stating that Kazakhstan will not assist in stabilizing the situation in Kyrgyzstan, as that is an internal matter for the neighboring state (Kazakhstanskaya pravda, March 30).
Kazakhstan has also seized the opportunity to use OSCE efforts to stabilize the situation in Kyrgyzstan to boost its own image as a country committed to the democratic ideals cherished by European countries. “We support the OSCE mission [in Kyrgyzstan],” Tokayev stressed (Kazakhstanskaya pravda, March 30). It remains to be seen whether promises to introduce a system of local self-governance, to update the election law and judicial system, and to grant more powers to parliament will be really implemented. In the coming months at least, Astana is likely to stick to its proven carrot-and-stick policy in dealing with the opposition.