For anybody that has ever wondered whether Kazakhstan even has a political opposition, the answer is that it does, but not a very useful one.
Matters began promisingly on March 16 when one phalanx of the opposition met for an hours-long meeting to discuss a raft of referendum proposals that they hope could propel them into some kind of political relevance. The unwritten mantra among politicians in Kazakhstan is that if something is worth talking about, it is worth talking about for hour after endless hour.
Despite officially being banned, Respublika weekly newspaper usefully summed up the meeting with this pithy headline summary: “Opposition Says to Authorities: No to Eurasian Union, Yes to Elected Mayors.”
Other than backing referendums on those issues, the meeting also called for votes on whether to nationalize Kazakhmys, ArcelorMittal Temirtau, Kazzinc, ENRC and Halyk Bank, and on whether to prohibit the building of a nuclear fuel bank and an atomic power plant in Kazakhstan.
Overall, the proposals offer the suggestion of a nationalist-populist agenda that the largely anodyne opposition must hope will finally put a tiger in its tank.
The turnout at the meeting of 512 attendees was hailed as a success by Azat party leader Bulat Abilov.
“When, at the start of September, we proposed this referendum initiative, many told us that that we couldn’t bring people out and hold a meeting, that we would be harassed,” Abilov said.
But making the government see the error of its ways is imperative, he said.
The referendum, which will now need to be submitted to the election commission for approval, is also a useful platform for Abilov to return to the public eye.
He largely slipped from view last year after being jailed twice for participating in unauthorized rallies in which he vowed unending resistance to callous government indifference over the bloody suppression of unrest in Zhanaozen in late 2011. Presumably fearing a sentence longer than the two-week jail sentence slaps on the wrist he received, he judiciously tip-toed away from the whole Zhanaozen issue.
Other notable speakers at the March 16 meeting were the young, photogenic and well-spoken political analyst Mukhtar Taizhan and the leader of banned Alga political movement Marat Zhanuzakov.
Taizhan, who has spoken copiously elsewhere in opposition to the Customs Union/Eurasian Union and has thus set out his stall as a reasonable nationalist of sorts, is a figure to watch in the future. But many eyes will have been on Zhanuzakov, who has the unenviable task of taking over the helm of a party whose previous leader is now serving a seven-year prison sentence.
An interview with Respublika after his first public airing in the new role reveals a combative figure apparently intent on pursuing similar territory to his predecessor; namely the corruption and economic malfeasance that has hampered Kazakhstan’s potential.
The elephant in the room here is that both Respublika and Alga are known to be financed by fugitive businessman Mukhtar Ablyazov, which renders that position inevitably problematic, given that he has all but admitted to gross embezzlement.
The referendum proposals are certainly not without promise and clearly designed as a quixotically mischievous attempt to wrong-foot the government, since their chances of actually going to vote are negligible. On the Customs Union _ or the Eurasian Union as the opposition has taken to calling it, in a transparent attempt to raise nationalist hackles _ the public jury is clearly still out.
As KIMEP University Professor Nargis Kassenova has lucidly argued, the Customs Union has largely proved a hindrance to businesses in Kazakhstan by causing bureaucratic complications and raising the cost of Chinese and Western imports.
Speaking for the defence, independent political analyst Andrei Chebotaryev criticized the proposed Customs Union referendum, calling it a short-sighted policy as, in his opinion, voters may actually end up backing the economic bloc were they given the choice.
Media reports of Chebotaryev’s remarks do not dwell on how he reached that conclusion.
While it may have been smiles all around at the referendum meeting, it was a different story at the gathering of that other hapless opposition stalwart _ the All-National Social-Democratic Party, or OSDP.
With the unhappy marriage between the prima donnas in the Azat-OSDP union having more or less culminated in divorce, OSDP is now busy eating itself if events at their congress on March 20 are anything to go by.
Despite being party deputy secretary, Amirzhan Kosanov was told on the eve of the meeting that he need not bother to turn up, which was as good as an invitation to make a fuss.
“I did not want any scandal,” Kosanov says in this video, before launching into a lengthy invective in front of the bouncers keeping him out of the congress.
“Somebody is intentionally creating a provocation and attempting to discredit the party,” Kosanov says.
That statement seems to assume OSDP is unable to discredit itself on its own, which is patently not the case.
In his rambling peroration, Kosanov calls for greater efforts by a unified opposition in attracting young people _ indeed a pressing issue for these movements’ greying ranks.
As it happens, ODSP Zharmakhan Tuyakbay has announced that the party has approved the creation of a youth wing and that a woman’s wing has also begun operations.
This looks like too little and well over a decade too late.
The imminent death of this tired and aged opposition generation has become a recurrent refrain among political commentators. As this piece from December in Central Asia Monitor harshly but not unfairly notes, “people with big names do not join the opposition, even from among those injured by the authorities (incidentally, this is not to the opposition camp’s credit because it hints at its gradual degeneration).”
Central Asia Monitor also alludes to relatively youthful Serikh Mambetalin, the delusional former leader of the now-nationalist, now-environmentalist, now-nothing Rukhaniyat party, as another missed opportunity.
Mambetalin these days prefers to hang out in social media sites, where the newspaper tartly notes he indulges in petty name-calling, dismissing people as “glamourous bitches” and telling them to “shut their gob.”
Rukhaniyat, which once included Taizhan in its ranks until he wisely dropped out, collapsed farcically in the weeks ahead of the show elections in January 2011 that led to the formation of the sitting rubber stamp non-parliament.
(Somewhat hilariously, former KazTransGas chairman Serik Sultangali was in February elected the new chair of Rukhaniyat. As party founder Altyntash Jaganova told a party congress, Rukhaniyat’s vision has always coincided with the ideas of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, which must have come as a surprise to Mambetalin.)
Central Asia Monitor, which seems to specialize in these obituaries on the opposition, ran with another piece earlier this month that revisited the same theme, albeit in an almost entirely incoherent fashion.
“An opposition that cannot see itself in power and simply occupies a certain political niche will never work up to the required standard,” writes commentator Bolat Shakuyev, without ever really getting to the point.
The standard is indeed low, but the burning question is whether it matters that Kazakhstan does not actually have an opposition party worthy of that title.
The government evidently doesn’t appear to believe so, but then again they were the people that let the issue of striking oil workers fester in Zhanaozen until it descended into bloodshed.
It is obvious that few lessons have really been learned from that tragic and quite possibly avoidable episode _ other than how best to massage the public relations fallout that is.
On the contrary, Alga, the one party vocally talking about Zhanaozen and warning of the dangers it represented in advance was instead accused of actually inciting the unrest and had its leader jailed in a kangaroo court.
The opposition is hapless and helpless, but there is no indication the government under the increasingly senescent Nazarbayev is possessed of a whole lot more vision.
The authorities’ strategy at the moment is a blind gamble on black: letting the population bumble around ideologically rudderless and hoping the oil money will be enough to quell any signs of unrest.