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Qishloq Ovozi

Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, the leader of the opposition Nationwide Social-Democratic Party previously ran for president against current longtime incumbent Nursultan Nazarbaev, but only garnered around 6 percent of the vote.

Out of six parties* competing for seats in the Mazhilis, Kazakhstan's lower house of parliament, in the March 20 elections, there is one that could be considered a genuine opposition party: the Nationwide Social-Democratic Party (NSDP). The NSDP probably doesn't have much of a chance, considering the history of Kazakhstan's parliamentary elections since 2004, but the presence of an opposition party shows Kazakhstan's government has not totally forsaken the idea of political pluralism, as three other Central Asian regimes have already done.

The NSDP kicked off campaigning on February 23 with a press conference in Almaty. The chairman of the party's campaign team, Aydar Alibaev, wanted to acquaint voters with the NSDP's platform. However, even the best of platforms, even during these difficult economic times in Kazakhstan, is not likely to have much of an effect on the outcome of the vote next month.

The NSDP party has some veteran politicians running as candidates, including former deputies Baltash Tursumbaev, Bolat Abishev, Serikbay Alibaev, Petr Sovik, Zuaresh Battalova, and Ualikhan Kaysarov.

But the favorite to win seats in the March elections is the ruling Nur-Otan party led by President Nursultan Nazarbaev. And among Nur-Otan's candidates are the Kazakh president's eldest daughter, Darigha, world middleweight boxing champion Gennady Golovkin, actor Nurlan Alimjanov, who played Nazarbaev in a film about the president's youth, popular singer Kayrat Nurtas, and other celebrities.

Additionally, the NSDP has only 23 candidates running for the 98 seats available, while Nur-Otan has 127 candidates. The other four parties, all pro-government, have a combined 84 candidates.

In the three parliamentary elections since 2004, opposition parties have managed to win one seat (Ak Zhol in 2004).

'Paid' Opposition

Another handicap for the NSDP might be the party leader Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, a former chairman of the Mazhilis. Tuyakbai was a member of Otan, now the Nur-Otan party, but in October 2004 he left the party claiming there were violations in the parliamentary elections in March of that year.

In 2005, the now-defunct For A Just Kazakhstan movement nominated Tuyakbai to run against Nazarbaev for the presidency. Tuyakbai predictably lost but managed to receive some 6.6 percent of the vote. Tuyakbai met with Nazarbaev in 2007 in Nazarbaev's office, sparking rumors Tuyakbai could never shake that he was a "paid" opposition figure.

Another challenge the NSDP faces is conducting a campaign. At a party event in Astana, similar to the one in Almaty, NSDP member Askhat Rahimzhanov said the party would be relying on the Internet and social networks to get their message out to voters. "We don’t have money for typical campaigning: leaflets, banners, and television [promotion] spots," Rahimzhanov said.

Some at the February 23 briefing noted that the support base for the NSDP is people approaching, or over 50 years of age, so there are questions as to how effective campaigning on the Internet can be for the party.

The NSDP also said it was prepared to participate in debates with any of the parties competing in the upcoming elections.

It will be interesting to see how the NSDP fares in the campaign and at the polls. But even if the party does poorly, as it very well might, at least there is actually an opposition party competing in these elections. That is more than anyone will be able to say about the next parliamentary elections in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, or Uzbekistan.

With help from Yerzhan Karabek and Asylkhan Mamashuly of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service
*There is a seventh registered political party in Kazakhstan -- Azat -- which is an opposition party but has been dormant since leader Bolat Abilov left its ranks in autumn 2013.
Seytkazy Mataev, the head of the Kazakh Journalists Union has just been placed under house arrest. He is just one of several Central Asian media professionals who has been feeling the heat in recent months.

The media in Central Asia has effectively been under fire since the five countries there became independent in late 1991. But pressure on non-state media is always stronger when the region's governments are having a hard time, and these are hard times for Central Asia, which has been experiencing an economic downturn in recent months.

The new crackdown on journalists has been most noticeable in Kazakhstan of late, but it's also happening in other Central Asian states. To make matters worse, it seems not much can be done about it in the current circumstances.

To look at developments in the struggle of independent media to survive in Central Asia, RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, organized a Majlis, a panel discussion.

Azatlyk director Muhammad Tahir moderated the talk. Participating from London was Katie Morris, head of the Europe and Central Asia program at the journalist advocacy group Article 19. Joining the discussion from New York was Muzaffar Suleymanov, a research associate for the Europe and Central Asia program of the Committee to Protect Journalists. In RFE/RL's studio in Prague, Lyudmyla Kozlovska of the Warsaw-based Open Dialog Foundation joined in. And since everybody else in the studio was saying something, I made some comments also.

Suleymanov summed up the situation, saying: “We can freedom conditions in the entire region are downgrading, the repressions, attacks are still ongoing, it's shocking that the authorities are cracking down against the messengers."

Journalist Detentions

On February 22, Kazakhstan's National Anticorruption Bureau detained Seytkazy Mataev -- the head of the country's Journalists Union for the last 15 years and also chairman of the National Press Club for the past two decades -- for allegedly embezzling about 380 million tenge (about $1.1 million at the current rate). His son Aset, the director of the independent news agency KazTag, was also briefly taken into custody before being released after questioning. An Almaty court on February 24 ordered Seytkazy Mataev placed under house arrest.

The Anticorruption Bureau is still investigating other possible violations. But Kozlovska pointed out that "financial accusations or tax accusations are quite normal and quite usual for Kazakhstan. They [the authorities] did it before, many times in the past" as a means to stop the work of independent journalists, rights activists, or political opposition figures. That's why doubts have been raised about the investigation of the Mataevs.

Seytkazy Mataev's detention came as journalist Yulia Kozlova from the independent website stands trial for possession of drugs. has written critical articles about the government and possible violations committed by Kazkommertsbank, the largest private bank in Kazakhstan. Police searched Kozlova's apartment when she was not there.

Morris said first of all, "Nakanune [doesn't] have a huge circulation and it's difficult to see what real threat they could pose to a situation in Kazakhstan. But Morris noted that Kazakhstan's authorities "tend to silence" independent media before elections. Kazakhstan is conducting early parliamentary elections on March 20 and "the threshold of tolerance is definitely getting lower and lower" in the run-up to the vote.

Kozlovska from the Open Dialog Foundation added, "There was a huge leak of information, a so-called Kazakh WikiLeaks, which was analyzed by independent journalists, especially journalists of Nakanune."

Subtle Pressure

Meanwhile, Tajikistan is headed for a national referendum this May to vote on extending the term of President Emomali Rahmon, who has now been in power since 1992. Tajikistan's independent media have learned to be cautious about reporting on affairs of state and on government officials. Tajik authorities, Morris said, have subtle ways of reminding journalists. "It's the indirect investigations, it's pressure, people made to feel unsafe, made to feel that they cannot report," she said.

Tahir mentioned that a correspondents from RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, Saparmamed Nepeskuliev, is currently in jail on dubious charges of narcotics possession and it is impossible to obtain any information about his condition from Turkmen authorities. Additionally, several Azatlyk correspondents in Turkmenistan resigned last year after "conversations" with Turkmen police or state officials.

The situation in Uzbekistan is as bad as that in Turkmenistan.

And Suleymanov reminded us that, even in Kyrgyzstan, where there is an independent media, authorities fluctuate in their tolerance of the press. Turat Akimov, the chief editor of the newspaper Dengi i Vlast (Money and Power) was attacked on February 20 by an assailant who was waiting for him near his home. Akimov says he was attacked because of his reporting.

Suleymanov drew attention to the case of Azimjon Askarov, an ethnic Uzbek journalist and activist convicted of being part of interethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan in June 2010. Askarov was sentenced to life imprisonment, making Kyrgyzstan "the only country in the region which has sentenced a journalist and human rights activist to life in jail," Suleymanov pointed out.

There seems to be no way for outside parties to convince the Central Asian governments to ease up on or, even better, halt the harassment of independent media in the region. "We do try to engage with them [the authorities]," Suleymanov said, "but they've walled themselves off."

The panel agreed that those countries which uphold rights such as freedom of the press need to send much stronger messages to the Central Asian governments.

Suleymanov recalled that sanctions had been imposed on Uzbek officials in the past but they were gradually lifted,perhaps giving Central Asian governments the feeling that it is possible to simply wait out such penalties.

Kozlovska said sanctions should be an option for convincing Central Asia's governments of the need to respect basic rights. She said, for example, that the leaders and top officials in these countries "have properties in Europe, they love to send their children to very costly universities."

The panelists discussed these and other issues in greater detail during the discussion. You can listen to the full roundtable below:

Majlis Roundtable: The Latest Crackdown On Independent Media In Central Asia
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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.



Cross-Border Tensions In Central Asia
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Podcast: Majlis
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Cross-Border Tensions In Central Asia
Podcast: Majlis