When Bulat Abilov spoke against corruption at a rally in Almaty’s Republic Square, residents had a flashback to the early 2000s. Back then, Abilov was a prominent member of the opposition that wanted to challenge the regime then-President Nursultan Nazarbayev had built in the decade since independence.
On February 9, 2022 Abilov made a public call for the residents of Almaty to gather in the square on February 13, just six weeks since a peaceful protest was crushed by the security services and hijacked by violent groups, leaving 111 dead in Kazakhstan’s largest city alone. The official total death toll of what is now popularly known as “Bloody January” is 227, including a couple dozen members of the security apparatus. After urban violence targeted City Hall and the Presidential Residence in Almaty, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev ordered state forces to “shoot to kill without warning,” labeling the violent groups as “terrorists.”
In his call for the February 13 rally, Abilov mentioned that he was leading a group that had created “a fund to help those illegally detained and have already provided support to several dozen families.” The spirit of the fund is radically different from the presidential initiative Kazakhstan Khalkyna, a public fund to provide support for social services, fueled by voluntary contributions from businessmen and companies.
On February 13, demonstrators placed apples on white sheets on the square’s grounds and adorned the bullet holes in the monuments with flowers, honoring the memories of the deceased.
Having retired from politics in 2013, Abilov’s presence among the speakers at the rally was surprising. In an interview with Deutsche Welle, he said that “for the time being, I act as a public figure and a caring person. I invited people here to commemorate and spoke a few words.”
“I say we change the name of Nazarbayev Street into January Street! Let’s repeal the Law on the First President and strip [Nazarbayev] of his privileges!” Abilov told a crowd that was a few hundred strong.
Running across the city along Republic Square, Nazarbayev Street was renamed after the then-president in 2017, in yet another demonstration of the cult of personality that had been enduring for years in Kazakhstan. A 2010 law, in fact, gave immunity to Nazarbayev and his family along with political privileges even after his resignation in 2019. Before the law was approved, Abilov said it was “a ridiculous, dangerous undertaking.”
It is perhaps worth revisiting Abilov’s career and his latest public appearances to understand his return to the political fore.
In 2001, Abilov was among the founding members of the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK in its Russian acronym), an alliance among businessmen and politicians. Two days after the first DVK press conference, then-Prime Minister Tokayev suggested that Nazarbayev remove the “intrigue-prone” elites from their official posts, effectively kick-starting a purge of the opposition. Some of the signatories of the DVK manifesto were dismissed, others were co-opted into loyalty. A fraction splintered off to form “Ak Zhol” just two months after DVK was formed, with Abilov and former chairman of the Central Bank Oraz Zhandosov as the most prominent representatives.
In December 2002, Abilov was disqualified from running in a parliamentary by-election, a highly-contested ruling based on minor technical grounds. In 2005, after an internal conflict, Abilov and Zhandosov spun off their modest political base into “Nagyz Ak Zhol,” whereas Ak Zhol remained within the fold of the government’s line.
In 2005-2006, Abilov’s political activity was targeted, along with his businesses, in legal battles that hindered his activism. A Canadian businessman filed a lawsuit against one of Abilov’s newspapers for slander. In November 2006, the financial police also investigated his company, Butya-Kapital, which had operated until 2004, on charges of embezzlement and tax evasion. A WikiLeaks cable reports Abilov as saying that the charges were politically motivated.
In a 2006 interview for an academic piece, Abilov explained the reason behind his inability to make his business grow beyond a certain level.
“I had already reached the ceiling in business. […] Why couldn’t I get into other big manufacturing projects, metal processing, the oil sector, or the gas sector? They let in their own, their relatives, those close to them, others who paid big bribes. […] they said to me, ‘Be content with what you have… We let you get this far; we didn’t touch you. You should be happy with that.’”
With his businesses under pressure, Abilov stayed in politics. In early 2011, Nazarbayev seemingly refused to bend the Constitution further, rejecting plans for a referendum that would have extended his rule for another decade, but called for early presidential elections, effectively side-stepping opposition forces. Newly appointed as co-chair of the Azat Social Democratic Party, Abilov said his party would boycott the vote.
The year 2011, however, is remembered for the bloody repression of an eight-month strike in the oil town of Zhanaozen, an event that Abilov strongly condemned. In the following months and years, the Nazarbayev regime effectively eliminated all opposition and hindered any expression of dissent. In this environment, Abilov chose to retire from politics in 2013.
Abilov’s comeback could be either a game changer in Kazakhstan’s politics or a flash in the pan. Does he still have supporters among the population, after almost a decade outside the public eye? The next months will be crucial for Tokayev’s power consolidation, so an old challenger would hardly be welcome.