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Central Asia Report: June 27, 2002

27 June 2002, Volume 2, Number 25

NEW LAW THREATENS KAZAKH OPPOSITION PARTIES WITH MASS CLOSURE. Despite an initial rebuff by Kazakhstan's lower house of parliament, the Mazhilis, a controversial draft law on political parties passed the legislature on 26 June and was sent to President Nursultan Nazarbaev for approval, Reuters and RFE/RL reported. The stringent regulations contained in the bill, which Nazarbaev seemed certain to sign into law, prompted fears that the majority of the parties currently existing in the country would be forcibly dissolved. The bill elicited howls of protest from Nazarbaev's political opponents, who accused him and his supporters of trying, in effect, to decimate opposition to his regime through questionable manipulation of the legislative process.

On 19 June, a stormy session of the Mazhilis discussed a draft law regulating political parties, prepared by the pro-government OTAN (Fatherland) party yet widely believed to have been initiated by the government itself, RFE/RL's Kazakh bureau said. Reports differed about the precise provisions of the earliest version of the bill, but clearly they were much more restrictive than any comparable regulations on the books prior to that. The minimum number of members that a party must have in order to register was raised from 3,000 to 10,000, according to some reports (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 June 2002). But RFE/RL's Kazakh Service said on the next day that parties would be required to have at least 50,000 members and command 10 percent of the national vote in order to register.

The Mazhilis resumed the debate on 20 June. After a day of fruitless discussions it resolved to revisit the bill five days later. After 7 p.m. that evening, however, pro-government deputies maneuvered the Mazhilis into taking up the issue again -- acting on government instructions, charged the opposition -- saying the law was "desperately anticipated by Kazakh society." By contrast, Communist Party of Kazakhstan Chairman Serikbolsyn Abdildin called it "a raw, undeveloped, and unnecessary law" (see "RFE/RL Kazakh News," 20 June 2002). Nevertheless, late on the night of 20 June the Mazhilis adopted it after a heated debate and sent it to the Senate (parliament's upper chamber) for ratification.

Additional provisions to the bill reported at this time were that for any party to register it must have branches in each of the country's regions, and each branch must have a minimum of 7,000 members. Furthermore, any party that won less than 3 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections would be dissolved. Of the 19 registered parties in Kazakhstan, only two have the requisite 50,000 members and geographical spread of support -- the OTAN party with 250,000 members, and the Civil Party with over 100,000. Both are "presidential parties" that support Nazarbaev (see "Kazakhstan: Opposition Parties See Draft Bill As Possible Death Sentence,", 26 June 2002).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the leader of OTAN's parliamentary faction, Qairolla Erezhepov, stood firmly behind the bill. On 21 June he called it "a crucial step towards real democratic changes," arguing that too many of the existing parties were merely vehicles for powerful individuals without broad-based backing, and thus for the sake of democracy needed to be pruned, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported. He may have had in mind the Republic People's Party, founded by Nazarbaev's long-standing rival Akezhan Kazhegeldin, or the Democratic Choice for Kazakhstan (DVK) movement, co-founded by new rivals Ghalymzhan Zhaqiyanov and Mukhtar Abliyazov. Both parties are small and thus threatened by closure under the new law. In fact all opposition parties face imminent dissolution, save perhaps the Kazakh Communist Party which may be able to muster 50,000 members. Consequently Communist leader Abdildin told RFE/RL on 21 June that the bill's purpose was "not to develop political parties, but to destroy them, and to prevent the creation of new political parties opposing the power-holders." Communist deputy Valerian Zemlyanov echoed those sentiments, accusing supporters of the bill of "trying to eliminate the opposition and install a one-party dictatorship," Reuters reported.

On 25 June the Senate passed the bill in a slightly revised form, AP reported. It retained almost all of the most restrictive new provisions about party registration, but it eliminated (reportedly thanks to opposition pressure) the clause that called for a party to be dissolved if it fell below the 3 percent threshold in parliamentary elections. In this form it was returned for ratification to the Mazhilis, which passed it on 26 June and sent it to Nazarbaev. Angry opposition deputies predicted an end to the legal operation of opposition parties in the country. Lawmaker Ghani Qasymov told journalists he had sent an open letter to Nazarbaev urging him to veto the bill. If signed into law, it would mean that "17 or 18 parties in Kazakhstan will have to continue their operations illegally and underground," Qasymov said (see "RFE/RL Kazakh News," 26 June 2002).

ABLIYAZOV TRIAL COMMENCES. The trial of prominent opposition member Mukhtar Abliyazov opened at the Supreme Court in the Kazakh capital Astana on 24 June, Russian news agencies reported. Arrested in March and accused of abuse of power and embezzlement while head of the national power grid company KEGOC (1997-98) and minister of energy, industry, and trade (1998-99), the 39-year-old Abliyazov is one of the founding members of the opposition movement Democratic Choice for Kazakhstan (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 4 April 2002). The DVK has been calling loudly for an investigation into alleged foreign bank holdings by top government officials, including President Nazarbaev.

Meanwhile Abliyazov's supporters, including Kazakhstan's International Bureau for Human Rights, have repeatedly maintained that the charges against him are politically motivated. Abliyazov himself told the court during his opening statement, "the reasons I'm here are political," AP reported on 25 June. The police have denied it, saying that the criminal case against Abliyazov was opened in October 1999, long before he joined the opposition.

Court officials announced on 20 June that the trial would be open to all, RFE/RL's Kazakh bureau said. Yet on its first day the presiding judge, Qalidollah Shauqarov, permitted only one correspondent per media outlet to be present in the courtroom, and he banned the use of all audio or video equipment. Furthermore, dozens of people trying to enter the Supreme Court on 26 June were refused entrance by guards. Meanwhile the authorities, wary of adverse publicity, have reportedly put pressure on opposition parties and independent media not to disseminate information about the trial or events associated with it, such as possible public demonstrations (see "Kazakhstan: Opposition, Independent Media Pressured Ahead Of Abliyazov Trial,", 20 June 2002). Nevertheless, the opposition Republican People's Party of Kazakhstan has formed a monitoring group that will relay to the international community details of the trial proceedings, according to on 25 June.

Investigators have accumulated 12 volumes of material against Abliyazov for the case, RFE/RL's Kazakh bureau reported. The key charge against Abliyazov, read out by public prosecutors on 25 June, is that he embezzled some 557.7 million tenges ($3.7 million) from KEGOC and the Ekibastuz-2 thermal power station by siphoning off funds to a company in which he was a major stakeholder and by writing off the debts of an asbestos company he co-owned (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 June 2002). He is also accused of making $2,888 worth of personal calls on a KEGOC cell phone, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. He faces up to eight years in prison if convicted, the news agency said.

On the trial's first day, the judge refused a request to release the defendant from jail and to grant him bail or keep him under house arrest for the duration of the trial. He also rejected the defense attorneys' appeal to appoint new prosecutors on the grounds that the current ones in charge of the case are "biased," or to allow new witnesses to present evidence (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 June 2002). Some 47 witnesses are scheduled to testify, and the trial is due to continue at least until 28 June, possibly until 2 July, according to Interfax. In addition to his five defense attorneys, Abliyazov asked the court to allow seven opposition representatives and activists to act in his interest as public defenders. Only one of those named was given permission to serve in that role, Mazhilis deputy Tolen Toqtasynov, RFE/RL's Kazakh bureau said on 25 June. Toqtasynov complained to the court the investigators had only made the 12 volumes of case materials available to him 20 hours before the trial commenced, and that it had been physically impossible for him to acquaint himself with all the materials in that short time, the bureau reported.

ANOTHER RESIGNATION TEASE BY NIYAZOV. Turkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov, addressing a crowd of dignitaries at a concert on 21 June in the Rukhiet Palace in the capital Ashgabat, dangled the possibility that he might step down in 2007 or 2008 and make way for a new elected leader, RFE/RL's Turkmen Service and Reuters reported. The occasion was a grand ceremony to mark the 10th anniversary of his election as president, which he allegedly won with 99.5 percent of the vote. Following a referendum in 1994 when a reported 99.9 percent of the electorate voted to extend his term in office, the People's Council proclaimed him president for life in December 2000. Nonetheless on 21 June Niyazov declared: "We will have a presidential election in five or six years. Those who may run for president must start preparing themselves for the role of the national leader now," as quoted by ITAR-TASS. He has previously stated, on his 61st birthday in February 2001, that he would step down in 2010 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 June 2002). Niyazov has never suggested that he would participate in an election or tolerate anybody running against him, however.

Meanwhile Niyazov wreaked minor revenge against his political opponents by announcing on Turkmen state television on 25 June that some 200 mansions confiscated from disgraced former officials, including former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov, would be made available to the socially disadvantaged and families with numerous children (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 June 2002). As leader of the Turkmen opposition abroad, Shikhmuradov counts as Niyazov's major political foe. In mid-July anti-Niyazov forces gained new prominence and a measure of international legitimacy as, for the first time, exiled dissidents and human rights groups convened in Vienna to discuss ways in which they could promote democracy and the rule of law in Turkmenistan (see "RFE/RL (Un)Civil Societies," 26 June 2002).