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Kazakhstan: Opposition Party Sees Fortunes Rise And Fall

Kazakh opposition party Ak Zhol, or "Bright Path," has seen its fortunes rise and fall in the past month. One party co-chairman was named to the influential position of information minister while another was found guilty of slander and barred from participating in September's parliamentary elections.

Prague, 30 July 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Just a few weeks ago the Kazakh opposition party Ak Zhol was viewed as one of the stronger parties heading into the 19 September parliamentary elections.

But at the end of July it's unclear where the party stands among voters. Observers say July has been a difficult month.

One setback involves Ak Zhol co-Chairman Bolat Abilov, who was found guilty of slander on 27 July, receiving an 18-month suspended sentence. The verdict bans him from running in the election.

The slander charges stem from comments Abilov made in May accusing parliamentarian Mukhtar Tinikeev of bribing local officials to ensure an election victory. Tinikeev has denied the allegations.

Tinikeev has also denied suspicions that the charges against Abilov are politically motivated.

"[Abilov] wants to present this case as being politically motivated. There are no [political motives] in this case and there never were," Tinikeev said.

Abilov maintains that the allegations against Tinikeev are true and that, despite being barred from taking part in the September election, he will continue to support candidates in Ak Zhol and another opposition party, the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan.

"I will continue my fight. I will throw my support behind candidates from Ak Zhol and the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan party," Abilov said. "I don't agree with the court decision and I will appeal it all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary. But I will support candidates from Ak Zhol all over Kazakhstan."

Another Ak Zhol official, Zmgali Kobenov, a branch leader in Aktyubinsk Province, is facing charges of hooliganism for an alleged barroom brawl in June. He says those allegations are politically motivated.
Nurbolat Masanov, a well-known opposition figure, says he thinks the appointment was an attempt by Nazarbaev to "divide and conquer" his opponents.

It appeared that the bad publicity could damage Ak Zhol's chances in the September poll, but then something unexpected happened.

On 12 July, another Ak Zhol co-chairman, Altynbek Sarsenbaev, was named to the post of minister of information by President Nursultan Nazarbaev. Sarsenbaev said afterward he would continue to act as co-chairman of Ak Zhol and be guided in his work by his conscience and convictions.

It's not clear why Nazarbaev appointed Sarsenbaev. Nurbolat Masanov, a well-known opposition figure, says he thinks the appointment was an attempt by Nazarbaev to "divide and conquer" his opponents.

"This is a typical tactic of Nazarbaev based on the principle 'divide and conquer,'" Masanov said. "What is interesting is that [there] was a press conference to introduce Mr. Sarsenbaev as the new Information Minister and at the same time a court ordered Mr. Abilov, another co-chairman in Ak Zhol, not to leave the country. We are seeing that one leader of Ak Zhol is returning to the government, while another is being prohibited from participating in parliamentary elections."

First indications were that Sarsenbaev would be a reformer and could help the image of Ak Zhol. In his first days as information minister he warned that the September elections risked being neither free nor fair because the ruling Otan party and the Asar party, headed by Nazarbaev's daughter Dariga, were receiving most of the media coverage in the country.

Also during these first days, Sarsenbaev ordered a two-year-old case against the opposition newspaper "Nachnem s Ponedelnika" to be closed and his own ministry to apologize to the newspaper for, quote, "groundlessly" prosecuting it.

Sarsenbaev stood by, however, as another opposition newspaper, "Assandi Times," was effectively closed by a court decision ordering the paper to pay the equivalent of 365,000 dollars in fines for accusing the presidential administration of being behind the distribution of fake editions of Assandi Times at the start of June.

Where Ak Zhol stands now among Kazakhstan's voting public remains to be seen. A couple months ago the party seemed certain to get at least some seats in parliament. What the events of July will do to the party's image will be seen in September.

(Yerzhan Karabek and Sultan Khan Zhussip of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)