Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

The Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan: A Case Study in Economic Liberalization, Intraelite Cleavage, and Political Opposition

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

The Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan: A Case Study in Economic Liberalization, Intraelite Cleavage, and Political Opposition

Article excerpt

Why the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan Matters

The collapse of the Soviet Union created fifteen independent states with distinct trajectories of political development. Although early observers hoped that the Soviet Union's demise equaled a victory for democracy, many of these states-perhaps most notably the Central Asian republics-have failed to live up to vaunted Western ideals. In fact, the absence of significant challenges to the authoritarian status quo by viable democratic opposition movements is the defining characteristic of the political climate in Central Asia. Numerous social, historical, and structural factors have been cited to explain the political continuities during the region's postcommunist transition, including the hegemony of informal clan politics, endurance of Soviet legacies, and lack of prior experience with either statehood or democracy, among others. Yet, inspired by the Rose Revolution in Georgia, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, and the sudden collapse of the Akaev regime in Kyrgyzstan in March 2005, political activists in Central Asia hope that political change can be affected in even the least politically reformed and most authoritarian of the former Soviet states.

Given the renewed sense of hope on the part of Central Asia's political opposition, the questions guiding this article are: What is the most plausible force for genuine democratization in the region? What segment of society, if any, is capable of mounting a viable democratic challenge to the ruling authoritarian regimes? Using Kazakhstan as a case study, we contend that intraelite cleavages fueled by the fragmenting economic interests of the newly minted national bourgeoisie represent the most promising source of pressure for meaningful systemic reform. President Nazarbaev's greatest achievement-Kazakhstan's ambitious economic liberalization carried out since independence-appears to have had an unintended side effect. Under conditions of rapid economic transformation, the tried and true Soviet solution to maintaining the political status quo-the monolithic national elite-began to shatter as the elite actors' economic interests diversified and ultimately came into conflict.

The hope for democracy in Central Asia is not that the masses will revolt, nor is it that the heads of government will come to view democracy as good in itself. Neither will democracy simply arise once these countries reach some specified level of economic development. Rather, with economic liberalization, escalating competition among elites for their share of the economic pie and their growing instrumental commitment to the rule of law seem to be the source of genuine political change. As the basis for this interpretation of events, we analyzed the emergence in fall 2001 of the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DCK; in Russian: Demokraticheskii Vybor Kazakhstana, or DVK; in Kazakh: Kazakstan Demokratiyalyk Tangdauy, or KDT), which represented a dramatic departure from the predominant pattern of political life in Central Asia. The DCK exemplified a new stage in the evolution of post-Soviet Central Asian opposition movements brought on by the emergence of a new economic cleavage within the country's previously homogenous elite. In an unprecedented move, the "who's who" of Kazakhstan's business and economic elite issued a joint statement announcing their commitment to the rule of law and democratization and declaring that Kazakhstan's stalled political reforms represented the most significant threat to the future of the country, economic development, and national security.

The DCK is a new form of political opposition that has not yet been witnessed in the other Central Asian republics. The unexpected fall of the Kyrgyz government, itself a shock to the leaders of the country's opposition, was an outcome of the actions of impoverished rural citizens rather than the product of coordinated political strategy. The extensive looting that ensued and the relative inability of the opposition to control it, as well as the opposition leaders' jockeying for position in the immediate aftermath, revealed that they rode, rather than led, the wave of mass frustration. …

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