New York, 25 November 2004 (RFE/RL) -- In size and natural riches, Kazakhstan has no rivals in Central Asia. The huge, oil-rich country also stands apart by the health of its political opposition movement.
At a recent conference at New York's Columbia University, opposition experts from Central Asia repeatedly noted that Kazakhstan's opposition is organized better and enjoys more financial autonomy than movements elsewhere in the region.
And the movement now appears intent on gaining real political power.
Amirzhan Kossanov, chairman of the Executive Committee of the Republican National Party of Kazakhstan, tells RFE/RL that various Kazakh political movements are already in advanced stages of negotiations to select a unified opposition candidate to run in presidential elections scheduled for 2006.
"The self-sufficiency of the Kazakhstan opposition makes it a threat for the government. There are negotiations right before the presidential elections about a unified opposition candidate. The Kazakhstan regime is confused because it knows it's not popular among the people. They realize that free and just elections are a death sentence for them," Kossanov says.
"The Kazakhstan regime is confused because it knows it's not popular among the people. They realize that free and just elections are a death sentence for them."
Kossanov adds that there is also a healthy democratic competition among leaders of different opposition movements.
Arkady Dubnov, an analyst for the Moscow daily "Vremya Novostey," has spoken on numerous occasions with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev as well as with the leading figures of the country's opposition.Financially Stable
Dubnov tells RFE/RL that after achieving a certain level of independence, the Kazakh economic elite is now hungry for political power.
Precisely because many of their leaders are now wealthy, these new opposition movements do not need financial assistance from abroad, unlike in other Central Asian countries.
"The opposition in Kazakhstan today is first of all represented in parties like Ak Zhol. These are the young wolves bred and nurtured within Nazarbaev's regime. Now, they are demanding their piece of political power. They have already gotten their economic strength, but now they are determined to assert their interests on a legitimate political level," Dubnov says.
Dubnov says the new Kazakh parties can support themselves without any dependence on grants from abroad and they have already achieved significant political influence.
The Kazakh opposition movement received another boost this week when former parliament speaker Zharmakhan Tuyakbai announced that he is joining the Coalition of Democratic Forces. That grouping unites the major opposition groups such as Ak Zhol, Democratic Choice for Kazakhstan, and Communist parties.
Tuyakbai said his decision was prompted by disagreement with recent presidential policies. But he is not the only high-level official to have recently joined the opposition.
Akezhan Kazhegeldin, who was former prime minister from 1994 to 1997, wrote an open letter to the country's opposition movements in October, appealing for a unified platform to take on Nazarbaev in the 2006 elections.
Kossanov of the Republican National Party tells RFE/RL that the average Kazakh citizen now sees the opposition as a legitimate alternative to Nazarbaev. And that, he says, is another factor distinguishing the country form its neighbors.
"The uniqueness of the Kazakh opposition is that it is joined by people who were part of the governing elite: [Akezhan] Kazhegeldin, the former prime minister, current leaders of Ak Zhol opposition party were in leading positions in Nazarbaev's government. These are people who are familiar with the decision making process of the current government, they know how to influence and to make an impact in the power structures from the outside," Kossanov says.
But they still have to contend with Nazarbaev, who controls the key levers of power. And Kossanov says the president, in Soviet fashion, is widely believed to keep a file of compromising information about all high-level officials.
"Everybody in Kazakhstan knows that President Nazarbaev does not appoint anyone in an influential position without having compromising information [kompromat] on the appointee. Everybody knows that; it is an unwritten rule of his personnel policy. We can't find angels who would now lead the opposition, various democratic parties. We have all been nurtured in this system," Kossanov says.
Kossanov adds that Kazakhstan is unlikely to see a scenario such as last year in Georgia, where an unpopular president stepped down to avoid bloodshed.
For his part, analyst Dubnov says Nazarbaev is concerned about the growing strength of the new opposition. He says that following Russian President Vladimir Putin's with the Yukos oil company, the Kazakh leader is now trying to put the economic brakes on his rivals' expansion and thirst for political strength.