One of Kazakhstan’s few remaining opposition leaders has announced that he is quitting politics, a move that comes amid Astana’s ongoing crackdown on dissent and leaves a dearth of dissenting voices in the country.
Bolat Abilov said in a statement quoted by Tengri News on September 19 that he had taken the “difficult decision” to leave politics (at least for a few years) and concentrate on media, movie and book projects around Kazakhstan.
Abilov, one of the country’s most prominent opposition leaders, had been head of the Azat (Freedom) party, which was in a prickly alliance with the OSDP social democrats. That union collapsed earlier this year amid much acrimony, with OSDP leader Zharmakhan Tuyakbay falling out publicly with his deputy, Amirzhan Kosanov, leaving the party in tatters.
Abilov’s departure from politics and the collapse of the OSDP Azat alliance mean that Kazakhstan now has no genuine, functioning opposition parties to take on the difficult job of holding President Nursultan Nazarbayev to account.
The opposition has always struggled to operate in Kazakhstan’s restrictive environment, where it is shut out of the rubber-stamp parliament and has little access to mainstream media, but until a couple of years ago it was given limited room for maneuver.
All that changed after a bout of fatal unrest in December 2011, when an oil strike in the western town of Zhanaozen turned violent and 15 people died in clashes with the security forces.
Astana responded with a massive crackdown on dissent. It blamed the most vocal opposition party, Alga!, for inciting the violence, jailed its leader, Vladimir Kozlov, closed his party, and shut down scores of critical media outlets.
That left OSDP Azat the lone opposition voice in Kazakhstan, but it struggled to seize the moment in the face of intense state pressure. Abilov – who in the 1990s was a successful businessman before going into politics – was among opposition leaders who served short spells in prison last year for organizing protests over the Zhanaozen violence.
Small wonder, perhaps, that opposition leaders are losing the will to fight, leaving Kazakhstan’s political narrative entirely in Astana’s hands.