January in Central Asia: a wave of Progress in Kazakhstan3 min read
January editorial. Since Kazakhstan became independent in 1991, it has yet to uphold the democratic standards laid out in its constitution. The young nation has had only two presidents: Nursultan Nazerbayev, who was in power from 1989—when he replaced Gennady Kolbin as First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Kazakh SSR—until 2019, when he handed over power to the current president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. Both have won elections by implausible margins, taking 70-91% of votes, which many believe to have been the result of state-sanctioned election rigging. Recently two women have stated their intent to shift the tide of Kazakhstan’s politics and stand up against corruption by founding the country’s first progressive political party.
On 18 December 2020, Aliya Zholboldina and Asya Tulesova announced on Facebook that they were forming a new political party, Progress. “We believe that all of us, young progressive Kazakhstanis, people with vision, ideas and strength, can unite and create a country that we are proud of,” they stated. “We have a fresh perspective, and the talent and ambition to pursue bold democratic social, economic and environmental reforms that help our citizens.”
Before her recent move into the political sphere, Aliya worked for several U.S. multinational companies in the United States and Kazakhstan and currently runs a personal blog. She is also the mother of two young children. Asya Tulesova on the other hand has been much more active in the Kazakhstani political scene and has been detained several times for her participation in political protests and demonstrations.
The campaign so far has been as grassroots as you can get. They do all of their campaigning through social media, mostly by posting livestreams on Facebook and Instagram, during which they have outlined the goals of their new party and their platform. The pair explained that their current goal is to get a thousand signatures by June and then find candidates from every region of Kazakhstan to help drum up support. However, the party will have to get 20,000 signatures in total to formally register. During one of these aforementioned livestreams, Zholboldina admitted that so far they have no PR team, but they hope to bring more staff onboard after they amass more of a following. Going forward the two women will likely struggle to bring their message to those without social media as the government has control over most TV stations and print media in the country.
This, however, is not the only difficulty that this burgeoning party is likely to face. Their campaign could also prove to be dangerous for them. The Progress party is not the only opposition that the ruling party, Nur Otan, has faced. One of the most notable among past political contenders was the Democratic Choice Party, which was banned after being deemed an extremist group. Recently, however, officials have been claiming that they support the existence of an opposition, including Nursutlan Nazerbayev, and have made reforms that make it easier for political parties to register. There is reason to believe that these actions might have just been for show given the country’s abysmal track record when it comes to human rights and supporting the development of civil society, but time will tell as the party grows.
Establishing a new political party in any country is a massive undertaking, especially in a country where a ruling party controls the media and uses force to silence those that oppose them makes it near impossible. Aliya Zholboldina and Asya Tulesova are fully aware of the obstacles that stand in their way and have already faced serious consequences for their political activism in the past, but are still determined to make a change. So far the pair only have a small following, but it has steadily grown since the party was first announced. As the odds are stacked against them it is unlikely that they will have much widespread success in the first few years, but these women are in it for the long haul. If their party is able to survive and gain seats in Parliament, it would be a major turning point in Kazakhstan’s history.