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Kazakhstan: Presidential Candidate Calls For Free Press

By Annie Hillar

Washington, 29 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Kazakhstan's former prime minister says the country can conduct as many elections as it wants, but if its independent press is stifled it will never be a democratic nation.

Akezhan Kazhegeldin, who is currently the head of the Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs in Kazakhstan, made the comment yesterday (Oct. 28) at a press briefing at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Washington.

Kazhegeldin said: "and you know only too well that freedom starts dying instantly after the free press dies."

He said the power exerted by a free press through its influence on the public conscience is the only mechanism Kazakhstan has to curb the power of its politicians.

Kazhegeldin said four independent Kazakh newspapers were closed by the government last week because they had been critical of President Nursultan Nazarbayev. He said many other media outlets such as radio and television have also come under the government's control.

But, he said, Kazakhstan has a chance to leave the "dark corridors of the past and institute a government based on the will of the people."

Last week Kazhegeldin formally declared he will run for president in elections scheduled for January 1999. Out of the four candidates running, he is considered the main challenger to Nazarbayev who also announced his bid for reelection.

Kazhegeldin said, if elected, he would make changes in the constitution to reduce the powers of the president and to increase those of parliament. He said he also wants to restore the constitutional court, which doesn't exist under the current constitution.

But, he said, the freedom of the press is a crucial factor in making these changes. He said: "If we fail to modernize the political system of society, these problems will never be solved. We cannot do this without an independent press."

Kazhegeldin said the upcoming elections stir the interest of the media and of the public, but he said the elections must be free and fair, and without these conditions they will not be legitimate. Earlier this month, a court in Almaty convicted Kazhegeldin on a charge of taking part in the demonstrations of an unregistered organization. He was fined the equivalent of about $40. The trial was held in Kazhegeldin's absence. He appealed the verdict and the case was sent back to the same court for additional investigation.

Earlier this week the court decided that Kazhegeldin should have attended the trial, therefore the former premier now faces a charge of contempt of court. If found guilty, Kazhegeldin could face a sentence of 15 days in jail.

Under Kazakh law, anyone who undergoes a trial, is fined or jailed has no right to participate in a presidential race. The candidate says he intends to appeal the most recent judicial finding against him. The Kazakh Embassy in Washington declined comment to RFE/RL on Kazhegeldin's remarks.