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Kazakhstan: Opposition, Observers Criticize President's 'Reforms'

President Nursultan Nazarbaev has officially declared the beginning of a new stage of democratic reform in Kazakhstan. This week, he signed two decrees on elections. According to the decrees, "akims" or governors of villages and districts will be elected instead of being appointed by the president. Opposition members and independent experts say Nazarbaev's step is nothing but an attempt to weaken the opposition and improve his image ahead of hearings on the "Kazakhgate" bribery case, expected to resume in January in New York.

9 December 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Nazarbaev signed two decrees on 6 December that his administration says are aimed at reforming the political system and decentralizing power.

The first decree says polls to elect "akims" or village governors will take place in all Kazakh villages from August 2005 through the end of 2007.

The second decree says elections of akims will take place in some districts in August 2005 as an experiment. The Central Election Commission is to choose the districts and work out ways to test hold polls. Also, the governors of regions and the cities of Astana and Almaty will still be appointed by president.

Bagila Baymagambetova, a member of parliament from the Nazarbaev's "Otan" party, tells RFE/RL Kazakh Service that the president spoke about upcoming reforms at a recent party meeting. Referring to his speech, Baymagambetova says elections of regional and city governors are also likely to be introduced in the near future.

"This is very clear for us," Baymagambetova says. "As the head of state [Nazarbaev] said at the recent meeting, the issue of electing district and city akims will be raised in 2006. For that, we need to improve laws on local governments."

Nazarbaev's move might seem progressive compared to Russia. International observers have criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin for moving to boost the Kremlin's power in appointing regional leaders following a terrorist attack on a school in the southern town of Beslan last September.

But Professor Norbulat Masanov tells RFE/RL in a telephone interview from Almaty that he does not believe Nazarbaev's initiative will bring positive changes. Masanov is a the president of the Association for Political Studies of Kazakhstan.

"Most of Nazarbaev's initiatives look very democratic and attractive for many political forces," Masanov says. "But we know that Mr. Nazarbaev is inclined to make declarations to show off. Because usually there are no real actions behind those declarations."

It's also not the first experiment of this sort. In 1999, inhabitants of the village of Chemolgan near Almaty elected their own leader. But as Nazarbaev is a native of Chemolgan, observers called the polls a PR campaign of the president. In 2001, elections of governors were held in several districts -- also as an experiment.

Sobirjon Yusufaliev is former a member of parliament from the southern city of Shymkent. He says opposition parties pressed for elections in 2001, but the experiment did not result in any real changes.

"Some were saying that we did not achieve that level [of political development] when we can elect akims," Yusufaliev says. "For example, if akims are elected, the whole way of governing must be adapted to the new practice. What authority will akims of districts and regions have? How will they share power? This kind of questions were raised and therefore the whole process stopped."

Both Yusufaliev and Masanov agree that it is still unclear how the whole system of governance might change if the new experiment were successful.

The presidential decrees signed give no answer to whether elections will be direct or voters of villages and districts will choose electors who will then elect a new governor.

According to the constitution, the president has the power to sack governors. The new decrees do not clarify whether the president will retain that right after the election of akims is implemented. If akims remain under Nazarbaev's control, then experts say their election will amount to a mere formality.

Serikbolsyn Abdyldin says the very institution of akims needs improvement. Abdyldin is a leader of the opposition Communist Party and a former member of parliament.

"How can we choose village governors without any [legal] basis? We have faced this problem before," Abdyldin says. "At present, akims can posses neither a budget, nor property. Therefore, these discussions are pointless. First of all, the issue of property must be solved."

In parliament, the Communist Party has proposed letting governors of villages, districts and regions control their own budgets. Under current laws, taxes paid in the regions go to a central budget and the government redistributes the funds among regional units.

Opposition members as well as independent observers say the initiative to elect governors initially came from opposition leaders who have subsequently been imprisoned.

Eduard Poletaev is a head of the Almaty office of the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting. In an interview with Russia's "Nezavisimaya gazeta" this week, he called Nazarbaev's decrees a farce aimed at weakening the opposition by stealing its own initiatives.

Meanwhile, some observers suspect that Nazarbaev also aims to amend the constitution to have parliament elect president, rather than holding direct national elections. This would enable him to be elected as a president for another term, says Masanov.

"Formally, there is a parliament in Kazakhstan," Masanov says. "But it does not fulfill legislative functions. There is also a judiciary branch, but it has no real power. There are many elements of democracy but they remain very symbolic. In reality, there is nothing but Nazarbaev's power."

Masanov notes that this week's decrees may be part of a bid by Nazarbaev to improve his image ahead of the so-called "Kazakhgate" corruption case, which is expected to resume in January in New York.

The case involves U.S. businessmen suspected of bribing Kazakh officials, including Nazarbaev, in exchange for lucrative oil contracts. Nazarbaev has denied that he gained personally from the transfers, but the case has harmed his image in the West.

(Erzhan Karabek of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report)

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