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Kazakhstan: Movement Elects To Transform Itself Into A True Opposition Party

The opposition movement Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DBK) plans to transform itself into the country's first radical opposition party. The new party would have the same leadership and agenda as the DBK, which has so far been denied official registration as a public association since its creation in 2001.

Prague, 5 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Ahead of Kazakhstan's parliamentary elections next autumn, supporters of the opposition Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan movement (DBK) have officially announced plans to create a political party.

The party will be called the People's Party of Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan. Its founding congress is scheduled to be held in February.

Tolen Toqtasinov is one of leaders of the DCK and a member of the Kazakh Parliament. "The political council of the movement Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan gathered last week and decided to create a party according to the movement's agenda. [On 1 December] morning, we held another gathering to which our active members from various regions and provinces took part. We elected an initiative committee for the new party and elected the chairman for this committee. In general, the main objective is to turn ourselves into a party," Toqtasinov said.

DBK's history, however, would suggest the new party will have a difficult time getting officially recognized. The DBK, with the same leadership and agenda, has been denied registration as a public association since its creation in November 2001.

In the meantime, senior government officials involved in founding the movement were sacked and criminal cases opened against DBK members. The leader of the movement, Ghalymzhan Zhaqiyanov, is himself serving a seven-year prison term for abuse of power while serving as oblast governor.

Pauline Jones Luong is a specialist in political and economic developments in Central Asia at Yale University in the United States. She believes the Kazakh government is likely to deny registration on some sort of technical grounds:

"I have strong doubts that [Kazakh President Nursultan] Nazerbaev will allow the registration of the new party that the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan creates. The problem with the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan is that it's made demands for political changes like local elections, which is very threatening to the administration. The other parties, like Aq Zhol, have only made sort of economic critiques, or they've made economic proposals," Jones Luong said.

There are currently five pro-government parties in Kazakhstan, the reformist party Aq Zhol (Bright Path) and the Communist Party. The creation of the People's Party of Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan would fill an empty space on the political spectrum by becoming the country's only radical opposition party.

The new party's agenda includes changes in the country's political system that would require a new constitution. Notably, it is calling for the president's powers to be diminished in favor of a stronger parliament.

Kazakhstan's 2002 election law obligates political parties to certify at least 50,000 members representing all regions and major cities of the country. The DBK claims around 32,000 members -- 10,000 of which are members of other parties. Starting from a real base of 22,000 members, political observers say it is feasible the DBK could gather the requisite 50,000 members.

Steve Sabol is assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina in the United States. He says the signature requirement represents a serious obstacle, depending on government reaction to the efforts to obtain the signatures. Still, Sabol argues, the new party does have a chance to be registered.

"There's been some severe criticisms coming from Europe and from the United States that is forcing the regime to at least give the appearance of political reform, particularly in light of the fact that [Nazarbaev's] daughter's party Asar has now become an open political party. That's given even stronger voice to the criticisms of the regime, that he is grooming his daughter to follow in his footsteps," Sabol said.

In October, Dariga Nazarbaeva, Nazarbaev's eldest daughter, transformed her public association Asar (Mutual Help) into a political party. Any move in favor of Asar's registration would ostensibly also clear the way for DBK.

Analysts say DBK's best option is to attract members from other parties and movements. But Dafne Ter-Sakarian, a Central Asia analyst for the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit, notes that Kazakhstan's opposition parties have long suffered from competing agendas. And she adds the DBK still lacks popular support:

"The situation has not really changed since November 2001 when the Democratic Choice [of Kazakhstan] first got together. These are still very small urban elites with very little popular support and a very little profile in Kazakhstan. It's all irrelevant how many parties you found if you can't get a popular support base," Ter-Sakarian said.

However, Jones Luong believes the plan to create a true opposition party in Kazakhstan is significant. She says the DBK is sending a strong message to the government that it is not going to give up its fight. At the same time, Jones Luong says, the Kazakh opposition is hoping the international support that the Georgian opposition has received for its recent successes can be translated into more international support for its cause.

DBK member Batyrhan Darimbet acknowledges a direct link between last month's resignation of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze and this week's announcement in Kazakhstan: "Although the idea about this party has been put forward long ago, we announced this decision [1 December]. To a certain extent, the events in Georgia played a role in this."

The long-serving Shevardnadze finally stepped down late last month following weeks of opposition protests over disputed parliamentary elections.

(The director of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, Merkhat Sharipzhanov, contributed to this report.)