Kazakstan's elderly go activist

Irina Savostina leads pensioners' drive to keep key issues in focus,and keep heat on President Nazarbayev.

With her faded floral dress and disheveled grey hair, Irina Savostina looks like a stereotypical grandmother as she bustles around in her kitchen urging piles of blini upon guests.

But this Kazak pensioner is no mere "little old lady." In a country where dissidents are often cowed by harassment, Mrs. Savostina is a political activist who takes on adversaries half her age with twice as much vigor.

With the rallying cry of better democracy and pensions, "the young woman," as supporters affectionately call her, leads some of the most robust opposition to President Nursultan Nazarbayev's increasing authoritarian rule.

She was jailed for a week in 1997 for staging an unauthorized demonstration outside the parliament to protest hikes in utility fees. She braves the winter freeze to lead rallies.

She was recently fined for suggesting that authorities auction off the president's chair and put the money in a pension fund.

And the vanguard of her "Generation" movement is an unexpected source of militancy - the elderly - in a region where passivity ordinarily accompanies old age.

"The elderly here are extremely politicized," says an aide of the president, shaking his head with some wonderment.

Savostina is a cause of irritation for Nazarbayev as much as a source of inspiration for the opposition nationwide.

Although she does not want to stand for political office herself, she is aligned with the chief opposition figure, former Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin, who was barred from running for the presidency on a technicality Western observers condemned as unfair.

With Mr. Kazhegeldin outside the country fearing for his safety, Savostina is carrying the torch.

She herself grew politicized in 1992, when she became a pensioner and found she couldn't live on the income - now worth $32 a month.

"I am a teacher, not a politician. My responsibility is to deliver wisdom to the younger generation," she says.

A high concentration of retirees

One explanation for the late-age activism of Savostina's followers are the demographics in Almaty, the country's biggest city. Here, retirees are about one-third of the 1.5 million population.

This large concentration of urban elderly has led to a sense of safety in numbers, as articulated by one World War II hero festooned with medals who attended a recent Generation meeting.

"I fought the Nazis. I survived the 900-day blockade of Leningrad. Now I'm fighting for my rights as a pensioner."

But certainly some of this exceptional fervor is due to the charisma and organizing acumen of Savostina, a former secondary-school Russian literature teacher who plots strategy at her rickety kitchen table at hours when most young people are in bed.

She interrupted one recent session to take a midnight call, which showed just how she enjoys a battle well won.

"That was a former official of the prosecutor's office," Savostina announced, beaming. "He's come over to our side."

The meetings Savostina organizes are attended by other opposition groups, too. Before the runup to the Jan. 10 presidential election she was among the loudest voices protesting the disqualification of opposition candidates and the beatings of journalists.

Two days before Nazarbayev's reelection, Savostina rattled off statistics while lighting her stove: Seventy percent of the population is living on the poverty line, half a million were poisoned by radiation from nuclear tests, 200,000 people are drug addicts.

"And what is the government doing? there is a mood in the country now, that we'd rather vote for a goat than Nazarbayev."

Roots of discontent

Western observers believe the high degree of discontent among Kazakstan's elders lies in failed expectations that the country would be another Saudi Arabia.

The 16 million population has been raised with the knowledge that if tapped, Kazakstan's fantastic oil and mineral wealth could make it among the richest-per-capita countries on earth.

However, the exploitation of new oil has widened the income disparities. While the World Bank praises low inflation and the transition to a free-market economy, the loss of Soviet-era subsidies and the privatization of state firms have only benefited an elite circle.

According to the International Federation of the Red Cross, the decline of most industry, agriculture, and world commodity prices means that 78 percent of the population survives at minimal subsistence levels, earning on average $125 a month.

"The gap between rich and poor is increasing rapidly. The country could become rich, with such a small population. But income is concentrated among a very small group of people," says Knut Ostby, deputy head of the United Nations mission here.

Inspiring Kazak youths, too

Those hardest hit include children and the infirm - and especially pensioners. Among Generation members' peeves are that reforms under way to privatize the pension system, lauded by the World Bank, actually mean less income.

The likelihood of reversing these changes is practically nil, but Savostina and her band of septuagenarians and octogenarians will not give up their struggle. And she appears to be inspiring younger generations: Her rallies draw people of all ages.

Instead of mourning setbacks to democracy, she got together a raucous group of activists for a banquet on the eve of the poll.

With revelers shouting "Speak, young woman, speak," she took the floor with a poetry recital about freedom - and toasts to the wisdom of age.

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