Washington, 30 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Several post-Soviet leaders are seeking to defeat their opponents in the courtroom rather than at the ballot box, an abuse of still fragile legal systems that threatens not only to poison political life but further limit the chances that these countries will move toward democracy.
The latest example of such an effort and its consequences appear to be taking place in Kazakhstan. Last week, Yuri Khitrin, Kazakhstan's chief prosecutor, announced that he had reopened an investigation into the affairs of Akezhan Kazhegeldin, a former prime minister who now leads the opposition to President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Khitrin said that he was again looking into charges that Kazhegeldin and his wife had engaged in money laundering and failed to pay taxes on their earnings. Now in Washington as part of a speaking tour, Kazhegeldin has proclaimed his innocence, vowed to fight the charges in court and suggested that this legal move is intended to intimidate him.
Whatever the merits of these specific charges against Kazhegeldin, his suggestion that the Nazarbayev government is using the veneer of legality to drive him from political life appears credible given the ways in which the authorities have deployed the legal system against him.
Earlier this year, officials in Nazarbayev's entourage prevented Kazhegeldin from running against the incumbent president. And they clearly hope that this latest charge will prevent him from taking part in parliamentary elections slated for later this fall. Indeed, even if he is able to demonstrate his innocent in court, the charges themselves may be enough to prevent him from participating.
Using legal system to block political challengers is hardly unique to Kazakhstan. Legal maneuvering against serious political challengers has taken place in Azerbaijan, Ukraine, and the Russian Federation.
The advantages of such a strategy to incumbents are obvious. A legal challenge has the effect of discrediting opponents they do not want to face both at home and abroad. Many people in these countries hear such charges and assume that there must be some truth to them. And many abroad find the charges plausible enough to cause them to back away from supporting opponents of the current regimes.
But this misuse of the legal system does far more than exclude opponents from taking part in elections.
First, it sends a chilling message to all citizens of these countries. If the regime is prepared to go after a former prime minister like Kazhegeldin, it will certainly be willing to go after anyone, from the highest official to the most ordinary citizen.
While no one is above the law, this use of legal proceeding suggests that no one can be sure that the authorities in these post-communist countries will employ such measures in a lawful manner. And that reduces the chances that these countries will be able to become democratic and law-based societies.
Second, it undoubtedly reduces the number of people who will think about going into political life and challenging incumbents. Anyone who sees what the authorities can do to someone who challenges their power is likely to think twice before trying to get involved.
Such fears narrow the political class and make it more likely that future political change will come in a ratchet-like rather than evolutionary manner, a pattern that could throw some of these countries into chaos when the current incumbents inevitably pass from the scene.
And third, such actions increase the value of incumbency. Many officials will do what they can to remain in office lest they find themselves subject to legal challenges following their departure. Not only will such efforts tend to further restrict the possibilities of political evolution, but they almost certainly will reduce the opportunities for the development of another generation of active political leaders.
Moreover, such legal actions against political opponents have the effect of increasing the importance of the immunity from prosecution that members of most of the parliaments in this region currently enjoy. Few current members will want to give that protection up by leaving office and thus many of them may be willing to vote for measures that extend their terms or guarantee their reelections.
At the same time, many may try to become deputies precisely to gain that advantage. But such efforts in and of themselves have another and perhaps more insidious consequence: They tend to isolate the political class from the population and thus reinforce the Soviet-era notion that the elite is permitted to do things that the citizenry cannot.
It is a fundamental principle of democratic governance that no one should stand above the law. But it is equally important that no one should be victimized by the political misuse of legal norms.