Prague, 22 June 1999 (RFE/RL) - Kazakhstan began 1999 by holding presidential elections strongly criticized from inside and outside the country as being unfair. Kazakhstan will end the year by holding elections to parliament -- a poll that many hope will mark a step forward in democracy building in the country.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is one of the organizations watching Kazakhstan. It was also one of the harshest critics of January's presidential vote, which it said fell "far short" of being democratic. The OSCE refused to recognize the results.
The presidential elections were held nearly two years ahead of schedule. The early October decision by parliament to hold the election in three months' time gave any potential opposition little time to campaign.
The process was further marred by a court decision early in the campaign which barred the leading opponent of President Nursultan Nazarbayev from the race because of a minor legal offense.
Besides drawing criticism from the OSCE, the presidential elections were an embarrassment to western countries, which have been building close ties with Kazakhstan. When the recently re-elected Nazarbayev went to Washington in April for ceremonies marking NATO's 50th anniversary, few western leaders were willing to meet with him in public.
Kazakhstan's experience with parliamentary elections is not much better. The last elections were held in December 1995. The previous parliament had been dissolved by Nazarbayev in March 1995 after the country's Supreme Court declared the elections held one year earlier invalid due to irregularities. Nazarbayev ruled by decree during the eight months the country was without a parliament.
Many of the deputies elected in December 1995 were from political parties created in that eight-month interim, such as the National Unity Party, the Dauirleu Party and the Democratic Party, all of whom were pro-Nazarbayev.
Kazakh officials have said that they are willing to listen to advice from western organizations and governments about how to bring the country's upcoming parliamentary elections into line with democratic standards.
Early comments from OSCE officials and complaints by Kazakhstan's opposition parties indicate that much remains to be done if the conduct of the upcoming parliamentary election is to avoid the same harsh criticism given past balloting.
Last month, the OSCE sent a mission from its Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights to the Central Asian states of the CIS to monitor preparations for upcoming elections in the region.
Eric Collins -- the political officer for the OSCE's office in Kazakhstan -- says the country has not done much so far to improve legislation for the parliamentary elections:
"The OSCE continues to be quite concerned by the current law on elections. As a result, there was an aide memoire [eds: memorandum] passed to the Kazakhstani government in which the OSCE outlined its position in regard to the new law on elections and the fall parliamentary elections. In brief, the aide memoire states that the new election [law] contains many of the same shortcomings of the presidential decree under which the January 10 presidential elections were held. The new law, therefore, falls far short of OSCE standards, as well."
One of the electoral regulations perceived as unfair is the requirement that Kazakh opposition parties can only be "fully" registered for the election if they have branches in at least seven of Kazakhstan's 15 regions. A political party can register with the Justice Ministry in Astana, but that is only considered "partial" registration.
The opponent barred from the January presidential election by the court decision was former Kazakh prime minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin. He is now the leader of the Republican People's Party of Kazakhstan. The prosecutor general's office of Kazakhstan began an investigation of Kazhegeldin's holdings abroad last October, shortly after the early presidential elections were announced. The case seemed to vanish about the time Kazhegeldin was excluded from the race, only to re-emerge a couple of months ago.
Kazhegeldin has not been in Kazakhstan since the prosecutor general invited the former prime minister for questioning in May. The deputy chairman of the executive committee of Kazhegeldin's party, Bigeldy Gabdullin, talked with RFE/RL about the problems the party faces:
"The Republican People's Party is facing enormous problems currently. Our branches have been officially registered in only three oblasts. Local Justice departments and other official boards create obstacles for our branches to be registered. The main problems we face are created in the northern and eastern oblasts of the country. Since we have registered at the Justice Ministry of Kazakhstan, we are not supposed to face any problems in any region. In the event we fail to register our branches in at least seven oblasts, we will not be allowed to participate in upcoming parliamentary elections."
Not all parties face these obstacles. The Otan, or Fatherland, Party was easily registered by the Justice Ministry. President Nazarbayev attended the reformed party's founding congress in March. Those assembled selected Nazarbayev to lead the new party, but he said he could not head a party and be president, according to the constitution.
Former Prime Minister Sergei Tereshchenko, who preceded Kazhegeldin, was selected instead. Now the party claims to have 167,000 members, 44 of whom come from the 67-member lower house of parliament. The party has branches in all of Kazakhstan's oblasts.
Criticism from outside the country seems to have done little to alter the situation. And according to the head of Kazakhstan's Central Elections Committee, Zagipa Baliyeva, there won't be any changes in legislation before the elections.
The exact date of Kazakhstan's parliamentary elections is still not set. The last parliamentary polls were held on December 10, 1995. While this December would then seem the likely time, Kazakh officials are careful to always say "autumn" when speaking about elections to parliament.
At most, there are some six months to go before the elections to parliament, and it remains to be seen who will be allowed to compete for seats. But one thing is certain. Observers, both inside and outside the country, will be watching and evaluating the fairness of the vote.
(This is the third of three features on elections in Central Asia this year. Merhat Sharipzhan from the Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)