Abilov: “Please God let this referendum work!”

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.

Zhanuzakov: "Alga Kazakhstan! No Alga Going to Jail!"

Zhanuzakov: “Alga Kazakhstan! No Alga Going to Jail!”

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).”

Mambetalin: "Shut your gob, you glamorous bitch!"

Mambetalin: “Shut your gob, you glamorous bitch!”

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.


Fellow Central Asia blog Registan recently linked to a news report about a Kazakh lawmaker who claimed, somewhat sensationally, that more than 200,000 students had been expelled from colleges and universities for failing to pay their fees.

Saginbek Tursunov accused the authorities of doing nothing to address the problem, but his charges have since been spectacularly shot down.

In video footage featured on a recent post on Prime Minister Masimov’s spanking new blog, Education Minister Zhanseit Tuimebayev dismisses the charge and puts the real figure of expelled students at a more modest 7,000. Out of those, 3,000 students were de-registered because academic performance and failure to maintain communication with their place of study. The rest are having financial difficulties, but Tuimebayev assures the prime minister that he has instructed university officials to allow the students to repay their loans in flexible payments.

In other words, absolutely nothing to fret about.

No place for you in a Kazakh university

No place for you in a Kazakh university

The whole affair stinks to high heaven and looks to all intents and purposes like a crude set-up to make the publicity-ravenous prime minister look good for the public. After all, the original source of the news _ which, in truth, one should have been more careful than to be taken in by _ was a member of the slavishly pro-presidential Nur Otan, the only political party represented in parliament. It seems inconceivable that this Tursunov character, who bears all the hallmarks of a complete toady, would have dared to make such a potentially damaging allegation without prior approval from the required corners.

With the Kazakh government coming under growing scrutiny ahead of its OSCE chairmanship next year, it is evident that its PR strategies will have to change significantly from the old Soviet-style propaganda by diktat and one-sided state reporting. This episode, along with Masimov’s foolishly skittish excitement about his own blog, may serve as a useful of example of what is to come.

By framing government policy on student welfare in the context of a palpably manufactured public debate, the authorities give the impression of openness, transparency and responsiveness. But this is surely an illusory pretension, seeing as students rights organizations are virtually non-existent on a national level, even though there is no shortage of things about which undergraduates could complain about. Corruption in institutions of higher learning is so rampant as to effectively invalidate the real value of many degrees, just to mention one point.

In adopting this sort of shadow boxing, Kazakhstan must hope to create the impression, among those that matter, of a totally free society in which problems are openly discussed. This is not exactly new; the controversial law on religion approved in parliament recently was debated in expert committees bringing together representatives from major faith groups. This charade had the useful function of allowing Muslim and Russian Orthodox Christian proponents to lobby for even stricter rules, which had the ultimate result of making the law itself seem quite reasonable. Conveniently enough, however, none of the religious groups that would actually be affected were present at any of these gatherings. The overall effect is to soften up the thinking classes resistance to controversial proposals and simultaneously give the impression legislation is being drawn up with perfect transparency. Never mind that ordinary could never get their hands on the final version of the law before it was unceremoniously approved by the Senate. Incidentally, the draft law still requires presidential approval and minority faith groups and the OSCE still remain hopeful Nazarbayev may veto it.

 Co-opting the Internet into the PR campaign, while strictly monitoring the public’s access to its more dubious areas (Livejournal still remains inaccessible to many Kazakhtelecom customers for supposedly technical reasons), merely takes gulling the people to a whole new technological level.

This item may generate some very dubious spam, but it seems too peculiar not to report.
Kazakh newspaper Liter reports (link in Russian) that a disability rights group in Karaganda has called on the government to legalize prostitution and issue sex ration cards giving a minimum of five sessions a month to the disabled.
As Tirlik chairman Roza Petrus explains, the reasoning behind the proposal is not altogether frivolous:

The disabled rarely have an intimate life, and that affects their physical and mental health.
Call-girls, who offer sex in classified advertisments, refused to come when they learn the client is disabled. The simply hang up or turn away at the door. Is that not discrimination?

Asked whether rentboys should be available for disabled women, Petrus answers:

Of course. The majority of disabled people in Kazakhstan are women. They are physically handicapped, but are in women in every respect that want to be loved.

According to a World Bank discussion paper published last year, around 405,000 people, around 2.7 percent of the total population, in Kazakhstan receive state social disability allowances. Legislation covering the interests of the disabled is nominally quite liberal, granting a quota for university places and employment.

On a common cultural level, however, it is beyond dispute that people with most physical and mental disabilities are effectively sidelined from public life in Kazakhstan.  Wheelchairs are rare sight in Kazakhstan’s largest cities, which are generally pretty poorly equipped for the purpose, anyhow. In that context, what seems like a foolish and superficial publicity stunt may in fairness be a provocative attempt at challenging prejudices.

Interesting to see if the Majlis picks this one up.

UPDATE: RFE/RL has also picked up the story.

Russian website Neft Rossii reports (link in Russian) that Kazakh state energy company KazMunaiGas (KMG) has finally sealed the deal with shady Indonesian company Central Asia Petroleum Ltd. to purchase just over 50 percent in MangistauMunaiGas (MMG), once the country’s largest oil producer.  

The deal needs the approval of the Kazakh anti-monopoly agency, which should be a mere formality, although it will in effect ensure that KMG gains an even more unwieldy grip over the country’s energy resources. Even more importantly, MMG controls the valuable Pavlodar refinery, which the Kazakh government has had its beady eyes on for some time. Just to be accurate, however, it should be noted that KMG already owns a 47 percent stake in the facility.

Complete control over that asset will in the long-term prove far more appealing than the relatively meagre 5.7 million tons of oil output that MMG accounted for in 2007. With domestic fuel prices _ which soared throughout most of last year _ becoming an increasingly sensitive topic, the facility to control supply of this precious commodity will be a useful political lever for Astana pull whenever it requires it. In a slightly inept spectacle, the Kazakh government announced in May that a temporary ban on the export of petroleum products to try and stem rising fuel costs, which in turn have a knock-on effect on the cost of agricultural produce.

Of course, what the country really needs is proper investment into refineries the government already owns, but there is not much sign of that. It is perhaps just as well that the crisis is dissuading many Kazakhs from investing in new and swanky cars, as the petrol on offer is usually so dismal that the vehicles invariably suffer from being watered with it.

Aliyev relaxing in a lair of undisclosed location

Aliyev relaxing in a lair of undisclosed location

On an even juicier note, the MMG deal has a whiff of intrigue about it, since it is widely speculated that none other than the hated Rakhat Aliyev, the president’s prodigal son-in-law and all-round thug, was the company’s main shareholder. Aliyev, formerly head of the successor agency to the KGB, now lives in exile in some unknown European state and has to look on as the Kazakh authorities slice up his patrimony. Or so it is alleged.

Russia’s Gazprom Neft sniffed around MMG for a while, but it never really stood a chance against Nursultan Nazarbayev and his cronies. Blood, after all, is thicker than water – even if it is only by marriage.