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Kazakhstan: Party Dispute Could Upset Opposition's Aim To Unseat Nazarbaev

The Ak Zhol opposition party in Kazakhstan is in the midst of an internal dispute that could result in a split. Ak Zhol had indicated it would join forces with some of the country's other opposition groups and field a single candidate in presidential elections scheduled for early next year. But a meeting of the party on 13 February gave rise to a public rift between two Ak Zhol chairmen -- jeopardizing the party's crucial potential role in any alliance aimed at unseating incumbent President Nursultan Nazarbaev.

Prague, 15 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Ak Zhol co-Chairman Alikhan Baimenov called a special meeting of the party on 13 February to vote on a no-confidence measure against his fellow co-chairman, Altynbek Sarsenbaev.

The motion passed. Speaking after the vote, Baimenov said it was for the good of the party. “A decision was made at the plenum," he said. "It was difficult for me as a person, as a citizen and as a politician. But as the Kazakh saying goes, ‘He who hides an illness will die from it.'"

The decision appeared to reflect disapproval over Sarsenbaev's collaboration on a plan to create an opposition coalition capable of competing with the dominant Otan party in the presidential election.

The plan foresees Ak Zhol and the Communist and Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan parties forming a so-called Coordinating Council of Democratic Forces. The council would then select a single candidate whom all three parties would back in the election.

Baimenov said such a council would violate the Ak Zhol charter, which prohibits contacts with other groups. But Sarsenbaev responded harshly, questioning Baimenov's loyalty and his right to hold such a vote.

“Who organized this [meeting]? Because this doesn’t deserve any attention," Sarsenbaev said. "If he [Baimenov] considers himself a democrat, he should not stab people in the back who are struggling with the authorities. Therefore you need to ask him, who helped him organize this plenum? Why is he bringing the party to the brink of ruin at a time when the democratic forces of Kazakhstan are under growing threat, when they are closing the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan Party, when they are oppressing opposition newspapers?"

Another Ak Zhol co-chair, Bulat Abilov, rejected the no-confidence motion, saying it would destroy any hope among the opposition of unseating Nazarbaev. Another Ak Zhol member, Asylbek Kazhametov, accused Baimenov of aiding the ruling regime by creating a rift within their own party.

Sarsenbaev said the no-confidence motion was illegitimate, noting that a core group of Ak Zhol's regional members had refused to participate in the vote. “Seven provincial branches of the party refused to participate in the plenum. They said they wouldn't take part in such a foolish escapade," he said. "I [and party leaders] Oraz Zhondosov, Bulat Abilov, Telukhan Zhekeev, Daulat Senbaev, and Zhannat Yertlesova also refused to attend the plenum.”

There are fears the dispute could cleave Ak Zhol into rival factions. The party was the only opposition group to win a seat in last year's parliamentary vote. A split in Ak Zhol could prove lethal to the opposition movement's presidential ambitions.

Adding to the trouble is the fact that it is Baimenov who officially holds the parliament seat. Until now, he has refused to occupy it, saying he will not participate in a legislature elected in what many say was a rigged ballot.

If Baimenov breaks away from Ak Zhol to create his own faction, it is unclear whether he will keep the seat, lose it to Ak Zhol, or see it dissolved altogether in a fresh round of votes. The position, while yielding little political influence, is symbolic as the only opposition seat in an otherwise subservient parliament.

Kazakhstan's presidential election is due to be held no later than January 2006, although there is speculation the date could be moved forward -- as has happened before. Such a move, which would give candidates less time to campaign, is seen as working to the advantage of the incumbent.

(Yerzhan Karabek of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)

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