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Kazakhstan: Personalities Dominate Politics

  • Beatrice Hogan

Kazakhstan's Central Election Commission (CEC) chairwoman has defended the recent parliamentary elections -- held for the Senate in September and the Majilis, or lower house, in October -- against criticisms of impropriety. RFE/RL correspondent Beatrice Hogan takes a closer look at the Kazakh political process.

New York, 9 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Kazakhstan's presidential elections in January -- which occurred two years ahead of schedule and excluded key opposition candidates -- drew scorn from the international community.

Afterward, Kazakhstan vowed to clean up its act before the parliamentary elections.

Zagipa Balieva, chair of Kazakhstan's Central Election Commission (CEC), last Thursday told an audience at Columbia University in New York City that her government enacted significant reforms to ensure the parliamentary elections would be democratic.

The Kazakh government amended its constitution to add ten additional seats to the majilis -- from 67 to 77 -- and lowered the registration fee for political parties.

Balieva said the 12 political parties taking part in the poll had equal access to state-run media, including television, newspapers and radios. As evidence of the government's fairness, Balieva pointed out that all candidates in the parliamentary elections took part in a two-and-a-half hour nationally televised debate.

The road to reform, she said, has not been easy.

"Kazakhstan is very well aware that democracy is not an end in itself, but a very long process."

In 1991, Kazakhstan became independent after more than 70 years of Soviet domination. The interests of ethnic Kazakhs, as a political force, had been severely compromised. Between collectivization and the purges, Kazakhstan lost a great percentage of its intelligentsia.

By the 1980s, two powerful environmental non-governmental organizations (NGO's) -- the Nevada-Semipalantinsk and the Aral Sea -- gained momentum. These movements promoted the idea that the environment was a national concern. And its deterioration was rooted in the absence of political power vested in local people.

But neither NGO was able to formulate viable political parties upon independence.

Instead, as in the other Central Asian republics, the former communist party chief, Nursultan Nazarbaev, assumed power. These countries inherited political power, but lacked the institutional capacity -- including a party structure, civic society organizations, and a representative parliament -- to govern democratically.

As a result, the presidents in the Central Asian countries have developed what are widely regarded as authoritarian regimes. No viable opposition figures had emerged to challenge Nazarbaev -- until former Kazakh Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin decided to enter the presidential poll.

But Kazhegeldin's political aspirations were soon dashed. He was barred from the presidential race because of his alleged participation in an unsanctioned demonstration. Likewise in the parliamentary poll, Kazhegeldin was disqualified for failing to resolve tax evasion charges. He has said the charges were politically motivated.

Critics of the Kazakh regime say Nazarbaev orchestrated Kazhegeldin's removal from the candidate pool to weed out competition.

But Balieva offered a different explanation. She said that obeying laws is the cornerstone of democracy.

"So the question poses itself: How come a person who wants to nominate himself to become president of a country does not act in respect of the existing laws? And what kind of operations can we expect from this person if he doesn't respect the existing laws?"

Balieva's explanation failed to convince everyone in the crowd. Cassandra Cavanaugh, researcher for the Human Rights Watch's Central Asian division, said that Balieva only presented what she termed the "sunny side" of the elections.

Cavanaugh said there was credible evidence to support allegations that the parliamentary elections were rigged, that ballot boxes were stuffed and that election monitors -- both international and local -- were prevented from witnessing the tallies.

"When Mrs. Balieva said they [the Kazakh government] did everything possible to create a level playing field and equal conditions so that the opposition could compete with pro-governmental parties, that's just not true."

The CEC so far has nullified the results in three districts and will hold repeat elections in those districts. Balieva said she was pleased that the discrepancies were only of a technical nature.

But Cavanaugh says that, given the widespread allegations, the election results in all districts must be considered suspect.

CEC rules mandate that the parties must run with different candidates in the repeat elections. Critics say this serves to further dilute the strength of the opposition.

The next countrywide elections will not take place for another five years. Peter Sinnott, director of the Columbia University Caspian Project, says the status quo will likely continue as the winners take their seats in parliament.

"Even though there is definitely some level of reform, the ability to enact further reforms will be, on some levels, in parliament, stifled by the lack of near future elections."

In spite of the criticism, Balieva said that in her opinion, the parliamentary elections were definitely democratic. She cited the emergence of 12 political parties and the unprecedented growth of the country's political awareness.

But Sinnott suggests that those quantitative measures may not be true signs of democracy. The main issue, he says, is whether parties -- which elevate sets of ideas instead of personalities -- can become important in Kazakhstan.

The recent election cycle shows that -- for now, at least -- personalities, not ideas, continue to dominate Kazakhstan's political landscape.