On November 15, deputy National Security Council director Rakhat Aliev resigned from his post after his boss Marat Tazhin forbade him to give evidence to a parliamentary commission investigating corruption in government. Three days later, deputy prime minister Uraz Dzhandosov and other members of cabinet announced the foundation of an elite reform movement favoring decentralization and democratization, called Democratic Choice. The prime minister then threatened to resign unless the Democratic Choice members left the government. In spite of support for Democratic Choice from the heads of two commercial banks and other business and political leaders in the country, Nazarbaev chose to support his prime minister Kasymzhomart Tokaev.
After Kazakhstan unwillingly obtained its independence upon the disintegration of the Soviet regime, Nazarbaev tacitly proclaimed war against the bloated state bureaucracy he inherited, which also constituted a potential opposition power base. After the first post-Soviet parliament was elected in 1994, on the basis of the country's first post-Soviet constitution, lobbies and alliances began to emerge between parliamentary groupings on the one hand, and the lower and middle ranks of the ministerial structures on the other.
Nazarbaev engineered the parliament's dissolution in 1994 when, on the basis of an accusation of electoral fraud by an anti-Nazarbaev candidate in a single electoral district, the Constitutional Court ruled the entire parliament to be illegal. In this way, he short-circuited the potential opposition to executive power that the nascent alliance of parliamentarians with the lower and middle levels of the state ministries represented. Nazarbaev ruled by decree for over a year after dissolving parliament. In early 1995, a referendum extended his term in office. A new constitution, providing for a "semi-presidential" system on the French and Finnish model, was adopted by a subsequent referendum that autumn. In December 1995, Kazakhstan elected its second parliament.
In the 1999 presidential elections Nazarbaev's chief opponent, former Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin, was not permitted to register his candidacy, and has lived in exile in the West since 1998. Kazhegeldin, the most serious potential contender for the presidency, was recently convicted in absentia of bribe-taking and tax evasion in a trial denounced as a farce by the international community.
This is the context in which, on November 15, deputy NSC director Rakhat Aliev resigned from his post after his boss Marat Tazhin forbade him to give evidence to a parliamentary commission investigating corruption in government. Two days later, Nazarbaev appointed Aliev deputy head of the presidential bodyguard service. The next day, deputy prime minister Uraz Dzhandosov announced the foundation of Democratic Choice. Insisting that the country's future was under threat because of the absence of democratic reforms, the movement's leaders came out in favor of political decentralization and the election of regional prefects, who are currently appointed by the president.
Prime minister Kasymzhomart Tokaev replied with a public statement, which some observers believe was scripted by Aliev, that he would himself resign unless the members of Democratic Choice left the Cabinet. The latter including Dzhandosov, first deputy finance minister Kairat Kelimbetov, deputy defense minister Zhannat Yertlesova, and others, thereupon declared that they could no longer work with Tokaev. They forced President Nazarbaev to choose sides. In spite of support for Democratic Choice from the heads of two commercial banks and other business and political leaders in the country, Nazarbaev chose to support his prime minister.
Perhaps it was Nazarbaev's frustration with the corruption and conservatism of the inherited bureaucracy and ministries that led to him to mistrust even his own political appointees and lash out against weak political opponents. Yet the consequence has been to fall back on members of his own family, with devastating results for the country at large. The political profile of Nazarbaev's son-in-law Rakhat Aliev has grown in the public mind, not least through his ownership of one the two largest media conglomerates in the country. Despite a brief period of media freedom from 1993 to 1996, voices questioning the established authority have since been suppressed. The president’s daughter Dariga Nazarbaeva heads the state news agency Khabar and controls a media conglomerate including three television stations and two radio stations. Owners of another conglomerate, Karavan, sold their company to a group around Rakhat Aliev after tax audits, arson and police intimidation. Heavy fines for such offenses as insulting the dignity of the president have produced self-censorship throughout the mass media.
The new Democratic Choice grouping seems at present to exist entirely within the rarefied atmosphere of the country's political elite. Indeed, Nazarbaev met with the leaders after they resigned their ministerial portfolios and extended his patronage to them. It is not excluded that they return to responsible government posts in future. In fact, it would be difficult for Democratic Choice to be a political party, because there is no party system in Kazakhstan. Rather, the "political class" is composed mainly of oligarchic groups within an authoritarian system that governs through patronage networks.
Zhakiyanov's dismissal is directly connected with the formation of Democratic Choice, and it points to problems in Kazakhstan's democratization. Kazakhstan is a unitary state in which the regions have no special powers. Decision-making is centralized, and the President appoints the heads of the subsidiary administrative divisions (akimats). There is a need for reform so that they may be locally elected, as are the maslikhats (provincial legislative assemblies), but this could threaten the political center by creating independent bases for opposing political forces. Therefore, Nazarbaev has suggested such a reform exclusively in the context of the aggregating the provinces under five mega-regions, each of which would have a chief whom the president would still appoint. This proposal appears to be borrowed directly from the Russian experience.
In the wake of the November crisis the Forum of Democratic Forces, which had tried to pursue a conciliatory policy toward Nazarbaev, now launched its new slogan, "Kazakhstan without Nazarbaev!" This would appear to widen the chasm between itself and Democratic Choice, whose members are basically technocrats seeking to avoid an extreme concentration of the country's economic power in the hands of what is now referred to in Almaty as "The Family."
Part of the political establishment favors Kazhegeldin as a figure standing against the present corruption in government. Following the November political crisis, however, it will be harder for this opposition continue to work for change, whether through the government ministries and parliament, or in the provinces. It is likely that the technocrats will be further squeezed out of power, slowly and subtly but unmistakably, in the months to come. Possibly, other members of Nazarbaev's family will in future be appointed to other state posts, confirming their collective ascendance over the reformist group of younger technocrats. This would only increase the simmering of the political crisis, while relegating it for the time being to the back burner. That could further diminish foreign investor confidence, at a time when annual foreign direct investment has been continuously declining since 1997.
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First published in Central Asia – Caucasus Analyst vol. 3, no. 25 (5 December 2001): 3–4.