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Kazakhstan: Opposition Groups Prepare For Polls

Prague, 27 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Opposition and pro-government political parties in Kazakhstan are beginning to organize themselves ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for December.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev -- who called presidential elections in January, nearly two years ahead of time -- has mentioned several times in his official speeches that the parliamentary elections will be held on schedule.

The country's two main opposition parties are the Kazakh People's Democratic Party, led by the former Kazakh Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin, and the Orleu Party, led by independent journalist and politician Seydakhmet Quttyqadam.

After months of difficulty, the two parties say they have finally managed to officially register with the Kazakh Justice Ministry. The two parties appear to be the only real opposition groups planning to take part in the parliamentary polls.

But Kazhegeldin is once again coming under pressure for alleged legal problems. Last week, Kazakhstan's Prosecutor General, Yuriy Khitrin, and the chief of the Kazakh anti-corruption and organized crime commission, Oralbay Abdikarim, announced that a criminal case has begun against Kazhegeldin. He and his wife are accused of avoiding tax payments.

Khitrin also says that a case opened against the two last year is still under investigation. In October, the Kazhegeldins were accused of tax evasion and owning property abroad, purchased with ill-gotten gains.

Vitaly Voronov, Kazhegeldin's lawyer, said yesterday that neither he nor Kazhegeldin have received any official notification that Kazhegeldin is under investigation.

This situation is reminiscent of the situation Kazhegeldin found himself in on the eve of the presidential elections in January. Kazhegeldin -- considered Nazarbayev's top challenger -- was barred from participating in the polls because of a minor legal infraction he had committed by attending an unsanctioned political meeting.

Though there were complaints from the U.S. government and international organizations, such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Kazhegeldin remained barred from participating and the elections went ahead.

This time, the accusations look more serious, but it seems the aim of the Kazakh authorities is the same: to diminish Kazhegeldin's popularity -- as well as the standing of his party -- before the parliamentary campaign gets under way.

Meanwhile, a new party called Otan (Fatherland) -- comprised of pro-Nazarbayev politicians and led by former Prime Minister Sergey Tereshchenko -- is also planning to participate in the parliamentary elections.

RFE/RL correspondents report that the number of Otan members is increasing dramatically following a widespread campaign launched by the Kazakh government to recruit new members.

For example, correspondents report that the education department in the South Kazakhstan Oblast received instructions from Astana indicating that every secondary school in the region should "persuade" at least 10 teachers to become members of Otan.

Our correspondent says the situation appears similar to what occurred before and during the presidential election campaign, when ordinary people at schools, drugstores, universities and hospitals were urged to sign leaflets supporting Nazarbayev, who eventually won overwhelming re-election. Marat Ospanov -- the chairman of the Mazhlis, Kazakhstan's lower house of parliament -- says he became a member of Otan a short time ago. Ospanov made his comments in a recent interview in the Kazakh newspaper "The Globe."

Ospanov said he believes the legal requirement that 10 seats be allocated in the 67-seat Mazhlis for opposition parties and movements is too many. He said that opposition parties in Kazakhstan are currently too weak to merit such representation in the parliament.

Meanwhile, the Kazakh Parliament is expected to adopt a new election law by mid-summer. A draft of the new law was offered by the Kazakh government to parliament, but details have not been released. The last amendments to Kazakhstan's election laws came in October, when parliament voted to lengthen the term in office for the president, abolished a maximum age limit for candidates to the presidency, and eliminated the 50-percent-plus voter requirement for elections to be valid.

Murat Auezov -- the co-chairman of a less influential party, Azamat -- recently spoke about the need for better election legislation in Kazakstahn. Azamat was a leading opposition party in the first years of Kazakhstan's independence but has become less critical of the government in recent years. In an interview with RFE/RL, Auezov complained about the lack of involvement by the Kazakh people in helping to develop new conditions for holding elections:

"The adoption of the new law is the most important topic for Kazakhstan and Kazakhstanis. We are fed up with the old-styled elections, as a result of which unsuitable people are being elected. Unfortunately, the government never gave us ordinary citizens the opportunity to discuss the new law on elections. The draft was never published in any Kazakh newspaper or journal. The proposal was given directly to the parliament."

It will only be clear how parliamentary elections will proceed after the law is adopted and signed by Nazarbayev. It should be noted that heavy criticism from the OSCE and Washington about the early presidential elections in Kazakhstan and what they called discriminatory practices against opposition candidates did not deter Kazakhstan from going ahead with the January poll.