A diverse team of opposition figures, human rights defenders, and artists from Kazakhstan formed the political platform Zhana Kazakhstan (“New Kazakhstan”) after a meeting in Brussels on April 9, in the latest attempt to form an alternative to President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s seemingly eternal rule.
Backed by ex-Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin, who now lives in exile in London, the delegation also had a few meetings with representatives of the European Commission and the EU Parliament. In an interview with RFE/RL, Kazhegeldin said he is ready to draft a new constitution for the country and respond to the growing demands of his fellow countrymen for a genuine transition of power in Kazakhstan. Kazhegeldin was quick to note that Zhana Kazakhstan was not a party, but a political platform.
While welcoming the event, Alnur Mussayev, another opposition politician in exile, said in a Facebook post that the participants at the Brussels forum displayed “a diverse range of political views.” In fact, a number of participants in the meeting are commonly considered to be closer to Kazakhstan’s government than they try to portray themselves. The most illustrious uninvited guest, opposition figure Mukhtar Ablyazov, strongly called out the Brussels forum as a farce indirectly organized by Kazakhstan’s government in an effort to distract the population from his own revival of the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan party-in-exile. The Zhana Kazakhstan members repeated that they would not be against Ablyazov’s membership in the new platform, should he ask to participate.
“We had invited several members of Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan to come to Brussels. But they refused to come. This was their choice, but we are still open to build a dialogue with them,” Galym Ageleuov, human rights activist at the Liberty Fund, told The Diplomat in Almaty.
The meeting resulted in a short round of debates on social media among political analysts and opposition members, but failed to draw the attention of local population. As Ageleuov admitted, nothing concrete can be done until the platform becomes self-sustainable.
“We need to involve local businesses and make the population sensitive to political freedom and human rights,” Ageleuov said.
Kazhegeldin, an ex-Soviet KGB officer, embarked on a political career in 1989, favoring liberal policies for both Russia and his native Kazakhstan. After a brief stint as a businessman, he entered independent Kazakhstan’s political scene with the specific task of attracting foreign investment for the privatization push that the country had planned. After successfully planning the sale of state-owned assets, including in the profitable oil sector, he was rewarded by Nazarbayev with the post of prime minister in 1994. During his tenure, privatization continued at a fast pace. In 1997, his clash with rampant politician Nurlan Balgimbayev pushed him to the side and forced his resignation, allegedly for health reasons. Months later, he founded the Republican People’s Party of Kazakhstan with the aim to take power. After the financial police started investigating Kazhegeldin’s activities, he fled the country and was banned from taking part in the 1999 presidential election.
Ironically, it was Kazakhstan’s government request to authorities in Belgium and Switzerland for an investigation into Kazhegeldin’s finances that triggered the Kazakhgate scandal, involving also Nazarbayev and Balgimbayev’s families in the intricate network of offshore accounts that had benefited from murky payments as a reward for the privatization of major oil assets. Kazakhstan’s authorities admitted in 2002 that Nazarbayev and Kazhegeldin had set up a offshore accounts to shield revenues from the privatization from domestic macroeconomic crises. Then-Prime Minister Imangali Tasmagambetov, however, clearly stated that “if there is any wrongdoings, it’s Kazhegeldin’s fault.” In recent years, Kazhegeldin and his family re-emerged in connection to offshore companies featured in the Panama Papers database.
The earliest charges against Kazhegeldin and Ablyazov were almost simultaneous and indicated the ruling elite’s unwillingness to deal with political opponents through democratic means, such as elections or public debates.
In March 2000, Kazhegeldin had headed one of the first meetings of Kazakhstan’s opposition abroad in London. The Forum of Democratic Forces that emerged faced strong repression in Kazakhstan and its activities never took off. After 18 years, in Brussels, Kazhegeldin played the role of financial backer and elder leader among opposition members and human rights defenders who have emerged since the early 2000s. Among the participants of the latest meeting, Amirzhan Kossanov, former member of the Forum, could be considered the only other senior opposition leader.
In an excellent editorial for Esquire.kz, journalist Gulnara Bazhkenova showed how timeless the souvenir photo of the Brussels forum participants would seem to Kazakhstan’s population. The fact that, after 20 years, political opposition members have been unable to make significant progress is a sign of both the solidity of Nazarbayev’s authoritarian regime and of the opposition’s inability to convince the people that their alternative is more credible than the current political system. The latter, arguably, is the main reason behind the chronic failures of Kazakhstan’s opposition, especially when old opposition members stubbornly continue to fight a long-lost personal battle against Nazarbayev.
When Kazhegeldin said last week that he is ready to redraft the constitution, he omitted to say that the 1995 constitution, which is considered the juridical shift to the current authoritarian political system, was adopted while he was prime minister. Ironically, as it stands, there is nothing “new” about New Kazakhstan.