Workers need to build mass opposition
The result of polling in the presidential election in Kazakhstan comes as no surprise. The country is a dictatorship with one unopposed ruler since its independence from the USSR in 1991. Official figures say that over 95% of the 9.5 million people eligible to vote went to the polling booths and nearly 98% voted for the 74 year-old incumbent, Nursultan Nazarbayev, to stay in power for a fifth consecutive term.
The president mockingly apologised for such an overwhelming victory. “For super-democratic states, such figures are unacceptable,” he said at a press conference. “But If I had interfered, I would have looked undemocratic, right?”.
As the election approached, a left-wing lawyers’ organisation in Britain – the Haldane Society – condemned a visit being made to Kazakhstan by the Bar Council – on a ‘business development mission’. It describes the country as a ‘police state’ with its human rights position continuing to deteriorate. At present, as they point out, Kazakhstan is rated 129th out of 150 countries in the ‘Democratic Ranking’, 110th for corruption rank and 131st for press freedom.
After the election, an observation report for the Organisation for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE) said there was a complete lack of a credible opposition: "Voters were not offered a genuine choice between political alternatives", it said. There were no genuine opposition candidates, just two hand-picked contenders – one a member of the tame ‘Communist’ Party and one a Nazarbayev crony, head of the state-run trade union federation and former regional governor in Karaganda.
This particular ‘election’ was not due until 2016, but was brought forward by the ageing potentate to try and assure his future. Last time round, in 2011, when revolutions were overthrowing dictatorships in North Africa, it was none other than former British prime minister, Tony Blair, who advised Nazarbayev to bring forward the presidential vote! As the press in Britain has pointed out this week, during what is a tough general election campaign for his Labour Party, this same Tony Blair was retained by Nazarbayev on an ‘advisory’ contract worth “several million pounds” (British Guardian web-site, 25 April, 2015). On 8 April, the London Evening Standard reported that his wife, Cherie Blair, was stepping down as a judge. She had told the Daily Mail that she was going to concentrate on her work with Omnia Strategy, “which advises governments and multinationals and is thought to have a £500,000 deal with Kazakhstan”.
Economic and social ills
The Kazakhstan economy has begun to falter, badly affected by the falling price it gets for its chief product – oil. Its domestic industries are struggling to compete with Russian imports made cheaper by the weakening of the sanctions-hit rouble and many are laying off workers. Price rises on basic necessities are causing widespread hardship for working people and pensioners.
In 2011 a movement of opposition to Nazarbayev developed rapidly after his last election ‘victory’ (95% last time), including discussion especially amongst oil-workers of the need for a general strike to bring down the dictatorship. A crippling blow was dealt to it in December of that year when up to 100 strikers and their supporters were mown down by state forces in the town square of Zhanaozen.
Now, in what appears to be a pre-election gesture to curry favour with Kazakhstan’s workers, Nazarbayev has ensured the release of the last workers held in prison after the massacre. But still there is no apology and no independent inquiry into the true nature of that outrage.
New social and economic struggles are reported to be breaking out – in particular in the Mangistau and Aktyubinsk oil-producing areas and in Zhezkazgan, where workers at the Kazakhmys copper mining company are facing cuts and lay-offs and where the whole area is being ruined.
Important protests have continued on the issue of housing and the crippling level of loan repayments. Petitioners from many parts of Kazakhstan ‘occupied’ a square in the capital, Astana, in the run-up to the election, to try and get an acknowledgement from the president for their grievances and some action to redress them. The authorities have been unable to quell the fighting spirit of such protesters and, in spite of harsh laws against protest and against trade unions, the challenges to authoritarian rule will grow.
Even Nazarbayev’s supporters are now getting nervous about who will succeed him and how – who will they be able to do deals with once the old man has gone?
The Guardian points out that, “Western leaders have turned a blind eye to Kazakhstan’s democratic short-comings, reaping huge financial proceeds by servicing the country’s resource industry and its leader’s ego” (Saturday 25 April).
At home Nazarbayev continues to be sustained by a subservient clique around him, by an almost total clamp-down on opposition media and, as the Guardian puts it, “a ruthless clearing from the playing field of anyone with even mildly oppositionist inclinations”. Reuters agrees: “Most of his vocal opponents have either been jailed or fled abroad”.
One political ally turned rival, billionaire Mukhtar Ablyazov, already fleeing the British courts over massive embezzlement charges, was arrested last year and held in Southern France. A court agreed this March to his extradition to Russia for further proceedings against him.
Nazarbayev’s former son-in-law, Rakhat Aliyev, who was once seen by the president as a possible successor, fell out of favour and is now dead. He was sacked from his post as ambassador in Vienna and sentenced in absentia to 40 years in prison. Extradition was refused by the Austrian authorities but he was held in ‘investigative custody’. On 24 February this year he was he was found hanged in his cell. His lawyer says it was murder, made to look like suicide, as Aliyev had constantly feared.
Nazarbayev, like all dictators, will continue to try and rid himself of all opposition and surround himself with sycophantic admirers. But, rivalries continue within his own pampered family and, as the workers recover their confidence, pressure will mount from below. Nazarbayev’s regime is an unstable and fragile Bonapartist dictatorship that, like others before it, could fracture and crumble when challenged by a concerted mass movement.
Genuine opposition candidate cannot get past first base!
A leader of the housing campaign known as ‘Leave the People’s Homes Alone’ (ONJ) was persuaded by its members to try and put his name forward to contest the presidential election. Of course, many obstacles were set in the way of a genuine contender, but nothing he and his supporters in the ONJ felt they could not overcome. 100,000 signatures had to be collected, with at least 1% in each region, and huge sums of money raised to fulfil the requirements – not impossible for a Kazakhstan-wide organisation. Another requirement was proficiency in the Kazakh language and a full knowledge of Kazkahstan’s history and literature, all to be tested in examinations. Also not a problem for the potential candidate, Esenbek Ukteshbayev, who is a fluent Kazkah speaker, brought up on the literature and history of his country.