November 6 set a political precedent in Kazakhstan. In the unpromising setting of a drab room in Almaty’s crumbling House of Democracy, Murat Auezov, one of the troika of the opposition movement Azamat, announced at an impromptu press conference that he would be opposing President Nazarbaev in the December 2000 elections. (Press Conference, Dom Demokratii, November 6, 1997)
Murat Auezov, son of the famous Kazakh writer Mukhtar Auezov and former ambassador of Kazakhstan to China, declared that he was seeking office "on his own" and not as a candidate of Azamat. Auezov stated that he aimed first and foremost to "democratize" the presidency through free and competitive elections. In ten years, he observed, President Nazarbaev had changed three Constitutions, three parliaments, and four governments. Most importantly, he declared, the president is illegitimate, not popularly elected but reconfirmed by his own crafted referendum in 1995.
This is the first time in Kazakhstan’s short history of independence that an alternative candidate has openly stepped forward. In 1990, 99 percent of the population reportedly voted for the uncontested Nazarbaev, and the president bypassed elections scheduled for 1996 by holding a popular referendum a year earlier that endorsed his continuation in power until December, 2000. Nonetheless, Auezov stressed that, to allow for adequate preparation, he did not intend demanding elections prior to 2000.
The announcement and its timing are not wholly unexpected. Auezov’s personal grudge against the president began more than two years ago when he was summarily recalled from China by Nazarbaev with no explanation or alternative job offer. Some months ago Azamat joined forces with other opposition movements, tactically including the Communist Party, to form the Narodnyi Front. The president also leaves shortly for a visit to the U.S. Auezov’s declaration, moreover, reflects the overall mood of 1997. While 1996 was notable for Nazarbaev’s attempts at reconciliation, the current year has been marked by an increased centralization of power.
The road ahead for Auezov will not be easy. Although a wise and likable figure, he does not yet possess the charisma or stature of Nazarbaev. Many doubt that any oppositional candidate will be able to build other power networks or convince a conservative and hierarchical population that an alternative is either possible or desirable. Nevertheless, Nazarbaev seems to be responding to the challenge. His "Strategy 2030," launched in late October and endorsed last week by the IMF, sets out his own vision for the Republic’s next 30 years. (Delovaya nedelya, October 31) Over the last two weeks Nazarbaev has focused on education and childrens’ health — two vote-getting issues. And, despite the president’s own denials, rumors have it that he is about to change the Constitution again and call early presidential elections.
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