At a time when new legislation in Kazakhstan restricting the registration of political parties is raising concern in the international community, President Nursultan Nazarbaev's regime seems more intent than ever on preventing opposition parties from gathering strength.
Prague, 23 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Opposition figures from throughout Kazakhstan have begun gathering for a three-day seminar on the political situation in the Central Asian country.
The seminar, organized by the Washington-based National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, is scheduled to begin on 24 July at the Alatau sanatorium in Almaty.
In some cases, opposition leaders have been prevented from traveling to Almaty by being refused transportation. Local police officers in some instances have simply insisted that people not travel from their home towns.
Zhumatay Dospanov, the regional head of the Democratic Choice for Kazakhstan movement in the western city of Atyrau, told RFE/RL: "Somehow I am not allowed to leave my town. I assume [the authorities] want to block me because they don't like the idea that I would meet American experts."
Dospanov is not the only one in this situation. Sagat Jusup, the head of the opposition Republican People's Party in Kizil Orda Oblast, said: "I was refused both train and plane tickets at all the desks I asked at. Then I realized that special instructions had been given to cashiers not to sell any tickets to me. Moreover, at a cashier's desk at the Kizil Orda airport, a young woman told me her boss had instructed her not to sell me a plane ticket."
Jusup said that the authorities are trying to prevent members of his party from attending the Almaty seminar because they know they will hold their own separate discussions after the three-day meeting. "I think the main issue here is the fact that our party was planning to hold a session after the seminar in Almaty. And I assume that the KNB [secret police] are trying to prevent such a gathering," Jusup said.
Amirzhan Kosanov, the chairman of the executive committee of the Republican People's Party, told RFE/RL his movement plans to use their post-seminar gathering to discuss how best to fight the new legislation on political parties, which drastically increases the minimum number of members a party must have to officially re-register. "No matter what happens with some of the delegates, the seminar and our gathering [afterward] will take place. Our [party] leader, Akezhan Kazhegeldin, has called on all political parties and movements to change their strategies regarding the new law on political parties adopted recently by the parliament. And I am sure that in order to prevent our opinion exchange [on the issue], local authorities are trying to raise obstacles like [preventing us from attending the Almaty seminar]," Kosanov said.
Kazhegeldin, the former prime minister (1994-97) who is currently living in self-imposed exile, is known as the main political rival to Nazarbaev. Kazhegeldin last month received from the European Parliament a so-called Passport of Freedom, intended to show support for the democratic opposition in Kazakhstan.
Last September, Kazhegeldin was sentenced in absentia to 10 years' hard labor on charges of abuse of office, tax evasion, taking bribes, and illegal possession of weapons. The opposition has called the trial a farce, while the Kazakhstan office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has expressed doubts that the sentence conforms to international standards of justice.
The new political-party law has also drawn international attention and concern. Approved earlier this month by President Nursultan Nazarbaev, the new law raises from 3,000 to 50,000 the minimum number of members a party must have to qualify for official re-registration.
The law also requires that a party be dissolved if it fails to make it into parliament in two consecutive elections. Opposition parties and human-rights groups argue that the law will result in the closure of all but three of the country's 19 parties.
On 22 July, the outgoing OSCE ambassador to Kazakhstan, Henrich Haupt, called the law "a serious threat to political pluralism." He added, "Peaceful opposition forces are an important element of democracy, but it will be difficult for them to gather 50,000 members."
Haupt, in a speech marking the end of his term as OSCE ambassador, said that "despite obvious achievements," the country needs to continue to pursue reforms. The diplomat pointed to the necessity of increasing the role of parliament, ensuring an independent judiciary, and restoring an independent constitutional court.
On 18 July, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told a press briefing in Washington that both the new political-party law and continued harassment of opposition leaders put at risk democratic progress in Kazakhstan. "In Kazakhstan, we are increasingly concerned about recent developments. We've seen restrictive legislation regarding political parties. There's been ongoing harassment of opposition figures and the independent media. These things pose a serious threat to the democratic process in Kazakhstan," Boucher said.
Boucher urged Kazakh authorities to reverse the current "antidemocratic trend," adding that the recent trial of opposition figure Mukhtar Abliyazov "appears to be part of a campaign to selectively target political opponents."
Abliyazov, a cofounder of the Democratic Choice for Kazakhstan movement, was sentenced last week to six years in jail for abuse of office while he was energy minister. Ghalymzhan Zhaqiyanov, another founder of the Democratic Choice for Kazakhstan and a former regional governor, is currently on trial on similar charges.
The trials of these two opposition leaders have drawn critical attention from the international community over the past months. Human-rights activists say both cases are politically motivated attacks on the political opposition. They also point out that Nazarbaev has cracked down on dissent more and more frequently since the emergence of the Democratic Choice movement last November.
(Merkhat Sharipzhanov of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)