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Kazakhstan: Political Struggle Erupts Over Wealth Sharing

  • Michael Lelyveld

Political tempers flared in Kazakhstan as Prime Minister Qasymzhomart Toqaev charged that a new self-styled reform faction was aiding outside oil interests. The power struggle, which has been brewing for months, may call the future of both the government and investment into doubt.

Boston, 21 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A major crack opened in Kazakhstan's political order yesterday as the country's prime minister charged that a new faction was trying to weaken control over the nation's oil wealth.

In a statement released in Astana, Prime Minister Toqaev called for the dismissal of several senior officials after an announcement on 17 November that they had formed a new movement called Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan.

The prime minister said: "Under the guise of defending democracy, these groups do their very worst to slander the people. They want to make Kazakhstan weak in the face of those who want to break into our oil market." The statement was reported by the Interfax news agency.

The new group, which takes its name from a now-defunct Russian reform party in the early 1990s, includes prominent critics of Rakhat Aliev. The powerful doctor and son-in-law of President Nursultan Nazarbaev resigned as deputy chairman of the country's National Security Committee on 15 November, only to be rehired as deputy chief of Nazarbaev's presidential guard.

In Kazakhstan's murky world of politics, Aliev's open fight over the past two months with figures including Pavlodar Governor Ghalymzhan Zhaqiyanov has focused on his alleged control of the nation's media and other business ties. On 16 November, Nazarbaev defended his family's right to pursue business and public duties at the same time.

In comments reported by Kazakhstan Today news agency, the president said: "They enjoy the same rights as other people do. They may enroll in business. They may be on a state service, but should they violate the law or the constitution of Kazakhstan, justice should interfere. That's why any insinuations around this issue are absolutely groundless."

The new Democratic Choice faction has portrayed its effort as a reform movement rather than a struggle over power. In its first statement, the group said that "democratic reforms in Kazakhstan have stopped."

In Toqaev's comments yesterday, which seemed addressed largely to Nazarbaev, the prime minister called for the firing of faction leaders including Zhaqiyanov, Deputy Prime Minister Oraz Zhandosov, Deputy Defense Minister Zhanat Ertilesova, and Labor Minister Alikhan Baimenov.

If anything, the dispute revealed the limits of Toqaev's power as a nominal head of government, since he was unable to dismiss any of the officials on his own.

Adding to the crisis atmosphere, Toqaev claimed yesterday that attempts had been made on Nazarbaev's life. According to the statement quoted by Interfax, the prime minister said, "Over the last three months alone, special services have known about two acts of terror against our president, but have told nothing about it to the people."

It is too soon to say whether the infighting will capture the imagination of average citizens, who largely ignore politics, primarily because of the huge gap between the country's rich and poor.

But Toqaev's appeal to the issue of power over the country's oil may resonate with interests that have been promoting greater national control and a reduced role for foreign investment.

According to Interfax, Toqaev's statement said, "What these people want is the redistribution of property and uncontrollable enrichment."

It added, "They want to bring pressure to bear on the government, the legislative branch and possibly the president in order to remove officials whom they dislike, and to obstruct the activities of law enforcement agencies."

Government officials have been raising questions for months about how much foreign involvement will be allowed in the oil industry at a time when several large projects are on the verge of launching the country as an influential producer.

Last month, Nurlan Balgimbaev, president of the state-owned Kazakhoil company, announced that his firm plans to be the sole operator of all future offshore oil projects in the country's sector of the Caspian Sea. The industry newsletter Petroleum Argus quoted Balgimbaev as saying that a state share of at least 50 percent would be required in all of the country's oil and gas projects from now on.

Speaking earlier in November in the Caspian port of Atyrau, President Nazarbaev also said the government would issue development licenses only to domestic firms, or in some cases joint ventures, Petroleum Argus reported.

While the investment controversy has grown over the past year, officials have argued that they are only trying to create a domestic industry, share wealth with citizens, and take back some of the breaks that were granted to foreign companies in the early days of independence.

But in the latest political struggle, it is unclear how the issue of wealth sharing will play out. Both sides seem to be struggling for power while laying claim to reform.

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