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1998 In Review: Kazakhstan's Momentous Autumn

Prague 30 December (RFE/RL) -- The most important events of 1998 in the political life of Kazakhstan took place in the autumn.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, in an address to the Kazakh parliament and nation on September 30, called for what he said would be the further democratization of Kazakh society.

He proposed that the government and parliament share part of the presidential powers and responsibilities. He proposed to allocate 10 seats in the lower chamber of the parliament - the Mazhilis - for representatives of opposition movements and parties.

These recommendations briefly astonished most of Kazakhstan's leaders. Nazarbayev, a former communist, had established himself as an authoritarian head of state, a ruler by decrees. In 1995, he summarily dismissed the parliament and mandated two national referendums -- one prolonging his presidential term until the year 2000, and the other adopting a new constitution giving the president almost unlimited power.

The president's September speech followed democratization proposals advanced earlier in the month by former Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin. Kazhegeldins assistant, Mikhail Vasilenko, brought Kazhegeldin's proposals from the former capital, Almaty, to the new capital, Astana, intending to deliver them to the Kazakh Parliament and government. The documents never made it. Police seized Vasilenko in the parliament building, took him to a police station, reportedly beat him and charged him with hooliganism. He was jailed for three days.

Despite the treatment of Vasilenko, Nazarbayev's speech of September 30 sparked some hope for change. But just one day after the speech, some of Nazarbayev's allies in the Mazhilis put forward proposed changes to election laws that seemed to strengthen his political position. The changes were adopted on October 10 after only 30 minutes of debate.

They included moving the presidential election forward to 10 January 1999, almost two years early. The Mazhilis also adopted amendments to the three-year-old Kazakh Constitution. These included prolonging the presidential term from five years to seven, removing a limit of two presidential terms, and eliminating an existing age limit of 65 for presidential service -- Nazarbayev will be 65 in seven years.

Nazarbayev's opponents criticized the changes, in part by saying that the early elections have given potential opposition candidates too little time to organize.

Kazakh authorities later barred Kazhegeldin and another opposition candidate from running in the January elections on the grounds that they had taken part in an unauthorized political gathering. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the U.S. State Department criticized the move. Kazhegeldin had widely been expected to be Nazarbayev's main challenger.

In recent months, there have also been a series of setbacks for independent mass media. In Almaty in the summer, tax police seized computers and other property of the newspaper DAT. Two bombs exploded in front of and in the offices of another newspaper, 21st Century, and a police investigation yielded no results. Other problems plagued newspapers in the regions.

In September, the Kazakh General Procuracy announced a campaign against newspapers, journals, and radio and TV stations, engaged in what it termed law-breaking, pornography, or disseminating information damaging to Kazakh governmental stability. Critics say that since the General Procuracy didn't mention any offending news organization by name, an atmosphere of anxiety and self-censorship developed.

As 1998 drew to a close, the OSCE repeated calls for postponement of the presidential election. The OSCE has said that early elections -- especially in an atmosphere of press restrictions and outlawed candidates -- couldn't be "free and fair." It has refused to send official observers, and instead plans to dispatch only a 15-person "assessment" group.

Freedom House, a New York-based human rights organization, has also been critical of recent developments. At the end of 1998 it added Kazakhstan to its list of countries closed to democracy.

To all of these criticisms, Nazarbayev's government responds that the country's elections and governance will be truly democratic but that it will be a democracy suited to Kazakh culture.

Nazarbayev points out that, at least in his view, many foreign companies and investors want him to continue as president. In numerous speeches to domestic audiences, he also has said Kazakhstan has its own laws and those laws must be observed. He told U.S. Vice President Al Gore during a telephone conversation in November that the Kazakh elections will be fair, since some alternative candidates will be permitted to participate.

At OSCE deliberations in Oslo on December 4, Kazakh Foreign Minister Qasymzhomart Toqayev declared that no radio station, TV channel, newspaper, or magazine had been banned or closed in Kazakhstan for any political reasons. He contended that if any news outlets had problems, those problems were caused by the breaking of taxation laws, or other transgressions.

Later in December, on a visit to Washington, Toqayev maintained that the Kazakh parliament, not Nazarbayev, initiated the decision to hold early presidential elections. On his visit Toqayev also spoke at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington policy organization, and responded to international concern about Kazakhstan's governance. In his words: "Kazakhstan welcomes constructive criticism, but we ask for fairness."