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Kazakhstan: U.S. Congressman Sees Little Democratization Progress

Washington, 7 May 1999 (RFE/RL/) -- A leading U.S. congressman says recent developments in Kazakhstan have disappointed many Americans who hoped that authoritarianism was not inevitable for Central Asia.

Congressman Christopher Smith (R-New Jersey), chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe made the statement Thursday during a hearing on democratization and human rights in Kazakhstan.

Smith said he and other members of the U.S. Congress were disturbed by Kazakhstan's presidential elections in January, maintaining they were neither democratic nor fair, and fell "far short" of meeting OSCE commitments.

Smith called Kazakhstan's presidential elections "deeply flawed" and promised the U.S. and the OSCE will be carefully watching the parliamentary and local elections scheduled for October to determine if Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev's promises that they will be democratic holds true.

"With respect to democratization, Kazakhstan's reputation in the earlier part of this decade was much better than it is today. We want to understand what has gone wrong, why, and what can be done about it."

Smith also said that while the security situation in Central Asia normalized somewhat with the end of hostilities in Tajikistan in 1997, the absence of war and open conflict does not necessarily mean the region is stable or secure on its path to democracy.

"The bombings in Tashkent in February demonstrate that even in the most tightly run, repressive environments, acts of large-scale violence are possible. Nor does a superficially peaceful environment -- where it exists -- necessarily provide reason for optimism about the development of democracy. While the entire post-Soviet space has witnessed the emergence of very strong executive leadership, Central Asia has stood out for the rise of super-presidents, who overshadow all other institutions of government and who give every indication of intending to remain in office forever."

Bolat Nurgaliyev, Kazakhstan's Ambassador to the U.S., also testified at the hearing, assuring Smith and other congressional members that Kazakhstan takes seriously its obligations to meet OSCE standards. But he stressed that democratic reform takes time in a country which "inherited" troublesome legacies from the Soviet system.

Nurgaliyev said some of those difficulties include an exhausted, inefficient economy; the absence of any democratic institutions, resulting from centuries of subjugation by dictators; the world's fourth largest nuclear arsenal; and two enormous environmental disasters -- the desiccation of the Aral Sea and 470 nuclear tests at Semipalatinsk.

Nurgaliyev countered the claim that Kazakhstan's presidential elections were not fair. He said the October parliamentary and local elections will show the world that Kazakhstan can operate with multiple independent political parties. He added that the implementation of the entirely new proportional representation system of the lower chamber of parliament -- the Majilis -- will mark the first time such a system has been used in Central Asia. Nurgaliyev also indicated that in the year 2000, Kazakhstan will begin moving toward the direct election of governors.

Smith pressed Nurgaliyev about why Kazakh officials did not consult with the OSCE's office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODHIR) while drafting a new election law, and why authorities still maintain a ban on candidates who have been fined for minor offenses.

Nurgaliyev answered that while Kazakhstan continues to rely on and learn from the OSCE, it is only natural that there will be disagreements on certain issues. He said that Kazakhstan remains open to all proposals, but may not accept each and every one as it "designs and creates it own path to democracy."

Nurgaliyev said democracy is a complex matter for Kazakhstan, as the country has no previous experience with political accommodation and compromise, no understanding of how a free press functions or how opposing political views and parties can coexist. But he said Kazakhstan is working hard to improve on all of these fronts.

However, Nurgaliyev emphasized that the pace of change in Kazakhstan must be "deliberate, and not abrupt."

"The government of Kazakhstan recognizes that much remains to be done and that we have a long way to go, and that like every other democracy, we still have imperfections. Our democracy is, and will continue to be, a work in progress for many years to come."

Also testifying before the hearing was senior State Department official Ross Wilson, the deputy special adviser to the U.S. Secretary of State for the New Independent States.

Wilson said Kazakhstan must foster greater respect for fundamental human rights principles, including its commitments to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), if it intends to build a stable democracy. He said there are four "realistic, achievable" steps the Kazakh government can take to build a better democratic foundation.

First, Wilson said Kazakhstan should promptly bring its legislation on elections, non-governmental organizations and the media into accordance with international standards. Second, he said Kazakh officials should schedule elections far enough in advance to give candidates enough time to prepare. Third, officials should promptly register new parties in order to ensure broad participation in elections; and fourth, the government should widen the central and local elections commissions to include non-governmental representatives.

On a positive note, Wilson praised Kazakhstan's cooperation with the U.S. in regards to the non-proliferation treaty, active participation in NATO's Partnership for Peace program, and energy issues.