A new political party in Kazakhstan is calling for making business people the engine for democratic and market reform in this energy-rich Central Asian state.
The party, as yet unnamed, is headed by Yerzhan Dosmukhamedov, an official of the Atameken National Union of Entrepreneurs and Employers of Kazakhstan and an advisor to Timur Kulibayev, son-in-law of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, a former first vice president of state energy company KazMunaiGaz.
The focus of the new party will be on loosening regulations on and giving more rights to small- and medium-sized enterprises, Dosmukhamedov told EurasiaNet during a recent trip to Washington, DC for a book launch and to build support for his movement among conservative political figures in the United States.
"We have personality-centered political parties, but we still do not have a party for those who create the market economy, and, consequently, democracy," Dosmukhamedov said. "Business people and the business community in any country, like the middle class, play an important role in bringing stability, rationality and predictability to the economic and political system."
The party's political alignment has not yet been revealed, but Dosmukhamedov has said that the hundreds of thousands of small-time traders who travel to Russia and China to buy cheap goods to resell in Kazakhstan will make up its base.
"These are not just primitive traders. They would like to have sophisticated businesses and more sophisticated business presumes a more sophisticated, predictable legal and political environment," he said.
Among other groups that have endorsed Dosmukhamedov's movement are miners' unions, an AIDS activist group and an association of handicapped people proof that the unnamed party is "emerging from the grassroots" rather than "because of a phone call from the president," he asserted.
The group, however, will face tough competition. Kazakhstan's wide range of opposition parties is frequently presented as unable to mount an effective challenge to President Nazarbayev and the political parties that back him. One strong pro-presidential party, Asar, set up by the president's daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, has recently merged with the ruling party, Otan. In July, another political party was formed that espouses maximizing market economy benefits for ordinary Kazakhstanis, principles not radically removed from those advocated by Dosmukhamedov [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive.]
Reducing the legal burdens for opening a business lies at the core of Dosmukhamedov's policy plans. Studies have shown that up to 80 percent of a small business's resources go to "defending itself from the state," he explained.
Reform of the judiciary system is also a top priority, according to Dosmukhamedov. "The judicial system in Kazakhstan is absolutely corrupt. Judges are like gods in Kazakhstan. The immunity they have is immense," he said.
To increase the public accountability of judges, Dosmukhamedov has called for membership in the European Convention on Human Rights, and for the direct election of local judges.
In pursuit of these principles, the party has sought relationships with right-wing politicians and thinkers in the West. Dosmukhamedov's book, "Atameken [Land of Our Forefathers] Building Democracy in Kazakhstan," is prefaced by a supportive letter from former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and was launched at The Heritage Foundation, an influential conservative think tank.
In foreign policy, always a sensitive area for its impact on the country's huge oil and gas industries, Dosmukhamedov has called for abandoning Kazakhstan's current strategy of balancing the influence and interests of Russia, China and the West. Dosmukhamedov came out strongly in support of aligning Kazakhstan with the United States and other Western powers, adding that he would welcome a US airbase similar to the one in neighboring Kyrgyzstan.
"Multi-vectored foreign policy is an invention of our Soviet-educated minister of foreign affairs, Mr [Kasimzhomart] Tokayev," he commented. "The only policy that would satisfy the people of Kazakhstan is one that is oriented toward the industrialized and human rights-based Western type of society, because this is the only model that ensures the effective protection of human rights and human dignity."
But Dosmukhamedov's calls for change only go so far. While he is critical of many of Nazarbayev's policies, he did not directly criticize the president. (The forward from his book is a quote from Nazarbayev extolling the virtues of private business in Kazakhstan.)
Asked to assess the record of Nazarbayev's rule of Kazakhstan, Dosmukhamedov gave a careful answer.
"I think President Nazarbayev is a pragmatic politician who managed to keep our economy afloat during the most difficult time of transition after the collapse of the Soviet Union," he said. "I think President Nazarbayev has given the foundations for the emergence of civil society in Kazakhstan. I think he created the foundations for the emergence of a free press in our society and I truly hope that he will be able to bring this historic mission to a successful conclusion, i.e. the emergence of [a] full-fledged democratic society."
At the same time, though, Dosmukhamedov called on the United States to "sustain [the] dialogue" about human rights with Nazarbayev "at all possible levels."
"The United States, for many Kazakhstanis and civil society activists, is viewed as a symbol of democracy and of a free society and we certainly would like [the US] to pursue this ideal in dealing with the newly emerged countries of the Soviet Union," he added.
US State Department officials have refrained from supporting Kazakhstan's bid to chair the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2009 in large part because of the Central Asian state's human rights record. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive.] Nonetheless, after a September 29 visit with President Nazarbayev in the White House, US President George W. Bush described Kazakhstan as committed to creating institutions "that will enable liberty to flourish." [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive.]
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.